1950s, 1970s, Horror/Eerie, Scifi, Thriller

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) / Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

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Directors: Don Siegel / Philip Kaufman
Screenwriters: Daniel Mainwaring / W.D. Richter

By Roderick Heath

I said, “Hello!” again, a little louder, jiggling the phone, the way you do, but the line was dead, and I put the phone back. In my father’s day a night operator, whose name he’d have known, could have told him who’d called…But now we have dial phones, marvelously efficient, saving you a full second or more every time you call, inhumanly perfect, and utterly brainless; and none of them will ever remember where the doctor is at night, when a child is sick and needs him. Sometimes I think we’re refining all humanity out of our lives. – Jack Finney, The Body Snatchers

Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers began life as a serialised story in Colliers Magazine and was published as a novel in 1955. Finney, a former copywriter and journalist, became adept at writing in many a genre with the discipline of a shrewd professional. He wrote many crime stories, some of which were also adapted as films, including Phil Karlson’s 5 Against The House (1955), although his biggest publishing success was the 1970 time travel tale Time And Again. The Body Snatchers was received harshly by some science fiction writers and critics as a variation on an already well-worn idea: Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick had already explored very similar notions. Even when adapted as a movie in 1956, it was following Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953) in employing the theme of people in a small town replaced by alien doppelgangers. But Finney knew how to place such a story in a resolutely believable and human context, and Don Siegel’s adaptation immediately made the story the most famous variation on the theme, lodging itself in the popular consciousness and birthing the phrase “pod people” in common parlance. The hyped-up retitling initially gave it a trashy lustre but the film’s quality quickly grabbed critical attention, helping cement Siegel’s reputation.

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Siegel himself, unlike Arnold, wasn’t drawn to science fiction by inclination, and like Finney was more associated with thrillers. But it was precisely this likeness, each creative hand’s skill in grounding a tale in an immediately substantial and quotidian sense of the world, that would lend the story its specific texture. Eventually Invasion of the Body Snatchers was lodged as a diamond-hard genre film classic, an eternal touchstone for anyone who saw it when young and had their love for dark thrills galvanised. It also proved a ready template, officially remade three times, and imitated and lampooned endlessly. Philip Kaufman’s first remake, released in 1978, rode a wave of new interest in sci-fi cinema following the success of Star Wars (1977), as studios scrambled to find genre properties that could be quickly given a new gloss with modern special effects. Kaufman’s version immediately inspired and influenced a string of remakes, including John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), and Chuck Russell’s The Blob (1988), adding new lashings of gruesome corporeal detail and radicalism to a fairly clean-cut and beloved movie in a manner that divided fans of the originals. But the most interesting disparities between the two films speak more of the radical social shifts in the twenty-two years that separate them, and the distinctive perspectives of their directors.

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Siegel was noted as a studio hand who’d risen to become a master editor at Warner Bros., and fought to get a break as director. Far from finding himself washed up as the studio system declined, Siegel thrived in the grittier climes of the 1960s and ‘70s, noted for his spiky tales of antiheroic misfits and his fascination for dramas pitting avatars of anarchy and control in direct, almost schizoid opposition. Kaufman, by contrast, was a literate bohemian turned filmmaker who started making movies in the mid-1960s but who didn’t start gaining traction until his fortunes aligned with the emerging Movie Brat generation. Both films retained the same basic structure and stuck fairly closely to Finney’s storyline, although Kaufman’s version transferred the setting from the small California town of Santa Mira to the urban zones of San Francisco and altered aspects of the character drama. Finney’s lead character Miles Bennell is a doctor in his home town Santa Mira who reconnects with his former teenage flame Becky Driscoll, and they edge into a tentative romance again as both are recovering from divorce.

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Kaufman and his screenwriter W.D. Richter reconfigured this so Bennell, rechristened Matthew, is a health inspector and Becky, now Elizabeth, is a colleague and friend with an obvious spark of connection although Elizabeth’s married. In both versions Bennell begins encountering anxious people who report that loved ones have been replaced by beings that look, sound, and act just like the people they know and yet are missing some vital defining trait. Bennell consults a psychiatrist friend, named Dan Kauffman in the original and David Kibner in the remake, who insists the phenomenon is purely mental. But Bennell’s writer friend Jack Belicec and his wife call him to take a look at a mysterious body that’s appeared on their premises, looking like an unfinished version of Jack. A terrible truth begins to emerge: people are being replaced by lookalikes growing out of seed pods with an extra-terrestrial origin, mimetic organisms able to absorb every characteristic of humans save any capacity for authentic emotion.

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Finney’s book had laid down a fine blueprint for describing the tensions between communal and individual identity. The main characters cut across the grain of their surrounds and old-fashioned social presumptions, with Miles and Becky as divorcees, whilst Miles and Kauffman and Belicec comprising something like the intelligentsia of their town with just a faint hint of the siege mentality such cliques often feel, an aspect Kaufman would elaborate on, just as their names nod to the polyglot state of American society. Siegel’s version doesn’t expend a great deal of time setting up the social backdrop of Santa Mira, because he doesn’t need to: it’s so damn ordinary, the people wandering through it familiar with their howdy-neighbour grins, everyone performing a function, from Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) to Kauffman (Larry Gates) to Police Chief Nick Grivett (Ralph Dumke) to gas repairman Charlie (Sam Peckinpah). The first sign of disturbance to the status quo comes as Bennell sees young Jimmy Grimaldi (Bobby Clark) running away from the family fruit stand, gripped by the conviction his mother isn’t his mother. Bennell soon finds the same apparent delusion gripping several other people, including Becky’s friend Wilma (Virginia Christine) who swears her Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) isn’t her Uncle Ira. “A strange neurosis, evidently contagious – an epidemic of mass hysteria,” Kauffman judges it, and to Miles’ question what causes it, responds: “Worry about what’s going on in the world, probably.”

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Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers has long been the object of debate as to whether it can be considered as a political parable, with factional readings rooted in its era taking it as either a metaphor for the anti-Communist panic of McCarthyism, where a community gangs up on a small and hapless group to destroy or assimilate outliers, or rather the opposite, a vision of Communist infiltration, as the lookalikes conform to certain canards about the Red Menace, detached and enforcing a collective, hive-mind-like system. The quote from Finney’s book above indicates his target was something at once vaguer and more thoroughly encompassing, a general portrait of modernity as a state of perpetual, alienating shock, defined by a constant succession of nudges away from immediate human reference into a state of prophylaxis. Political readings blur into each-other from such a perspective, the desire to project insidious and malignant motives onto an Other a desperate attempt to return shape to communal experience, which is subject to a constant, intense process of homogenisation. Siegel had a love for characters who, for whatever reason, exist on the outskirts of society and try to operate according to their own very peculiar code. Here he’d found a perfect ironic text to explore his obsession, one that allowed him to make his heroes at once beings apart and the final exemplars of “normality,” the act of retaining their individuality valorised above all else but also doomed to cost them everything.

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At the same time, the story echoes more personally and immediately, speaking to a basic aspect of human experience that’s hard to portray dramatically. The fear of changes in people we know and love, the tiny, almost imperceptible alterations in behaviour that can signal anything from infidelity to senility, the noticing of which can often make the observer feel like they’re the one losing their wits. The way the story ties Bennell and Becky’s resuming relationship to the larger drama emphasises their frail and worldly-wise sense of becoming and cherishing, starkly contrasting the relentless assimilation of the alien invasion. When the lovers are confronted by the replicated Belicec and Kauffman, they insist it’s a blissful deliverance from all the fractiousness that defines human identity, the passion that brings pain, a sort of instant shortcut to a Zen state that represents however not triumph over flesh but the mere deadening of it. Kaufman would take up this facet, envisioning poddom as a kind of transubstantiation that fulfils in detail familiar religious visions – release from the tyranny of flesh and self, the achievement of perfect pacifism and embrace of a higher, gestalt truth – with infinitely cruel sarcasm.

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Part of what was innovative and notable about Siegel’s approach to Invasion of the Body Snatchers lay in the way he completely avoided the usual signifiers of a film in its genre. No dreamy expressionist visuals until the very end or familiar stars, no bug-eyed monsters or giveaways to suggest the alien point of view or airy, poetically meditative dialogue, but unfolding more like a mystery thriller or police procedural a succession of revelations and inferences. Pretty much to be expected, given that was Siegel’s usual purview. He was following Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954) in taking up that approach, but Invasion of the Body Snatchers took the method a step further: the most monstrous thing it can conceive is beings who look like people but who are not, the most frightening thing a horde of neighbours chasing you through the street in blank determination to erase what makes you you. Shots of Bennell and Becky running through the dark streets of Santa Mira’s downtown, glaring lights reflecting off wet tar, and dashing through empty office buildings and across the desert landscape, is more purely film noir stuff, close to Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949) or Private Hell 36 (1954), or Karlson’s The Phenix City Story (1955). The connection with the latter film, a portrait of corruption and conspiracy proliferating in a nominally average small town, is especially strong, as Siegel applies the sci-fi element to such bedrock.

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The body on the Belicecs’ dining table, grotesquery in the midst of the utterly banal, alien horror manifesting in the space where the characters usually play at small town sophisticate, signals a narrative shift as an invisible phenomenon suddenly becomes substantial and paranoia becomes reality. Soon horror is suggesting itself everywhere, in cellars and greenhouses and farm fields, but remains excruciatingly hard to pin down. Siegel’s expert use of deep focus in widescreen frames constantly places his characters in coherent relationship with each-other and with strange phenomenon, containing them neatly within the same reality despite the protestations of hallucination. This leads to the crystallising moment where he films the replica Belicec’s eyes slowly peeling open, with Belicec and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) in the far reaches of the frame, trying to last out a vigil at their kitchen counter, Teddy alerted by the flicker of movement to a new and terrifying development. Another expert use of the same method comes when Bennell spies in through the window of Becky’s father’s house and sees the cabal of the replaced preparing to distribute pods, whilst a hand reaches into the frame and grips his shoulder. When the danger and perversity become more urgent and disorientating, Siegel’s proclivity for vertiginous low and high camera angles becomes more and more blatant, becoming defining aspects of the film’s most vivid scenes.

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Bennell queasily senses a likeness, having witnessed Becky’s faint disquiet at her father (Kenneth Patterson) making a mysterious trip to his basement. Sure enough, as Bennell breaks in and checks out the shadowy cellar, he finds a similar doppelganger of Becky, so he sneaks up to her room and snatches her away. In both Siegel’s and Kaufman’s films, the psychiatrist character is a rhetorical villain, offering up rationalisations in trying to convince Bennell and his friends that they’ve hallucinated or misinterpreted what they’ve seen. He almost convinces the characters the problem is all in their mind, and yet the psychiatrist is swiftly and easily subsumed to the alien purpose, or was perhaps part of it all the time. Kauffman/Kibner is identified as part of an infrastructure of detachment and learned distrust of the senses. The psychiatrist in each movie even essentially parrots socio-political readings of the narrative of the film he’s in. But just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not really out to get you. Both homunculi vanish and Grivett grouchily reports to Bennell, Belicec, and Kauffman that the male form was found burning on a bonfire out on a farm. The many people who had insisted relatives had been replaced like young Jimmy and Wilma report to Bennell that they were mistaken and everything’s fine. This seems a victory for good sense. Except that as Bennell and Becky and the Belicecs to try and leave behind the bizarreness by having a barbecue in Bennell’s backyard, they discover giant seed pods in the greenhouse that pulse and foam, and split open disgorge humanoid forms that begin taking on the likenesses of the four.

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Most good films detailing the eruption of the fantastic amidst the familiar hinge upon the question as to just when what’s logical – in the sense of what conclusion about a situation that can be reasonably deduced from the facts – ceases to obey one set of presumptions and dictates another. The heroes of such tales are usually those who make the leap a little earlier than anyone else. The discovery in the greenhouse marks the pivot in Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this regard, but it’s a narrative that cleverly obfuscates all certainty in other aspects. We never know when most of the townsfolk are replaced or even if Bennell, Becky, and the Belicecs are the last humans there. This loss of a common reality is the most insidious aspect of the narrative. At what point do the humans become aliens, threatening the native population? One detail in Finney’s novel the films intriguingly avoid mentioning is the fact that the replicas only have a very limited life span, and can’t sexually reproduce, in essence moving about the universe like a locust swarm laying each planet they come to waste. Both films engage the pod people less as a specific parasitical enemy and more as a purely social phenomenon. This might seem to rob an aspect of urgency from the films, but it does throw into relief the notion that really concerns Siegel and Kaufman: what is humanity, and what are we willing to endure to hold onto it?

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Siegel’s film is inexplicit about how aspects of the alien replication work. Part of the physical process is glimpsed in the greenhouse, fleshy human forms rapidly taking shape as would a pumpkin, a blend of familiar forms of propagation to signal the completely alien. Some sort of psychic process seems to be involved in the transference of memories and character. It becomes clear that the vital stage of replacement occurs during sleep, when the pod people have the capacity to download the minds of their models and to upload their own. Which does make one wonder why the pods bother replacing bodies at all, although there’s some potent metaphorical value in there. It makes sense that just as there are people who get by in life despite lacking any sense of integral identity or feeling by mimicking others, so too there might be other species doing it too. Kaufman would be very finicky in nailing down the details in his version. Either way the greenhouse discovery makes the source of the doubles and their nature clear to the protagonists: the psychological narrative, the problem of knowing one’s localised reality, gives way to a battle for existence, but both are seen as stations on an existential continuum. Bennell and Becky hide out from their pursuers in Bennell’s surgery overlooking the town square, where they become witnesses to the replica horde suddenly converging once the first morning bus has been through to distribute truckloads of pods.

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The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ connections reached both backwards and forwards in screen history. Siegel would more aggressively pursue the theme of the lone wolf warrior in films like Edge of Eternity (1959), Coogan’s Buff (1968), and Dirty Harry (1971), and offer a gendered examination of collision of the one and the group in The Beguiled (1971). Kevin McCarthy gained by far his best-known screen role in it, but his casting at the time certainly carried association with his performance as Biff in the Fredric March-starring adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1951), another story rooted in the superficially placid yet tense mood of post-war America where someone finds someone they love isn’t the person they think they are. Gene Fowler Jnr’s I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958) would take up the alien masquerade theme as a manifestation of gender angst. One of the many later films Siegel’s would clearly influence would be George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), with its similar sense of besiegement within the superficially normal and the terror of loved-ones become emotionless shells, although Romero would twist the idea with the ultimately more marketable concept of a total removal of identity.

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Siegel’s film would echo through a host of films both within and without the sci-fi and horror genres, lurking in the DNA of thrillers in the 1970s like The Parallax View (1973), where the humdrum turns menacing and the infrastructure of daily life becomes enigmatic and oppressive. So when it came time for Kaufman to make his version, he gave the ‘70s paranoid trip a fitting terminus in also bringing it full circle. The pod people motif involves the ironic creation of civilisation that works better according to civilisation’s own ideals where the zombie tale eyes the animalistic underside of social identity. Finney’s novel ended in an upbeat fashion as Bennell’s assault on the pod growing farm results in the aliens abandoning Earth, realising it’s too tough a planet to colonise. For once a Hollywood adaptation decided to go in another direction and embrace a grimmer outlook. The climactic sequence of Siegel’s film is justly immortal as Bennell reaches a busy stretch of highway, the pod people halting their pursuit in caution as Bennell enters the lanes of traffic bellowing out hysterical warnings, Siegel’s camera viewing Bennell’s sweaty, bedraggled, mad-eyed visage as he tries desperately to alert the world only to be lost amidst the din and disdain. The good doctor has become just another nut, as Siegel switches to one of his characteristic high-angle shots and zooms out from him, leaving him stranded in his pathos.

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This, the film finally seems to say, is what we’re all offered as a choice in life: to become braindead in conformity or to be a madman howling at cars in warning. Siegel’s initial cut of Invasion of the Body Snatchers dismayed test audience, so his backers, Allied Artists, and producers Walter Mirisch and Walter Wanger, shot a wraparound sequence that turned the bulk of the movie into a tale recounted by Bennell to patient but sceptical doctors, Hill (Whit Bissell) and Bassett (Richard Deacon), after Bennell is brought into a police station in a frazzled, near-hysterical, but lucid state. It’s usually considered an awkward and obvious appendage as has been excised from some prints, particularly as it despoils the perfection of the highway scene. But it’s never really bothered me, in part because the act of narrating the story gives the film context that engages the possibility of an unreliable narrator. The very end as Hill realises Bennell’s been telling the truth thanks to a very well-timed traffic accident, leaves us on a tantalising note: can any action be taken in time? And what about Bennell, on the verge of collapsing from exhaustion?

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Kaufman and Richter (Richter would go on to write Big Trouble in Little China, 1986, and direct The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, 1984, both movies that couldn’t find an audience but which became cult objects), in updating and transposing the original’s story, radically altered aspects of its meaning. The relatively unruffled hominess of the Ike-era small town setting is swapped out for the jostling, already mistrustful environs of a mid-1970s American metropolis, where the oddball is always on the boil and the architecture already seems encoded with a disdain for the human, thrusting pyramidal skyscrapers and facades of glass and steel cutting the human connections into cubist fragments. Where Bennell in the original has the noble task as town doctor of ministering to his local flock, Kaufman’s Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is tasked with seeking out filth and carelessness as agent of benign bureaucracy resented by those he surveys: he’s introduced as a looming face distorted in a peephole lens, and infuriates the manager of the swank restaurant he inspects as he insists an object he fishes out a bubbling dish is not a caper but a rat turd. Kauffman, renamed Kibner, is not just a psychiatrist but a writer of successful advice books, peddling fashionable New Age bromides to his audience. Belicec in the original seemed an avatar for Finney himself as a modestly successful and personable writer, so Belicec becomes Kaufman’s frustrated shadow in his version, a frustrated poet and angrily authentic bohemian. Belicec decries Kibner’s work even as he hopes to ride it for a little benefit, weeping by himself after failing to get a chance to read his work at Kibner’s book launch, even whilst running a mud bath with his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright).

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Kaufman makes his Invasion of the Body Snatchers a more literal horror movie than Siegel’s, with flashier camerawork mediating realism with a slow dissolution into a neo-expressionist nightmare, and extended sequences of nascent body horror and gore. And yet Kaufman takes a more leisurely and quirk-sensitive time in setting up the story with flashes of wit and menace as well as incidental characterisation. The credits unfold over visions of alien spores flocking on the surface of a strange planet and being disgorged into space, floating through the void before landing on Earth in rainfall, making the presence of the aliens explicit from the start. Kaufman zooms in to study the alien spores growing parasitically on Earth trees and eventually growing into small, blooming pods. Elizabeth picks one and tries to identify its species, whilst contending with her dentist husband Geoffrey Howell (Art Hindle), who takes time out from watching football immersed with headphones on to come ravish her: theirs is a marriage that seems cheerful but has the quality of a college hook-up nearing its use-by date. The next morning Elizabeth awakens to find Geoffrey already well-dressed and acting in a taciturn, almost robotically severe manner, cleaning up the broken glass she kept the pod in on her bedside table, and spiriting out a strange load of matted material to a garbage truck.

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Whereas Siegel kept the slowly metastasising invasion in the shadows until the last portion of film, Kaufman offers, mostly through Elizabeth’s eyes at first, a sense of a cabal forming and taking grip. She glimpses Geoffrey meeting strangers around town, handing each-other strange objects wrapped in blankets or bags, unspoken accords forming. Michael Chapman, who had shot Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver two years earlier, was called upon here to expand his feel for inner city psychosis, expounded through shots that play with diffused and disturbed vision. Grainy zoom shots of ambiguous dealings. Faces seen through or reflected in distorting mirrors or glass, or looming out of shadows. One shot of Bennell hiding in a cupboard in Geoffrey and Elizabeth’s house is pure Expressionism. Handheld camerawork to capture a sensation of woozy, disoriented isolation. Chapman’s camera notes a man dashing across the street as it pans onto Elizabeth heading to work, faint screeching sounds and people starting to chase after the man unnoticed by her, just more city weirdness to tune out. Soon she’s pounding pavements seeing strangers all around on buses and the like who seem somehow charged with strangeness, the din and frenetic movement of the cityscape not quite obscuring the change at its heart. Bennell’s shattered windscreen, broken by an angry cook at the restaurant he shuttered, becomes a quasi-abstract pattern. It’s through this that Bennell and Elizabeth glimpse a panicky, urgently warning man they almost run down as he dashes in front of them: why, it’s Kevin McCarthy, still sounding the alarm, only this time to be swiftly run down and killed by pursuers.

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This inspired cameo gives Kaufman’s film less the lustre of a remake than a quasi-sequel, taking up where Siegel left off. He left Bennell as the incarnation of a world spirit crying out for attention and awareness, whilst Kaufman runs over it. Siegel himself appears later as a taxi driver. When Bennell takes Elizabeth to meet Kibner, the psychiatrist’s encompassing roster of condemnation and proposed causes for paranoid conviction now includes a disintegrating family unit and people who can’t handle responsibility because life is too confronting. Belicec sticks up for the bohemian spirit as bawls out Kibner’s book: “Where’s Homer? Where’s Kazantzakis? Where’s Jack London?” Meanwhile his wife Nancy accidentally draws attention to the problem of trying to alert people to disintegrating reality when one is already deeply plugged into New Age kookiness, as she brings up Von Daniken-via-Quatermass notions. Then again, who’s to say she’s wrong? The omnipresence of the garbage trucks in which the replicas dispose of the shrivelled remains of the replaced become Kaufman’s most bitterly amusing touch, the most fitting etude for a consumerist society to be deposited in the rubbish by a parasitical species.

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Despite their differences in outlook and temperament, Siegel and Kaufman were nonetheless united in their fascination with and determination advocacy for individualism. Perhaps indeed it’s one trait shared by just about any creative in the western tradition. Abel Ferrara’s awkward, misjudged 1992 version, which to a certain played as less as another remake than as a companion story simultaneous to Kaufman’s, nonetheless included one brilliant sequence rooted precisely in this artistic sense of humanity, in which the one remaining human child in a class is outed when the kids are all made to draw: the human offers colour and form whilst the aliens all come up with static-like fuzz. Kaufman’s sense of political parallel is more pointed and self-conscious, however. Kaufman senses in frustration an oncoming conservatism after the flowering of the Counterculture that would soon bring about Reaganism. Perhaps his most memorable tweak to the way Siegel presented the pod people was to give them a distinctive shriek they release to alert others of their kind when a normal human has detected them, usually with a finger thrust out in identifying accusation.

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This nerve-rattling touch gives the pod people a more immediately alien, monstrous quality, but also more draws out the notion of social horror acutely: the humans become the hated enemy, the deviation, that must be abhorred. Holocaust metaphors are hard to miss, particularly in a late scene in which Bennell watches, in deadpan distress, as a busload of school children are unwittingly ushered into a building to be assimilated. As in Siegel’s film, Kaufman builds to a sequence where Bennell and Elizabeth are confronted by the fake Kibner and Belicec, calm proselytisers for the change who Bennell finishes up killing in a terribly intimate struggle. Like Siegel, Kaufman would devote the rest of his career to celebrating gutsy people apart after having defined his personal nightmare. But where Siegel’s vision became increasingly antisocial, Kaufman tried to celebrate an ideal, helping create Indiana Jones and glorifying the Mercury astronauts and turning Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin into bohemian swashbucklers. Kaufman stages his take on the original film’s greenhouse scene out in Bennell’s backyard, where he, Elizabeth, and the Belicecs are resting: Bennell falls asleep sprawled in a sun chair. Fine tendrils from one of the pods are seen attaching themselves to his body for the sake of absorbing his physiognomy and then mind.

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This brilliantly executed scene did for makeup and prosthetic effects what Star Wars had done for spaceship action the year before in showing an audience a sudden leap forward in a special effects art, presenting a convincingly corporeal vision of the replication of process, twitching, shivering bodies growing rapidly. Only Nancy’s interruption, screaming out to Bennell as she spies the malefic scene, awakens him and forestalls the process. Bennell hacks his replica to pieces with a shovel and the gang flee the house. In both films Bennell can’t bring himself to attack Becky’s replica and so attacks his own instead. Another of Kaufman’s great scenes, a moment charged with the essence of ‘70s screen culture, is a montage sequence in which Bennell tries to alert authorities from pay phones in the San Francisco downtown. Random voices from a distant regime fending off his warnings drone on audio as Kaufman’s visuals employ swooning hand-held camerawork, tracking Bennell as he wanders the city and makes his calls, all sense not just of structured society and authority disintegrating but reality along with it, as Bennell falls down the rabbit hole into complete disconnection from the world, the city completing its transformation from enveloping community to enemy territory.

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As the conspiracy busts loose and the heroes are driven out onto the streets, the style becomes increasingly baroque. Bennell, Elizabeth, and the Belicecs are glimpsed under a flight of stairs, only their four sets of eyes visible through gaps in the woodwork, as their pursuers pound down the steps before them; then the fleeing foursome’s shadows are seen dancing upon the wall of the Embarcadero like they’ve become refugees from a Murnau film. Kaufman’s genuine engagement with the original is also nodded to in two sequences that are also inspired enlargements upon Siegel’s. In the original Bennell and Becky’s efforts to move undetected amongst the pod people by acting emotionless are foiled when Becky screams in concern for a dog that nearly gets hit by a truck. Kaufman has Bennell encounter the bedraggled, homeless busker Harry (Joe Bellen) who sleeps with his dog in the park: Bennell kicks at a pod lying near him to save him from assimilation, but later as Bennell, Elizabeth, and Nancy escape a locale teeming with pod people a grotesque chimera comes loping towards them, the dog with Harry’s head, tearing a scream from Elizabeth. It feel like a black-hearted gag taking aim at too-little too-late liberalism as well as an episode seeking some genuine perversity in the evocation of new frontiers of flesh.

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The second variation plays on a haunting sequence in Siegel’s where Bennell follows the sound of eerie music only to find it’s only on a radio ignored by the replica people working on a pod farm. In Kaufman’s version, this becomes a more expansively operatic moment as Bennell hears a mass bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace” echoing from the waterfront and thinks they might be able to escape on a ship still crewed by humans, only to find as he ventures close that pods are being loaded onto the ships for exporting. The simultaneously mocking and plaintive sense of spiritual longing and human grandeur takes Siegel’s ironic scene to a new place here, all the more tragic in the sense of such art and feeling being erased. Perhaps the greatest moment in Siegel’s film comes when a completely exhausted Becky collapses as she and Bennell try to flee a cave where they’ve hidden. As Bennell tries to pick her realises she’s fallen asleep just long enough, no more than a few seconds, to be possessed by the aliens, her black eyes opening slowly with impassive and depthless regard: Siegel cuts from viewpoint to viewpoint – Bennell’s horrified reaction, eyes wide with shock and revulsion, mirrors the possessed Becky’s – as it becomes clear at last this is a nightmare there’s no waking up from.

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Kaufman’s version of the same moment is less immediately vivid, but it has its own sick power. Bennell returns from the waterfront to find Elizabeth asleep and lost. He sits cradling her body until it crumbles into a fibrous mess, and her replica arises from the scrub nearby, naked and remade as a blankly carnal thing that mocks the way Bennell and Elizabeth played at platonic friendship that finally became passion with the sarcastic permission of the alien invasion: Elizabeth becomes a mere body there’s no point in trying to make love to. Faced with the choice between honouring Finney or Siegel’s endings, Kaufman and Richter chose to do both, which makes for a slightly awkward if still vigorous set of climaxes. Fleeing the fake Elizabeth, Bennell comes across a warehouse where the pods are being cultivated, and he manages to lay waste to the place by dropping lighting rigs on the nursery and starting a fire. But faced with no chance to escape the city, Bennell returns to the Department of Health building and seems to make a play of operating normally amongst his colleagues, now all silent, pokerfaced, utterly futile beings for whom the workaday treadmill has become a robotic routine, a bleak and tedious reductio ad absurdum for all late capitalist life.

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The sting in the tale waits until the very last shots, as Bennell wanders solitary in the town only to encounter Nancy, who gives away her humanity by giving him a complicit grin: Bennell lifts a hand and points at her, releasing the demonic alien scream of accusation. Kaufman’s camera zooms into the black void of the screaming maw. It’s one of the most memorable and ghoulish endings in fantastic cinema, capping the movie with a note of bottomless angst and horror. And yet it’s also ambiguous. Many critics felt the end of Kaufman’s film implied there had never been much point fighting the pods and that the pod Bennell simply represented clapped-out acquiescence. But what does it mean that Bennell became a pod person? His yawing-mouthed cry evokes both his counterpart in Siegel’s film as he raved his desperate warning, and also his own choked-off scream as Elizabeth crumbles in his arms. Did he simply run out of steam, unable to keep himself awake? Did he give in because it was too painful to be alone? Or did he, as the last glimpses of him gazing at the replicated Becky possibly suggest, give in in order, in whatever pathetic, degraded, impotent state, to share it with her? The horror of the ending of Siegel’s film is that Bennell seems inhuman when bellowing and crying out in a most human way. The horror of Kaufman’s is that our most human need, for other humans, could lead us to abandon humanity.

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1950s, Horror/Eerie, Japanese cinema

Black Cat Mansion (1958) / The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959)

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Bōrei Kaibyō Yashiki / Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan

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Director: Nabuo Nakagawa
Screenwriters: Jiro Fujishima, Yoshihiro Ishikawa / Masayoshi Ônuki, Yoshihiro Ishikawa

By Roderick Heath

Nabuo Nakagawa is considered one of the defining figures of Japanese Horror cinema and perhaps its first real master, although he’s not as well-known as many who followed him. Masaki Kobayashi would give the genre international attention with his famous Kwaidan (1964), and that film, along with Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968) have become common touchstones for any genre fan looking beyond the bastions of Hollywood and Europe. The explosion of the specific national genre’s popularity in the late 1990s, as it became known as “J-Horror,” would make directors like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Miike, and Hideo Nakata famous. The Kyoto-born Nakagawa, who had an interest in social realist writing when he was younger, wrote some amateur film criticism that gained him attention, before he started working at Makino Film Productions. That studio went bankrupt in 1932, but Nakagawa had gained experience as an assistant director and made his debut as a director proper on the 1934 film Yumiya Hachiman Ken. Nakagawa weathered World War II at Toho directing comedies, but he only began to truly define himself as a filmmaker with a specific outlook after the war, as he turned to noir tales and then horror movies when he moved to Shintoho. Nakagawa soon revealed a particular talent for uniting supernatural motifs found in Japanese folklore and mythology with the more familiar genre forms of western horror literature and film.

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Nakagawa shared distinct traits with his major western counterparts of the same period, Terence Fisher, Mario Bava, and Roger Corman. Like them he developed an intensely atmospheric visual style, and tried to invest horror cinema with new aesthetic force and style to fit in with an era of widescreen and blazing colour. Some of his works, like Vampire Girl (1959), betray layers of fascinating if not always successful effort to unite the genre lexicons of east and west, trying to assimilate the traditional European idea of the vampire figure by calling back to the troubled history of Christianity trying to take root in Japan, blended with a mishmash of gothic horror tropes. Perhaps Nakagawa’s best-known work is his startling 1960 epic Jigoku. Nakagawa had conceived of Jigoku as the ultimate statement on his regular theme of karmic retribution, and, after several years of making movies at the familiar breakneck pace required of a Japanese genre filmmaker, he cut back on his output to concentrate on it. Jigoku proved to be the last release of Shintoho, which collapsed soon after, leaving Nakagawa to wander from studio to studio, only able to complete sporadic projects.

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Jigoku saw the director mediating his own career progression in his approach, starting off with a relatively modest portrait of ordinary characters that shades into a tale of guilty deceptions and crimes, resulting in a mass poisoning, whereupon the film radically shifts style as the dead characters are thrust into Jigoku – the Japanese Buddhist concept of hell – to be cruelly and gruesomely tortured for their sins. Nakagawa took liberal advantage of one freedom his foreign rivals didn’t have, a relatively lax censorship regime in Japan when it came to gore, and so the climax of Jigoku is a startling succession of bloody and nightmarish images no western filmmaker would dare for quite a few years yet. Of the movies Nakagawa made in the years before Jigoku, two of the best are Black Cat Mansion and The Ghost of Yotsuya. Black Cat Mansion is the more generic-feeling of the two, and yet it’s still marked by some unique visual and structural tricks, as well as the richness of its cultural grounding. The opening sequence strikes a deliciously eerie mood as Nakagawa’s camera explores a hospital at night during a blackout, a torch picking out a path through the dark corridors and up flights of stairs. Sights like a dead man being wheeled along a corridor by masked and gowned orderlies are charged with morbid and numinous import.

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A doctor on duty, Dr. Tetsuichiro Kuzumi (Toshio Hosokawa), sits in a pool of candlelight and listens uneasily to the sound of footsteps as he waits for the lights to come on again. He drifts into a reverie, recalling a time a few years earlier when his wife Yoriko (Yuriko Ejima) was stricken with tuberculosis. Tetsuichiro abandoned his practice in Tokyo and moved with Yoriko back to Kyushu, where she and her family came from, to give her a chance to recover. Yoriko’s brother Kenichi (Hiroaki Kurahashi) arranged for them to move into a long-abandoned, rundown manor house, a place once called Spiraea Mansion for the flowers that used to grow in its yard. Weird signs begin proliferating even on the road to the mansion, as Kenichi has to swerve to avoid hitting a black cat on the road, almost crashing through a protective barrier into the sea. The mansion, once they reach it, looks like a place the Addams Family would delight in occupying, with great, stout wooden doors in the perimeter wall. The yard is overgrown and fetid, whilst the interior proves dirty and dilapidated, with a stain on the wall Yoriko takes for blood, and footprints in the dust that suggest someone’s been roaming the house barefoot. Yoriko spots an old woman with long, white hair within the old servants’ block. She calls Tetsuichiro and Kenichi back to check out the stranger, but the crone proves to have vanished when they look in.

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Despite the initially distressing impression, the Kuzumis renovate and repair the house as a comfortable abode and convert part of it into a modern clinic so Tetsuichiro can continue practicing whilst Yoriko recuperates. The barefoot old woman is seen again, disturbing the family dog Taro and approaching Tetsuichiro’s assistant (Akiko Mie) like a patient. Whilst the assistant fetches the doctor, the crone infiltrates Yoriko’s room and tries to throttle her, but dashes away as her husband and his assistant return. During the night, Yoriko is scared the crone will return, despite Tetsuichiro’s assurances, and then her husband is called away to see a patient. With Tetsuichiro gone the crone reappears, kills Taro, and again tries to strangle Yoriko. Realising he’s been lured away, Tetsuichiro speeds home and manages again to intervene in time. The next day Tetsuichiro and Kenichi visit a Buddhist priest to try and learn what’s going on. The priest begins recounting the tragic history of the mansion.

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From the opening in the hospital, Black Cat Mansion displays Nakagawa’s gifts for generating a carefully cordoned atmosphere. His roots as an artist interested in everyday people and problems meshed intelligibly with his gift for portraying the bizarre and the grotesque, because he saw clearly how they relate. The worst horrors in his cinema always stem from some profane mix of greed, lust, and faithlessness, and the supernatural is only ever a marker for the lingering toxicity of human violence. The narrative structure employs three different layers of flashback, and each step backwards invokes a different understanding of the story. The Kozumis’ relationship is straightforward, caring husband and sickly wife, with the ghost woman’s stalking presence actualising the way disease is eating into Yoriko. But it also reads lucidly as a story about the post-war recovery, as modern Japan tries to reorientate itself and get back on its feet but has to contend with the lingering ills of a vicious and iniquitous feudal past, which becomes the setting for the second layer of flashback. The framing of the story in the modern hospital sees a clean and modern environment, symbol of the restoration of a fully functioning and modernised society, suddenly claimed again by dark forces, and the pensive memory of a carer.

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Nakagawa’s ardour for extended, sensuously evocative tracking shots is quickly evinced in the opening where the camera creeps through the hospital corridors. Equally apparent is his penchant for shots composed along rigid lateral lines that suit his widescreen compositions and convey a sense of space that’s cage-like – a design flourish he’d taken further in The Ghost of Yotsuya. In one great shot Yoriko is glimpsed lying on her convalescing couch, the evil intruder slowly rising into the frame behind her to one side. Nakagawa’s key stylistic choice for Black Cat Mansion was similar to Otto Preminger’s in Bonjour Tristesse, made in the same year, inverting the common technique of filming flashbacks in black-and-white to convey a remembered texture. Here the modern sequences are shot in a faintly blue-tinted monochrome, replete with touches of stark expressionism, whilst the flashbacks to the distant past are shot in bright colour. The splendidly squalid decay of the mansion as the contemporary couple enter it, with black crows crowding onto twisted, denuded tree branches, and footprints clear in the dusty halls, ushering the viewer into a peculiarly Japanese take on the familiar old dark house drama. Backdrops are painted in as squiggles of skeletal black.

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When the film shifts into a period vision, everything looks like a classical scroll painting where the serenely logical interface of black and white Go stones is daubed with glistening red blood. The contrast seems to set a glum and menacing present day in tension with the lush splendour of a bygone age, but this proves to be a purposeful miscue, as any romantic sentimentality about the past is lethally put down in the course of the historical narrative with a lethal efficiency Nakagawa’s cynical counterparts in the jidai geki style like Kenji Mizoguchi or Kihachi Okamoto would’ve been proud of. Nakagawa’s films engage most of the images and motifs that would resound in J-horror’s later popular heyday, like female wraiths with long, face-concealing hair, and terrifying and deadly manifestations of demonic entities punishing offences. Like western ghost stories, the Japanese kind envisions haunting and supernatural manifestation as a totemic marker for crimes and tragic events, perpetually affixing a space with a sense of portent, but with a slipperier, less predictable sense of the mutable boundary between the earthly and the mystical, filled with perverse transformations and manifestations, with an added aspect of karmic retribution dogging malefactors until they pay for their villainies.

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Black Cat Mansion also involves a brand of animism inherent in a lot of Japanese folklore, which holds cats as creatures with manifold supernatural powers and avatars for potent spirits. In Buddhist lore cats were considered generally evil, whilst the local Japanese traditions often saw them as playful and protective, a tension of tradition that Nakagawa cleverly negotiates as the cause of the haunting emerges. Nakagawa might have taken some inspiration from Kuniyoshi Utagawa’s ukiyo-e artwork “Okabe” (“The Cat Witch”) which portrayed the common traditional folklore of cat spirits manifesting in either animal form or as a stooped and withered old hag, glimpsed threatening a young woman seeking shelter in a temple. This is applied to a sort of werewolf story. The historical narrative, which occupies about half the film, concerns the master of the Spiraea Mansion in the late 1500s, Lord Shogen (Takashi Wada), a man with an almost lunatic temper and paranoia both stoked and left unchecked because of his great power. On the day he’s to meet and play a young Go master, Kokingo (Ryûzaburô Nakamura), Shogen gets worked up to a pitch of homicidal fury because Kokingo arrives late.

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The Lord chases after and almost kills his loyal servant Saheiji (Rei Ishikawa), only sparing him because Shogen’s son Shinnojo (Arata Shibata) begs him to. Kokingo is advised to tread carefully during his match with Shogen, but after the Lord postures as an experienced player only to keep making rushed mistakes and trying to violate the rules, Kokingo berates him. Shogen promptly and repeatedly slashes Kokingo to death with his katana. He gets Saheiji to help him conceal the crime and tell Kokingo’s wife Lady Miyaji (Fumiko Miyata) that her husband, shamed by losing to the Lord, has gone off to study in private. Miyaji is visited by her husband’s ghost, however, leaving a bloodstained robe with Shogen’s crest on it, and Miyaji grasps the truth. She visits Shogen in his rooms to accuse him, but the Lord barely seems to notice, sparked instead by his delight in her beauty to rape her. Miyaji performs seppuku, after praying that her and Kikongo’s beloved cat Tama will lap up her blood and become a spirit of wrath cursing all the members of Shogen’s household to the end of their bloodlines: Yoriko and Kenichi are descendants of Saheji.

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Nakagawa’s portrait of Shogen as a man already close to totally unhinged under the influence of aristocratic privilege borders on black comedy in the degree of his outrageous and utterly unchecked licence, mixed with a tint of the pathetic. Shogen’s demands to take his moves back during his match with Kokingo, his enraged, murderous pursuit of his servant, and his brutal rapes of both Miyaji and his son’s would-be fiancé Yae (Noriko Kitazawa), all have the quality of a greedy, vain, monstrous boy despite his advanced age. His supernatural torment only has to push him a little way to drive him wild enough to lay waste to everything around him. First the bloodthirsty cat spirit Miyaji unleashes takes possession of her form and then attacks Shogen’s blind, elderly mother (Fujie Satsuki), taking control of her form and using it to attack the others in the household. Meanwhile blood keeps leaking from the wall of Shogen’s room, and he keeps seeing the spectral figure of Kikogen with a bloody gash to his face and Miyaji. After Shinnojo reports seeing his grandmother active and fully-sighted, catching fish from the mansion’s pond, Shogen realises the truth and tries to kill the cat demon with Sahieji’s help, but she flees. Slashing madly at the shades tormenting him, Shogen accidentally slays Yae and attacks his son; forced to defend himself, Shinnojo finishes up stabbing his father but takes a fatal wound himself.

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There’s a bit of accidental humour value in the cat demon when it comes into focus at last, ears sprouting to attention as it springs to battle off Shogen, but there are some vivid, more consciously humour-laced touches, like glimpses of the creature licking its slashed arm and licking milk from a saucer in silhouette. There’s also more deliberate humour in the way the demon unleashes telekinetic powers to force victims and foes to spin about, contort, and flip around: the demon has the ability to literally treat people like puppets in the same way Shogen has a socially prescribed right to. The climactic sequences of Shogen’s madness approach the outskirts of psychedelia a few years early as the hovering visages of the ghosts frame Shogen thrashing around, dazzling colours projected upon him, representing his descent into utter delirium. The bold redness of the bloody blotch leaking from his wall contrasts the sickly pale-green hue of the ghostly Miyaji’s face. The return to the present, as the priest finishes recounting the legend, restores the film to its monochrome look. The priest gives Tetsuichiro some written prayers to pin around the mansion to ward off the demon, but during the night the wind rises and dislodges one. When her husband goes out to fix some shutters, the demon appears in Yoriko’s room, stark white mane of hair and thrusting fingers electric against the darkness, and again starts strangling her.

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When Tetsuichiro returns he finds his wife sprawled and apparently dead, whilst a patch of the plaster on the wall crumbles and reveals the long-hidden secret of Shogen’s crime: Kokingo’s skeleton, caked in dry, black, rotting flesh. The demon dissolves into the wall and the skeleton slowly keels over amidst a shower of debris. Nakagawa dissolves back to the present-tense with Tetsuichiro in the hospital. The lights come on, the source of the footsteps that creeped him out proves to be Yoriko, not only not dead but entirely well, bringing him food. Tetsuichiro muses on how burying Kokingo’s remains finally laid the demon to rest, and they couple find a small kitten they decide to adopt. As a happy ending this isn’t unwelcome, and it makes perfect sense in underlining the return to the present as a statement about the national recovery. But it’s still deployed in a jarringly breezy and hasty manner. The following year, Nakagawa would apply some of the stylistic and storytelling methods he had mastered on Black Cat Mansion and other films to a more hallowed and officially elevated subject. The Ghost of Yotsuya took on a very popular property for filmmakers at the time, as a version of Nanboku Tsuruya’s famous kabuki play Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan, which was also tackled over the years by respected directors like Keisuke Kinoshita and Shiro Toyoda, but Nakagawa’s is by and large regarded as the best.

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The popularity of Tsuruya’s work as a basis for horror films in the post-war era might well be put down to how it deals with guilt, responsibility, and awful memory, describing the mournful figure of a wife left to her own devices, by a warrior whose tunnel-visioned sense of the world is soon overwhelmed by the memories of atrocities committed in the name of servicing his demanded right to glory and enrichment. Such a tale offered a framework for commentary on the lingering phantoms of World War II and the post-war world, as the pursuit of money and success became increasingly compulsive as a way of avoiding such introspection. Kinoshita’s 1949 version rendered the ghosts purely psychological, partly because it needed to negotiate the occupation era’s ban on historical irrationalism. As a story it has close similarities to the “Black Hair” tale that comprised the first chapter of Kwaidan. Again, Nakagawa takes pains to root the drama in an entirely worldly sense of human folly before anything like the uncanny intrudes, and indeed for much of its length The Ghost of Yotsuya is essentially samurai noir, Double Indemnity (1944) with kimonos and katanas.

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Nakagawa stages the crucial opening all in one, long, decorous tracking shot, with a trio of figures walking homewards at night by lantern light, orange orb floating before a stark, shadow-cast wall. Into the frame dashes Iemon Tamiya (Shigeru Amachi), a young and ambitious but penniless samurai who wants to marry the daughter of the respected elder Samo (Shinjirō Asano). Samo is contemptuous of Iemon, however, and brusquely refuses his request, infuriating Iemon so terribly that the young man draws his sword and slays Samo and his friend Sato. The third man, the lantern carrier Naosuke (Shuntarō Emi), isn’t terribly concerned about his boss’s death, and agrees to help Iemon in covering up his deed. Iemon and Naosuke tell Samo’s daughters Oiwa (Katsuko Wakasugi) and Sode (Kitazawa again) that their father was slain by the bandit Usaburo (Yôzô Takamura), who had a grudge against Samo for slashing his face for a transgression. Iemon and Naosuke pledge to help the sisters and Sato’s son Yomoshichi (Ryūzaburō Nakamura) track down and kill Usaburo, but they ambush Yomoshichi, stab him, and toss him over a waterfall whilst on the hunt for the bandit: Naosuke has a passion for Sode, and Iemon’s complicity in getting him out of the picture was the price of his silence.

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A couple of years kater, however, nothing’s going right. Both Iemon and Oiwa and Naosuke and Sode are living in Edo, trapped in dire poverty as Iemon can’t get a position, and he and Oiwa have a small, wailing baby. Sode, who hates Naosuke but is nonetheless tied to him, has managed to keep him from marrying her so far because he promised not to until the revenge was complete. Whilst his marriage to Oiwa slides into abuse and loathing, Iemon protects some young ladies he encounters in the streets from some hoods, impressing their father Itō (Hiroshi Hayashi) so much he wants Iemon to marry his eldest daughter, Ume (Junko Ikeuchi). Naosuke, seeing an opportunity, earns money from Itō by conspiring to finish off Iemon and Oiwa’s marriage, and eventually he talks Iemon into poisoning Oiwa and setting things up so that it looks like she was justly slain for being caught in infidelity with her good-natured masseur, Takuetsu (Jun Ōtomo).

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Black Cat Mansion revealed the similarity to English Shakespearean and Jacobean drama in Nakagawa’s take on his native tragic mode, with evildoers dogged by ghosts representing their interior boles of guilt and trauma, and the similarity of the traditions is even more noticeable in The Ghost of Yotsuya. Nakagawa makes Iemon an antiheroic character reminiscent of the protagonist of An American Tragedy, ensnared by his own blend of desperate aspiration and emotional weakness which manifests ironically in acts of effective violence. The spasm of homicidal anger he turns upon Samo and Sato is easy to understand and even justified to a certain extent by the samurai code of honour, as he’s been humiliated and belittled, but also confirms Samo’s low opinion of his character, attacking unarmed men because he can’t control his temper. Naosuke serves as helpmate and conspirator in Iemon’s crimes, but also embodies his baser self, containing and reflecting his darkest instincts, in a manner close to the symbolic characters of morality plays. The doubling of the sisters Oiwa and Sode also proves consequential as Sode maintains a certain strength of character and sufficiency her sister pathetically loses in trying to play the perfect wife to Iemon, as Sode fends off Naosuke’s advances and tries to make him hold to his promise to avenge her father, and eventually even takes up the sword to try and avenge her family.

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Nakagawa’s adaptation of the play sheared off many complications and subplots, making Iemon’s role in Oiwa’s death more direct as he agrees to using a poison on Oiwa that disfigures her terribly and then kills her. Oiwa’s drawn-out death scenes are wrenching and pathetic as she beholds her gnarled and scarred features in a mirror, forced to wear the mask of bottomless corruption and horror that is her husband’s life like a living Dorian Gray portrait: the operatic cruelty reaches its finest pitch as Oiwa tries to brush her hair and tears a great chunk of skin with the hair attached from her scalp. Unable to believe the way she’s been repaid for being everything required as wife to her husband, Oiwa in her distraught state she stabs her baby rather than leave it to be raised by a man like Iemon. The gormless Takuetsu, who at least has the decency to desist when he realises that Oiwa doesn’t want him as a lover, becomes another victim as Iemon attacks him, hacking off an arm and stalking after him to deliver the coup-de-grace. Nakagawa pans from a shot of a filthy patch of swamp where frogs chirp away over to the Iemon house where Takuetsu writhes in his death throes, and intercuts erupting fireworks as communal celebrations go on in the world beyond, with the grim business of nailing Takuetsu and Oiwa to a shutter to weight them down before dumping them in the swamp.

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At times The Ghost of Yotsuya feels like a ruthless parody of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Miyamoto Musashi trilogy, or at least an incidental inversion of its precepts and those of many other works in the jidai geki, countering the romantic sprawl of Inagaki’s historical Japan and celebration of the warrior ethic as a pure way of living, with a squalid portrait of pride versus poverty and hyperbolic cruelty turned on the innocent, all shot in a similar palette of stylised colour. Iemon and Naosuke’s assault on Yomoshichi, where they stab him under the arm and hurl him over a waterfall, in particular feels like a mockery of the constant use of waterfalls as a visual and thematic refrain in Inogaki’s trilogy: the swamp where corpses are sunk and ghouls arise becomes the true mimetic landscape thereafter. Sources of grace are in very short supply in Nakagawa’s survey, but wellsprings of shame and fear plentiful. As opposed to Black Cat Mansion’s Shogen, who was an avatar for unchecked power and predation that infantilises its wielder, The Ghost of Yotsuya offers Iemon as a man who practices cruel and expedient violence and deserves his comeuppance, but who is both more sympathetic and more culpable because he’s not a mindless thug or cold psychopath. He is rather a being who feels compelled to commit horrendous acts because it’s in the nature of the world to push him to such ends, not seeing any external, natural fount of order and justice to counter them.

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Tsuruya’s story demonstrates belief that such a natural law does exist and claims its price, be it through corrosive psychological impact or haunting proper, and as Nakagawa would state even more forcefully in Jigoku, he held a similar faith. “I don’t expect you to know how I feel,” Iemon growls disconsolately at Naosuke when the other man celebrates the good fortune they’ve just bought in murder, as he seems to meditate in bewildered pain at how something he once wanted enough to kill for became something in itself to be euthanized. The Ghost of Yotsuya counts as one of the most elegantly sustained visual experiences in horror cinema, with Nakagawa working with his regular cinematographer Tadashi Nishimoto for a softly textured colour look that realises the inherent battle between a corrupt universe and the scant beacons of light and hope through a constant war of dark shadows, musty browns and greys, and patches of redemptive brightness. Nakagawa’s framings become increasingly obscured by a mesh of intrusive physical details. Household fixtures like the vertical bars on a balustrade constantly intruding into the frame. Interior drapings of gauze and cloth close in.

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A sense of entrapment and smothering closeness dominates. During that long opening shot, Nakagawa’s camera takes up an attitude where a tree trunk looms between the pleading Iemon and the virulent Samo, a fatal and fateful division manifest between them. Naosuke’s slaying of the bandit Usaburo is staged in a small clearing amidst looming tree trunks, like great fingers squeezing in on them. Amachi would work again for Nakagawa in playing the undead lord in Vampire Girl, his fiercely angular features perfect for a Byronic demon lover figure, just as Nakagawa carried over the eye-catching Kitazawa from Black Cat Mansion. Some of the images Nakagawa had conjured for Black Cat Mansion recur in The Ghost of Yotsuya, particularly the terrorising visions of the mutilated dead that drive the wrongdoer into a frenzy, like Takuetsu’s apparition with a gory slashed face, as well as the key sequence in both films where the haunted killer lashes out at the shades assaulting him only to slay the living by mistake. Perhaps the best scare moment sees Iemon hearing Oiwa’s spectral voice and glancing around, not seeing her, and then suddenly looking up to behold her sprawled on the ceiling, moaning dire threats. Nakagawa cuts from the putrid reaches of the swamp where Iemon and Naosuke have disposed of the two corpses to the sight of Ume in her wedding regalia, a headdress of fanning white material about her face, a forceful alternation between muck and ritualised decorousness.

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The film builds to an astonishingly beautiful passage as Oiwa’s ghost visits Sode, who doesn’t yet know she’s a shade, and leads her through a densely foggy night to the inn where Yomoshichi is staying, the two women drifting against a backdrop of dense fog past twisted trees and reeds, the lantern sign of the inn appearing as a solitary light hovering amidst the murk like a promise. Meanwhile Iemon is visited in his wedding bed after marrying Ume first by a squirming snake on the mosquito netting and then by ghosts that make him strike out wildly with his sword, only to realise as his vision clears that he’s slain his wife, father-in-law, and a servant. Iemon flees to a temple where he has monks pray for him, sitting in the centre of a prayer circle with a protective chain about him. When he dares venture out of the temple, he encounters Naosuke in the swamp who unthinkingly salvages a comb and robe from the water not realising they belonged to Oiwa, whilst Iemon sees Oiwa and Takuetsu’s bodies rising from the swamp to accuse him, driving him into a frenzy as the winds rise and the sun’s glow becomes an abstract sworl amidst rolling mist. Fleeing back to the temple still assailed by visions, Iemon is infuriated by Naosuke’s goading admonitions and his candour: “I’m impressed! The samurai is as much a villain as I am.”

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Iemon promptly rises up and slays Naosuke. Nakagawa turns this into a surreal interlude as the floor of Iemon’s temple chamber becomes the swamp and Naosuke’s body falls beside Oiwa’s, infernal red glowing in the windows, before the scene returns to normal and Iemon is left stand over just Naosuke’s corpse. The relentless hounding of ghosts is not however enough to actually destroy Iemon. It is instead left to Yomoshichi and Sode, who attack Iemon in the temple with swords, bent on delivering revenge although Iemon’s still a fearsome fighter. They battle in the temple’s graveyard, an ideal zone of Japanese Gothic. Iemon flinching as the ghosts keep appearing to him as he fights, but after taking wounds at last impales himself on Sode’s sword, surrendering to his own death wish and succumbing with a repeated plea for Oiwa to forgive him. The last shots, of a calm, restored Oiwa holding her baby, in the mist at the temple gates, before the rising sun, suggesting if necessarily forgiveness for Iemon than at least peace for the restless dead.

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1950s, Drama, Historical, War

Alexander The Great (1956)

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Director/Screenwriter: Robert Rossen

By Roderick Heath

Read this essay or download the podcast

Robert Rossen is remembered today chiefly for two films. His political tale All The King’s Men (1949) captured the Best Picture Oscar. The Hustler (1961) gave Paul Newman his most iconic role and helped define a new school of urban realism matched to sifting psychology in American moviemaking that arguably helped create a template for the independent film movement. Rossen, born in New York’s Lower East Side in 1906 to Russian Jewish parents, made his name as a screenwriter specialising in social issue dramas and crime epics like They Won’t Forget (1937) and The Roaring Twenties (1939). He debuted as a director with Johnny O’Clock (1947) thanks to the support of star Dick Powell, and his second film, Body and Soul (1948), put him on the map with the story of a boxer who eventually defies corruption and bullying cabals to determine his own fate, with his famous line in fending off rapacious gangsters, “What are you going to do, kill me? Everybody dies.” Body and Soul established Rossen’s interest in tough, trenchant, streetwise tales about individuals at war both with the world and their own private natures.
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All The King’s Men, an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel, mostly divested the book’s meditations on power and the place of the intellectual in modern America to offer instead a pseudo-Shakespearean study of its antihero, Willie Stark, inspired by the populist Louisiana governor Huey Long, who sets out to battle entrenched powers for the sake of the common man but eventually is rotted out by the same forces. The Hustler took on Walter Tevis’ novel to offer Rossen’s most refined character study, the drama of ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson, whose superlative gifts as a pool player are foiled by his lack of authentic character, and whose eventual gaining of wisdom and self-control comes at a heavy price. Rossen surely empathised. His directorial career and ultimately his life were badly stunted by his bruising encounter with the HUAC investigations of the early 1950s, when he was targeted for his leftist affiliations. After first trying to work around blacklisting by making Mambo (1953) in Italy, he eventually caved and became a friendly witness like Elia Kazan, although where Kazan’s career seem comparatively unharmed, Rossen had difficulty regaining his momentum and was dogged by the consequences of his decision to an early grave. By the time of his last film, Lilith (1964), his characteristic hard and worldly tone had caved in, to study the dreamy mental landscape of a troubled young woman.
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What connects most of Rossen’s films regardless is the theme of individuals who find themselves overwhelmed in pursuing the goals society thrusts upon them of success in wealth and power, and who eventually have to negotiate their own reckoning. For his first film after escaping the blacklist, Rossen tackled the largest possible canvas to pursue that theme, in the tale of Alexander II, King of Macedon, remembered to history as Alexander the Great. In its efforts to outpace television’s encroachment, Hollywood began making big-budget historical dramas filmed in blazing colour, a style kicked off by Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) and extended by the likes of Quo Vadis (1951) and The Robe (1953). These big, diverting, parochial tales invoking religious myth-history would reach a height with the likes of The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959), before the epic fashion evolved into something more complex in the 1960s. As a mode these kinds of blockbusters seemed the polar opposite of what a director like Rossen usually aimed for, but he engaged it on his own terms. Rossen was ahead of the curve as he tried to forge a new idea of the historical epic, one that feels a lot more familiar today than it would have in 1956, in his attempts to knit together serious historiography and a highly psychologised portrait of one of the most famous yet maddeningly enigmatic people who ever lived.
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Rossen’s film never gained much appreciation, and the film had been virtually forgotten by the time Oliver Stone got around to making his own big-budget, economically disastrous and aesthetically fractured take on the king, with 2004’s Alexander. The two films tend to mirror each-others’ faults. Rossen’s cool, restrained visual style, constantly and carefully mindful of the position of his actors in relationship to the landscape, is the opposite of Stone’s baroquely stylised spectacle and madcap energy. Despite the much greater resources available to Stone and the lack of fetters of censorship and theme, his work still managed to be less intelligible than Rossen’s, but Rossen’s strains against limitations of production and editing room tampering. The story of Alexander and the forces he unleashed in world history might well be too large, too fractious and complex, to be encompassed by the niceties of commercial cinema. Both Rossen and Stone responded to the problem by recreating Alexander in their own image. For Rossen, that meant seeing Alexander as a figure similar to his best-known protagonists, blessed with unique talents and determined to exercise them, but also riven with covert neuroses as individual identity fractures under the pressure of insanely divergent prisms of conceiving the world, temptations towards godlike power and base human frailty trying to coexist in a single frame.
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Rossen’s Alexander squirms under the twin identities imbued by his parents, King Philip (Fredric March) and his mother Olympia (Danielle Darrieux), an uneasy union between a bullish warrior-king and an icy priestess-queen. Philip dashes home to his capital Pella from the battlefront when he hears he’s become a father, only to find that Olympia is convinced through the advice of her Egyptian soothsayer (Helmut Dantine) that Alexander is the son of Zeus, rather than her all-too-human husband. Philip has infinitude of lovers and is obsessed with elevating his formerly backward and peripheral nation to an exalted status amongst the states of Greece. Philip entrusts Alexander’s education to Aristotle (Barry Jones), who admires his young pupil but also warns Philip of his splintered nature and the potential danger in ignoring it. Alexander himself, growing into the form of Richard Burton, chafes at being kept away from his father’s side and the chance for glory, as Macedonia’s brilliant army slowly overcomes the other Greek states.
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Rossen conceives of ancient statecraft as an extension of royal personality, which runs hot and cold, defined by the essential Oedipal conflict between Philip and Alexander, a conflict then transposed onto a geopolitical stage. Alexander longs to join his father’s army and gain a share of his glory in preparation for his own, eventual ascension. But Philip is justifiably scared of plots and manipulations, as well as also cagily protecting his own prerogatives to make and break his heir. Alexander constantly finds himself a pawn in the power battle between his father and mother, who remain married but intensely alienated, and Philip seems to always be considering remarriage to produce a new heir. Philip is usually glimpsed in the company of his generals and courtiers, a man of a dense, jostling, very human society, whilst Olympia maintains a vigil from the portico of the royal palace, gazing out into distant fields of fate, stark in Olympian remove. When Alexander is finally called to service, it’s to keep order in Macedonia whilst his father fights the other Greek states, so he quickly proves his mettle by putting down rebellious hill tribes and making them rebuild a city called Alexandropolis. Philip rebukes Alexander for his actions, but also appoints him commander of one wing in the fateful battle of Chaeronea, where the Macdeonians take on finally subjugate a Greek coalition headed by Athens: Alexander saves his father’s life during the battle, intervening to fight off warriors who have him cornered.
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Rossen spares a surprising amount of time dealing with the intellectual and civic background of the age, commencing the film with one of the famous oratorical battles between Demosthenes (Michael Hordern) and Aeschines (William Squire) as they behold the rise of Philip and the birth of his heir. Later Rossen spares time to depict Alexander’s interactions with Aristotle, absorbing his wisdom and cultural propaganda, deployed in a fashion that reveals Rossen’s underlying political parable regarding McCarthyism, the Cold War, and American imperialism in the post-war period. “The Persian way of life has the seed of death and fear in it,” Aristotle intones, mimicking Cold War rhetoric about communists, before more loudly announcing, over a montage of his pupils schooling themselves for war, “We Greeks are the chosen, the elect – our culture is the best, our civilisation the best, our men the best. All others are barbarians, and it is our moral duty to conquer them, enslave them, and if necessary destroy them.” And making fun of foreign gods: “The gods of the Greeks are made in the image of Man – not men with birds’ heads, and bulls with lions’ heads, but men who can be understood and felt.” Alexander’s life course reveals both the potential grandeur and danger in allowing the merely human to annex such an exalted sphere as divine status, as he imbues his military mission with a quality of something larger, a great act of cultural and philosophical adventure, something that must assimilate the world.
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Rossen digs into the question of political messaging in a way that’s authentic for the period but also made coherent for any time, as Alexander surveys various forms of propaganda presented in the form of culture, in the idealised statuary of Athenian pretence and the awesome scale of Persian infrastructure, whilst Demosthenes makes quips about good comment being bought with Macedonian gold, and finishes up withering in depression whilst his rival announces to the crowd that Alexander must be worshipped as a god, the last, hardest, most awesome stage in achieving hegemony. Rossen cuts between the different invocations of the Greek and Persian leaders before battle, laying bare the distinction of their cultural outlooks and ways of conceiving the universe, and of course noting how every side thinks god is in their corner. The frontiers of cultures and nations are nothing however compared to basic spurs of familial identity, sexuality, and generational tension, all of which define Alexander’s upbringing, his own steely, mercurial persona contrasting his father’s swaggering, earthy machismo. Rossen devotes himself to exploring Alexander’s psychological formation, becoming a being Aristotle describes to Philip: “He is logic and he is dreams. He’s warrior and he’s poet. He’s man and he’s spirit. He’s your son but he’s also hers.”
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Philip meanwhile chafes at being labelled a barbarian by the Greek elites and quietly fumes over Alexander’s supposed divine status, a discomforting prospect for a man who wants to order the world according to his own whim, as it suggests some other force at work – more likely his wife’s ambition rather than the will of Zeus. After gaining his greatest victory, Philip gets drunk and dances upon the bluffs overlooking the corpse-strewn field of Chaeronea, chanting “Philip the barbarian!” in his exultation, yet revealing himself as still dogged by a potent inferiority complex. He’s fetched down by his son and Athenian general Memnon (Peter Cushing). Philip relents towards other Greeks when he sobers up and sends Alexander in his stead to negotiate a peace treaty. It’s Death of a Salesman in sandals. Alexander encounters Demosthenes and Memnon’s wife Barsine (Claire Bloom), who attracts his eye and mind. He gets in a wry dig at Athenian self-aggrandizing, as he scans rows of statues of idealised male physiques and questions where all these incredible specimens were at Chaeronea. But Alexander lets his own grandiosity slip as he describes the potential in unity and purpose for Greece in invading Persia: “And this is what I have brought you!”
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Alexander soon finds his position precarious, however, as Philip celebrates the birth of another son by his new wife Eurydice (Marisa de Leza), daughter of his loyal general Attalus (Stanley Baker), precipitating a vicious exchange between Alexander and his new father-in-law, and driving him and his mother into exile. They’re allowed to return when Eurydice gives birth to a son, but Alexander is forbidden the company of some of his hero-worshipping school friends. Attalus humiliates one of them, Pausanias (Peter Wyngarde), before the court by questioning what he’ll do without his god Alexander around, to Philip’s great amusement. Pausanias gets drunk with Olympia, who steers him towards avenging himself. The next day Pausanias stabs Philip dead as he and Alexander are entering the palace. Alexander promptly dispenses justice by slaying Pausanias, and vows over his dead father that he didn’t arrange the deed. Eurydice kills herself and her son in fear Alexander might torment them, and Attalus tries to assassinate him, earning his own death. Alexander survives nonetheless to be hailed by the army as the new king, and he sets about leading a Greek coalition to war in Asia Minor against the mighty Persian Empire, ruled by Darius II (Harry Andrews), with a cohort of trusted helpmates, including his friends Cleitus (Gustavo Rojo), Ptolemy (Virgilio Teixeira), and Philotas (Rubén Rojo), and the latter’s father, Parmenion (Niall MacGinnis).
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Rossen might well have helped prepare ground for the oncoming boom in Italian peplum cinema (Baker and Andrews had both featured in another proto-peplum, Robert Wise’s film Helen of Troy, a year earlier). Rossen’s visual approach here rejects the plush decorative effects inspired by Renaissance and Victorian Academic art most concurrent Hollywood historical epics offered, in exchange for a spare, stripped-down look that often feels more like a rough draft for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s blend of the raw and the abstract in his historical films. The cinematographer was Robert Krasker, who had won an Oscar for his work on his famously skewed images on The Third Man (1949). His approach here couldn’t be more different, his location shooting portraying an ancient society that’s stout and aspiring in its important structures but abutting cities of shacks, and ruins shattered by warfare, as if we’ve stumbled into a neorealist work. Rossen’s classical Greece and Persia are harsh, sunstruck places. Armour, costumes, landscape are all intensely tactile. Battle scenes chaotic and dusty rather than spectacular and slickly choreographed. He shoots as much of the film outdoors as possible. Interior scenes are gently stylised with use of the widescreen frames and bright, unrealistic lighting to accentuate a fresco-like quality to his mise-en-scene, actors swathed in colourful costumes striking postures and angles against pale walls. On a dramatic level, Alexander The Great feels close to the stark, intimate quality a lot of straitened TV productions were wielding at the time. Cushing as Memnon strengthens the connection with that kind of TV drama, as Cushing had found fame in TV (bizarrely, his long-time Hammer Horror co-star Christopher Lee’s voice can be heard very distinctly dubbed over Dantine’s).
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Cushing is cunningly cast with his wiry, verbally dextrous intensity as Memon, who at first befriends Alexander but soon becomes a dogged enemy. Memnon makes hapless attempts at a principled form of dissent once he realises that Alexander wants not to be just a war chief but a grand autocratic power. Memon goes into exile rather than swear allegiance to him, but fighting as a mercenary for Darius, he finds himself abandoned and vastly outnumbered against Alexander’s invading horde at the Battle of the Granicus, the first big clash of the war. Rossen uses Memnon as a figure of commentary on the plight of anyone who, as Rossen did, tries to speak truth to power but finds power speaks its own truth right back. “You fight for pay,” Alexander tells him in contempt: “Earn it.” After having his attempts to plead quarter for his men denied by a contemptuous Alexander, he gets chopped down on the battlefield along with his fellow mercenaries. When Alexander encounters Barsine again, she’s captured human chattel, and Alexander forcibly beds her, only to seem ashamed of it afterwards. “You will be treated according to your rank,” he tells her, only for Barsine to point to another captive woman tossed into the street: “My rank is hers.”
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Barsine nonetheless becomes a convert to Alexander’s mission as well as his most loyal lover, suggesting Alexander isn’t the only person split by duality of nature. Indeed Rossen diagnoses it as a general state of being, the borders between binaries – male and female, body and spirit, east and west, between cultures and countries, and forms of political power – and colossal strength lies in the hands of anyone who offers people the unique shock of being led from one state of being to another. Soon after decrying Alexander from the shell-shocked ranks of the conquered, Barsine is leading a gang of camp followers with torches to help burn down captured Babylon as part of an exercise in world-renewing fervour. When Alexander haplessly protests such arson, Barsine accuses him of being seduced by Oriental opulence and abandoning his mission to remake the world in a Greek image, whilst his warriors become increasingly unhappy over a long exile and being asked to make concessions to the Persian lifestyle, with the courtly majus encouraging Alexander’s faith in himself as overlord and godhead. Finally Alexander’s world-conquering quest comes to a queasy halt in India when he quarrels with a drunken, resistant Cleitus, who berates Alexander for forgetting who he is and assuming god-king status: Alexander reactively slays Cleitus with a thrown spear, only to decide his friend was right as he mourns him, and direct the army back to Persia.
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Rossen incorporates some of the possibly apocryphal episodes from the various histories of Alexander, like the legendary scene of him cutting the Gordian knot, and the rhyming episodes of his saving his father’s life at Chaeronea and Cleitus saving Alexander in turn at Granicus, moments that ironically bind the players in roles of resentful gratitude. Rossen fully understands the ready-made symbolic potency of such tales, however. Rossen was obliged by 1950s censorship to avoid any overt mentions of Alexander’s supposed bisexuality. Rossen suggests it as artfully as he can however, in the faintly queeny fury of Pausanias when Philip humiliates him, suggesting the depth of his and Alexander’s connection, and in a framing when Alexander tries to hold his own conversation with Barsine with the rather prominent buttocks of a statue of a muscular male figure in the back of the frame, indicating his previous sexual experience. One of the bigger pieces of licence involves merging Alexander’s eventual wives, Roxana, a princess from Bactria near the Caspian Sea, and another, Stateira, a daughter of Darius.
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There’s much that’s fine to Alexander The Great, but much that’s awkward too, and it’s one of those films that feels all the more frustrating and interesting because of its evident failings. It’s a very different film to a later Burton-starring epic, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963), but like that film it was released to audiences in a severely curtailed form, and was plainly a work directorial ambition trying to offer tart and meaningful political commentary under the cover of historical dreaming. Rossen decried the severely edited version of the film that was eventually released, a version he said cut out many of his carefully developed psychological details and parallels, and leaves the latter part of Alexander’s adventure reduced to a few, paltry montage images. These include his invasion of India and deadly march back through the Iranian deserts, as well as the increasingly mean-spirited turns of the later campaign including the paranoia-induced assassination of Parmenion and Philotas. Other scenes don’t seem to have been edited properly and feel patched together. When Alexander has his first bout of epilepsy a clumsy show reel of earlier scenes of import is projected over his face, the sort of bad movie trick satirists have been making a meal of for decades.
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Casting Burton probably seemed a very natural move at the time, being as he was a young, virile actor with Shakespearean training. A perfect blend to put across a character accomplished in both warrior grit and intellectual attainment. He already knew his way around this kind of period fare after starring in The Robe (1953). Burton grasps Rossen’s concept of Alexander as a schismatic creature, able to convey both the haughty aristocrat and the overboiling incarnation of will, his blue eyes flashing with fanatical self-belief, and gift for projecting violence verbally, anticipating his turn in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) when he mocks his father during one of their quarrels, “This is the man preparing to pass from Europe into Asia, but he cannot even pass from one couch to another.” But his performance is another of those weirdly uneven turns his film career proved busy with. At 29, he was the right age, but already seems far too mature, and his performance nudges the overripe as Alexander becomes more overtly neurotic. He also seems uncomfortable providing heroic beefcake reclining in a miniskirt. Marlon Brando was shoved into a few too many poorly-fitting movie roles around the same time in this, but he might well have made a better meal of this part with his more galvanic talent for physical expression. That said, March is characteristically terrific as Philip with his mix of hot-blooded intransigence and intelligence. Darrieux (billed as “the French Star”) is effective as the proud, scheming Olympia, and Andrews surprisingly moving as Darius, whose doom is the perpetual partner in fate with Alexander’s triumphs.
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The film’s dramatic highpoint tellingly belongs not to Alexander himself but to Darius as he’s driven into the wilderness and finally stabbed to death by some of his bodyguards who hope for Alexander’s favour: Darius is left riddled with gory wounds, perched upon his mobile throne, lording it over a frontier wasteland. Alexander finds his body and reads a letter he leaves for him, imploring him to marry Roxane and bring peace, a lesson he takes too long to take to heart. But when Alexander does at last return to Babylon after his exhausting Indian campaign, and sets about trying to unite the worlds he’s conquered, Rossen uses it as a cue for perhaps the most graceful moment of his directing career. His camera surveys the ranks of Greek warriors being married to Persian ladies at the same time Alexander marries Roxane, all bedecked in bright hues and flowers, as if it’s not simply a wedding rite but an invocation of spring and renewal. This moment of florid romanticism dispels the warlike and desolating tension of what’s gone before and gives brief but eloquent voice to the concept of fusion, realised on all levels, breaking down the many boundaries the narrative has charted, all realised in one gliding, unifying camera movement. But Alexander is soon delivered up to fate and cheated of the chance to see the seed he’s planted grow, as he’s stricken with illness and wastes away before his subjects, and Rossen’s more characteristic tone of noble fatalism coincides with Alexander’s recorded pith perfectly. He responds to the question of who his empire will pass on to with, “To…the strongest.” You can all but hear Willie Stark, Eddie Felson, and the rest of Rossen’s brilliant yet fatally flawed heroes laughing without sentiment, only sympathy.

Standard
1950s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Historical, Japanese cinema, Religious

The Birth of Japan (1959)

Nippon Tanjō ; aka The Three Treasures
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Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Screenwriters: Ryuzo Kikushima, Toshio Yasumi

By Roderick Heath

There’s no shortage of movies that borrow from and remix mythology. That sort of thing has been the backbone of film industries, from westerns to Italian peplum or sword-and-sandal films and Chinese wu xia action flicks, through to fare like Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, the Harry Potter and Star Wars series, and superhero blockbusters, all of which depend to some extend on appropriating and recontextualising themes, images, and ideas harvested from the most ancient storytelling forms. And yet, serious, faithful, accomplished screen versions of authentic mythology aren’t that common. The best-known examples include the Greek mythology vehicles for Ray Harryhausen’s effects, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981), takes on Arthurian legend like Excalibur (1981), Biblical tales like Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956), and Fritz Lang’s monumental version of Die Nibelungen (1924). After watching Die Nibelungen a few years ago I became interested in finding other ambitious, scrupulous takes on such stories, particularly from beyond Hollywood and Western European cinema. Making these kinds of movie usually demands money and resources beyond most filmmakers. The Soviet Union produced a handful of authentic takes on national folklore, like Ilya Muromets (1956). The Indian and Chinese film industries have produced their own derivations of works like the Ramayana and Journey to the West. But most of these remain fairly obscure outside their homelands.
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The Birth of Japan is an intriguing, hugely enjoyable example of such mythological filmmaking produced with heft and class, recounting some fundamental tales of Shinto creation myths and local cultural traditions, given a makeover in keeping with the epic movie styles of the 1950s and the social upheavals that had been gripping Japan since the end of World War II. Purportedly made as a home-grown answer to The Ten CommandmentsThe Birth of Japan was a major production for Toho Studios, which hired the proven hit-making team of director Hiroshi Inagaki and actor Toshiro Mifune. Inagaki came from a stage background and had been a child actor, before starting his film career at Nikkatsu Studio in the 1920s and debuting as a director at the age of 22. By the 1950s he had become one of the country’s most prolific and admired commercial filmmakers, alternating big-budget historical dramas with smaller films depicting working-class characters and children. The first of the two versions he made of Life of Matsu the Untamed, also called The Rickshaw Man, released in 1943, has been voted one of the ten best Japanese films of all time, whilst his second, released in 1958, won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion. Inagaki captured an Oscar in 1955 for the first instalment of his highly successful trilogy about Miyamoto Musashi, also starring Mifune, and the two men were just coming off another notable collaboration, Samurai Saga (1958), a cross-cultural adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac.
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Inagaki’s career faltered eventually, for similar reasons to those Akira Kurosawa confronted in the 1970s, as his brand of filmmaking was held to be dated and too expensive, and unlike Kurosawa his story didn’t have a happy ending, as he became embittered and drank heavily up until his death at 74 in 1980. Inagaki became an increasingly stylised filmmaker in his later career, his theatrical roots flaunted as he incorporated sequences of song and dance with a quality akin to pan-cultural curation, and happily used the lush colour of the period to realise an affectedly illustrative style in strong contrast to the crisp, subtly stylised naturalism of Kenji Mizoguchi’s late work and Kurosawa’s cool, stark expanses. The Birth of Japan gave free rein to such an approach, as the film unfolds through counterpointing Shinto creation myths with the more worldly narrative of Prince Yamato Takeru, tracing the legendary divine origins of the Japanese Imperial family and some of the iconography attendant to the royal throne. The three treasures mentioned in one of the film’s alternate titles and featured in the several vignettes are still part of the closely-guarded coronation regalia of the Emperors, only ever glimpsed by the Emperor and a select number of Shinto priests: the sword Kusanagi or “Grasscutter,” the mirror Yata no Kagami, and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama.
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The film opens with the creation of the world and humanity as recounted into Shinto belief. One intriguing aspect of The Birth of Japan from a western perspective is how familiar some aspects of the legends found within are, from its Adam and Eve-like first lovers to the martial drama of national unification revolving around singular magical swords. The opening depicts the formation of heaven in the midst of a chaotic universe, and the advent of the pantheon on Shinto gods and goddesses. Two of them, the male and female gods Izanagi and Izanami (Shizuko Muramatsu), are assigned to try and make the drowned world below heaven into something solid and inhabitable. Astride a rainbow that bridges the two realms, Izanagi stirs forms of boiling mass to emerge from the waters by waving a spear. The gods visit the resulting land form, called Onokoro. Finding themselves defined in mortal form as they descend to Earth, they perform the first ever marriage rite by circling the island. Eons later, this tale is recounted by an old woman storyteller (Haruko Sugimura) to the citizens of Yamato, a kingdom on Honshu named after the clan of the area’s rulers, who would later become the imperial dynasty of the whole of Japan. The storyteller’s recitations of the creation tales contrast and punctuate the central drama, which involves the Prince of Yamato, Ōsu (Mifune), son of the elderly Emperor Keikō (Ganjirô Nakamura).
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Returning from a successful hunt, Prince Ōsu is told his older brother (Hajime Izu) is cavorting with one of his father’s serving girls in a gross breach of family honour. Finding them together in a hut, the Prince brutalises his brother and drives him into exile. The Emperor is coming increasingly under the control of his second wife’s clan, led by the devious patriarch Ootomo (Eijirô Tôno), and when the Prince’s brother tries to return, Ootomo kills him, and lets the Emperor think Ōsu did the deed, so the Emperor keeps sending his son off on risky military ventures, hoping he’ll be killed or at least kept away for a long time. Meanwhile, as the Ootomos gain greater control, a law banning marriages between people of different local clans and states results in many being executed or exiled. The Prince’s first assignment is to take on some a fearsome pair of brother robber barons, the Kumasos (Takashi Shimura and Kôji Tsuruta), and bring their territory under Yamato control. When he does manage to bring the Kumasos down, the younger brother, a more reasonable and philosophical man, suggests to the Prince with his dying words that he be known from now on as Yamato Takeru, variably translated as the Strongest or the Bravest in the Land, and begs him to bring peace to the warring nation by unifying it under a strong hand.
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Like much mythology from around the world, the legends portrayed here have political and religious motives. Much of this lore was synthesised to provide divine origins and stature for the Japanese Imperial family, as well as offering conduits connecting human order to the celestial, wrapping certain ritual dictums in a tangled knot with historical facts. In the original tales Yamato Takeru stands as a culture hero with many ready analogues in western traditions, including Hercules, with whom he shared a ferocious temper and great strength, Arthur, as a unifying warrior-poet associated with a divinely invested sword, and several protagonists of the Trojan tales, immortalised by great feats and powers but brought low by his failure to properly heed the Gods. In legends codified in the Kojiki or Book of Ancient Things, Yamato Takeru really did kill his brother, ripping off his arms no less, and eventually died when he unwittingly picked a fight with a local god who struck him down with disease. Other histories neglected such piquant details, and The Birth of Japan exploits this wriggle room to revise legend with contemporary resonances and personal meaning for Inagaki, toning Takeru down and making the wayward Prince more a misunderstood hero, rueing his reputation for headstrong ferocity whilst evolving into a statesman who finally pronounces his faith that more can be achieved by talking than with force of arms.
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One immediate subtext inferred by the title and borne out by the approach to its hero is the film is also about the rebirth of Japan as post-war state, striving to leave behind a reputation for bellicosity, trying to better understand itself and achieve a new blend of ancient and modern precepts. Inagaki emphasises construction, glimpsing the Yamato citizens building new and increasingly ambitious structures as their city-state grows, nodding to the postwar reconstruction process. Inagaki tries to intuitively depict ancient Japan, a time before much of the familiar cultural paraphernalia of the country evolved – Kusunagi, for instance, is no katana blade, but a more primitive type of sword. The narrative, suggesting the government is being twisted out of shape by a malign and prejudice-mongering set of usurpers, has its own suggestive aspect. Inagaki’s fondness for conflicted, down-to-earth protagonists manifests as he  remakes the aristocratic titan as a figure striving to find self-control, a man who loves the company of his fellow soldiers, and struggles against creeping forces of prejudice and xenophobia he sees starting to infect Yamato under the repudiates the intermarriage ban. The ban sees his loyal lieutenant Yakumo (Kô Mishima) and his lover Azami (Kumi Mizuno), who has been mobbed and exiled by her people, forced to romance in secret until the Prince takes them under his wing.
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The Birth of Japan bears a notable relationship with Toho’s Godzilla (1954) and other kaiju eiga films, with two of that film’s most vital collaborators contributing to Inagaki’s film: the special effects provided by Eiji Tsuburaya and music by Akira Ifukube. The fascinating imagery of the opening depiction of the Heaven and Earth being created wield a majestic flavour although they maintain Inagaki’s stylised approach by retaining a look reminiscent of paintings and theatrical backdrops, swirling mists in the void giving way to boiling waters and thrusting rock piles, out of which are born cosmic entities. Tsuburaya’s effects work had a strong effect on fantastical styles in Japanese film and television. The beloved ‘70s Japanese TV take on Journey to the West, Monkey, which in dubbed versions would become the first exposure to Asian mythology and culture for a generation of young westerners, bore the influence strongly in its craggy, misty fantastical landscapes and ingenious effects. As he had touched on in his Musashi trilogy, Inagaki here becomes bolder in utilising anti-realistic set design and special effects to suggest the presence of the ethereal and a protoplasmic sense of reality becoming real. He rhymes the barren, protean landscape Izanami and Izanagi first tread upon and the volcanic pool where Takeru meets his end, blasted cradles of birth where new dimensions open up after deeds of creation and extermination.
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Takeru’s film journey includes the most famous episodes from his folklore, most particularly one in which he dresses as a serving girl to defeat his foes, an image beloved of classic ukiyo-e artists, an adventure in cross-dressing that fascinatingly serves the purpose of giving the hero a feminine side, a purposeful humiliation that liberates him from the dark and marauding side of his masculine character. The Prince is driven to such lengths after a successful sneak attack by the Kumasos’ warriors with flaming arrows kills many of his men, and gets his chance to strike back when the Kumasos and their people throw an orgiastic celebration in victory. Clad in a woman’s clothes, the Prince infiltrates the Kumasos’ fortress and gets close enough to stab the older brother to death. Inagaki extends the gender-bending joke when the Kumasos find the veild Takeru more attractive than one of the other maids. After slaying the older brother, Takeru and the young duel in a ferocious sword-fight, and after he wins the younger Kumaso bestows upon the Prince his new name and destiny. Takeru’s ploy here allows an otherwise bloodless conquest of the Kumaso territory, and he’s able to return home to his father. But he soon finds himself ordered on another perilous mission, and begins to despair of his father’s love and of ever gaining a safe footing in the world. Visiting his aunt, Princess Yamato-hime (Kinuyo Tanaka), who serves as High Priestess in a temple of the sun goddess Amaterasu, placates him by giving him Kusanagi, which she tells him his father sent to him to protect him. Takeru is cheered by this, although one of the Priestess’s shrine maidens, Princess Otohachibana (Yôko Tsukasa), realises she’s lying. Otohichibana and Takeru fall hopelessly in love with each-other, but cannot be married because of her religious vows.
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Whilst Takeru’s story unfolds, Inagaki returns at times to depictions of the gods and the ongoing making of the world, particularly the stately Amaterasu herself (Setsuko Hara) and her wild brother, god of sea and storms, Susanoo (Mifune again). Both gods are counted as ancestors of the first Emperor Jimmu and so of Takeru himself. Susanoo’s penchant for mean pranks culminates when he tosses a dead horse in the midst of Amaterasu’s circle of maidens who sew lengths of shimmering material that resemble the sun’s rays, accidentally killing one of the maidens. Offended and infuriated, Amaterasy retreats into a cave, taking the sun’s light and power with her and leaving everything in darkness, the Earth overrun by evil forces and the gods in heaven bored and fatigued. Trying to think of a way to lure Amaterasu out again, the gods eventually decide to throw a wild party, so the sun goddess will emerge to see what she’s missing. To stir laughter and high spirits, they get the goddess Uzume (Nobuko Otowa) to perform a saucy dance, whilst other gods make the mirror and jewel that will become two parts of the Imperial regalia to reflect Amaterasu’s reflection back at her when she looks out, to make her think another goddess is taking her place and make her jealous. The ruse works and the sun returns to the world. Susanoo, banished for making trouble, sucks all the water out of the world in his incessant bratty crying, but eventually gains control and begins wandering the Earth.
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Inagaki has Takeru’s aunt make the connection between Susanoo’s bratty lack of emotional control and Takeru’s tendency to feel sorry for himself, turning the film, after a fashion, into a tract on what we might now fashionably call toxic masculinity; the act of maturation is the process of gaining self-control and stoic virtues. As well as genealogy the divine vignettes are also a form of psychologising, contextualising Takeru as a man lost in the most complex and cruel world of humans by comparison to the outlandish passions and gifts of the gods, and also are explicitly presented as structures though which people communicate values and ideas as a common inheritance of parable. In the last vignette, Susanoo comes to a village where the inhabitants live in cringing fear of a monstrous, eight-headed dragon. The village chieftain Anazuchi (Akira Sera) and his wife explain that the monster has already eaten seven of their daughters, and only have left, Kushinada (Misa Uehara). Susanoo vows to protect her and transforms her into a comb, lodging her in his hair whilst he ventures out to do battle with the monster, which he baits into getting drunk with vats of sake. Attacking the woozy beast, Susanoo manages to pierce its stout tail repeatedly, bleeding it to death. As he hacks open the dragon, he finds the sword Kusanagi lodged in its flesh. Susanoo presented it as a present in apology to Amaterasu and married Kushinada.
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Susanoo’s duel with the dragon is the most colourfully visualised and familiarly fantastical sequence in the film, anticipating some of Harryhausen’s sequences like the battle with the Hydra in Jason and the Argonauts, although Tsuburaya’s puppetry effects for realising the dragon aren’t nearly as sophisticated as Harryhausen’s stop-motion work. The dragon does bear a strong resemblance of Tsubraya’s work animating the monstrous Gidorah in later Godzilla entries. The faintly comic-erotic touch of Susanoo transforming Kushinada and wearing her strikes a droll note before Ifukube’s music turns dark and momentous and Tsuburaya announces the monster’s arrival with a waterspout and rainstorm. The grotesquely wriggling beasts cleaves a path through the sea and arrives to sup greedily upon the vats of sake. Here Susanoo transforms himself, from lawless and chaotic figure to saviour and defender, whilst confronting the dragon, distinguishing divine order from the primal terrors unleashed by Amaterasu’s retreat and giving new moral form to the world. Takeru mimics his evolution as he tries to forge new alliances and modes of diplomacy, but he finds his reputation hard to shake. When he’s visited by an envoy of the Owari, Princess Miyazu (Kyôko Kagawa), she, fearful for her aged and crippled father and their kingdom, tries to poison Takeru with poisoned sake – a subtle rhyme with the use of drink to disarm the dragon. Miyazu warns him off drinking it as she realises in listening to him that he’s a sane and decent man. Frustrate by Otohachibana’s hysterical repudiation of him, Takeru begins romancing Miyazu, but Otohachibana seeks him out on hearing of their impending nuptials, and this time succumb to profane passion.
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Ootomo’s sons and pretenders meanwhile visit a local warlord, Kurohiko (Jun Tazaki), and talk him into killing Takeru for them. Kurohiko’s fiefdom lies in the shadow of Mount Fuji, which Takeru has never seen before – Tsuburaya’s model version of the mountain depicts it before it blew its top off, smoking and smouldering with baleful rumblings. Kurohiko tries to kill Takeru when on a boar hunt in the grassy plains under the great mountain. Otohachibana pursues him to warn him, and they become trapped as Kurohiko’s men set fire to the grass, threatening to engulf the lovers. Takeru coins the magic sword’s name as he uses it to hack away the grass in a space surrounding them, to try and rob the fire of fuel. Takeru finds quickly the sword has the power to summon wind and turns the flames back on his enemies, allowing him to rejoin his warriors and slay Kurohiko, who vengefully tells Takeru that his father ordered his assassination. Fate claims is price as Takeru, his bride, and his army sail on their way to another mission only for a terrible storm to strike the fleet and threaten all aboard with destruction: Otohichibana realises that it’s punishment for her breaking her vows, and she throws herself into the ocean. Her sacrifices works, pacifying the storm, and Takeru stares into the water where she sank, which glows an eerie green. Heartbroken and wearied, he decides to take his men back to Yamato to let them see their loved ones and to beg for an end to his wandering, warlike exile.
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The most awkward aspect of The Birth of Japan is also its most interesting: the structure is made diffuse by the alternation of the main story of Yamato Takeru and the more archaic, symbolic myths, and try as they might, Inagaki and the screenwriters don’t always counterpoint them effectively. Aspects of the central story, whilst potentially as complex as Inagaki managed in the Musashi movies, don’t really go anywhere, like Takeru’s foiled relationship with Miyazu, who becomes the keeper of Kusunagi after the Prince gives it to her to protect. Mifune’s presence in the dual roles of Susanoo and Takeru does a lot to yoke the hemisphere together, however; although much less famed than Mifune’s collaborations with Kurosawa, his work with Inagaki is the definition of a great director-star collaboration, and The Birth of Japan depends greatly on the actor’s charisma and physical prowess as well as his ability to project emotional complexity in a role that might easily have been reduced to a heroic blank. Surrounding him is a startling survey of well-known actors, some, like Mifune’s costars from Kurosawa films like Shimura and Uehara, only appearing briefly if in totemic parts. Casting Hara, so often the lovelorn lovely at the heart of Yasujiro Ozu’s films, as the proud sun goddess has a faint quality of in-joke, whilst Tono, so often a great villain, makes you hate his conniving Ootomo with great efficiency. Inagaki’s scenes of battle and spectacle are superb, like the fight between Takeru and the younger Kumaso.
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And yet some of the film’s best moments are meditative, as when the Yamato warriors listen to one of the men playing a wistful flute under the shadow of the simmering Fuji, whilst Takeru and Otohichibana lounge in brief respite from their angst, a sequence in which Inagaki seems to be grasping directly at some kernel of folk-memory, his sense of a culture of musical performance as the truest connecting thread of his national sensibility. This is also the only time Inagaki makes a direct, present-tense correlation between the human and divine levels comes when he dissolves from Takeru and Otohichibana embracing in the night to the sight of Uzume dancing for the gods, signalling the accord of wistful, fleeting happiness and the role of the dancing goddess as the bringer of dawn, before the day brings its sad duties. The relative innocence and playfulness Inagaki emphasises in the anecdotes of the gods in their moments of vanity, savagery, silliness, and eventually heroism, moreover offsets the tendency of the human characters to take themselves too seriously. Even the sometimes awful Susanoo is an overgrown brat at first. Inagaki’s sense of the Shinto inheritance is essentially a joyous one, busy with characters who amass into an oddball community maintaining a pacific balance in the universe.
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Only the film’s very end suggests a truly solemn sense of spiritual awe, and that comes, perhaps meaningfully, when the offence to human and divine order finally stirs cosmic wrath. Upon returning to Yamato, Takeru and his men decide to leave again and continue with their peace-making quest rather than stir up trouble at home. But the Ootomos lead out an army to meet them, pretending to be a friendly welcoming committee, before attacking in treacherous fashion, sparking a bloody battle on the hills of Yamato that rages until only Takeru and Yakumo are left. The final eruption of violent chaos makes a mockery of Takeru’s peacemaking plans but also provides his warrior crew with their moment of sacrificial grandeur, as his men link arms and form a human chain to protect their leader from arrows that skewer them instead. Takeru meanwhile fights to save Yakumo so he can get home to Azami, ripping paths through the Ootomo warriors. Yakumo manages to escape after slaying a few pursuers, whilst Takeru crawls on his hands and knees to a pool on a mountain peak to drink, only for lurking archers to riddle him from afar with shafts. The slaying of Takeru’s mortal form sees his soul emerge as a white bird that flies high above Yamato and unleashing a deus-ex-machina spectacle.
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A volcanic eruption spews rivers of lava and cracks the ground, swallowing up the Ootomo forces, and the survivors who make it down to the shoreline are washed away by tsunamis crashing upon the land. It’s a tremendous finale, courtesy of Tsuburaya’s technical ebullience as he plainly tries to match the parting of the Red Sea scene in The Ten Commandments, delivering the villains their comeuppance on a grand scale. But it’s also a purposeful invention by the filmmakers appended to Takeru’s legend, turning him from victim of hubris into the spirit of justice, with a reverent attitude to the instability of the Japanese landscape itself, trapped between peaks that unleash hellfire and oceans that swell and crash, not seen as mere natural chaos but as a different kind of order, evoking the state of existence for the humans who dwell between the consuming extremes of their own natures. Takeru is reborn as exemplar for the citizens of Yamato. Ifukube’s career-best work might be found here, too, as he avoids the usual clichés of epic scoring, instead filling the soundtrack with a soaring chorus both eerie and majestic at once, signifying the spiritual power behind the surface chaos, before the white bird wings its way to heaven, glimpsed amidst sun-stroked clouds.

Standard
1950s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Western

The Searchers (1956)

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Director: John Ford
Screenwriter: Frank Nugent

By Roderick Heath

John Ford was hardly lacking in fame and acclaim when he released The Searchers. He’d already captured four Oscars as Best Director, proof he stood for his peers as the most admired of American filmmaking talents. Given how rarely Westerns were given such awards and serious critical interest, Ford seemed to be looking for almost the opposite of acclaim. He was chasing something more elusive, something lodged fast and discomforting, like a thorn under skin or a shard of niggling shrapnel. Ford returned from World War II without quite a few of his cherished illusions, but also nursing some ambitions he set about making realities. He moved to gain a level of independence from the Hollywood studio system by setting himself up as a producer-director for his own Argosy Pictures outfit. Keeping up that kind of freedom was to prove a tall order in the following years, but Ford began to come into his own in terms of how we think of him now, as the man who declared bluntly later in life after a career of diverse movies, “I make Westerns.” That was the genre he had found early success in with The Iron Horse (1926) but scarcely returned to during the 1930s, until Stagecoach (1939), a film that not only provided Ford with a big hit and suddenly earned new critical interest and respect for the genre, but gave a boost to its leading man John Wayne.
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Wayne had been lingering in cheap oatsers since his initial breakthrough The Big Trail (1930) had proved a box office disappointment. During the war Wayne’s star had only grown brighter, leaving him poised to become Hollywood’s biggest draw, but he found himself in conflict with his former pal and mentor Ford, as he’d failed to make good on his promises to join up, leading to tensions on the set of They Were Expendable (1945), Ford’s first civilian film in several years. Ford made good on his desire to make Westerns with My Darling Clementine (1946), starring Henry Fonda and evoking the romanticised version of the OK Corral shootout he claimed to have heard from Wyatt Earp’s own lips decades before. The past seemed to be on Ford’s mind too, as he directed Wayne to mimic his old leading man Harry Carey Snr in some places. Despite their personal differences, Ford and Wayne soon proved the kind of teaming that makes for movie legend in the following few years as Wayne became the sturdy frame Ford hung his Cavalry trilogy – Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950) – upon. Ford was trying to reprocess the generational experience of the war into terms that could be contained and mediated through the Westerns and tragicomic dramas he liked. His films from this period are filled with sundered but reunited families, bands of soldierly brothers, gatherings of old former comrades, old enemies finding common cause, all trying to get on with nation-building enterprises.
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Native Americans had been provided as cosmic foils in Stagecoach, but whilst they were still often the enemies in the Cavalry trilogy, their situation was no longer so one-dimensional: in Fort Apache they’re provoked by arrogance, treachery, and double-dealing into warfare, in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon they’re neighbours to be disarmed rather than battled, and in Rio Grande a cruel renegade is hunted and surgically taken down. Wayne made one more Western in this phase, Wagon Master (1950), without Wayne, and then took a break from the genre. Ford’s Irish fantasia The Quiet Man (1953) proved his biggest hit to date and gained him his fourth Oscar. But skirmishes with Fonda during the making of Mister Roberts (1955) proved a troubling rupture. Fonda resisted Ford’s desire to follow his usual instinct and scuff up the property, for Fonda wanted to retain the essentially noble spirit of the source play. Frustration eventually, so the legend goes, saw Ford punch his leading man and retreat into a drinking binge that brought on serious illness. To recover, after some forays into TV directing, he looked back to the Western again to find some project that could expiate the poisonous, near-fatal experience. He found the project in a novel by Alan LeMay, who usually wrote scripts for Ford’s rival, and occasional nemesis, Cecil B. DeMille. The Searchers was well-received and successful upon release, but by this time movie and TV screens were so busy with Westerns it was hard to stand out. Only a few years later as Ford became one of the select rank of heralded auteurs in studio cinema, and as young movie lovers grew up and became critics and directors, would it start gaining the reputation it has now as a pinnacle of popular cinema.
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There’s a telling and fascinating conjunction in Ford swinging from a disaster like the Mister Roberts shoot into making his greatest film, and it becomes clearer in concentrating more closely upon the troubled soul of the subsequent film. The Searchers is a study in finding grace in the face of cruelty and hate in large part because it’s coming from a bleak and stymied place. Only cinema, that pool of light between black, rigid fields, offers relief. Small wonder the film starts and ends like it famously does, perfect black broken open and then resealed. The opening, which sees Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returning to family after years away at war, poses the film as the last of Ford’s homecoming-from-war movies. The setting is Texas, 1868, although the location is Monument Valley. Usually Ford’s returning veterans have the benefit of fellowship; Ethan is solitary, embittered, giving away his awards and regalia to kids and negotiating the many psychic eggshells spread about the domicile of his brother Aaron Edwards’ (Walter Coy) frontier homestead. Here also lives Aaron’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) and their three children, Lucy (Pippa Scott), Ben (Robert Lyden), and Debbie (Lana Wood), as well as the adopted and raised family member, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a lanky lad with Cherokee heritage (“At least that’s what they tell me”).
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In Ford’s earlier Westerns the wandering men of fortune were usually helping out the people who wanted to put down roots. Here the gulf is muted but unbridgeable, despite Ethan’s seeming desire to reintegrate himself at last, or at least to the extent he’s prepared to be, which isn’t much. He has mysterious wealth in a bag of fresh-minted dollars and still considers himself to be a under oath to the defeated Confederate States. Lucy is the first bobby-soxer, trying to snatch her moments with her beau, Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.). Judging by the way she folds Ethan’s coat and swaps a charged look with him, Martha might well have been his lover before Ethan left to fight. Ethan, Martin, and Brad are quickly pressed into helping a posse led by local minister and lawman Rev. Capt. Samuel Johnson Clayton (Ward Bond), after some cattle are stolen away, presumably by a roving Native American band. But when they find the cattle dead, Ethan realises the purpose was to lure away defenders from the ranches, for a “murder raid” of punitive action against settlers.
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By the time Ethan and Martin return, they find the Edwards homestead ablaze, Lucy and Debbie missing, and the other three killed. Clayton’s posse continues after the Indian band, who prove to be a tribe of Comanche under the glowering leadership of Chief Scar or Cicatriz (Henry Brandon). After barely escaping an ambush by their quarries, the posse breaks up and heads home, leaving only Ethan, Martin, and Brad to keep up the pursuit. When Ethan finds Lucy’s dead body, discarded by the Comanche, Brad gets killed riding into their camp in a mad charge, and the other two lose track of the tribe in snow, forcing them to break off the pursuit. After being briefly taken in by Brad’s parents (John Qualen and Olive Carey) and sister Laurie (Vera Miles), who carries a torch for Martin, Ethan and Martin set out again to locate the band after receiving a possible clue to their whereabouts. Martin becomes increasingly worried that Ethan doesn’t intend to rescue Debbie anymore, but plans to kill her in case she’s been “living with a buck.” After several years on the trail, thanks to a Mexican trader, Figueroa (Antonio Moreno), Ethan and Martin finally gain access to Scar’s camp and find him not only aware of who they are, but all too happy to taunt them with the scalps of their murdered family members on his spear, and the sight of a now-grown Debbie (Natalie Wood) become one of his wives.
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The set-up here – the ragged warrior and the settled family, the pining matriarchs and hero-worshipping boy – is reminiscent of Shane (1953). Ford might well have internalised that hit, that most aesthetically purified and self-consciously mythic of Westerns, trying to decide if it meant anything to him or not, and proceeds from the realisation that George Stevens wanted his fabled concept just a little too unspoilt. Shane lived and died for the sake of letting civilisation getting on with its follies, stirring its contradictions but not despoiling them. No blonde seraphim to stir hearts and take the rap here. Ford speeds through that work in miniature and comes out the other side to leave desolation and terror where the little house in the prairie stood. Ethan is no-one’s idea of a white knight. But the actual aesthetic antagonist to be wrestled with here is My Darling Clementine and the Cavalry trilogy, their perfection as a summary of Ford’s concept of the west revisited, tested, and finally endorsed again, but only after the deepest agonistes. Martin is the family’s adopted son, regarded with squint suspicion by Ethan when he sits down to eat at the dinner table: “Fella could mistake you for a half-breed.” Ethan’s jagged, reactionary-racist sensibility is already fully on display. So too is his humane streak, as he rescued Martin as a child from the wreckage of a massacre. Martin and Ethan’s relationship compels the film even as they seem to barely tolerate each-other’s company and even at points seem to be mortal enemies, as Ethan explicitly denies Martin any kind of familial status to him early on, but also becomes almost a caricature of the hard-bitten, tough-love paterfamilias.
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The Searchers’ DNA is scattered today throughout the length and breadth of contemporary cinema, from the dreamlike transpositions of the Star Wars films to the grimy, pensive immediacy of Taxi Driver (1976) and all their descendants in turn. The greater part of The Searchers’ power and vitality wells precisely from contradiction. It’s a film where the hero is also its villain, where the American landscape is both worshipped and regarded as suspicious and duplicitous. The narrative itself rests upon contradiction, as the characters tread the length and breadth of the American heartland and yet find their reckoning mere miles from where the hunt started. It’s no cutely liberal take on the Western like Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1953), but that’s precisely what allows it to dig into the dark side of the American enterprise, capturing the marauding mindset of men like Ethan and Scar, who both operate out of motives of vengeance and tribal identity. Perhaps that’s why Ford socked Fonda over Mister Roberts and then turned around to make this: a little voice in the back of Ford’s mind insisting the only way you could grapple with what infuriates you was not to play wise elder but to swallow the hot coal.
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Ethan is reminiscent of Jesse James as a veteran whose post-war crime spree seems to him at least have been a mere extension of the conflict, as it’s hinted Ethan might have been supporting himself in a similar way. “You match a lot of descriptions,” Clayton notes when Ethan won’t take his deputising oath because “it wouldn’t be legal.” Later, he guns down the duplicitous Futterman (Peter Mamakos), a trader who sells Ethan and Martin a clue for gold but who then tries to kill them to get more, and his helpmates with cool thoroughness, so much so that later he and Martin are suspected of murder. Ethan and Scar are the frontier death-dream incarnate. There’s a tonal reflex reminiscent of horror cinema in some of The Searchers, particularly the creepy moment when Scar’s shadow falls upon the child Debbie in the graveyard where her grandparents are buried and soon too will be the rest of her family, and the rhyming scene at the climax as he looms over Debbie and Martin. The bookending doorway shots feel more than a little inspired by Hugo Fregonese’s Apache Drums (1951), a film which transmitted its producer Val Lewton’s psychological and folkloric sensibility into the Western, and perhaps Ford absorbed a little of that sensibility along with the technique. The struggle for domain that takes place in the course of the movie is physical but also subsists on this atavistic level, fought on the level of symbols and totems, to which in a way Debbie is reduced often throughout.
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Scar’s spear loaded with scalps, including those of the Edwards clan and Martin’s mother, is held out as a triumphant standard, in the grip of Debbie, another captured prize. Ethan removes any dividing line between himself and his enemy as he stoops to claiming Scar’s scalp. But the laws of tribalism negate the need for moral discernment. What I do to you is righteous and what you do to me is savagery. Ford’s celebration of space throughout, the grandiose forms and climes of the Monument Valley locations and all their primeval strength, is constantly contradicted and complicated. Ethan is all too aware the posse’s been drawn out just far enough to stop them fending off the murder raid; the vastness becomes a trap under such circumstances. Scar’s tribe are able to remain ever so tauntingly ahead of Ethan and Martin. The open area around the Edwards homestead harbours enemies advancing unseen and nightmarish. The bluffs of Monument Valley are a canvas to describe the tension: they stand grand and worshipful but also dominate and dwarf Ford’s characters as the posse rides out to chase down. Ford constantly captures his actors with the rock forms behind or looming over them, trying to cage their elastic physicality, their volatility, their challenge to nature.
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Stagecoach was a legend that skirted Monument Valley but found its stage in the open ground; The Searchers inhabits vertiginous zones where the moral danger seems mapped out in canyons and caves. Scar’s tribe exploit the folds of land to surround the posse, riding along parallel ridges, whilst the posse use a river as a defence. Ethan and Martin wander a continent but the first time they attain their goal they’re chased inside a cave that seems like a zone of moral nullity, a cave that looms again at the end as Ethan hunts down Debbie with apparent murderous intent. This oppressive use of the landscape is particularly apparent in a uniquely vicious scene in which the posse, still in the early stage of its pursuit, come across the body of a dead brave, actors and rock forms constantly caught in dialogue. Spiritual violence is stirred: Brad picks up a rock and pummels the corpse, but Ethan has a more exacting sense of justice, shooting out the body’s eyes so that the dead man’s spirit must roam the afterlife in blind desolation.
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Ford’s frontier homes and outposts have low, slightly oppressive ceilings (one of many lessons Orson Welles took from Ford: in cinema, the sets don’t just frame drama but generate it), and his camera framings obey the rectilinear demarcations of the architecture as much as his exterior framings respond to the jagged upthrust of the land. Here cotillions form and rituals of marriage and justice unfold, obeying their own social architecture, cordons far more unyielding than any cavalry column into which Ethan and Martin crash upon their second return home. Years of fruitless wandering, is reported via a letter Martin writes to Laurie, a missive she’s obliged to read out to her parents and to the letter’s deliverer, the guitar-picking, haw-hawing local flash Charlie McCory (Ken Curtis). A great chunk of narrative and time is ingeniously compressed this way, whilst making other points, as Charlie presents a romantic threat to Martin whilst Laurie’s increasing exasperation with her peripatetic beau boils over at the news that Martin picked himself up a wife. Accidentally, of course, as Martin thought he was trying to trade for a blanket but found he’d purchased a squaw instead, a woman he dubs “Look” (Beulah Archuletta) and whose presence, helpful as she tries to be, he can’t stand. When he and Ethan got the idea of asking her about Scar, she became fearful and left them, and they later found her dead in an Indian village, attacked and left in carnage by a Cavalry patrol, leaving the perplexing question as to whether Look was merely trying to get away or was trying to help Martin.
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The Searchers is as much a film about generation conflict as Rebel Without A Cause (1955), which Wood had starred in the year before, and its many followers. One reason, perhaps, why so many young men watched the film and found in its something like their cinematic bible, over and beyond its imagistic and storytelling force. Home, the locus of simplicity and order, is shattered early in the film, and tensions were already brewing; gruff pseudo-father and maturing pseudo-son are then obliged to chase the ghost of common meaning. So easy to see the conflict between Ethan and Martin as the uncomprehending gap between a generation of fathers who had been off to war to defend a settled world and sons who wanted to renew it, and the bewilderment and sullen anxiety of the young in the face of their elders’ mysterious prejudices and unreasoning demarcations. Despite his many protestations to disinterest in Martin’s lot, Ethan acts like his father – one of the great bits of movie business comes in the cantina scene in which Ethan keeps foiling Martin’s attempts to get a drink of liquor even as the conversation involves something else entirely. It’s a moment that’s just as revealing and even more cunningly parsed as the more famous scene with Martha folding Ethan’s coat: bonds of family, of love, of instinctive connection take place on a level that’s near-subliminal. Moreover, this sort of thing illustrates exactly what a filmmaker like Ford can conjure, and any great filmmaker, over and above even the layers of Frank Nugent’s already tight-wound script.
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Martin seems exempt from the ranks of tribalism as such identities are melded in his frame as well as nullified by his youthful openness. Ethan and Martin represent a dichotomy of experience commonly seen in Ford’s films but usually safely contained by social constructs like the military, the youth learning about the world and passing through baptisms of fire, and the older, hardened, life-scarred man. Look to one of Ford’s early films like Seas Beneath (1931), where the young man has his first erotic experience with a senorita and the older man is the stalwart captain shepherding all through the curtain of fire. Here the rhythms are off-kilter, the figurations twisted. The captain is a landlubber Ahab chasing after a girl who may or may not be his daughter from a transgressive romance, and the young man, played by Hunter with his stark blue eyes and passion play physique as a beautiful gelding, never gets time to get it on with Laurie or the flamenco dancer making eyes at him in the frontier cantina. Sexual transgression lurks behind so much of The Searchers, in the barely-coded anxiety over miscegenation and sexual slavery, but its tenor is rather one of neurotic severance from the erotic. The ascending order of racist neurosis is invoked, driving Confederate holdout Ethan crazy, and Scar’s motives are calculated as revenge by precisely triggering them, for the chieftain who’s lost two sons to the encroaching white man knows well what hurts his foe. The resulting sense of obsession builds relentlessly to specific moments of baleful paroxysm, as in Martin placing himself between Ethan and Debbie as he moves to gun her down, and the final battle. The film repeats the generational conflict in miniature towards the end with a level of in-joke humour. Ethan and Clayton find themselves confronted by green, young, sabre-waving Lieutenant Greenhill, envoy of his Cavalry commanding father, breezing in to alert the elders to Scar’s presence with callow energy, and played by Wayne’s son Patrick.
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The margins of the central drama are filled out by such a gallery of oddballs and frontier grotesques, covering a range of types and cultural entities, filled out by ingenious detail and performances. Clayton is a leader both spiritual and temporal, embodiment of all social authority in the sparse precincts of the frontier and perfect contrast to Ethan’s individualist indomitability. Yet he’s anything but abstract in his bristling, bustling vigour, tying his top hat to his crown with a handkerchief and vowing to get himself “unsurrounded” and barking at Greenhill to “Watch out for that knife” only to cop it in the backside in the midst of battle. Crackpot Mose Harper (Hank Worden) longs for a rocking chair and makes fun of the Comanche by mimicking their war cries, tolerated and patronised by all who know him, which proves to be a great survival talent, as he gives Scar the slip and alerts the heroes to the tribe’s return. Brandon, a character actor who bobbed about Hollywood for decades and who had bigger parts than this but none more famous, makes a tremendous impression although Scar remains for the most part an antagonist over the horizon. His appearances early in the film galvanise the characters aura of threat and dark, scowling, brutal charisma, from looming over young Debbie as he comes across her attempting to flee the homestead to putting on his chieftain’s bonnet and sporting the medal Ethan gave to Debbie about his neck. When he and Ethan finally meet, the doppelgangers stand almost touching in their fearsome mutual challenge, whilst refusing to break the rules of the chivalrous game of hospitality.
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The Searchers also undoubtedly contains Wayne’s best performance, lacking the slightly calculated feel to some of his other major turns like the aging Nathan Brittles in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and ornery Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1969). His Ethan Edwards simply is – his smouldering aggression, his patronising assurance, his surly turns of phrase (“That’ll be the day”) and grit-toothed ferocity and private moments with eyes deep pools of sorrow and regret and flashes of lunatic rage. For a man of undoubted, bullish presence and martial skill, Ethan is trapped in states of impotence throughout much of the film, reduced to finding and burying the mangled remnants of his family. Wayne’s performing intuition grasped gesture as the essence of film acting, the sort of considered motions generations of kids have mimicked in trying to grasp the essence of screen cool. The badass spectacle of whipping out his Winchester from its holster before riding in to the burning homestead. The spins of his revolver as he shoots out the dead Comanche’s eyes. More than that, though, here Wayne uses such gestural precision to describe Ethan’s frustrated power, finally blatant in the seething fury in his eyes as he barks at Clayton for spoiling a shot at Scar and finally near-lunacy as he shoots down buffalo in his desire to starve the Comanches, becoming in his unreasoning wrath and sense of punitive mission the embodiment of the dark side of the Western conquest, and his schoolyard posturing before Scar when finally they men meet.
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Ford, like Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks, had always made complex Westerns, although there was certainly a general accuracy to the notion the genre was becoming more meditative in its historical considerations. Although his political allegiances were becoming more conservative, Ford was becoming more direct and questioning about who could be considered American and what the country could mean to them were becoming more pointed. He would soon construct creation myths for African-Americans (Sergeant Rutledge, 1960) and finally Native Americans (Cheyenne Autumn) in terms of his traditional Western form, on the way towards the cosmic crack-up of his last film 7 Women (1966). The sequence here where Ethan and Martin encounter the massacred tribe and the Cavalry who did it evokes his Cavalry trilogy through music cues and images but there’s no sense of heroic necessity: Martin is bewildered by their motives. This is the west being bludgeoned into passivity and coherence rather than coolly policed. The ruined, lunatic women the soldiers gather, inspected by Ethan and Martin in hope Debbie is amongst their number, are the by-products of civilisations crashing together. “It’s hard to believe they’re white,” one of the Cavalry officers comments, but notably, the women are all in a crazed state after being rescued, whilst Debbie, when they finally encounter her, remains entirely lucid and intelligent enough not just to simply remember her old life but to try and save Ethan and Martin from imminent attack. Ethan repays the favour by advancing to shoot her down, with Martin thrusting himself between them. Fortunately, Scar and his braves interrupt the moment of truth.
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Ford stands today as one of the definitive classicists in film technique, but to watch The Searchers is to experience an unusual approach to storytelling and cinematic structure. To see Ford utilise the mid-‘50s widescreen colour format is to see a born cinematic eye unleashed upon a natural habitat, exploiting space from actors’ faces looming in close to features in the peering distance. Ford’s DP Winton C. Hoch isn’t exactly one of the celebrated cinematographers of his time, and yet few films are better shot than The Searchers. Hoch imbues Ford’s precisely-composed tableaux with life through jostling, precisely inscribed detail even in the midst of colossal landscape shots. Ford and Hoch work in hints of Expressionist texture into interior and dialogue scenes, hinting at the repressed and the fetid in even the most seemingly easygoing interludes, and capturing the intensity of existence out in these tiny abodes and hamlets through the decor in a homestead. The Searchers is a big movie, and yet big moments are almost thrown away, like the final confrontation between Martin and Scar. Exposition scenes double as character revelations, jokes distract from momentous discoveries and urgent truths. Nothing in The Searchers is ever just one thing, one reason Ford was able to knock over such an epic tale in less than two hours. Perhaps the most notable example of this discursiveness comes in the action climax, as the long-nursed thirst for revenge against Scar comes as fast as reflex, in perfect contrast to the ceremonial death-dealing in Sergio Leone’s Westerns. Few directors could resist the bloodthirsty spectacle of moments like Ethan’s discovery of Lucy’s body and Brad’s subsequent ride to a quick death, but Ford elides both, describing the first by Ethan’s harassed and snarling behaviour afterwards, and marking out the events of the latter purely by sound.
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The hint of Expressionist influence in the film is hardly surprising. Ford had gained a great deal of early acclaim and admiration for his skill in fusing that heady Germanic style with Hollywood exigencies in movies like The Informer (1935) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Like many directors who had started working in the silent era now confronted by the blazing colour and stretched screen of ’50s film culture, he seemed to be thinking back to those days wistfully in shots like one filmed in silence and silhouette, in which Martin is lowered down a cliff face as he goes to pluck Debbie from the midst of Scar’s camp. One of the best shots in the film – in cinema in general – comes when Debbie appears on the sand dune behind Martin and Ethan as they bicker outside Scar’s camp, unnoticed for a long time as she approaches. The perfect economy of Ford’s framing allows the epic, even the miraculous, to suddenly transform the drama, as if the land itself has finally unleashed its captive. Ford’s love of alternations in tone between high drama and slapstick humour has long been one of his peccadilloes that can vex contemporary viewers. But it’s also essential to his cinema, where sobriety and clowning are indivisible as part of the texture of life, expressions of the unruly energy released by common humanity, mimicking and to a certain extent offsetting more genuinely chaotic instincts. This aspect of Ford’s art had been purveyed with careful, contrapuntal rhythm in his Cavalry trilogy, but here comes in a series of violent swerves and headlong crashes. Certainly the “comic relief” of Martin’s irritation with Look never sits well, particularly as he shoves her rolling down a slope when she tries to sleep by his side: it’s supposed to play as rambunctious in a brotherly manner, echoing Laurie’s exasperated assaults on Martin, but just comes across as mean and bullying.
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The awkwardness is also a by-product of the film’s hysterical, blue-balled intensity, an aesthetic reflex on Ford’s part in registering the need to relieve its perpetually gathering psychic thunderclouds. Better moments of comedy include Ethan tossing a glass full of rotgut tequila on a fire to save Martin from unthinkingly drinking it, and the full-on physical comedy of Martin’s fistfight with Charlie, upon returning him to find him about to marry Laurie, another moment that converts the larger tension of the drama into an absurd islet, as the two young men battle over their lady. Ford’s unique blend of precision and elision in staging reaches its height in the finale, as Clayton’s posse join Greenhill, Ethan, and Martin in a raid on Scar’s encampment. Ford’s dashing tracking shots move with the charging horses through the camp offer the deliverance of unfettered movement after the tight and stifled precursor, but also with haphazard speed and reckless force: Ethan riding in it to chase down his foe casually knocks over a fleeing Comanche woman. Nobody’s standing around duelling or going down in noble last stands.
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Martin sneaks into Scar’s tent to locate Debbie: the sound of the great war chief cocking his rifle is matched to a mere shot of his legs in the tent flaps. Martin spins, lets loose with his revolver. By the time Ethan arrives, he finds only the oblivious corpse of his foe, felled by the kid. The famous upshot, one of those moments that can make ancient cynics get misty, one that tormented even Jean-Luc Godard with its mysterious impact: Ethan chases down a fleeing, fearful Debbie, only to snatch her up like he might have as a child, cradle her in her arms, and softly suggest, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” Some of the power of this lies in surprise, but also in its subterranean logic. Scar, his mirror, his task, his animus, is dead. Ethan’s concerted rage is spent, and all that’s left is an ageing man clutching the last thing he might call kin in the world. It’s easy to hate Ethan Edwards so often throughout The Searchers, but then you love him, much as Debbie runs in terror from him only to curl up against his chest, like a father who has lapses of inchoate and unknowable darkness at night but returns like the sun in the morning.
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Ford’s 1961 follow-up Two Rode Together would deal explicitly with the problem elided here, as the protagonists of that film would become obliged to help the woman they rescue from living with an Indian tribe overcome stigmatisation as someone beyond the pale, socially and sexually speaking. Ford obsessively examined a schism in his own mindset that was also a schism in his concept of America, albeit one that could also manifest in his portraits of Ireland and Wales and anywhere else. The need to belong to a community, an ordered way of life, a hierarchy, striking sparks against an opposing truth, the desire for freedom, for essential being, for standing beyond the power of the corrupt and the hypocritical, those ignoble foils that always come with society. Younger Ford had happily sent Ringo and Dallas off to be “saved from the blessings of Civilisation” at the end of Stagecoach.
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Older Ford envisions the possibility of a future free of racial neurosis and violent instinct, and knows it’s right, but also knows very well it means the end of something else he cherishes, that great stage upon which his dreams live and die. When the door closes on Ethan, much as it found him, it closes not just upon the character and his embodiment of the Western hero cut off from the settling world, but upon an entire concept of the genre, perhaps even the genre itself. Everything else was just waiting for Sam Peckinpah to come and shoot it full of holes. Ford’s overreaching artistic desire, to create mythic-styled narratives about becoming and finding, here admits at last a failure, a point where some things cannot be contained, reconciled, kneaded into the great American project. History rolls on, leaving its ruins, its dead, its forgotten, heroes and villains all churned together in the dust.

Standard
1950s, British cinema, Film Noir, Romance

Pool of London (1951)

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Director: Basil Dearden

By Roderick Heath

Basil Dearden remains an underappreciated figure of British cinema, although he made some of the most fondly-remembered hits it saw from the mid-1940s to the 1960s. Perhaps he’s neglected precisely because of that, as he was one of those establishment figures loathed by the young guns of the various new wave movements, in spite of the fact Dearden helped define a peculiarly British model of realist cinema subsequent generations would assimilate. Dearden started as a screenwriter and made his directing debut on The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942), and contributed some segments to the famous omnibus film Dead of Night (1945), the first British horror movie produced after a total ban on such movies for World War II’s duration was relaxed. Dearden had presaged it with the eerie but gently humane fantasy The Halfway House (1944), where the dead linger in a haunted house for the purpose of coaching the living through the terrors of the war, something of a mission statement for Dearden’s later career as he continued nudging the national consciousness towards the next problem on the frontier of attitude.

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Dearden was a weathered professional who would dabble in many genres, from historical melodramas like Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), to comedies like The Smallest Show on Earth (1957) and Man in the Moon (1960), and later in his career he would take a whack at a David Lean-like epic with the stodgy but interesting Khartoum (1966), before returning to supernatural fare for his last film before dying in a car crash in 1971, The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970). Dearden was at first associated with Ealing Studios, but he left them after being obliged to make too many anodyne comedies, the studio’s commercial stock-in-trade. Dearden scored a big domestic hit for Ealing with The Blue Lamp (1950), a police drama starring Jack Warner as PC George Dixon: although the character was killed in the film, he was so popular he was revived for a long-running TV series. Dearden’s proven knack would see him often return to dramas about criminals and ordinary people caught between them and the law, but he also began cultivating a habit of utilising a nominal genre setting to take a long, hard look at some interesting corner of modern British life.

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In this regard Dearden was following a brief moment of social conscience cinema seen in Hollywood after the war from the likes of Elia Kazan, Robert Rossen, and Nicholas Ray, and his own labours would run concurrent with Stanley Kramer’s. But Dearden for the most part avoided Kramer’s rhetorical dramatic modes, preferring instead to tie his commentary to strong genre plots, in a manner that feels crucially anticipatory of a vast swathe of contemporary film and television, particularly in crime dramas made in Britain and Scandinavia. Dearden’s visual approach to these films appropriated the chiaroscuro black-and-white of film noir and combined it with location shooting techniques, weaving in the influence of neorealism. Dearden’s work in this vein encompassed racism in Pool of London, Sapphire (1959), and All Night Long (1961), homosexuality in Victim (1961), the lingering undercurrents of resentment and violence inherent in Britain’s relations with Ireland on The Gentle Gunman (1952), delinquency and urban crime with Violent Playground (1957), the lot of former veterans left bereft and aimless after the war in The Ship That Died of Shame (1955) and The League of Gentlemen (1959), and questions of medical responsibility clashing with religious scruples in Life for Ruth (1962).

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Dearden’s best works are epic in a compressed fashion, trying to encompass a survey of a whole social moment as they unfold. The League of Gentlemen offers a cross-section of former veterans ranging from bottom feeders to bored upper-class layabouts who decide to rob a bank. All Night Long contemplated race and gender relations through the prism of Britain’s jazz hipster scene. Victim contemplates the tenuous existence and vulnerability of gay men via a potent lead performance by Dirk Bogarde, whose taking the role amounted to a tacit coming out before the entire filmgoing public. Dearden sometimes let slip a blackly comic sense of humour in the likes of The League of Gentlemen and The Assassination Bureau (1969), and the reworking of Othello in All Night Long spoke of an ingenuity and openness to playing around with familiar storytelling modes he didn’t get to work out much in his more earnest and mainstream-minded projects.

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Pool of London is possibly Dearden’s best film, mating a sturdy crime tale to a study in slowly shifting social mores in the London of 1951, seen through the eyes of two outsiders, sailors Johnny Lambert (Earl Cameron), a black Jamaican, and Dan McDonald (Bonar Colleano), a Canadian. They’re both hands on a cargo ship, the Dunbar, which docks in the Pool of London, then a hub of London’s maritime trade but long since redeveloped into a zone of upscale apartments, directly adjacent to Tower Bridge and across the river from the Tower of London. The sailors often try to make a little extra cash by sneaking in foreign goods to sell or win hearts, trying to outfox the exacting Customs Officer Andrews (Michael Golden): one fellow crewman gets busted with a bunch of watches after declaring himself innocent a little too forcibly, whilst Dan gets caught later trying to sneak out some nylon stockings, gifts intended for his girl in the city, Maisie (Moira Lister).

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Another sailor, Harry (Leslie Phillips), has a steady girl in the shipping company’s secretary pool, Sally (Renée Asherson), but he’s growing bored with her, whilst she remains steadfastly loyal, always awaiting his returns. The engine room officer, Trotter (James Robertson Justice), prefers to ignore the city altogether, calling it a den of depravity, bunking down in his cabin instead with a few bottles of scotch and a volume of English poetry to await the time to sail again. Dan’s reputation as a guy on the make sees an acquaintance recommend him to Charlie Vernon (Max Adrian), a music hall acrobat who’s cooking up a heist: Vernon has made an alliance with some gangsters to rob an importer’s stash of diamonds, and Dan will sneak the haul out of the country on the Dunbar for a £100 fee. Johnny follows Dan to the music hall where he meets Vernon, whilst Johnny loiters in the foyer, chatting with the ticket seller, Pat (Susan Shaw). Johnny is racially abused by a theatre commissionaire for peeking in on the show and chased out, earning the wrath of Pat and Dan. They meet again cueing for a bus shortly after, and they start hanging out together over the next few days, glimmerings of romantic interest apparent in both.

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Pool of London is as much romance, character study, and social realist document as it is a thriller, with jots of comedy and satire in the mix. You could call it a down-to-earth remake of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s On The Town (1948), taking up the same basic idea but utilising it as the basis for anatomising a place and culture at a certain moment rather than idealising it. The film betrays a certain commonality of spirit with the works of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and Sidney Gilliat, filmmakers who resisted making movies in the post-war period that belong neatly to any generic classification. Fellow Ealing hero Robert Hamer would make a breakneck swerve from the tart black comedy of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) to The Long Memory (1952), a film that plays a downriver counterpart to Dearden’s in its obsession with harsh dramas of life and death played out amongst the rubble and ash-heaps and cast-off wares a waning imperial-industrial age.

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Dearden devotes early scenes to describing the diverse crewmen of the Dunbar with all their different habits for coping with their lot as perpetual wanderers. He details the nuisance of the period’s onerous enforcement of import rules and the lack of consumer goods in those still-straitened post-war years, as well as the characters’ efforts to subvert it on both a petty and felonious level. Economic pressure is a general reality. Vernon has developed his heist plan as he’s fed up with performing for a pittance, and he’s hardly alone in looking for some kind of edge or angle to beef up his earnings. Dan foils his own seemingly easy job in the plot in his need to show off to Maisie, who’s furious with him for failing to bring his promised bounty of nylons.

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The photography, by the brilliant but little-celebrated Gordon Dines, sketches Dearden’s evocation of time and place in hues of hard blacks and whites and smoky greys, turning the brick and ironwork of the city’s famous landmarks into a landscape replete with vertiginous highs and lows and boles of inky blackness. His palette is perfect for recording Dearden’s attempt to anatomise London, a city stranded between its industrial and commercial height and its renewal, still bearing the scars of war and littered with the ruins of the Blitz and the oncoming wane of an industrial and commercial age. The façades of the old and upright business and institutional buildings showing their implacable bars and brickwork to the street like an urban Stonehenge. The soaring geometric splendours of St Paul’s and the Greenwich Observatory, which Johnny visits with Pat in ticking off tourist sights, offer the grandeur of a great stage of civilisation that nonetheless enacts its true passions and appetites down on the dirty street. Those unfold in its smoky, gritty pubs and seamy music halls and dank tenements, the faint air of desperation collecting like dampness on the grubby walls or the film of perspiration seen daubing many a brow, from Vernon after a performance to Dan as he realises he’s plunged himself into a cruel trap. Only occasionally does something as transfixing, even transporting, as Pat’s face suddenly gleams out amongst the morass.

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Industrial detritus, from barges ranked up on the Thames shore to old train carriages left to rust on the wayside downriver, speak of the teeming infrastructure needed to build, maintain, and supply such a metropolis. Yet Dearden’s London, sometimes a desolate wasteland, is occasionally decorated by islets of frenetic and eager human energy, from Salvation Army band providing a mostly free distraction for onlookers to a flock of bicyclists escaping the narrow streets for the channels to the countryside. “It always seemed before as a big, lonesome sort of a place,” Johnny tells Pat. Johnny’s solitary strolls back to the Dunbar punctuate the film, which unfolds over three days and nights. First he’s a lonely figure kicking a can down through Shad Thames, second a love-struck man skipping along the way, third an anxious and bitter refugee glad to escape a city that’s chewed him up and spat him out. After deciding to forget their perfidious other lovers by dancing away the night, Dan and Sally make their way through the streets only to start dancing there too. Vernon turns the rooftops into a playground where he tries to defy fate and gravity by using his acrobatic skills as part of his planned heist.

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Part of Dearden’s attraction to hot topics and tabloid issues was partly fuelled not just by civic-mindedness but his genuine interest in characters with powerfully schismatic world views forced to confront each-other and mediate their understanding, or be destroyed by that refusal. This motif in his work reached an apex with the confrontations of two titanic zealots, Chinese Gordon and the Mahdi, in Khartoum. Here the meeting is the much gentler one of Johnny and Pat, two potential lovers separated by Johnny’s anxiety rather than Pat’s. It’s also embodied by Johnny and Dan, but their distinction is more that of their approach to life, Dan’s opportunism versus Johnny’s quiet resolve to give up sailing and return to Jamaica to get some education; the one gift of his otherness is that it imbues him with a sense of a future that can be won rather than a present to be merely occupied. Otherwise the steadfastness of their friendship is a given, to the point where Dan thinks nothing of endangering his pal by asking him to perform an illegal act and Johnny thinks nothing of performing it.

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This idea of personal loyalty as a strange and rigorous faith was another consistent Dearden concern, particularly where it ran contrary to larger social assumptions: Victim and All Night Long in particular would repeat the motif of women bewildered by their partners’ wayward tastes and perversities, trying to swim against a too-strong current in dealing with aspects of monstrosity they uncover. Sally’s dedication to the unfaithful Harry is a minor aspect of Pool of London but Dearden notes, with a blend of romanticism and dubiety, the process of her shifting loyalty to Dan, who is himself doomed to be, at least for the foreseeable future, another absentee mate. The film’s very end encompasses an ugly moment when Dan deliberately offends and spurns Johnny in order to save him from his own heedless allegiance. Dearden’s jabs of humour extend to a sequence in which the coppers bust a usual suspect who’s just been announcing with noisy confidence as a Hyde Park speaker his close communications with great statesmen (his lectern reads, “Truth over Party”). The portrayal of the police isn’t far from The Blue Lamp’s straightforward enforcers of justice, but here they have a slightly alien, antiseptic quality, cheerless and competent except for the street beat bobby, like an occupying army making sure the proles don’t act up too much.

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Adrian’s Vernon (the musical hall bill calls him “The Gentleman Acrobat”) is a fascinating marginal creation, a stage performer turned criminal mastermind, the sort of character you’d expect to see in a Lang or Hitchcock film, or, in his acrobatic prowess and rooftop daring, like a French silent serial character. Except that Dearden renders him as realistically as the other characters, first glimpsed all clammy from his performing, caked in make-up like a rough draft for Joel Grey’s emcee in Cabaret (1972) and wearing his evening tuxedo over a shirt with no sleeves, another sweat-reaping labourer who covers it in a veneer of showbiz class. Vernon is glimpsed in the music hall’s grimy dressing room where a sign on the wall reads, “Silence is Always Golden – Speech is Counterfeit Sometimes.” He’s talked forcibly retired clerk George (George Benson) into coughing up all the details for the heist in exchange for a cut, but Vernon is in turn obliged to surrender more of the potential take to his professional criminal acquaintances because he needs their particular skills.

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Vernon’s robbery plan most crucially demands his special talent however – a leap across a great height so he can penetrate an office building in the daylight, a move of perfect daring that evokes the existential state of the entire scene Dearden surveys. But he undoes his own daring by getting sloppy and violent with the building’s elderly caretaker (Beckett Bould), knocking him out but failing to restrain him, so that when the man wakes up, he grabs at Vernon, who throws him off, accidentally killing him as he slams his head against a step. Dearden’s very British sensibility manifested in his approach to how his criminals and villains get caught out, by small changes to routines or idle habits, like the nerdy schoolboy whose fondness for recording licence plates in The League of Gentlemen. Here, the heist is turned from a smooth operation to a deadly adventure by a policeman noticing a bottle of milk that hasn’t been taken in like usual, and then by a sisterly quarrel. Dan’s boasting to Maisie over his turn of good luck, and then realisation that he’s quite literally holding the bag, is overheard by Maisie’s sister Pamela (Joan Dowling), who lives adjacent to her and breaks off from smooching her boyfriend to listen in; presuming she now has a device to hold over her sister, Pamela makes a show of dressing up in one of Maisie’s dresses. But Maisie wallops her instead, starting a vicious sisterly brawl that attracts a bobby, who overhears Pamela bellowing out crucial information.

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Cameron will turn 101 this year if he makes it to August; he joins Leslie Phillips in this cast as an actor of startling longevity. Born in Pembroke, Jamaica, Cameron had almost died from pneumonia during the war, and found years later it had left one of his lungs useless without anyone noticing. He was making his film debut with Pool of London, although he would be a familiar face in British films for decades to come, appearing in Thunderball (1965) and alongside a pubescent David Hemmings in the tinny but likeable manhunt drama Flame In The Streets (1962), and much more recently in movies like The Interpreter (2005), The Queen (2006), and Inception (2010). He’s sometimes described now as Britain’s first black film star, which is a half-truth, as he never really had another leading role as good as Johnny Lambert, a part that was all but autobiographical for the actor, as he had also been a merchant seaman. Pool of London is also sometimes described as the first to portray a mixed-race relationship, although that’s also a half-truth, as Johnny and Pat’s obvious mutual attraction doesn’t go anywhere for a variety of reasons.

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Cameron’s newness to movies it a surprise considering how well he holds the screen and projects a mature air of melancholic confusion under the façade of Johnny’s good-natured stoicism, a façade that finally cracks under the pressure of liquor, disappointment, and treachery. His Johnny isn’t merely a straw man set up to make a few anti-racist points, but a figure who suffers from the same mix of alienation and anxious yearning as the people who surround him, only intensified by his obvious difference. Johnny’s disinclination to properly romance Pat is as much informed by the same problem as faces Dan and his other pals, his come-and-go life violently contrasting her status as a popular lady about town, and his own crisis is sparked when he tries to meet up with her after the Dunbar’s leaving is delayed, only to see her being swept up by a gang of friends whose breezy urban lives he knows he can’t negotiate. His and Shaw’s crucial moment comes when they converse outsider the Greenwich Observatory, on the Meridian, that crucial arbiter for invisible but consequential divides, an intellectual construct Pat and Johnny both admit to not understanding.

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Johnny gives a dreamy monologue about the notions that flick through his mind when at the wheel of the ship, questions about why it seems to matter, amongst other things, if a man is black or white. “It doesn’t matter,” Pat tells him with plain intent, to which Johnny replies with cool, factual assurance, to Pat’s stricken look: “It does matter what people think. Perhaps someday it won’t, but it does now.” Cameron might not have had more parts as good, but he was luckier in life than his costars Colleano and Shaw, who were married three years after appearing together in this film. New York-born Colleano, New York born out of a family of accomplished circus acrobats, had gained himself a niche in British film. He usually played token Americans or Canadians in war movies but becoming a well-known face with his trademark knobby features and honk of a voice, but he was killed in a car crash aged 34 in 1958, and Shaw’s resultant, profound depression gave way to alcoholism, a malady that killed her in 1978. Colleano was expert at playing slightly charming chancers like Dan: his best moment here is off-hand, giving a cool bob of his brows as he call his donation to Salvation Army girl, “The wages of sin,” to her sly retort, “Been working overtime?”

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The divergent storylines of Dan and Johnny only properly unify at the very end, and take place before that essentially in different movie genres. Dan’s tribulations are those of a straight-up crime film, whilst Johnny heads off into a romance that shades into a calmer but no less cruel drama of character and context: the forces that bear down upon Dan are legal and monetary, where Johnny keeps a clean nose but is worked upon by identity like a vice. Dan’s own romance with Sally is just as profound as Johnny’s and just as impossible. Dan finds himself cast as fugitive and singular villain by the police, and scooped up by his nominal cronies who plan to eliminate him rather than risk having him blab to the police. Dan is lucky as some policemen stationed to nab him near the Dunbar catch sight of his abduction, and give chase to the hoodlums’ car. Dan makes a break from his tormentors, but catches a bullet and plunges into the Thames: he manages to swim aboard a sailing boat heading down river. Meanwhile Vernon and the others are cornered and, in a sequence that again betrays a Hitchcockian influence, Vernon tries to flee the cops by ascending a tall structure and shimmying across a long pipe to freedom, but he fails to gain a proper grip and plunges to his death.

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Dearden’s use of his locations is great throughout but especially here, in the dashes for survival through the cavernous spaces of urban edifices, dwarfing and corralling the humans scurrying up and down them, the blank institutional tiles and whitewash of the buildings that allow no purchase or hiding spot and the black waters of the river that swallow up Dan. Meanwhile Johnny gets hammered in a bar, trying to wash Pat out of his system, and he finds himself taken in hand by a self-appointed drinking buddy who encourages him to get so drunk he doesn’t notice when his pocket is picked: the thief ignores the can brilliantine the robber loot is hidden in. Johnny, blind with drink and anger, causes a scene and is hurled out bodily: “They’re all the same,” the barman mutters as they retreat within, leaving Johnny a sodden mess on the pavement, having conspired in his own Calvary. Dearden gives away his neorealist inspirations as he works in a Paisan (1946), as Johnny wakes up in the bombed-out ruins of a church, broke, demeaned, and lovelorn, but still intact and hardy, unaware the police think he was in cahoots with Dan.

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Dan meanwhile seems home free as he’s borne off towards the ocean, but as he lingers in pain and guilt unnoticed by the sailing boat’s crew, in a sequence that betrays a lingering influence of the ‘30s poetic realists on Dearden as shadows play over Colleano’s face in rhythm with the water lapping over the boat’s gunwales, he elects to slide overboard, swim to shore, and try to make it back to the Dunbar and warn Johnny. Dearden extracts maximum, agonising tension out of Dan’s shambling, wounded efforts to catch up with his pal, and must compound the pain by destroying Johnny’s reflexive loyalty by brushing him off. But Johnny still realises what his friend has done for him as he sees him on the dock from the sailing ship, surrendering to the police. Perhaps an over-neat ending to a drama that accurately diagnoses the fatalism of working class lives that expects everything to go wrong sooner or later, as well as their determination to keep chasing joy by any means. The film’s real subject is the threads that connect ordinary people, the process of learning and growing as a society a drama that’s enacted on the streets and not in neat abstractions, using its generic modes to communicate the diversity of experience that can subsist cheek by jowl, and life is never just one story.

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1950s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, German cinema, Romance

The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959) / The Indian Tomb (1959)

Der Tiger von Eschnapur / Das Indische Grabmal
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Director: Fritz Lang
Screenwriters: Werner Jörg Lüddecke, Fritz Lang (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

Fritz Lang returned to make films in Germany after a quarter-century’s absence, after the box office failure of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) finally brought down the curtain on his Hollywood career. Lang had arrived in America as a feted figure wielding great prestige, but he subsisted in marginally produced, often low-budget films after his stern, uncompromising efforts at social commentary purveyed in films like Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937) dismayed audiences. Lang’s late oeuvre has long since been disinterred and celebrated for it lucid filmmaking and devious deployment of social commentary and personal artistry, but Lang himself felt awkward pride for most of them as a hired studio hand trying to wring personal interest from his assignments, understandable considering the comedown the director had experienced from his days as the titan of UFA.
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As if in obedience to some common law entwining the nature of gravity, economics, and artistic inspiration, the careers of many film directors seem to fold back upon themselves eventually, bringing them back to their roots and early territory in their later films. Lang’s return to Germany saw him make three final films that all had obvious ties to his early efforts. The two-part exotic melodrama The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb was adapted from a popular novel by Lang’s one-time wife Thea von Harbou, whilst his very last released work continued his series of thrillers based around supervillain Dr Mabuse with The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960). To say a lot of water had flowed under the bridge since Lang had last worked on Von Harbou’s material would be an understatement. Lang and Von Harbou had been a glamorous, scandalous, fractious, uniquely productive couple for over a decade, collaborating on some of the greatest films of the silent era. On top of their personal split, Lang represented staunch refusal to countenance Hitler’s rise, whereas Von Harbou had joined the Nazi Party, albeit, she had argued, for the sake of helping her work for the rights of Indians like her third husband under the regime.
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This real-life resonance lends even greater piquancy to the story’s wistful daydream about another, almost idyllic world that becomes fatally infected by authoritarian brutality. Two earlier versions of Von Harbou’s novel had already been made. Lang had felt cheated out of directing the first version, which was handled by one of Lang’s great rivals Joe May, because of his lack of directing experience at the time. Getting Lang to make another smacked of the same phenomenon that would produce the following year’s Ben-Hur, the push to make a blockbuster version of a well-proven property to recapture past glories and reinvigorate a waning film industry. In spite of his great influence on the idea of the epic film, Lang had been bypassed for making any entries in Hollywood’s glut of historical sagas which were produced to exploit the spectacle of widescreen processes as an answer to television. Lang famously derided widescreen formats as only good for snakes and funerals. And then he took on a project that revolves around, well, at least one snake.
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The lush, Orientalist fantasia that is Lang’s Indian duology suggests, at first glance, a director happily taking refuge in glossy decoration as he faces the sunset of his career. A few years later, Lang would feature as the representative of artistic ambition in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963), trying to make an airily abstracted take on The Odyssey and clashing with his sleazy producer. It feels more than a little ironic then that the Eschnapur duology is in many ways exactly the sort of film Godard’s emblematic philistine bankroller would have loved, a vigorous and sexy piece of kitschy showmanship. And yet The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb are deceptively complex meditations on Lang’s favourite themes and career-long motifs. Lang’s career was still utterly compelled by his contemplations of ingrained human impulses towards violence, repression, despotism, and paranoia underlying surface social codes, and his incisive perspective was scarcely diluted by age. But he was still also an accomplished fabulist, a talent who constantly battled the dark side of his imagination and occasionally embraced the lighter.
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The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb take place in the nominal present-day, but exist more properly in a dream-state, all the better to focus the compulsions of Lang’s lifelong fascination with the distorting, competing gravities of power and desire. Tellingly, the series also stages a partial repeat of motifs found in both Die Nibelungen (1924) and Metropolis (1926). As in the former, a strong and upright hero defeats a monster only to find himself beset for the sake of sexual jealousy and statecraft machinations. Like the latter, it presents the idea of a city as an embodiment of both the psyche and the body politic. The Tiger of Eschnapur, the first part of the duology, commences with German architect Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid, who had also gone by the name Paul Christian during his own Hollywood foray) staying overnight in a village as he makes his way to the capital of the small Indian state of Eschnapur. Harald, a tall, strong man with a fierce sense of justice, is annoyed when two soldiers harass a serving girl, Bharani (Luciana Paluzzi), so he picks them up and bangs their heads together like Moe Howard. Bharani’s mistress, the sacred temple dancer Seetha (Debra Paget), thanks Harald for his chivalry. A tiger is terrorising the countryside, and it breaks into the village after nightfall, killing a boy.
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As Harald and Seetha travel in the same caravan across country to the capital, the tiger attacks and drives away Seetha’s litter bearers, leaving her trapped at the monster’s mercy. Harald has the inspiration of driving the tiger off with a fiery torch, saving Seetha. Architect and dancer are both welcomed at the palace of the state’s autocratic Maharajah, Chandra (Walther Reyer), Harald to help with his programme of modernisation and improvement, and Seetha to perform at an upcoming festival. Harald begins mapping Chandra’s ancient palace with the help of western-trained Eschnapuri engineering expert Asagara (Jochen Blume). The bond between Harald and Seetha deepens after they’re met with perfect hospitality by the Maharajah. Harald helps Seetha plumb the ambiguities of her past, recognising a song she sings learned in childhood as an Irish folk song, awakening memories in the lady that confirm she’s the daughter of a British soldier and an Indian woman. The monster tiger is captured and imprisoned in the palace.
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The Eschnapur duology unfolds over the course of about 200 minutes (the two films were edited together into a single 95 minute unit entitled Journey to the Lost City for initial English-language release), keeping one foot squarely planted in Lang’s earliest movies – the venturesome cliffhanging and secret zones of The Spiders (1919), the Arabesque and Chinoiserie stylisation of the stories in Der Müede Tod (1921), the tyrannical figure who tries to orchestrate people’s lives and goes on a destructive warpath when they resist, a la Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922). Although the diptych enters wholeheartedly into a realm of melodrama and pulp fiction thrills, Lang maintains emotional depth, shaded by his unique talent for creating worlds within worlds. This talent is signalled in the peculiarly dreamy prologue as Harald first glimpses Seetha as a veiled face hovering amongst ancient brickwork, a ghost of elusive femininity, incarnation of the enigmatically attractive spirit of place. Seetha is a deeply dedicated and pure-hearted avatar of the local culture, faithful to Shiva and seemingly favoured by the gods.
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The tiger that erupts out of the foliage to assault Seetha, like the dragon felled by Siegfried in Die Nibelungen, represents chaos and savagery kept at strength by a man blessed both in mental muscle but also physical might, making Harald a contemporary version of a legendary Germanic hero. Fairy-tale romance is however about to run headlong into its appointed enemy: Chandra, who becomes utterly fixated on Seetha after watching her dance, and insists she marry him. As ever in Lang, there ought to be a sign pointing at everyone’s head that reads, here there be tigers. Chandra however seems like an entirely upright and rational figure when they first meet him. He’s the very model of an enlightened despot, in the mode of Frederick the Great, that much-admired figure of German history who nonetheless made servility and autocracy seem comfortable for too many both within and without his fledgling nation. Lang sets out to pull apart this cultural ideal with ruthless concision as he portrays Chandra prone to exactly the same forces of human weakness as anyone else, but who through his place at the centre of a state gets to enact that will apparently unchecked. The Human Beast, the Zola novel first filmed by Jean Renoir and then remade by Lang as Human Desire (1954), offers the perfect thumbnail description of Lang’s later career preoccupations, as he returned with increasingly sly method to the theme in his studio work.
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“You’ll notice there are no carpets here,’ Chandra points out to Harald when first showing about the upper apartments of his palace: “Because of cobras.” The inferred if not glimpsed notion of malign, slithering strokes of black sneaking their way into the shining, scrupulously ordered environs of civilisation’s expression conveys not just the essence of the lurking threat in the immediate narrative but also connects again to Lang’s career-long obsession with irrational forces prying at the limits of civilised order. The floors must be kept bare, the clutter at a minimum, the essence of the architecture must show what’s what. Chandra’s plans for a rapid and convulsive reconstruction of his backwater, to be leveraged through the efforts of his imported architects, creates unease amongst the local oligarchs who don’t want any such change or destabilisation, not the high priest of the local sects, Yama (Valéry Inkijinoff), nor Chandra’s younger brother Ramigani (René Deltgen), or his former brother-in-law, Prince Padhu (Jochen Brockmann).
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Chandra is still in mourning for Padhu’s sister, the former Maharani, whilst Ramigani has designs for usurping his brother’s throne, for which he needs both the backing of other potentates and a swell of popular support. Ramigani sees in Chandra’s ardour for Seetha a unique chance to gain both: Padhu and the priests are all deeply offended by the notion of the Maharajah marrying again, and the populace might also be swayed. Ramigani decides to help Chandra destroy himself, including arranging the death of Bharani in a magic act as she was acting as go-between for Harald and Seetha, but he’s unable to prevent Chandra discovering the burgeoning romance. Chandra retaliates by having Harald herded into a pen where he keeps captured tigers, including the monster tiger: he gives Harald a pike to battle the tiger with as a chance to survive the ordeal. Harald succeeds in killing the beast, so Chandra lets him leave with the threat to have him killed if he isn’t out of the kingdom within twenty-four hours. But Seetha elects to join him, and the pair flee into the desert fringing the state.
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Von Harbou’s book probably conveyed a strong dose of distanced ethnographic interest in India, and some have noted that it also clearly bore out a deep German interest in the era in Indian culture as a fount of western culture in general – an interest that would take on a graver cast given the Nazi’s beloved fantasies of the Aryan inheritance. For Lang, Eschnapur is more like the sort of half-real foreign land where dramatists of Shakespeare’s day would set their parables for easy consumption and sneaky inference. In this regard, the casting of European actors as Indians, whilst grating, helps clarify Lang’s subtexts: all of this is a dress-up game, a pantomime masking the violent fray of feelings enacted by the victimised lovers and the glowering, increasingly implacable Chandra. The narrative highlights the structure and stability of a state, with its pillars of religion, military, and nominally allied grandees, dependent on personal ties and revolving theoretically around the outlook of its leader. Once that outlook is thrown from its proper orbit, the state becomes diseased; when the stuff of government is deeply personal – Padhu allies with Ramigani because a remarriage will offend his sister’s memory – it becomes entirely in thrall to individual neurosis and perversity. The Eschnapur duology essays a theme that’s not really that far from a seemingly very different meditation on recent European history, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), as the inevitability of personal passion which refuses the rule of the state and will of the leadership caste becomes a form of dissidence, however incidental.
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“I can think of nothing that might destroy our friendship,” the Maharajah comments to Harald after gifting him a ring for saving his life: Lang cuts with brute candour to Seetha, whose pulchritude is all but literally worshipped as the linchpin of state and religion, which is idolises the sacred feminine. The statue in the temple where Seetha dances is a colossal vision of such, complete with massive, bulbous breasts. Chandra’s decline from modernising and liberalising influence to the worst kind of despot is speedy and requires only sexual jealousy to gain impetus. Powerful and civilised men destroying themselves and, sometimes, those who love them over a woman was one of the most fundamental Lang themes, of course, enacted in variations in films as disparate as Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, Spies (1928), Scarlet Street (1946), The House by the River (1950), and The Big Heat (1953). Here, the theme is not contained by Lang’s acerbic, realist side, but the fairytale setting allows it to become a veritable universal condition, harking back to Lang’s early expressionist works (including The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1919, which he wrote) where the landscape becomes a projection of the interior drama, a device he managed to deploy in Hollywood works like The House by the River where the eponymous waterway literalises the processes of the psyche, slowly but surely turning in a gyre where every sunken sickness emerges again.
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Like many great directors whose career started in the silent era but stretched into the burgeoning age of widescreen colour, including the likes John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. DeMille, Teinosuke Kinugasa, and King Vidor, Lang’s later work betrayed a waning interest in the increasingly realistic strictures of post-war film, and an increasing tendency to utilise the devices they were being handed – the bigger screens and the richer colour and the film with greater sensitivity to space and light gradation – to tellingly counterintuitive ends. Lang had pushed the western in the direction of expressionism on Rancho Notorious (1952), and with the Eschanpur duology enters entirely into a zone where the value of colour is at once decorative and spiritual, otherworldly and artistically precise: Lang’s fantasy India is a place where the clothes, flowers, buildings, and animals glow with colour-drenched inner life that threatens to overwhelm the Technicolor textures. The early scenes of Seetha rehearsing her dance and speaking of her hazy past to Harald take place in a dreamy locale of lotus flowers drifting in cool, crystalline water all placed and described with the care of an impressionist master. The animals, from a phallic cobra that Seetha has to dance before, to crocodiles lunging towards some fallen bodies, are more the stuff of pantomime than documentary authenticity. The location photography in India beholds white palisades and bastions, the pageantry of Chandra’s festivals and functions, and subsumes all into a delirium.
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The most beautiful thing of all, and the most stringently fetishised, is Paget’s Seetha. Echoing the android succubus of Metropolis whose Salome-ish dance drives rational men into paroxysms of lunacy, Seetha’s well-shaken booty has the power to set the entire state of Eschnapur into chaos along with its leadership caste. Unlike the robot Maria in Metropolis, Seetha is not evil, but is rather like the other Maria in that film, representative of all things good and beneficent, one who obeys her perfectly natural ardour for Harald after initial misgivings over potential cultural tensions. Seetha embodies the sacred feminine but also its very earthly and desirable incarnation. Each episode of the diptych revolves around a lengthy dance sequence in which Seetha performs in the temple adjoining Chandra’s palace, in the shadow of the great statue of the Goddess. These scenes, rather than any action sequences or sprawls of pageantry, are the centrepieces of spectacle in the diptych; Lang’s last true act of cinematic showmanship is simply to confirm that there’s nothing better to transfix the eye than the human form. Seetha’s dances break down the gap between Indian folk dance and Minsky’s act in Paget’s dazzling, sensually provocative gyrations, swathed in gold mail and ornaments for her first dance and teasingly frail-looking silver leaf for her second. Mainstream cinema night not have seen dance sequences as unabashedly erotic since DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932), and they were initially greatly curtailed for American release.
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Not that this is mere elaborate sexploitation, although it’s certainly that too; Lang offers them as a commentary on the business of movie stardom. Lang depicts Seetha at the outset as an exacting artist, rehearsing her performances with her musicians in preparation for the great festival, only to find in both dances she’s actually performing to prove and then retain her worth as a sexual object. She auditions in the first as a potential wife for the smitten Chandra and in the second to appease the priapic insanity she’s incidentally stoked, symbolised by the snake she has to calmly dance around without irritating. Seetha is a devoutly religious protagonist whose definition of her beliefs transcends the resolutely bigoted use of it by the high priests: when her face dance is halted when she glimpses Harald high above in the temple galleries, and a strange darkening comes over the temple statue, everyone assumes it’s a sign of anger, but Seetha instead sees it as a warning and a promise of care. Paget’s name became synonymous to a certain degree with historical epics in her relatively short career, thanks to her performances in movies including Princess of the Nile (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), where she had also played a living pawn caught between powerful fiends and a true lover, and Omar Khayyam (1957). Her presence, even when dubbed, is vital to the duology, particularly as her genuine dancing skill and strong-looking body, which through its very prowess refuses to be objectified, but instead wields palpable independence as the instrument of her own will, one very large part of what drives Chandra insane in his desire to possess it.
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The spectacle of performance rendered as nexus of the sacred and profane evidently amused Lang. It might even be seen as the very basis of his career, his long and patient march against the tide of fortune and industry to keep on purveying his vision regardless of setting. Lang’s career is replete with sophisticated games with the act of storytelling and making art, from the finale of Spione (1928) as a clown’s onstage death represents the ultimate takedown for a would-be world-conqueror, to The House by the River, where the antihero’s incidental homicide becomes fuel for gleeful exertions in creativity. Bharani’s death is a more self-conscious example of spectacle and conjuring as arts worked for deception and political subversion. Here, Ramigani contrives to have the inconvenient servant murdered before Chandra’s court by a fakir who has already managed the classic conjuror’s stunt of the Indian Rope Trick. The ability to vanish in front of a watching crowd gives way to the sight of very real, red blood pouring out of a wicker basket through which the fakir has plunged his swords: Lang telegraphs the moment from so far out and then compels the audience (and Seetha) to watch it all unfold with merciless patience, both women assured by powerful, patronising men all the while that everything is fine.
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When Chandra has Seetha scooped up from her private lodgings and installed in his palace, she notes the potentially illustrative irony of having a bird in a literal gilded cage as company. Chandra releases the bird only to have it fly back, but finds humans don’t act as simply as animals. Padhu kidnaps Seetha, intending to ruin Seetha as a potential bride by having her raped and disfigured, only for Chandra to chase them down and whip his recalcitrant former brother-in-law in the face, an act of gallantry that fails to gain what Chandra assumes is its proper reward as Harald and Seetha flee him. Chandra soon greets Harald’s colleague Walter Rhode (Claus Holm), who is married to Harald’s sister Irene (Sabine Bethmann), and instructs him to abandon all plans for modernisation and improvement, and instead build a spectacular tomb, one Chandra implies Seetha will be immured alive in once she’s recaptured. The Tiger of Eschnapur ends with a classic cliffhanger scenario as Harald and Seetha collapse in the desert in fleeing Chandra’s soldiers, sprawled upon the sands clutching each-others’ hands, a pair of crucified lovers. In The Indian Tomb, the couple are found and aided by people from a nearby village, who hide them from the soldiers in obedience to the laws of hospitality, although one man eventually sells them out.
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Forewarned, Harald and Seetha leave the village and retreat into jagged nearby mountains, where they take refuge in a cave that’s an ancient shrine to Shiva. Seetha’s urgent prayers seem to be answered when a spider spins a web over the cave entrance, making it seem as if no-one’s entered it in ages. A deeply corny touch, but also charged with a sense of the delicately miraculous as well as a visual flavour straight out of Lang’s silents. Part of the diptych’s weird power lies in just this sense of airy, numinous mystique, and a longing for a spiritual possibility as the only escape from the cruel impulses of the flesh and crueller twists of the mind. Lang conjures a world where faiths new and old, foreign and familiar coexist and blend in unpredictable ways. His patient approach to his storytelling and creating this little world unto itself knits a unique mood, one that retains, from that eerie early first vision of Seetha, of having glimpsed something at once palpable and mystically elusive. An old swami (Victor Francen), a former prince himself, lurks in a ruin on the road to Eschnapur, remarked upon in the first part but not visited until the second, when Chandra goes to see him, at first asking for spiritual advice but soon instead demanding some sort of reassuring platitude. “You don’t want the truth,” the swami retorts: “You want someone to deny it with you.”
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There’s an echo here of a similar Indian-culture-through-Western eyes vision, Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1946), which also revolved around interlopers falling afoul of overpowering passions, where the capacity for total removal from the world of the senses represented by such a figure of religious commitment proved terribly out of reach. Another fascinating aspect of the duology is its approach to Chandra as a character. As monstrous as he often acts, he never loses Lang’s sympathy as his emblem of masculine folly. You can all but feel his teeth grinding in seething sexual frustration and emotional offence in being rejected by two people close to his heart, whilst his better self struggles in vain for supremacy, a struggle foiled by Chandra’s near-unchecked freedom to indulge his ego. Chandra is cursed with an intimate awareness of the incredibly fine line between adoration and detestation, as he articulates to Irene when he encounters that level-headed lady, as he obfuscates the purpose of his intended tomb and describes it as his monument to the idea of a great love, or at least one that will transmute hate into its opposite over the centuries. The centrality of architecture in the narrative serves both to facilitate the plot in this manner, but also allows Lang to nest concepts within concepts. Architecture is at once a metaphor for his own conception of cinema and a way of mapping the torturous locus of history, identity, and personality Chandra’s world represents. No surprise at all to remember young Lang had initially studied civil engineering before switching to art.
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Lang had long experimented in blending his own art form with others, most famously with his annexation of expressionism and then cubism to inform his films’ visuals, pursuing the high modernist ideal of trying to create art where the mode of expression is matched to the subject. Like a final statement of faith in the version of the medium he had helped bring to maturity, the Eschnapur duology is a testimony to the illustrative richness and depth of visual field he could gain from the traditional Academy film ratio. That seemingly boxy and intractable space accords perfectly with Lang’s careful explorations of the confines of Chandra’s palace and adjacent catacomb, mimicking the compartmentalisation of the mind; here are places where precious things and high ideals are stashed; here’s where old foes and unpleasant facts are locked away. One film made under Lang’s potent influence, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), which also referenced his overtly Freudian essay in psychic architectonics, Secret Beyond the Door (1948), borrowed the device of navigating by footfall Irene uses here in trying to locate Seetha and Harald’s prisons. The diptych was also almost certainly an influence on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ Indiana Jones films, particularly Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), which lifts imagery wholesale.
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Eschanpur as a fantasy landscape echoes Metropolis with its grandiose upper reaches of stability, order, and beauty, and its septic depths. Harald and Asagara’s exploration of the labyrinthine Moghul tunnels under the palace see them wandering into ancient precincts where the carved figure of a skull-bedecked Kali represents the lurking spectre of evils unexamined, and the dark, muddy waters filled with crocodiles can sometimes break in unbidden. Harald accidentally penetrates a chamber that proves to be where Chandra stashes Eschanpur’s populace of lepers, who advance in lunatic ranks upon any intruder. “Haven’t you noticed there aren’t any sick people in Eschnapur?” Asagara asks Harald after rescuing him from the horde. The downright creep scenes with the lepers feel like some rough draft for George Romero’s zombie hordes, actualisations of all that is diseased in the body politic bound at some point to burst out upon the world. Similarly Chandra’s desire to graft new shoals of clean modernity onto his state, represented by the nice neat models poured over by Harald, Asagara, and Rhode, without effecting any sort of political, social, or personal transformation is indicted as a common disease, one that renders it liable to being consumed by all those crocodiles and cobras. Dramatic architecture and the more literal kind fuse together in the diptych’s last act as Irene braves the labyrinth.
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The spider’s miracle proves to only temporarily save them from capture as Ramigani and his men manage to grab Seetha and Harald seems to die falling off a cliff along as he battles a soldier. But Ramigani soon reveals to Seetha that Harald survived and is now held captive in a dungeon under the palace, threatening to have him killed if she fails to marry Chandra and facilitate Ramigani’s coup. Catching wind of the conspiracy that seems to surround them, Rhode and Irene try to extract the truth from Asagara, who has a fair idea of what’s transpired but, compelled to remain silent for fear of reprisal from the Maharajah, has to settle for dropping faint hints as to Harald’s fate. Soon Irene pieces together her brother’s map of the palace and uses it to find Seetha, and finally hears the whole tale. Harald himself manages to escape by overpowering his guard, thanks to an admirably simple ruse that builds to a classic, vivid episode of Langian violence as Harald strangles his jailer with his own chains – the terrible face of death filmed in fearsome, looming close-up that speaks of Lang’s impact on Hitchcock – and then locates his sister and her husband in the labyrinth. Asagara dies heroically trying to defend Irene from the lepers after she inadvertently releases them. The film’s last act finally sees the many, patiently worked plot threads begin to collide, as Ramigani’s coup succeeds and Padhu’s forces invade the palace, unchecked by the Maharajah’s own forces because Ramigani has stabbed his general Dagh (Guido Celano) after he refused to join the insurrection. Chandra finally gets his brutal chastening as he’s stripped to the waist, tied up, and viciously whipped for the enjoyment of a gloating Padhu.
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But the usurpers’ gloating proves short-lived, as Dagh, injured but still able, appears with his soldiers to shoot down Padhu and crush the coup. Ramigani flees into the labyrinth only to be trapped in a low chamber into which pours river water and crocodiles eager to feast on his flesh, in a fiendishly great comeuppance. But the film’s real resolution is the confrontation between the freed, glowering, vengeful Chandra and Harald and Seetha, as the lord finds man and mate fighting assorted thugs and reacting to his own entrance as just another fight in the offing, Harald with barely enough strength to stay on his feet. For all of the characters, their civilised pretences have been stripped bare, leaving them only primal realities, the essence of their beings honed to raw nerves, will, and loyalty. Such an endpoint was common for Lang’s characters, although it was often a point of complete internal collapse, like Mabuse. Here, however, Lang opens the gate to new spiritual possibilities, as the spectacle of his own cruelty is enough to cause Chandra to drop his sword and give up his royal life, becoming instead the swami’s new acolyte, another form of self-extinction, but one that feels like a relieve exhalation from its creator, a last attempt to define a zone of life that might deliver freedom from the merciless hunger of life itself. It’s hard to deny that many criticisms levelled at the Eschnapur duology were accurate – it was silly, passé, and naïve. But it’s also still an utterly glorious late testimonial and summative work from one of cinema’s titans.

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