1970s, Auteurs, Western

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

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Director: Robert Altman

By Roderick Heath

Robert Altman’s vision of the American frontier is a dream welling out the sea, given raw form upon a shore that is sometimes mud, sometimes ice. His hero breezes into town a vague and ambiguous apparition and dissolves back into the landscape as his life blood leaks out. The aesthetic is at once near-mystical in its evocation of the past and also a tragicomedy in a key of shambling diminuendo, fever dream, opium fancy, reverie in an on old tintype. Yet it’s rooted in a thoroughly physical, tactile sense of being – mud, snow, gold, booze, bodily fluids, history written in such matter, the stuff people ingest and exude. John McCabe (Warren Beatty) rides out of the woods, sizes up the situation as he lights a cigar, and takes his leisurely time making his way into the saloon of Sheehan (Rene Auberjonois), watched by a ragtag collective of miners who make up the population of this small frontier colony somewhere near the Pacific Northwest coast, a town that will become known as Presbyterian Church for its most beloved structure, and yet which grows out of history’s muckiest compost heap.
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The miners are intrigued and anxious, wondering if the stranger brings trouble or excitement. McCabe seems to be merely a professional gambler, setting himself up in Sheehan’s tavern and swiftly contending with the owner’s pretences to businesslike authority, listening to his idea of a deal and turning it down, before getting down to business. But Sheehan has heard rumours, rumours he gleefully repeats, that this guy McCabe is nicknamed Pudgy who used to be a gunfighter and shot a man named Bill Roundtree with a derringer. A thousand westerns kick off with the same situation, of course. The stranger with a past breezes into town, hoping to leave that past behind and remake himself as just another man on the make in a land full of them. Where Altman’s specific touch manifests is in his approach to the cliché. McCabe is an oddball, a guy who talks to himself, cracks crude jokes, charms and wheels and deals entirely by the seat of his pants. He’s smart enough to see in this collection of shacks on a hillside, with a stream of wealth being hewn out of the ground steady enough to support an entrepreneur’s readiness to service men with things to spend that wealth on.
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Altman identifies with McCabe and fears for him as an independent impresario and as a kind of showman. The key to his popularity and success as a gambler is not mere skill with cards but the convivial and entertaining aura he weaves about him, drawing people to his table, eager to win and lose in his company. His reflexive mastery of his business is casually hinted as he makes sure where the back door to Sheehan’s saloon is before setting up his game. But McCabe seems to be tired of drifting and the tenuousness of his trade and has got himself a case of genuine, certified, 100-proof, all-American ambition. McCabe’s idea, as far as it goes, is to start meeting the needs of these men who labour far away from community and women with the things they most want and which Sheehan isn’t already providing them with, that is, everything that isn’t overpriced hooch and a filthy bunk for the night. So he travels back down to the nearest developed town, Bearpaw, and buys a trio of prostitutes, and sets them up in tents, each denoted by a sign: 2-for-1 Lil (Jackie Crossland), Pinto Kate (Elizabeth Murphy), and Almighty Alma (Carey Lee McKenzie). But the difficulties in running such an operation are soon made perplexingly clear to him as the mousy and silent Alma, for whatever reason, starts bellowing and trying to stab one of her clients with his own Bowie knife. What he needs in turn comes into town shortly after, riding on a laboriously trundling steam tractor: Mrs Constance Miller (Julie Christie).
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Amidst the many gems rough and polished scattered throughout Altman’s career, McCabe & Mrs. Miller has slowly resolved from the fog of initial bemusement to be regarded as perhaps his greatest achievement. Altman’s phase as a major film artist of untrammelled regard and liberty stretched from the compromised but fascinating Countdown (1968), gained traction with the huge hit MASH (1970) and reached a highpoint of acclaim with Nashville (1975), with many oddities and gems in between, to the end of the 1970s. Altman’s career crashed against the shoals of a changed audience mood, an increasingly lockstep film industry, and his own restless artistry. He spent the following decade or so in a critical and financial wilderness, before a resurgence of patchy brilliance in the 1990s. Altman’s rude reassessment of American social and historical mores and mythology was frequently leveraged through determined assaults on film genre frameworks, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller fits squarely both into Altman’s private genre of satirically inverted twists on familiar storytelling modes and received wisdoms, and into the run of darker, probing, guilty revisionist portraits of the Old West and American history that sprang up in the late ‘60s and extended into the following decade.
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The very making of McCabe & Mrs. Miller evokes the rare and rich window in the history of the movie business it exemplifies as an artwork, some of the hottest talents in Hollywood collaborating on this strange, shaggy, never-never excursion, stranded on a muddy hillside outsider Vancouver. A collective of draft-fleeing Americans helping build the sets in the backgrounds of shots. Altman, still a recent escapee from the treadmill of week-in-week-out TV work, a director who had scored an unexpected blockbuster hit a year earlier now determined to push his credit as far as it would reach and beyond, and work out just what his new-found style was good for. A pair of tabloid-bait movie star lovers at the centre giving career-best performances, the classy Oscar-winner playing the iron-plated whore and her mogul-star boyfriend playing a half-smart tinhorn, lost purely in art as a way of life, playing people who are linked personally and professionally and yet remained fatefully alienated.
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Altman himself called McCabe & Mrs. Miller, an adaptation of writer Edmund Naughton’s 1959 novel, an “anti-western,” a description that seems both acute and yet also something of a miscue in terms of what the film actually does. On a narrative level, it’s actually a perfect western, essaying basic themes and conflicts that run like a seam of ore through the genre canon: the arrival of the white man’s industry in the wilderness, the founding of civic life and enterprise and slow achievement of order and community, and the battle of the lone maverick against the forces of bullying power. The finale, which sees the people of Presbyterian Church band together to save the structure that gives it its name and which embodies a yearned-for status and promise whilst ignoring the travails of the man to whom the community owes much of its existence, has a tragic irony that takes up where John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) left off, whilst the characters and aspects of the story evoke the people presented in Stagecoach (1939) who are obliged to keep a good distance ahead of the encroachment of mature civilisation because their habits, knowledge, and trades are inimical to the pretences of that civilisation.
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McCabe & Mrs. Miller’s disassembly of the traditional template is more one of tone and conceptual counterpoint than of plot. The western had been transformed greatly in the previous decade, chiefly by the influence of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, and their more authentic concept of the Old West as a place that ran on the exploitation of raw, easily accessed elements, both natural and human, in a manner the older, straight-laced westerns could never portray. But Altman went further in completely dismantling their mythologies of macho potency and freedom. Altman’s method of shooting the film as the set for the town was steadily built up around the ears of cast and crew, and his focus on Presbyterian Church as a community, mediated the happenstance fellowship of MASH’s jerry-built hospital and the panoramic studies of communities in his signature works like Nashville or Short Cuts (1993). But McCabe & Mrs Miller’s dreamlike mood, the sensation of an experience half-remembered, makes it less a precursor to his panoplies than to the dreamy, interiorised worlds Altman would venture into for his less popular but more personal works like That Cold Day in the Park (1969), Images (1972) and 3 Women (1977). Narrative drifts along on the soundtrack’s Leonard Cohen songs like the snow flitters on the wind.
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The audience has seen Miller before McCabe, in the background as he negotiates with a Bearpaw pimp, moving about with a taciturn determination to close herself off, but apparently overhearing enough to see an angle. The way Miller wolfs down her food on McCabe’s dime suggests that she hasn’t been doing that well, and she like him needs that very specific tide pool formed by history, the wide-open town ready for her peculiar arts, to truly prosper. But Miller is snappier, cannier, faster-paced as an entrepreneur than McCabe. Perhaps that’s because her looks are a transportable ore that needs no mining or refinement, holding value so long as she keeps following the frontier, but also leave her perpetually patronised. McCabe has to charm, to pause and weave a space about himself to be effective; Miller must barge through. Miller presages a later development in capitalist development than McCabe, who profits initially through the pastimes men pursue without women; Miller lays down a template to create a hub where one part of business creates another, by building a bathhouse men want to use to wash and get ready to then venture on to a “proper sporting house with clean linen.” Miller fends off McCabe’s stammering protests of business knowledge with an impressive display of hard-won acumen, how to deal with such bottom-line-affecting problems as lesbianism and outbreaks of religiosity and venereal disease. The Harrison Shaughnessy Mining Company arrives as the next stage, impersonal and all-consuming. It doesn’t need allure or skill.
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Altman’s vision in Countdown of the first moon landings as a collection of metal husks and littered dead bodies gave his own, sarcastically desolate rough draft for a future of space colonisation, prefiguring his very similar concept of the historical version. Human ventures are flimsy, ridiculous tilts at eternity and usually result in disaster, but civilisation still accumulates. The populace, entirely white and male at first, is men who dance by the camera in their own little eccentric spaces – the bartender (Wayne Grace) who wants to experience new adventures in moustaches and his foil, the grouchy miner Smalley (John Schuck), McCabe’s bespectacled foreman who makes excuses and parrots his boss – and make their living for the sake of having something to spend on what McCabe and Miller offer them, and they’re boyishly happy to be enfolded by the bawdy embrace of the whorehouse. As the town grows, its makeup becomes more diverse and sophisticated. A dapper and gentlemanly black barber, Sumner Washington and his wife (Rodney Gage and Lili Francks) arrive, whilst the new selection of prostitutes Miller brings in just behind them are a cross-section of ethnicities from the various immigrant communities flooding into America – Scots, Irish, German, Chinese. It’s Altman’s seditious take on the way such cross-sections were employed in classic Hollywood westerns and war movies: the melting pot where everyone’s the son of a whore.
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Miller’s bawdy-house provides a locus of free-floating sexual abandon reminiscent of the camp in MASH, although there’s no us-and-them divide between besetting proceedings. There are no voices of onerous religion or authority, although there’s also no order. Terrible crimes occur but go unpunished because they’re just part of the texture of life out here. Altman unspools absurd schoolboy theorising about the anatomy of Chinese women over footage of the newly-arrived whores gleefully bathing, a collection of Renoir nudes in all their fleshy, raucous joie-de-vivre – or is it Courbet’s origin of the world, turned sideways? Good authority is found wanting: “A guy like Amos Linville isn’t gonna spend vice dollars just to find out something that isn’t true.” Either way, the Chinese prostitute costs $1.50, whilst Mrs Miller can be had for 5.00, but there’s no damn way John McCabe can be taken for a measly $5,500. McCabe is chagrined when part of his business vastly outperforms another, the whorehouse a machine for making money that dwarfs whiskey-selling, the realm he controls. Miller is breezy in her indifference to any familiar moral or social structure or mode of rhetoric. McCabe’s habits of muttering to himself return, Miller his bete-noir and beauty, true love and bitch queen, fending him and making him cough up his five bucks for the night but possibly adoring this weird lug. McCabe is swiftly infatuated with Miller but also identifies her with the forces of a world he can scarcely comprehend: “I’ve got poetry in me,” he declares in one of his monologue rants, “You’re freezin’ my soul.” His leitmotif is “money and pain.”
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McCabe’s attempt to regain the upper hand when two representatives of Harrison Shaughnessy come to make him an offer sets him onto a path towards a lethal confrontation, anticipated in the joke he tells the two emissaries, Sears (Michael Murphy) and Hollander (Antony Holland), about a frog eaten by an eagle who then pleads not to be defecated out at a great height. McCabe’s pride as a successful entrepreneur, a big fish in a small pond, is truly worth more than money to him, and even when Miller has told him the danger he’s courting, he still can’t bring himself to accept an offer. He assumes business is a process of negotiation, but it’s actually a monologue of power and need. A food chain of hype is evinced throughout: at first McCabe easily outwits Sheehan’s deal-making and has other men repeating his words in awe, where later McCabe will be the one who can’t make deals and finishes up parroting a fancy Lawyer’s (William Devane) folderol about taking over big monopolies and trusts. McCabe’s fate is sealed by his own posturing, but also by pure chance: Holland is peeved he’s been sent out on such an errand and can’t be bothered hanging around for more negotiating. There’s a quality of ruthless wit in Christie’s performance, in the way her Miller’s hard glaze of disappointment and dread after listening to McCabe’s first explanation of his encounter with the emissaries gives way to an expression of indulgent adoration when he returns, a shift enabled more by a big dose of opium smoke than his hopeful tidings.
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Young mail-order bride Ida (Shelley Duvall) arrives in town along with Miller to be wed to the much older Bart Coyle (Burt Remson), only for Bart to get himself killed trying to defend her honour against someone who takes her for another whore. So Ida goes to Miller to become a prostitute, to Miller’s assurance she’s only performing the same job for better pay. These shifting roles and places on the pecking order amplify the basic conceit of That Cold Day in the Park, where the predatory young man finds himself finally prey to an insane woman, and would echo on through Altman’s prime phase, his fascination with people who find their identities and memories mutable, often influenced by hierarchies of power and ability, a constant fact of life in the rambunctious republic, prone to suddenly and surreally inverting. Where Images and 3 Women would toy with this idea in terms of gender and lifestyle and The Long Goodbye in terms of friendship and the roles of sucker and wiseguy, McCabe & Mrs. Miller does is explicitly in romantic and capitalistic terms. How many lovers has Miller lost to their own egotism and miscalculation? “I should’ve known,” she mutters ruefully when she listens to McCabe’s spiel after rejecting Sears and Holland’s offer. No wonder she prefers drifting off in ball of opium smoke, where glittering baubles hide worlds within worlds and the present can’t hurt you because it already feels like a very distant past.
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Altman’s feel for identity’s mutability tied in with his fascination for theatricality itself, the act of playing roles, an interest naturally bound up with his love for letting his cast weave their own roles in settings that collapsed the boundaries between movie set and living organism. Altman would go on to transform Buffalo Bill Cody into a more famous and exalted version of McCabe in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or; Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), struggling to massage the chaos of history and its living avatars into the neat demarcations of legend and showmanship, his façade of jaunty success becoming a terrible rictus grin. Later Altman would step through the looking glass in The Player (1992) to consider things from the point of view of the big shot who nonetheless commits to the same game of identities, destroying the artist and appropriating his life. At least McCabe never faces that kind of indignity or dishonesty; although Altman pitches his eventual decision to battle Harrison Shaughnessy’s gunmen somewhere in the no-man’s-land between earnestness and lampoon because of McCabe’s sheepish self-recrimination in misjudging his position, he does nonetheless put up an awfully good fight. That McCabe proves ultimately to be a stranger, more ambiguous figure than he seems is both a surprise but also entirely in keeping with this theme; no-one plays the same part all the time in life, unless they have no actual identity.
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Vilmos Zsigmond’s groundbreaking photography helped define the look of other westerns for the following decade and beyond, using film rendered slightly foggy before shooting, giving images a ghostly feel as if the film texture itself is having trouble remembering the images and people placed on it. There are flashes of the kind of lyrical, pictorial beauty prized in the look of films from its time, coming in the same way they tend to come at us in life, as brief glimpses that suddenly compel. They’re brief and mixed in with muddy interiors loaned faint honeyed warmth from the lamps and film grain fuzz threatens to swallow up the good-looking stars, where the saloon denizens loom like characters in one of Goya’s black room paintings. Everything seems a shifting, shapeless dramatic landscape coalescing like the snow in the finale: the adamantine stature of the framings of Ford and Howard Hawks and their brethren have given way to a camera that drifts and idles eventually finds its tiny focal points.
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These moments of elucidating precision abruptly glint in the morass, like the camera movement that zeroes in on Miller’s grim and pensive expression amongst the singing mourners at Bart’s funeral as McCabe goes to talk to a menacing-looking stranger on a horse who rides in when they’re expecting trouble from Harrison Shaughnessy. This shot lays bare the whole of Miller and McCabe’s relationship, the veneer of stoic distance and the quietly gnawing mutual awareness, one that’s been quietly knitting together in a series of shambling interludes in which McCabe tries to make courtly advances on Miller only to be shut out or hindered or displaced by a john. This shot also contextualises the finale’s very last cut between McCabe and Miller in their mutually prostrate states, still linked and still distinct. Habits and peculiarities are glimpsed, McCabe’s breakfast of a raw egg in liquor, Miller’s delight in reading. Panoramas suddenly resolve, describing character and power relations, as when Sheehan is glimpsed reclining with a prostitute, smeared in cream in bawdy indulgence, on one side of a frame with the antiseptic duo of Sears and Holland in the other, signalling an alliance in aims that nonetheless presage entirely different ends.
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Altman’s use of three Cohen songs from his debut album is one of those touches that divides viewers, given Cohen’s morose lyrics and insistent, scuttling melodies can grate or mesmerise depending on your receptivity. But it’s hard to deny they fit the film as not merely written for it but in it. They lend the images coherence and unity in knitting an evocative emotional context under which Altman’s vignettes can play out requiring no further context. The film almost becomes a musical in this regard, making it weird kin to an equally anarchic version of the west, if purveyed in a very different style, in Joshua Logan’s Paint Your Wagon (1969). The Cohen songs’ melancholic romanticism accords with this landscape where relationships are defined by transience and no hint of rigid moralism has yet descended, where people drift in and out of each-other’s arms and lives, where the wind carries with it the faint ring of chimes mindful of a lost time of happiness. Stephen Foster’s standard “Beautiful Dreamer” is heard repeatedly, its gently sauntering melody redolent of bygone charm, and the title could certainly be said to describe Altman’s people. But he’s not quite that sentimental: he offers the song more as the mode in the period through which his characters understand themselves, their lingering courtly pretences and romanticism, even the most degraded prostitute or labourer.
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Even the hints of religious imagery and abstracted spirituality in Cohen’s songs accords well with the aspect parodying religious myth (carried over from MASH’s Buñuel-derived Da Vinci spoof) as McCabe becomes a cold-climate Christ figure, sacrificed to communal selective blindness and the religion of business. The church that gives the town its name seems irrelevant to its daily needs, needs fulfilled instead by McCabe and Miller, but this is brutally inverted as McCabe finds his shotgun appropriated by the church’s self-appointed guardian, who orders McCabe out of the church with cold and punitive purpose as he tries to hide their whilst eluding the assassins. Only then the pastor is blown apart by a gunman, mistaken for his quarry, and the church catches fire from spilt, ignited lantern oil, a disaster that brings out the townsfolk to save the building whilst McCabe and his enemies continue to battle unnoticed.
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Altman’s sociological bent extends to a delight in the paraphernalia in a past that’s not simply historic but becoming something else, as Presbyterian Church moves with blink-or-miss-it speed out of medieval landscape into the dawn of modernity. Altman was chasing Peckinpah in this, as his old west encountered the day of motor cars and machine guns in The Wild Bunch (1969), but Altman goes for less urgent markers, quainter and clunkier devices. Music is made on fiddles and flutes but also now from mechanical proto-jukeboxes, the brothel clients and the ladies dancing to the tinkling strains of a gleeful novelty, horses are displaced by the laborious but steady and relentless chug of steam locomotion. Michael Cimino, in Heaven’s Gate (1980), and Martin Scorsese with Gangs of New York (2002), would take up Altman’s attempts to encompass the idea of a country becoming. At the same time Altman plays an extended game with the western’s argot of mythologising and immortalisation in rumour that would also provide seeds for the likes of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), as McCabe is wrapped in mystique from his first vision. He’s the man with the past, the man who shot so and so, the gunfighter and card sharp, except he seems increasingly unlikely to worthy of it, before the very end seems to confirm it was all true, at least in some dimension.
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The second half of the film resolves into a slightly more conventional narrative form and offers a variation on a hallowed western movie plot, as McCabe encounters the emissaries of Harrison Shaughnessy and then must cope with the company’s hired guns. Butler (Millais), Kid (Manfred Schulz), and Breed (Jace Van Der Veen), are three cast-iron killers who intimidate the locals whilst awaiting their moment, whilst McCabe gears up to take them on after realising there’s no way to buy them off or gain the law’s aid. Altman’s history isn’t written in ritualised square-offs and chain-lightning gunfights but in shots in the back and battles of wits, hidden weapons and concealed positions, in outmatched heroes and villains who like to gun down hapless strangers. Altman offers his take on the infamous scene in George Stevens’ Shane (1953) where Jack Palance’s thug guns down Elisha Cook’s farmer. Here the affable, horny cowboy (Keith Carradine) McCabe initially mistook for a goon but who’s been happily rogering all the girls in Miller’s brothel is accosted by the Kid, at first bullied and then wheedled into showing his gun, a gesture the Kid uses as an excuse to shoot him down. Altman’s cold dissection of Stevens’ model swaps black-clad menace who gives his foe a slight chance for a baby-faced psychopath who could also be a schoolyard bully, the lowest form of life in Altman’s book who also happens to be everywhere, who gives none at all.
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Butler on the other hand is a gentlemanly British raconteur who likes to regale people who tactics for killing off unwanted Chinese labourers, who whose own hard edge is made patently clear to McCabe as he makes a show of being affably interested in what he has to say before assuring him there’s no more deals to be made. Sheehan hands him ammunition to taunt McCabe by getting him to pretend to be a friend of a friend of Bill Roundtree. The subsequent scene of McCabe’s visit to Devane’s Lawyer in Bearpaw provides a spot of modishly satirical pot-shot at pompous mouthpieces who emit high-flown rhetoric that conceals a multitude of offences, and helps close the circle on McCabe’s displacement as rhetorical kingpin, but it also feels tonally at odds with the greater part of Altman’s achievement, a hangover of Altman’s momentary stardom as a hipster wag worked out in MASH and Brewster McCloud (1970). Sometimes when watching McCabe & Mrs. Miller I tend to wish that Altman had minimised what plot there is even more, and left a movie that exists entirely in a key of running-watercolour images and the nudging strains of Cohen’s songs.
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Then again, the nagging pull of the film’s dreamy, instantly nostalgic texture is part of Altman’s trap, a movie that unfolds via the blissed-out textures of Miller’s drug fancies but which unfolds in an altogether crueller world, the one McCabe eventually leaves her in to try and live and die in. The climactic scenes see McCabe playing an elaborate game of hide and seek with the gunmen, trying to use his knowledge of the town to his advantage in eluding and ambushing his enemies. His tactics work, but not quite well enough: he cops a bullet in the side from the Kid, who just won’t die quite fast enough when McCabe puts a hole in his back, and then Breed, but takes another bullet from Butler. These scenes ironically see Altman exercise directorial muscles developed orchestrating the action scenes on the TV war series Combat where he learned the art of action filmmaking inside out. He doesn’t merely wring pyrotechnics or suspense from the scene, but a sense of near-cosmic absurdity from McCabe’s evasions and exclusion, his interminable solitude, the near-comedic quality of life and death that’s also brutal and terrible, a precise weighing up of the cost of McCabe’s efforts to stay alive and defend his paltry piece of turf, accrued in men crawling off into the snow to die.
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The shoot-out strongly recalls Ford’s take on the OK Corral in My Darling Clementine (1946) – without music, only the sound of the whistling wind and the incidental clamour of background action, the moments of truth brief and fateful and final. Where in Ford the edge of competence imbued by the life of the gun was their strength and the struggle was stand-up, Altman sees the same wit that gives his small businesspeople their edge in life as just as vital: McCabe is a shrewd little bastard who nearly makes it, but the odds were always against him. Altman’s last sleight of hand comes when Butler brings down McCabe, only to cop a derringer bullet in the forehead as he stoops over his conquered foe. Everything Sheehan said about McCabe suddenly seems true, in a way that elucidates Altman’s overall point about the old west, his version of Ford’s “print the legend” dictum. The details are correct, the shape of the myth perhaps accurate, but the real story, as ever, evades all cordoning. Altman’s love for McCabe as a slightly pathetic but beautiful dreamer doesn’t make him flinch from sacrificing him. But it does stir perhaps the most profound emotion to be found in any of his movies, in the final image of his snow-caked body being wrapped in ice, intercut with Miller escaping into her dream world, each glad perhaps to swap oblivion for reality, for reality is never real enough.

Standard
1930s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Erotic, French cinema, Mystery, Romance, Short Films, Thriller

Night at the Crossroads (1932) / A Day in the Country (1936)

La Nuit de Carrefour / Partie de Campagne

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Jean Renoir

By Roderick Heath

Sometimes a famous name can be a boost or a burden. Or just a name. As the son of one of the most lauded Impressionist painters, Jean Renoir’s attraction to cinema gave the young art form an aura of matured sophistication, but might well have also lifted a few eyebrows in sceptical intrigue. If Jean ever seemed oppressed or dogged by the challenge of proving himself an artist in his own right, he never showed it in his films, which evinced only sublime freedom of form and spirit. In spite of his father’s schooling of all things visual and Jean’s initial interest in sculpture, Renoir was deeply attracted to the theatre, and film offered him a chance to blend two separate artistic realms and better refine a new one. Although today enshrined as one of the quintessential cinema masters, Renoir was too restless, droll, and politically tinted an artist to always be readily accepted in his day, although many of his works found swift and great favour, like the antiwar tale La Grande Illusion (1937), which managed the feat of getting nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, a first for a film mostly not in English.
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But Renoir’s association with the Front Populaire, the progressive and radical coalition that briefly came to power in France before World War II, made him a target for the right, and his best-regarded film, The Rules of the Game (1939), released on the cusp of conflict, stoked public ire despite being merely a tart ledger accounting bourgeois tomfoolery, subtly indicting the country’s self-congratulatory upper classes of detachment from their countrymen and blithe indifference to oncoming reality. Renoir himself had been the product of a gloriously unfettered childhood and had fought with distinction as a young man in World War I. His sharply diastolic worldview was formed then with a gift for depicting both the elating absurdity and gnawing distress of the human condition, his surveys sometimes acerbically critical, often warm and indulgent; even his regulation wartime propaganda film This Land is Mine (1943) champions communication above action. Renoir started making films in the mid-1920s, collaborating on Une Vie Sans Joie (1925) but really finding his feet with an adaptation of Emile Zola’s tale of an actress turned courtesan, Nana (1926), starring Renoir’s wife Marguerite, a first his cinematic muse and then indispensable collaborator.
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Renoir’s shoots were virtual family affairs and relied on a tight-knit team of collaborators. After acting in his movies Marguerite started editing them, whilst his nephew Claude would begin as a camera operator and eventually become a lauded cinematographer, whilst Jean himself and his brother Pierre acted in several. As he moved into the sound era, Renoir turned out a string of corrosively funny, brusquely intimate portrayals of squabbling class avatars and human frailty, like the hapless clerk and Sunday painter who gives himself up to life as a wandering hobo after killing his grotesque mistress in La Chienne (1931), or the fellow vagrant who refuses to be domesticated in Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932). In the midst of the Front Populaire’s heyday, Renoir made several films including the proto-neorealist effort Toni (1935), The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), which portrayed the murder of a sleazy capitalist to allow a successful experiment in a worker’s cooperative to continue, and La Marseillaise (1938), a recounting of the French Revolution’s most fervent hours, which bore out Renoir’s simultaneous capacity to embrace radical new causes whilst also extending sympathy to figures caught on the wrong side of epochal tides.
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It feels right to look at Night at the Crossroads and A Day in the Country in concert because they’re both relatively short fruits of Renoir’s great period, and that diastolic sensibility is plain from their titles on down. Both films are set just beyond the outskirts of Paris, at locales serving the passing trade and beset by a mood of isolation and transience. They share a quality with Shakespeare’s pastoral plays of being thrust out beyond the usual norms of civilisation and forced to improvise a different moral order. The day/night schism erected between the two works begs for a clever artist to render them porous, and the undercurrents of pining disappointment that finally defines A Day in the Country is mirrored by the final sense of new chances in life that comes with the dawn in Night at the Crossroads. Both films take on material adapted from highly regarded authors. Renoir made Night at the Crossroads specifically to honour one of his favourite then-contemporary writers, Georges Simenon. A Day in the Country was an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant, a friend of Jean’s father and the other Impressionists, and an artist who shared with them a certain gruff and zesty dedication to reflecting on life as he saw it.
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Night at the Crossroads has a certain legendary cache because it was very hard to see for a long time, and even today supposedly still has a reel missing. One reviewer compared it to Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (1935) for being an ostensibly rational mystery that still feels imbued with a nocturnal and numinous atmosphere even after the fade out. It was also the first adaptation to feature one of the most famous detective characters of all time, Simenon’s cagey, calm, modest but unrelenting hero Inspector Jules Maigret, played here by Pierre Renoir. The film’s first image, under the title card, is of a blowtorch at work on a safe in otherwise pitch black, an introduction to the mode of inky darkness and troubling illumination the tale unfolds in, the sense of forces at midnight working like termites at the fabric of the stable world. The movie proper kicks off with a series of sociological jokes as a motorcycle cop pulls in at a service station at the crossroads, in a drab semi-rural locale. The gang of workers who labour at the station mockingly read out society engagement announcements. The bourgeois couple in one of the neighbouring houses, the Michonnets (Gehret and Jane Peirson), note the behaviour of ostensibly rich people who also pay on instalment plans, and instantly accuse their neighbours, a Danish brother and sister, of stealing their car when they notice it missing.
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The Michonnets lead a posse into the Danes’ yard and break open the garage, but get more than they bargained for, as the car is inside with a corpse sitting up within. The dead man is a Jewish diamond dealer from Brussels named Goldberg. The Danish man, Andersen (Georges Koudria) is arrested and grilled over the course of the day by Maigret and his assistant Lucas (Georges Térof). Renoir conveys the passage of time during the interrogation by cutting away to a newsstand where the developments in the story are reported in the day’s newspaper editions – the morning’s fresh news becomes the sludge being swept up by a street cleaner in the gutter – and then returning to the ever more crowded and smoke-riddled inspector’s offices as the interview continues, the smoke from the anxious coppers growing thick in anticipation of the fog that looms about the crossroads. Finally, Maigret is obliged to release Andersen, but decides to travel out to the scene of the crime to try and get his bearings.
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The idea of disorientation is realised on a cinematic level by Renoir as he unsettles and fatigues the eye with his oblique framings, peculiar edits, and frustrated viewpoints. Information feels random and broken-up. Far from impressionism, Night at the Crossroads takes place in a cubist trance. Physical objects – gasoline pumps, cars, house interiors – seem imbued with a form of life, as they’re shot in a way where the human characters are glimpsed through frames or behind looming imminences, or seen darting through scantly lit patches of ground. The branches of the roads that link at the titular crossroads fade off into murky night or boiling fog. A sequence in which Goldberg’s wife is driven to the crossroads only to be shot by a lurking sniper takes place in oceans of dark punctuated again by small pools of light, his rifle-wielding killer looming as a vague silhouette, a nocturnal monstrosity. Renoir’s customary, breezy use of location filming, one aspect of his cinema that made him a precursor to the neorealists, avoids the imprint of the expressionist style that was waning in its native Germany but gaining new use in Hollywood, even as Night at the Crossroads succeeds in feeling as rarefied and odd as the first Universal horror films.
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Elsewhere Renoir’s camera mimics Maigret’s incisive, quietly registering method. A little vertical tilt of the camera follows Maigret’s gaze as he takes in the appearance of one of the station works, registering the dissonances. A close-up of a cigarette packet tells the Inspector of visits to unlikely quarters. The little world Renoir creates here is solid, tangible, sensuous, at once torpid and agitated. Exploring the new possibilities and practicalities of sound, Renoir utilised on-location recording. Scenes are filled with the din of passing cars and bustling activity, and occasionally there are disjunctive matches in the noise from shot to shot, an aspect that seems crude at first but also helps reinforce the overt mood of dislocation. Renoir shows a more exact sense of how to exploit sound as he utilises a tune heard first on one of Else’s records and then on the accordion played incessantly by the station workers to tip the detective off to the hitherto unexpected link between the two camps. One sequence, in which Maigret interviews the garage men, is loaded with Renoir’s mischievous sense of behavioural quirk as one man idly flips a jack handle and then begins sawing away on a machining job purely to aggravate the Inspector during one of his interviews.
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Night at the Crossroads is a beautiful time capsule of a slightly grubby, wayside corner of pre-war France, one that seems to have had a powerful impact in some Hollywood viewers, like Howard Hawks, whose The Big Sleep (1946) feels particularly under this film’s spell in parsing the harshness of the crime film through a thin veil of the otherworldly. Indeed, much of the poetic realist style’s fascination for characters on the margins of gritty, industrial France and the later film noir mode’s obsession with femme fatales and troubled antiheroes might well have flowed from this well. Here the perverse temptress is Andersen’s supposed sister Else (Winna Winifried), who seems the incarnation of the narcotising pall that hangs about the crossroads, languorously rolling upon cushions as Maigret tries to interview her, flashing her gartered thigh, or caressing her pet tortoise, perhaps the most amusing apt pet in film history. Else is actually Andersen’s wife, but she’s really in thrall to her former husband Guido (Manuel Raaby) who is hidden amidst the coterie of criminals that hides in plain sight about the crossroads, who utilise the service station as the base for criminal enterprises including robbery and drug smuggling. Else is used by Guido as general purpose concubine to keep his gang in line, with Andersen, who married Else in the hope of elevating out of the squalid criminal universe, tied fatefully to her. Soon the criminals try to murder him to keep him quiet. The criminal alliance that spans the crossroads becomes Renoir and Simenon’s sarcastic cross-section of French society, eventually building to the inevitable punch-line that they’re all in league to pull off something crooked in a twist reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express.
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The workers in the garage who do the dirty work, the sniping, readily offended Michonnets who act as fences, and the lurking aristocratic duo in the big house, all share nefarious motives – even if things prove a little more complicated. The collective of criminals feels like an ironic precursor to the workers’ cooperative in The Crime of Monsieur Lange. Renoir considers Balzac’s maxim that great fortune is always the product of a great crime, and seems to wonder half-idly if the path to a socialist society might lie down the same path. Although nominally a femme fatale, Else feels like a rough draft for the hero of Boudu Saved From Drowning, a self-confessedly lazy person who exists as a project of betterment and/or exploitation for others, but who eddies amongst her own thoughts and whims, barely aware of the niceties of civilisation. Winifried is a fascinating presence who was Renoir’s find for the film, reminiscent of the German star Sybille Schmitz in her aura of languorous eroticism, but made very few films. Anderson looks like a characters strayed out of a Fritz Lang film with one lost eye concealed behind a black monocle lens, a touch that makes him ineffably odd, a creature of proto-science fiction, human and mechanism coming together. And yet he turns out to be the one well-motivated character save the policemen. Andersen is a prototype for Erich von Stroheim’s Von Rauffenstein in La Grande Illusion, a sad remnant of a figure, damaged, mechanism-aided physique, fallen from his station and adrift in a mean and grubby present.
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I suspect the reason cinema beckoned so irresistibly to Renoir over art forms was the promise of movement. Renoir’s films vibrate with peripatetic energy and a sensibility close to a pantheistic feel for the landscape as a living organism in itself, and a concurrent contempt for the stifling immobility of civilised conventions and quotidian social structures, unnatural forms with no flexibility or dynamism. The urge to movement is often literalised in his characters who, if they have no place to go but also no reason to stay put, give themselves up to the logic of flowing rivers, speeding trains, open roads and anxiously inviting frontiers. Renoir actualised this anxious, liberating joy found in surging speed by often including a shot from a camera affixed to the front of a car or train, precipitous images of racing speed. The stuck-in-the-mud mood of Night at the Crossroads belies this motif to a certain extent, but then gives way as Lucas chases after the criminal band, laboriously catching up with the vehicle and swinging about with giddy speed as the villains loose shots at their pursuers. Renoir might well have been thinking back to Louis Feuillade’s serials when he took on Night at the Crossroads, but the surrealist spirit of such models is dovetailed here into a seedier, more mundane yet just as untrustworthy reality. Another great joke conjoined with a surreal affect comes when a doctor is called in to treat a wounded man; the doctor (Max Galban), called away from a night at the opera, arrives in full eveningware, complete with top hat and white gloves, like he’s about to play Master of Ceremonies for walpurgisnacht.
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Love and sexual passion are usually privileged in Renoir’s films to a degree that almost seems to ape the stereotyped French affinity for romanticism. The titles of both Night at the Crossroads and A Day in the Country contain the seeds of an obfuscating joke, associating both locations with aspects of opportune erotic adventure; the dejeuners of the later film face, and leap into, dalliances which Maigret spends a great deal of his story avoiding, as Else constantly tries to provoke the detective, the ever-attentive copper refusing to be drawn but clearly on occasion having a hard time of it. If A Day in the Country sees Renoir exercising the theme at its most apparently blithe and freewheeling, Night at the Crossroads finds lurking neuroticism and pathos as Maigret becomes a distraction to Else’s ultimate choice of between Guido and Andersen, who suffers for his love with a bullet in his back. Else herself seems to mildly prefer Maigret himself, and the very last frame sees Else grasping the detective from behind. But of course he’s one of the most famously married law enforcers in pop culture and moreover he’s the stern guardian of social structures. So Else makes a final, dutiful trudge up to see Andersen, at least rejecting Guido and his poisonous influence over Guido’s howls of protest, which might be amour fou or mere petulance from the Apache chieftain that his suzerainty is finally ending.
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When Renoir would return to tales of murder and smouldering jealousy, he would however dispense with the safe and generic mediating figure of the detective; his Emile Zola adaptation La Bete Humaine (1938) would again take up the theme of two men attached to one woman driven to acts of inchoate criminality and passion, but viewed from within that vortex, and the key image of headlong flight into modernity glimpsed from the viewpoint of Jean Gabin’s ill-fated train driver with the lingering temptation of self-consuming crack-up at the end of the line. A Day in the Country, by contrast, retreats into a bucolic past, a portrait of Edens lost, a place free of psychic and physical pressure from bustling machines and harsh contemporary facts. All the better for Renoir to take a closer, more exacting look at the dance of seduction and the evanescence of pleasure. Accounts regarding the production radically diverge. Some have claimed it was essentially left unfinished, as Renoir became frustrated with the weather, and eventually dashed off to get working on his adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1936), and that Renoir’s assistant director Jacques Becker, who would go on to be a highly regarded filmmaker himself, reportedly shot some footage. Renoir however insisted that the project was always intended to be a short film and he resisted his producer’s encouragement to expand it into a full feature.
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The resulting pile of celluloid sat on the shelf for nearly a decade, during which time war broke out and Renoir moved to the US, where his interest in people on the fringes of society was evinced in regional dramas like Swamp Water (1941) and The Southerner (1945). Eventually, Marguerite Renoir sat down and carefully cut A Day in the Country together and it was released as a 38-minute movie almost one decade exactly later. Whatever the truth behind the film’s shoot and its long marination on the shelf, if might well be a great argument for such messy method, as it’s one of the most perfect artefacts in cinema, an island of expressive concision and theme realised through filmmaking. The title and basic notion seem carefully tailored to recall the works of Renoir’s father and his artistic alumni, who often went off on jaunts in the countryside to try and capture perfect visions of the world and the people at large in it. A Day in the Country was also an inferred glance at the new freedoms the Front Populaire’s reforms allowed to French workers, with enshrined shorter working hours and paid holidays, to pursue leisure in a manner once reserved for the kind of prosperous bourgeoisie Renoir depicts here. Not that A Day in the Country is any kind of political tract either.
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The story is as simple and universal as the plot of Night at the Crossroads is knotty and obscure. Monsieur Dufour (André Gabriello), a successful tradesman, takes his wife Juliette (Jane Marken), his mother (Gabrielle Fontan), his daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille), and her fiancé Anatole (Paul Temps) out for a buggy ride in the country just outside Paris, on a fine summer’s day in 1860. Approaching a riverside restaurant, they decide to stop and have lunch. Dufour and Anatole are both enthusiastic to do some fishing and are initially frustrated when they can’t get their hands on some rods. Henriette sets her mind on a picnic under a cherry tree by the river. Henri (Georges D’Arnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques B. Brunius) are two gentlemen idlers whose day of calm and quiet time-wasting hanging about the restaurant and playing chess is spoiled by the sounds of the shrill and excitable city folk arriving outside. Upon catching a glimpse of the feminine pulchritude suddenly on hand, irritation swiftly turns to resolve to seduce the ladies, which proves, on the whole, a rather easy task.
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Renoir had taken initial, powerful inspiration from the lacerating intimacy of Von Stroheim’s films, and A Day in the Country could be described as Renoir’s take on the countryside trek and intended seduction in Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922), shed of melodrama and moralism. Jean-Luc Godard, who greatly admired Renoir’s works even as he remained temperamentally antithetical to them as a director, would push the cycle of inspiration on by tormenting and misshaping Renoir’s template into Weekend (1967), tossing in one brief recreation of Renoir’s riparian placidity to ensure the connection. Renoir’s film celebrates passion in a manner blissfully, if finally with a flutter of heartbreak, disconnected from worldly business or moral judgement: there is only the purity of the erotic urge as an end in itself to be served by any willing party. As Renoir’s cinema matured, his grip on the rhythmic flow of his images and sense of how to use the space in a frame most exactly became surer and indeed scarcely rivalled, and A Day in the Country is a pure study in space as a cinematic value. The film’s key joke even depends on it: Rodolphe opens the restaurant windows to “enjoy the view,” and opens the window shutters to behold the sight of the mother and daughter riding upon swings, a frame opening within a frame where beauty of multiple varieties spills on.
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The two men look on like wolves in a Friz Freleng cartoon. Young seminarians marching by halt in distraction, needing a swift clip on the ear to get them moving again. Randy energy permeates everything; Dufour even mentions that the clasps for the oars on the riverboats are called dames. Later Madame Dufour tries to rouse her dozing husband after their meal with memories of past sexual adventures, but the torpor of bourgeois self-satisfaction has descended. It’s heavily hinted Henriette and Anatole’s looming marriage has been arranged; Anatole is probably one of Dufour’s employees, an overgrown calf more interested in fish than sex. Renoir casts himself and his wife as the Poulains, owners of the restaurant, serving up the goodies. But the mood isn’t one of mere, simple bawdy potential. Henri confesses to Rodolphe his exhaustion with carnal relationships with uninteresting women, and the project the two men set for each-other has a quality of dutiful adventuring. Rodolphe isn’t even particularly concerned when Henri abruptly takes more interest in Henriette rather than her mother. Meanwhile Henriette feels protean longings in the face of oncoming future. She’s tentative on a boat for the first time, worried she might fall in, and impressed by Henri’s easy way with rowing.
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If Night at the Crossroads is defined by its aura of hazy entrapment and immobility for most of its length, A Day in the Country, whilst seemingly far more placidly paced and becalmed than Renoir’s headlong contemporary fables, is actually rendered in a mode of constant, restless motion, conveying the giddy thrill of escaping a city where “there’s not enough oxygen,” as Dufour proclaims, into a land of sun, greenery, and lung-filling freshness. Renoir here offers a shot from the cockpit of the day-trippers’ carriage as they glimpse the restaurant on the roadside and read its signage with agreeable pricing. He attaches his camera to the swings upon which Juliette and Henriette ride, conveying the giddy sensation of being unshackled from the usual bonds of life and gravity. As the film reaches its climax the entire landscape comes alive, grass swaying, reeds thrashing, branches flicking, swing ropes dancing before the camera, the river waters pocked and pummelled by rain, all nature in concert with the thrill of fucking in the bushes.
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The river, the road, the railway, all courses that are ultimate symbols and shaper of Renoir dramas. Of course, one day he’d even make a film called The River (1951). Just as the water drives Boudu back to his natural state, Henri wants to flee the threatening encroachment of Paris (“Parisians are like microbes – admit one and you’ll have a colony in weeks.”) by heading upstream, but then the waterway bears the two makeshift couples down towards leafy beds. Henriette is resistant at first to Henri’s suggestions they land on the riverside and take a breather, only for Juliette to gaily float by, gleefully giving herself up to the designs of her self-appointed “Romeo” who then becomes into Pan chasing here around the tree with stick blown like pipes. Henriette lays down in the grass as Henri kisses her and Renoir swoops in for a colossal close-up of the girl’s tear-stained face, a portrait in conflict between social self and natural self, perhaps the ultimate theme of Renoir’s cinema (small wonder he’d go on to do his own take on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Testament of Doctor Cordelier, 1959).
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Collapsing facades gives way to elemental passion and the world falls into chaos before reshaping itself into the old, placid mould. A postscript scene redefines what we’ve seen, however. However many months or years later, Henri rows downstream alone to visit the scene of “my happiest memories.” He finds Henriette there, lying on the grass with Anatole. She sees Henri and approaches him, and reveals that she too can’t forget that defining day on the river, as it haunts her at night. Now she’s married to Anatole, who’s still a dolt. Henri watches the couple trudge dutifully back to their boat and settles for a sad and solitary cigarette, whilst now, in Renoir’s last, drollest bit of character revelation through action, watches as Henriette now easily and confidently rows herself and her husband, and the river flows quietly on. Passion has had its moment, the rest is mere stuff of persistence, but every good memory is a jewel taken out at night. This conclusion comes as a deft and supple gut-punch after all the sunny drollery, a vision of gentle interpersonal tragedy that, tellingly, enlarges upon the conclusion of Night at the Crossroads as the frustration suggested in the suggestive final framing of Maigret and Else, the eventual return to civilised norms an exercise in self-defeat.

Standard
1940s, Auteurs, Italian cinema, Political, War

Paisan (1946) / Germany, Year Zero (1948)

Paisa’ / Germania Anno Zero

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Roberto Rossellini

By Roderick Heath

Out of ashes, creation. The Italian neorealist film movement was in large part a pragmatic solution to shortages of film stock, actors, and other paraphernalia of a movie industry that had been gutted by war, invasion, and the collapse of a regime. This unlikely renaissance was propelled purely by the urgent, guttering need to describe, record, understand, communicate, and grapple with the immediate reality shared by artists and public alike. Presaged by Luchino Visconti as he dared counter Fascist rectitude with a portrait of insidious transgressions in Ossessione (1943) and even by Mussolini’s preeminent director Alessandro Blasetti, neorealism gained its true clarion with Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), a bleak wartime thriller that retained conventional elements in its portrayal of partisan resistance and Nazi brutality, but essayed in terms that seemed to blow like a fresh, cold wind dispelling a miasma. Of course, filmmakers had done most of the things the neorealists would do already; others had shot movies on location, utilised non-professional actors, and dealt with pressing realities of the age. As World War II unfolded, filmmakers around the world had begun incorporating the methods of documentary into their movies, as well as adopting a terser, more stoical and spacious dramatic style.
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But neorealism went further in tossing out the polish of studio cinema and hanging entire movies by a framework that would have seemed desperately flimsy just a few years earlier. The new creed was instantly recognised and celebrated as something new, and held up internationally as proof something worthy and honest could emerge even in the midst of calamity. Neorealism’s impact was destined to be deep and permanent: far more movies today than not rely on some blend of its methods. And yet the movement itself was very short-lived, the number of works produced under its specific dogma scant. Neorealism’s anointed directorial heroes would have long and robust careers but most would often be the subject of long sideways glances from some who saw traitors to a cause long since laid to rest. Part of neorealism’s stature certainly had roots in the terrible glamour of World War II and the din of collapsed empire. For a few brief moments in the twilight of war, a sense of enveloping commonality and hard reckoning existed as a shared psychic experience. Neorealism would fade out as prosperity came back and society got back to the regular business of winnowing out losers from winners.
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Of course, neorealism didn’t really die. It changed form, still inflecting the anxious soul of its inheritors both immediate, from the generation of Italian filmmakers who cut their teeth as writers and aides on the neorealist shoots, no matter how delectably formalist they became, to those who would pick up aspects of their method for the New Wave movements of the 1960s and ‘70s and modern independent film. Amongst the major neorealist figures, a cadre that also included Visconti, Giuseppe De Santis, Vittorio De Sica, and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, Rossellini had perhaps the most frustrating career, his life charting the tides of the age. Rossellini gained fame making bitterly realistic works conjured with scant resources amongst the rubble, became a most ironic celebrity doomed to have his tumultuous private life overshadow his works as he romanced movie stars and international artistes and always retaining aspect of the rootless hustler, and finished up making intelligent but little-noticed docudramas for TV, still trying to obey his principles. Attempts to exploit the notoriety of his union with Ingrid Bergman produced a string of films including Stromboli (1950), Europa ‘52 (1951), and Voyage to Italy (1954), all box office failures but belatedly admired. Rossellini was running into trouble with critics and audiences even before he concluded his “War Trilogy,” which counts as easily his most famous work today, kicked off by Rome, Open City and extended by Paisan and Germany, Year Zero.
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Paisan might be the most exalted of neorealist works alongside The Bicycle Thieves (1948). Paisan is an episodic film built around descriptive vignettes involving the various acts of the Allied campaign in Italy, each episode depicting a time, a place, a phase of battle, but much more cogently, Rossellini’s vision of the war is as something that may involve countries and ideologies but which happens to people. “These people aren’t fighting for the British Empire,” an OSS agent states in the last episode, referring to the partisans he’s working with, “They’re fighting for their lives.” It’s the essential creed of the film; those for whom war is a steamroller running over their lives, those for whom it’s a distant crackle of gunfire, those who grab the tiger by the tail in chasing the empowerment of combat or those obligated to, all share the experience of plunging into an event that envelopes and reshapes them. Rossellini hired a different writer for each part of the film, but pulled off the task of contouring each, sometimes quite divergent dramatic style into his overall vision, which runs all the way from comedy of manners to heightened tragedy. The actual screenplay was penned by Rossellini, his friends and regular collaborators Federico Fellini and Sergio Amedei, with input for the English-language parts from Bill Geiger.
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The first chapter sees narrative land on the Italian shore along with a unit of American GIs; Italy is going to be reintroduced to itself through the eyes of invader/liberators. A Sicilian-American GI interprets; a local bigwig grasps a thread – he doesn’t know anyone by his name from his family’s home town – to disdain the entire enterprise. The bridge of cultures is immigration, the mutual understanding narrow and shaky, the lingering spell of dictatorship still potent. The GIs surge out of the dark, the Italian townsfolk gathered in scantly lit abodes in fretful anxiety waiting to see how things play out, finding the Americans indistinguishable at first from the Germans. The GIs get a local teenager, Carmela (Carmela Sazio), to guide them through mines the Germans have planted; Carmela leads them to a ruined castle, a fitting defensive position. Whilst the rest of the unit goes off to patrol further, Carmela is compelled to remain behind to be sure she won’t alert the Germans, with Joe (Robert Van Loon) assigned to watch her and hold down the fort. The castle is a ghost of a long-dead Italy where princes gallivanted and empires reigned; now it’s a husk, riddled with vertiginous and labyrinthine passages but still a good place for armies to play “childrens’ games, only the bullets are real,” as one of the German soldiers describes their adventures. Language is a form of geography: Carmela and Joe try to understand each-other in their scant and fragmentary knowledge of each-other’s language and navigate by the few familiar landmarks in their mutual languages speech – Joe counts off the limit of his Italian: “Paisan…spaghetti…bambina…mangiare…”
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War has no time for small epiphanies. Joe is shot by a German who spots him lighting his cigarette through one of the open castle windows. A Wehrmacht unit occupies the castle and discovers Carmela, who has hidden away the bleeding, dying Joe. Sazio and Van Loon’s quality as performers swiftly describe the appeal of the non-actor to the neorealist style. There’s no hint of the theatrical to them, none of the years spent perfecting unnatural stances or ways of interacting. Sazio’s blowsy, slouchy adolescence with just the faintest rigour of adulthood coming on, is all the more affecting because it’s so familiar from life and so rare in movies of the time; Van Loon radiates a sincere, bashful charm. But when the time comes Sazio perfectly registers Carmela’s woozy distress and resolve as she looks upon the dying Joe, marking her determination to take revenge. Rossellini starts his war with the world in miniature, boy and girl, caught between nations, languages, political systems, and sparring armies. Carmela takes up his rifle and, as the Germans throw dice to see who’ll get to rape her first, manages to shoot one. Joe’s unit returns to find their man dead and Carmela missing. They assume she killed him. Rossellini however privileges the audience to her real fate: the Germans have dragged her to a cliff edge and thrown her off. Rossellini’s stark, almost off-hand revelation of this before fading to black and moving must have seemed like a slap in the face to a 1946 audience, and it’s still potent. The little universe of humanity, with all its will, casually exterminated, another great drama lost to all knowing, its actors left lying about like refuse.
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The second episode, unfolding in Naples, might represent a certain caricatured ideal of the neorealist style, as it depicts a similar fractious relationship defined by both understanding and the absence of it. Exactly this theme lies at the heart of Paisan and perhaps all Rossellini’s works – his later, mature movies like Voyage to Italy contemplate the disconnection in personal terms, the difficulty, particularly for intelligent but introverted people, to escape and expose their inner experience sufficiently to be understood by those close to them. Here, the material is more worldly and immediate, and urgent as a pungent and palpable need. The protagonists here are another Joe, this one an African-American MP (Dots Johnson), and Pasquale, one of a gang of homeless children who haunt the streets and plazas of Naples. Some of the kids pick up the odd tip helping GIs between bars and night spots, and rob them if they get half a chance. Pasquale attaches himself to Joe and leads him about town. After Joe passes out in spite of Pasquale’s warnings, the kid steals the MP’s boots. A few days later, Joe spots Pasquale trying to rob from the back of a truck. He nabs the waif and forces him to take him to his home and return his boots. But upon catching a glimpse of the subterranean world where he and hundreds of other penniless, dispossessed people live, Joe leaves the boots to Pasquale and drives away.
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As in De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and The Bicycle Thieves, the emphasis here is on the children left in desperate poverty in the war’s aftermath, and the plot revolves around the possession of desirable, useful, even life-saving objects – the boots, akin to the bicycle in the De Sica film. The climactic moment of moral confrontation establishes common empathy and the abandonment of a selfish sense of justice, but also skirts the edge of triteness. Rossellini however complicates this sketch in witty and biting ways. GI Joe here is a black man, one who murmurs bitter recollections of his home being a shack, all too aware that his relative elevation as a player of the war project will probably only be temporary before returning to life as a second-class citizen. Perched on a rubbish heap with a bewildered Pasquale at his side, Joe sings “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen” in a ragged but impressive voice, near-blind with booze but still all too aware of his marooning between worlds. The fulcrum of the episode is a scene in which Pasquale takes Joe to a puppet theatre. The rapt audience watches a scene from Orlando Furioso being played out, in which the great Christian knight slays a Moorish foe. Joe, groping through the fog of booze to comprehend the essential drama, starts cheering like the others in the theatre as if they’re watching a boxing match, but for the nominal villain. Rather than let Orlando win, Joe leaps onto the stage and starts trying to box the puppet. Rossellini draws together many ideas here – the delightful absurdity of Joe’s assault on the puppets turns him to a Quixote-ish hero with comic zest, but Rossellini also notes the deep racist tradition locked into the Euro-American self-concept in the ritualised defeat and suppression of the African.
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There might even have been a quality of mea culpa to this. Although a leftist, Rossellini had been close friends with Mussolini’s son Vittorio, and owed his start in the film industry to this, not long after the Fascist regime had been warring in Libya and Ethiopia. Joe’s surrender of his boots at the end comes not with the guilty look of the conscience-appeasing bourgeois but the slow and considered abandonment of a poor man’s fierce and persona ethic in the face of another, overriding demand, a glimpse into a bottomless pit of need that refuses even to honour Joe’s nursed grievance. If Rossellini diagnoses rotten aspects of society that can be left to safely decay amongst the rubble here, the third chapter, which takes place in post-liberation Rome, asks what will replace them, and sees with glum certainty a kind of slick, alienating capitalist-consumerist cosmopolitanism descending. The nightclubs are filled with American soldiers on leave with money and luxury items to be had, and young women eager for both. Francesca (Maria Michi) is one of them, a hardened, bravura urban adventurer and prostitute who finds her eye caught by a young soldier, Fred (Gar Moore). When another chippie objects to her occasional sideways glances, the two women brawl, attracting MPs who clear the joint.
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Francesca comes across Fred on the street and lures the tired and tipsy soldier back to a rented room. Fred seems disgusted with the idea of sleeping with a prostitute, reminiscing instead as he drifts off to sleep about the fresh-faced and pure girl he met on the day the Allies rolled into the city to the cheers of the Romans. Francesca is that girl, of course. She leaves her real address on a note with Fred as he sleeps, but the next day dismisses it as a note from a whore, screws it up, and tosses it away before heading off with his fellows. This episode has a concise, plaintive, short story-like obviousness to its arc, one that partly conceals the insidious sense of humour Rossellini employs, particularly in the deadpan dissolve from the joyous optimism of the city’s release to a shot with a title over it reading “Six Months Later,” the open and eternal city now a den of rude and raucous behaviour, a transition that would feel quite at home in a modern satire like The Simpsons. The beatitude of liberation, a moment of idyllic promises, gives way to slick operators and resentful misogyny: “You wouldn’t last a day if these guys went home,” Francesca yells at her rivals, but it’s certainly just as true for her. Fred’s wistful reminiscences of the recent past are Francesca’s too as she’s able to fill out his anecdote with her own memories of a very recent but long-lost arcadia.
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Rossellini’s tart sociology sees the desire of the soldiers for cheap booze and quick sex as a market in a land where humanity is the cheapest commodity, trampling the tenuous human connections of the age, whilst hypocritically demanding everything and everyone retain the unsoiled lustre of great days. Innocence, if you believe in that sort of thing, has been defiled; certainly everyone is changed, the by-product of the age’s upheaval and collapsed structures, leaving everyone an instant and irreparable nostalgic. Although perhaps the most conventional episode in the film with the faintly poetical and sentimental quality to Francesca’s monologue and the obvious central conceit, this vignette feels in some ways like the most influential in the evanescent emotions and concepts it brings up, in the way it moots concerns the neorealists and their inheritors in Italian film would take up. In the absence of great projects of conflict and revision, individuals drift on different currents, lost to themselves and each-other. The pathetically broken rendezvous at the end, as Francesca waits for the man who won’t come, feels like a quick preparatory sketch for Michelangelo Antonioni’s “alienation” films, particularly the conclusion of L’Eclisse (1962) as well as the forlorn romanticism of Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti’s ‘50s films. Long before he arrived at the pensive interior evocations of works like Voyage to Italy and Antonioni’s works, Rossellini was already wrestling with people wrenched out of alignment with their true selves, lost behind worldly glazes and masks adopted for survival purposes.
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The fourth chapter, by contrast, is a tale charged with daring adventure and high romanticism, if still processed by Rossellini’s cool-tempered, methodical cinema. This one sees young American army nurse Harriet (Harriet White) attending to injured partisans as the Allies advance on Florence. Harriet is familiar with the city, having been there before the war. Asking about one of her old boyfriends, a painter named Guido Lombardi, Harriet learns he’s now a respected partisan leader nicknamed Lupo – the Wolf – by his fellows, and is battling the retreating the Germans and their Fascist allies in the city. Harriet becomes so desperate to find Lupo after hearing he’s been wounded, she links up with another injured partisan, Massimo (Renzo Avanzo), who wants to get back to his family who lives in the same part of the city Lupo is fighting in. The duo exploit the Vasari Corridor, a passage that runs over the Ponte Vecchio into the Uffizi Gallery and forgotten by the Germans, to infiltrate the city. Eventually, when they reach the precincts where the partisans are still fighting, Harriet is devastated to learn from a wounded man that Lupo has died, whilst Massimo dashes away, bullets dogging his path.
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This chapter is the most traditionally thrilling in the film, proving Rossellini if he wanted to could have easily become a great action filmmaker. That’s not to say it’s conventional. Rossellini’s eye is at its keenest here in noting the stark contrast between Florence’s artistic wonders and the smears of blood and bullets pocking its streets – the seed of John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964) is here as well as Stanley Kubrick’s war films. White, with her high, strong cheekbones and blend of strong emotion and venturesome resolve, could easily have passed for a movie star of the day, and embodies a still-guttering romantic spirit amidst the carnage. Rossellini recreates the same on-the-fly, danger-charged sensation of authentic war being filmed evinced in Rome, Open City. His tightly controlled sense of perspective avoids the regulation scene grammar for war sequence – no cutaways to the enemy or the like, simply concentrated, often laterally flowing tracking shots following his characters as they progress. Rossellini sensitises the viewer to the exposure in wide, well-lit streets that could make anyone a sniper’s target, and open piazzas as arenas of action. A bedraggled collaborator is marched out before resistance columns, a moment Visconti would recreate in his The Leopard (1963) in taking up the theme of a cycle of rule, revolt, downfall, and new orders bound to ossify.
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Rossellini and DP Otello Martelli pull off one particularly brilliant shot as his camera pivots from the corridors of the looted, deserted Uffizi along with his characters to peer down onto the city streets. There they glimpse the last few Germans massing for retreat. The sequence is an odyssey as Harriet and Massimo, each drawn on through a ridiculously dangerous exercise for the sake of people they care for, encounter partisans whose everyday aspect, fighting in street clothes and idly lunching with food pulled across fields of fire in carts, blurs the line between deadly struggle and holiday jaunt. Other Florentines mass in stairwells and corridors, keeping away from the fighting, a riot of rumour and complaint. Harriet and Massimo encounter people ranging from a retired military officer who surveys the struggle from the rooftop, recalls fighting in “the real war,” and claims to be able to dodge bullets, to a pair of British soldiers who are too awed by the cultural treasures laid out before them to quite notice the life-and-death struggles going on down in those sunstruck routes.
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The fifth chapter is a breath of calm in this storm, depicting a trio of US Army chaplains: Catholic Capt. Bill Martin (William Tubbs), Protestant Capt. Jones (Newell Jones), and Jewish Capt. Feldman, Jewish (Elmer Feldman). The trio visit an old hilltop monastery where the monks are fascinated and bewildered by their visitors. They’re glad to receive the Americans’ gifts of food, particularly their Hershey’s chocolate. But when the monks learn that two of the chaplains are heretics, they anxiously prod Martin over his failure to proselytise to them, to which Martin calmly replies that he feels he has no right to, particularly as they believe themselves to be just as faithful and correct. The monks decide to fast in praying for the souls of the Protestant and Jew, giving up their first good meal in months. The gentle comedy in this sequence, which starts off like a bar room joke, presages Rossellini’s deeper, longer look at the side of religion he appreciated in The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), the noble absurdity glimpsed in people trying to obey both human need and divine obedience. Many another artist would have expressed frustration at the sectarian reflexes of the monks, and one of the chaplains raises in concerted seriousness about just how much use the instruction of people used to hiding from the world is at such a juncture in history. But in the end Rossellini sees value in that detachment. He wants a place left in the world for men of simple faith, holy fools, and people with the ability to go without so that others might gain something, no matter how much those others don’t want it.
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For all Rossellini’s evolving faith in the stripped-down and spontaneous, there was nothing artless about his moviemaking. The first, third, and fifth chapters are carefully fashioned in their lighting and subtle, quietly mobile camerawork, flickers of poetic and spiritual depth allowed to subsist in the lighting caressing the faces of Joe and Carmela and Fred and Francesca, or pooling in the monastery’s corners, and the chiaroscuro battles of light and dark that confirm the influence of the pre-war poetic realists on Rossellini. The harsher style utilised in the second, fourth, and sixth episodes befits tales rooted in more immediate actions and consequences. Fellini’s specific humour occasionally glimmers throughout, with the fairground performers glimpsed at the start of the second chapter providing an islet of bristling medieval colour in an otherwise raw-boned city, the two English soldiers playing aesthete tourists, and the vignettes in the monastery, where the monks offer their blessing in return for a candy bar. The last chapter, which takes place in the Po River valley in 1945, has been called the ultimate iteration of the neorealist creed, as it depicts an episode amidst the war’s end-game.
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The first shot in the episode sees a man’s corpse floating down the river, executed by the Nazis with a sign branding him as a partisan, moving with languorous pathos like something from a dream. The world here has been reduced to a relentlessly horizontal zone of flat earth, rippling water, and wavering reeds, at once desolate but deceptive in its capacity to conceal and trick the eye. Dale (Dale Edmonds), an OSS agent, and some fellow American soldiers are operating with partisans in the reed-clogged river delta. A recent halt in the Allied advance has left these warriors stranded in enemy-held territory without hope of quick recourse. A brief stop at a tavern set up in a shack sees the wearied fighters take stock and recover a little, but it brings down vicious punishment from the Germans, who shoot anyone found in the vicinity of the tavern. A pair of British airmen are shot down in the water and rescued by the partisans, but seen they’re all cornered by Germans, who gun down the partisans as rebels and some of the Allied soldiers when they leap up in protest. That Rossellini and his writers decided to end the film with this chapter suggests a desire not to set the seal on the conflict but to suggest the way it was still a raw, bleeding wound both physically and mentally; the wailing child left amidst splayed corpses by the tavern is totem of the entire experience, a generation of orphans left in the wake of acts of colossal bravery and cruelty.
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This episode reduces the war to appropriately barren essentials to match the landscape, stripping out the dramatic familiarities and ironies of the earlier chapters and instead presenting a grim spectacle of struggle and death. Out there in the man-killing surveys of the Po delta lies the futurist anxiety Antonioni works through in Red Desert (1964) and Zabriskie Point (1970) and the mood of incipient earth-swallowing uncertainty he’d approach in L’Avventura (1960), as well as anticipating the post-apocalyptic fantasias of four generations. Dread of the future appropriate for science fiction is hinted at as the Allied captives are forced to listen to their Nazi officer captor’s calm and still-confident belief in the new civilisation that will last a thousand years. A few minutes later the master race are shoving bound men off a boat, the warriors of the Po finding comradely rest at the bottom of the river. Paisan was a big hit both in Italy and on the world cinema scene, and when Rossellini returned with Germany, Year Zero in 1948, it was at the high-water mark of neorealism, as The Bicycle Thieves, Visconti’s La Terra Trema, and De Santis’ Bitter Rice were all released to general acclaim. Germany, Year Zero was however overshadowed, whilst Rossellini’s personal situation had undergone violent upheavals through his affair with Anna Magnani and the death of one of his sons, Romano, from his first marriage, aged only 9. Germany, Year Zero takes up the raw and stricken mood of Paisan’s last episode in a movie dedicated to Romano’s memory, as well as rounding out the war trilogy with a survey of the ruined Nazi homeland and the people left to subsist in the rubble.
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Young Edmund Kohler (Edmund Meschke) is Rossellini’s inheritor of the national ash-heap, living with his elderly father (Ernst Pittschau), a former academic, his older sister Eva (Ingetraud Hinze), and brother Karl-Heinz (Franz-Otto Krüger). Hunger is a gnawing and constant reality; the elder Kohler’s poor health is exacerbated by starvation, and the family is trying to subsist on only three ration cards because Karl-Heinz, who fought until the end and belonged to an unspecified regiment suspected of war crimes, is afraid he’ll be thrown in a detention camp, so he remains in hiding. Edmund is so anxious to help out his family at the outset he’s glimpsed trying to get a job as a gravedigger, perhaps the only growth industry in Berlin at this point. He also engages in petty theft and con artistry. He encounters one of his former teachers, Herr Henning (Erich Gühne), who employs Edmund as an agent to sell an LP recording of Hitler’s speeches to the reliable battery of gullible Allied soldiers who hang about the old Chancellery in search of souvenirs. Henning places him in the company of Jo (Jo Herbst) and Christl (Christl Merker), two of the many homeless kids around the city who are growing up very fast, becoming experts in robbery and operating, and Edmund joins them in stealing a bag of potatoes from a train shipment.
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It would be tempting to regard Germany, Year Zero as merely an extra-long last instalment of Paisan, continuing the northward and chronological march to its logical end amidst the shattered husk of the Nazi homeland. But Germany, Year Zero is a different kind of movie to Paisan in terms of Rossellini’s focus and method; the individual portraiture that informed a general sociological viewpoint in the earlier film is here inverted. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Germany, Year Zero met with strident criticism from many quarters. Rossellini had readopted aspects of studio filmmaking, making use of some sets and other moviemaking tricks. One gets the feeling, however, that another aspect of its rejection lay in its pungent and gruelling evocation of a world that lies at the very outermost fringe of redemption. Whereas De Sica’s films like The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. (1953), however grim in depicting poverty, retained a sentimental faith in certain evanescent bonds of amity, shifting to a German setting allowed Rossellini to leave behind all trace of his own romanticism. Germany, Year Zero depicts fascism as having leached into the soil, gripping at the roots at whatever new world might grow from the tainted earth.
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Everyone has become a walking stomach and a register tallying buying power. Henning, who has a clear paedophile’s interest in Edmund and who it’s suggested keeps Jo and Christl close for sexual favours, still preaches fascist essentials to the boy, advising him that the weak have to be cut loose and not allowed to impede the strong from surviving. The owner of the house where the Kohlers live, Mr Rademaker (Hans Sangen), who was forced to take in tenants by the civil authority in the face of the housing crisis, bullies and complains constantly even as he steal power, eventually resulting in the building’s supply being cut off entirely. Eva brings in some extra income, like Paisan’s Francesca, as a nightspot denizen just a step short of outright prostitution, filching cigarettes which a the most reliable currency, only to be disdained by the Rademakers and Edmund. Young Christl, with whom Edmund seems to feel the first glimmerings of attraction, is described by her fellows as a “mattress that gives out cigarettes.” It’s easy to imagine Karl-Heinz as one of the steel-jawed young Nazi angels shooting down Rossellini’s flailing resistance warriors in his previous two films. “Once we were men, National Socialists,” a rubble clearance worker quips at one point, “Now we’re just Nazis.”
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This quip at last gets to the very heart of an issue Rossellini traces the outer edge of again and again in both films, in noting people’s desire to belong to feel part of some great project, a movement, a corpus of humanity blessed with shining import, rather than admit the reality of their circumstance. The Flowers of St. Francis would, eventually, offer a reconciliation of the schism, as Francis and his followers learn to rejoice in the mud. Part of neorealism’s almost religious appeal in some quarters might well have been rooted in the mode’s ability to imbue that kind of identity and overarching narrative upon life, the brotherhood of debris and scarcity and perseverance. Germany, Year Zero offers no such ennobling on a socio-political level, but does dare to suggest family is a substitute, another world in small from which larger structures grow. Edmund’s initial, scampish selflessness as a kid dedicated to his family unit seems to contrasts Karl-Heinz’s fretful and fuming inability to let go of his defeated cause. By the end Rossellini inverts their roles, as Karl-Heinz awakens to a new reality and rids his system of the fascist poison, whilst Edmund is fatefully, and fatally, infected through Henning’s frame for reality, Nazi ideals carried by children who know nothing better. Rossellini’s great anxiety, perhaps a common one at the time, is that all these brutal lessons have blighted an entire generation. So Edmund steals a bottle of poison from a dispensary and uses it to kill his father in the belief it’s the best thing for everyone.
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As contrary to swift-formed neorealist dogma as it was, Rossellini’s use of sets allowed him greater, more unaffected intimacy in his lighting and shooting, particularly apparent in the scenes in the Rademakers’ building and the Kohlers’ rooms, where the camera often hovers with actors moving about it like another member of the family, tracking all movements with simple pivots. Rossellini’s evolving aesthetic, which would increasingly attempt to use carefully manipulated settings to describe psychological landscapes (in a subtler manner than the waned expressionist film movement), was becoming more definite here. Berlin’s wreckage is recorded with a documentary maker’s rigorous eyes but also reflects the utter desolation of private universes and illusions. Edmund’s murder of his father leaves him entirely alienated from even the salutary processes of mourning, and he eddies for a long and dreadful day as his confession of his final solution to Henning gains only the pervert pedagogue’s hysterical fury and anxious implorations that Edmund not implicate him in the deed.
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Here is Rossellini’s miniature analysis of the life and death of the fascist creed–big-sounding ideals, real murders, and whimpering, pathetic denials of involvement when judgement day looms. In a less crass (if not more subtle) way than the use of lesbianism in Rome, Open City to depict the perverting appeal of the Nazi ideology, Henning’s paedophilia visually describes that deep and invidious process of colonisation of the mind and soul by hateful thinking. Ultimately Germany, Year Zero feels like a statement of intense grief and even exhaustion in the face of a universe of suffering, and Rossellini’s personal loss must have informed the final, despairing image of a young boy’s broken body. And yet it’s not a nihilistic statement. Rossellini intended it as a confirmation that a moral spark would still create shame even in the children of this devastation. Edmund is an avatar for Rossellini’s evolving preoccupation with the gap between the internal and external ways of being, a strange relative to his Saint Francis as like the saint he finds the real monster to battle is not in the world but within, the world only made monstrous by that inner beast. Rossellini grants his boy-man the same stature as he gave to his resistance heroes, as he makes his stand and slays the beast. At the same time he’s just another dead kid in a land filled with them.

Standard
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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2010s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Historical, Thriller

All the Money in the World (2017)

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Director: Ridley Scott

By Roderick Heath

Where Ridley Scott last left off, he was sending his biologically engineered übermenschen off into deep space to operatic fanfares of crypt-black irony. All the Money in the World, although set in the recent, very earthbound past, nonetheless takes up where that movie left off as young John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) reports in sad and bewildered voiceover his family’s elevation from the lot of common mortals to alien beings, existing in the world but scarcely belonging to it anymore. The idea that the rich might as well be a different species certainly feels rooted in the deepest recesses of Scott’s imagination, but so, too, is a probing, contradictory humanism that wants to understand even in condemning. Out for a walk one night in Rome in the balmy climes of 1973, Paul hears his name called out by the driver of a Volkswagen bus. When he approaches the vehicle, he’s bundled inside by masked, gun-wielding criminals, and spirited away to be imprisoned in an old cellar somewhere out in the Calabrian campagna. His captors are a scruffy bunch of low-rent criminals who see the chance for quick and easy riches. In himself, Paul is actually worth very little. But he happens to be the grandson of John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), the world’s richest man not simply of the moment but in the history of histories.
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Paul lives in Rome with his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), who has recently divorced old Getty’s dissolute son John Paul Jnr (Andrew Buchan). Young Paul’s strange situation as golden boy with the potential for vast fortune and yet, for the present, simply a good-looking young chancer kicking about Rome is sourced in the manifold ironies of his upbringing, raised in fairly normal circumstances as his boozy but good-hearted father was scarcely acquainted with his own tycoon sire. Scott offers a lengthy flashback to a time when the family was broke, but reasonably happy in San Francisco. In an attempt to deal with their money worries, Gail coached her husband in writing a letter to his father, stating his understanding that their long alienation was the result of Getty’s desire to see his boy prove himself on his own. To their excitement, this gained a telegram response offering John Paul Jnr a job, which proved to be director of Getty’s European operations: “Sink or the swim,” was patriarch’s advice. Getty seemed to take a particular shine to Paul, giving him a statuette of the Minotaur, one he held to be worth millions of dollars, and utilising him as helpmate in his correspondence seeing off the legions writing to him begging for money.
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John Paul Jnr, far from being remade by new prosperity, soon started living the bohemian high life, and sank into a drug induced stupor in Morocco. Gail divorced him, taking full custody of the children and refusing any compromises with the Getty dynasty by taking their money. Sadly, the result of this theoretically clean break leaves Gail totally at sea in dealing with the crisis that soon befalls her, and she’s obliged to ask Getty for the cash when the kidnappers demand $17 million for the safe release of her son. Getty, however, soon declares he has no intention of paying, nominally because he doesn’t want to encourage further such actions against his family and to hold a stern bulwark against the encroaching torpor and craziness of the age. Getty instead recalls a trusted negotiator and security chief, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), from the Middle East and assigns him to look into the kidnapping and advise Gail. One of the kidnappers is shot by his fellows after accidentally allowing Paul to see his face, his incinerated body is found on the roadside, allowing the carabinieri to track down his known accomplices and gun down several of them. But they’re too late to retrieve Paul, who’s been sold to the Calabrian mob, the ‘Ndràngheta. Paul forms a mutually tolerant bond with one of his captors, Cinquanta (Romain Duris), a gritty but empathetic personality who has committed himself with growing unease to a criminal enterprise, especially as he’s essentially sold onto the new masters along with his charge.
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All the Money in the World, written by David Scarpa and drawn from John Pearson’s book about the true events that befell the Getty clan but making few bones about being a dramatic embellishment rather than exacting factual account, was given an unexpected boost in notoriety and intrigue even before it came out when Kevin Spacey, who had initially played old Getty, fell from grace thanks to sexual assault allegations. Scott made the decision, rather than see his film shelved and forgotten, to reshoot Spacey’s scenes with Plummer, who was closer to the right age for the character anyway, and still make the release date. All the Money in the World therefore provokes a level of admiration simply for existing at all in a coherent form, although perhaps not that much surprise. Scott, although long ensconced in Hollywood’s ponderous productions, has roots in the tight deadlines, low budgets, and pitiless pace of British TV work in the 1960s, and I get the feeling this was precisely the kind of challenge to skill and discipline Scott relishes. This achievement also meshes in an unexpected subtextual manner with the substance of the film itself, the sympathy it offers old Getty as someone who feels obligated by pride, business instinct, and pure predatory gall to turn every exchange into a test of professional strength. Scott understands that side of Getty, the man absolutely dedicated to his work.
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The wrath of the outsider, the struggles of the frustrated would-be titan, the duels of individuals, communes, and classes, have long been fuel of Ridley Scott’s films as far back as the title characters of The Duellists (1977) and the working stiffs served up as lunchmeat and breeding husks by corporate paymasters in Alien (1979). Most of his films ably chart fault lines of self-perception and social identity, and All the Money in the World is perfect Scott material in recounting the tale of this benighted youth who finds himself defined and revised – psychologically and, eventually, physically – by inherited facts of identity like a uniquely cruel, inverted version of the sorts of lessons dealt out to Dickens’ waifs, whom Paul somewhat resembles as a wandering child who finds himself the object of both great good fortune and nefarious designs. Scott has also long displayed a fascination for characters nominally on the wrong side of such wars, a rarefied ardour for beings twisted into ignoble Calibans by their travails or separated from the common run of humanity by dint of their peculiar abilities or tastes, sometimes existing on either side of the patrician-plebeian divide or sometimes commingled in single bodies. Most of the characters in Blade Runner (1982) could count as both, but the image of the banished Replicants and ensconced magnate Tyrell in that film remains a blueprint for the essential struggle. All the Money in the World could offer a ready analogy between its vision of old Getty and the Satan figure in Legend (1985), the ultimate mythical reduction of the theme, except that even in that film Scott gave sympathy to his devil as the bewildered exile of a disinterested father clasping at anything precious that came his way.
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Getty is Ozymandian colossus, gazing down balefully on high upon anyone fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to fall into his orbit, a Midas whose touch turns relations not to gold, but to ashes. Getty gives his grandson tours of Roman imperial palaces, explaining his conviction he’s the reincarnation of the Emperor Hadrian, an echo of E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime, where Henry Ford and JP Morgan were depicted with a similar conviction. Later, Chase is privy to Getty’s designs to rebuild Hadrian’s palace “with flush toilets.” But his everyday life is a parade of skinflint habits, like washing his own clothes and installing a payphone in his English country estate, that are wryly amusing until suddenly they’re not. Chase is first glimpsed in his capacity as a negotiator for Getty, trying to strike a deal with Saudi princes and sheikhs whose fortune Getty made by taking the risk of drilling on their land, but not as much as he made his own. Now the Arab leaders are simultaneously bemoaning their own sons’ profligate carelessness but also hoping to snatch the reins of power from Getty now that his leases are ending and the advent of OPEC is shifting the orbits of the fiscal universe. Ironically, the tools of OPEC in choking off oil supply and sparking energy crises threaten to make Getty even richer. And yet as Gail and Chase press him to consider paying the ransom, Getty states he’s in too precarious a position financially, and responds to Chase’s question about how much he’d need to feel more secure with a simple “More.” This response carries instant and obvious film noir associations, as it comes straight out of John Huston’s Key Largo (1948), as the answer Edward G. Robinson’s gangster gave to the same question.
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At his least Scott has sometimes been a purveyor of pretty pictures merely encrusting studio labours rather than enriching them. But at his best he’s a fashioner of little universes replete with suggestions of transitory states of being and feeling. Films like The Duellists and Blade Runner, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and The Counselor (2013), are works that capture in visual textures the gratitude of their protagonists for the islets of beauty and comfort that gave restful ease from a buffeting universe. The opening of All the Money in the World is a dreamy little etude that captures the feeling of being young, reasonably free and able, at large in a city that offers all experience as a bounty, Scott’s camera gliding with Paul as he soaks in the night’s textures, including the erotic promises of the prostitutes who both mock and covet his youth. This sequence is quietly rhymed later to an interlude, earlier in the timeline of events recounted, when Paul is seen wandering the Moroccan abode his father has taken over, a hushed, shadowy abode, ripe stage for decadent adventures, lithe-limbed odalisques on the prowl, and Paul a bewildered youth adrift amongst the tides of greedy pleasures. It’s startling how much texture and self-referential verve Scott packs into this little scene, calling back to the retro-futurist stately abodes of Blade Runner and the historical exoticism of Kingdom of Heaven, capturing the psychic horizon in either direction that lurks for the weak-willed plutocrat, the bastions of dissolute collapse. Scott’s casting of Ghassan Massoud, who played Saladin in the latter film, as one of the Sheikhs arguing with Chase over oil rights brings that story up to date, the course of history also a metronome of shifting economic and political contest.
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The ethical schema of All the Money in the World seems so obvious that it’s tempting to rebel against it, and although Scott and Scarpa don’t go easy on Getty for his monstrous clumsiness and abnegation, they do chart with surprising intensity and depth the specific walls of self-protection and carefully nurtured systems of removal and estrangement. Here are the habits of an aged and cynical man who infers emotions through the seismograph of economic appeals and expectations, and for whom truth long ago melted into a perverse geography, the gravitational force of his fortune working like a black hole to distort all relationships. Getty sits uneasily on a relentless source of horror, buried under layers of hard-bitten disdain for lesser mortals, at the pits money can open. He explains to Chase why he entitled a book he wrote not “How to Get Rich” but “How to Be Rich,” a guide to the habits that must be necessarily cultivated and practised with ruthless discipline in order to not merely accrue a fortune and then expend it and one’s self with it, such as instantly befalls his son the moment the taps of addiction-indulgence are opened. Getty sees traps in plenty and the call of boundless possibility. Such a theme echoes one of the best lines in a film by one of Scott’s cinematic heroes, Stanley Kubrick, in Barry Lyndon (1975), which proposed that too often the aspects of a character that drive one to make a fortune all too often ruin them after gaining it.
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And to be fair, Getty has a point, when any quick survey of his immediate family offers plenty of support to his thesis. After all, Chase has found that Paul’s proposals to stage his kidnapping were in league with nominal revolutionaries, who Chase confronted only to be left rolling eyes at their threats to put him trial for crimes against the proletariat. The trouble is, Getty’s cynicism is bound up with a sense of moral phthisis eating its way into everything in sight. Getty practices rigorous tax avoidance by plying all of his earnings into purchasing artworks that pile up around his manor, including purchasing a Renaissance painting of Madonna and Child by for over a million dollars on the black market even as he’s fending off Gail’s entreaties. When Chase learns that Paul had floated, possibly as a joke, the idea of staging his own kidnapping to earn ransom money for himself, he reports this to Getty, who takes it as a sign he’s been used again, and to dig in his heels against any further attempts to get him to pay up. Scott drops hint as to Getty’s part in the sociological upheaval his own acquisitive instincts, noting with ironic alacrity that the energy crisis of ’74 was another kind of hostage drama set in motion by Getty’s fortune. Meanwhile Paul, much like the human shells and twisted homunculi of Alien: Covenant (2017), finds himself canvas for cubist alterations to the human form, as he’s held down and has his ear sliced off by his new captors whose idea of business is just as formidable and unyielding as Getty’s.
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Scott stages this scene, one anyone who knows anything about these events will be waiting for with cringing unease, with a gruelling but concise and unflinching detail where others might have cut away or rendered it a kind of horror movie blackout. Throughout his career Scott has let slip a side to his cinema that betrays his British TV roots with their strong traditions of documentaries and realistic and factual dramas, in his fascination for pointillist detail and carefully observed processes that sometimes take on an imperative over and above nominal narrative through-line. This facet usually comes out most crucially in his thrillers like American Gangster (2007) and The Counselor. Here small details like Cinquanta trying to get Paul drunk before surgery and the “doctor” insisting the ‘Ndràngheta heavies hold his patient still and then setting to work for a piece of ragged work that just won’t end, serve to focus Scott’s exacting sense of this torture as another business transaction but also one that involves real people who feel obliged to do obscene things for some reason. It’s rhymed, not so subtly but with the sourly totemic kick of an old-school noir director, with the sight elsewhere of a butcher slicing off a hunk of meat. Paul’s cruel curtailing follows a gutsy and cleverly managed escape attempt achieved with the unspeaking collusion of Cinquanta as he improvises a method of setting fire to dry grass neighbouring the building where he’s held, only to be immediately surrendered back into the ‘Ndràngheta’s hands, a sequence of casually expert suspense-mongering that builds up to a Fritz Lang-esque punch-line where the conspiracy of evil proves entirely enveloping.
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Like Blade Runner, American Gangster, and The Counselor, however, All the Money in the World isn’t really a thriller in the generic sense as a series of compulsive set-pieces. It’s more a heightened dramatic study in familial perversity and obstinacy of character as well as a holistic attempt to encompass the workings of peculiar niche of society, and the methods of various forms of capitalism. Just as The Counselor reduced the drug war to the image of a body in a barrel being endlessly shipped back and forth, here high capitalism means its street-level equivalent and speaks a peculiar language in flesh and blood, building to a sequence that depicts a small army of women working to tabulate the ransom money for the mob bosses and handing over the added total on a slip of paper, echo to the strings of ticker tape Getty adores studying. Rival moral systems are invoked, of course, particularly family, as Cinquanta notes with bemusement the lack of family feeling evinced by the Getty patriarch. I get the feeling Scott, who’s long been the preeminent member of a creative family and who’s been buffeted by loss over the years, feel this point closely. Other forms of fellowship also provide unexpected islands, particularly Cinquanta’s growing empathy for Paul and attempts to help him.
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Given that Alien looked a lot like a remix of Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), it seems more than coincidental that Paul’s kidnappers strongly resemble refugees out of Bava’s Rabid Dogs (1974), that most pungent of paranoid Italian self-diagnoses from the same era, probably even inspired by the very events Scott is analysing. Scott complicates and amplifies Bava’s games of perception and appearance: people are rogue elements within all systems, a point codified in visual terms in the finale as heroes and villains and people in between dodge and weave in the shadowy aisles of an Italian city that turns vertiginous faces to the street, bespeaking a history of self-interest within fortresses turned to the world’s maelstroms. Family proves to be the initially unacknowledged battlefield of wills between Gail and Getty, as the tycoon feels robbed of his grandchildren, whilst Gail was determined to remove them entirely from the sphere of careless and destructive alternations of starvation and plenty that had defined her former husband’s experience of the Getty fortune. Getty is more determined to drive Gail to the wall than he is to pay or punish the kidnappers, insisting on her surrendering custody of her children and signing Paul aboard for stringent turns of repayable loans before he does finally agree to pony up ransom dough up to the maximum that’s tax deductible.
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Getty finally bends that far after Gail strikes up another deal with newspapers, in another scene of carefully diagrammed intersection of commerce and violence, to publish a ransom photo of the maimed Paul, so she can then mail a stack of papers emblazoned with the image to Getty. The old man receives them, only for a strong wind to scatter the pages harum-scarum about his driveway, a great little touch that turns biting moral gesture into an active physical force setting a carefully ordered universe in anarchy. Williams as an actress has worked very hard in recent years but I’d also learnt a certain Pavlovian recoiling from her presence in movies as too often it spelt a certain laborious excursion in suffering was in the offering. That’s true of this movie too, to a certain extent, but what’s rare about Williams’ performance here lies precisely how well she inhabits a character who resolutely refuses to be pinned down by hostile forces until driven to insufferable extremes, always retaining a hard edge and a quality of sardonic amazement even as she being driven to the wall by ruthless bargainers on both sides in regarding both the ugly detachment of other human beings and her own capacity to engage in active self-defeat in the process of trying to gain a more vital victory. When Gail does break down, it takes a lot to do it. The Minotaur statue, which seems like a Chekovian gun that offers the chance for a painless solution to Gail’s trap, proves to really be just a trinket, and the mother buckles with crestfallen realisation not simply that Getty bullshitted his own grandson but he also invested illusory value on an object, thus giving it that value until it was tested—which proves true of Getty’s entire enterprise.
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Chase, for his part, seems every inch the well-made man of action; taking up a shotgun when invited by Getty to join in trap shooting with other guests, he easily swats clay pigeons from the air. But even he begins to quickly lose his bearings in the maze of motive and potential he wades into, and Chase repeatedly defines his experience as a CIA agent and operator for Getty as more the life of a businessman, a professional deal-maker and mollifier. His ultimate function however is less save-the-day swashbuckler than as intelligent witness and consul to Gail’s war, a war he hinders as often as he aids. Appalled by Chase’s high-handed technique when he intercedes during a conversation, Gail swats him in the brow with the phone receiver, but Chase tries to make her understand his approach, speaking in perfect calm with bleeding forehead all the while. There are a few moments when Wahlberg’s diction in playing a worldly and confident protagonist where he irresistibly reminded me of the actor’s role within a role as international man of mystery Brock Landers in Boogie Nights (1997), and the part has a similar subtext as Chase lets slip he’s still brushing up on his culture under Getty’s tutelage, suggesting he’s a man who quietly hopes to be evolve into warrior-poet serving the emperor.
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The spectacle of the kidnapping however imbues new self-knowledge upon Chase, knowledge he finally turns on Getty in the film’s climax of its moral drama if not the physical one. He loses his temper with the old coot and gives him a serving of truth, confessing he’s another pampered rich white boy and that neither of them knows what real struggle or risk actually means. Chase also illustrates with ruthless clarity the fact that Getty might consider money his fortress but in fact that only represents the sum total of the work Chase has put into building his cordons and bastions of muscle and attention. His security is ensured by actual labour and not magic powers. It’s also, of course, a form of prison, one that must be maintained with perfect vigilance without risking one’s life in the same way that Paul did simply by enjoying an evening stroll. When the ransom is finally paid and Paul is abandoned in the woods, he soon finds himself hunted by his vengeful former captors as they realise Chase and Gail alerted the police.
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Scott builds to a climax that cross-cuts between young Paul’s efforts to find safe harbour and Getty’s succumbing to a stroke, likening them in flailing entrapment, wandering labyrinthine spaces that offer no safe harbour from fear of death, a metaphor that bears out the dramatic patience lurking in that Minotaur motif. The sequence echoes moments of lost and haunted characters trapped in the belly of the beast in many a Scott film, from Alien’s spaceship innards to the animate and terrorising streets of Black Hawk Down (2001). It’s also an echo and partial inversion of the finale of The Third Man (1949), a film that insisted on Christlike parables regardless of its subject’s utter moral nullity. For Scott it’s close to an existential vision of flailing humanity, one that sees the real flesh and blood boy delivered into arms of mother and dogged helpmate whilst Getty expires pawing his painted Renaissance boy in longing for the real thing. The ultimate irony comes when Getty’s lawyer Oswald Hinge (Timothy Hutton) slides a contract across the table to Gail that will enable her to take in hand the Getty fortune: the same flukes that placed her at the mercy of the same fortune make her master of it. “I think of you as one of the family,” Gail tells Chase at the end as she begins the Citizen Kane-esque deconstruction of the great man’s acquisitions. “It’s nice of you to say that,” Chase replies in complete disbelief, and perhaps a certain relief too. Everyone has their reasons, as the cliché has it. That doesn’t let them off the hook, Scott retorts.

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2010s, Auteurs, Fantasy, Musical, Scifi

The Shape of Water (2017)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Guillermo del Toro

By Roderick Heath

Guillermo del Toro’s oeuvre has long come in two strands: the wistfully poetic splendour and infernal evocations of his Spanish-language films, Cronos (1992), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and the gleeful, geeky spectacle of his Hollywood work, including Mimic (1997), his two Hellboy films, and Pacific Rim (2013). What’s unified both hemispheres of del Toro’s work even is his plain, fervent love of the fantastical, his belief in its worthiness and capacity to bear up powerful emotions and connect with a point of the mind at the edge of shared awareness. 2015’s Crimson Peak saw del Toro trying to unite these two strands in a film that proved a luscious but lumpy effort, high gothic romanticism and old-school melodrama melding uneasily with florid supernatural showmanship. The Shape of Water, his latest, is less an attempt to fuse these two modes than a fully-fledged attempt to make one of his Spanish-language works in Hollywood, borrowing tropes with equal zest from pop culture lore of the mid 20th century, the archives of fantastic literature and surrealist art, fairy tales, and internet, fan-penned, slash-fic erotica. Del Toro signals his credo in a delirious opening sequence in which heroine Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) dreams of being submerged, her apartment flooded, fish wiggling through dancing light patinas, belongings floating in languorous beauty, voices sounding muffled through the water, slowly drawing Elisa back to wakefulness.

Elisa is mute, and communicates in sign language. She lives over a movie theatre in downtown Baltimore in the early 1960s, next door to a Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay commercial artist who’s become a steadfast friend. Her only other real friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), works with her as a cleaner in the OCCAM Aerospace Research Center, a grandiose den of quasi-official experimentation. One day, Elisa and Zelda are privy to an unusual sight, as a large tube containing some kind of living being is wheeled into a room prepared with an open tank as a kind of makeshift habitat. Intrigued by the contents, Elisa touches the tank, only for a hand to slap against the glass from within. The two cleaners soon encounter government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), the man who captured this bizarre specimen from its South American home where, he reports, it was worshipped as a god by tribes there. Later, the cleaners see Strickland stumble out of the creature’s room with two of his fingers gorily severed. Assigned to clean up the bloody mess, Elisa and Zelda retrieve Strickland’s fingers, and Elisa catches sight of the creature through a glass screen, beholding a strikingly coloured and muscled amphibian humanoid. Struck not only by the creature’s pathos but its similarities to herself as a nonspeaking creature desperate for sensible contact, soon she’s sneaking into the habitat to feed boiled eggs to the curious and wary being and play records to him.

In much the same way that The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth meditated upon Spain’s troubled past, The Shape of Water casts its mind back to a time in American history at once recent but also retreating to the fringe of collective memory, a time of jarring disparity between the flashy, technocratic splendours of the burgeoning space age and racial strife, a time that promised so much and now stirs a twinge of regret in lost illusions. Del Toro links this echoing past with the very stuff of his fantastical lexicon, formative creative influences and dream provokers glimpsed on movie and TV screens and read between covers churned together with the psychic landscape of the past. History plays out at times barely registered by the workaday characters drifting through a landscape, as when Elisa goes to work with the fires from riots blazing in the background, and at other times wilfully drowned out, as when Giles anxiously tells her turn over the TV from news reports on civil rights demonstrations and happily retreats into old Alice Faye musicals instead. One totemic image comes early on, as del Toro notes Zelda and Elisa conversing as Zelda dusts down a colossal jet engine. His tale of the little people who are adjuncts to great designs is boiled down to this perfect piece of iconography, dusted nonetheless still with a sense of the dreamlike, of ridiculous Sisyphean tasks and worship of twisted metal gods.

Strickland, by comparison, fancies himself the perfect avatar of American go-get-’em bravura and fortitude of will. Properly introduced to Elisa and Zelda as they clean the OCCAM men’s room as he lays down the cattle prod he uses to torture the fish-man before taking a leak in the urinal without touching his dick to establish his rigorous self-control, Strickland has a picture-perfect family he anxiously wants to move to a better city. Offering Shannon as implacable villain again feels like a highly unimaginative bit of casting, especially as Strickland, representative of the whitest of white bred authority, an Almighty-invoking avatar of septic squareness ignorant of all interiority, feels similar to the role he played in the TV series Boardwalk Empire. And yet it’s also a wise move, as Shannon can play such a creature in a manner that evokes underlying neuroticism and neediness so intense it almost renders him sympathetic even before indulging behaviour that makes him utterly despicable. Strickland is depicted as inordinately proud of his efforts to prove himself the exemplary American, buying a green – sorry, teal Cadillac in a droll scene in which he readily falls for a salesman’s spiel and claims his right to the essential status symbol. He’s also a patronising racist and sexist, who finds himself taken with Elisa, making a play for her sexual attention in wolfish fashion, and enjoys torturing the amphibian when he has it at bay. Del Toro makes no pretence to offering Strickland as a realistic character, but existing as it does in a plain fantasy, he is del Toro’s evil queen or wicked witch, the totemic figure of everything wrong with the era’s self-delusions.

The digits Strickland lost to the fish-man are surgically restored but the graft refuses to take and he’s left with two steadily rotting fingers whose steady degrading to black stumps gives del Toro a mordant device to illustrate the gangrenous state of aspects of the super-duper company man. A cringe-inducing sex scene sees del Toro sarcastically painting “normal” sexuality as obscene, Strickland screwing his wife Elaine (Lauren Lee Smith) with ruthless enthusiasm, clapping his hand with black blood leaking out over her mouth to muffle her attempts to complain. Del Toro interestingly revises his patient indulgence of institutions exhibited in the Hellboy films and Pacific Rim, where the dens of government experimentation and arsenals, with their labyrinthine corridors and gargantuan yet obscure fixtures, housed swashbuckling weirdos and stolid functionaries in relative harmony. Here, the facility is den of imperial arrogance infiltrated by social cast-offs and the disadvantaged, as well as foreign influences. The predominately black and Latino workforce of cleaners and dogsbodies in the OCCAM facility gain their little moments of peace and relaxation in avoiding the cyclopean eye of the security cameras, taking cigarette breaks in the blind spots for the cameras, a throwaway detail that nonetheless germinates into Elisa’s realisation need only retrain the cameras to get the amphibian out of his den.

As Elisa forges her amity with the amphibian, a scientist who’s been assigned to understand the creature’s physiognomy, Dr Hoffstetler (the inexhaustible Michael Stuhlbarg), sees her but does not report her, because he has his own secret: he’s a Russian agent (real name Dmitri, as he reveals in an affecting aside), employed by a spymaster posing as a diplomat, Mihalkov (Nigel Bennett). But Hoffstetler’s higher loyalty proves to be science, as he tries to argue to both of his nominal masters the necessity of keeping the amphibian alive for study, only for both to decide the creature should be killed. US military bigwig Gen. Hoyt (Nick Searcy) wants the creature’s biology closely examined, and Mihalkov states, “We don’t need to learn – we need to stop the Americans from learning.” So Hoffstetler elects to aid Elisa as he realises she’s planning to bust the amphibian out, after she’s already drawn Giles and Zelda into helping her. The breakout succeeds, after Hoffstetler intervenes and gives a guard about to arrest Giles a dose of the lethal injection he was supposed to give to the amphibian, and they manage to escape without leaving any sign of their identities for the wrathful Strickland to track.

The official inspiration here is one close to the hearts of most fans of classic science fiction and horror film: Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) has long stirred frissons with its image of a grotesque yet curiously charismatic humanoid forming an attachment for a lovely human female who prefers, in that film, the attentions of two primates who barely seem that much more advanced. The connection between male sexuality and bestial impulse isn’t new – to quote a quip from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 concerning another tatty monster, it’s how all teenagers see themselves. Del Toro had even ventured down this path before on Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009), where the fish-man Abe Sapien romanced an ethereal elf princess to her unblinking openness, as both were citizens of a magic world indifferent to the fear of the unique known only be humans. Plainly del Toro didn’t work the idea out as far as his twisted mind could there. Like another film that saw the light of day in English-speaking film markets this year, Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska’s loony-tunes The Lure (2015), del Toro evokes Hans Christian Anderson’s original The Little Mermaid story – a very different beast compared to the homogenised Disney take – and even parses it through similar impulses to Smoczynska as a postgenre hash of expressive impulses, up to and including musical flourishes.

One way del Toro signals his peculiar bent, and his deep feel for cinema in all its glories, comes in a small detail involving the movie showing at the movie theatre isn’t something cool like a ’50s noir film or one of del Toro’s beloved monster movies but Henry Koster’s forgotten religious epic The Story of Ruth (1960). There’s a faint but definite gesture her in the direction of Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds (1953), which made show of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) screening at the outset, invoking homiletic glow of religious parable and Biblical dimensions to the ensuing Armageddon. Strickland repeatedly uses the story of Samson as his mission statement, only to find out he’s mistaken his own role in the parable. Del Toro runs with another notion encoded in Creature from the Black Lagoon, the idea that understanding different forms of life could give an edge in future adventures into space. In Arnold’s film this idea is deployed instead as justification for vivisection and exploitation of something beautiful and incredibly rare, the pretentions of the space age another guise of colonialism. The Arnold film posited its gill-man as a representative of the untameable in nature, in much the same style as King Kong (1933), powerful and baleful and constantly seeking to breach the new citadels of progress – in short, exactly like the maddening sexuality that vexes both Arnold’s characters and del Toro’s.

Del Toro seems to have in mind not merely the familiar rosters of sci-fi and monster movies from the ’50s, but also a string of movies from the 1980s, including Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Fred Schepisi’s Iceman (1984), and John Carpenter’s Starman (1985). Those movies stand in many ways as repudiations of values expressed in the older breed, with distrust in authority and cold science, and ecologically-minded sense of the preciousness of strangeness (del Toro isn’t the only filmmaker of late to cast his mind back to those films, as last year’s Midnight Special, also featuring Shannon, leaned heavily on their influence). The Shape of Water can be described without too much stretching as a romantic variation of Spielberg’s famous work, although his contemporary, grounded evocation of the childlike has been swapped out for del Toro’s ardour for the retro and the dreamily erotic. Del Toro might be turning a smirking nod to the TV series Alf when it comes to a gross gag involving the amphibian developing an appetite for one of Giles’ cats. The movies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro also seem prominent in his thoughts. One bathroom-flooding sequence pays overt tribute to their Delicatessen (1992), whilst Elisa and Giles are highly reminiscent of characters from Jeunet’s Amelie (2001), although, fortunately, del Toro doesn’t indulge his whimsy to the same degree as Jeunet did when left to his own devices: his mischievous streak, his love for throwing his audience the odd curve ball in jolts of violence and weirdness, keep bubbling insistently to the surface.

Some qualities, running like a vein of gold through The Shape of Water, seem indebted to a more rarefied brand of movie dreaming than del Toro’s genre film loves. The touch of having Elisa and Giles live over a cinema, the sounds of the epics and fantasies echoing up through the floorboards, is reminiscent of the more overt surrealism of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012). Hell, there’s even a faint flicker of (1963) in Elisa’s hallway dance moves. Where del Toro eventually steers this annexation of familiar material is in his literal and figurative deflowering of the traditional metaphorical sexuality of the monster movie with relish, as he finally has Elisa and the amphibian shacked up in her apartment after the successful escape. Elisa keeps him immersed in her bathtub, as he can only breathe out of water so long, obliging her to mix table salt in with the water to keep him from suffocating, and even with these measures his physical condition begins to decay. Del Toro has already noted Elisa’s habit of masturbating in the bath as part of her daily ritual, and she sports unusual marks on her neck that look a little like the gills on the amphibian’s neck, a sign that the orphan girl might be the lost heiress to some race of merfolk, a notion reminiscent of another melancholic fairy tale of lost souls and marine life, Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961). Giles can’t help but remark on how beautiful the amphibian is when he first sees him, and Elisa’s attachment to the creature quickly steps over the line into erotic interest which she first shies away from but then, after trying to settle down for the night on her sofa, throws caution and clothes to the wind, marches into the bathroom to join the creature for a night of passion.

There’s a marvellous joke following this scene for anyone who’s ever watched many a classic monster movie like Creature from the Black Lagoon and wondered why these monsters never seem to have sex organs, as Elisa mimes the opening of the amphibian’s surprise package to Zelda’s mixed repulsion and fascination. Del Toro also links one form of “forbidden” sexuality to another as Giles’ situation as an ageing gay man forms a counterpoint to the central tale: Giles, who laments the stranger’s face that stares at him from the mirror, is anxious to return from his greying exile to his former workplace in an advertising agency but, whether by getting old or letting slip his orientation, he remains unwanted there. He forms a crush on a handsome young waiter (Morgan Kelly) in a coffee shop, forcing Elisa to follow him in and buy pies neither of them can stand eating for the sake of gaining his daily look at his idol. Sadly, Giles compounds humiliation after being fobbed off by his former boss by making an equally unsuccessful and bruising move on the young man. Del Toro links his two outside men as his camera slides from the window of Giles’ apartment to Elisa’s where the amphibian stands in a mimicking pose, matched in their bemusement at their place in this unforgiving world. But Giles also finds himself beneficiary of a bizarre talent the amphibian has. The fish-man has a bioelectric system that pulses as if he’s wearing a suit made of the aurora, and this seems to be the source of a healing power he can wield. This gift repairs wound he accidentally made in Giles’ arm, and stimulates the growth of hair on his head, allowing him to throw away his toupee.

There’s a lovely bounty of humanity in The Shape of Water in this sort of thing it almost makes you ache to think how little of it there is some other movies these days. The fecundity of Elisa and Giles apartments are carefully wrought and textured by del Toro and art director Nigel Churcher as an abode of escape from the shiny, chrome plated super-machines and gritty realities both beyond their walls. Del Toro’s feel for way the apparatus of the past lingers in the dreamscapes of the mind long after epochs fade is part of the texture here. Del Toro has one of the best eyes in contemporary film, and his attentiveness to the little worlds here communicates in an argot of another age, particularly the swirling, futurist décor that permeates the OCCAM facility boldly grasping at an age when science and art can cohabit on the level of engineering dreams, but usually with the malignant Strickland hovering before them. The cold, clean geometries of Strickland’s new Cadillac wield the same whiff of antiseptic modernity, at least until Giles accidentally slams his van into it during the escape from the facility. By contrast, Del Toro’s early 1960s Baltimore is as exotic as his Victorian era was in Crimson Peak, and linked unexpectedly with John Waters’s Hairspray (1987) in its setting and use of Baltimore as an exemplary American city in a time of swift and unnerving change, not quite as blankly indifferent as a megalopolis like New York or Los Angeles but hardly village-like either, beset by unseen borders and a sense of hovering between nothing and nowhere. And, like Waters’s film, it’s concerned with people usually thrust to the margins of life suddenly and boldly claiming their place in the world.

Perhaps this likeness is why, when del Toro abruptly swerves into a musical sequence, it doesn’t feel at all unexpected. Elisa indulges a fantasy shot in black-and-white and gleaned from old Astaire and Rogers movies, where she can suddenly not only talk but sing, and launches into a dazzling dance number with her humanoid beau. Del Toro takes up the old canard about musicals, that their characters break into song when there’s no other way to properly express and contain their emotion, and not only transplants it into an unexpected setting, but links it with his own effervescent love affair with the fantastical genres, a love the revolves around the same notion, the transformative potency of heightened expressive modes, the certainty mere reality cannot contain our manifold selves. The notion of language as something as much physical as oral, mooted throughout as the amphibian learns to communicate through Elisa’s sign language, is also rendered here in a radically different fashion, the need to move, to transcend the limits of ordinary physicality and become fluid as a dream. It’s also a moment that highlights the way The Shape of Water, whilst assembled with many an archetype, trope, and cliché, wields impudent originality in the way he patches them all together. Del Toro counterbalances this with his relatively straight-laced portrayal of Hoffstetler’s anxiety, provoked by the looming malignancy of Strickland on one side and his boss who might be planning to have him killed on the other. This subplot builds to a sequence that reminds me del Toro has a gift for nastiness as potent as his romantic side, as Hoffstetler is saved after being shot through the face by a KGB goon by Strickland who’s been following him, only for the American agent to hook his fingers through the gaping wound in his cheek and drag him around by it before torturing the amphibian’s location out of him (shades here of the infamous stitching scene in Pan’s Labyrinth).

Equally charged, if not as violent, is Strickland’s subsequent confrontation with Zelda, visiting her in her own and terrorising her and her husband Brewster (Martin Roach) in a disturbingly intimate way. Del Toro shoots Shannon like the reincarnation of Boris Karloff he’s long threatened to become, deep grooves in his face picked out by deep shadow and gruelling sweat mixed with rain pouring off him like the natural translucent ooze of an actual beast from the deep, the angry white man as monster. I wouldn’t blame Spencer if she never wanted to play another period menial again, but she aptly embodies del Toro’s theme of nascent rebellion as she weathers this storm and moves to both warn Elisa of Strickland’s warpath and chews out her lazy and cowardly husband at the same time. Jones has been del Toro’s instrument of vital physicality in his movies since Mimic. His performance is expert in imbuing the amphibian with traits both recognisably intelligent and animalistic, and it feels like a just reward for him to at last play romantic lead, even if he is still swathed in latex. What’s perhaps more surprising is that Hawkins, who’s always a deft and inventive performer, nonetheless matches him and dominates the film without speaking a word, purely through intensity of expression and gesture. The film’s waterfront climax is perhaps a little disappointing in its lack of inventive staging or action, even if it does at last deliver a nicely nasty punch line to Strickland’s hand-of-god pretences. But the very last images of underwater love and transcendent transformation finally thrust del Toro’s labours into a rarefied zone, a rapturous embrace of the intimately surreal, and slipping the prison of the flesh.

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1980s, Auteurs, Horror/Eerie

The Shining (1980)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Stanley Kubrick

By Roderick Heath

A yellow Volkswagen Beetle winds its way along a vertiginous mountain road, a route that leads from the rational lowlands to the mountains of madness. We’ve already been introduced to Jack Torrance even though we haven’t seen him, a being enclosed in a tight bubble of metal, an economic and cultural refugee from the larger human world, entering a zone where his existence is viewed with implacable disinterest by the soaring, jagged peaks and silently abiding pine trees, merely waiting for winter’s hammer to fall. Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s pulsing, droning synthesiser version of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique resounds on the soundtrack. Torrance in the flesh takes the shape of Jack Nicholson, authoritative Oscar winner flashing his trademark zesty grin. But the eyes are slightly fixed, the smile a tad strained, as he speaks with the manager of the Overlook Hotel, Stuart Ullman (Barry Nelson), a conversation punctuated with Ullman’s uneasy revelation that one of the previous caretakers, a man named Delbert Grady, killed his family during the long winter isolation with an axe, whilst Jack grins and responds it will be a topic of delight for his horror film addict wife. Mutually agreed subtext: Torrance is desperate for a settled job and a chance to break his writer’s block, and Ullman urgently needs someone who’ll take on a job that has a nasty history of chewing up human life.

Like the conversation of scientists in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) who represent the urges of rational cooperation and irrational partisanship, Jack and Ullman’s exchange here manages to be at once perfectly bland, yet also conscious of standing on the edge of an adventure into the unknown where mysterious forces can already be sensed slowly gathering new strength. Down in the flatlands, where the mountains loom in the dreamy distance, wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) wait for news on Jack’s luck with the job. Wendy reads that eternal tome of the sensitively literate and rebellious, The Catcher in the Rye, whilst Danny has conversations with an invisible friend, Tony. But there’s more to Tony than simply providing a slightly detached and creative little boy’s outlet: Tony is an internal voice, a spirit guide, a doppelganger who hovers within and beside Danny, mediating his powerful psychic gifts. Danny senses Tony’s unease over the coming journey to the Overlook. When he asks Tony to show him why, the only image needed is one returned to again and again throughout the film like a pictorial leitmotif – a colossal torrent of blood spilling out of the hotel’s elevators, as if the heart of the building has stored up every drop of gore ever spilt upon the soil it stands upon.

The story has it Stanley Kubrick, looking for a strong commercial property to film after the weak reception of Barry Lyndon (1975), sat day in and day out in his office working through piles of recently successful novels, and one day the sound of the books thudding against the wall ceased when Kubrick took up the third novel by a fast-rising horror writer named Stephen King. What’s fascinating about this vignette is how much it resembles some moments in the film, the anguished search for a story to tell, an idea worth hanging years of mental and physical effort upon, stoking the sensation that Kubrick was drawn to the book because it reproduced aspects of his own mental landscape. Then again, that’s probably true enough for any creative person. Kubrick had not tackled an outright horror movie before, although much of his earlier work had suggested some affinity, in his fascination for humans devolving into imps of the perverse, and moments measuring the precise impact of violence. Kubrick, penning the script with novelist Diane Johnson, entirely sublimated King’s story into his own sensibility, an aspect of the film that still rankles the author. What we watch when we watch The Shining is not just adaptation, but something more like translation, a tale remade through new methods of communication, and inevitable imprint of the new artisan. Kubrick’s The Shining, as King put it perfectly correctly, is cold where the novel is hot, the writer’s guilt-ridden, morbid fantasy of his own worst side unleashed by his drinking problem, transmitted via Kubrick’s contemplation of his own tendency to withdraw and struggle through endless phases of creative genesis, drifting through pentimento layers of past and present and future in contemplating civilisation and its discontents.

Kubrick had already stepped back and forth through the Ages of Man from the horizon of human time to the gilded pretence of a recent past and on to a gleaming technocratic future, evolving somehow towards both divine perfection and primal resurgence all at once, the benign indifference of the Star Child and the savage grins of Dr. Strangelove and Alex De Large the Janus faces of evolution and poor old Barry Lyndon the beaten and curtailed by-product. Kubrick knew very well the human race’s capacity to put on its best face whilst committing its worst crimes, his singular, most obsessive theme. All found a logical terminus in the Overlook, a place where past and present join and twist and the present dissolves like white sky into snow. The Overlook Hotel. The description King’s idol Shirley Jackson gave to her Hill House could describe it just as well – “Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone…and whatever walked there, walked alone.” An outpost of affluent white civilisation, a bustling hive of activity when filled with staff. Imposed upon the crown of the American landscape, so offensive to the dispersed and decimated native inhabitants they even tried to stop its construction upon a burial ground. The Shining is the contemporary nightmare rising out of the dream of ’70s shambling westerns like Little Big Man (1970) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972). The mountaintop burial place whose invasion stirs the massacre of Jeremiah’s family in the latter film is the unavoidable touchstone. Folk cultural remnants decorate the hotel walls, whilst the art deco interiors quietly mimic and refine the simple, jagged geometries of the Indian artefacts. A common motif in late ’70s horror, of course – the Amityville house was also perched upon an Indian burial ground. A hedge maze adjacent, a feature strayed over from one of the Enlightenment gardens of Barry Lyndon, the orderly compression of space and time into a devious sprawl of false hope.

Jack’s already simmering instability is merely stoked rather than imposed by the Overlook, his fantasies of godlike control over his mental world meshing with a locale that serves as the last stop on the psychic river flowing through a land won in harsh contest. Danny’s reassurance of his parents that he knows all about cannibalism from watching TV stirs a most unnervingly strained and lunatic grin from Torrance as he repeats his son’s words, testifying to a mind already frayed by being long outpaced by other modes of media communication even in the process of shaping his son’s mind. Methods of communication are a secret plane of warfare in The Shining. Jack’s inability to communicate meaningfully, represented by his writing or failure therein, is matched to his urging Danny to suppresses his psychic gifts, perhaps out of concern for the way people will think of him and perhaps jealous of them. Some vital mechanism in Jack has broken down, perhaps from the same process, of having to contour himself and his expectations into a workaday world, or perhaps from suppressing the gift in himself – if the two processes can be extricated at all. Jack hopes to dislodge the clog to his ambitions in the Overlook. Wendy, meanwhile, cute and gawky and ever so chipper, wears her identity like a baggy sack dress, the woman with a shrivelled sense of self-esteem who convinced herself she married a genius.

The Overlook provides the struggling writer and his family with a little kingdom with a brief illusion of possession, reminiscent on one level of the similar smorgasbord of consumer delight George Romero sent his heroes careening through in Dawn of the Dead (1978), albeit slightly more upmarket. Head chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) gives Wendy and Danny a tour of the hotel’s larder, stocked for a long winter and a veritable horn of plenty, a wonderland of space and illusory wealth backed up by an authentic aura of history. The Torrances settle into life in the Overlook, but after initial celebration of their new world, nothing goes right. Jack becomes increasingly tetchy and offensive. Danny keeps seeing strange and terrible things in the hotel corridors, and finally, fatefully ventures into Room 237, where something leaves him bedraggled and traumatised. This assault sparks suspicion and diverging responses of concern and infuriated frustration in his parents. Nature conspires to force a crisis. A terrible snowstorm falls upon the Colorado Rockies. Jack displays increasing signs of falling into a cabin-fever-driven frenzy with dangerous intentions. Soon Jack will also destroy the radio and snowmobile that offer the chance of rescue or escape.

The horror artist’s imaginative landscape is transposed onto the locale, filling up space with illustrations of events gruesome and strange, the many crimes and lost histories straying out of their boxes into the halls and corridors. Trauma clings to the place like a subtle stink of rot, particularly infecting the notorious Room 237, a space Hallorann detests so absolutely Danny can sense it in him, obliging the chef to warn him away from it at all costs. Danny and Hallorann find instant accord, for Hallorann has the psychic gift too, and he seems to be the first other psychic Danny has encountered. Hallorann calls their shared gift “shining,” and gives nostalgic account of his ability to communicate with his mother without moving their mouths. There’s a hint here that Jack probably has the shining too, but has suppressed it so deeply he becomes a mere conduit for the psychic evil in the hotel rather than a bulwark against it, as Hallorann and Danny are. It’s also suggested that the building’s latent evil is often sparked by the intrusion of such preternaturally super-conscious people into its zone. Grady’s slaughter of his family was occasioned by the attempts of one his daughters to burn the place down in her awareness of what it is.

Time quickly begins to break down once the family is ensconced in their private abode within the hotel, a space that serves as a kind of mocking simulacrum of a proper family hostel sealed off from the rest of this cavernous space. Kubrick’s deployed intertitles seem to precisely delineate the time but actually hack up the film into random shards, units of measurement without rule. Days dissolve into one-another; character actions take on a kind logarithmic variability, moving according to programs laid down by the Overlook. One of the most famous flourishes, the endless repetition of the phrase “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy,” testifies to an illusion of forward motion when in fact the some moment is repeating. Young Danny makes endless tours of the hotel corridors on his tricycle, a system that seems to depend on the same Byzantine logic as the hotel’s beloved hedge maze. The monstrosity at the heart of the labyrinth is no longer a fanciful Minotaur – it’s a suburban father. Kubrick reverse-engineers cinematic language in the course of the film, as if mimicking his time-warp theme. The stark, squared-off, rectilinear shots attune themselves to the hard blocks and angles of the decorative motifs and forms around the hotel, but also call back to early cinema and the work of Fritz Lang and other movie pioneers, their deadpan gaze upon severe and unyielding compositions. As in Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), the implacable regard of order and fate is invoked through such rigid figurations, as is the rectangular frames of the photos that in the very end prove to contain and cage the spirits of the dead in the Overlook. The eye of the camera is a mocking form of immortality, locking time in an eternal frieze.

Part of the unique stature The Shining has acquired over recent years, which has evolved to the extent that a whole movies has been made the obsession with this one, seems rooted in just this aspect of The Shining. It’s a movie about looking, in much the same way as Blowup (1966), mediated through a master filmmaker’s eye, one whose visual style was based in his background in still photography. The very last shot reveals, unnoticed amongst the hotel’s keepsakes of a lost, glittering past a photo of a suited Jack standing before a large group of Independence Day revellers, a detail observed by Kubrick in a systematic journey in closer to the image, much like in Blowup. The truth is available if you look hard enough. Small wonder some folks scour the film in urgent hunt for details that might act like the small map of the hedge maze, a map that blends imperceptibly into the real one as Jack studies it. Jack’s own pretensions of omniscience are invoked here as he seems to see his wife and son wandering in the aisles of the maze. The shining is a way of seeing, reading, experiencing – “It’s just like pictures in a book,” Tony tells Danny in coaching him through the seemingly manifold terrors of the Overlook itself, which seems to lack sufficient power to actually hurt anyone, therefore requiring a pliable amanuensis like Jack to do it. Kubrick strips the games of look and reality down to brutalist essentials throughout, constantly hinting at unseen things. The Shining invites you to look closer but also observes the breakdown of order and logic, and the closer you get the faster this process speeds up.

The broadest variation on this motif comes when Jack ventures into Room 237 in search of an apparent interloper who has roughed up Danny. Jack sees at first an extremely beautiful woman climbing sylphlike out a bath, encouraging Jack to embrace her, but then transforming into a garish hag covered in terrible burns and stigmata of disease. This scene mimics the forms of horror with the heartbeat-like soundtrack and steady build to grotesque revelation, but rather plays more as a smirking gag at the audience’s expense, with Jack as the frustrated avatar, inviting in with the desire to see something sexy and then give it a right good goose. In a place where time folds in on itself, beauty and ugliness coexist in one frame. There’s also a hint of in-joke to this scene, or at the very least a sort of knowing reference. Nicholson started in his career in the low-budget scifi and horror of Roger Corman, and this sequence essentially compresses one of his first starring roles, in Corman’s faux-Poe escapade The Terror (1963), into a few excruciating minutes. Poe is an inevitable touchstone for any American artist dabbling in the oneiric arts, of course, the saturnine poet who was found dying one day on a park bench after everything else in his life had slowly withered and died, lost in fantasies of a gallant past turned septic trap. Poe unwillingly but implacably observed the genteel fantasies of the southern planter class he didn’t quite belong to regressing into blood crime, psychosexual dwarfism, and lunacy. King’s approach to the Poe imprint was to use his motifs to interrogate American hierarchism – the bludgeoning effect of money, class, race, gender. Kubrick? Well, suffice to say Stanley seemed a little sceptical about everything.

Sequences depicting Danny’s habits of charging about the hotel on his tricycle are excellent thumbnails describing Kubrick’s skill at compressing and paring back his style in order to land his effects with purified force. The director tracks the boy’s speeding advance from behind, in shots that intriguingly connect them with the same sense of headlong rushing with which he shot the B-52 bomber shooting towards apocalypse in Dr. Strangelove, or; How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963), the sounds of his tricycle’s tires alternating between hissing smoothness on carpet and thunderous, irritating sound on the bare wood. You can all but feel Danny’s heedless release in the wealth of space after a life cooped up in an apartment, but the cunning control of the sound instils forces the viewer to also empathise in the finest nerves with Jack’s frustration with trying to chase a muse with the racket a young child can make. Kubrick makes you feel this aspect of his tale, to experience it, rather than be passively fed dialogue. It also establishes a visual pattern returned to in the finale, as the roving, pursuing camera fills in for the killer pursuing Danny through the maze proper. Even when the narrative seems to be spiralling into frenetic chaos, the visual language remains unerringly concise. The little sways of the camera tracking the swing of Jack’s axe. The jolting zooms that pick out terrible details and perverse exhibitions. The increasingly intimate views of his actors’ faces as they cave in to lunacy and distress, often with dramatically unusual angles. One example of this is a shot of Nicholson as Jack converses with Wendy through a doorway, filmed from below, a shot that turns him into a caged beast and also invites the viewer into conspiracy with Jack, like one of Richard III’s monologues, as he begins to grin at Wendy’s naive and forlorn expectations of easy escape. The rhythmic interpolations of that singular vision, the torrent of blood, the flash cuts to Danny’s frightened face as he experiences nightmarish terrors with his shining.

Jack’s invocation to the spirits of the Overlook, uttered when he’s first seen in the hotel’s colossal function area called the Gold Room, with its chintzy splendour and gleaming, inviting bar, is, “I’d do anything for a drink – I’d give my goddamn soul for a glass of beer.” This line is almost parodic in its reduction of Jack’s moral and psychological collapse and enslavement to the Overlook to this singular formula, whilst also finally starting the process of nailing down Jack’s problem, his dry-drunk’s neurosis merely starved rather actively conquered. This is when Jack first glimpses the barman Lloyd (Joe Turkel), who seems at first like a fancy of the writer’s, suave and correct in his old-school aplomb, a character invented to match Jack’s remaking of himself as a worldly gentleman. He aids Jack in delivering verbal purgation of the motives that enforced his self-exile to the Overlook, not really an attempt to find creative fulfilment but instead an attempt to escape his alcoholism, and his guilt over losing his temper with Danny. Wendy proceeds through her days with a chipper, workaday front that is both entirely admirable and enabling of Jack’s instability.

After their drive together to the hotel, Kubrick pointedly refuses to ever offer a scene where all three characters are seen together, except for a moment in which Jack is a quivering mess after a dreadful nightmare of murdering them and Danny wanders into frame sucking his thumb in the traumatised wake of being attacked by something. Hallorann fulfils the role of father gently coaxing Danny into communication and community. One key scene here involves no overt violence or action but generates a mood of intense disquiet, depicting Jack, moving in a state of intense distraction, slovenly, unshaven, balancing his son on his knee and making weak attempts to communicate with the boy. This scene might seem queasily familiar to anyone who ever grew up with a depressive or alcoholic parent – the spectacle of a parent, supposed figure of love and protection and unquestioning commitment, drifting away in a haze whose attempts to mollify a child are desperately unconvincing. Danny’s question in response to Jack’s agonising expressions of paternal interest is “You wouldn’t ever hurt mommy and me, would ya?”

But the call of the Overlook is reverberating through Jack’s mind just as it rang out to Danny – come and play, forever and ever and ever. It’s a call that appeals more to a failed adult byproduct than to a wary and canny kid. Danny himself as already heard the call from the pair of twin girls, Grady’s daughters, who have appeared to him in the corridors, manifesting at the same time as the sight of their mangled and bloodied corpses. Danny’s capacity to weather such terrible glimpses depends on his ability to believe in them as mere illustrations rather than as true emanations. Jack instead interacts with them like a man stepping into private fantasies. Wendy’s stark, horrified reaction when she believes Jack might have roughed up Danny has the sorry effect of helping to drive him over the verge of the liminal as he stalks away into the depths of the hotel, arriving in the chintzy splendour of the Gold Room, where Lloyd converses with him in suave, correct old school aplomb, mollifying Jack’s fiscal anxieties and eventually appealing to his desire to be considered important. Lloyd suggests Jack is desperately important to a great project still unfolding at the Overlook. Later, re-entering the same space, Jack finds himself amidst a ritzy celebration of 1920s high life, replete with suited gentlemen and chicly clad flappers, and is bumped into by a waiter, whom Jack recognises quickly is Grady (Philip Stone). Grady protests ignorance of his real identity as Jack grills him about it in a mordantly red-painted bathroom, until the guise slips and Grady assures him with cold precision that he “corrected” his incorrigible family and encourages Jack to do the same with his, in defence of his post as the Caretaker, a role that has slipped any nominal bonds of merely earthly concern and become a post of cosmic significance within this time-space trap.

Fittingly, considering such themes of type-casting and predestination, the casting imbues The Shining not simply with strong performances but with actors who are obliged to act out versions of parts they had before, or with whom Kubrick had history. Turkel had previously appeared in Paths of Glory (1957) playing a young and tragic soldier also sacrificed in the interests of a smooth-working machine. Stone, who had been in both A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, had played a retainer shocked by the pathology of the Lyndon household who eventually played successful intervener. Here once more he plays major-domo to the interests of the great estate, although the role of intervener is passed on to Hallorann. Duvall had been the big-eyed, soulful lady of Robert Altman’s Americana fantasias in the previous ten years. Thrusting Nicholson, hero of 1970s naturalism, back into such the zone of his early roles has a mischievous aspect to it, especially as Kubrick picks up and amplifies the coal-black comedy and purposefully cartoonish aspects of a Corman film like The Raven (1963). Kubrick’s fascination for performances pitched right on the edge of overt stylisation reached an apogee here thanks to Nicholson and Duvall. Nicholson’s bravura incarnation of Jack has the quality of a piece of paternal play-acting Big Bad Wolf or Captain Hook constantly threatening to turn into authentically ferocious violence. The film’s moment of truth portrays exactly this pivot, as Jack slowly backs Wendy up a flight of stairs, taunting her with increasingly maniacal flourishes and threats whilst never quite losing the quality of someone enacting a great big joke. Wendy’s name, of course, sarcastically twisted to “Wendy, darling,” amplifies the pantomime connection.

The Shining is, of course, in spite of its stature and pretensions, a haunted house tale. An old and noble adjunct of the horror genre, the haunted house tale can be both a realm of subtle, evocative frissons and outright bloodcurdling showmanship, of gently psychologised anxiety and spectacular manifestation. The Shining manages to describe the range between both these poles. In many haunted house films from earlier times, hauntings usually proved to be illusory, as in the various versions of The Cat and the Canary (1927, 1939, 1976), usually remaking this hoary trope as a vehicle for proving the antiseptic values of modernity. But a later movement, perhaps set in motion by Jack Clayton’s ponderously literate adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents (1961), saw the value of this trope as questions over the ambiguity of viewpoint became central, and the notion of a ready-made, coherent metaphor for the mind as a set of rooms never free of ghostly imprints of thought and memory. Examples of this mode came on through the 1960s and ‘70s, including Robert Wise’s take on Jackson, The Haunting (1963), Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966) and Lisa e il Diavolo (1972), John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House (1973), Dan Curtis’s Burnt Offerings (1976), Richard Loncraine’s Full Circle (1976), Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror, and Peter Medak’s The Changeling (1980).

What distinguishes The Shining over and above most of these? Kubrick’s fastidious film language is one part of it, of course, the methodical yet remorseless intensification of mood and story that calls to mind the title of that James story – the screws are constantly tightening. But another, telling point of discursion is that in most of those films, the supernatural is an active threat. In The Shining the haunting is entirely passive, only acting through a human avatar – although The Amityville Horror also hinged upon the fright factor of a seemingly decent father turning brutal. One aspect of King’s great success as a horror writer lies in his precise refusal of ambiguities in regards to his generic devices, his monstrosities and ghouls, for whilst embracing the metaphorical meaning of his ideas, King’s realisation of them, from satanic lawnmowers to a girl’s wrathful psychic powers, are perfectly literal. Evil when it breaks out in King’s writer has punishing corporeal and moral dimensions. King liked the theme of ordinary people falling under the power of forces from without – even the hapless dog in Cujo is a victim of this – whereas Kubrick sees it as welling from within. Part of the tensions between King’s story and Kubrick’s realisation of it lies in what feels like Kubrick’s attempts to impose a level of ambiguity about whether what we’re seeing is an actual supernatural event. Much that we see here could simply be a reality created by claustrophobia, isolation, a depressive addict’s sullen fantasising, and shared neurosis of the Torrances. It doesn’t entirely fit: there are too many events in the story that seem to confirm the actuality of the supernatural’s place in the tale, including Danny’s communication with Hallorann and Jack’s escape from the freezer Wendy locks him in after successfully knocking him out with a baseball bat.

It might be impossible to ascertain whether Kubrick ever watched Bava’s films, and yet the points of accord are hard to ignore: as in Operazione Paura and Lisa e il Diavolo, places become infected with the diseases in the minds of the people who live in them, who then find themselves doomed to act out the pathologies locked into the environs about them (Kubrick’s affinities with Bava would again resurface notably in Eyes Wide Shut, 1999). One scene cut from the film directly quoted Operazione Paura, in which Jack picks up a ball tossed his way by a ghostly presence. The deliberate replacement of tension sourced in what will happen with tension rooted in the question of when and how, blended with the theme of Jack’s temptations towards illusory fulfilment of his psycho-sexual needs whilst exterminating actual loved-ones, is similarly close to Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970). Kubrick’s own preferred genre, if he had one, was the war film – six of his thirteen movies depict warfare to a significant degree. His fascination with martial subordination and ritualised violence is evinced here too; The Shining is a portrait of psychic warfare. It’s there in the way Jack is subordinated to the hotel’s programme in the same way the soldiers in Paths of Glory are enticed to destroy themselves and others to live up to a patriotic ideal, echoing General Mireau’s bullying-obliging his subordinate Dax to lead a hopeless and cynically motivated attack on the Ant Hill, and looking forward to the lengthy studies in indoctrination and terrorisation utilised in the training process examined in Full Metal Jacket (1987). As in Lolita (1962), The Shining is also the spectacle of a cultured and respectable being falling to pieces in the face of personal obsession. As in Barry Lyndon, it’s a portrait of a man being slowly crushed by the knowledge he has stepped into the lap of luxury whilst never quite possessing it. As in Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, the onrush of calamity is viewed always with a cruelly comic grin, humans portrayed less as thinking, self-aware organisms than as momentary embodiments of various traits, from monstrous will to wretched decency.

Hallorann, a weathered and worldly black man, is the cheeriest character in The Shining, a man who knows how to entertain a kid and keep customers satisfied, and leaves behind the heart of darkness that is the Overlook to go lounge in the sun and watch TV. He initiates Danny into a new community, one that obeys different rules to the rest of society, a world without words. Hallorann calls to mind the intimacy of sharing the shine with his mother, an intimacy to which the Torrance family never aspires. King ironically edited himself out of the ideal nuclear family of the new age in killing off his own avatar and leaving Wendy and Danny with Hallorann. Kubrick concentrates more on the punishing reaction of the offended white male ego, an aspect of The Shining that was prescriptive in the climate of 1980 when Reaganism was on the advance and which today feels all but acutely prophetic. “White man’s burden,” Jack mutters to Lloyd, and soon the film reaches a zenith of deadpan black-comedy grotesquerie as Grady baits Jack, who weeks earlier was probably a good little liberal, with the news that his son is calling in “a nigger” to stymie their designs. Torrance repeats these totemic words in hyperbolic distress, indicating the degree to which he’s fallen under the spell of the old hates written into the structure of the hotel.

Kubrick rhymes and contrasts this sublimation by Jack of the ancient communal hates encoded in the Overlook’s timbers with the amusing sight of Hallorann in his hotel in the midst of black erotica, a touch that also says something about the two men as men, as Hallorann is a bachelor off enjoying his sojourn whilst Jack is entrapped with his family. Making Hallorann somewhat older than Jack and Wendy removed any hint of sexual threat, but Hallorann is still closer to an idealised figure of paternal care. After all, he’s the sort of guy who will drop everything, fly across country, and venture into a blizzard the moment he senses Danny and Wendy are in danger. Jack’s devolution meanwhile sees him increasingly bullying and abusing Wendy for placing her concerns for Danny ahead of his anointed place and responsibility as caretaker and litterateur. Jack’s brutal murder of Hallorann as soon as he arrives is Kubrick’s starkest deviation from his source. This might well have been made to offer at judicious dash of traditional horror in the story – it’s the only actual death in the film – but it also powerfully intensifies the film’s increasingly maniacal mood and sense of exposure. Danny and Wendy must save themselves, for no white (or black) knights are on the march. But it’s also plain in this sequence, in which Jack hides behind a pillar and springs out at Halloran as if to shout “Boo!” whilst slamming his axe into his chest, that there’s still a sick element of play to Jack’s homicidal rampage.

The darkly comic streak of The Shining might be identified as Kubrick’s signalling to the audience he feels himself above the genre on some level, except that, as well as coherent with the rest of his oeuvre, the humour entwines with the fervency with which Kubrick delves into this little imaginative universe he and his great team of collaborators fashioned. The atmosphere of extreme isolation and immersion in the subliminal is knitted together by the strength of Kubrick’s images and his music cues. The note of child’s-play-turned-murder-party is still present even as Jack is hunting his son through the hedge maze, which becomes a subzero game of hide-and-seek with a shiny axe in the mix, and of course in the most famous moment in the film, his spittle-flecked, mad-eyed mockery of television’s appeal, “Here’s Johnny!” Meanwhile Kubrick goes to town in unleashing strange and tantalising visions, as when Wendy spies someone in an animal costume fellating a hotel guest, and another guest with a bloodied wound on his brow beaming at Wendy with a hearty greeting, “Great party, isn’t it?” Yeah, it’s a real lark. Such dioramas of the inexplicable are another facet of The Shining’s mystique, evincing episodes of teeming strangeness contained within the Overlook’s embrace without ever pausing to explain and explicate them, rather suggesting that what is glimpsed and spoken of throughout is only the tip of this uncanny iceberg. Hallorann’s ill-fated dash to the rescue does at least present to Wendy and Danny the means to escape in his snow tractor, whilst Jack, injured and dissolving into babbling lunacy, sits down in the maze, unable to find either Danny or his way out, and is glimpsed next as a frigid, icicle-fringed corpse. It’s a truly pathetic end for would-be artist-god’s designs. The last shot, on top of its mordant and haunting evocation of eternal entrapment and the dissolution of meaning in the face of time’s eddies, begs a certain sympathetic question: is Jack happier this way?

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