1960s, Comedy, Drama, Religious, Spanish cinema

Viridiana (1961)

Director: Luis Buñuel
Screenwriters: Julio Alejandro, Luis Buñuel

By Roderick Heath

Few names resonate in cinema history like that of Luis Buñuel. For the quality and radical vision of his work, of course, and also because the legend of Buñuel connected far-flung zones in that history, zigzagging from the heady bohemian climes and provocations of 1920s Paris and the violent, reactionary forces that consumed his native Spain in the age of Fascism, to the shoals of Hollywood and the fecund delights of Mexico’s cinema golden age, before a triumphant return to the eye of European film to collect Oscars and Palmes d’Or when he was over sixty without dulling the glint of his wild imagination. Buñuel, born in the Aragon town of Calanda in 1900, was the son of a hardware retailer who had made a fortune in Cuba, and his teenage bride. Buñuel would later succinctly note that Calanda remained in the Middle Ages until World War I. Proving a disorderly youth during his Jesuit education, Buñuel became accomplished at entertaining friends with magic lantern and shadow plays, and was obsessively religious until he broke with the Catholic Church at 16 and declared himself an atheist. Whilst attending university in Zaragoza he became close friends with the quick-blooming artist and gadfly Salvador Dali and the future playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. Excited by the possibilities of film after watching Fritz Lang’s The Weary Death (1921), Buñuel moved to Paris and, whilst also dabbling in theatre, started working for French director Jean Epstein. Buñuel served as assistant director on Epstein’s 1926 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, a work which prefigured much of Buñuel’s cinema.

After breaking with Epstein Buñuel reunited with Dali, and, borrowing money from Buñuel’s mother, the duo made the short film Un Chien Andalou, first screened in 1929. Emblazoned with the helpful caption “Nothing means anything,” Un Chien Andalou, with its signature image of a woman’s eyeball being sliced with a razor and other incendiary, delirious vignettes, immediately exemplified the phrase “succès de scandale” and allowed the emerging art mode of surrealism to annex cinema as an expressive realm. Buñuel was annoyed when his aesthetic hand grenade proved a hit with exactly the kind of intellectual in-crowd he meant to piss off, so he might have experienced a more ambivalent sense of achievement when his and Dali’s follow-up, the feature-length L’Age d’Or (1930), attracted furious protests for its anti-Catholic satire. By that time Buñuel and Dali had ended their association over political differences. Once the stones, literal and metaphorical, stopped flying over L’Age d’Or Buñuel, after a brief and wilfully unproductive first sojourn to Hollywood, became deeply involved with leftist Spanish politics. His pseudo-documentary of life in Extremadura, Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1933), was to prove his last significant directorial work for over a decade, and was equally infuriating to both the Republican government and the Franco regime for its harsh, ironic portrayal of the country’s most degraded communities.

Buñuel retreated for a time into producing commercial Spanish cinema. When the Civil War broke out he participated in the Republican government’s propaganda efforts, in the cause of which he travelled to the US in 1938 only to find himself stuck there when the war ended. Buñuel had a rough time trying to fit in with the American film world through World War II as his L’Age d’Or infamy was still dogging him, but his work in making and dubbing films for the Latin American market helped pave the way for a move into the Mexican film industry, which was at the height of a boom in the mid-1940s. There, after making a few well-received melodramas, he regained international profile with Los Olvidados (1950), a vivid blend of his surrealist and socially concerned sides. Buñuel’s work through the late ‘40s and ‘50s, chiefly in Mexico but also encompassing the English-language The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954), which gained a Best Actor Oscar nomination for star Dan O’Herlihy, was defined by a creative tension between commercial assignment and the director’s transformative talent, and in many ways is his most interesting and diverse period.

Viridiana represented the third great pivotal moment of Buñuel’s career, signalling tentative reconciliation with his homeland and a new stature as a major art-house auteur. He was lobbied to return to Spain and make a movie by the young directors Carlos Saura and Juan-Antonio Bardem, and his project was given vaguely official assent. To the surprise of everyone, the script for Viridiana was approved with only to some requests for alteration by censors, including of the suggestive ending, which Buñuel and his co-screenwriter Julio Alejandro revised to somehow make, whilst seeming relatively innocuous on paper, even filthier in its implications. Buñuel, no fool, still knew what he was courting, and had the film’s negative smuggled to Paris to edit it for its premiere at Cannes. The Spanish government’s film overlord unwittingly introduced it there, and was promptly sacked, the film banned not just from screening in Spain but from all mention in the press until well after Franco’s death. But elsewhere, despite being vehemently decried by the Catholic Church, Viridiana managed to hit the cinema scene at the right time: it only took thirty years, but cognoscenti tastes were ready for Buñuel’s outrageous outlook at its most unrefined and potent. Viridiana was Buñuel’s second, if very loose, adaptation of a novel by the great Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós, preceded by Nazarin (1958), and he would film Galdós a third time with 1970’s Tristana.

In abstract Viridiana reads as exactly what the Franco regime took it to be, a blatantly impudent and iconoclastic jab at the official structures underpinning the type of conservative society they had been brutally enforcing for the previous twenty years. And it’s certainly biting in its portrayal of a rotting aristocracy and the detached pretences of organised religion, both eventually collapsing before the proclivities of an energetic, pragmatic, hedonistically seductive modernity. Buñuel’s art was however more refined than offering mere adolescent iconoclasm. Viridiana is a fable depicting the creation of modern Spain and the world beyond it, a fable laced with ambivalence, sarcasm, horror, and flashes of delirious beauty and weirdness. It also recapitulates the basic concern of Nazarin, which portrayed the remorseless defeat of a saintly priest in the face of a brutish society, whilst swapping the gender of the central character, a move that immediately introduces a different frisson. Galdós’ novel was a direct sequel to his Nazarin, in fact, whereas Buñuel’s extrapolation follows his own bent beyond the book’s premise of an aristocratic woman founding a charitable collective.

Where Nazarin’s hero was tragically noble and genuine despite his luckless passivity, Viridiana’s title character is duly pretentious in her buffeted idealism. Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is a mendicant approaching the time when she’s to take her vows as a nun after a long, insulated religious schooling and upbringing. The Mother Superior of the convent (Rosita Yarza) tells her that her uncle, Don Jaime, who’s paid for her upbringing and her dowry, has written to say he won’t be able to attend the ceremony. Viridiana is unconcerned, as she had only ever met Don Jaime briefly, but the Mother Superior encourages her to accept his offer of a visit to his home as a show of respect and gratitude before returning permanently to convent life.  Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) himself resides in a large, decaying mansion in a Spanish backwater: his former wife, Viridiana’s aunt, Don Jaime later recounts, “died in my arms on our wedding night,” still clad in her white dress. Upon their reunion Viridiana clinically admits that she feels no emotional connection to Don Jaime after too long apart. She insists on sleeping on the floor of her bedroom, and has brought with her an array of religious objects including her own personal crown of thorns and crucifixion nails.

Meanwhile Don Jaime gets his jollies paying Rita (Teresa Rabal), the young daughter of his housekeeper Ramona, (Margarita Lozano) to jump rope so he can stare in fascination at her young, flicking legs, and taking out his wife’s wedding attire and fetishistic communing with it, fitting her gleaming white high heels on his own feet and tenderly fitting her corset to his belly. As he does so one night during Viridiana’s stay, he’s bewildered by the sight of her sleepwalking around the house, engaged in some inchoate form of ritual, obliviously burning the contents of a knitting basket and collecting the ashes to dump on Don Jaime’s bed. Don Jaime becomes preoccupied with convincing Viridiana to stay and marry him, eventually proposing this after he’s talked her into donning his wife’s wedding array. When the appalled Viridiana refuses, Don Jaime, with the aid of his slavishly devoted housekeeper Ramona, drugs her and her spirits her to her bedroom.

Viridiana’s slyly accumulating power lies in the way Buñuel dryly presents its increasingly deviant concerns and storyline with a limpid, becalmed, studious gaze. One quality that always distinguished Buñuel as a director was, for all his reputation as one of cinema’s most committed and peculiar artists, so ingenious at communicating unreal imagery, he had little time for showy filmmaking, preferring instead tightly choreographed camerawork, worked out in advance, and so like Alfred Hitchcock found the actual shooting rather dull. The material here grazes territory often staked out by gothic melodrama, as the young woman comes to the big old house where a troubled male elder resides brooding on ancient losses, and the motif of the eerily glaring portrait of Viridiana’s long-dead aunt and Don Jaime’s desire to transform his niece into the lost lover echoes Edgar Allan Poe stories of fetid and displaced sexuality (“Your aunt died on my arms on our wedding night, wearing that dress”). And yet Buñuel instead plays it not for thrills but as a deadpan tragicomedy. The motifs of the storyline also evoke basic clichés of erotica, with the classic figure of the beautiful, chaste, unworldly young woman placed at the mercy of her decadent uncle who embodies all the threat of a worldly male. Buñuel, who had referenced the Marquis De Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom in L’Age d’Or, here offered his own derivation on a Sadean narrative in portraying a young woman at the mercy of the world’s corruption and who eventually embraces it.

Except that Buñuel plays games with such figurations, disassembling their presumptions, as he finds the absurd pathos in both his central characters. Don Jaime, introduced as a figure reminiscent of Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, is eventually revealed to be a figure of dank pathos as he’s driven to find some form of catharsis for his long-thwarted desire for his late wife, ambiguously finding both deliverance from adulthood and proto-erotic thrills in watching Rita skipping, and obtaining the ideal body onto which to transfer his fetishist passion in the form of Viridiana himself. Sexuality infuses every gesture and yet is constantly displaced into other, bizarre, often functionally sado-masochistic forms. Don Jaime is affected by the sight of Viridiana’s bare legs in her nightgown – Buñuel films her taking off her stockings as if unknowingly loading weapons for a campaign not yet begun – as she engages in her somnambulist ritual, a display which seems to signal her as another person driven to enact a nocturnal demi-life. Albeit whilst Don Jaime is at least conscious of his yearnings, Viridiana, casting ashes on the marriage bed her waking self has resolved never to inhabit, can only explore her own ambivalence in dreams. In this she becomes the active avatar of the surrealist creed. Ramona has an evident, unnoticed crush on Don Jaime, one she later, speedily transfers onto his son.

Meanwhile Buñuel sets up chains of imagery couched with unsubtle humour but also amassing thorny meaning. He cuts from a shot of Viridiana removing her stockings, revealing her white, gleaming legs, to a shot rising up from behind the organ Don Jaime is playing, her body and his fused, her body dancing to his tune, his own later donning of his wife’s white shoes and Viridiana wearing them both anticipated. Eroticism involves its own mysterious transubstantiation, and the seemingly opposed reflexes of sex and faith, the impulse of the flesh and the ethic of its rejection, are nonetheless conjoined in the desire to become one with the worshipped figure, to experience on levels carnal and sublime. Biblical humour surfaces as Viridiana unthinkingly bites into a piece of apple Don Jaime hands her as he begins to talk her into wearing the wedding dress. Viridiana soon appears in that regalia, complete with veil and candelabra in hand, a puckish anticipation of her becoming a bride, whether it be to Jesus or someone more mortal, her absent intended mirrored by Don Jaime’s absent wife.

Since his debut Buñuel had compiled a catalogue of fanatically fixated themes and images, including the true surrealist’s fascination with “amour fou,” mad and boundless love that persists beyond the grave – not for nothing had Buñuel made an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, Abismos de Pasion (1954) – and his delight in using insect life as strange and unstable symbol for the infesting and eruptive nature of such passion, a motif that flecks Viridiana – a bee drowning in water, the description of a great old house with a floor infested by spiders – amidst an expanded array of animal imagery that maintains its own peculiar, self-justifying context. Viridiana praying over her collection of religious-masochist paraphernalia gives way to the sight of Don Jaime’s farmhand Moncho (Francisco René) briskly milking a cow, a commonplace act suddenly laced with phallic overtones as Viridiana cannot bring herself to handle the stiff, squirting teat, whilst Rita, gulping milk down hungrily, pauses to teasingly pours some on the cow’s nose. Rita also experiences a disturbing premonition of the sexual furore stirring in the house as she complains of being awoken by a “black bull” coming into her room. As he discusses his illegitimate son Jorge with his niece, Don Jaime assures her he intends to make sure his progeny will be taken care of as he plucks that drowning bee out of a barrel of rainwater. This encapsulates both Don Jaime’s humane side but also his incidental resolve to do as little as possible to service it.

It also prefigures a later, famous vignette of Jorge himself (Francisco Rabal) buying a dog when he’s distressed by the sight of it being forced to walk briskly behind a peasant’s cart to which it’s tied. He walks off with his new pet, oblivious to another dog being dragged along in exactly the same way behind another cart. This vignette says much of Jorge’s counterpoint experience to Don Jaime’s, as a man who knows what it feels like to be the bastard castaway and knows empathy for the literal underdog, and puts his decent streak to immediate, effective employ, but only, again, within a certain limit. This vignette is almost endlessly dissectible, seeming on the face of things to make fun of the charitable impulse, but on closer examination noting that, whilst indeed there’s an aspect of random luck often in who benefits from such humanitarian reflexes, that can have a crisscrossing effect with other gestures, but the eternal problem of social organisation is how to make that effect perpetual and mutual. These seemingly blithe, ironic jokes about the nature of charity see it as inevitably discreet and perhaps only effective when wisely limited in the face of all the world’s pain and suffering. But this eventually plugs into a deeper thesis of Viridiana, when the heroine tries to become a river to the poor and desperate of the district, seeing them not as people but as extensions of her own self-image as a Christ-like fount.

Guilt partly underpins this effort from Viridiana, who, after rejecting Don Jaime, is confronted with the awful consequence in the sight of him dead, having hung himself from a tree near his house with Rita’s jump-rope. This comes after Don Jaime makes a last, feverish play to possess his fantasy by drugging Viridiana after he’s talked her into donning the wedding dress. If it seemed Hitchcock had paid homage to Buñuel’s El (1953) with Vertigo (1958), Buñuel seems to return the favour here, nodding to Rebecca’s (1940) basic plot, offering his own twist on Vertigo’s portrait of a maniacal man trying to reconstruct a lost lover, and quoting Notorious (1946) in the laced cup of coffee that places Viridiana at Don Jaime’s mercy. Don Jaime take her to the marriage bed, laying his face against her revealed, bobbing bosom and kissing her prone form, but ultimately wins the battle against the temptation to rape her. This retreat in proves however self-defeating. Don Jaime first tells Viridiana the next day when she awakens from her induced sleep that he did take her virginity, hoping this will compel her to remain with him, but her distraught reaction causes him to confess to Ramona that he didn’t do it.

Ramona checks his bed for any sign of blood on the sheets to reassure herself he’s told the truth. Viridiana remains understandably determined to leave, but she’s brought back to the house by police to behold the awful spectacle of Don Jaime’s death. The complexity of the aftermath of Viridiana’s drugging suggests possible censor impact on Buñuel’s storyline, but it also undoubtedly helps deepen psychological meaning. Don Jaime’s story, which only occupies about a third of the film, is that of a man trying with all his might not to become a monster, despite being consumed by overpowering impulses that go to a rotten stem of the human being – love, lust, the urge for control, the ever-taunting mixture of the specific and interchangeable in people we as the centres of our own universes encounter. Whilst Viridiana plays the martyr, Don Jaime comes far closer to actually being one, even as he is at the same time just a dirty and pathetic old man. This connects to a credo Buñuel once stated outright, that nothing in the imagination is wrong, only misbegotten attempts to actualise them. Don Jaime’s own, bitter sense of humour manifests in killing himself with the totem of sublimated longings and childhood obliviousness. After Don Jaime is brought down the jump-rope is restored to Rita who resumes skipping with it, despite the angry admonitions of Moncho: youth is as heedless of the pain of age as age often is of youth’s autonomy, and those are two of the forces that wrestle in a traditionalist society.

Don Jaime’s death becomes Viridiana’s load, as she is named as co-inheritor of the house along with Jorge, who arrives with his lover Lucia (Victoria Zinny). Viridiana, after telling the Mother Superior she feels different and won’t be returning to the convent, heads into the nearby town and begins gathering up local paupers, intending to create a kind of religious commune where everyone can do a bit of work to earn their meal and bed for the night. Meanwhile Jorge seems to provide a breath of cleansing air as he lays claim to his legacy. Jorge enters the scene with self-assured masculine swagger, imbued rather than quelled by not having had the easiest time in life, because he knows very well that he is the future. He does note with some resentment that he might, with Jaime’s support, have become a qualified and successful architect by now rather than have merely been working in the office of one, but otherwise isn’t particularly aggrieved by his father (“Anyone can have a fling and then walk away.”). He does quietly admit to Lucia that Viridiana gets on his nerves because she’s “rotten with piety.” Lucia suggests he’s really irritated because she pays no attention to him.

Contrasting Viridiana’s choice of mission, Jorge sets to work repairing, cleansing, and modernising the house, including getting electricity connected and making the estate’s farmland productive again, and hiring labourers for the job. Buñuel builds one of his more elaborate cinematic jokes as Viridiana leads her collective of paupers in prayer in the estate’s blooming orchard – shades of Buñuel turning a wry salute to Robert Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis (1948) with its blend of earthy piety and beatific natural surrounds – whilst the labourers work around the house and grounds, bashing at crumbling brickwork, stirring cement, sawing lumber. Buñuel intercuts between prayers and working, forming them into a system of call and response, labour of the spirit and labour of the practical at once set in contention and locked in a sardonic harmony. The old Benedictine motto of “work and prayer,” realised as an elaborate fugue where focused labour contrasts Viridiana’s ambitious but vague attempt to build a mutually reliant religious commune with social dregs as her flock.

Viridiana’s harvested collective nonetheless quickly reveal themselves to be whatever the opposite is of the deserving poor. A gang of miscreants, petty thieves, sex fiends, and the pathetically penurious, the flock go along with Viridiana so long as she gives them a next-to-free ride. Only one, crippled man out of her initial selection refuses to go along with Viridiana and asks for some change instead, noting, superfluously, that he only accepts such charity because he’s destitute. “She has a heart of gold,” one pauper says of Viridiana, to another’s comment, “Yes, but she’s a little nutty.” Far from embracing an egalitarian ideal of collective labour, the paupers have their own caste and class systems. The blind, bearded Don Amalio (José Calvo) and his pregnant lover Enedina (Lola Gaos) become de facto leaders of their group for their amoral and deftly manipulative cleverness. The paupers forcibly eject José (Juan García Tiendra), a man with a bad case of varicose veins, from their ranks because they think he’s a leper and could infect them all, and toss stones his way whenever he hangs around, whilst taking pains not to let Viridiana see. Another pauper, a man with a bandaged foot known as ‘El Cojo’ or The Cripple (José Manuel Martín), appropriates Rita’s jump-rope as a belt for his pants. He also volunteers to paint religious pictures, which he does, roping in his fellows to pose for him: “I don’t like being the Virgin,” one woman complains. Moncho soon becomes so aggravated by the paupers’ presence that he quits working on the estate.

The official theme here is naiveté, with Viridiana doomed to learn she cannot apply abstract pieties to real life. She is confronted with the truth that the poor are not necessarily ennobled or sanctified by their condition, but remain essentially the same as other people, only more so – a free-floating mass of the greedy, cruel, perverse, and opportunistic. Indeed, the absence of social expectation on them frees them from fetters of behaviour beyond the most superficial and self-centred (Amalio, knowing when and how to grease the wheels, refers to Viridiana as “our blessed protectress”). Buñuel here confronts, with abyssal wit and cool candour, the intersection of two potent, long-antagonistic but fascinatingly similar faiths, Catholicism and Marxism, and one point of concern at which they converge, being what to do about people who fall to the bottom of a society, and provoking the eternal lament of adherents of both creeds as to why the masses will never do what’s good for them. The paupers become Buñuel’s impish projections of his most lawless, cynical, and profane impulses, whilst also evoking the hangover of a crazy medieval spirit that could have sprung off pages of Rabelais, embodying the tumult of the boiling mass of humanity in its natural, unelevated, tumultuous state. Meanwhile Jorge comes to represent industrious modernity, effective, efficient, in many way more genuinely helpful, but also casually imperious and immune to moral criticism. Jorge finds delight in finding, amongst Jaime’s possessions, a crucifix with a knife hidden within, a good, practical version of Cromwell’s advice to put trust in God and keep your powder dry.

That Jaime’s house can be taken as an emblem of the teetering, mouldering, pathetically repressed state of Spain circa 1961 is practically self-evident. More interesting is the way Buñuel sets his rival moral schemes in contention, forlorn and septic patriarchy and daffy virgin matriarchy both waning. Which goes a long way to pointing to the deepest cause for the offence Viridiana caused the Franco state. A little blasphemy and sin can be easily encompassed and suppressed, but not the film’s most galling statement, its confident augury that all the old reactionaries will fall before the seductive appeal of a neo-pagan spirit inherent in the encroaching modern world, of which Jorge is the messiah, casually barging through taboos long tended with jealous care, and the nuns and serviles of the past will become the new whore-priestesses. Where Ramona lingered in lovelorn attentiveness to Don Jaime, and transfers that fascination onto Jorge, he quickly and deftly seduces her as they explore the musty attic crammed with the detritus of a festering aristocracy. Buñuel saves one of his most mordant visual metaphors here as he cuts from the couple’s clinch to a cat springing on a mouse. This seems to indicate the ease of Jorge’s seductive ploys, although the cat could also be the long-frustrated and carnally eruptive Ramona: later when Buñuel films them together in a moment of strikingly happy intimacy, it’s Ramona who joyfully bites Jorge’s hand.

The film’s very end sees Jorge ascending to the status of a pagan priest-king settling down to be a fount of sexual beneficence, His coming inscribed in the strains of a new catechism – shake, shake, shake your cares away, declares the rock song coming from the radio. Buñuel doesn’t take this for necessarily a great good, either, in part because an age of happy, straightforward hedonism would rob him of the mine of his art, his delight in human perversity, in the tangled weeds of sad and sorry old repressed Europe and the creatures it births. The epic quality that touches Don Jaime’s fetishistic longings and Viridiana’s blinkered and self-mortifying piety springs from the same fount: the old world fashioned over centuries to provide psychic and physical bulwarks against the chaos of natural forces. Buñuel was driven again and again to study the failure of such social bulwarks, their collapse the one certain thing in his worldview. Buñuel’s constant preoccupying themes had surfaced in precursors to Viridiana like Susana (1951), which depicted with lacerating good-humour the progress of an ironically sanctified harlot through a good Mexican family, her pulchritude easily provoking the men to raptures, and El and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), with their portraits of maniacal men whose unstable machismo consumes them and others.

Buñuel’s previous film, the near-equally great but relatively neglected The Young One (1960), although set entirely amongst fringe dwellers, also directly anticipated Viridiana, although with its depiction of the forcible seduction of a girl by an older male guardian edging far closer to outright paedophilia, and the theme of schism amongst the underclass encompassing racial prejudice. Buñuel would also go on to restage Viridiana’s riotous climax from a different angle via the famous conceit employed in The Exterminating Angel (1962), as guests at a bourgeois dinner party find themselves unable to leave a dining room due to some invisible force, and degenerate into brutes, an idea that, despite its purposefully arbitrary fantasticality, laid down a template for post-apocalyptic angst in cinema. Buñuel would return to the basic theme of Viridiana, and some of its jokes, whilst flipping genders again, for Simon of the Desert (1965), this time casting Pinal as the taunting, tempting female devil trying to seduce the pillar-sitting saint, eventually spiriting him from detached pinnacle to raucous contemporary New York nightclub. Viridiana’s own eventual embrace of her carnal side opened the gate for Belle de Jour’s (1967) portrait of a transgressive heroine trying to actualise her erotic fantasies and the brutally ironic feminist revenge motif of Tristana, a film that plays very much as an uglier, sadder, more conflicted remake of Viridiana, essentially positing if Viridiana succumbed to Don Jaime and then became him. Buñuel’s influence would also soon echo through the emerging new European cinema, seen in variations like Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (1967) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968).

Viridiana finally reaches it long, ecstatically profane climax as Viridiana and Jorge head off to deal with legal matters in town and Ramona takes Rita to the dentist, all expecting to be absent from the house until the next day. Viridiana leaves the snowy-haired, ineffectual Don Zequiel (Joaquin Roa) in nominal charge of the commune. Some of the paupers, seeing a chance for rest and relaxation, decide to kill a couple of the spring lambs on the estate for a roast dinner, and Enedina promises to make custard. The paupers soon sneak into the big house to gawk at its splendours. Surveying the portraits of Don Jaime and his wife, Zequiel comments, “Imagine hanging yourself with that kind of dough.” The paupers elect to hold their banquet in the dining hall and clean it up so their cheeky transgression won’t be noticed. There they merrily gobble up their food and raid the wine cellar too. They’re even so kind as to let José join them, sequestered at a separate table. Amalio regales them with legendary feats of begging in rich churches where the women smelt so good they gave tactile communion. For the paupers, guzzling custard in swank environs is the next best thing to heaven, and once everyone’s in the highest spirits Enedina proposes to take their photo with a camera “my parents gave me.” The beggars eagerly arrange themselves into a pose on one side of the dining table before Enedina, recreating Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” and Enedina does indeed per the old joke take their photograph, by raising her skirt and flashing her privates at them.

This famous vignette offers a pure crystallisation of Buñuel’s humour, at once larkish and vicious, seemingly casual but carefully prepared. The “Last Supper” pastiche provided subsequent directors with a ready-made icon of irreverence to pay homage to, ranging from Robert Altman on MASH (1970) to Mel Brooks on A History of the World, Part I (1981). Buñuel’s is the coldest and most merciless however: Amalio holds the place of Jesus, flanked by sleazy weirdoes. Handel’s “Messiah,” heard in the opening credits, is played by the beggars on the gramophone whilst several begin dancing to its strains with sprightly, satiric energy. Jose dons pieces of the wedding dress and swans about as a sickly drag act. Here the paupers rejoice in their freedom to casually disrespect every yardstick of the society whose fringes they persist on, all charged with childlike glee – Buñuel zeroes in on the dancers’ legs, which recalls Rita’s as she used her jump-rope. But other urges are stirring, at once more adult and more animalistic, as the party degenerates into squalid chaos. Enedina is grabbed by one of the men, Paco (Joaquin Mayol), dragged behind a couch, and raped. “Let ‘em scuffle,” Zequiel declares in his besotted state, and gets a face-full of custard tossed at him. Amalio, thinking Enedina is willingly screwing Paco, starts furiously smashing everything on the dining table with his cane, and Enedina, released, dismisses Amalio’s display: “If he were my husband he’d be entitled.” Some of the paupers flee the house as Viridiana, Jorge, Ramona, and Rita return unexpectedly by car, and the others shuffle out more pretentiously, facing up to the astounded Jorge with varying attitudes of proprietorial surprise, or, in Amalio’s case, a blessing for providing a blind man with sustenance.

Where other filmmakers might have felt licence to make their style frenetic to mimic the mounting craziness in such a sequence, or to have the paupers become theatrical in their destructiveness. Buñuel simply and methodically documents the mounting bedlam, only in the “Last Supper” tableaux delivering an arch cinematic joke. Otherwise he maintains deadpan observation, as with Enedina’s assault. Buñuel seems to be dramatizing the worst nightmare in the reactionary mindset: the filthy, ignorant scum erupting to despoil civilisation and take advantage of their benefactors. But their actions also, pointedly, recreate things already seen in the course of narrative – sexual assault, fetishism, transvestism, contempt for tradition, heritage, autonomy, and responsibility – only without any veil of pretence or obfuscation, simply embracing wild impulse. Don Jaime’s drugging and suborning of Viridiana, halted by whatever lingering ethic persists in his person, is soon reproduced in blunt and brutal fashion as El Cojo and Jose collaborate to knock out and tie up Jorge so they can rape Viridiana.

Buñuel dives in for a close-up noting Viridiana’s failing fight against El Cojo, noting her hand tugging desperately at his belt, which is of course Rita’s jump-rope. Buñuel deploys another of his wicked ironies, as Jorge deploys the oldest and most essential art of the capitalist to save the day – using the promise of reward to turn one member of the proletariat against another and forget his own interests, albeit in this case for an urgently righteous cause, as Jorge convinces José, who waits for his turn, to intervene in the rape by offering him money. José promptly and enthusiastically uses a fire shovel to bash El Cojo’s skull in. Calm is restored as the Guardia Civil arrive to round up the ratbags. A gentle inward dolly shot of Viridiana the next day, watching Jorge as he resumes his reordering, confirms the inevitable without words, that she’s fallen under Jorge’s spell, and in her room weeps as she casts off the last of her previous identity and, using a cracked fragment of a mirror, refashions her new one, unleashing her blonde hair.

Meanwhile her religious iconography burns up outside, Rita studying the blazing crown of thorns in bewilderment before tossing it on the flames. Viridiana appears at Jorge’s bedroom door, charged with sullen, silently communicated need, only to find him ensconced with Ramona. Jorge, immediately deciding how to handle the quandary as is his wont, proposes they settle down to play cards, noting “All cats are grey by night,” before commenting, as he suggestively takes her hand and uses it to cut the cards, “The first time I saw you I though, ‘Cousin Viridiana and I will finish up shuffling the deck together.’” Perhaps cinema’s greatest dirty joke and fade-out punchline, but again realised with Buñuel signature mixture of economy and attentiveness. Buñuel spares shots to note Ramona’s hesitant fear of rejection and competition and Viridiana’s blank gaze as she ponders the question as to whether this is who she actually is, before moving to a long shot, retreating slightly as if with a sense of decorum whilst peering through an open door, noting the emergent ménage-a-trois simply and calmly getting on with life in the new age.

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1930s, Auteurs, Comedy, Horror/Eerie

The Old Dark House (1932)

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Director: James Whale
Screenwriters: Benn W. Levy, R. C. Sherriff (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

The Horror genre was given form and definition in the silent film era. A handful of great filmmakers, starting with the likes of F.W. Murnau, Paul Leni, and Tod Browning, did much of their best work in the style and plainly had an affinity for it, and their classic stand with a raft of powerful and important works by filmmakers who made brief visits to the genre, including Fritz Lang, Victor Sjöstrom, and Rex Ingram. Most of that vital Horror cinema was made in Europe, whereas in Hollywood, apart from Browning’s films and starring vehicles for Lon Chaney, Horror films tended to be tinged with comedy and lampooning, expressing a breezily dismissive contempt for spooky shenanigans in the optimistic mood of the Jazz Age: funny tales debunking supernatural menace, like the much-filmed theatrical hits The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost Breakers, were all the rage. But as the genre emerged into the sound era, coinciding with the dark pall of the descending Depression, Browning’s Dracula (1931) suddenly made it a big box office genre for Hollywood. With due speed Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures produced a follow-up in the form of an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s storied prototype for much fantastical literature and filmmaking, Frankenstein. The director hired for that film was the English stage maestro turned film director James Whale, and Whale, at least for the next thirty years or so, perhaps did more to codify Horror as a genre than any other director. The irony there was he wasn’t particularly fond of being associated with it, and much of his impact came in the way he tangled with its already enshrined clichés to create new ones.

Whale was a working class boy from Dudley, Worcestershire, deep in the “Black Country” of coal mining regional England. Forced to stop going to school because of his family’s lack of money and not strong enough to become a miner, Whale found work as a cobbler and also, with his emerging artistic talents, earned extra money painting signs and advertisements for local businesses, and used the cash he earned that way to pay for lessons at a local art school. Volunteering for service in World War I, Whale gained a commission as a second lieutenant and served in the trenches until he was captured by the Germans in 1917. Waiting out the war in a POW camp, Whale became heavily involved in staging theatre with his fellow prisoners, and found his great passion. After the war’s end he spent a brief stint as a cartoonist but soon found work in the theatre in multiple guises including as an actor, stage manager, and finally director. Like Murnau, Whale was homosexual and didn’t care much who knew it, and whilst he was briefly engaged to a woman in the early 1920s, Whale’s boldness in that regard is sometimes presumed to have ultimately foiled his career, although for the time being it seemed nothing could hold him back.

Whale’s big break came when he was hired to direct R.C. Sheriff’s play Journey’s End for a theatre group that specialised in staging new works for private audiences. Journey’s End explored the fatalistic mood of the men fighting in the trenches, in a drama that touched upon questions of the worth of hero worship as a potentially beneficial example but also one that could both lure people into a deadly situation. Whale’s personal investment in the material as a former soldier was plain enough, and the material proved to have the same appeal to a vast number of people. Whale initially talked an unknown young actor named Laurence Olivier into playing the lead role of Stanhope, but he was replaced by Colin Clive when, encouraged by the impact the lay had for its private audience, Whale took it to the West End. The play became an instant smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, at a time when the war, which people had been trying so vigorously to forget, suddenly became a matter of interest again. This gave Whale a shot at Hollywood, as the burgeoning age of Talkies saw the film industry desperate for directors who knew how to handle dialogue: as a “dialogue director” Whale made The Love Doctor (1929) and worked on Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930). He debuted as fully credited director when he helmed the movie adaptation of Journey’s End. After following that up with the popular romantic melodrama Waterloo Road (1931), Whale was assigned to Frankenstein.

With Frankenstein, Whale inadvertently made his name permanently associated with Horror movies. By some accounts Whale wasn’t terribly thrilled by that, but he did nonetheless become a singularly important influence on the way Horror evolved in the sound era and as a fully-fledged movie genre. Most obviously, the film’s depiction of Frankenstein’s Monster created a perpetual pop culture image, thanks to the confluence of makeup artist Jack Pierce’s iconic look for the monster, actor Boris Karloff’s performance, and Whale’s conceptual take on the creature’s existence and symbolic import for the audience. More subtle, but perhaps more important, was the way Whale helped Horror as an aesthetic adapt to the more intense gaze of the 24-frame-a-second era and the attendant vividness of sound. Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) carefully negotiated frames of the dreamlike and the psychological, birthing the stylised, purposefully unrealistic approach of the endlessly influential Expressionist style, and that remained for a long time the predominant influence on the genre, although some of Browning’s works like The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1926) tended more to posit morbid and perverse psychology in otherwise realistic settings.

One key to Whale’s vitality lay in his florid ease in moving between tones and artistic postures, the way he fused stylisation and realism, theatricality and cinema. He made Frankenstein’s looming, Expressionist-influenced but three-dimensional sets, coexist with location photography and knead them all into a peculiar kind of whole, just as he was later to become known for easily pivoting between humour and straight-faced thrills. The poetic-metaphorical airiness and pathos of Mary Shelley’s twisted but articulate creation was swapped out for something more concrete, more essential. The desperate, mute Monster came more fully and coherently the image of just about anything rendered Other in a social context. He embodied poles of attitude, at once childlike and brutish, victim and cold avenger, misshapen and powerful, and his eventual end in a burning windmill evoked at once righteous action by a community and the spectre of mob rule, the punishment of the transgressor blurring with the cleaning of the hive of deviance.

Whale’s four fantastical films, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), present perhaps the greatest directorial body of work in the genre, rivalled only by the likes of Terence Fisher and Mario Bava in the 1960s and George Romero in the 1970s. But they’re defined in part by the way Whale’s tension with the genre manifested. Whale’s dark, sometimes overtly strange and camp sense of humour, mostly held in check on Frankenstein, came seething out with the next three, all of which were big popular successes: Whale’s unease with being pigeonholed as a maker of scary movies again connected with the audience’s simultaneous ardour and scepticism for such fare. The Old Dark House, which was for a long time lost only to be rediscovered by Horror director and Whale acolyte Curtis Harrington, was based on the novel Benighted by J.B. Priestley, whose second work it was. Priestley, who would later become extremely popular and regarded in Britain, commented sardonically after the book’s release that the American publishers retitled it The Old Dark House in a determined effort to turn a profit, and it worked. The title was kept for the film, and it served to felicitously announce Whale’s mordant blend of attitudes, summoning up both an essentialist evocation of a classic genre trope reaching back to the Gothic Romances of Hugh Walpole and Mrs Radcliffe, and also its puckish deflation, close in spirit to the debunking comedies of the ‘20s.

What Whale managed however was more sophisticated, and it laid down the blueprint he’d follow for The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, provoking with a gleeful humour and semi-satiric slant, whilst steadily invoking the absurdity its characters face and sometimes embody, setting the scene for when the truly strange and disturbing busts out. Priestley’s novel hinged on a similar conceit to his later, perhaps best-known work in its own right, the play An Inspector Calls, in conjuring the house filled with eccentrics loaded down with their own private and shared transgressions. Whale merrily grasps onto The Old Dark House’s edition, the family Femm, comprising most immediately the spindly Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger), his sister Rebecca (Eva Moore), their 103-year-old father Sir Roderick (Elspeth Dudgeon), and the mysterious sibling who resides in a room on the top floor. The Femms are the perverse and degenerating end of an ancient line, their house a looming pile of stonework that contains the ages of English society. Into their strange little world stumbles a gaggle of visitors representing modernity, desperately seeking shelter from the storm. The bickering young married couple  Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margeret Waverton (Gloria Stuart), and their tagalong pal, Roger Penderel (Melvyn Douglas). The Manchester magnate Sir William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his dancer date Gladys DuCane (Lilian Bond).

The opening scenes present a classic story set-up as the Wavertons and Penderel travel in Philip’s chugging motor car through a buffeting rainstorm, banks of earth collapsing in their wake and tyres grinding desperately at the muddy ruts of the road. A classic Horror movie opening, reaching back to days of travelling coaches and forward to kids in Volkswagen vans in the genre, but contrasted with the rude liveliness of the characters who refuse to acknowledge they’re in a Horror tale. The Wavertons, plainly out on what was supposed to be a romantic honeymoon, locked together instead Philip unleashes epic, vicious sarcasm: “I’ve never been in a better temper in my life. I love driving a hundred miles through the dark practically without headlights. I love the trickle of ice-cold water pouring down my neck. This is one of the happiest moments of my life!” Penderel’s cheeriness, project from the backseat, is counterpoint and further goad to Whale’s portrayal of marital bother raised to epic pitch by the situation. “Perhaps you’d like me to drive for a bit,” Margaret suggests: “Yes, I was expecting that!” Philip retorts before continuing to try to get traction , and Penderel roars out a version of “Singin’ In The Rain.”

The frayed-nerved comedy here is both funny and mortifying in portraying a familiar kind of hell. The Wavertons and their tagalong friend are trying to drive out of the Welsh hills down to Shrewsbury, but the ferocious storm that’s descended is causing landslides and flooding, and they look for the closest convenient shelter. Margaret spots lights and encourages Philip to make for them, but when he catches sight of the craggy, crooked, ancient manse of the Femms her husband comments, “It’s probably wisest to push on.” But the as the storm seems to have cut off the roads all around they’re left with no recourse. Whale interpolates an ingenious model shot recreating the driver’s viewpoint in pulling into the muddy and desolate yard of the old dark house. Out the hapless travellers jump from the car and bang on the front door, and Penderel for a moment takes excited refuge in the notion the people in the house are all dead, “all stretched out with the lights quietly burning about them,” writing his own draft Horror tale whilst waiting for a response within, and in a moment he seems to just about get his wish as a hatch in the door swing open, revealing the gnarled, hirsute face of Morgan (Karloff), the Femm’s servant/warden, who responds to Penderel’s request for shelter with an incomprehensible, guttural mutter. “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that,” Penderel comments.

Granted entry by the grunting, damaged manservant, the trio are soon confronted by Horace, descending the wooden staircase like someone gene-spliced man, praying mantis, horse, and living skeleton. After sniffing his way through introductions and angular politeness, Horace escorts his guests over the blazing fireplace, and picks up a bundle of flowers, which, he tells them, his sister was about to arrange, before tossing the blooms on the fire. And Horace is the closest thing to a fully functioning human in the house, compared to the mute Morgan and his largely deaf sister, at least on the level of faculties, although he completely lacks a spine, in the metaphorical sense. Thesiger was destined to gain an odd kind of immortality specifically from his collaborations with Whale here and on Bride of Frankenstein, which might have surprised him, given he was a respected and experienced stage actor who had played roles for George Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward, and he kept acting in films into his eighties. A wounded veteran of the trenches, Thesiger was as blue-blooded as they come, related to the explorer Wilfred Thesiger and nephew of Lord Chelmsford, leader of the infamous military expedition against the Zulus – the battles of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift went down a week after Ernest’s birth. Which sounds just like the kind of character he usually played. Looking much older than his 53 years, Thesiger presented Whale with his ideal interlocutor in portraying a simultaneously scornful and joyous caricature of the British aristocracy, devolved and waspish, wasted but invested with a deceptive strength, charged with disdain but at the mercy of its servile class, represented by Morgan, who meanwhile is sliding towards Morlock-like barbarity.

Another contrast is provided by Rebecca, whose piousness is chiefly a vehicle for expressing unvarnished contempt, and the way she offsets her brother’s atheistic and pagan mores. Moore’s performance anticipates Una O’Connor’s wild and flailing brand of absurdism for Whale, but with a different physical presence, as rotund and porcine as Horace is thin and equine, bearing a strong resemblance to the portrait of Queen Victoria she keeps on her bedroom wall. When Margaret asks Rebecca to show her a place where she can change from her wet clothes, Rebecca takes her to her own bedroom which, she explains, once belonged to her beautiful sister Rachel, who died after breaking her back in a riding accident aged 20: “A wicked one – handsome and wild as a hawk,” she cries, and eagerly looks over Margaret’s young, pretty form and anticipates its inevitable decay. Rebecca lustily regales her guest with Rachel’s agonised end and how she ignored Rebecca’s entreaties to turn to God. Rebecca’s bedroom is separated from the main hall by a gloriously decrepit corridor with a billowing white curtain at an open window and rain splashing on the stonework floor. Rachel’s old room proves a refuge of gentility save for the warped overlooking mirror.

Rebecca monologues about Rachel to the increasingly agitated Margaret whilst conjuring charged impressions of feminine beauty in her obsessive noting of red lips, long straight legs, and white bodies. Morgan’s knock at the door gives the lurking manservant a chance to ogle Margaret in her underwear, whilst Rebecca herself, for all her deploring, seems to be hiding a fascination for Margaret, thrusting her splayed hand upon Margaret’s chest. After Rebecca leaves Margaret can’t shake off her mocking words, as if she’s still in the room. Whale offers one of his most striking and peculiar cinematic phrases here, as he cuts jaggedly between shots from different angles of Rebecca’s face, reflected in the warped mirror and lit by guttering candles, all her savage perversity and mocking delight in mutability emerging as an array of perverted Gothic images. Margaret’s own face, as she tries to put on earrings, is also warped into strange and alien form by the mirror, as if she’s being claimed by Rebecca’s curse of the flesh. Margaret freaks out and, after opening to window but failing to push it close again for the powerful wind, she flees the bedroom and returns to the others in the hall. The punch-line for this is that she returns to the hall and looks every inch the resplendent lady about to dine in the finest restaurant.

This gaudy, layered, hysteria-laden scene is a perfect miniature representation of Whale’s jaggedly original approach to filmmaking and capacity to create a vivid, near-surreal context for his dark fantasies, turning what would have been a very minor episode in the movie into a vignette charged with undercurrents of sexuality and boding violence. The urge to transgression and its eternal partner, ironclad moralism, are in the mix, nodding to the distorted effects of what would soon be called “decadent art,” and winding up to a peak of delirium evinced by Margaret’s panic and despair. Whale’s camerawork is actually, generally more restrained in The Old Dark House than in his other films, like the long, devastating tracking shot of the father carrying his drowned daughter in Frankenstein, and his shots passing carelessly through and over walls in The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, as Whale readily showed off the roots of his visual imagination in the theatrical zone, but was able to leave behind any hint of the stagy, instead delighting in the way his camera could capture space and people within it. Instead, The Old Dark House shows more delight in his shot composition and cutting.

The dinner sequence that follows is another brilliant set-piece, albeit a more subtle one, where that delight is fully in evidence. The characters settle around the Femms’ dining table and try to enjoy a meal together, the flicker from the fire casting their shadows on the wall and the hulking, glowering Morgan playing waiter. Margaret, with a scowl, gets Philip to sit between her and Rebecca, who scoffs down pickled onions with righteous appetite. Meanwhile Horace brandishes carving utensils like small weapons of war, and when Rebecca chides him for not saying grace, retorts, “Oh, I had forgotten my sister’s strange tribal habits – the beef will seem less tough when she as invoked a blessing upon it,” and his initially playful sarcasm quickly spirals into a dark and spiteful meditation on the many blessings the family hasn’t received over the years. Rebecca’s hearty Christian appetite is balanced by Horace’s modest delight in gin – “I like gin.” He keeps trying to foist gnarled and soggy boiled potatoes on his dinner guests, each proffered with the inimitable Thesiger voice prompting, “Have a po-ta-to.” “Thank you, I should love a potato,” the practical Penderel answers, whilst Philip picks the eyes out of his. The electric light flickers and nearly dies, as Horace explains the house’s generator isn’t reliable. Finally, the agonised ritual of the dinner is interrupted by another knock at the door, which proves to be Sir William and Gladys, also seeking refuge.

Priestley’s design in the book emerges in the film as the characters represent different aspects of British society and history, and what’s particularly important here is the way Whale tweaks the material into offering the cast of characters as a succession of self-portraits – world war veteran, angry pleb on the rise, biting camp aesthete and wicked sceptic. The Old Dark House itself represents the closest Whale ever came to unifying the two artistic postures he was well-known for – the portrayer of Great War angst and the maker of Gothic fantasias, finding a dramatic landscape where those two things could coexist and feed each-other. They also converge on Penderel, a survivor of the trenches who readily acknowledges that he exemplifies a type, rattling off evocative self-descriptions that have become close to parodic clichés for him: “War Generation, slightly soiled – a study in the bittersweet – the man with the twisted smile – and this Mr Femm is exceedingly good gin.” Where the Wavertons are a sturdy middle-class couple, inheritors of the future, Penderel is a perpetual misfit and ironic party animal, seeing ridiculousness in everything. At least until he claps eyes on Gladys, who swiftly shifts the weights on the Eros-Thanatos scale in Penderel.

Sir William represents another corner of interwar British society, a self-made, nouveau riche businessman with a strong Yorkshire accent and a surface attitude of bonhomie. That barely conceals a seething motive in his working class roots and a telling lack of any sense of noblesse oblige. He’s easily drawn in the course of chatting with the other guests after dinner into recounting his tragic past, how his wife died, he believes, from heartache after being cold-shouldered by snooty society wives when Sir William first began to rise helped, convincing her she was holding them back. Sir William avenged her by breaking and bankrupting the husbands of those women, and yet remains a figure of pathos: now he’s got a fortune and a knighthood and no human connection, except for playing sexless sugar daddy to Gladys. Sir William’s narrative is coherent as both a depiction of Whale’s experience of class anger, and it can also be argued a coded metaphor for the agonies of coming out in Whale’s time, in registering a specifically intimate and human cost to social prejudice. Sir William and Penderel butt heads at first, with Sir William assuming the urbane Penderel looks down his nose at him for being such a go-get-‘em operator, and Penderel telling the magnate off for speaking disrespectfully to Glady when he outs her – that is, tells everyone her real last name, which is Perkins. “I envy you, I admire you,” Penderel tells Sir William, in comparison to his own unmoored and lethargic state, to the magnate’s retort, “Oh yes, you envy me, but you don’t admire me.”

Meanwhile the Femms represent a particularly eccentric and ingenious collective twist on an essential motif of Gothic fiction, the aristocratic clan cut off from the tides of modern life and subsisting on decaying pretensions and trapped within a house that once expressed their exceptionalism but now only exhibits their decay. Nonetheless, as Rebecca triumphantly tells her brother as he frets over the fear that the rains could bust a nearby dam and wash the house away, Femm Manor is built on solid rock – the roots of the Femms are planted so deep in the soil of the country they can’t be dug out even if they wish it. Rebecca and Horace have divergent expressions of their intense neurosis in embodying a disparity of godless sensualism and religiose intensity, but both are the same degree of crazy. The ancient Sir Roderick, when the Wavertons seek him out, is found ensconced in his bedroom which looks fit for Tudor monarch and barely altered since that epoch, whilst Rebecca’s bedroom is candlelit – “I’ll have none of this electric light!” she declares – and festooned with musty Victoriana. We never see Horace’s room, but the mind boggles. And at the top of the house, the locked door, hiding the last Femm, Saul, a brooding, superficially ingratiating pyromaniac. The flood below, madness and fire above, and points on the compass in between.

The great storm that falls upon the Shropshire Hills doesn’t just sever the Femms and their interlopers from the outside world but also cordons them within the subliminal space made solid. But the motif of the house as an encompassing expression of such ingrained neurosis and entrapping identity also feeds into the subtler dynamic that fees both humour and horror. Whale suggests there are few more disquieting and disturbing things than being obliged to have a meal with strangers, enabled by strained manners and a grotesque conventional politeness that ignores for a set period of time the strangeness that occurs off in the margins, like Margaret’s encounter with Rebecca. Indeed, this is essentially Whale’s entire thesis about social life, a constant game of facades and unveilings, and fusing a particular brand of comedy of manners with its darker doppelganger in Horror, which is a genre precisely preoccupied with the breakdown of civilised pretences and engagement with the primal. It keeps in mind the impression I’ve often had that something like Howard’s End or The Age of Innocence contains more real and discomforting violence than any number of slasher movies.

Karloff’s presence in the film sees Whale again with the actor he boosted from character actor to a peculiar brand of stardom, in a role that partly burlesques the characterisation of the Frankenstein’s Monster. Morgan is another shambling, towering, unspeaking creature, but one that’s been semi-domesticated: the Femms need him to keep food on their table and keep the electric light working. He’s an upper class idea of the lower class taken to an extreme, useful as a mass of obedient muscle until he gets liquored up and becomes insensately dangerous, casting a lascivious eye on Margaret. But Morgan has another function, as Saul’s warden, a bulwark of violence required to keep a less immediately intimidating but even more dangerous force in check. At one point, as Gladys follows Penderel out into the storm, she looks in through the barred kitchen window and sees Morgan, now thoroughly soused: the servant lurches to the window and punches his hand through the glass in a perfunctory attempt to grab one of the tempting morsels about him. It’s not a part that requires much of Karloff, in the first of his major post-Frankenstein genre roles when he’d soon be appearing in the likes of The Mummy (1932) and The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) which let him unleash his voice. But it does gain everything from his presence regardless, as Karloff wrings pathos from Morgan’s attempts to speak which inevitably fail and instead expression comes through physical chaos as he drinks.

After her squall of hysteria in Rebecca’s room Margaret quickly becomes the most sanguine person in the house, calmly and coolly shepherding the conversation as the various camps in the house try to communicate. Meanwhile Penderel and Gladys’ crackle of attraction combusts when the two venture out to the Wavertons’ car, stashed to wait out the storm in the barn, to fetch a bottle of whiskey Penderel left there. They quickly fall in love and taking refuge in the back seat of the car, with all that implies thoroughly implied. Priestley intended his novel as a tragic character study of Penderel masquerading as a thriller, although quite a few critics over the years have said the book didn’t really achieve that. Nonetheless Penderel emerges as the closest thing the film has to a central character and hero as he shifts from alcoholic gadabout to a man in love and has to quickly improvise in fending off danger. Douglas, honing his suave and worldly persona, is quite excellent in the role. Indeed, one arresting element of The Old Dark House is the quality of its cast, packed as it is with heavyweight actors on the cusp of major stardom, in Karloff, Douglas, Laughton, and Massey. Stuart on the other hand, after also appearing in The Invisible Man for Whale, never really gained star traction but, in one of those marvels of Hollywood fate, would record a commentary track for this film’s laserdisc release sixty years later which would bring her to James Cameron’s attention and help win her role in Titanic (1997).

And yet it’s Thesiger who owns the film, walking the finest line between creepiness and ridiculousness, seeming to most immediately embody the perversity of the Femms but also the most timorous in the face of it. When the necessity arises to fetch a large kerosene lamp from the top floor landing when the lights fail and Rebecca gloatingly prods him to help Philip bring it down, Horace keeps anxiously trying to avoid the errand, and when they hear peculiar laughter echoing down from above, Horace finally flees to his bedroom, leaving Philip to fetch the lamp alone. Philip takes up the lamp but notices the telling signs there, the padlocked door, the remains of a meal on a plate on the table with the lamp, whilst wind whistles in the crannies high in the roof. Meanwhile, down below, Margaret, in an interlude of playfulness, starts making shadow animals on the wall in the firelight, her silhouette and her gestures thrown against the wall of the dining room, only for Rebecca’s silhouette to lurch into view as she repeats the some gesture of touching Margaret’s chest, sending Margaret into a panicky flurry again. As she opens the front door and shouts into the night, begging Penderel to come back, a hand reaches behind and over her head to grasp the door and slam it shut. An iconic Horror image, this time arriving without a mocking codicil. The hand belongs to the soused and randy Morgan, who chases Margaret around the dining room, upturning the dining table in a gesture of pointed symbolism. Philip returns from aloft, and seeing what’s happening, does battle with Morgan, until he wallops him with the lamp, causing Morgan to plunge down the stairs, knocked unconscious. Later, when he awakens, Morgan gains his revenge by heading upstairs and releasing Saul.

These scenes illustrate Whale’s unique skill in mediating tone shifts, as menace emerges from the comic and absurd, and moments of playfulness segue into an eruption of actual danger. The fact that The Old Dark House was missing for a long time prevented it from becoming as much of an immediate influence as Whale’s other films, and the legendary schlock artiste William Castle was able to get away with directing a wayward remake in 1963. Whale likely had seen Paul Leni’s stylish film version of The Cat and the Canary (1927), replete as it with brilliant cinema, and some of Whale’s imagery echoes it. But Leni’s film has rather less sophisticated comedy than The Old Dark House, which is far more exactly aimed at the nexus of social anxiety and psychological angst in tapping both horror and humour. Whale would become bolder and stranger in his blendings with The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein – the catatonic-seeming Mr Plod policemen in the former and the shrieking, inflated melodrama cues in the latter. The Old Dark House therefore stands as an essential ancestor for just about all comedy-horror crossbreeds, and what most of the best of such films wisely follow Whale in doing was in infiltrating comedy via the characters and playing core genre elements essentially straight, a presumption that’s essential to the success of, say, Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984) or Wes Craven’s Scream (1996). Indeed, Craven, with his penchant for inserting a brand of anarchic, cartoonish humour into his Horror films, in many ways came closest of subsequent Horror auteurs to building upon Whale’s sensibility. On the other hand, the film was also a direct influence on the far more indiscriminately lampooning attitude of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).

Moreover, Whale picks out a thread here that was to prove important in terms of where Horror cinema was headed, in general. Whilst The Old Dark House makes sport of the trappings of gothic horror, the real source of horror then moves away from the supernatural, conveying metaphor and oneiric imagery, and emerges as human and immediate, and embodied by different forms – the hulking brutishness of Morgan and the impishly homicidal Saul. The essence of the drama becomes this imminent physical danger. Mad killers on the loose were already a well-lodged genre convention, but there’s something that feels particularly pertinent in the way Whale plays one genre frame against the other. In short, Whale grasped where the Horror movie was going, although it would take another few decades to get there. What Alfred Hitchcock would do to the genre with Psycho (1960), with its own old dark house and lurking, devolved murderer, is essentially a reiteration of this intelligible shift in focus and meaning. One can look on past that to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which is built of the same basic ideas as The Old Dark House – the searching, displaced travellers, the degenerated family, the crumbling old house, the hulking, monstrous force of threat, the preoccupation with perverse social ritual, only by that time monochrome gothic has been replaced by the spacy, sunstruck American brand.

The Wavertons, trying to understand the enigmatic threat lurking in the Femm house, venture upstairs together and enter Sir Roderick’s room, where the find the ancient knight lying in his bed. Whale has Sir Roderick played by the actress Elspeth Dudgeon (credited for the film as John), covered in aging makeup and a false beard. This conceit has a sly brilliance to it, recognising the quality of androgyny that very old age confers, and feeding Whale’s underground river of destabilisation, the one remnant of the Femms of old now happy in his prostrate, post-gender state, calmly awaiting mortality’s edge: “When you’re as old as I am, at any minute you might just die,” he comments, and gives a chuckle. “Madness came,” he says of his family, “We have all been touched with it a little you see, except for me – at least I – I don’t think I am.” Sir Roderick warns the Wavertons about Saul and the possibility of Morgan unleashing him, before falling asleep. Philip dashes out to see if Morgan is still unconscious, only to find he’s arisen, and Horace pokes his head out of his bedroom door to tell him he heard Morgan going upstairs, and instructs with punitive directness, “Wait for him downstairs and kill him,” before hiding again.

Whale’s peeling of this particular onion reaches sees inevitable combustion as a single hand appearing on the staircase railing announces Saul’s lurking presence, and Morgan lurches into sight with the sickly smile of a man with a trump, before trying to launch at Margaret again. It takes the combined efforts of Penderal, Philip, and Sir William to wrestle Morgan into the kitchen and lock him in there, and Penderal dashes back to Margaret and Gladys and gets them to hide in a closet whilst he sets about distracting Saul. Saul, when he finally shows his face, proves disarmingly innocent and scared-looking, like an anthropomorphic hamster. He descends to Penderel, begging him to prevent his relatives locking him away again. Saul claims to not be mad, but has instead been imprisoned to keep secret the fact Horace and Rebecca killed Rachel, and often beaten by Morgan. Penderel is initially credulous of Saul’s claims, but Saul quickly begins to reveal his madness, picking up the carving knife from dinner and insisting on recounting the biblical tale of Saul and David.

Penderel instead begins stringing him out by affecting interest in a story he wants to tell, and the two settle at the dinner table: the earlier, strained dinner conversation gives way to more of the same tense, dissembling playacting, but this time the game is immediate, desperate, the barrier between civility and lunacy only as thick as Penderel’s improvisation. Penderel then is a solider once more, albeit this time actually fighting for something – trying to keep the madman away from Margaret and Gladys. When finally Saul explodes it comes with astonishing ferocity, hurling the knife at Penderel and then bashing him with a chair, before dashing up the stairs and setting fire to a curtain in cackling delight. Penderel, despite having a broken arm, ascends to fight the loony again, and this time Saul tries to rip Penderel’s throat out with his teeth, only for them both to fall over the balcony to the floor below. The movie softened the novel’s ending slightly, as Penderel dies in the fall in the book: after test audience didn’t like this, the ending was reshot, it does feel more in keeping with the movie’s totality.

As if by compensation for the loss of one tragedy, Whale inserted another. Morgan breaks out into the dining room again, ready to resume chasing Margaret, only for her to get him to look to the fallen Penderel and Saul: Morgan, utterly heartbroken by the death of his charge, cradling Saul’s body, weeps over his fractured body and carries it back up to his room. This crowning vignette resonates on several levels, most obviously in anticipating the encounter of the Monster and the Blind Hermit in Bride of Frankenstein in its depiction of the symbiosis of the misshapen, as well as sneaking in a moment of undisguised love between men, and echoing the fraternal grief of the war veterans, which needed some echo, some acknowledgement, to pass before the night of the storm can end. Penderel’s proposal of marriage to Gladys, which she accepts by giving him a passionate kiss as she too cradles her injured lover, suggests a spiritual economy of love at work: something can’t die without something being born. The morning comes, finally, the sun shining and beginning to dry the ocean of mud without, Horace emerging to politely wave the Wavertons away as they head off to fetch help, whilst Gladys cradles her wounded gallant, and Rebecca scoffs at the lot of these bent, buckled, bruised, but still upright humans.

Standard
1990s, Action-Adventure, Comedy, Horror/Eerie

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

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Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriters: Andrew Kevin Walker, Kevin Yagher

By Roderick Heath

Alongside his own ‘Rip Van Winkle,’ Washington Irving’s story ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is probably the best-known work of American literature from before the time of Poe and James Fenimore Cooper. Born in New York in the early years of the republic, Irving, after struggling as a merchant, found success in his twenties as a writer, journalist, and editor, and later pursued a career as a diplomat, serving for a time as ambassador to Spain. Amongst Irving’s random, still-resonating achievements ranked coining the phrase “the almighty dollar” and the nickname “Gotham” for New York, publishing the Francis Scott Key poem that became ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ popularising the false notion medieval Europeans thought the world was flat before Columbus, and having one of his pen names inspire the name of the New York Knicks. The roots of Irving’s most famous labours went back to his teenaged years, when a yellow fever epidemic caused his parents to send him to live with a friend in upstate New York. During that sojourn Irving first encountered Sleepy Hollow, a small town founded by Dutch settlers. His two most famous stories were both first published in a collection entitled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Irving connected several elements of local lore for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ including the history of the locale during the Revolutionary War, as he created the story of the timorous schoolmaster Ichabod Crane. Crane moves to Sleepy Hollow and becomes involved with a local girl, only to encounter the ghost of a Hessian mercenary soldier decapitated in battle but still terrorising the local byways.

Tim Burton, born in Burbank, California in 1958, is another curious American artist of the fanciful and student of the arcane and eerie. Burton started making short films with an 18mm camera as a child, displayed aptitude as an artist, and studied animation after leaving school. For a time he worked at Disney Studios in various artistic capacities and making short films on the side. One of these was the six-minute stop-motion animation Vincent (1983), depicting a young boy who fantasizes about being his hero Vincent Price, winning Burton his first burst of attention. Shortly after, he made a live-action version of Hansel and Gretel with a Japonaise style, sporting a kung fu fight between the titular duo and the witch, an early example of Burton’s habit of mischievously remixing various genres: that work screened once on the Disney Channel and was barely sighted again. Then he made Frankenweenie (1984), another stop-motion work about a junior mad scientist who revives his dog, killed by being run over by a car. Disney fired Burton for wasting company resources on something too scary for kids, but screenings of the short attracted the attention of comedian Paul Rubens, who, looking to play his popular comedy character Pee-wee Herman in a movie, hired Burton to direct Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). It was a hit, and Burton scarcely looked back.

Burton’s initial success was rooted in a projection of a singular identity. He was a director capable of balancing commercial imperatives with a strong personal inflection sourced in a passion for retro 1950s and ‘60s kitsch culture, old horror movies and other disreputable genres, eccentric and often mean humour, and stories sporting losers, freaks, and outsiders recast as heroes. He connected with a hip young audience somewhat starved for flavour in the oh-so-slick ‘80s mainstream movie culture and gained cultish fervour with the next three films he made – Beetlejuice (1987), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands (1990). Burton was the most mainstream-acceptable, at least at first, of a generation of director sharing similar touchstones and a similarly unstable sense of genre, delighting in blending provocation with playfulness, also including Sam Raimi, Stuart Gordon, and Peter Jackson. The rest of his career has however proven patchy. His follow-up to the hugely successful, high-style take on Batman, Batman Returns (1992), despite some potent elements, was more divisive and less successful. His best film to date, the tragicomic biopic Ed Wood (1994), and its follow-up, the gleefully sick comic alien invasion movie Mars Attacks (1996), were both box office disappointments, and his career was hampered by being drawn into an ill-fated attempt to make a Superman movie starring Nicholas Cage. Later, as his career moved into the 2000s and 2010s, Burton became more assured as a box office hand with a string of reboots, remakes, and would-be franchise-starters given a light gloss of the patented Burton black nail-polish touch, but he paid a price for this, as his movies were now often met with blank critical and former fan hostility. Sometimes the dismissal has been deserved, sometimes not.

Whilst a great number of Burton’s films interpolate imagery and ideas harvested from Horror cinema – Batman applied lashings of Expressionist paint to the superhero film and did the same with Edward Scissorhands to a blend of romantic fairy-tale and John Waters-esque suburban satire – few of his movies have actually, properly belong to the genre. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) did, but with the conceit of being a musical too, whilst Beetlejuice and Dark Shadows (2012) crossbred Horror with roguish comedy. Sleepy Hollow, released in 1999, is the closest he’s come to date to make a straight-up Horror film, and even it’s as much camp parody and action film as Horror. It is nonetheless one of Burton’s best films – indeed the one I enjoy most purely of his work save Ed Wood – and a last hurrah in paying tribute to the old-fashioned gothic horror style. The film, written by Andrew Kevin Walker who had a major success writing David Fincher’s 1996 hit Se7en with its adolescent grunge moralism, was originally slated to be a low-budget potboiler to be directed by makeup effects artist Kevin Yagher, who finished up serving in that capacity as well as co-producing when Burton came on board, whilst Francis Ford Coppola was loosely involved in the same capacity. Burton set about transforming the inherited project into a wildly stylish tribute to old Hammer and Universal Horror movies and Mario Bava films, shooting it in England and mostly on sets.

Irving’s story had been filmed many times before, most memorably as a portion of the 1949 animated Disney film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (where it was partnered with an episode taken from The Wind and the Willows). ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ chapter exemplified the old Disney’s brilliance at animation and willingness to conjure ghoulish imagery for a young audience. Burton inserts some visual references to the Disney take into his, including the famous climactic image of the headless horseman hurling a hollow jack o’lantern at Ichabod, blazing maw and eyes looming at the camera. Burton’s Sleepy Hollow nonetheless goes off on a tangent from straightforward adaptation, taking the basics of the Irving style whilst crossbreeding them with aspects of the nascent steampunk branch of fantastical fiction, fascinated by anachronistic but theoretically possible anticipations of modern technology and social attitudes in period settings, and detective story. Ichabod is portrayed as not a teacher but a policeman interested in sifting clues and deduction at a time when maintaining law and order was a very simple, brutal affair, and he’s flung into the mystery of headless horseman’s murderous maraudings.

The film’s pre-title sequences open on wealthy Sleepy Hollow landowner Peter Van Garrett (Martin Landau), after busily preparing and sealing a legal document, setting out in a coach driven by his son Dirk (Robert Sella) from his house to town. As they pass through his fields filled with growing corn and overlooked by a creepy scarecrow with a jack o’lantern head, Peter overhears the neigh of a horse and the ring of a steel blade, and looks out to see his son has been decapitated. Leaping from the coach, Peter retreats into the corn, only to be chased down by an unseen assailant and likewise left headless. Meanwhile in Manhattan, Ichabod (Johnny Depp), a constable with the New York Police, fishes a corpse out of the Hudson River, but his desire to make a pathology examination to determine the cause of death is foiled by a dismissive High Constable (Alun Armstrong). When he protests to a presiding judge (Christopher Lee), the judge, irritated by Ichabod’s radicalism, challenges him to accept the assignment of travelling to Sleepy Hollow and investigate the murders of the two Van Garretts and another local, the Widow Winship. Ichabod accepts, and travels north, finding lodging with another major local landowner, Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon), with his comely new wife Mary (Miranda Richardson) and grown-up daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci) from his previous marriage.

The core joke of Sleepy Hollow is that whilst its version of Ichabod Crane now occupies the role of man of action and incisive intellectual vision, equal prototype for Sherlock Holmes, Van Helsing, and Dirty Harry and conflating two centuries of pulp fiction heroes, he’s actually, essentially the same timorous, incongruous figure Irving created. Burton wields the disparity to mock a familiar kind of genre hero whilst also presenting the story of how Ichabod grows into the role, at least as far as he can. Upon arrival in Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod cringes before gruesome sights, gulps when people warn him about the horseman, is bullied by local jock Brom (Casper Van Dien), and leaps up on a chair when he spies a spider crawling across his room’s floor. He bears mysterious scars on his hands that bespeak a hidden trauma in his past motivating his determination, against all his physical and emotional reflexes, to take on evil and prove a force for rational good, and so attacks the problems before him with all the fortitude and purpose he can muster. His attempts to wield his hand-crafted medical tools in his investigations invariably result in aniety and revulsion from onlookers and a lot of mess. His methods, including play-acting the role of the killer’s giant horse as he inspects the ground around a victim’s corpse and notes the meaning of the hoof-prints, generally make him look rather barmy to the bewildered and frightened locals. The Sleepy Hollow denizens keep telling Ichabod about the horseman, but Ichabod as a rationalist refuses to believe this, until he’s presented with the terrifying sight the black-clad rider in full murderous charge.

In similar fashion, Sleepy Hollow enlarges upon aspects of the Irving story to weave an involved plot and make thematic capital out of the idea of the ghosts of the Revolutionary War and the colonial age not yet at rest. Baltus narrates the tale of the horseman to Ichabod, whereupon Burton interpolates a marvellous flashback that evokes the theatrical artificiality of early cinema, with jostling muskets and bayonets of clashing armies in the foreground and the mounted Hessian lurking beyond against an expressionistically stylised set full of sturm-und-drung. The Hessian is glimpsed, played by a wittily cast (and unbilled) Christopher Walken without dialogue, as a ferocious warrior who’s filed his teeth into monstrous fangs: even before he’s killed and resurrected, the Hessian’s desire is to become a perfect beast of war. Burton segues from this stylised hellishness to a scene of hallucinatory beauty infiltrated by a diseased presence: the Hessian is chased into snowy woods by Continental soldiers, where he encounters two children, blonde sisters, one of who gives away his position. The Hessian fights with all his ferocity and kills many foes, but is finally skewered, beheaded, and his corpse dumped in a grave.

Burton, through his streamlined flow of gorgeous imagery, reaches here through a recreation of a highly stylised silent film aesthetic which itself was drawn from stage performance and shadow puppet theatre, before conjuring the ironic fairy-tale setting as backdrop to the Hessian’s defeat. Later in the film Burton notes a young boy fascinated by the flitting images of witches and ghouls cast out by his magic lantern. This brief vignette nonetheless allows Burton to note the grand tradition of entertainment by frightful frisson and invocation of the uncanny that reaches back far beyond the age of cinema, and the film’s entire form manages to encapsulate an animated history of that tradition without sacrificing narrative flow and coherence. A bauble Ichabod inherited from his mother, which he shows to Katrina, creates an optical illusion of a bird alternating between being caged and freed: Katrina amusedly calls it magic whilst Ichabod insists it’s science, and of course it’s also the distant prototype for cinema itself, the combination of both.

Meanwhile the casting makes immediate connections with the movie tradition Burton’s having a ball recreating, first and foremost with Lee’s early cameo (commencing his late career revival extended by The Lord of the Rings films and George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, as well as Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005, all of which would help to make Lee technically the top box office star of 2006) and his Dracula (1958) costar Michael Gough, who Burton brought into the blockbuster age by casting him as Alfred in Batman, playing Sleepy Hollow notary Hardenbrook. The rest of the coterie of noble gentlemen comprising Sleepy Hollow’s powers-that-be are filled out by a notable gang of character actors, including Gambon, Richard Griffiths as the town’s frightened and boozy Magistrate, Samuel Philipse, Ian McDiarmid as local doctor Thomas Lancaster, and Jeffrey Jones as Paster Steenwyck. This collective of familiar faces lets Burton nudge whodunit territory, as the question of who resurrected the Hessian and has now unleashed him on seemingly random residents of the town becomes Ichabod’s preoccupying quandary. And also in pure whodunit territory is the solution to that as the one notable person who seems to hover on the fringes.

Ichabod arrives at the Van Tassel manse as Baltus is throwing as Ichabod arrives, and strangeness is already lurking the shadows, as Ichabod glimpses a silhouetted couple snogging on the porch. Inside the house, Ichabod first encounters Katrina as she plays blind-man’s-bluff and catches Ichabod as he tries to pass by, giving him a kiss “on account” much to the chagrin of her suitor Brom. “Young man you are welcome,” Baltus says to Ichabod as he plays the happy host, “Even if you are selling something.” Ichabod reveals his purpose, casting a pall over proceedings, and the village gentlemen try to explain the situation to the policeman. When he’s installed in an attic room, serving girl Sarah (Jessica Oyelowo) tells Ichabod “Thank god you’ve come!”, to his swivel-eyed disquiet, and within a short time a former servant of Van Garrett, Jonathan Masbath (Mark Spalding), is killed by the horseman whilst on guard duty awaiting its appearance. On a tip from Philipse, Ichabod soon exhumes the other victims of the horseman and finds, to his revulsion, that the killer not only beheaded the Widow Winship but also her unborn child inside her womb with a deft sword thrust.

One night as he walks through the village, Ichabod is terrorised by what seems to be the horseman, carrying a jack o’lantern, only to be hit by it and knocked silly whilst the rider is revealed to be Brom, playing a prank with some hastily contrived disguise. This vignette, as well as sporting nods to the Disney version, refers back to the Irving story, which left events purposefully vague, so that Ichabod might well have been scared off by Brom in the horseman’s guise rather than killed by the ghoul. When Ichabod confronts Philipse as he’s trying to flee town, the horseman rides out of the fog and beheads the Magistrate, but leaves Ichabod alone to faint away in fright. After battling through his shock, Ichabod finds himself taking in Masbath’s son (Mark Pickering) as a servant, and the two venture into the reputedly haunted western woods where the Hessian was buried. Along the way, they spy someone following them, which proves to be Katrina, valiantly determined to stick with them. They also encounter a witch who keeps her face hidden by a veil, who summons a demonic entity to possess her and give Ichabod some pointers of where to seek out the Hessian’s grave, at what she calls “the Tree of the Dead.”

After departing hastily, Ichabod and his two companions soon locate the grave under its unmistakeable marker, a black, gnarled tree that sprang up and died since the Hessian’s burial and still has his sword wedged in its roots, which also conceal a portal stuffed with the severed heads of the horseman’s victims and concealing a portal to Hell. As Ichabod digs up the Hessian’s skeleton he finds its skull is missing. The supernatural entity itself bursts from the heart of the tree and pounds off through the forest in search of another victim, with Ichabod giving chase. The Hessian’s next target proves to be a midwife, Beth Killian (Claire Skinner) and her husband (Steven Waddington): the horseman bursts into their house and swiftly slays both. Burton, never averse to risking some real darkness even in his playful films, provides a brief, black-hearted send-up of the climax of Aliens (1986) as the Skinners’ young son Thomas (Sean Stephens) tries to elude the horseman by crawling about under the floorboards, only for the ghoul to smash through the floorboards and claim the lad’s head for his bag of trophies. Ichabod arrives just as Brom confronts the Hessian, and the two men try to bring him down, but the headless monster soon cuts Brom in half and leaves Ichabod with a sword wound, instantly cauterised by the blade’s devilish heat.

All of this unfolds in Burton’s updated version of the kinds of gnarled, fogbound, permanently autumnal rural landscapes seen in the old Universal Horror films like Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941), and similarly creating the oppressive atmosphere by shooting on cleverly dressed sets. The attempt to recreate the old soundstage Horror style had been presaged by Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984) and Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), but where those directors approached the aesthetic with a kind of art installation-like self-consciousness, Burton entirely enters into the logic of the world he conjures. Burton’s nods to classic Horror history are plentiful and mostly cleverly kneaded into the story. The windmill that provides the setting for part of the climax is based on the one seen at the end of The Brides of Dracula (1960). The scene in which young Ichabod discovers his mother locked in an iron maiden ticks off both Roger Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (1960), and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), as the mother’s eyes stare out of the steel prison before her hole-ridden face is unleashed in a flood of gore. Burton and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki first considered making Sleepy Hollow in black-and-white, before adopting a compelling visual texture, largely desaturated and rendered in shades of grey, save for careful deployments of colour, where the black thatch of Ichabod’s hair swallows light whilst the blonde tresses of Katrina seem to exude it.

Sleepy Hollow came out at a time when CGI was making movie special effects increasingly sophisticated and the magic lantern show all the more seamless. Burton was able to portray the headless horseman (with stuntman Ray Park playing the headless Hessian) without the kind of awkward costuming effects used in something like The Mysterious Doctor (1943) with its headless ghost, or the infamous ‘Chopper’ episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker with its poorly realised variation on the horseman as a headless motorcyclist. He was also able to juice up the various beheadings with flourishes largely impossible prior to the CGI era, like one head getting hacked off and spinning about like a top on the severed neck. The felicity of this is debatable. The more cartoonish effects, particularly those used in Ichabod’s encounter with the witch feels like they came out of a different movie, giving the slight impression Burton was anxious about selling a neo-gothic horror movie to a mass audience without the crutch of absurd-flecked spectacle. But the special effects are also used to real effect at points too. When the Hessian comes to claim the elder Masbath, tendrils of drifting mist seem to reach out and extinguish burning torches. In the climax, the horseman, restoring his reclaimed skull, regrows all the flesh on his head.

Sleepy Hollow exhibits much of Burton’s imaginative genius, and also some of his niggling faults, if here kept in proportion. His tendency to take the edge off his gore effects by emphasising black comedy messiness to them, with Ichabod constantly getting spurting bodily fluids over himself, cuts against the grain of the fetishised majesty of the old-school genre trappings and the essential seriousness of the story: the character comedy based in Ichabod’s anxious heroism works far better. Burton seems here to have been trying to live up to the example of some of his generational fellows who came out of their own, hand-crafted cinema and wielded a harder edge to their deliriously funny, transgressive use of gore. On the other hand, Burton’s indulgence in this regard is arguably authentic in exemplifying the tradition of the Grand Guignol approach to Horror, specialising in both provoking and delighting an audience with spectacles of absurd bloodshed. Burton’s occasional problems with tone, a tendency that helped and harmed his Batman films with their sharp swerves from comic jauntiness to sleazy violence, also manifests at points.

The film never affects to be an authentic period piece, but rather a wry meditation on the emergence of modernity’s earliest glimmers from the pall of history, with both the wielders of religious authority and black magicians indicted as two sides of the same coin. The New York constabulary is seen showing off medieval torture machines even as Ichabod is trying to invent pathology and detective method at least seventy years early. “The millennium is almost upon us!” Ichabod declares to the judge early in the film, trying to inject future-shock promise into a moment still slithering out of medievalism. This connects with Burton’s recurring flourishes regarding the roots of cinema. This in turn feeds into Burton’s semi-sarcastic exploration of the familiar genre tension between rationalism and superstition, which he couches in terms of his established interest in damaged heroes. Burton’s emphasis on the formative backstory and resulting psychological dance of gallantry and derangement in the hero of Batman did much to define the obsession with such things in contemporary storytelling: heroes without backstories to overcomes in their character arcs are compulsory now where they were essentially pretexts in classic genre literature. Here, Ichabod experiences dreamily-styled flashbacks, all provoked by moments of shock and wounding as his travails in Sleepy Hollow forcing him to reckon with his past. It slowly emerges that his father, Lord Crane (Peter Guinness), had his mother (Lisa Marie) tortured and killed for practicing her own brand of white magic.

Burton saves particularly vivid stylisation for these fragmentary visions which contains hues of colour bled out of the rest of the film, portraying glimmering fairy-tale wonder giving way to awful nightmarish menace as the story unfolds, and childhood perspective gives way to adult, a state Burton essentially regards as less the achievement of maturity than the result of constant, scar-forming wounding. This idea is made literal as the scars on Ichabod’s hands came from gripping spiked torture implements in his shock at finding his mother locked in the iron maiden. Ichabod’s attempts to stand for reason and justice are rooted in his “bible-black tyrant” of a father’s killing of his “child of nature” mother, grievous patriarchy exterminating magical maternalism. A pattern Ichabod can’t help falling into again when his logic and the nature of appearances leads him to misunderstand Katrina’s attempts to protect him with her own white magic.

Katrina’s stoked memories of childhood are happier than Ichabod’s, recalling spending an idyllic time with her parents when they were poor tenants on Van Garrett land. Katrina takes Ichabod to the ruins of the cottage where they lived and points out to Ichabod an archer carved into the fireplace, an emblem that proves to have crucial meaning in the mystery of the horseman. Meanwhile Ichabod’s investigations uncover varying levels of greed, lust, cowardice, double-dealing, and manipulation convulsing through the Sleepy Hollow denizens, as when he follows Mary out into the woods when he sees her acting furtively, and beholds the spectacle of her screwing Steenwyck on a bed of clammy autumn leaves, slicing her hand open with a dagger and rubbing her blood on his back in a sex magick rite. Notary Hardenbrook quite literally hides in the closet to avoid being interviewed by Ichabod, and the detective finds him in possession of Van Garrett’s legal documents, which he claims and finds to be a will. During a brainstorming session in his room, Ichabod scribbles down random notes on paper without noticing they accrue to say, quite accurately, “the secret conspiracy point to Baltus,” as indeed all the horseman’s killings seem to have left Baltus as heir to the Van Garrett estate. Ichabod’s digging soon causes a rift between him and Katrina, who warns Ichabod her father isn’t that kind of man.

The unfolding mystery finally combusts when Baltus sees the horseman advancing on Mary as she collects ingredients for herbal medicine, and, assuming the ghoul kills her, flees to the town just as the denizens are collecting in the church. Chaos ensues in a brilliantly choreographed and filmed sequence, as the besieged villagers try to fend off the Hessian as he rides around the church, held out of consecrated ground but looking for some means to nab his prey Baltus. Meanwhile Steenwyck beats Lancaster to death when the doctor tries to warn Baltus he’s been the victim of a conspiracy, and Baltus shoots Steenwyck. Katrina urgently draws a talismanic symbol on the church floor with a piece of chalk. Finally the cunning Hessian makes a lance with a fencepost, ties a rope to it, and spears Baltus through the window, pulling him out of the church and across the grass to the fence line so the ghoul can claim his head. Katrina faints, and, in a glorious high tracking shot, Burton surveys the scene of sprawled bodies and the taunting emblem of Katrina’s magic, which seems to all to have been the invocation whipping up the horseman. Only later, as he prepares to depart Sleepy Hollow in sullen defeat and disillusion, determined to protect Katrina but also convinced she was his puppeteer, does Ichabod, twirling the bird bauble, realise he’s fallen prey to a game of illusions. Quickly enough he realises that the apparently killed Mary is the real puppeteer, having slain the servant Sarah and substituted her body for her own. Meanwhile Mary has appeared to Katrina, knocked her out, and spirited her to the windmill she uses as a base for her witchcraft.

Richardson’s fabulous performance, once properly unleashed, expertly juggles the diverging urges between camp melodrama and hard urgency manifest throughout the film, as Mary explains her plot with relish to Katrina, who is the last person standing between her and ownership of Sleepy Hollow. Her motive was vengeance for her family’s eviction from the cottage, which her father built, the archer symbol in the fireplace a reference to their family name of Archer. She and her twin sister were the two girls who encountered the Hessian, and Mary the one who brought about his death, and whilst the sister became the hermitic witch of the forest, Mary set about mastering black magic to resurrect the horseman and use him n her plot to kill off all potential alternative heirs to the Van Garrett and Van Tassel estates. Mary’s triumphal monologue succeeds in unifying the conventions of the whodunit, with the whys and hows of Mary’s campaign illustrated in a cascade of flashbacks and glimpsed vignettes, including of her murdering her sister and seducing Steenwyck, and a raft of bloody, bizarre business befitting a Horror movie. Mary’s revelations present her as a companion and counterpoint to Ichabod as another survivor of traumatic formative experiences driven to wage a private war with the world, but her informed by class rage and a psychopathic streak all her own – she’s established as already a bit of bitch when she betrays the Hessian – and evil, murderous rather than protective and empowering ends in mind. Burton would repeat the motif of the witchy avenger of social wrongs wielding sympathetic motives but ugly and egocentric method in Dark Shadows.

Depp has lost a lot of paint in the past few years after being accused of abusiveness in his personal life, legal wrangles, and too many goddamned Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Nonetheless it must be said that Sleepy Hollow was a fitting cap for the period he spent through most of the 1990s as the most interesting and adventurous leading man in Hollywood, and when his and Burton’s regular collaborations were still events. In Sleepy Hollow he gives one of the best lead performances in a Horror movie, dynamic in sustaining both the comic and serious aspects to his characterisation. His Ichabod, wielding a deft English accent, is reminiscent after a fashion of Christopher Reeve’s similarly good bipolar performance in Superman (1978), the would-be man of reason and boldness suffering as his whole body tenses up, nostrils thinning to tight slits and mouth twisting glumly, as he is faced with sights gruesome and fantastical. He strikes a Peter Sellers-esque figure as Ichabod constantly suggests his wits aren’t quite as keen as he fancies them. Nonetheless Ichabod fights through all his anxieties and limitations and evolves into a classical swashbuckling hero, even if he does still hide behind his girlfriend and faint dead away at the drama’s end. Ricci was just trying to break her way out of her child star mode with his first adult lead, and she’s a bit awkward in the role, particularly as Burton cast her as a complete inversion of her name-making role as the mordant Wednesday in Barry Sonnenfeld’s Burton-derivative The Addams Family films. That said, with her huge eyes contrasting her new blonde locks, Ricci undoubtedly seems perfectly at home in Burton’s world, and presents an interesting blend of innocent romanticism and nascent canniness reminiscent of Sarah Jessica Parker’s role as a swiftly evolving, era-conflating emblem in Ed Wood.

After his relatively lackadaisical action scenes in the Batman films, the action staging in Sleepy Horror represented a leap in craft and ingenuity for Burton – the mid-film fight with the Hessian and the climactic battles are some of the best-crafted scenes of their kind of the last few decades, kinetic whilst completely coherent. The climax commences with Ichabod and the horseman converging on the windmill, where Young Masbath manages to knock Mary out, and Ichabod, Katrina, and the boy try to elude by climbing up through the mill and returning to the ground by riding its sails, whilst Ichabod sets fire to the structure, which explodes as the wafting flour ignites. “Is he dead?” Young Masbath questions as the trio gaze back on the fiery ruin. “That’s the problem – he was dead to begin with,” Ichabod admits, and when the horseman emerges unharmed they flee in Ichabod’s carriage, chased through the haunted forest by the Hessian. This sequence, with its canted camera angles and looming, fearsome imagery, is a particularly triumph for Lubezki, and the highpoint of action staging in Burton’s career, working in elements of wild slapstick amidst the wild, careening struggle as Ichabod tries to keep the horseman at bay long enough to give Katrina and the boy a chance to escape, before the carriage crashes close to the Tree of the Dead.

The idea of blending horror and action is much more familiar now, and whilst Sleepy Hollow didn’t spark a new craze for gothic horror revivalism, it did, along with Jackson’s The Frighteners (1997) and Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999), give directors licence to mate action and horror in interesting and often popular ways: Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil (2002) and sequels, Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers (2002) and The Descent (2006), Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2005), and Marc Forster’s World War Z (2013) all arguably owe something to Burton’s example as they strove to render once fairly benign manifestations of horror tropes into newly fast, ferocious, and spectacle-friendly creations. The French director Christoph Gans was bolder in building on Burton’s example with his marvellous Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) and Beauty and the Beast (2014), likewise blending lush genre imagery with aspects of swashbuckling and even kung fu. It also kicked off a simmering penchant for movies reconfiguring familiar public domain stories into odd generic blends, manifest in fare like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2010) and Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016). A less than beneficial influence sometimes then perhaps, although I like both those movies.

The actual climactic confrontation is nonetheless close to perfect. After barely surviving the chase, the three heroes are confronted by Mary, who catches up on horseback, and the horseman by the Tree of the Dead. Before the Hessian can behead Katrina at Mary’s command, Ichabod tosses the Hessian his skull. Regaining his complete form and his hellish will, the Horseman picks up Mary and gives her a rather intense kiss – he eats her tongue out of her mouth, and rides with her bloody-mawed into the portal to hell under the tree. Magnificently ghoulish stuff, with a charge of perverse sexuality married to intimate nastiness, redolent of the kind of folkloric horror Burton and Irving reference. Mary’s hand is left protruding from the roots, beckoning in a last gesture of taunting humour, a sight that finally causes Ichabod to black out. Still, a little while later he with new bride Katrina and Young Masbath as servant travel back to New York, where Ichabod pre-writes Leonard Bernstein (“The Bronx is up, the Battery’s down, and home is this way!”) and escorts his new family through the newly cleansed, forward-looking Manhattan streets, all cosmic forces in new if only momentary harmony – man and woman, magic and science, past and future. Whilst it is uneven, it’s precisely for its bold and vigorous juggling act with both the imagery and the ideas of the genre that help Sleepy Hollow remain a rare achievement in modern Horror cinema.

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1980s, 1990s, Comedy, Films About Films and Filmmaking

The ’Burbs (1989) / Matinee (1993)

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Director: Joe Dante
Screenwriters: Dana Olsen / Charles S. Haas

By Roderick Heath

It’s been a long time now since Joe Dante was regarded as much more than the maker of a few fondly remembered movies, and a perennial talking head commenting on even older movies. There was a moment nonetheless when he was counted amongst the ranks of major Hollywood talents who, like James Cameron and John Carpenter, emerged from the exploitation film scene of the 1970s and ‘80s to become a big-league hit-maker. Dante, the son of a professional golfer and born in New Jersey, first had ambitions to being a cartoonist, a slant on visual art that would inflect the rest of his career even as his interests turned towards movies. He gained attention with an artfully edited movie mash-up called The Movie Orgy (1968) and landed a job with Roger Corman. Dante became a member of his burgeoning New World Pictures studio, working in a variety of roles including editing Grand Theft Auto (1978) and making his directorial debut collaborating with Allan Arkush on Hollywood Boulevard (1976), a mischievous movie business satire which stitched footage from a variety of New World projects into a semi-original feature. Dante broke out as a director with 1978’s Piranha, a Jaws (1975) cash-in-cum-send-up that wielded its own peculiar sensibility, including an oil-black sense of humour and merry gore-mongering, and united Dante with then little-known writer and sometime actor John Sayles, who penned the script.

The duo left Corman behind to make The Howling (1980), another funny, more wilfully oddball genre effort that helped Sayles kick off his own, more serious-minded independent film career, and boosted Dante to mainstream attention. Dante found a second vital producing collaborator in Steven Spielberg, who brought Dante aboard to direct an episode of the ill-fated The Twilight Zone – The Movie (1982), and then backed Dante in making the comedy-horror monster movie Gremlins (1984) and the zesty Fantastic Voyage riff Innerspace (1987), with the teen sci-fi adventure Explorers (1985) in between. Dante worked out his rowdy, referential, horny side with the uneven sketch comedy Amazon Women of the Moon (1987) and his more overtly satirical streak resurged with The ’Burbs. Of these only Gremlins was a hit, whilst Explorers, seemingly the perfect expression of the ‘80s youth movie zeitgeist until its wry, deliberately anticlimactic last act, and Innerspace, with its loose energy and brilliantly delivered if slightly overextended comic spectacle, were both bruising failures. Dante revisited old ground with Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) to get his box office mojo working again. But Dante’s career after this proved awfully patchy: his follow-up Matinee did poorly at the box office, and he’s only made four features since, including the well-reviewed but barely-successful anti-militarist fantasy Small Soldiers (1998) and the failed Looney Tunes: Back In Action (2003), as well as occasional TV episodes.

Dante had evident similarities with generational fellows like Spielberg, Carpenter, George Lucas, and Stephen King, in wielding a particular penchant for remixing the infrastructure of growing up American in the 1950s and ‘60s in terms of a personal fantasy landscape, the kinds of kids who had a dresser crammed with issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland and painted Ray Harryhausen figures. Dante was often characterised as the impish rapscallion producing anarchically satiric desecrations of the same suburban Middle America Spielberg was perceived as enshrining. There was some truth in that, but at the same time it’s awfully reductive of both directors: Dante plainly loved his evocations of humdrum suburbia and the big dreamers it so uneasily houses, just as Spielberg’s visions of the same zones usually saw obsession and threat lurking under the placid surfaces. From today’s vantage it seems rather that Dante’s ultimate nemesis proved to be Tim Burton, who appeared on the scene just as Dante was losing career traction. Burton wielded a similar sensibility – fixation with the same zones of retro Americana and old movies, a mordant approach to lampooning the permanent 1950s lodged in the American collective mind, a fondness for plucky misfits as protagonists – and a more overtly stylised visual approach. Also, over the decades Burton proved willing to compromise in ways Dante never quite was. Dante’s approach was inherently ironic, presenting his seemingly straitlaced protagonists as bland on the surface but covertly perverse and unruly, where Burton signposted his inversions and dissensions in a manner that suited an emerging alt-culture better.

The ‘Burbs was a modestly profitable movie but critically it met a largely indifferent response in 1989. Nonetheless it stands as one of Dante’s most quintessential expressions, and it’s a personal favourite film. Dante worked with a screenplay by writer Dana Olsen, who based it on his own childhood memories and having fun with the many urban legends of everyday whackos whose memories haunted the suburban placidity. The ’Burbs could well be the all-grown-up experience of the three young dreamer-adventurers of Explorers, having settled into monotonous adult life in the same suburbs where once the bushes could be a jungle and the neighbour’s yard an alien planet. The film kicks off with a technically brilliant and visually dazzling flourish as Dante perverts the Universal Pictures spinning planet logo by using it as the start of the longest zoom shot in cinema, descending relentlessly from space and zeroing in on Mayfield Place, a cul-de-sac in a Midwestern suburb. The gag is manifold – as well as outdoing Spielberg’s famous jokes with the Paramount logo in his Indiana Jones films, Dante connects the tiny stage of a suburban street with the vastness of the Earth and the cosmos, at once dwarfed but also forming part of an infinitesimal texture. This commences a film that plays as a companion piece to the famous The Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” in the tingling sense of paranoia amidst the utterly ordinary, and sense of a rascally mastermind toying with paltry, reactive humans all too ready to realise their violent and destructive sides. Except there are no aliens here, only Dante himelf.

Dante has his own “directed by” credit appear as shirtless, vest-wearing, hairy-chest exposing Mark Rumsfield (Bruce Dern) appears, slipping on aviator shades with attitude as heavy rock starts pounding. Tom Hanks, still in his young, gangly, charming everyman phase, plays Ray Peterson, a man on holiday from his job who’s elected to spend that time lounging around the house rather than head off to a vacation spot, in part because he’s trying to escape the programmatic wheel of suburban behaviour. But being home all day proves a taunt to his imagination, a la James Stewart in Rear Window (1954). Ray is draw out of his house in the dead of night when a strange mechanical whirring noise and brilliant light are emitted from the basement of a neighbouring house. The house, which previously belonged to a well-liked couple named the Knapps, has recently been sold to a shadowy family called the Klopeks who never seem to come out by day, taunting the proclivities of the other people on the street. Ray’s other immediate neighbour is phone line worker Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommon), a tubby miscreant who’s likewise been left alone with his wife out of town and nothing to do but snoop. Across the street lives (Bruce Dern), a Vietnam veteran and military hardware freak who ritually raises the Stars and Stripes every morning and lives with his much-younger bombshell wife Bonnie (Wendy Schaal). Teenager Ricky Butler (Corey Feldman) has been left alone by his parents, whilst the elderly Walter Seznick (Gale Gordon) keeps his real front lawn lush and the fake lawn on his head just as lush.

Dante sets all of these characters and their microcosmic lives up in a deftly choreographed sequence as the bike-riding paper boy tosses his wares into yards and the various denizens emerge in the sunshine – the boy hits Ray with the paper he throws him, so Ray reacts by tossing his cup of morning coffee after him. Walter avenges himself by sending his poodle Queenie on guerrilla raids to bite the paper boy, only for Queenie to prefer pooping on Rumsfield’s grass, a gift that spoils Rumsfield’s flag-raising ceremony. Jerry Goldsmith’s playful score makes sport of John Williams’ twinkly scene-setting for Spielberg, even sporting dog barks remixed into the music. Ray’s wife Carol (Carrie Fisher) tries to talk Ray into going away for the week, but he commits to playing the bohemian homebody. Ray’s curiosity nonetheless keeps being lassoed by both the strange behaviour of the Klopeks and his friends’ increasingly tantalised and pushy obsession with it. Dante’s approach to all this is at once indulgent and sardonic, gleefully playing up the weirdness that magnifies under the gaze of the adventure-starved heroes with technically accomplished and wittily fleeting pastiches of various genres of film grammar, whilst also perceiving the ways those heroes become just the sorts of agents of malicious discontent they seek to uncover.

When one of the Klopeks, the youngest, Hans (Courtney Gains) finally emerges in daylight, Ray and Art finally goad each-other into heading over and pay a welcome-neighbour visit. This sequence becomes a masterful unit of humour and quick-fire pastiche and comic staging. Dante touches base with a burlesque of a Sergio Leone gunfight stare-and-shoot -out, diving in for close-ups of the many staring onlookers including the dog Queenie, watching in tense fascination as Ray and Art venture in, whilst Goldsmith quotes Morricone on the soundtrack. The camerawork shifts gear into a faintly gothic style with high angles and perspective distortion to create a menacingly looming effect. Facetious menace turns to farce, as the pair put their feet through weak wood in the porch and dislodge fixtures when striking the doorknocker. The house number 669 turns to 666, and a swarm of bees emerges from a secreted hive, driving the hapless duo to take shelter under Rumsfield’s hose: Rumsfield dashes forth to the rescue only for his lawn hose to snap and send him tumbling, and the scene concludes with men squirming desperately under squirting water. Later in the evening Ray takes his dog for a walk – or rather he takes it out and lets it off the leash to run riot – and finishes up falling into conversation with Art and Ricky: in arguing the Klopeks might be dangerous fiends and also trying to freak Ray out, Art cites local folklore in recounting the story of Chip, a soda jerk who slaughtered his family and went about his life normally for weeks afterwards only for summer heat to stir the stench of corruption. Soon Ray and Art witness Hans driving a car out of the garage simply to remove garbage from the trunk and pound it into the bin, before driving rain starts to fall: Ray then observes three Klopeks feverishly digging in their backyard in the storm.

Art is the devil you know: a boy-man who quietly hates his wife and takes any opportunity to stuff his face when he visits the Petersons, whilst his first appearance in the film sees him sneaking up on crows that flock about the Klopeks’ yard with a shotgun. “Art’s got a gun!” Ray alerts Carol when he sees him trying to shoot one of the birds, as if that very phrase immediately evokes good cause to be afraid. Rumsfield keeps his own vigil, looking down into the street, silhouetted in his window and smoking a cigar. Meanwhile Ricky is so entertained by watching the trio’s expeditions he first invites his girlfriend around for a dose of prototypical reality television (“This is real – this is my neighbourhood!”) and later all of his friends to gawk when the chaos reaches a climax: Ricky even puts on catering (“I called the pizza dude!”) for his free show, and his guests form a ready-made audience for the shenanigans, clapping whichever piece of slapstick inanity provided for their amusement. What is still a relatively innocent preoccupation takes a turn towards the urgently obsessive for Ray, Art, and Rumsfield when Bonnie finds Queenie seemingly alone and bedraggled, and when the neighbours go to Walter’s house they find he’s mysteriously vanished, leaving his signature toupee behind. Not long after, Queenie brings bone for Ray to throw which Art recognises is actually a human femur, convincing them both it’s Walter’s. Carol finally tries to put an end to their snooping and paranoia by arranging for her, Ray, Rumsfield and Bonnie – Art is pointedly not invited – to pay a call on the Klopeks for a nice neighbourly housewarming.

Part of the specific pleasure of Dante’s films lies in his recurring gags and casting choices, and his delight in film buff touches for their own sake. Goldsmith pushes the point even further by including passages very lightly transforming his own iconic scores for Patton (1970) and the Rambo movies for the mockery. Dante contrives to evoke the Bates house of Psycho (1960) in the crumbling grandeur of the Klopek house and the occasional, backlit sight of someone mysteriously watching from high windows. As he so often did, Dante casts perpetual refugee from the Corman factory Dick Miller, who appears with another constant regular in Dante’s films, the inimitable Robert Picardo: the duo play garbage men Vic and Joe, who find themselves the bewildered audience as Art and Rumsfield charge out to stop them compacting the Klopeks’ garbage so they can check it for human remains. “My taxes pay your salary!” Joe tries to talk Vic into attending a meditation group, whilst Miller mutters ruefully after listening to the locals theorising, “I hate cul-de-sacs. There’s only one way out and the people are kinda weird.” Rumsfield fiercely reminds the complaining labourers as he lies upside down in a pile of garbage with shaving foam on his face. When Ray tries to ignore Art’s ravings about the Klopeks being Satanists by sticking his fingers in his ears and mumbling a mantra to drown him out, Art insists he’s already succumbing to the brainwashing influence and twists his words it into a mocking version of a Satanic chant: “I wanna kill. Everyone. Satan is good. Satan is our pal.”

A highlight of the film comes about half-way through as Ray, head ringing with his own imaginings, an occult book Art showed him, and too many horror movies on the TV (Dante inserts clips from The Exorcist, 1973, Race With The Devil, 1974, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2, 1986), has a nightmare where he awakens in the night and finds Carol missing. Venturing out of the bedroom, he’s assailed by a huge chainsaw blade cutting through the wall, and then finds himself tied to a huge barbecue by masked Satanists. Carol dreamily calls to Ray, swathed in white silk, praising him for inviting the neighbours to a barbecue, as the devil worshippers tie him to a giant grill whilst repeating Art’s chant. Ray sees Walter and Queenie together rising from a garbage can, in a joke that feels plucked straight from Dante’s beloved Looney Tunes cartoons, where both dog and master give spooky warning with medieval axes buried in their head. Art appears in the guise of Chip, met by peals of canned laughter and applause like a beloved sitcom character and making cheesy one-liner quips, a flourish that anticipates the more sour media lampooning of Natural Born Killers (1994). Finally Ray awakens from the vortex of nightmare to the no less disorientating sight of Mr Rogers on morning TV singing ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbour?’ Here Dante explicitly identifies Ray’s mind with his own, a whirling centrifuge where comedy and horror lose form, permanently colonised by a post-genre melange of pop culture stances.

Much as Matinee contemplates the nerve-jangled era of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with its clear-and-present-danger sense of imminent extermination, The ’Burbs evokes the fallout of the Reagan era’s homiletic appeal to renewed centrism and stability. That stability Dante sees rather as a kind of balkanization along the lines of suburban fence lines, everyone from the fairly decent young family man to the gun-toting coot and the hard rock-playing teenager segmented in their little worlds in uneasy truce rather than balance, but simultaneously, desperately seeking some cause to rally to, to relieve themselves of the pressure of their ordinariness in a country (any country) that needs mythmaking to cohere. Art’s leap to thinking the Klopeks are Satanists plainly lampoons the Satanic Panic that gripped the reactionary sectors of the 1980s, fuelled by texts like the fake memoir Michelle Remembers and the McMartin school trial, whilst he also evinces a fascination with seemingly ordinary people like Chip who abruptly become lunatics. Eventually, in the film’s climactic, sententious but well-handled speech from Ray, he indicts himself, Art, and Rumsfield as the actual examples of that madness in this story. Dante’s capacity to explore socially satiric themes with an unexpected edge of relevance and insight had been present since his early B-movies and would reach a height in his almost scarily prescient 1996 telemovie The Second Civil War, which took the themes in The ’Burbs to a natural conclusion and came up with a warning for the Trump era.

The urge to childlike anarchic action was one Dante had safely cordoned off in Gremlins in the title critters as the represented all the septic forces lurking under the surface of the idealised small town; in The ’Burbs the citizens degenerate into something like gremlins themselves. Dante is amused as well as alarmed by the immaturity of his protagonists, watching them become infantilised as they indulge their seemingly adult concerns. Art is glad to be out from under his wife’s thumb because it’s plain he regards her more like a parental control figure, and Carol increasingly acts like Ray’s mother rather than wife (casting Fisher as the film’s most mature person was a stroke of genius), resulting in a scene where Art and Rumsfield retreat like dejected boys when Carol won’t let Ray come out and play “until he resembles the man that I married.” For all his man’s man affectations, Rumsfield gleefully directs the other two using a “Red Rover” rhyme over a walkie-talkie. Hanks’ innate likeability is key for presenting a main character who does increasingly unhinged and destructive things. Meanwhile Ray’s actual child son Dave (Cory Danziger) is increasingly mortified by the spectacle of his father’s mischiefs. Ray’s attempts to remain reasonably sane and a restraining influence on Art are repeatedly foiled, as when Art writes an accusatory note to the Klopeks and Ray fears correctly they might assume he did it. Eventually he’s drawn into the mesmerising influence after the discovery of the femur – Dante gleefully mocks melodramatic style as Art and Ray scream in panic upon Art’s certainty the femur belongd to Walter, camera zooming in and out like it’s having a palpitation – and later when he discovers Walter’s wig mysteriously transposed from his house to the Klopeks’.

Carol’s attempts to defuse the escalating situation and make nice with the Klopeks results in a painfully uncomfortable and bitterly funny scene as Ray and Carol and Rumsfield and Bonnie finally encounter the three new neighbours. Hans is a jittery, pale, perverse youth, Uncle Reuben (Brother Theodore) is a fierce and cranky elder who barely controls his simmering anger at Ray, and his brother, Dr Werner Klopek (Henry Gibson) who first appears in a burlesque of horror movie anticipation as he emerges from the cellar, glimpsed in menacing silhouette, wearing surgical gloves smeared with red, only for this to prove paint from his hobby of making art from surgical scenes. The Klopeks (“Is that a Slavic name?” Rumsfield questions, sensing both Reds and corpses under the bed) are a perfect alloy of strange traits, from their midnight excursions and oddly impersonal furnishings (“It came with the frame.”) and general of foreignness, but Werner proves such a pleasantly affable, almost fey host that he seems to finally put relations on common ground. At least until Rumsfield starts in with aggressive questioning and Art, sneaking into the house whilst everyone’s distracted, unleashes the snarling beast chained up in the cellar – a Great Dane – and runs for his life, setting off the Klopeks’ improvised alarm system. Hanks’ comic acting is at a height in this sequence as Ray uneasily accepts the hospitable offer from Hans of his idea of an entertaining munchies – a canned sardine and pretzel – and tries to eat it, and later tries to distract from one of Rumsfield’s obnoxious ploys by suddenly suffering a sneezing fit that quickly becomes a real one.

Newly convinced of the Klopeks’ malfeasance by finding Walter’s toupee in their house, Ray resolves to take advantage of what he knows will be the family’s absence and contrives to get rid of Carol and Dave for the day, before setting out with Art and Rumsfield to invade the Klopek house. Art successfully knocks out the power to the house by shimmying up a power pole and cutting a live wire, an act that results in him getting shocked and falling through a shed roof, emerging singed and smoking, but does succeed in disabling the Klopeks’ alarms. Rumsfield keeps watch from his rooftop with a rife, infrared scope, walkie-talike, and animal crackers. Ray furiously digs holes in the Klopeks’ yard whilst Art lounges about, before they shift their attention to within the house. There they finally seem to identify the source of the strange rumbles and glowing, in the form of a huge, baroque furnace the Klopeks have been restoring. The Klopeks return home only to recognise someone’s broken in and retreat unnoticed to fetch the police, whilst Art and Rumsfield behold the beggaring sight of Walter being returned home by his children, having just been in hospital after a spell of heart trouble. Still digging in the cellar floor for any signs of buried bodies, Ray’s pickaxe hits something metallic, only for this to prove a gas line: Art manages to flee but Ray is still inside when the gas explodes and blows the house to pieces. Thankfully Ray emerges, battered and burned but alive.

The flow of great comic business continues right through The ’Burbs, from Ray plucking Walter’s toupee from where he stashed it in his shorts to Ricky, trying to distract the police brought by the Klopeks, leaping onto their windscreen and trying to pass off his houseguests as riotous invades: “There’s these people and they’re in my parents’ house and…they’re eating all their food!” The aftermath of the explosion brings the world onto the cul-de-sac, including cops who represent the judgement of authority and reality. In a moral-of-the-story vignette, Ray unleashes a berserk harangue at Art and accepts they’ve been acting like crazy people: “We’re the lunatics!” he thunders in between bouts of trying to strangle the still-recalcitrant Art. The peculiarity of The ’Burbs is that it tries to present a nimble, scabrous comedy with the trappings of a big-budget Hollywood movie, with Dante embracing the imaginative exaggeration of his heroes and his own genre movie touchstones, constantly, ironically contrasting the looming, swooning camerawork and amplified weirdness of the Klopeks and their home with the gleaming, idealised neighbourhood around them. Where Burton’s Edward Scissorhands a year later would touch many of the same conceptual bases of The ’Burbs, it allows its nonconformist heroes the stature of myth, where The ‘Burbs refuses to indulge, seeing as everyone, whatever their personal mythos, as victims of the persona they make for themselves as part of the general comedie humaine.

At least until the very end: in a climax reportedly reshot to please test audiences, Ray pledges to help mitigate the damage he’s caused, only to be confronted by Dr Klopek, who reveals a sudden sinister side and confirms that he did indeed murder the Knapps and intends to kill Ray too. Ray manages to fight him off and the sight of the Klopeks’ car boot stuffed with the bones of their victims confirms their villainy. This ending presents an interesting dichotomy when it comes to the difference, and occasional disconnect, between theme and movie language. On the one hand, it seems to spoil the theme of the self-appointed guardians of normality proving to be the true reprobates and seeming to finally justify their paranoia. On the other, given Dante’s blackly comic exaggeration throughout, to simply have the Klopeks prove to be mere, victimised innocents would see a bit of a long bow, and the revelation finally gives the constant come-ons of Dante’s outsized style, at long last, some proper horror movie images to indulge, including Dr Klopek snapping on surgical gloves in a slyly congenial but menacing manner, and the horde of bones. Dante tries to have his cake and eat it in finally seeing everyone as a bit cracked, as Ray wanders home dazedly with Carol whilst Art and Rumsfield smugly ride out the switchback in swerving between the status of villains and heroes. The resulting ambivalence is, ultimately, perhaps more interesting and lasting than any didactic message.

When Dante made Matinee four years later, he purposefully redeployed the core theme of The ’Burbs in introducing a major character, Sandra (Lisa Jakub), who’s the child of beatnik intellectuals and earns the distrust of her fellow students and the wrath of authority when she refuses to play along with her high school’s duck-and-cover drill, instead loudly and desperately insisting it’s all a sham and waste of time in the face of the immediate threat of nuclear annihilation. Here the voice of weirdo dissent is plainly valourised, as Sandra becomes the girlfriend of Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), the main character, despite him being the nominally straitlaced son of a Navy sailor. Matinee unfolds over the course of a week coinciding with the Cuban Missile Crisis: Gene and his family, who often relocate depending on where his dad is stationed, have recently arrived in Key West, and Gene becomes aware his father isn’t out on manoeuvres as he’s been told, but is on one of the blockade ships. Gene himself harbours his own subversive appetites, his burgeoning delight in B horror and sci-fi films. The ultimate sop to that proclivity falls right in his lap amidst the general unease: independent auteur Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), maker of such masterpieces as The Brain Leeches and The Hypnotic Eyes of Doctor Diablo, announces he’s going to be premiering his new atomic monster movie, Mant!, at the Key West Strand, a local movie theatre, to take advantage of the island’s current, flashpoint role in the zeitgeist.

Dante’s sense of personal connection with the meat of Charles S. Haas’s script is easy to discern, as Gene eventually comes under Woolsey’s wing, much as Dante did with Corman, the older shyster-artist schooling the kid in both the flimflam side to his business but also his genuine, peculiar creative ideals in trafficking in safe, cordoned experiences of the dark side as necessarily purgative and cathartic. Woolsey is, nonetheless, more patently based on the legendary William Castle, the former big studio B-movie wiz who went independent and reinvented himself as the downmarket Alfred Hitchcock, making personal appearances in his movies and advertising and employing attention-grabbing gimmicks to hook his audiences. Many of the stunts and tricks Woolsey utilises in promoting Mant! are drawn directly from Castle and Corman’s playbooks, like wiring up seats to deliver mild electric shocks and trundling out dangling skeletons mid-movie, and trying to whip up audience enthusiasm by ironically appealing to their desire to see things possibly forbidden or just amusingly bad. Woolsey has his leading lady and girlfriend Ruth Corday (Cathy O’Donnell; her character’s last name Corday is a nod to Mara Corday, star of Tarantula!, 1955, and The Black Scorpion, 1957) also pose as a nurse selling fake insurance policies to prospective audience members, a nice gimmick that falls flat when Ruth repeatedly shows no professional interest in the actually injured.

Matinee indulges a portrait of teenagers from a “more innocent time,” for whom sneaking a listen to a Lenny Bruce album is the height of sophistication and daring. Gene, because of the family’s constant moving, always faces the problem of making new friends, and he dreads going to the local high school. He also has to take care of his younger brother Dennis (Jesse Lee) a lot of the time, and his tendency to get freaked out by the scary movies Gene loves sometimes forces Gene to run the gauntlet with his fretful mother Anne (Lucinda Jenney). When some boys prefer him to the company of some nerd at lunch he meets Stan (Omri Katz), and they become fast friends. Stan has a fierce crush on school goddess Sherry (Kellie Martin). Stan works up the pluck to ask Sherry out on a date, and she happily accepts, but Stan is soon intimidated by Sherry’s older former boyfriend Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire), a petty criminal recently released early from a jail stint because he also fancies himself as a Beat poet and impressed a literary figure. Stan connects with Sandra, as another misfit, albeit a local who’s never felt at home, and who refer to her parents by their first names. Meanwhile Woolsey is dealing with his own problems, including an increasingly disgruntled Ruth, who’s annoyed he won’t marry her, and his urgent design to get Mant! a booking in a large theatre chain, to pay off nagging debts like the impending lab bill for the movie, as he’s threatened with a lawsuit: “Boy this business has changed,” Woolsey comments, “They used to settle these things with violence.”

Matinee has a strong resemblance to many other post-American Graffiti (1973) nostalgia piece movies cast a half-humoured, half-anxious eye back to the prelapsarian days before JFK’s assassination. But it belongs in a special niche with something like John Waters’ Hairspray (1988) in exploring a similar blend of candy-coloured retro and sceptical coming-of-age meditations, laced with the director’s simultaneously fulsome and ironic sensibility. Matinee is probably the sweetest and sunniest movie Dante made, despite its depiction of a uniquely fraught moment in history that still transmits unease in cultural memory, and during the slow build towards the kind of comic chaos Dante was so good at it risks getting rather more cute than was his usual wont. Still, Dante captures the surreal segues for the lives of the boys into a world of grown-up threat, as when Gene and Stan go down to the blissful beachfront only to find soldiers and their great dark war machines ranged along it. Dante uses The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as a leitmotif, both bang-on as period detail and a musical gesture conveying breezy, dreamy nostalgia and longing. The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” is used more archly as a theme for Harvey as he lurks in the bushes watching Sherry. Dante constantly illustrated his heroes’ inner worlds and transformative urges through dream sequences used as a vehicle for unfettering both fantasy and fear: Ray’s nightmare in The ’Burbs is one example, whilst the dreams shared by the trio in Explorers is perhaps the quintessential instance, as Dante depicted a shared subliminal space in which the heroes discover designs that open other worlds. Here Dante’s variation on this comes as Gene thinks he hears his father’s return and gets out of bed, only to find his house deserted, and when he opens the front door witnesses the apocalyptic eruption of a mushroom cloud followed by an exterminating wind: only then does Gene awaken, delivered back to much safer waking dreams of mutant man-ants.

Whereas in The ’Burbs the movie pastiche was kneaded into the style of the film, Dante often settled for delivering films within films making wry sport of disreputable wonders, like the episodes in Amazon Women of the Moon that give the movie its title, a hilariously precise recreation of of ‘50s space siren movies, and the send-up of cheap Italian space operas in Explorers. Here Dante pokes good-natured fun at the general run of entertainment for kids in the day, when his mom makes him take Dennis to see a movie called The Shook-Up Shopping Cart. This proves a frighteningly accurate pastiche of the kind of live-action pablum Disney was turning out at the time, with the movie-within-a-movie sporting a very young Naomi Watts as a sunny blonde starlet opposite a double-taking co-star. Later, of course, he gets around to Mant! itself, which resembles less one of Castle’s or Corman’s films of the period and looks more like fellow trash titan Bert I. Gordon trying to make a Jack Arnold film. After getting bored during The Mixed-Up Shopping Cart, Gene and Danney leave, only to encounter a scene outside the theatre: two men, Herb (Miller again) and Bob (Sayles), claiming to be from a morals group called Citizens For Decent Entertainment, are protesting the upcoming Mant! screening. They face opposition with Sandra’s parents Jack (David Clennon) and Rhonda (Lucy Butler), who espouse First Amendment rights, whilst Woolsey himself emerges to argue with the men and pass out free tickets, encouraging people to make up their own minds. Gene susses all this out when he recognises Herb from a still from one of Woolsey’s previous films, and realises Woolsey’s just drumming up publicity from a different flank.

This sequence takes a deft poke at the art of using negative publicity as good publicity, and again later when Bob and Herb try to entice Harvey with their two-faced wiles: “What messages do these movies send to the youth of America? That atomic power is nothing but trouble? That it’s all right for atomic mutations to rip the clothes off of young women?” There’s also a dose of sly metatextual commentary on Dante’s constant casting of Miller in restoring him to his original setting as a B-movie face. When Gene confronts Woolsey about his stunt, Woolsey at first tries to report that “Herb turned against me,” but then drops the pretence in realising Gene’s too smart for that. Instead he explains he hired Herb when he was actually a shake-down guy sent to collect money and Woolsey saw an inexpensive actor instead, whilst Bob is a blacklisted actor. Much of the near-sublime quality of Matinee lies in the way Dante captures two ways of looking at Woolsey, from one angle a fly-by-night exploitation entrepreneur who’s a professional bullshit artist, and from another a hero bringing fun and fright a world of young Genes. Casting Goodman, at the height of his rotund charm and performing vigour, as Woolsey makes him instantly charismatic and likeable, and he readily opens up to Gene in sensing a kindred spirit. Gene and Woolsey’s conversations articulate the credo of a hermetic order of horror movie freaks, as Gene confesses to Woolsey, in a manner just about any cineaste might recognise, that with his rootless childhood he found his friends in the oddball likes of Herb and Vincent Price on screen. Woolsey readily identifies with Gene’s problems, recalling his own trouble fitting in, only to assure him, “Now I get my revenge, I get to scare everyone else – but it’s for their own good.” Woolsey goes on to explain the delight he takes hin making monster movies with philosophical zeal, describing some ancient encounter between a caveman ancestor and a woolly mammoth the man survived and felt the need to record his exhilarating escape for posterity. So he a picture on his cave wall and exaggerating its terrible features: “Bang!,” Woolsey announces as the caveman’s vision is illustrated as a threatening cartoon projected with imagination upon a brick wall, “The first monster movie.”

Woolsey goes on to explain that ebb and flow of fear and release, anxiety and catharsis, is the essence of the movie business and why he loves it so much. Dante stages Woolsey and Gene’s exchanges in a series of flowing, unifying tracking shots as Woolsey leads the lad off the street and into the temple of cinema. That temple is however also a profane space, a place for rowdy kids to stamp feet, roll malt balls down the aisles, and to gawk at anything that might provoke the ghost of a sexual fantasy, which Woolsey also knows well. The Strand’s manager Howard (Picardo) is a panicky fussbudget who has installed a fallout shelter in the theatre basement and keeps a radio on him at all times tuned to a military channel to get an early warning if the bombs start falling. Meanwhile Harvey, whose last name pays an unsubtle nod to the infamous serial killer Charles Starkweather, is present for bad boy angst, threatening Stan in between recitations of his poetry: “Destiny – it’s like a crazy river – where you see different people’s boats that they have going by on it…but tomorrow! Tomorrow’s a knife!” Homage perhaps to Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1958), which starred Miller. Harvey is both a source of comedy as an utter dope, and also a more immediate menace than the atomic bomb with his unstable and violent streak. He tries to steal Bob’s wallet when he and Herb are going through their spiel, only for them to catch him and reclaim the wallet, making as if they’re going to beat him up but then releasing him. Harvey takes their advice and gets a job, which happens to be for Woolsey, filling out a Mant costume with instructions to operate all of Woolsey’s gimmicks and lurch out to frighten the audience at intervals. Woolsey’s stunts include “Rumble-Rama”, which shakes the theatre, and his now process, “Atom-O-Vision,” for the grand finale.

Mant!, glimpsed in random passages during the screening itself, is a lovely if broad lampoon of ‘50s monster movies, styled much like the send-ups in Amazon Women of the Moon and, with O’Donnell-as-Ruth playing Carole, the wife of an unfortunate man named Bill (Mark McCracken), who’s transforming into a giant ant after being bitten by an ant whilst getting a dental x-ray, and becomes increasingly unhinged. Dante casts classic movie faces William Schallert as the dentist, The Thing From Another World’s (1951) Robert Cornthwaite as the compulsory grimly prognosticating scientist, and Kevin McCarthy as an army general trying to battle the gigantic, mutated Bill, and inserts stock footage borrow from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1951). In recreating the classic style Dante does a good job nailing down the look and sound of such movies, particularly the lighting, usually a touch directors get badly wrong, although the prosthetics for “Mant” and the later giant ant puppet are far too good to be from a real movie of the period. Dante makes sport of the sexism littering many such movies, building to the relished moment when Mant gooses his wife with his slimy claw (a queue for the watching audience to be shocked) as well as breathless sexual melodrama (Schallert’s lecherous dentist drive Bill to a murderous rampage by trying to seduce his wife whilst he’s encaged), whilst Cornthwaite’s scientist insists on repeating everything he says in a dumbed-down fashion: “He’ll continue to metamorphose – or change!”

The Mant! premiere kicks the film’s gentle, ambling tenor to a higher gear as the characters intersect and Woolsey’s machinery collapses the boundaries between life and apocalyptic fantasy, and provides one of Dante’s greatest set-pieces of orchestrated madness. Gene does good pal service when he helps Sherry and Stan make up by spinning a story that carefully omits Harvey’s menacing, suggesting Gene has nascent talents for good fiction. Harvey, catching sight of Stan kissing Sherry in the audience whilst he’s supposed to be menacing the crowd, socks Stan and chases him and Sherry around the theatre. The Rumble-Rama makes Howard think the bombs are falling, so he dashes to the basement to set his shelter to close, only for mix-ups to result in Gene and Sandra being locked inside it. Woolsey, with his can-do attitude and general cynicism (“I’m in the wrong business,” he sighs when Howard tells him the shelter was sold to him as completely impregnable), works to get the shelter door off before the two kids suffocate, only to find when he does dislodge it that the pair inside are kissing. Meanwhile a theatre chain owner Woolsey’s trying to land a deal with, Spector (Jesse White), is utterly delighted, taking the violence for ingenious choreography and part of the overall show. The theatre’s upstairs balcony becomes dangerously overloaded with rowdy kids having the time of their lives, and with the added Rumble-Rama the balcony threatens to collapse, with Dennis on it.

As in The ’Burbs, the chaos unleashed is a by-product of rowdy human energy, the desperate need for thrills and voyaging, and the urge to expiate darker urges, even when articulated via schlock. Only the steady hand of a clever film director can impose some form of order on such bedlam, as Woolsey confirms when he deliberately uses Atom-O-Vision, which deploys a mixture of lighting and 3D colour footage to make it seem as if an atomic bomb has blown out the back of the movie theatre, to frighten the audience into evacuating the theatre and empty out the collapsing balcony. Except Dennis doesn’t escape, requiring Gene to risk life and limb grabbing Dennis off the balcony before it sways and crashes down on the empty theatre floor. Meanwhile Stan tries to intervene as Harvey tries to kidnap Sherry at knifepoint, getting knocked out for his pains, but Harvey’s flight quickly comes to a halt as he crashes his car and is apprehended. All ends happily, with the blockade ending, Woolsey proposing marriage to Ruth as the drive off and assuring the kids that adults are just as clueless as they are, and Gene and Sandra going down to the now soldier-free beach to watch the Navy chopper bringing his dad home arrive. An ending that obeys Woolsey, and Dante’s, dictum that a good movie should end with the lights coming up and a sigh of relief, and an instance of life, if never entirely for good, for once playing along.

Standard
1960s, 1970s, Auteurs, Comedy, Western

The Producers (1968) / Blazing Saddles (1974)

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Director: Mel Brooks
Screenwriters: Mel Brooks / Andrew Bergman, Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, Alan Uger

By Roderick Heath

Melvin Kaminsky, known to posterity as Mel Brooks, was the child of a classic Jewish-American immigrant experience. Born in Brooklyn in 1926 to a Polish father, who died when he was two years old, and a Ukrainian mother, Brooks’ childhood habitat was the tenements of Williamsburg. Brooks grew up slight and sickly, making him a target for other, more robust kids. Brooks learned to both disarm that rough world and channel his own aggressive streak into a zany persona and found he had a talent for reaping laughs, putting this skill to work when he gained his first job at a swimming pool, aged fourteen. By that time he had already, thanks to his uncle, gained his first encounter with the showbiz world through seeing a performance of Anything Goes, and vowed his future lay there. Brooks taught himself to play drums and changed his name to avoid confusion with trumpeter Max Kaminsky. After graduating high school Brooks had plans to study psychology cut short by service in World War II. After returning from the war Brooks went straight into the Borscht Belt music and comedy circuit, making the acquaintance of Sid Caesar, who hired him to write for TV. In 1950 Brooks was flung into the company of talents like Neil Simon and Carl Reiner when Caesar hired them to write the variety-and-comedy show Your Show of Shows, which proved a smash hit, and the same team worked together on various programs for most of the ‘50s.

Meanwhile the largely improvised comedy bit Brooks and Reiner started performing for friends, involving a 2,000 year-old-man who had witnessed the crucifixion, became a cause celebre in comedy circles. This became a ticket for the duo to become known as performers as well as writers, appearing on talk shows and hit comedy albums. Brooks’ first foray in filmmaking was the 1963 short animated film The Critic, conceived by Brooks but directed by Ernest Pintoff, with Brooks providing the wheezy voice of a confused old man trying to understand a pretentious foreign art film. The Critic won an Oscar, and a couple of years later Brooks linked up with comedy writer and performer Buck Henry to create a send-up of the wildly popular James Bond films, in the form of the TV series Get Smart. Get Smart proved so successful it handed Brooks the chance to make a movie. For some time Brooks had been kicking around the absurd notion of a Broadway musical about Adolf Hitler, a concept that morphed eventually into The Producers, the tale of a dishonest theatrical impresario and his accountant confederate who concoct a scheme to make a fortune by overselling investor shares in a sure-fire flop. Although it gained Gene Wilder a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in his first major film role and Brooks himself actually won for Best Original Screenplay, The Producers met a largely sour critical reception upon release in 1968, bordering on odium, and proved a box office disappointment, although it did soon begin to accrue a cult following.

Brooks’ follow-up The Twelve Chairs (1970), a more classical kind of comedy based on a respectable novel, did no better. Brooks assumed his directing career was over by this point, but his luck turned when he connected with writer Andrew Bergman, who was peddling a movie outline he called Tex-X, intended as an anachronistic hipster burlesque on Western movie clichés and sporting a Black hero. Brooks bought the property and assembled a team including several writers he’d known on Your Show of Shows, as well as Bergman and rising, ultra-hip stand-up comic Richard Pryor, to brainstorm ideas, a writing process Brooks later described as “a drunken fistfight.” Brooks made a deal to be the film’s director, and finally he delivered a colossal, zeitgeist-tapping comedy hit that made him not just a successful filmmaker but a comedy brand, one he took advantage of to make himself a movie star too. Brooks reunited with Wilder on Blazing Saddles through a series of unfortunate events, and again for the immediate follow-up Young Frankenstein (1974), a film that did for Horror movies what its precursors did for smarmy Broadway shows and Horse Operas. Decades later Brooks adapted The Producers into a very successful stage musical and then a film version of it, of which I will never speak again.

It’s bordering on tedious cliché to say that it’s hard to imagine films like The Producers and Blazing Saddles being made today. Outrageous, boundary-pushing humour is still plentiful but not the specific, confrontational prescription that fuelled Brooks’ best work in daring to press sore spots in the collective mindset, through his preoccupation with cultural tension that manifests as tonal dissonance. Or, to put that in a less high-falutin’ way, it’s real funny when Hitler sings and acts like a hippie and a cowboy talks jive and an Indian chief speaks the Yiddish. The first and most obvious level of dissonance in Brooks’ persona was the side of him that adored movies, literature, and theatre, revelled in their larger-than-life grandeur and stylised power, and the side of him driven to puncture all that, to point out the conflict with a gritty, grimy, streetwise sensibility with the practised disrespect of the professional smart-ass, the medieval court jester reinvented for a new age. Mediating the two facets was his archivist streak, as if some wing of his brain was devoted to precisely catalogued clichés, images, lines, tropes. The second level of dissonance was cultural, as a very Jewish comedian with an experience of being close to the bottom of a new society who, after years of suppressing that facet of his humour to get along with the American mainstream, suddenly found the zeitgeist swinging around to appreciating its specific lilt, its sarcasm towards power structures embedded not just in politics but in narratives and language. And a third layer of dissonance was one of personal character, Brooks channelling his angry, poke-the-beast sensibility into the defusing art of making with the funny.

In that regard Brooks was following in the footsteps of the Marx Brothers, but where they made comedy from testing forms until they broke down in anarchy, Brooks was more methodical, honouring his love of story and character, which could supply their own, coexisting forms of humour, along with slapstick and non-sequitir. Part of the genius of Get Smart as a series had been Brooks’ creation of a hero who was an idiot, in contrast to both the Bondian fantasy of the poised, cool hero, and the usual desire of comedy players to seem quick-witted and knowing: Maxwell Smart was a common man to the Nth degree, swanning cluelessly through dangerous and complex situations he only vaguely understands. Most of Brooks’ rivals and emulators in the zany-and-irreverent comedy stakes lacked his capacity to simultaneously sustain a coherent story and characterisation and work them for more than one style of comedy, although some, like the ZAZ team who would make Airplane! (1980) and Top Secret! (1984), had something of that ability. The scattered children of the Brooksian sensibility, like the beloved triptych of animated TV series, The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy, deal with a similar balance of character comedy, social survey, referential and parodic humour, and surreal genre breaks, if all in different proportions.

Rifling through The Producers and Blazing Saddles, a connective thread emerges, distinct from their obviously shared roots in Brooks’ cracked sense of humour, and looking beyond their signifcant differences. Both films display Brooks’ compulsive fascination with the art he loves, his urge to disassemble it and reconstruct it in a new shape according to other random inputs, laden with ironic disparities that can strike others as perverse, vulgar, and wrong, and also very funny. The Producers explores how the sausage is made, often by people who barely have any idea what they’re doing; Blazing Saddles chews it and reports on the taste. For The Producers, Brooks wanted to depict a pair of losers who try to make themselves the masters of their fate, but find themselves no wiser than Smart. Or…no smarter than Wise? Anyway, Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) is introduced in the early scenes in what is for him the most degraded position possible, albeit one that suits his sick talents: the former master of Broadway producing is now so pathetic and broke he plays gigolo to a stream of ancient women of means who stream in and out of his office “to grab a last thrill on the way to the cemetery.” Mostel, a comedian and character actor who had suffered through a long period of blacklisting but managed in that time to define the lead roles of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and Fiddler On The Roof on stage, was just re-emerging as a movie actor. There’s some irony in the way Brooks cast him to give a roaring, barnstorming beauty of a comic performance that’s pure stage farce hamola, sometimes threatening to topple the pasteboard sets with the force of his outsized energy and charisma. Small wonder Brooks only felt the need to credit him as “Zero” in the closing cast call.

Brooks’ comic sensibility immediately flies a warped flag, revelling in the new openness in American cinema to tackling what would have been utterly verboten five years earlier, most immediately and saliently in making clear Bialystock has sex with little old ladies for money. Having already seen off one sugar momma, Bialystock invites in another, known as “Hold Me! Touch Me!” (the amazing, mischievous Estelle Winwood) for her entreaties, and cycles through role-play scenarios fit for old kinescope porn reels like “The Innocent Little Milk Maid and the Naughty Stable Boy” and “The Contessa and the Chauffeur.” Part of the joke here, a joke that’s wintry in its inferences even as the film seems bouncy and friendly, is that Bialystock is utterly trapped by a greedy world he himself exemplifies, and has experienced the ultimate role-reversal from the usual image of the showbiz maestro preying on eager, young, suppliant females. Enter Leo Bloom (Wilder), an equally pathetic but quite different man, young but repressed, timid, and easily terrified, sent by Bialystock’s financial managers to review his books. Bloom evokes a different cultural wing to Bialystock, his name nodding to James Joyce’s hero and his personality like a Kafka antihero, equally entrapped by an infantilising process enabled rather than dispelled by his dedication to the dry, drearily realistic precepts of bookkeeping.

Bloom interrupts Bialystock in the middle of his session with “Hold Me, Touch Me” and Bialystock, realising he can’t go through with another encounter, hurriedly bustles her out before sternly confronting the cowering Bloom. Bloom’s neurotic angst is soon revealed, barely placated, in a touch pinched from Peanuts’ Linus, by a scrap of security blanket he carries, and worries that Bialystock, in his blustering “rhetorical conversation,” is going to eventually pound him to death by jumping on him like Nero on Poppaea. Eventually the two men find something like sufficient equilibrium to let Bloom get to work, only for him to find Bialystock oversold his last bomb, pocketing $2000 for his own use. Bialystock pleads for Bloom to hide the discrepancy with eloquent pleas, before ending with a simple, loudly screamed, “HELP!” Bloom agrees and then chuckles at the observation that, given no-one cares about the finances of bombed plays, it would be easy to repeat Bialystock’s trick on a fortune-making scale provided it was certain the project they solicited investment for would fail. Bialystock, realising this suggestion’s potential, works seductively on Bloom as they wander around Manhattan, until Bloom suddenly catches the wind of self-fulfilment: “I want everything I ever saw in the movies!” he screams joyfully, dancing around the spuming fountain outside the Lincoln Center to Bialystock’s gleeful approval, half-Mephistophelian, half-schoolboy.

It’s not being that unkind to Brooks to say that for all his greatness at thinking up funny stuff to put in front of his camera, as an actual filmmaker he was by and large only competent, with straightforward blocking and staging that sometimes foils his script and actor’s comic energy as much as liberating: the second coming of Frank Tashlin or Leo McCarey he wasn’t. But comedy filmmaking usually benefits from a relatively stand-offish approach directorially speaking, and something of The Producers’ unique charm stems from his bluntness in capturing the theatrical energy of his performers and their looming physicality, wielding Mostel’s big, bulbous physiognomy as a Mount Rushmore of seediness. The opening scenes, intercut with the credits, have a frenetic quality that puts across the almost blind dedication of Bialystock to his sustaining act, and the mounting hysteria of his encounter with Bloom is marvellously sustained, culminating in Bloom striding around the fountain, filmed with a tracking shot tracing an arc with him that transforms him briefly into exactly the kind of movie hero he wants to be. The environs of Bialystock’s offices – he soon swaps out his grubby digs for rooms that fulfil his credo of “That’s it baby, when you’ve got it, flaunt it, flaunt it!” are comic arenas where shamelessness is appropriately over-lit to better pick up flopsweat on the hairline, and the threadbare pathos of failure and the chintzy trappings of success are barely discernible. Brooks pulls off some artful camera touches nonetheless as when he shoots Biaylstock in all his looming, fat-faced ridiculousness in close-up whilst entertaining “Hold Me, Touch Me” who sits diminished behind, and a zoom shot of Bloom skipping around the fountain whilst Bialystock revels, the erupting water evoking the orgasmic pleasure of their choice to go bad and get rich. And Brooks lands one, great joke dependent on intelligent directorial staging, even as it merely involves a static shot and use of sound: Bialystock knocks on the door of one of his ladyfriends and hears her frail voice through the speaker, “Just a minute!” and then the sound of dozens of locks being  undone, Bialystock wilting during the process.

Part of the cunning Brooks invested in The Producers lies in its slight exaggeration of believable elements, caricaturing people Brooks had doubtless encountered over the years in show business and embarking them on the kind of scheme that’s commonplace in that business’s wheeling and dealing – for instance, it was rumoured that Marty (1955) was financed as a tax write-off only to prove a hit, a twist of luck that’s only cream so long as the investment wasn’t oversold – pushed only to the fringe of the absurd as Bialystock and Bloom sell the play to 20,000%, thanks to Bialystock hurling himself with new enthusiasm into his circle of brittle old “investors.” The first stage in in their scheme requires however finding a property to stage that’s so soul-grindingly rank it’s guaranteed to flop. After a gruelling session reading through piles of plays, Bloom is ready to throw in the towel, only for Bialystock laugh giddily and proffer one like a tablet of the Ten Commandments as the essential bomb in the making, a “guaranteed-to-close-in-one-night beauty” entitled Springtime For Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgaden. Heading out to track down the author, Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), they find him atop his apartment building where he keeps pigeons, clad in ratty long underwear and perpetually sporting his army helmet. Liebkind proves to be a Nazi fanatic determined to present to the world the idealised version of Hitler he has long cherished. After first assuming Bialystock and Bloom are immigration men and launching into a mangled version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” upon finding what they’re after he launches into depraved rants insulting Winston Churchill and talking up Hitler’s talents (“Not many people knew it but ze Führer was a terrific dancer!”) whilst talking to his birds like surrogate children.

Mars’ performance nearly thieves the film from Mostel and Wilder’s pockets, playing a character who is at once contemptible, irascible, and violent, but also wields a vein of pathos, an exposed nerve of perversity. He’s a degraded hold-out of a defeated cause who’s become just another New York weirdo, violently alternating between weepy paeans to the lost idyll that was Hitler’s Germany as it subsists in his war-fried brain and ranting displays of fascist imperative lurking behind his desire. But he’s also like so many other wannabes hovering at the outer fringes of show business, desperate to be hailed for his labours and have his strangeness reclassified as genius: he’s like a fictional, slightly more coherent prediction of Tommy Wiseau. Liebkind launches into a mangled version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” when he thinks the producers are immigration agents, swiftly pivoting to “Deutschland Uber Alles” when he thinks he’s about to pull off the great rehabilitation. “You are ze audience,” he informs one offended woman at the show’s premiere, “I am the author – I outrank you!” Later, when he tries to halt the performance and recount his own memory of Hitler, one of the cast hits him on the head from behind the curtain: Liebkind keeps on speaking without seeming to feel the blow until he suddenly cries, “Ow!” and collapses. Brooks liked this gag so much he repeats it verbatim in Blazing Saddles. With Liebkind, as elsewhere, Brooks encompasses a squalid world full of losers who reflect and mock showbiz pretension, locating cheerful absurdity in it all: even the lunatic Nazi is a creature of need. Bialystock resides in his office, yellowed and peeling posters for ancient hits on the wall, filth on the window, Bialystock’s hair draped like sun-dried seaweed to his scalp: Bialystock tosses the contents of a bad cup of coffee against a window pane and rubs away grime with his scarf. The gate to Liebkind’s building is kept by a woman (Madlyn Cates) who insistently calls herself the concierge, and retorts to Bloom’s courtly “Thank you, Madam,” with “I’m not a Madame, I’m a concierge!” Bialystock and Bloom are willing to pervert themselves to the degree of putting on Liebkind’s Swastika armbands to seal the deal, although they quickly deposit these in the garbage on the street and add their loogies for good measure.

The moment he smells a return of fortune Bialystock rewards himself with “a toy,” that is, hiring a Swedish go-go dancer and stripper named Ulla (Lee Meredith) who can barely speak English as his secretary and quickly schooling her in such refined arts as preparing his cigar. The Producers gets away with this in large part whilst still retaining sympathy for the two antiheroes because it ultimately presents Bialystock and Bloom as a pair of children inhabiting adult bodies, utterly bewildered and at the mercy of the grown-up hungers those bodies experience and the world they travel through, ready to abandon all law and principle if it means grabbing a hunk of all the things that tantalise without mercy. Again, the state of the common man in Brooks’ view. Brooks peppers their journey with other assorted unwitting stooges for the bomb-in-the-making with more enthusiasm than talent, including the director Bialystock hires, the ultra-camp Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett), and his fey assistant Carmen Ghia (Andreas Voutsinas), and the brain-faded hippie musician Lorenzo St. Dubois (Dick Shawn), or LSD for short, who lands the pivotal role of Hitler in the play. Comic stereotypes all, of course, but slotted in to provide a social survey of weirdos defined chiefly by being a slightly different taxonomy of weirdo to the main characters. Bialystock and Bloom visit to DeBris’s house (“He’s the only director whose plays close on the first day of rehearsal.”) to hire him sees them forced to squeeze into a lift with Carmen, and find DeBris squeezing himself into a ball gown for an industry ball (“I’m supposed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, but I think I look like Tugboat Annie.”) and hitting on Bloom. Carmen responds to DeBris’ inspired vision of female Stormtroopers in S&M gear inserted into the play with an ecstatic “Love it!” The irony here is that DeBris and Carmen, playing up the whole concept of theatre camp to a far horizon, also offset the heavy overtones of sublimated love between Bialystock and Bloom themselves.

LSD, for his part, only auditions accidentally after Bialystock, Bloom, and DeBris suffer through hours of auditioning performers all trying to establish their Germanic credentials (my favourite: the one who insists on finishing his song and then blows DeBris a raspberry). LSD stumbles in looking for another show but is talked into giving a performance with his all-girl band, and gives an unhinged performance of a song he wrote called “Love Power.” Sample lyric: “And I give a flower to the big fat cop – he takes his club and he beat me up!” The actual premiere of Springtime For Hitler sees the audience utterly horrified by the spectacle DeBris offers in his opening production number, with a crisply uniformed SS man warbling the paean to Nazi ambition and restored German national glory (“We’re all marching to a faster pace! Look out, here come the Master Race!”) whilst scantily clad girls in pervy versions of folk dress swan about. Then out comes a kick-line in Gestapo duds, forming themselves into a Swastika for a climactic parody of Busby Berkeley-style choreography. This is made all the more merciless by the fact the “Springtime For Hitler” title number is infinitely more memorable and insidiously catchy than any number of proper show tunes. It’s a good candidate for the single funniest scene in cinema, but it’s not an innocent kind of laughter, rather the kind that relies on the audience being provoked by the profound dissonance of subject and form, and then by the dissolution of dissonance by the time one finishes the movie and starts humming “Springtime For Hitler.”

The Producers ruffled feathers upon release for its blithe approach to making fun of the most serious subject imaginable, Hitler, and its many other fillips of sick humour. “Well, talk about bad taste!” one of the eventual audience members of Springtime For Hitler exclaims, neatly summarising exactly what Brooks set out to extol, revelling in being freed from the shackles of TV. But the quality that The Producers shares with Blazing Saddles is the sense of purpose underlying the freewheeling lunacy. The Producers executes a specific kind of revenge fantasy on the very concept of Hitlerian power, a step further than even Charlie Chaplin dared and the kind that perhaps only a Jewish comedian could come up with, reducing the psychopathic god to a peevish vaudeville character and his rhetoric to the stuff of cornball musical theatre. Bialystock and Bloom become Brooks’ proxies in this ironic mirror, seeming to conspire with the shades of the evil regime only to deliver it the most humiliating kick, whilst their eager delight in watching the show unfold and seeing the appalled reactions of their audience becomes a peculiarly cunning comic artist’s self-portrait, the professional’s hunger for validation melded with the provocateur’s delight in burning the house down. At the same time Brooks easily swats other targets, particularly to the tropes of the musical that the form has, indeed, never really recovered from, seeing the fascist will nascent in the urge to carefully orchestrate and subordinate dancers to geometry and rhythm, the reduction of murderers’ uniforms to a form of sexual fetish, and the edge of maniacal charisma contained within the nominally pacific style of the Counterculture’s music.

Bialystock and Bloom initially think their plan has worked brilliantly, only for the start of the actual play to hold the audience in their seats as, through casting LSD and with DeBris’ gaudy, tacky musical insertions and comic interventions, Springtime For Hitler has been turned from fascist paean to a broad farce and satire, perfectly attuned to an era where camp had become an aesthetic value. Of course Bialystock’s instincts, utter out of compass for years, will conspire to create success where he wants failure. Meanwhile Liebkind watches in sobbing despair in beholding what’s happened to his play, and tries to stop the show, only to be knocked out and taken for just another gag. This twist eventually drives the producers to make compact with Liebkind, after the Nazi in his rage tries to shoot them, to blow up the theatre and prevent more performances, only for Liebkind to get muddled during planting explosives, the blast injuring the three men and ensuring they’re caught. In court, where the three injured men are tried together (Liebkind swathed like a mummy but still with helmet on) Bloom makes a heartfelt plea on Bialystock’s behalf, but it’s not enough to prevent their journey to the hoosegow, whereupon they immediately repeat their plot by staging a musical called Prisoners of Love and accepting investments from the prison staff: Bialystock and Bloom are again in their element.

The gorgonizing mirror that is show business itself is the ultimate target of The Producers, existing in constant, tormenting relationship with the nursed fantasies, cherished ambitions, and deepest perversities not just of the audience but its makers. A zone defined by gravity-defying magic where one can not only make great piles of cash but also encounter the most beautiful and talented people and suborn them to your will in manners beautiful and awful, but which remains eternally unpredictable, a careening beast where what should be good becomes bad and vice versa depending on a thousand chance elements. Lessons Brooks himself was well-versed in, and after Blazing Saddles delivered a hit for him. There was some luck in this and also a pay-off for cultural seeding Brooks and others like him, including MAD Magazine, the Harvard National Lampoon in print and a generation of madcap improv theatre and stand-up comics like Lenny Bruce, that finally saw him hitting the zeitgeist bull’s eye. Blazing Saddles was specifically a madcap parody, most of Brooks’ subsequent films adopted that approach, aping classical genre plots to hang gags and sketches off. The best of them still kept some thesis in mind: Young Frankenstein, for instance, defuses the very idea of monstrosity and plays intricate games with notions of legacy and identity. For its part, Blazing Saddles undercuts the fantasies contained in many Westerns and deals directly with the basic national racial schism usually, strenuously avoided in the classic Western genre, ironically coinciding with the popularity of Blaxploitation film which performed many a remix on stale genres. Brooks inherited this idea from Bergman and it doubtlessly was amped up by Pryor, standing at odds with Brooks’ usual sensibility to a degree.

The style of much humour in Blazing Saddles – which today we might describe as “very politically incorrect” or “not woke”, and which was despite current rhetoric pretty much as controversial in its time as now – serves an ironic purpose, highlighting things usually excised from more polite exercises, revealing gaping vistas of experience in the classic Hollywood movie where people couldn’t fart or fuck and basic social truths were usually carefully mediated if mentioned at all. This principle is apparent in so much of the movie, ranging from the infamous, show-stopping campfire scene sporting a bunch of cowboys chomping down baked beans and making flatulent music, to villainous henchman Taggart (Slim Pickens) giddily describing how he and his men like “rape the shit” out of any women they capture whilst marauding. Blazing Saddles makes brutal sport undoubtedly for the sheer hell of it, but the little winces of pain as well as hilarity such lines provoke are a proof of life, blowing the lid off some secret aspect of life usually elided in the formalities of a classic movie. The opening scene sees a gang of white railway construction overseers try to get the mostly black and Chinese labourers to sing a work song for their entertainment, deftly makes multiple kinds of sociological sport, as workers, led by the smooth, poised, insolent Bart (Cleavon Little), sing jazz standards to the bewildered bosses, who respond by acting out the way they expect the Blacks to act, making tits of themselves in the process.

Blazing Saddles was taking on the squarest of square movie styles at a time when John Wayne was still hauling his pendulous carcass into the saddle, but the genre which had been Hollywood’s essential cash cow for decades was on a steep decline: Blazing Saddles completed the job of breaking it so effectively it was difficult to make more Westerns without a comparison falling from some wiseacre’s lips. The opening titles sport a theme song sung by country singer Frankie Laine that’s played completely straight in lyrics and music in mimicking the traditionally stirring genre theme tune, save for the hint of sarcasm in the overwrought title itself. The plot, involving a scheme to seize land and make a fortune from a railway being constructed over it, could come right out of any number of straitlaced horse operas. But the décor Brooks and his writers hang on that frame is seditious. Bart and another labourer Charlie (Charles McGregor) are dispatched by Taggart, the chief foreman, on the railway handcart to see if the track ahead is sinking in quicksand, and sink into the muck they do: when Taggart and his men arrive he diligently uses his lasso to pull the handcart from the quicksand and leaves the two disposable workers to die. It’s funny, as they say, because it’s true. Bart and manage to squirm their way out, and Bart grabs up a shovel and crowns Taggart with it, landing himself a ticket to the gallows in the territory capital.

Meanwhile, the railway’s course is set to be diverted across the solid land belonging to the burgeoning town of Rock Ridge. Taggart and his men are in cahoots with the Territorial Attorney General, Assistant To The Governor, and State Procurer Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), who sees a way to make a fortune by obtaining the land, and sends the henchman to terrorize Rock Ridge’s citizens into fleeing so Lamarr can take it over. When this fails and the townsfolk demand a sheriff to protect them, Lamarr looks for a way to fatally demoralise the town, and hits upon the idea of pardoning Bart and convincing the territorial governor Le Petomane (Brooks), Lamarr’s partner in the land grab, to appoint him to the sheriff’s job. Bart is greeted in the town with expected racist bewilderment and disdain, but he makes friends with a drunk in his jail who calls himself Jim but proves to be the legendary gunslinger known as the Waco Kid (Wilder), and gains some respect when he outwits and captures a hulking goon, Mongo (Alex Karras), sent by Taggart. Lamarr next tries to destroy Bart by less direct means, engaging the travelling chanteuse Lily Von Shtupp (Madeleine Kahn) to seduce and humiliate him, only for Bart to prove so well-armed trouserwards that Lilly instead becomes his slavish devotee. At last Lamarr hires a small army to reduce the town to ashes, so the townsfolk, at Bart’s direction, build a Potemkin Village-like replica of the town to serve as a trap for the villains.

That Blazing Saddles has that coherent a storyline for most of its length is remarkable considering how casual it is in subverting it at any opportunity. Brooks employs manifold flourishes of meta humour, like a little old lady being beaten up by thugs suddenly looking at the camera and decrying her treatment, or Bart blowing up Mongo with a dynamite-laced candygram and then noting the hardest part of this trick was inventing the candygram. Mongo himself recreates a familiar trope in many a classic adventure movie of a husky but almost childlike henchman who swans into Rock Ridge and punches out a horse before being beaten by Bart. He becomes loyal to Bart, the first man never to whip him, to the point Waco teases him for being in love with Bart, to which Mongo irritably retorts, shoving them both aside, “No, Mongo straight!”, and later muses, “Mongo only pawn in game of life.” Brooks similarly undercuts Lamarr’s pretences to being the adult in the territory as he desperately seeks his rubber frog during bath time, as Taggart scrubs his back. Brooks makes swerves into other genres, like the hangman for the territory (Robert Ridgely) being modelled on Boris Karloff’s performance in Tower of London (1939). Blazing Saddles constantly announces itself in friendly quarrel with the ghost of Hollywood respectability. Lamarr anticipates, during his rousing villain’s speech to his men, getting an “almost certain Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.” Bart forces the townspeople of Red Rock to wait for him by invoking the holy name of Randolph Scott. Lamarr’s name evokes the iconography of classic Hollywood star power through Hedy Lamarr whilst destabilising Lamarr’s supposed authority with a girly name.

Brooks poking fun at the product of Hollywood’s golden age had loaded meaning when Blazing Saddles was released: whilst far less consequential than mocking Hitler, Brooks was still rubbing salt into an open cultural wound. As well as mapping out all the sociological ructions, sharp veers in what was permissible on screen, and changing perspectives on history and communal meaning sparked during the 1960s, Brooks also, casually informed the industry that the genre that had once been its mainstay was dead, even if, like a dinosaur with a slow nervous system, it kept moseying on a few more years before keeling over. The old stars, the old studio bosses, the old directors were dying or retiring. John Ford might have been grateful he died a year before Blazing Saddles came out, although Wayne, whilst turning the Waco Kid part down, told Brooks he’d be first in line to see the movie. At a time when a small industry whining about dirty words and sex scenes in movies was sprouting in reaction to the new Hollywood product, the old kind was rapidly becoming mythologised as grand imperial age. Brooks dramatized the disparity, setting eras in pop culture in quarrel and enjoying the mess.

That mess includes barbed commentary on the period racism and carnage usually gleaned over in movies: “Here we take the good time and trouble to slaughter every last Indian in the West and for what? So they can appoint a sheriff that’s blacker than any Indian!” Taggart moans after finding Bart is now sheriff. The studio wanted Brooks to remove the many uses of the slurs in the script, but Little and Pryor back Brooks, largely I think because they felt it had a purgative value. Blazing Saddles cleverly tells a modern story of post-Civil Rights-era in satirical period garb: moments like Bart struck dumb as a nice little old lady spits “Up yours, nigger!” at him have more truth in them than Stanley Kramer’s entire filmography. The film offers a clever, witty, debonair, intelligent Black hero in Bart, slick and dressed like Roy Rogers and embodying the perfect Western hero just as much. Bart finds a way to operate despite being faced with deep contempt from all sides save the equable Waco, who is himself struggling a la Dean Martin in Rio Bravo (1959), out of a pit of alcoholic degradation, showing off his shuddering shooting hand at first but soon enough getting his mojo back. Bart’s arrival in Rock Ridge sees him threatened and insulted, only for him to extricate himself by taking himself hostage, toggling between the persona of a gruff gunman and a cowering comic relief Black, before retreating into the jailhouse and congratulating himself: “Oh, baby, you are so talented!” The townsfolk themselves all have the same surname of Johnson, a touch that nods to familiar movie cliché where the name Johnson was often applied as a kind of everyman badge, and also witty as a racist inversion, the white people all rendered bland and lumpen in identity.

One of film’s funniest and certainly its warmest moment, perhaps the one that almost most directly achieves that purgative effect, comes after the aforementioned insult from the old lady as Waco consoles the depressed Bart with a gentle speech about keeping in mind what simple, ordinary people he’s dealing with, “these are people of the land, the common clay of the new West…You know…Morons.” At which point Bart grins in delight. Like Bialystock and Bloom, Bart and Waco are misfits who find solace in each-other’s company and maintain a conspiratorial attitude against the world, only in this case with an aim to saving it rather than exploit it. The chemistry evinced here between Little and Wilder is all the more vital given Wilder was only pressed into his role when Brooks’ first choice, Gig Young, had to be replaced as his actual alcoholism was catching up with him. Waco was supposed to a leathery, haggard old-timer, tailor-made for a worn-in familiar face, but bringing in Wilder, who since The Producers had become a star in his own right, helped reinforce the film’s hip quality. Little himself was making his feature film debut, having previously only been a stage actor: Brooks had originally intended for Pryor to have the role, but Pryor was still considered too wild and risky a talent. Little is ideal in the part, however, and even given the smaller window for Black headliners in ‘70s Hollywood it’s bewildering that Little didn’t become a huge star, or at the very least get more roles than some TV guest spots.

Meanwhile Brooks casts himself as Le Petomane (his character name a deep cut of reference, to a nineteenth century French performer whose name literally meant “The Fart Maniac,” a clear sign Brooks knows well how the tradition he works within is) and as an Indian chief remembered by Bart in a flashback, who spared the lives of his family who were trailing a wagon train whilst his warriors massacred the rest. As the Governor, Brooks nailed down a characterisation he’d take up again in A History of the World, Part I (1981) as King Louis of France and which also links back to Bialystock, as a distractible satyr with the moral and mental poise of a ten-year-old, delighting in the capacious bosom of his secretary and easily manipulated by the splendidly slimy Lamarr, who is in turn constantly frustrated to the point of rage in being a clever guy surrounded by frontier nitwits. The film is nonetheless just about entirely stolen by Kahn’s pitch-perfect lampoon of Marlene Dietrich as Von Shtupp, perfectly mimicking the great old star’s languid lilt and performing a song entitled “I’m Tired,” a riff on Dietrich’s persona as the been-there-done-him scarlet woman, nodding most immediately to her roles in Destry Rides Again (1939) and The Blue Angel (1931). Her performance of “I’m Tired” (sample lyric: “I’m had my fill of love, from below and above.”) repeats some of the shtick of “Springtime For Hitler” as she’s joined on stage by some dancers in Teutonic army uniform, and indeed it’s an early example of how Brooks would keep trying to better his classic of crass and fail.

Lily’s downfall proves to be Bart’s prodigious manhood, setting out to test the myth of Black trouser snake size and bleating “It’s twue! It’s twue!” as the lights go out. This sort of thing also encompasses a more timely parody of the fast-emerging cliché of Blaxploitation films with their bullet-proof, long-schlonged lady-killer heroes. Dissolve to Lily serving Bart a gigantic sausage for breakfast: “Fifteen is my limit for schnitzelgruben.” Brooks had become a slicker filmmaker by this point, although a lot of scenes, particularly around the Governor’s offices, are played out in the most functional point-and-shoot fashion. Every now and then, though, he wields a genuinely clever sense of camera cause and effect. One moment pays direct tribute to the kinds of sprawling compositions in a MAD cartoon, his camera makes a lengthy dolly surveying the motley assembly singing up for Lamarr’s force, including Mexican bandits, bikers, German soldiers, Confederates, Arabs with camels, and Ku Klux Klan members. An earlier, famous shot is more subtle in its sleight of hand, when Bart first appears decked in cowboy gear, shiny star on his chest. Anachronistic jazzy music stars playing as if to aurally announce that this here is not your daddy’s cowboy, nosiree, this is a cool Black one. It’s the sort of cringe-inducing musical cue often delivered in to play on an audience’s ironic awareness whilst not quite violating the fourth wall: hell, something like The Harder They Fall (2021) does the same thing only with a different music style. Except that Brooks takes it a giant step further as Bart rides across a plain to find Count Basie and his full orchestra playing in the middle of nowhere, Bart swapping high-fives with the great bandleader. Layers of history and art collapse together in one perfect surrealist gesture.

This vignette illustrates how Brooks’ more high-minded mentality melds with unexpected ease and fruitfulness with his down-and-dirty impulses. The nods to Joyce and Kafka in The Producers are supplanted here by devices borrowed from Theatre of the Absurd figures like Luigi Pirandello, luxuriating in the way making a comedy offers a casual smokescreen to all accusations of pretension and dramatic lapse. This is taken to a logical extreme at the film’s end when the actors burst out of one movie and start invading others. Abandoning the coherent plot of The Producers and its essentially character-based humour was a risk for Brooks and indeed as he became known for his parodies his films began settling into loose-jointed skits: Blazing Saddles works in large part because it offers such a deluge of them. But the story of Bart and the Waco Kid and Lamarr’s partnership hangs together just enough to give the film a level of dramatic unity, and indeed making the film as a whole a particularly wry entry in the ‘70s buddy movie stakes. Brooks delivers a climax where Lamarr’s mercenary band attacks Rock Ridge. To delay them long enough to put finishing touches on their trap, Bart and the townsfolk set up a fake tollway in front of the approaching brigands. Having lured the bandits into the fake town but failed to properly set explosives to blow them all to hell, the heroes must fall back on Waco’s incredible aim to set it off.

This turn of plot feels surprisingly clever and substantial, balanced by the imagery of the villains wheeling about a fake town populated by bobble-headed cut-outs standing in for townsfolk and kicking over false fronts. This is again touched with odd genius, at once seeming like an only slightly too ridiculous scheme and touched once more with a meta aspect, making the flimsy nature of Hollywood sets into a part of the story: the suspension of disbelief the audience is usually expected to make confronted by false environs and bad special effects might as well extend to the characters in a movie too. The good guys charge in to finish the job and the two sides battle in the street, whereupon Brooks pulls out in a long zoom shot to reveal they’re now in the midst of a Hollywood backlot. Zoom in again on a sound stage, where a bunch of very camp dancers are filming a number called “The French Mistake” but stumbles in the choreography infuriate the director (Dom DeLuise) who tries to show they how it’s supposed to go only to screw it up himself. The brawling cowboy picture actors crash onto the set, the dancers join the melee after Taggart hits the director, a hulking he-man seems about to beat up some skinny hoofer only to sneak out on a date with him, and others make like Esther Williams in a pool.

This shattering of form and resulting explosion of joyous mayhem is very much the culmination of Brooks’ sensibility even as it announced it as far as the mass audience was concerned. The entire filmmaking machine breaks down, fakery and factory becoming inseperable. One waning genre, the Western, confronts another, the Musical, affected machismo and campiness colliding and battling but also finding their delightful new fruitions. The old Hollywood pantheon (in the form of cement hand and shoe prints out front of the Chinese Theater) confronted by their inheritors wearing the drag of fantasy-satire extrapolation. Lamarr pauses before dying to ponder bewilderedly at the size of Douglas Fairbanks’ footprints and then scratching his name and creed ($) into the ceement, whilst the heroes seek out a happy ending – “I love a happy ending!” Waco exclaims – in the movie theatre, having had enough of real life already. In a great little throwaway touch, Waco, reabsorbed back into the movie, still clutches the tub of popcorn he bought in the theatre. Waco and Bart ride off together, having saved the town, but soon dismount and climb into a chauffeured car to drive into the sunset. The true meaning of movies, Brooks notes: when they work everyone goes home happy, but some go home in a limo.

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2020s, Auteurs, Comedy

Licorice Pizza (2021)

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Director / Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson

By Roderick Heath

Paul Thomas Anderson Land is a familiar place by now, if only in its strangeness, and the opening moments of Licorice Pizza lead us there hand in hand. The familiar Andersonian motif of flowing, seemingly dreamily free and immersing but also subtly disconcerting, unmooring tracking shots is this time used to immediately introduce Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman). Alana works for a school photography outfit called Tiny Toes, which is busy taking class photos of the denizens of a Los Angeles high school, all of it set to Nina Simone’s “July Tree” with its sonic textures evoking lazy summer days in reedy fields whilst the camera scans spraying sprinklers, gleaming halls, and long legs. Alana encounters the brash, 15-year-old Gary, who charms her with the same breezy efficiency as Anderson’s camera locates them. Gary asks Alana out on a date, and when she asks what he’d use to pay for it with he not at all humbly brags that he has a lot of money because he’s a successful actor. Alana is of course highly sceptical of this, but soon finds that Gary is indeed telling the truth, having found success as a child star in a hit stage musical called Under One Roof and its film adaptation. Despite her jolly mockery of Gary’s ambitions, the pair plainly experience instant chemistry, and Gary has something that Alana, despite her greater years, lacks badly: a sense of confidence and effectiveness in the world, the kind of confidence that’s the natural provenance of Hollywood itself, a blend of showmanship, hustle, and an eye on the prize.

From a distance, Licorice Pizza looks a little like an artistic retreat from Paul Thomas Anderson. After the risky, influential excursions into semi-abstract character drama on There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012), and the queasily funny-sad retro outings of Inherent Vice (2014) and Phantom Thread (2017), films that all gained great critical admiration but most of which did weak box office, Licorice Pizza sees Anderson retreating to a warmly remembered version of the 1970s, the era he painted with such acid verve in Boogie Nights (1997), his second feature film and the one that made his name. It might even be said to round out a trilogy about the decade, taking place roughly half-way between the post-Manson dizziness and confusion of Inherent Vice and the disco-to-camcorder age Boogie Nights charted. But it might actually be closer in nature to Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002), as a study of human affection at strange extremes. Actually, all of Anderson’s films are fundamentally about that, about needy people urgently hunting for those who can sate their desires, be it a lover or something less obvious, a mentor, a pal, a parental figure, or indeed all rolled into one. Alana and Gary’s relationship seems to have potential to evolve into any of these things, as it sees them locked together in a centrifugal whirl that provides the only real gravity in the unfolding film, both symptomatic of the ridiculousness that surrounds them and yet ultimately hallowed amidst it.

Alana ticks off the many good reasons why Gary’s overtures are absurd, including their verboten age difference, even in the louche atmosphere of the era. But she finishes up being so sufficiently charmed and compelled by the teenager she does turn up at the time and place he proposed: Gary offers something, even if only a sliver, of something new and possible. The opening scene, as well as throwing us in the deep end when it comes to this pair, nods back to the early scenes of The Master where, in very similar fashion, Anderson presented being a workaday photographer as a weird nexus, the sort of job shambolic people take, but which involves freezing the images of the people they shoot into lacquered instances of false perfection. Alana soon finds Gary has quietly assimilated and mastered the affectations of a Hollywood player, with his favourite local restaurant popular with stars, as well as his PR agent mother Anita’s (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) talent for spin. In short, he’s scared of nothing, because he thinks he knows how things work. And for the most part he does. Even when it becomes plain his acting career’s at an end now that he’s had his growth spurt and lacks mature performing technique, he reinvents himself without much concern as an entrepreneur on the make. Alana, by contrast, has no idea what she wants or how to get it: she still lives at home with her parents and sisters, and comments to Gary with plaintive simplicity, “When you’re gonna be rich in a mansion by the time you’re sixteen. I’m gonna be here taking photos of kids for their yearbooks when I’m thirty. You’re never gonna remember me.” “I’m never gonna forget you,” Gary retorts with firm ardour.

Licorice Pizza is a certainly a nostalgic work, as preoccupied as Anderson’s pal and rival Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019) was in resurrecting the flavour of a specific bygone era in the climes of Los Angeles, a place defined then as now by an inherently surreal dialogue between the world of show business and its denizens and everyone else. Where Tarantino naturally looked for the combustible tension in that scene, Anderson looks for the absurd and the romantic. One could also add in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys (2016) into the mix, a film that followed a more familiar genre film template but emulated much the same brand of humour in sarcastically reflecting on growing up in a wilder time. Anderson, the son of an actor and voice artist who was well-known once upon a time for hosting a creature feature show and being the official announcer for ABC Television, is certainly an industry brat, and for all the effort he’s put into not simply being another chronicler of being a Tinseltown scenester, he’s remained preoccupied by the kinds of creatures the town attracts in droves: people dedicated to enriching themselves and to realising their personal desires and lifestyle aspirations and enthralling others. As young and still relatively naive as he may be, Gary shares nascent traits with such notable Anderson characters as The Master’s Lancaster Dodd, Boogie Nights’ Jack Horner, the gamblers of Hard Eight (1996), and There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview – he’s an impresario with peculiar talents for sustaining himself in perpetual motion with an eye always out for the next angle, an incarnation of American hustle. He’s absorbed a certain lexicon of urge and power that’s hilarious at his age but wouldn’t be so much if he were older, as when Alana encounters a waitress, Frisbee (Destry Allyn Spielberg) she knows who works in one of Gary’s favourite restaurants, and she comments that he’s always after a hand job: “I’ll pass the baton to you.”

Anderson mines the essential disparity between Gary and Alana, his premature worldliness and her floundering immaturity and uncertainty, for a unique amalgam of humour and pathos. The disparity locks them together in a folie-a-deux where neither can quite escape the other despite making gestures at pursuing less troublesome connections. When Gary learns his mother can’t accompany him to New York so he can make a TV appearance with the cast of the Under One Roof (based on Yours, Mine, and Ours, 1968, which featured Gary’s inspiration, Gary Goetzman, and Lance’s, Tim Matheson, amongst its cast) and borrowing its theme song) with its star Lucy Doolittle (Christine Ebersole), he manages to sell Alana as a substitute chaperone. As they jet across the country, Gary’s slightly older co-star Lance Brannigan (Skyler Gisondo) flirts heavily with Alana: soon they become a couple, but break up when Lance proclaims he’s an atheist to Alana’s family during a dinner with them. Gary becomes fascinated by a waterbed he spots through the window of a wig store and immediately sees a business he can get aboard on the ground floor: soon he has a thriving outlet of his own. When they’re unexpectedly reunited thanks in part to Gary being arrested in a case of mistaken identity, Alana throws in with Gary’s enterprise and proves a dab hand at publicity and over-the-phone sales. So good that Gary talks Alana in trying acting, arranging for her to have an interview with a top agent, Mary Grady (Harriet Sansom Harris). This leads to her being considered for a role in a movie playing a hippie girl alongside major star Jack Holden (Sean Penn). When this shot goes nowhere and the 1973 oil embargo puts the waterbed business on ice, Alana makes a play for a more substantial life, volunteering for the political campaign of Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), whilst Gary sees another golden opportunity when he overhears Wachs talking about pinball machines being legalised in California.

Large portions of Licorice Pizza are dedicated to portraying thinly veiled real show business figures in acerbic, anecdotal-feeling vignettes, with Doolittle as Lucille Ball stand-in, Jack Holden as a William Holden skit, and gravel-voiced, caution-impervious director Rex Blau (Tom Waits) a spin on Sam Peckinpah. The skin of fictionalising seems so flimsy as to be barely worth the bother, but it does emphasise that Anderson is not so much interested in them in a gossipy sense than in evoking the way they exemplify the time and place, and the temptations and traps before its two shambolic heroes. The film’s third quarter is transfixed by Anderson’s take on Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper), the former celebrity hairdresser turned movie producer who was dating Barbara Streisand at the time, who swings wildly between intimate charisma and combative, confrontational attitude. Anderson uses these portraits both as sources of fun in their own right, and to dig into the large gap between the image of show business success and stature and the perversity of having such figures at large in the same streets and places as everyone else. This point is underlined when Alana, initially stunned and smitten by the showbiz zones she drifts into, eventually realises in being wined and dined by Holden that whatever actual person was in there has long since been supplanted by a collection of old movie lines and well-honed chat-ups, as when he mentions that Alana “reminds me of Grace.” Gary falls afoul of Doolittle when playfully whacks her with a pillow during the song and dance number on the TV show and makes a very adolescent bawdy joke when being interviewed by the host: Doolittle unleashes her wrath backstage, slapping and threatening him, and she has to be dragged away by some stagehands, bawling that Gary is finished for humiliating her in front of her fans.

The theme of professional performances that become subsuming in lieu of an actual personality both contrasts the portrayal of Alana as someone urgently seeking a path in life and sarcastically echoes it. Alana feels the allure of Peter Pan-ish youth as she falls in with Gary and his cadre of teenage pals and younger brother Greg (Milo Herschlag), a gang of rambunctious, energetic, mutually reinforcing lads who follow Gary in implicit and total respect for his sense of enterprise. Alana encounters the same temptation being embraced in a more institutionalised fashion when flung into Holden’s proximity with his attempts to seduce a woman thirty years younger and prove he hasn’t lost his mojo by performing a motorcycle stunt for the entertainment of a few dozen onlookers. An even more bizarre, but also needling example of performance sustained by unknown rules and logic crops up in the form of Jerry Frick (John Michael Higgins), a restaurateur who opened LA’s first Japanese restaurant, The Mikado, and who is portrayed here as a client of Gary’s mother. In his first appearance Frick brings his Japanese wife Mioko (Yumi Mizui) to a consultation with Anita and speaks to her in English but with a fake Japanese accent like a middle schooler doing an impression, and she answers in Japanese which he seems to translate. Only in his second appearance, when Mioko has been mysteriously and summarily replaced by Kimiko (Megumi Anjo), does Frick admit he doesn’t actually speak Japanese. Later, in a more subtle and distressing moment of realisation, Alana becomes privy to understanding Wachs is a closeted gay man, whose public persona and ambitions depend absolutely on keeping this side of himself under wraps no matter the personally destructive results. Both these vignettes comment with differing tones and methods on some of the least attractive traits of the otherwise warmly-remembered past but completely avoid any form of hectoring.

Trouble is also sparked when people refuse to put on a convenient act or sustain the rules of an agreed-upon illusion, as when Gary decides to act up during the Under One Roof performance, and when Lance refuses to do a blessing for the Kane family’s sake during their dinner together. This refusal he couches in the most pleasant manner possible but still causes a fateful rupture with Alana, who gives him a bawling out outside the house – “What does your penis look like?…If you’re circumcised then you’re a fucking Jew!” – before heading back inside and laying down an equal bombardment on her family. Gary’s discovery of the waterbed is essayed as a libidinous fantasia as he lays upon the undulating mattress, the flirty sales assistant (Iyana Halley) hovering over him like a blessed angel from the land of commerce. Gary’s subsequent attempt to flog waterbeds at a “Teen-Age Fair” becomes another dreamy excursion through the regalia of another age (yet still tantalisingly familiar) in youth culture through another of Anderson’s majestic tracking shots. The Batmobile from the Adam West series and Herbie the Love Bug roll by and the fair is attended by Fred Gwynne in Herman Munster guise (played, in a mischievous blink-and-miss cameo, by John C. Reilly) making a personal appearance, as well as Cher but not Sonny. Alana proves to also be at the fair to sell wares for a friend, approaching Gary in a vignette that sustains the dreamy texture, as they two smirk at each-other and swap flirtatious greetings, as if sequestered and afloat on a raft of milk foam.

Despite granting his line of wares the unappealing name of Soggy Bottom, which Alana says sounds like someone shit their pants, Gary’s understanding of salesmanship proves basic but sound, as he’s hired a woman, Kiki Page (Emily Althus) to sprawl across the show model bed to attract customers, and sees the potential when one of his young entourage, Kirk (Will Angarola), has the great idea of selling weed along with the mattresses. This has nothing to do with why two cops suddenly manhandle Gary and handcuff him. They drag him to a nearby police station where they cuff him to a bench, telling him he’s going down for murder, whilst the frantic Alana chases him down. Gary is quickly cleared by an annoyed witness despite roughly tallying with his description, whereupon Gary is freed without any apology, and he runs off with Alana. This scene sees Anderson briefly revisiting the mood of Inherent Vice and its blindsided sense of law enforcement as a virtually arbitrary faction tormenting the clueless hero, but the main result is that, thrown back into each-other’s company, Alana comes aboard the Soggy Bottom enterprise. She makes the first order of business changing the name to something more appealing, which is, apparently, Fat Bernie’s, and then when called on to improvise in trying to appeal to a customer on the phone, suddenly making headboards part of their service to enable implied sexual gymnastics. Getting a DJ to plug the business helps drive booming sales, and Anderson scores their rapid rise to middling success in a montage ingeniously set to The Doors’ “Peace Frog.” Meanwhile Gary and Alana’s flirtation continues in schoolkid fashion, letting their legs touch whilst pouring over an attempt to design a logo.

For a filmmaker who’s gone from strength to strength as Anderson has, Licorice Pizza, rather than a recourse, reveals itself as a notable and brave new step, as a movie that manages to be a pure and unmistakeable product of his imagination and style and yet dares to lack any compulsion to prove his artistry as many of his earlier works have – the film resists being as stylised and cryptic as Inherent Vice or skirting the same sleazy zones as Boogie Nights despite connective gestures to both – through some overtly strange stylistics or challenging or cruel twists, save the puckishly deployed levels of discomfort the characters suffer through. Even the verboten affection at the story’s heart remains, at least as far as we see, remains more a source of teasing sarcasm in charting its to-and-fro of flirtation and spurning, than actual transgression: Gary and Alana remain in one of the most chaste relationships in a modern movie. Anderson made his name swerving hard between high comedy and glaring melodrama on Boogie Nights before embarking on such would-be epic exercises in heavy-duty drama as Magnolia (1999), There Will Be Blood, and The Master, although the latter two films still had many flickers of Anderson’s underlying comic sensibility. Phantom Thread went through an extended burlesque of gothic romance and psychodrama tropes before resolving into a particularly odd kind of romantic comedy. The sinuous mixture of the blithe and the fastidiously-observed that flows through Licorice Pizza slowly accrues emotional gravitas in a manner that doesn’t entirely hit until the end of the film.

As well as contending with it as a subject at hand, Anderson pays many nods to the blurring of boundaries between performance and reality in casting, placing Haim alongside her real-life sisters playing characters who like Alana have their real names, as well as their parents (all of them, within their limits, doing superlative comic work), and casting Anderson’s own children and Hoffman’s siblings amongst the horde of Under One Roof, and other children and parents of Hollywood players. Licorice Pizza seems to yearn, whether it intends to or not, for a time long before everyone started living virtual lives, when movies could follow their own eccentric prerogatives when it comes to privileging character over story, and when human perversity was easily and readily encompassed by mainstream cinema to a degree that’s almost alien in our era of hyper-vigilant online moral police. Licorice Pizza can be likened to Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) and Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1972) in their nimble blending of taboo themes with humour and lightness of touch, as well as classics of the era that dealt with people and cultures in flux, including Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968), Francis Coppola’s The Rain People (1969), Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1971), and George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), whilst charting a middle path between their extremes of melancholia and frantic humour. I was also reminded at points of Guy Ferland’s Telling Lies In America (1997), which portrayed, via a Joe Eszterhas script, a not-dissimilar rites-of-passage tale for a teenage huckster in love with a mature woman.

Gary’s experience in a wing of pop culture aimed at pre-pubescent and “family” audiences, with Under One Roof typifying a kind of wholesome entertainment crowded out in cultural recollection of the era by edgier fare at a time when Hollywood was being much-celebrated for finally growing up, couches Gary’s pseudo-sophistication in its opposite: professional infantalisation. Small wonder Gary’s urgently trying to grow into adult life which seems way more exciting, eyeing newspaper ads for porn movies and moving to exploit gaps in the market that service the tastes of adolescents, and perma-adolescents. Anderson seems to see something pertinent in this cultural tension, when today a company like Disney has conquered what’s left of Hollywood through its cultivated capacity to assimilate everything into the precepts of the professionally inoffensive – the revenge of an infantile culture the great shifts of the late 1960s and ‘70s was supposed to have supplanted. Alana’s flirtation with acting also means negotiating the potential roles open to her in the era, with Grady assessing her in their meeting, or rather freely inventing poetic impressions of her, and harping on her “very Jewish nose,” which is for once kind of cool in the moment. Alana also follows Gary’s advice about saying she can do whatever zany thing the filmmakers require, although when she’s considered for Holden’s film that means archery and horseback riding. She also readily says yes to doing nudity, although that’s the one thing Gary told her not to do, sparking a ruction between them as Gary complains she’ll get naked for the world but won’t show him her boobs.

Which she finally does just to make him happy, but slaps him when he asks to touch. Great character comedy, of course, but Anderson here also twists the hall of mirrors that is acting back to where it starts, in the specific quality of the movie actor. When Holden insists on showing off his riding skills, he’s exhibiting a real talent but using it as just another a perpetual game of pleasing an audience, like the lines he rattles off from his beloved old movie The Bridges of Toko-San (a riff on Mark Robson’s excellent William Holden vehicle The Bridges of Toko-Ri, 1954, whilst the movie he’s to appear in with Alana is drawn from Clint Eastwood’s Breezy, 1973). One irony in this is that Haim and Hoffman are first-time actors although both trail strong associations for the knowing audience, Haim as a pop star and Hoffman as the chip-off-the-old-block son of Anderson’s regular collaborator Phillip Seymour Hoffman: although they’re ingénues being tapped for unpolished talent, they already possess an identity you can’t help but factor in in appreciating what they do, making them at once fresh and yet familiar. Both are allowed a palpability that’s rare in modern movies, Hoffman’s acne and puppy fat and Haim’s gawky, blemishy looks rendered not just patent but luminous. Alana is the first female character in Anderson’s movies who is the unarguable central figure, and she’s thankfully just as shambolic and wayward as his male protagonists. Alana is beset by a classic case of what today is sometimes called a quarter-life crisis, defined by reaching the point where adult life is really supposed to begin, but having no idea which direction to chase it in, and the film essentially draws all its eddying anti-narrative energy from her.

A recurring flourish sees Alana meeting people she used to know in school now settled into low-tier jobs, including Kiki and Frisbee, and later Brian (Nate Mann), who works on the Wachs campaign and agrees to bring Alana into their ranks. Alana proves in the course of her wanderings to be canny and talented but has no idea what to channel her energies into or how to sustain them: at first only Gary seems to stimulate something latent in her. Alana is a long way from being a perfect or even particularly good person, and her generally frustrated maturation is relieved by getting to play at still being a teenager. She’s blessed with a spiky and quarrelsome aspect, most memorably displayed when she chews out Lance and her family, including taunting her older sister Este: “What are you thinking? ‘I’m Este, I work for Mom and Dad, I’m perfect…Alana doesn’t have her life together, Alana brings home stupid boyfriends all the time!’” Which Este can only acknowledge with minimal expression is pretty accurate: “I mean…” Alana occasionally smokes pot with other sister Danielle, only to erupt, when Danielle finally tells her she needs to stop fighting with everyone, “Oh, fuck off Danielle!” Her squalls of feeling are really about self-castigation, reaching a climax when after one a most strenuous and dangerous escapade with Gary and his friends she slumps into a glaze-eyed funk, making it clear she’s reached a point of epiphany in her life and is desperate for something, anything to grab hold of to get her out of her rut.

Alana is also rather gormless when it comes to the kinds of industry charmers Gary mixes with: Lance easily snares Alana by treating her with the same fascination that a flight attendant (Emma Dumont) shows Gary. Later she’s easily swept off her feet, before being dumped on her ass, by Holden. Gary and Alana’s alternations of spurning and neediness are the closest thing the film has to a narrative spine: early on, when Alana is dating Lance, Gary rings her but won’t speak, resulting in a long moment where the two hover on either end of the line, each aware but again held in check by some mysterious logic, some refusal to break the surface tension that would sink them both. This mutual taunting continues at intervals, as when Gary and Alana try to ignore each-other when with different dates in a restaurant, and towards the end when Gary finally seems to break from Alan altogether when she accosts him for being opportunistic in comparison to the noble Wachs. Later, when Gary opens his own store for the waterbeds, Alana serves as eye candy dressed in a bikini and gets high, causing her to get increasingly clingy to Gary and irked when Gary finally seems to be getting somewhere with a girl his own age, Sue (Isabelle Kuzman). This sequence is one of Anderson’s finest despite resisting any kind of dramatic push and instead aiming to portray a nexus for the characters in their differing life stages that’s funny whilst also cringe-inducing. Alana dances woozily to a band consisting of Gary’s teenage pals, gets clingy with Gary, and finishes up trying to spy on him and Sue when they duck into a back room to have sex, before kissing one random man by way of revenge and stalking off in pot-sodden frustration, yet another grievous episode of humiliation and self-mortification racked up.

Alana’s subsequent encounter with Holden and adventures with Gary and team in a delivery truck present more ebullient slapstick moments, but reiterate the same motif as Alana is repeatedly humbled and defeated. Holden gets talked into performing a motorcycle stunt by Blau when he’s taken Alana out for dinner. Holden gets Alana to ride on the bike with him, only for her to fall off when he tears off, and Holden himself crashes after making a jump: Alana’s fall is noticed only by Gary, whilst Holden’s is hailed when he gets raggedly to his feet: not only is Alana literally dumped here but she becomes privy to how ridiculous the celebrity scene really is. The film’s set-piece comic sequence is however when Alana, Gary, and the gang go to set up a waterbed in Peters’ mansion, with the livewire Peters switching modes of relating mid-sentence, alternating praise and seeming identification (“You’re like me, you’re from the streets.”) before threatening to choke Gary’s brother in revenge if he does anything to mess up the house. Gary takes this as a challenge and deliberately lets the hose filling up the waterbed slip loose and start pouring over the carpet of Peters’ bedroom, and when he and the crew come across Peters left stranded when his sports car runs out of fuel and obliges them to drive to a gas station, Gary doubles down on payback by smashing the windscreen of Peters’ car, only for this discursion to result in their truck to run out of petrol, forcing Alana to perform the dangerous work of freewheeling backwards down a hill.

This whole movement of the film sustains unique comic texture, with elements of both character and verbal humour and physical farce of a kind comedy directing greats as disparate as Mack Sennett, Howard Hawks, and Frank Tashlin might have recognised. Cooper’s scene-stealing performance coming out of nowhere and providing moments of unbalancing delight like him fighting for control of a gas pump by threatening to use it as a flamethrower on a customer, and him raging along the pavement behind the cringing, mortified Alana once the strange night has hit its dawntime shoal only to switch on a dime to flirting with a pair of women dressed for tennis. This sequence also proves the last straw for Alana as, after surviving the risky ride, she stares into the abyss of her own absurdity. With the Wachs campaign she seems to find a new niche in directing his TV commercials (actually they were filmed by Anderson’s friend and mentor Jonathan Demme), and employs Gary to run the camera for them. This inversion of their previous positions sows the seeds of a rupture between them as Alana tries to assume superiority to Gary – “I’m cooler than you, don’t forget it.” – and chastises him for turning her ploy for respectability into another get-rich-quick opportunity, which causes Gary to leave in a cold huff in a seemingly permanent break. Gary gets down to opening a pinball parlour whilst Alana has hopes raised for a romantic liaison with Wachs when he goes out of his way to praise her work, and contends with an ambiguous source of threat in the form of a tall, thin, long-haired stranger (Jon Beavers) who hovers around the campaign office.

Anderson makes a pointed nod to Taxi Driver (1976) in this scene as Alana and Brian confront the man, with an accompanying evocation of unease, and although the actual import of his presence proves different to the model, it does nonetheless serve the purpose of revealing a different, deeper layer to what we’ve seen. When Alana gets a call from Wachs asking her to meet him for a drink, she leaps at the chance, only to quickly realise that she’s actually been brought there to provide a beard for Wachs’ boyfriend Matthew (Joseph Cross), as the stranger is hovering in a corner of the restaurant and Wachs is more afraid he might represent some force that can out him than anything else. Anderson manages one of his most intelligent and effective pieces of camerawork here: he frames Alana’s reflection in a decorative mirror whilst Matthew is foregrounded but out of focus as he argues with Wachs, who is just edged out of the frame: Matthew’s own erasure from Wachs’ public persona is visualised at the same as Alana’s realisation of what’s going on is registered, her embarrassment and also her dawning empathy. Her potential self-possession asserts itself too, as she quickly moves to warn Wachs about the stranger, and calmly ushers Matthew out.

The subsequent scene sees Alana escorting the stewing, tearful, heartbroken Matthew home and gives him a hug of comfort. This provides a potent emotional epiphany in crystallising the underlying sense of neediness and appreciation of the rarity of connection and the pain inherent in loving: “Is he a shit?” Matthew asks Alana when she says she has a sort-of boyfriend: “They’re all shits, aren’t they?” As with her earlier race to help Gary during his arrest, this affirms Alana’s best quality and indeed sees at least perhaps the maturity she’s been chasing so desperately. That maturity also demands, in a last irony, that she face up to her love for Gary, as the two search for each-other in a satire on the familiar montage of criss-crossing lovers that resolves when they spot each-other and ran to embrace only to misjudge and crash into each-other, under a theatre marquee advertising Live and Let Die (1973). Gary insists on triumphantly introducing Alana to his new kingdom of mesmerised pinball addicts as “Mrs Alana Valentine,” to Alana’s scorn, but he finally kisses her with a man’s purpose. The more incisive and quieter perversion of romantic cliché here, nonetheless, is that Anderson notes that their reunion solves nothing, instead leaving Gary and Alana with a whole new stack of questions, confusions, and impossibilities that can only find resolution in experience without safety nets, which is essentially life in a nutshell. Anderson finally seems to avow faith it’s the will to keep moving, to keep improvising the great performance, that best manifests life itself.

Standard
1970s, Comedy, Crime/Detective

The Sting (1973)

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Director: George Roy Hill
Screenwriter: David S. Ward

By Roderick Heath

Despite winning the 1973 Best Picture Oscar and proving one of the most popular movies ever made, The Sting rarely gets much serious appreciation. Today’s popular hits can very often prove tomorrow’s deflated gasbags, but The Sting retains a kind of perfection, an ingenious and multileveled engine, a film with a narrative that takes the matter at its heart, the arts of deception and dishonesty, and also makes them the framework for its story, with a deft guile and cocksure vigour almost vanished now from popular cinema. The Sting began life when the struggling screenwriter David S. Ward, doing some research into pickpockets, read some books about the classic methods and characters of confidence tricksters, particularly David Maurer’s 1940 book The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, about the brothers and partners in grifting, Fred and Charley Gondorff, whose last name Ward appended to one of his fictional antiheroes. Ward later had to fend off a lawsuit from Maurer, claiming that he plagiarised the book. The Sting eventually reunited the two biggest male movie stars of the moment, Robert Redford and Paul Newman, and director George Roy Hill, after the trio had scored a huge hit with 1969’s semi-satiric, counterculture-infused western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

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The Sting pulled off the ultimate trick of beating out William Friedkin’s horror juggernaut The Exorcist for the Oscar after giving it a run for its money at the box office. Of course, The Sting’s upbeat, retro fun was easier for the Academy to embrace than Friedkin’s garish and nightmarish experience, as Hill’s film exemplified old-fashioned Hollywood values in a New Hollywood context, packing major star power together with a sure-fire script. The Sting also rode a wave of nostalgic longing for bygone days, expertly coaxed by the score’s use of ragtime tunes by the near-forgotten Scott Joplin, whose works, as arranged and recorded by Marvin Hamlisch, enjoyed sudden new popularity on the back of the soundtrack’s success. Joplin’s music, most famously “The Entertainer,” used as the film’s main title music and recurring throughout, but perhaps more crucially in terms of the film’s aesthetic the melancholy piano theme “Solace,” punctuates the repeating vision of its heroes as solitary or at drift in the streets of 1936 Joliet and Chicago, dogged by their own strange knowledge of the world and themselves, both a part of but also distinct from the society whose homeless and destitute rejects still litter the sidewalks in the waning Depression.

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The appeal for the Academy might well have been something more subtle too, in the way Ward’s story offered a sharp metaphor for being a Hollywood player, depicting talented people obliged to live in a netherworld in putting their abilities on the line. The con men of The Sting are directors, writers, and above all dynamic actors who put on their shows for the highest stakes, always a twist of chance away from beggardom, imprisonment, starvation or riches and their own kind of hermetic celebrity, needing only a performance so convincing it erases the line between fakery and authenticity, a show of brilliant wit and world-reordering sleight-of-hand. Redford’s character Johnny Hooker, first glimpsed expertly bilking a mark of a bundle of cash in league with his partner Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones), is a young man with a true gift for his unusual art, but a need for father figures and a compulsion to try and persuade luck the same way he persuades people, a need he fulfils through gambling, at which he always ultimately loses. Despite being young and good-looking he’s so much an interloper and a habitual screw-up he can’t even keep his stripper girlfriend Crystal (Sally Kirland) after blowing his first big score on a game of roulette, and he spends much of the rest of the film running, often literally, from men who want to kill him and from his own shiftless, exile-on-main street lack of identity.

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Film and plot gain momentum from the opening moments where Hill surveys human wreckage on the streets of Joliet, one of many, prickling remembrances that the story unfolds in a time of hardship: the characters on screen have been created by their circumstance. The initial spur of the story is deeply wound into the time and place: a numbers operation, part of the larger crime syndicate run by Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), making fortunes off ordinary people making their own paltry plays for sudden, unlikely enrichment. The Joliet operation is run by Granger (Ed Bakey), who reports relatively weak profits and a slow count owing to a brief shutdown of the operations in town by a mayor on one of his tough-on-crime kicks, gives the week’s take of $10,000 to one of his men, Mottola (James J. Sloyan), to carry up to Chicago. Just after setting off, he glimpses an aging black man who’s been stabbed and robbed by a fleeing thief: Mottola declines to take down the thief but another bystander does and gets the money back. The old man explains he was heading to make a payoff to some loan sharks he owes money to, and begs Mottola to carry the money there for him. The third man advises him to keep his money wrapped in his handkerchief and stuffed down his pants in case the thief and any pals are lying in wait for him. Mottola takes the old man’s bundle with a kindly assurance to help him and then absconds, gleefully thinking he’s made a killing, only to find he’s the one who’s been ripped off. He’s just fallen victim to Hooker, his mentor and partner in crime Luther, and their confederate Kid Erie (Jack Kehoe).

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This opening employs oblique method to get the story moving, starting with the vignette of the numbers racket and following Mottola as he’s suckered in by the expert flimflam of the three conmen, the wise guy outmanoeuvred when he thinks he’s made “the world’s easiest five grand.” Mottola’s surprise is the audience’s surprise, even as we’re schooled in both the cunning method the tricksters employ, their piercing psychology in counting on the greed and dishonesty of the people they take down in the food chain of street life and the quick twists of logic used to sell the scam. This opening also privileges us with information the conmen won’t learn until it’s too late, the mistake they’re unwittingly making in suckering a man working for a big steam operation like Lonnegan’s. The sociology of the film is also, swiftly established: there are big sharks making well-protected fortunes bilking people and the smaller, entrepreneurial kind living on their wits. Astounded by the huge sum they’ve swindled out of Mottola, the three men divide their share, with Luther happily telling the startled and disappointed Hooker that he plans to use his cut to stop grifting altogether. Hooker meanwhile blows all his share, and is then waylaid by corrupt local detective Snyder (Charles Durning), who knows about his windfall and threatens to hand Hooker over to Lonnegan’s people if he doesn’t pay him off. Hooker gives him the counterfeit money he used in the con and then races back to Luther’s place to warn him about the heat coming down, only to find Luther’s been thrown to his death from his apartment window.

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Vowing revenge and knowing Joliet is now highly hazardous to his health, Hooker heads to Chicago, where, following Luther’s last piece of advice to him, he looks up Henry Gondorff (Newman), a big-time con artist who’s now hiding out from FBI agents after a sting that went wrong: Hooker appeals to Gondorff to find some way of putting the sting on Lonnegan as payback for Luther because “I don’t know enough about killing to kill him.” Hooker first finds Gondorff lying wedged between his bed and the wall sleeping off a drunk, living as he does with his brothel madam girlfriend Billie (Eileen Brennan) in his efforts to keep hidden from the feds: Johnny’s sour introduction to “the great Henry Gondorff” is a deflating experience. Gondorff, in between soaking his aching face in a sink full of chipped ice and repairing the merry-go-round Billie uses to entertain the children of her clientele, explains the difficulties and deal-breakers, particularly warning Hooker against deciding half-way through that just bilking Lonnegan isn’t enough payback. Nonetheless Gondorff agrees to mastermind the sting not just because Lonnegan’s a big fish who could pay off in a big payday but because of offended professional community pride, a motive he knows others will feel too: “After what happened to Luther I don’t think I could get more than two, three hundred guys.”

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Much as he would a couple of years later in Jaws (1975), Shaw gives proceedings a potent dose of theatrical bravura as Lonnegan, introduced playing golf with a underworld friend-rival, refusing to let Hooker get away after Luther’s death because it tarnish his image as an exacting and omnipotent operator lest men like his current golfing opponent thing they can get one over on him. He snaps his intimidating catchphrase “D’ya follow?” at people in his grating Irish-by-way-of-Five Points accent, as vicious and sharklike as anything in Jaws. Lonnegan is another poor boy made good through criminal enterprise but garners absolutely no sympathy because his type of criminal enterprise demands a ruthlessness he dishes out with relish: it’s made clear that he murdered his way to the top of the rackets and murders to stay there. Of course, Lonnegan needs to be a grade-A bastard to make it easier to cheer along our lesser bastard heroes. Gondorff draws together a team of the best grifters he knows, with the dapper Kid Twist (Harold Gould) acting as his agent in hiring the rest of the outfit and doing much of the legwork; he also draws in the motormouthed J.J. Singleton (Ray Walston) and Eddie Niles (John Heffernan). Together they decide to hit Lonnegan with a version of an outmoded con trick called “The Wire,” depending on the brief lag between horse races and the broadcasting of the results, which demands setting up a fake bookie’s office to draw Lonnegan in and get him to put up a big stake on a supposedly sure-fire bet. To get the cash to set up the big sting, a smaller one is needed, so Gondorff swings into action, buying his way into a poker match Lonnegan likes to hold on the train between New York and Chicago, and goes up against him a duel of dextrous cheating.

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Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1972) had staked out similar territory the year before in dealing with Depression-era swindlers, although with quite a different relationship at its heart and its setting out in the dusty Midwest. Like many gangster stories, from any of James Cagney’s hoodlum flicks through The Godfather films and the TV series Breaking Bad, The Sting plays games with the audience’s fantasies. It appeals to that part of the viewer who for a moment forgets the rage and insult of being on the wrong side of a con trick and instead reclines in the wish we too had such talents to ward off the worst abuses of the world. The Sting makes this appeal something of a motif, as the main characters, despite their general alienation and outsider stature, are imbued with fraternal distinction and seedy glamour when surrounded by the victims of the Depression camped out in the street and in tent cities under railway lines. Whilst the conmen might any moment be as broke as the other people, they’re by and large never more than a couple of sharp moves away from cash in pocket as long as they keep their cool. Con artists were usually, in earlier crime fiction and movies, depicted as the lowest of the low on the criminal world food chain, but The Sting converts this into part of the appeal. They’re the mostly non-violent, clever, impudent criminal class, usually operating alone or in small teams but when roused capable of fiendish communal purpose and ingenuity, usually punching upwards in their labours, and absent prejudice in their own circles, a zone where a black man like Luther and a white one like Hooker can work together.

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The greater part of The Sting’s pleasure is the way invites the viewer into this peculiar little subculture and its mystique – the little rituals, lingo, and signs of recognition all concisely captured and deployed, like the nose rub the grifters use to signal each-other, and the tavern haunt that doubles as a hiring hall. The big question before Hooker is whether, as Luther thought, he’s a truly top-rank conman, because he’s never participated in a trick on the level Gondorff has operated on. The price the grifters pay for their kind of freedom is however constantly reiterated in their isolation, only able to relate to women who are prostitutes or fellow rootless drifters, as when Hooker makes a play for the waitress, Loretta (Dimitra Arliss), he meets in a diner who explains she’s only working there long enough to make enough money to get out of town. Hooker’s inability to get laid, despite looking like Robert Redford, becomes a minor running joke in the film as well as a signifier of his character straits, until he makes anxious, self-lacerating appeal to Loretta: “I’m just like you – it’s two in the morning and I don’t know nobody.” 1930s nostalgia, as improbable as it might have seemed to some who lived through the Depression, had become a familiar pop cultural topic by the time of The Sting. But Hill’s restrained but rigorous sense of style and Ward’s writing are particularly piquant in annexing the ghostly echoes of writers of the era like Damon Runyon and Dashiell Hammett, luxuriating in the old-school streetwise language, and magazine illustrators and advertising as well as, for more elevated reference, artists like George Bellows and Edward Hopper. The division of the film into chapters, each announced with title cards illustrated with vintage Saturday Evening Post-like flavour by Jaroslav Gebr, signals how the film is structured like the ritualistic form of a con game itself.

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Part of the narrative’s wit lies precisely in affecting to let the audience in on the art of the con, making the basic mechanics of the sting aimed at Lonnegan comprehensible, whilst also working to keep a few twists hidden, particularly the subplots involving Hooker, who we’re told is the target of a top-notch assassin named Salino, hired by Lonnegan because his local killers Riley (Brad Sullivan) and Cole (John Quade) failed to get him. Hooker is also picked up and strongarmed by an FBI agent, Polk (Dana Elcar), who has also roped in Snyder and bullies them both into helping him nab Gondorff. Snyder, played by the ever-marvellous Durning, has followed Hooker to Chicago in his determination to nail him for the counterfeit payoff. When he happens upon Kid Erie, who’s also come to Chicago on the lam, in a bar, Snyder slams his face against the counter to avenge a quip. He also tries pushing Billie around when he insists on searching her brothel, only for her to warn him to stay out of one room because the chief of police is in there. Snyder represents degraded authority and a cynical sense of society, the nominal enforcer of the law enriching himself by leaning on criminals and punishing infractions as zealously as Lonnegan: Snyder takes it as a matter of logical course that Luther’s death isn’t worth investigating and that his murderer should be escorted safely and unobtrusively from the scene of the intended FBI bust, as Polk commissions him to do. But he’s not as convincing as the gangster in his badass qualifications, as Hooker keeps managing to give him the slip, most notably when Snyder catches Hooker in a phone booth and surprises him ramming his revolver through the glass, only for Hooker to simply open the concertina door, trapping Snyder’s arm long enough to make an escape.

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Hill studied 1930s movies and hit upon recreating their relatively sparse approach to utilising extras in street scenes, to help emphasise the isolation of the heroes and the schematics of their self-involved gamesmanship. The sense of throwback style is also extended to the opening credits, which mimic the movies of the early sound era in using Universal’s old logo sequence and introducing the cast with their names and roles with images in the opening credits. And yet The Sting is still most definitely a ‘70s movie, with its buddy movie underpinnings, the Watergate-era sarcasm about power, and the sympathy and affection for characters usually designated as worthless riffraff in any other moment. And like many films that seemed like pure popular fodder in that decade like The Exorcist, Jaws and Rocky (1976), today The Sting, with its low-key, melancholy-soaked texture, character-based storytelling, and sense of finesse in historical and plot detail, feels closer to the art house than today’s big, bludgeoning blockbuster equivalents: the biggest thrills in The Sting come from things like a well-played hand of cards. The Sting relies deeply on the appeal of seeing Redford and Newman, two damn good-looking and charming men as well as accomplished actors, hanging out together on screen, although the storyline polarises their roles more than their precursor vehicle Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Where that film offered a slick and popular variation on the late 1960s’ sense of fatalism for the beautiful loser, The Sting rides its crowd-pleasing impulses all the way, and is the better for it.

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Hill stands today as a relatively neglected figure, despite making a handful of bona fide classics and mammoth hits. Hill, who as a young man had a love for Bach and acting and was at one point a student of Paul Hindemith, also had a lifelong passion for flying, obtaining a pilot’s licence at 16. This particular talent made him invaluable in war as he became a pilot in the Marines flying transport planes in World War II, and was later reactivated to be a fighter pilot in Korea. The schism in Hill’s formative experiences, the sensitive young man deeply immersed in art and the active warrior, were mediated through the alternations of striking, gritty realism and flashes of horror and wistful, dreamy detachment in his best movies, perhaps coming closest to articulating this in his underrated adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), whilst his jarring box office bomb The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) revolved around both his love of flying and his trademark sense of dashed and stymied romanticism. Hill, after making a name for himself in the theatre first as an actor and then director, shifted into television in the mid-1950s, including writing and directing for Playhouse 90 a compressed but interesting version of Walter Lord’s Titanic account A Night To Remember two years before the film version. He debuted as a filmmaker with Period of Adjustment (1962).

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His follow-up, Toys in the Attic (1963), a Lillian Hellman adaptation starring an improbably cast Dean Martin, nonetheless first articulated a basic theme of wandering innocents trying to comprehend the world and absorb its evil shocks whilst seeking a home or an ideal, a theme infused in most of Hill’s subsequent works, and it made him a perfect fit for the mood of pop culture in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Hill’s first major film, The World of Henry Orient (1964), worked to evoke a wistful, almost fairytale-like style and poignancy whilst also providing moments of satire and high farce, in depicting two teenage girls obsessed with a concert pianist as a distraction from their unhappy home lives. He subsequently scored hits with the glossy, big budget labours Hawaii (1966) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967): the latter helped define Hill’s lighter comedic talents and feel for nostalgia as a dramatic value in itself in his ability to take a quasi-sociological snapshot. Whilst not a showy director, Hill developed a distinctive shooting style, often employing muted and diffused colour to amplify the kind of strong Americana atmosphere he had a special gift for conveying, culminating in the brilliant Slap Shot (1977), a panoramic study of a changing society at that moment partly disguised by the foul-mouthed and raucous vision of ice hockey. In the 1980s Hill scored his last major critical and commercial success with an adaptation of The World According to Garp (1982), before a halting version of John LeCarre’s The Little Drummer Girl (1984) and his last work, Funny Farm (1988), which suffered from fights with the studio over what kind of movie it was supposed to be, after which Hill quit cinema and taught drama at Yale.

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The Sting depends on Hill’s ability to imbue Ward’s script with a sense of place and time as exacting as the machinations. It’s often noted that the use of Joplin’s music wasn’t a great fit for the late 1930s at the height of big band jazz. But the job of a film score is to describe the film’ evanescent emotional plain, and Joplin’s tunes are perfect for this, as well as suggestively evoking a similar meaning for the characters, beset in adulthood and feeling the pensive tug of the past, that the film as whole has for the audience watching it, describing places just over the line of sight in the past. Whilst much of the film revolves around relatively mundane settings and small gestures that have large meanings, Hill injects nods to the slapstick movie tradition, particularly when he lets the camera hang back to watch slim and fleet-footed Redford trying to elude the bulbous but dancer-nimble Durning. Hill plays games with planes within his framing, as Hooker climbs onto an L station roof to elude the cop, or when he vanishes from the frame as Lonnegan’s goons chase him, only to be carried back into the shot as he clings to the side of street cleaning machine, successfully eluding the hoods. The setting has its sleazy side: Hill beautifully captures the grimly funny tawdriness of an old burlesque show with Hooker’s visit to Crystal early in the film, planning to wow her with his new fortune: Hooker waits in the wings for her to get off stage whilst she, nearly naked, shakes her tits at the sparse audience, and is supplanted on stage by a blue comedian.

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As if by counterpoint Hill gains a note faintly surreal and childlike glee in the sight of Billie’s stable of girls gleefully riding the merry-go-round on a quiet night, a vision of strange innocence amidst seediness matching the story’s overall lilt. Hill and cinematographer Robert Surtees often utilise deep-focus shots and use vertical frames within frames, conveying period flavour in the cramped and pokey urban environs the characters inhabit, the small, dingy back rooms, diners, train compartments, and dens of iniquity, and also capturing the psychological pressure, the tightness of their lives, and also contrasted with the blasted, depopulated city streets. Directorial flourishes often have two meanings in the film much like the grifter’s art – at one point Hill’s camera draws back from a window encompassing Hooker and Loretta in bed, a particularly Hopperesque image in the glimpse through from an urban space into a private world, only to pull back further and reveal an unseen presence watching them from across the street, turning the shot into a giallo movie-like vignette complete with black-gloved hands switching off a light, signalling the presence of lurking threat. Later, in a vaguely horror movie-like vignette, Hooker eludes the hitman Cole who’s still hunting for him, only for Riley to be cornered and shot by an unseen figure he calls Salino – the name strongly suggests a nod to the demonic hitman Canino in The Big Sleep (1946). Here, the film’s own sleight-of-hand involving Salino’s identity is foreshadowed, and a note of real menace is struck here to generate tension in the otherwise, generally jaunty proceedings. There’s also another, wryer dimension to this vignette” Salino’s vindictive brutality, killing a colleague because he didn’t get out of the way as professional courtesy demands, also rather cheekily gives the world of assassins a similar sense of a code to that of the hitmen, even if their way of handling things is far less amusing.

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Hooker and Gondorff are unusual film protagonists, in their unrepentant criminality but also in their essential ambivalence. Gondorff’s reassurance to Hooker in regards to Lonnegan, “Don’t worry kid – we had him ten years ago when he decided to be somebody,” reflects Gondorff’s jaded knowledge of human nature, the things that make some people successful also being exactly what people like him and Hooker feed off. Gondorff was initially characterised as an aging, portly has-been in Ward’s script – one reason perhaps in the film’s ill-fated, afterthought sequel The Sting II (1982) Jackie Gleason stepped into the role – but was revised when Newman became interested in the role into a charismatic rogue who knows enough angles to be the Pythagoras of crime but one who knows “I could do a lot worse” when Hooker goads him by asking if he wants to remain Billie’s handyman. Although not seen for half-an-hour, Gondorff quickly dominates the film as he sets his peculiar genius to work, seen in a long, droll sequence where he begins the great game against Lonnegan, first by arranging for Billie to lift his wallet and then going toe to toe with him in the card game, schooling Hooker all the while in touches like what kind of liquor to drink with a mark. The resulting, intimate comic set-piece sees Lonnegan’s habitual ferocity easily stoked by Gondorff’s performance, posing as Shaw, an insolent and besotted Chicago bookie who keeps getting Lonnegan’s name wrong, but also outdoes him in card sharping: Lonnegan’s wrath is potent, but it also blinds him to the game he’s really in, which he doesn’t realise until he’s soundly beaten. Hill cuts at one point to an exterior view of the train passing by the fire of some encamped hobos, another jabbing reminder of the social landscape beyond the hermetic workings of the plot and the obsessiveness of the characters.

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Hooker sets the next phase of the plan in motion by posing as Shaw’s disaffected henchman. The humour has a queasy undercurrent as just how close to the edge the tricksters are dancing is made clear when Lonnegan is swiftly moved to murder Hooker when he reveals ‘Shaw’s’ con, something only Hooker’s self-possession and quick line of patter staves off. Hooker’s role is to pretend to want to draw Lonnegan into his plot to bankrupt his hated boss by feeding him tips on winning horses in races, supplied by a source working for Western Union. When Lonnegan demands to meet the source, Kid Twist steps into the role, he and Singleton bluffing their way in to take over a Western Union office for a few minutes, long enough to pull off the deception. Whilst the mechanics of these scenes carefully lay out for the audience just how the grifters are taking down Lonnegan, other aspects of the plot are still ambiguous, the blow from the mysterious Salino waiting to fall, and the FBI leaning on the anguished Hooker to betray his new pals. These elements threaten to prove the ghost in the well-sprung machine, particularly as Hooker’s habit of keeping secrets from Gondorff has already almost gotten him killed.

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Whilst the star power of Newman and Redford anchor the film with their megawattage charm and crafty performances, the remarkably good cast of character actors giving them support also give it flesh. Some of the strong turns include Gould, whose Kid Twist presents the incarnation of what perhaps every grifter wants to be as they get older, worldly and debonair and sublimely easy in their command of studied surfaces, and Kehoe, whose Kid Erie is the opposite, a small-timer like Hooker who wants a bit of payback and to prove himself capable in high-pressure situations. He gets his chance when Twist hires him and he successfully pushes the hook just a little bit deeper in Lonnegan in playing a gabby gambler hanging about Shaw’s bookie office. Jones, father of James Earl, does an invaluable job in a short time as he gives the film its initial dose of pathos, presenting the more realistic face of the aging con man, tired, greying, happy to take whatever happy exit he can grab. There’s also a great example of how an actor with a small role can almost steal a movie with one well-turned line, in this case Avon Long as Benny, the agent who rents Kid Twist the necessary fittings for the fake bookie’s office who, after Twist asks him if he wants to be paid a flat rate or get a percentage of the score and then learns the mark is Lonnegan, responds with wisest of wiseguy drawls, “Flat rate,” as there’s a good chance no-one might be alive to claim his money from.

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Amidst the largely masculine milieu and cast, Arliss and Brennan provide strong, refreshingly earthy presences. Billie’s relationship with Gondorff presents the only strong human attachment anyone glimpsed in the film retains, and she stands up to Snyder with a nonchalance that’s almost transcendental. The turning gears of the plot finally begin reaching their climax after Hill portrays his heroes, and villains, waking and readying on the morning of the main event with a sense of breath being inhaled and held. Hooker is surprised to find Loretta gone from her bed when he wakes up alone, but is pleased to see her in the alley outside, only for a gunman to appear behind her and plant a bullet in her forehead. Hooker, shocked, nonetheless finds the gunman (Joe Tornatore), the man who was watching him from across the street, was actually sent by Gondorff to protect him, and Loretta was Salino, who couldn’t kill Hooker the night before for witnesses but found the perfect way to keep him on ice overnight. A jarring moment but another one where the world of con artistry and professional murder have their common aspects in the game of concealment and surprise, Hooker almost falling victim to someone willing to play a long game.

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The other dangling subplot is resolved at the same time as the central tale, as Lonnegan descends into the bookie joint to place a mammoth $500,000 bet, goading ‘Shaw’ into taking the bet: “Not only are ye a cheat, you’re a gutless cheat as well.” The last twist of the knife is delivered, as Kid Twist in character as the source drives Lonnegan to apoplexy in his mortified report Lonnegan was meant to bet on the horse to place rather than win, but just as Lonnegan begins raising hell in bursts Polk and his agents with Snyder: Gondorff guns down Hooker when he realises he’s screwed him over, and Polk immediately shoots Gondorff. Snyder bustles Lonnegan out: the gangster should know he’s well out of it, but his fixation on his money almost overrides his good sense. Of course, once Lonnegan’s gone, the dead rise from the floor and wipe away the fake blood, fake FBI man shakes hands with resurrected Gondorff, and the band of merrie men start packing up to head their different ways, much richer and rather satisfied: “You’re right,” Hooker comments to Gondorff, harking back to the older man’s warning: “It’s not enough…But it’s close.”

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Hooker turns down his share of the take, not through some phoney attack of conscience – one thing the movie is blissfully freed from is any kind of official morality – but because he’s gained something in self-knowledge, an awareness of why he does the things he does and a sense of what he needs to do to escape his own vicious circle. So he and Gondorff stride off together, seen off by Hill with the last of his old-timey touches, an iris shot, closing the curtain on this rarefied annex where show business and crime readily commingle. The Sting has remained a permanent wellspring of influence in Hollywood, and not just in providing a reusable template to a subgenre of likeable, swashbuckling criminal trickster movies like Focus (2015) or Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans 11 series, which owes it infinitely more than the movie they nominally remade, and darker but still similar fare like The Usual Suspects (1995), but arguably in the whole craze for twist and puzzle narratives seen in the past quarter-century. But The Sting remains inimitable in its most fundamental qualities, its cast, its insouciant veneer and gentle mockery of familiar movie melodrama, and its old-fashioned faith that, no matter how clever the gimmick, what finally delivers the gold is the human element.

Standard
1960s, Comedy, Drama, Indian cinema, Religious, Romance

The Holy Man / The Coward (1965)

Mahapurush / Kapurush

Director / Screenwriter: Satyajit Ray

By Roderick Heath

On the international film scene of the mid-Twentieth century, Satyajit Ray represented India in much the same way Ingmar Bergman represented Sweden, Akira Kurosawa Japan, and Federico Fellini Italy. In general perception today Indian cinema is virtually synonymous with the popular ‘Bollywood’ style with its gaudy storytelling, free-form sense of genre, and interpolated song numbers. But there’s been a long tradition of a more traditional dramatic approach in the country’s cinema, and Ray stood for several decades as its preeminent exponent. Ray came from an old and respected Bengali family. His grandfather had been a thinker and the leader of a social and religious movement, whilst his father had been a poet and children’s writer. Young Satyajit would inherit their polymath gifts, and would sustain a career as a writer alongside his more renowned movie career, as well as often writing the scores for his films. Born in Kolkata, then Calcutta, in 1921, Ray lost his father early in life. When he attended university he became interested in art and worked in an English-run advertising firm, and also becoming a designer of book covers, in which capacity he helped put together a children’s’ version of the famed novel Pather Panchali, which would eventually become the basis of his debut feature film.

 

 

Ray helped to found the Calcutta Film Society in 1947, and it became a nexus for British and American servicemen and locals to mingle and share their love of movies amidst the fervent and transformative climes of the independence moment, a zeitgeist Ray’s cinema would soon become a major component of. Ray met Jean Renoir when he came to India to shoot The River in 1951 and helped him scout locations. When he was sent to work in London by the advertising firm Ray encountered Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948), and later reported he walked out of the movie theatre determined to become a filmmaker. It took two-and-half-years for Ray and the inexperienced movie crew and amateur cast he put together upon returning to India to film Pather Panchali, mostly through lack of financing. But with some support from John Huston, who hailed a great new talent when Ray showed him an assembled portion of the movie, and a government loan, the film was completed. When released in 1955 it proved an instant and galvanising success, screening for months in its home country, where critics felt it transformed the national cinema, as well as around the world. Pather Panchali also helped introduce the score’s composer Ravi Shankar to international audiences.

 

 

Ray’s blend of unvarnished authenticity and humanist intimacy in depicting the hard luck of young hero Apu and his family gave poetic depth to subject matter that might have proved off-putting for many potential viewers in portraying the threadbare genteel pretences of the Brahmin but broke family. Pather Panchali and its follow-ups forming the so-called Apu trilogy, Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959), still largely dominates appreciation of Ray, one of those compulsory viewing exercises for cineastes. But Ray continued making movies for another forty years, and where the Apu films concentrated on rural poverty and the uneasy march of India into the modern world in a manner that however well-done also suited a certain external view of the country, Ray’s filmography veered off into all sorts of movies, taking on comedy, romance, adventure, children’s films, and magic-realist fantasy, very often struggling with the tension between cosmopolitanism and traditionalism. He also often studied the psychology of people involved in making movies, and those who watch them, with a fretful sense of the relationship between art and life, image and truth, and the incapacity of such anointed people to transcend weakness in offering simulacra of life, studying a matinee idol in The Hero (1966) and a screenwriter in The Coward

 

 

Ray often portrayed characters from the city who travel into the country and in the tradition of the Shakespearean pastoral find their fates taking jarring twists, a sense of connection strengthened by the prominent glimpse of a volume of Shakespeare in The Holy Man, as well as the local literary tradition. Ray remained throughout his career a prolific adapter, with his last film a transposition of Albert Camus’ The Stranger (1991). The Coward and The Holy Man were made as immediate follow-ups to Ray’s Charulata (1964), reportedly his favourite of his own films and generally regarded as a highpoint in his oeuvre. The Coward and The Holy Man are two quite short films, at just over an hour long each, made independently but often exhibited together, their rhyming titles in Bengali helping make them seem well-matched as a diptych of portraits. As films they nonetheless reveal something of the breadth of Ray’s ambitions and talents. Where The Coward is a curt but definite masterpiece portraying frustration, solitude, and heartbreak, The Holy Man is a gently satirical comedy officially making sport of another important facet of Indian life, religion, but really rather examining cultural deference to people who seem to know what they’re talking about, a problem hardly limited to India.

 

 

The Holy Man, adapted from a story by Rajshekhar Basu, is generally regarded as lesser Ray and that may be true enough, but it’s a wry and well-made divertissement that stakes out its basic approach in the opening scene: The Holy Man of the title, the so-called Birinchi Baba (Charuprakash Ghosh), is farewelled at a railway station by a crowd of admirers who cheer for him and crowd close. The Babaji tosses chillies to people in the crowd they swear are blessed with healing properties, before sticking out his big toe for people to touch and gain their blessing as the train pulls out of the station. This is a good visual joke that’s also a perfect example of Ray’s economic style, immediately giving the game away as to Birinchi Baba’s lack of sanctity and the tendency to unthinking and slavish devotion turned towards figures like him. Settling in on the train with his perpetually awestruck-looking disciple Kyabla (Rabi Ghosh), the Baba fascinates a man sharing the compartment with him with his ritual of spinning his fingers in counter-rotations and acting as if he’s managed to will the sun into rising. The witnessing man is Gurupada Mitra (Prasad Mukherjee), a prosperous lawyer travelling with his less than credulous-seeming daughter Buchki (Gitali Roy).

 

 

Mitra is nonetheless fascinated with the Babaji and soon confesses to him his great pain and confusion following his wife’s death, which have made the former arch pragmatist suddenly spiritually curious. Unwittingly, Mitra has placed himself at the mercy of a man who specialises in hooking people like him, and Mitra soon becomes not only his host but his acolyte too. A little while later, Nibaran (Somen Bose), an intellectual, plays host to his little clique of friends, including his perpetual chess opponent, the insurance agent Paramadha, the money-hungry accountant Nitai (Satya Banerjee), and friend Satta (Satindra Bhattacharya). Nibaran knows about Birinchi Baba’s sway over the Mitra house because he is the lifelong friend of Professor Nani (Santosh Dutta), the husband of Mitra’s eldest daughter. Casually making fun of the Babaji’s supposed divine powers, he tells Nitai about how the Babaji specialises in regressing people back in time to 1914 to let them discover troves of scrap iron left over from the war and make a fortune, only for Nitai to be convinced to try his luck with Birinchi. Satta is much less thrilled by Birinchi’s apparent new home and following, because he’s in love with Buchki, and she seems intent on joining the ranks of Birinchi’s followers along with her father.

 

 

Nibaran, a sceptical and distractible hero for the story who proves formidable once roused, feels like an avatar for Ray himself, or rather Ray’s ironic sense of himself as a thinker in a world not always so terribly interested in thinkers, a cigar smoker with his pile of books in many languages and penchant for playing chess, a game Ray himself loved (he’d later make a film called The Chess Masters in 1977), teetering on the fine line between engagement and withdrawal. Nitai spots what is possibly an erotic picture of a woman peeking out from behind a pile of his books, a gently humorous hint of non-intellectual interests furtively lingering behind the learned veneer, but the intrigued Nitai is interrupted before he can reveal the whole picture. When he visits Nani, who has a sideline playing crackpot inventor who’s trying to synthesise a new foodstuff by oxidizing grass, Nibaran becomes increasingly disturbed and appalled when Nani reports to him Birinchi’s absurd pronouncements, and Nani plays a tape recording allowing Nibaran to hear for himself. Birinchi claims to remember all his past lives and has had experiences with great figures through the ages including Jesus, Buddha, and Albert Einstein, whom he claims to have taught the E=mc²  equation, as well as being an internationally regarded peacemaker: “He’s solved a lot of problems in Czechoslovakia.” Nani also explains the idea behind Birinchi’s signature finger-twirling habit, symbolising his concept of the present as the mere, perpetual grazing point of past and future. Nibaran is annoyed Nani didn’t stand up for science when listening to the Babaji’s claptrap, but Nani is far too enamoured with any kind of fascinating jargon to critique it.

 

 

True to the spirit of the Shakespearean pastoral, The Holy Man centres on some good-natured older men trying to help a younger fellow win a girl, in this case Satta and Buchki. The problems of communication between the young lovers echo the integral themes of The Coward, but in a teasing, upbeat fashion. The film’s jests as the expense of the over-educated as well as the gullible and the dishonest skewer the irritable and proud Paramadha, the fuzzy-logic-loving Nani, and Satta, who has attempted to write a marriage proposal to Buchki but his letter was too obscure, filled with bewildering quotations from poets, for her to make sense of. Buchki seems irritated enough with him for such stodgy romancing to make good on plans to become a priestess. Satta is reduced to constantly trying to sneak messages to Buchki, and finally he gets a smuggled note back from her stating she know well that Birinchi is a fraud but cannot defy her father. This aspect of the film, the place of women under patriarchal control, is another connective theme between the two films. Satta reports with good humour to Nibaran after gaining Buchki’s reply, reporting his adventure in sneaking up to the Mitra house to try and deliver one of his notes to Buchki, tossing it to her as she seems to be rapt in one of Birinchi’s mystic rites, in which he waves flaming brands around and seems to invoke a manifestation of Shiva in his holy dancer form Nataraja.

 

 

By this point in his career Ray had moved away from the blend of neorealist starkness and flashes of intense poetic visual metaphor – the flock of birds flurrying away at the moment of the death of Apu’s father in Aparajito always leaps to my mind – found in the Apu movies, towards a style more open-flowing and relaxed in engaging his actors and the space around them, expertly using a widescreen format to enable this approach to filming. The Holy Man pauses for a rather French New Wave-like visual joke as Nibaran’s efforts to explain the knot of character relationships with a graphic aid joining pictures of the various cast members including the gormlessly grinning Satta gazing at Bucki’s picture. The influence of Renoir’s cinema is apparent with the architectural integrity to compositions that are nonetheless allowed to form according to behaviour. A perfect example is the introduction shot for Nibaran and his friends, with Nibaran and Paramadha playing chess on a bed with the moaning Nitai sitting at a remove as the apex of a compositional triangle, literally and figuratively interrupting the game. Ray often refuses to cut unless doing so for a specific purpose, and yet there’s nothing dull or static about his work, preferring subtle camera movements to stop his shots becoming rigid. The Holy Man allows a certain level of indulged theatricality to manifest in Bhattacharya and Rabi Ghosh’s performances, the former marvellously, effetely mocking as he explains how he came to “see Brahma,” the latter eddying in boredom and misfiring energy as he wanders about his and his uncle’s rooms, half-naked and partly wearing his costume for playing the manifested Nataraja.

 

 

Soumendu Roy’s cinematography on both The Holy Man and The Coward offers a deceptively limpid, deep-focus mise-en-scene that can nonetheless suddenly unveil treasures in careful lighting and camera movement. Particularly fun is the scene where Satta spies on Birinchi’s fire invocation, filmed in expressionistic shadow-and-light-play. Birinchi is transformed into an ogrish vision wielding arcane powers before the appearance of the bogus apparition behind him, a sight that drives Mitra to ecstatics, all background to Satta’s industrious attempts to communicate with Bachki. This scene could well double as a touch of lampooning on Ray’s behalf of horror movie imagery as well as portrayals of eastern mysticism in many Hollywood films. Birinchi’s sermons are comic set-pieces entirely relying on Charuprakash Ghosh’s ability to suggest fatuous delight under a veneer of transcendental bonhomie, declaring when asked about her veracity of Jesus, “People say ‘crucifixion’ – I say ‘crucifact’!”, before swerving suddenly into a show of anguish as he claims to have admonished Jesus for contradictory messages only to feel regret after he was put to death. Asked by another seeker whether the path of urge or the path of satisfaction is the better, Birinchi gives a ridiculously convoluted answer involving ancient sages that eventually winds up justifying consumption because “there can be no satisfaction without consumption.” But he refuses to help Nitai when he makes his appeal, bemused by his request and telling him to spend years master his meditation first.

 

 

The Holy Man is often criticised for not being particularly funny, and it generally isn’t in a laugh-out-loud way, more on a level of spry and sardonic sense of flimflam and character as a lodestone for mirth. It’s hard to get across the film’s tone, except to quote a moment like when Nibaran decides to help Satta and resolves to expose the phony sage: “He must be exposed, because if he is not exposed, they will also not be exposed – those who are going and falling at his feet, encouraging him, letting him grow.” Satta replies, immediately fretful at having his clear-cut romantic objective entangled with a quest to reveal truth and exact justice, two things someone Birinchi is an expert at subverting, “You’ve just increased the scope of our work.” When Ray finally offers a glimpse of Birinchi and Kyabla behind the curtain, they’re revealed as a pair of actors who have to live their act, moving like locusts from one feeding ground to another, Birinchi reading H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History to harvest his anecdotal pearls, whilst Kyabla longs to go see a movie. Nibaran is cautious about just how to expose them in his awareness that Birinchi must have formidable memory and improvisational skills to do what he does. Nibaran’s eventual method of exposure involves staging a fake fire during Birinchi’s nightly descent into a supposedly unbreakable divinity-enforced trance, with Nibaran, Satta, and Nitai joining in with the nightly audience at the Babaji’s sermon, teasing the housekeeper acting as doorman with their own little show of uncanny skill and playful promise.

 

 

The climactic moments when the fire is started and Nibaran turns out the lights to increase the confusion and panic gains the desired result as Birinchi immediately awakens from his “trance” and cries out: Ray spares an empathetic close-up for the dazed and appalled Mitra. This scene allows a brief burst of loud filmic technique in blending jump cuts and quick zoom shots to create a sense of chaos, with glimpses of the hilarious sight of Kyabla, caught in the middle of applying make-up for his appearance as Nataraja, suddenly dashing through the darkened house with false arms still strapped to his back. Nibaran grabs the abandoned Birinchi by the feet and wiggles them until Birinchi loudly protests, before telling him to get out and not to try plying his act around his district again. Meanwhile Satta takes up Bucki in his arms and carries her out in an act of “rescue.” It seems like a clear-cut victory for the forces of rationality and good as Nibaran and his friends share a smoke and celebrate their success, but Ray appends a final, mirthful  sting as Birinchi, glimpsed fleeing the Mitra house over a fence, meets up with Kyabla, who has stolen all the wallets and handbags left behind by fleeing guests, some dangling from his fake hands. “Towards the future,” Kyabla advises, “Let’s go.” Birinchi, with a fleeting expression of fatigue quickly replaced by the resolve of a natural survivor, shuffles away with his nephew.

 

 

The Holy Man most obviously connects with Ray’s preoccupation with portraying actors and people who weave fiction for a living. But there’s also a manifestation of interest in the concept of a person with moral and intellectual authority trying to expose chicanery and do people a good they don’t necessarily want done: Nibaran as a protagonist prefigures the embattled truth-teller in Ray’s filming of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (1989), albeit winning through here because it’s a comedy. The appeal of fiction, of immersion in an alternate reality of potentials, is an ironic zone existing within and alongside of Ray’s realist streak, a zone loaned particular urgency by the problem of India as a place becoming something, a place that must be invented day to day in the course of patching together its manifold cultural reference points and contradictions. Language is unstable in both The Holy Man and The Coward, characters switching seemingly randomly between Bengali and English, tracing out faultlines not merely in education and social sect but also modes of thought and expression, a counterpoint that bespeaks much about the still-lingering impact of colonialism but also grasps a certain assimilating power.

 

 

Similarly, having worked on the Apu films where Shankar’s strict classical Indian folk style suited the evocation of a communal past but proved difficult to attach to his images, Ray started composing his own scores blending aspects of western and eastern music to create a more cohesive expressive accompaniment for his films. The spare, jazz-inflected scoring of The Coward helps weave a melancholy mood, just as his more sprightly and traditional-sounding score fits well with The Holy Man. The Coward, whilst occupying a very different space in terms of tone and outlook, is nonetheless similar in the basic precept of its central character, Amitabha Roy (Soumitra Chatterjee), a travelling purveyor of fictions, in his case a screenwriter travelling for research, taken in by a generous host with needs of his own, and contending with over the fate of a woman. Amitabh is travelling rural Bengal and heading for Hashimara where his brother-in-law lives when his car breaks down and is told by the mechanic it will be at least a day before he can fix it. Amitabh accepts the offer of the hospitality of a friendly local tea planter, Bimal Gupta (Haradhan Bandopadhyay), who’s making a phone call from the car mechanic’s office and overhears his predicament.

 

 

The Cowards’s opening shot is a sublime example of Ray’s efficiency and simplicity, sustained for over five minutes including the credits, but without any kind of ostentation. Ray simply moves his camera with Amitabh as the mechanic gives him the bad news and then up to the office window, forming a frame within a frame that now includes Gupta as he talks on the phone and Amitabh gets the bad news, and then following the two men as they descend from the office and get into Gupta’s jeep. Gupta is fascinated when Amitabh explains what he does for a living, intrigued by the kind of story he might be writing, but Amitabh isn’t terribly chatty, so the beefy, middle-aged Gupta happily does all the talking. Gupta sets about getting drunk as he hosts Amitabh at dinner and complains about the wearing boredom of being a planter – “It drives you to drink!” – and the limited social circle he’s obliged to keep amongst neighbouring planters, and his general sense of frustration, disdaining Bengali films and claiming that “Bengalis of this present generation have no moral fibre.” He introduces Amitabh to his wife, Karuna (Madhabi Mukherjee), and they have dinner together. Gupta presses Amitabh to drink with him despite Amitabh never having been a drinker: when Karuna asks why he’s insisting, Gupta replies, as if he and Amitabh have entered into some psychic pact involving composing a story, that “the protagonist in his story has his first drink, right?”

 

 

The Coward plays to a certain extent like a theatrical chamber piece, Chekhovian in its blend of dramatic simplicity and emotional complexity, but with the interactions of the actors matched throughout to a subtle yet deeply expressive cinematic approach. Consequential details in dialogue fall by the wayside, with Gupta casually mentioning that Karuna said she knew someone named Amitabha Roy in college when he first mentioned the name of their guest, and Karuna’s biting comment that her husband won’t travel to Calcutta or let her do it either despite his complaints about isolation. It’s the camera that tells the real story waiting to manifest: when the trio speak after dinner with Gupta increasingly sozzled, Ray frames him leaning forward in the frame, his puffy face crowding space with a tiger skin on the wall behind like a captured standard from another age, before Ray shifts to a delicate but endlessly consequential medium close-up of Amitabh, the camera performing a dolly shifting focus from Amitabh to the silent, boding-seeming Karuna: the hitherto only vaguely suggested connection between Amitabh and Karuna, the former’s intense and queasy awareness of the latter despite acting the polite guest, and Karuna’s own, evidently curdled disposition are all immediately established.

 

 

Later Amitabh confronts Karuna when she shows him to their guest bedroom, protesting that he can’t stand her acting so formally and falsely with him. Soon enough the secret drama is spelt out in a flashback as Amitabh collapses in a self-pitying meditation. Karuna was once Amitabh’s sweetheart, and back when he was struggling she came to him with the news her uncle and guardian wanted to move with her to Patna as he was getting a transfer and also, she suspected, to separate her and Amitabh: Karuna gave Amitabh the chance to marry her then and there, but Amitabh was ambivalent in being put on the spot, and so they separated. That’s the smooth description, anyway, of the complex dance of emotions, crossed wires, and quietly raw drama glimpsed when Ray offers this scene in flashback, unfolding in Amitabh’s squalid little apartment. Amitabh’s sense of inadequacy as a potential provider is exposed as he mentions that he knows Karuna is used to comforts, whilst Karuna’s slow-dawning heartbreak as she realises what she thought was a beautiful leap of faith has been met with ambivalence manifests first as teary intensity and then a calcifying removal that becomes in turn maddening for Amitabh. “My house?” Karuna retorts to Karuna’s statement of scruples: “Did you see the person in it?” The fatal kiss-off when Amitabh asked for more time: “What you really need isn’t more time, but something else.”

 

 

The coward of the title is most visibly Amitabh, his failure of nerve before Karuna’s ardent appeal a turn of character that haunts the lives of all three people at the film’s heart, although Gupta never seems entirely cognizant of just why his life is a quagmire he can’t work up the will to escape. Nonetheless the topic of cowardice is woven through the film, from Gupta’s accusation of the lack of “moral fibre” presaging his own confession to being unable and unwilling to disrupt the class barriers bequeathed unto him and his fellow planters by the departed British, to what’s eventually revealed to be Karuna’s method of switching off from reality. Cowardice is a constant aspect of existence, Ray suggests, everyone’s life marked by things they conscientiously ignore, chances untaken, ignorances cultivated, and it’s a state of being that can infect entire populaces, and perhaps not even a bad thing. The choice of making the main character a screenwriter invites a sense of emotional if not literal autobiography, one that resonates on both a metafictional level and a more pragmatic one. As with Bichindi Baba, Amitabh is a professional fantasist, albeit unlike the conman he is gnawed at by his conspicuous compromises.

 

 

The Coward gets at something about the lives of creative people, those who don’t yet or won’t ever have the kind of success that opens up worlds, in observing the constant emotional holding pattern they’re obliged to subsist in, where every potential gesture must be weighed for how it will ultimately impact their professional life, and their interior one, that one that always threatens to take over anyway. The Coward complicates the familiar motif of the struggling artist who loses a lover to a rich person who could uncomplicatedly fulfil worldly needs. Whilst more subtly portrayed than the comic characters in The Holy Man, Gupta is like them as carefully captured type, a man struggling in awareness of his blowhard tendencies and the slow sublimation of his better qualities into a cliché as he overindulges drink. Otherwise he’s a charming and solicitous host who even jokingly states that if Amitabh ever stays with them again he can be the one who talks all the time. It’s easy to feel a certain amount of sympathy for him even as Amitabh justifies plotting to win away his wife by only concentrating on his bad traits.

 

 

At the same time, The Coward also resembles a fiction composed by Amitabh in his mind, roving the countryside and creating a scenario for their reunion involving coincidences and strange meetings from the threads of private preoccupation. Gupta’s invocation of a kind of conspiracy of accord between him and the writer suggests this aspect, whilst the planter and the writer seem to long after a fashion to live each-other’s lives, whilst his jokey reflection on basic plot patterns – “Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl.” – becomes a nagging leitmotif on repeat in Amitabh’s head. After recalling their last meeting, Amitabh awakens in the middle of the night in a muck sweat, and leaves his bedroom. He finds his way into the Guptas’ living room, a space where filtered light from gently swaying curtains plays on the wall like the ghosts rummaging Amitabh’s mind. Amitabh soon makes appeal to Karuna to abandon her joke of a marriage and run off with him, telling her he still loves her and feels utterly desperate at being thrust back into her company again. But Karuna remains aloof and taciturn, refusing to plainly answer his questions about whether she’s happy or not: “Fall in love again,” she comments whilst strictly brushing her hair: “Am I to blame for that?” She gives a practical remedy for his sleeplessness, loaning him a bottle of her sleeping pills. The next morning, Amitabh receives news that his car still isn’t ready, so Gupta and Karuna drive him to the railway station.

 

 

The Coward, whilst articulated with a blend of candour and lightness of touch that’s entirely Ray’s own, suggests Renoir’s influence most keenly, recalling his A Day in the Country (1936) in its brief but concise portrait of romantic disappointment and sense of journeying through both life and physical space. One of Ray’s more interesting formal touches is the way he deploys the flashback vignettes of Amitabh and Karuna’s relationship, starting with the moment of crisis and then later depicting a crucial moment in falling in love, when Amitabh helped out Karuna by buying her a tram ticket back when they were both students: the seeds of the affair’s end are planted when Amitabh jokingly notes it would be a bad thing if she didn’t pay him back: “I study economics – I can’t look at things philosophically like you.” This memory is provoked when Amitabh gazes fixedly at the back of Karuna’s scarf-clad head as he rides with the married couple in the back of their jeep. When he sees her touch Gupta’s shoulder, her finger festooned with a fanciful ring, he recalls one of their dates when he read her palm, an act he admitted he performed purely for the chance to hold her hand.

 

 

Karuna admitted she let him do it for the same reason, and Amitabh went off on a tetchy rant spoken by a million young would-be intellectuals decrying timidity and adherence to outmoded mores, speaking of how couples act in England. Karuna irritably decried, “They take it too far!”, but it’s plain that Amitabh’s boldness of thought was part of his great appeal for her, a boldness that in the end failed at its most crucial hurdle. Moreover this sequence helps give depth to Karuna’s reaction to Amitabh’s failing, highlighting the way she’s caught in an odd situation where she wants to escape her anointed role as obedient female without quite having the courage to escape it without the help of a man, Amitabh anointed in her mind as the man who can allow her to both fulfil an expectation to a degree whilst also defying it. Recollection of such moments when things were still possible are the queasy burden Amitabh keeps a lid on whilst play-acting friendliness with Gupta. When Gupta pulls over on a stretch of road passing through a stretch of forest by a river to get water for the radiator, the trio settle down for a picnic. Amitabh gazes in heartsick longing at Karuna as she sits on a rock watching the cascade whilst Gupta asks of the writer, “How’s the story coming along?” “It’s coming,” Amitabh answers with a thoughtful metre. Ray and Roy’s careful use of deep focus with looming foreground elements giving Gupta an imposing quality reveals its purpose as dramatic strategy in one shot as Amitabh looks towards the snoozing man and sees the cigarette burning down in his fingers, knowing he has a very short time to make his move.

 

 

Once Gupta falls asleep, he pens a note he tosses in her lap when she won’t look at him, saying he will wait at the train station for her to show up until the last possible second if she wants to leave with him. Amitabh, once finally dropped off at the railway station, waits alone until the sun sets. Chatterjee was Ray’s favourite collaborator having played the adult Apu in the second two films of the trilogy, and he’s crucial to the success of The Coward in the way he plays Amitabh’s suffering here: you can almost feel him eating away at his internal organs in his stewing regret and borderline pathetic admission of need. Ray dissolves from a shot of Amitabh sitting on a bench with face in hands to almost exactly the same pose after nightfall, only for Karuna to march into the frame. Amitabh rises to his feet beaming as he thinks she’s come to leave with him, only for his smile to fade as he registers her stern expression, and she states her purpose in coming, to get her sleeping pills back from him. Karuna’s simple words, stating she needs them and requesting, “Let me have them, darling,” gives a cruelly subtle answer to all of Amitabh’s ponderings: no, she’s not happy and yes she still loves him, but choices were made, and must be lived with. Ray leaves off with a close-up of Amitabh’s utterly gutted expression but with his features blurred and out-of-focus, a startling final note of pain and bewilderment. The Coward is damn near perfect in the economy and incision of emotional blows, and for any other director would count as a crowning achievement.

 

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1970s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Comedy, Horror/Eerie

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Director / Screenwriter: George A. Romero

By Roderick Heath

Since his debut feature film Night of the Living Dead (1968) turned him from an obscure Pittsburgh TV crewman into a cult cinema hero, George Romero had first tried to avoid becoming entirely associated with Horror films. But his follow-up, the satirical comedy There’s Always Vanilla (1971), was barely noticed, so Romero made a string of stringently budgeted but jaggedly intelligent and carefully crafted Horror movies, with Season of the Witch (1972), The Crazies (1973), and Martin (1976), in which he had tried to blend familiar genre ideas and motifs with his distinctive brand of melancholy realism. Still, whilst those movies had gained attention and continued to signal Romero was one of the most interesting and determinedly maverick talents on the wild 1970s movie scene, what everyone really wanted from him was another zombie movie. Romero had no great wish to revisit the territory of his signal hit, but gained a perverse source of inspiration one day in 1974 when a former college friend, Mark Mason, invited him to visit the Monroeville Mall, a large shopping complex just east of Pittsburg managed by Mason’s employers. As the two men joked about the labyrinthine place filled with blissful shoppers, a story hatched out in Romero’s mind. When the time came to make the film, he gained an unusual collaborator in the form of Italian Horror maestro Dario Argento, a huge fan of Night of the Living Dead and eager to help Romero produce a sequel.

Not that Dawn of the Dead was a sequel in the traditional sense. All of the major characters in Night of the Living Dead were dead by its end, and Romero’s reiteration of the same basic concept spurned any mention of the first film’s apparent rationalisation of the living dead phenomenon. Romero later emphasised that he considered all his “Dead” films variations on a theme rather than parts of the same story, at least until his directly connected final diptych, Diary of the Dead (2008) and Survival of the Dead (2009). Nonetheless the first few minutes of Dawn of the Dead seem to take up almost to the moment where the precursor left off, with a zombie plague rapidly spreading and unleashing chaos. The opening scene of Dawn of the Dead, depicting the fraying nerves and collapsing sense of mission on the set of a television news program attempting desperately to keep up a necessary flow of information to the presumed audience, contains sidelong meta humour. Romero cast himself as a director who finds himself impotent in dealing with the tide of events, Romero’s ironic kiss-off to his days in television whilst also evincing his fascination with how deeply wound it was into the infrastructure of his nation by the mid-1970s, expected to provide something like narrative and enclosure to the vagaries of life.

Dawn of the Dead was an immediate and massive commercial hit that many Horror fans and critics also recognised as an instant genre classic. It soon finally vaulted Romero towards Hollywood, for better or worse. And yet Dawn of the Dead’s time might be said not to have really come until a good twenty years after it was made, whereupon it suddenly began to influence the Horror genre and a new generation of creators in good and bad ways, most immediately in inspiring a string of imitations and variations, and a proper remake from Zack Snyder in 2004. More pervasively, Romero’s template showed how to blend the base elements of Horror, with required levels of gore, suspense, angst, and more gore, with threads of satire and parable wound into the very skeleton of its storytelling so it couldn’t be written off as a pretension or affectation, an achievement that’s become ever since a grail of ambitious genre filmmaking. Where Night of the Living Dead had been, despite its implications in terms of racial and gender politics and socially ironic sideswipes, essentially a straightforward survivalist thriller, Dawn of the Dead on the other hand achieves a Swiftian sweep in its comprehensive assault on the modern way of life and its absurdist vision of human devolution.

The film’s first is of its troubled heroine Fran Parker (Gaylen Ross) huddled in the insulated corner of the TV studio’s control booth, sleeping. She wakes with a start from nightmare, although of course it might rather be said she wakes into the nightmare. Fran soon finds herself battling with the frantic producer over the crawl giving addresses for rescue shelters, because it’s plain the information is now dangerously out-of-date, but the producer insists on keeping them up because then the station, GON, isn’t providing anything useful enough to viewers to keep them watching. Meanwhile the news anchor Berman (David Early) argues fiercely with his guest (David Crawford), who tries to explain the terrible new facts of life, death, and undeath. Eventually the broadcast begins to collapse as personnel walk out or jeer the controllers, and Fran comments, “We’re blowing this ourselves.” She arranges to rendezvous with her boyfriend Steve Andrews (Ken Emgee), the station’s traffic reporter, as he has control of the station’s helicopter and wants to try flying to Canada. Departure is delayed as Steve insists on waiting for a friend, Roger DeMarco (Scott Reiniger), a member of a National Guard unit that’s currently engaged in a stand-off with a radical group holed up in a slum tenement building, as the radicals are resisting the Guard’s efforts to collect the dead.

Roger’s relative decency and seriousness are soon revealed as he manages to bail up the radical leader Martinez (John Amplas) and tries to get him to surrender, only for the man to insist on getting shot down, and then trying to stop one of his fellows who starts on a kill-crazy rampage through the tenement, blowing off the heads of people unlucky enough to live in the building. Here, Romero notably grazes a common anxiety in the 1970s, that outright urban warfare would break out in America’s ghettos, the “urban Vietnam” The Clash sang about in their single “This Is Radio Clash” released the same year as Dawn of the Dead, as well as finding an effective way of linking the waning Blaxploitation wave to Horror in the images of the literally repressed underclass. The National Guard ignore warnings about parts of the building that have been closed up to contain zombies in the building, and their crashing about releases the walking dead, who immediately and eagerly take great bloody bites out of anyone they get their hands on, as a zombified husband does to his wife when she embraces him amidst the panic of the invasion. Roger and a young Guardsman crash into an apartment where they find a corpse with its foot gnawed off, only for the corpse to start wriggling its way remorselessly after the young Guard, who shoots it and then himself in perfect horror at how the utterly absurd has suddenly become terrifyingly real.

Romero, who as usual with his early works edited the film himself – there’s a case to be made that his films were never as good again after he stopped – strikes a uniquely intense, frayed, off-kilter mood in the TV station scenes, the bristling, reactive hysteria, the ultimate confrontation with the fringe of genuine, proper social collapse beginning in its TV temple. This air of sweaty intensity intensifies to a maniacal extreme as he segues into the frenetic four-front battle between the nominal representatives of stability and order and their rogue members, the radicals, and the living dead. Roger is first glimpsed sarcastically anticipating his commander’s attempts to talk out the radicals, whilst his fellow Guardsman eagerly awaits the chance to blow away all the “lowlife” ethnics. Roger soon finds himself flung into the company of Peter (Ken Foree), a tall, stoic, intense black Guardsman who guns down the crazed racist comrade, and the two men strike up a quick friendship as they take a moment’s downtime from the carnage to have a smoke. An aged, one-legged black priest (Jese Del Gre) appears and comments with baleful simplicity to Roger and Peter, after alerting them to a cache of bodies being kept in the basement, that “you are stronger than us but soon I think they be stronger than you.” Descending to the basement, the two men find most of the dead there revived and mindlessly gnawing on pieces of other bodies in a nightmarish survey, and they begin shooting each zombie in the head, the only thing that seems to permanently put them down.

There’s thematic overlap here with John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which itself took some licence from Night of the Living Dead. Romero finds emblematic perfection in his illustration of his ideas as the Guards bash at an improvised barricade only for dozens of discoloured hands belonging to what were denizens of this suppurating corner of the body politic suddenly thrusting into view, before breaking loose and overwhelming the lawmen. As characters Peter and Roger are strongly reminiscent of the heroes of The Crazies, who were also members of the National Guard whilst being very ordinary men fighting for survival, although their position is at least never as self-defeating as their precursors. One essence of humanity, Romero quickly suggests, is our tendency to treat the dead with respect because they still resemble what was alive, and this crashes headlong into the urgent and gruelling necessity of abandoning that feeling, to turn ruthless and unflinching violence on these caricatures of being. Even men as tough and trained as David and Roger find themselves jittery and almost overwhelmed by the zombies, although the creatures are neither terribly quick and are certainly not smart, but simply because they keep coming on with single-minded purpose when they smell warm, moist, living meat.

Romero had hit upon something original and shocking in Night of the Living Dead as he introduced the concept of zombies as cannibalistic rather than simply murderous. Here he took the concept a step further in the gleefully obscene sight of zombies taking bites out of former loved-ones and tearing out entrails from people still alive to watch. Roger and Peter extract themselves from the hellish trap of the tenement and dash to meet up with Fran and Steve, who have their own troubles when they try to fuel the helicopter only to encounter some cops engaged in looting. The cops debate taking the helicopter, but decide against it, and flee in a speedboat. Roger and Peter arrive and, after giving Peter curt introduction, they take off and start northwards. Just before taking off, they do a stock-take on people they’re leaving behind: “An ex-husband.” “An ex-wife.” “Some brothers.” As the chopper lifts off Romero lingers on a haunting shot of the lights going out in a skyscraper in the background: will the last person to leave civilisation please turn out the lights. Dawn of the Dead offers curt reiteration of the climax of the previous film as the fleeing quartet fly over National Guards and volunteer shooters roving the countryside having the time of their lives gunning for zombies, turning the end of the world into a kegger where nobody has the same scruples as the slum dwellers when it comes to shooting down the formerly respected dead.

Landing to take on fuel in the morning, the cobbled-together gang of mutually reliant survivors soon discover what they’re up against, both from zombies and each-other. Attacked by zombies including an undead child that tries to maul Peter and a zombie that tries to clamber over some boxes to get at Stephen as he fuels the chopper only to get the top of its head sliced off by the whirling blades, the team barely survive a relatively mundane task. The jittery, inexperienced gun-user Stephen almost shoots Peter in trying to save him, sparking Peter’s anger, pointing his own gun at Stephen: “Scary, isn’t it?” Shortly after taking off again, the foursome spot a large shopping mall in an area where the power is still on – Peter theorises it could be coming from a nuclear power station – and land upon the roof. Although the mall proves to be crawling with zombies, the survivors recognise a chance to stock up on supplies. “Some kind of instinct,” Stephen theorises when Fran wonders why the zombies are there, “Memory – of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

Part of Dawn of the Dead’s then-unusual approach to the horror genre was its relentless pace and rolling set-piece structure, closer in many ways to the emerging blockbuster style than to traditional Horror cinema’s slow-burn of disquiet and tension and with bloody pyrotechnics rather than explosions. Romero, of course, was repeating strategies from Night of the Living Dead in quickly thrusting characters defined by their ordinariness into a siege situation that becomes a pressure-cooker of survivalism, and would again for the last of the classic trilogy, Day of the Dead (1985), where the action would play out in a nuclear bunker. Dawn of the Dead’s first two-thirds depict the heroes escaping the city, finding the mall, and labouring first to raid it and then take it over and fortify it when they recognise it could be as good a bunker to wait out the crisis,  if that proves at all possible, as any other. The mall, like the besieged house in Night of the Living Dead, becomes the defining locale for the drama and an extension of its symbolic dimension. The house in the previous film encapsulated tensions between old and new America and city and country, as well as provided a crucible for the social tensions between the survivors within where different ideas of home and security came into fatal misalignment.

But the shopping mall, by contrast, offers an illusion of embrace that quells and quashes all such tensions, its offer of consumer paradise a beckoning zone of nullification, and where Night of the Living Dead was happy to suggest its sociological and metaphorical aspects through self-evident aspects, Dawn of the Dead is more overt in presenting its ideas, turning its central situation into the lodestone of meaning. Romero melds quasi-Eisensteinian editing and sick screwball comedy as he cuts between the zombies, reeling in time with the corny muzak Peter and Roger incidentally start piping in as they turn on the mall’s power, and shopfront mannequins, interchangeable simulacra of a commercially glamorous ideal. Peter, Roger, Stephen, and Fran collaborate to at first merely trying to strategize a way of getting supplies out of a department store within the mall to their own makeshift hideout in the mall’s administrative and storage areas. Then, as the temptation of the place claims them, they establish boundaries, going through an elaborate process of fetching trucks parked nearby and parking them in front of the various entrances to the mall, trying to reclaim a toehold in a world rapidly losing any sense of place for the merely human. Then, they clear out the zombies within and establish themselves as rules over plastic paradise.

This reads like a smooth process on paper, but things go wrong. As they become less automatically distressed by the zombies and come to understand their physical abilities and lack thereof, Peter and Roger begin to enjoy defying, tricking, trapping, and “killing” them, and for a spell the mission of defying and expelling them from their reconquered little corner of the world becomes a lark. Stephen and Fran are reduced to watching out for them, Stephen from the chopper, Fran from the mall roof. The sense of fun is however coloured by macho hysteria, chiefly afflicting Roger, who becomes increasingly reckless in the course of the fortifying operation. He almost gets caught by zombies as he tries to hotwire one of the trucks, with Stephen, seeing his predicament, obliged to use the helicopter to alert Peter to his plight because the noise drowns everything out. Roger gains an apotheosis of enthralled disgust when Peter shoots one attacking him, spraying blood all over him. Roger’s desperate attempts to retain his sense of bravado finally proves his undoing as he gets bitten by the zombies, and the other three members of their little band are forced to watch helplessly as he wastes away, doomed inevitably to succumb to the mysterious force animating the dead. Romero might have been taking cues from the self-destructive behaviour of the would-be mighty hunter Quint in Jaws (1975), both films certainly sharing a critique of the action-man ethos in the face of blank and remorseless existential threat. Peter waits in a sullen vigil for Roger to die and revive before shooting him in the head.

Dawn of the Dead followed its precursor but also did more to lodge zombies as the coolest and most malleable of movie monsters, both victims of and perpetrators of hideously gruesome violence, both mauled in physical form and mauling. The punishment doled out to them throughout confronts the problem of killing things that are already dead, immune to physical force except for blows directly on the head, annihilating the last spasm of guiding intelligence. In some of his later films Romero would begin granting them something like the sympathy saved for a life form, however devolved and diseased. Here, their sense of threat and edge of comedy both stem from their single-minded and ravenous will matched to limited physical capacity for seeking it out, dangerous when taking humans by surprise or in large numbers, but, as Peter and Roger find, easy to fend off and outwit, giving them a slightly overinflated sense of their own viability. Fran is momentarily arrested by the disquieting sight of a zombie, recently a young man, settling down to watch her through protecting glass with some kind of bemused fascination. But the zombies just keep coming, constantly beating at the doors of the mall. The first time any kind of conceptual link between Romero’s living dead and the voodoo tradition of zombie is evinced when Peter muses on his grandfather, a former voodoo priest in Trinidad, and his prophetic comment, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.”

This totemic line, which is also the closest the movie comes to explaining the plague, gives the film a sense of connection with other works of its era in the Horror genre and beyond, with the disaster movies popular in the previous few years as well as the likes of The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). Such films were preoccupied with a sense of decay and destruction befalling the modern world for all its Faustian bargains. Like its precursor, Dawn of the Dead draws on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, and also this time its film adaptation The Omega Man (1971). Dawn of the Dead amplifies the mockery of lifestyle upkeep and consumerism in a post-apocalyptic environment in The Omega Man, as well as taking licence from its trendsetting blend of fantastical aspects and action fare: where The Omega Man’s hero holed up in an apartment he made a trove of retained civilisation, here the mall becomes the world in small for its heroes, even burying Roger in a small patch of earth in an arboretum in the mall’s heart. The difference in these variations on a concept is The Omega Man’s hero had made his own home into a strongpoint and repository, where here the protagonists lay claim to the bounty of goods, useful and not so much, but also the wealth of wasted space and conspicuousness that ultimately undoes them. Anticipating the possibility of other survivors penetrating the mall, they disguise the entrance to the office and maintenance sectors where they hole up and forge a kind of home for themselves.

Part of the specific power and weird beauty of Romero’s early films comes from their pungent sense of place enforced by the low budgets and local-to-Pennsylvania focus of his efforts. He recorded and found a sense of mystery and drama in zones of American life in the 1970s far from the usual focal points of mass media. He mapped landscapes from decaying ethnic suburbs and bourgeois housing tracts in Season of the Witch and Martin. Here he captures the blinking bewilderment of the shopping mall as a tacky-plush environ offering deliverance from the mundane and run-down, where everything is shiny and plentiful, landing like a great oblong UFO in the midst of the Pennsylvania hinterland, a world that’s entirely palpable and workaday, albeit suddenly devoid of people. The fringe atmosphere is enforced by the total lack of name actors. Stephen’s status as an extremely minor kind of celebrity – one of the thieving cops they encounter recognises him – and Fran’s behind-the-camera job give them a degree of familiarity and contact with the infrastructure behind media authority, and yet they’re more keenly aware than anyone how paltry a defence that becomes right away. Stephen, setting up a TV in their hideaway, manages to tune into an emergency broadcast show where a scientist, Dr Rausch (Richard France), and host (Howard Smith) keep on arguing in much the same way the pair at the beginning did, the scientist eventually reduced to murmuring “We must be logical…logical…logical” over and over whilst the sound of Peter’s coup-de-grace on Roger rings out with tragic finality.

Where in Night of the Living Dead the luckless Barbara became the avatar for the ordinary world completely shocked out of all function, Fran is a very different figure, cut from ‘70s feminist cloth: she is obliged to be the film’s most passive character in many respects and yet she’s also its flintiest and more frustrated. Revealed some time into the film to be pregnant, she presents what would be in another kind of movie a spur to gallant behaviour by the men, but here she has to fight her own depressive and recessive streak as well as her companions’ tendency to skirt her presence. Fran is almost caught and killed by a zombie that penetrates the hideout whilst the men are running around having a blast, an experience that shakes her profoundly but soon underpins her to demand inclusion and to be taught enough of the arts of survival the others have to stand a chance alone, a demand that’s also a prod to herself to keep functioning. She is nonetheless more saddled with the status of Madonna for a new world than anointed: what her pregnancy means, can mean, in such a moment remains entirely ambiguous throughout. States of sickly and inescapable physicality are contrasted as Fran vomits from morning sickness whilst Roger wanes and withers. Fran most closely resembles the detached and forlorn heroes of Romero’s previous three films, not stricken with a murderously dualistic nature like Martin but like him responding with a certain degree of realism to her lot.

Fran’s alternately loving and strained relationship with Stephen at first blossoms and then becomes disaffected as the couple get to live out a magazine lifestyle but constantly confront the void beyond it. Romero manages to annex Antonioni-esque anxiety and evocation of existential pain within the frame of a gaudy genre film. After Roger’s death the remaining trio form a momentarily stable community, the two lovers and their solicitous pal – notably, where Stephen cringes at Fran’s demand for inclusion, Peter coolly acknowledges it – who play within the mall. Stephen and Fran practice their shooting on store mannequins set up on the ice rink where Fran also sometimes cavorts alone, shattering the plastic visages with high-calibre rounds as if executing the old world even as they can’t escape it. But Fran also takes the chance to make herself over as a plush matinee idol, albeit one clutching a revolver with a mad glint in her eye. Peter plays chef and waiter entertaining the couple with a swanky dinner, a last hurrah for civilised dining and a romantic ideal. Peter excuses himself and goes to pop the cork on a champagne bottle over Roger’s grave. This marvellous vignette, one of the warmest and saddest in any Horror movie and indeed any movie, also marks the zenith for the trio’s deliverance from the nightmare without. But the zombies are still trying frantically if pointlessly to penetrate the doors, their flailing, mashing physiques matching the fulminating disquiet that quickly enough poisons the heroes in their remove.

The vision of the mall as microcosm of the modern consumer society works in part because of its obviousness: the film is free to engage or ignore it when it feels like it because it’s so omnipresent. Orgiastic violence before the J.C. Penney! The heroes are engaged and motivated when fighting for it, adrift and dejected once they have it. The basic notion likening the mesmerised victims of capitalism the zombies is obvious to the point of being, generically speaking, a truism today. In this regard Dawn of the Dead’s influence has become a bit trying in giving tacit permission for would-be Horror filmmakers to present visions that most definitely stand for this-that-or-the-other. That Romero’s vision doesn’t collapse as a moraine of pretence is due to his finesse in moving between tones and stances as well as piling on galvanising thrills. The frantic, overwhelmed feeling apparent in the film’s first act and the intrepid, sometimes borderline larkish middle third as the foursome take over the mall, unfold with a real-feeling sense of the characters and their mission, giving credence to their motives and choices. Romero puts a sense of process and detail front and centre, presenting them with challenges to overcome. Romero charts the way seemingly benign situations can become fights for life and vice versa, giving weight to everything from the amount of time it takes to close and lock some shopfront doors to the exploitation of a car set up on the mall floor for a lottery prize as a fun and zippy way of traversing the space within when it comes to the survival process.

Indeed, Dawn of the Dead is as much farce and adventure movie as gory fright-fest, with Romero allowing an edge of outlandish hyperbole even in horrific moments, from that astonishing zombie beheading to the sight of a zombie Hare Krishna stalking Fran, a dash of satire not that far from Airplane! (1980) in the wry depiction of 1970s subcultures and general weirdness. The zombies come in all shapes and sizes, just like people, from bulbous to gnarled and barely hanging together. The scenes of our heroes merrily plundering the shops and turning the mall space into a private playground are reminiscent in their way of Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard at play in the department store in Modern Times (1936). When the characters raid a gun shop to put together an arsenal and wipe out the zombies inside the mall, Romero’s carbolic sense of humour and skill for editing highlight the fetishism for the shiny, deadly weapons and the claimed mantle of empowered heroism – Peter claims twin revolvers to hang from his belt and eyes zombies through a rifle scope with pleasure – through his rhythmic jump cuts. The gun shop’s paraphernalia, replete with stuffed animal heads and elephant tusks and African tribal music on the loudspeakers, promise a romp across the savannah on safari shooting whatever moves, oiling up racist macho fantasy. It’s a scene that’s only come to feel more and more relevant and biting in the intervening decades.

The film’s signature touch of sarcastic ruthlessness is the playful muzak theme that blasts from the mall’s loudspeakers, repeated over the end credits as a jolly soundtrack to perambulating zombies. The score, provided by Argento and his band Goblin, is one of the odder assets of the film, veering between straightforward suspense-mongering with propelling, atmospheric electronica, and a spoof-like take on B-movie music, particularly in the finale. Romero takes up where Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964) left off in contemplating the apocalypse as a space where lunacy reigns with its own strange wit, mocking the forces mobilised to deal with the disaster as symptoms of the problem. Romero even dares take up Stanley Kubrick’s discarded pie fight intended for that film and incorporate it in the delirious climax, when a gang of bikers and lowlifes who seem to have formed a mobile pirate fleet attack and invade the mall. This gang ironically has achieved an equally viable way of surviving the zombie apocalypse through open embrace of mayhem and savagery that makes the zombies in their fashion look tame, careening down the wide spaces with their grunting motorcycles, loosing off rounds from Tommy guns and swinging down sledgehammers on the zombies. They’re attracted to the mall when they catch sight of the helicopter hovering over it, actually Stephen teaching Fran how to fly it.

The devolution of what we see of humanity apart from the core protagonists, from the redneck gun-nuts, who at least seem vaguely amenable to public service, to these neo-barbarians, is Romero’s sourest meditation. Dawn of the Dead is still alive in every respect but its ferocity is certainly rooted in its moment, its evocation of cavernous dread and contempt for the state of America in the post-Vietnam, post-counterculture moment, the mood of dissociation amidst the lingering hangovers of a frenetic cultural moment and the promised birth of Reaganism: nowhere else was Jimmy Carter’s diagnosed “malaise” illustrated with such brutish, vigorous force. As he did with Martin, Romero shows how smartly he was plugged into the boondock zeitgeist and understanding the emerging punk ethos in pop culture with its love of mayhem, force, and violence as cure-alls for a forced and phony culture. The biker-vandals storm the shiny temple of mammon and unleash pure anarchy. Amongst their number is Tom Savini, the Vietnam veteran turned actor and makeup artist who also first laid claim to becoming a Horror cinema legend by providing the film’s gore effects.

Savini’s gift for creating convincing atrocities with the help of some latex and offal helps Romero achieve wild catharsis in the climactic scenes as the biker invasion devolves into a three-way battle. Stephen shoots back at the raiders: Peter joins in reluctantly but soon finds satisfaction in driving off the attackers. The raiders enjoy unleashing carnage on the zombies, but when their pals flee several are left to be trapped and consumed alive by the dead, cueing gleefully gross visions of gouged entrails and torn limbs. It could be argued that it’s a wonder the raiders have survived so long being so stupid and reckless, but then again their approach to the apocalypse is perhaps as valid as any other going, getting high on their own violent prowess. Romero’s frenzied editing ratchets up the descent into utter hysteria in a sequence that stands a masterpiece of the demented. Perhaps Romero’s goofiest joke is also a black comedy piece-de-resistance, as one of the biker insists on trying out the compulsory mall blood pressure machine only to be attacked and eaten, leaving his arm still in the strap. Stephen is wounded by the wild bullets of the raiders and then bitten by zombies drawn by his blood, and finally he emerges from an elevator as a zombie, his remnant instinct this time leading other ghouls through the false front towards the hideaway. Peter guns him down, but the act feels like an embrace of ultimate nihilism.

Romero had originally planned the end the film with the suicides of Fran and Peter, but changed it whilst shooting. It’s not hard to see why, as such an ending would have been as glum as hell but lack the specific kick of Night of the Living Dead’s more ingeniously cruel and pointed ending. The one he chose instead sees Peter, resolving not to live anymore in comprehending what’s become of the world after shooting Stephen, encouraging Fran to leave in the helicopter whilst intending to remain behind and shoot himself before the zombies can get him. But Peter’s fighting instincts kick back in at the last second, forcing him to fight his way out and join Fran in flying away in the dawn light. An ambivalent ending for sure, sending the two off towards an unknowable fate that might meet them an hour or a decade hence. Goblin’s scoring as Peter resurges manages to be vaguely sarcastic in its sudden heroic vigour but also genuinely pleased the life impulse still means something. Moreover, it’s an ending that suits Romero’s theme as expressed throughout the movie, underlining the entire point of the experience in the mall. The act of fighting is life itself; everything else slow death. The departing duo leave behind the mall now filling with zombies inchoately pleased to be back in their natural habitat, wandering the aisles, shuffling gently to the jaunty muzak. Truly a fate worse than death. Despite intervening decades of imitation, Dawn of the Dead remains without likeness, one of the singular masterpieces of the genre.

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2020s, Auteurs, Comedy, Drama

On The Rocks (2020)

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Director / Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…well, sort of

Sofia Coppola’s latest film obviously harkens back to her breakthrough success with Lost in Translation (2003) in reuniting her with Bill Murray and casting him again as the well-lived father figure to a woman experiencing a tailspin of life purpose. But On The Rocks is far from just a sequel-cum-revision or an attempt to recapture old magic. Coppola’s seventh feature is an oddity. On one level I felt like it was another of the films she’s made in the past decade that hasn’t lived up to her potential and seems at first glance conspicuously unambitious; and yet at the same time it’s another that works some kind of extra-dimensional emotional kung fu on the attentive viewer. This simultaneous feeling, that Coppola is at once an underachiever and a remarkable film artist on a finite level, has kept me both wary of and engaged in her cinema. The spry, elegant, cultural tourist mode she explored in Lost in Translation and the post-modern historical pageant of Marie Antoinette (2006), still my favourites of her films, has nonetheless given way appropriately to attempts to ask more questions of scenarios involving characters on the losing end of situations defined by an excess of options and indulgences for others, and how they rebel.

On The Rocks is also the second film by a major director this year, after Woody Allen’s A Rain Day in New York, to chase what could be described as the cinematic equivalent of a Chet Baker vocal performance, jazzy in a dry, minimalist way, loping in intonation and self-deprecatingly melancholy: Coppola even opens the film with Baker singing “I Fall In Love Too Easily.” On The Rocks revolves around Laura (Rashida Jones), who at the outset is seen having just married Dean (Marlon Wayans), two good-looking young people on the cusp of great undertakings who duck out from their own reception and sneak through the halls of a palatial hotel. Finding a swimming pool fringed by brass statues and clinging ivy, Laura jumps in still wearing her veil to join Dean in the water, leaving a trail of her stripped bridal finery behind her. A lush and witty little vignette that nods to the high life fantasias of Coppola’s early films and her intrigued delight in the accoutrement of female sensuality, as well as offering a thumbnail for Laura and Dean’s early relationship, depicting an Edenic state they must inevitably fall from.

Cut to several years later: Laura is a writer with two kids, glimpsed after the title is flashed treading her way gingerly cross a floor littered with rubbish and picking it up with parental diligence. Dean is an entrepreneur, whose blurrily defined business is beginning to grow very successful and chew up more of his time, obliging him to jet off to locales like London and Mexico for “big deal” conferences and meetings. Laura, stuck in the domestic role despite having her own career purely by dint of being the one working from home, is stricken with writer’s block as she’s trying to work on a book she’s sold but not written, sitting at her computer but mostly staring out the window of their spacious Manhattan apartment. When Dean returns from a business trip to London, he finds her in bed and kisses her, only to retreat, seemingly surprised or disorientated by some aspect of the reunion. Disturbed, Laura begins to theorise that in his jetlagged state he thought she was someone else, someone he’s been having an affair with.

On The Rocks sees Coppola shifting from the Hollywood scenester mirth of Lost in Translation, Somewhere (2010), and The Bling Ring (2013), to the tonier climes of New York, a move that ironically threatens to rob her work of its specificity, great as she has been at describing the absurdities of celebrity culture whilst constantly noting something more ambivalent and pathos-charged behind it – the rich and famous are people too, you know. Whereas here Coppola incidentally moves into a stratum of American cinema that’s been growing of late set amidst the haute bourgeoisie of New York as practised by directors including Noah Baumbach, Tamara Jenkins, and Azazel Jacobs, directors laying claim to being Allen’s heirs as observational artists hovering in that specific milieu of the creative and pretentious and making movies blending drama and comedy. Unlike most of that breed Coppola doesn’t have a penchant for theatrically loquacious characters and has too elegant a filmic touch for the mumblecore crowd. Laura’s status as a generic, well-educated, arty-lefty type who could readily fit into such movies is part of the point here: she knows what a cliché she’s threatening to become, and moreover she has to be the stuck-in-the-mud counterpoint to Murray’s bon vivant.

Coppola’s deftly observational and satirical eye and ear are still fine-tuned enough to let her spin a movie out of a minimum of dramatic elements. Coppola wryly indicts Laura as the type who’s married to a swashbuckling black capitalist and has stickers for Bernie Sanders and Stacey Abrams on her apartment door. Early scenes depict Laura moving through a roundelay of big city mothers’ play groups and schools, and efficiently paint a phase of life as inevitable for most people as it is alternatively a joy and a chore, when one’s own wont is submerged in the business of corralling kids. In a recurring role reminiscent of Anna Faris and Leslie Mann’s hilarious character turns for Coppola, Jones’ former costar in the sitcom Parks and Recreation Jenny Slate appears as Laura’s acquaintance from such settings, Vanessa, who insists on narrating her dating life to Laura in such situations as cueing in school corridors: the whole arc of her latest, absurd relationship is charted in fragments. The crucial early scene of Dean’s suspiciously alien kiss is given a strong charge by the way Coppola films it, capturing the mood of somnolent and spacy intimacy, and then the lack of it: the key point of uncertainty that dogs Laura after this is whether Dean through he was kissing someone else or rather that he realised he wasn’t kissing the same person in Laura herself, that she is growing into someone she isn’t entirely sure she recognises.

Laura’s simmering anxieties are raised a few degrees when she lunches with her grandmother (Barbara Bain), her mother (Alva Chinn), and her sister (Juliana Canfield), who ask pointed questions about Dean travelling with his “new assistant”, actually his account manager, the posh and glamorous Fiona (Jessica Henwick). This potential liaison seems to gain some credibility when Laura finds a bag of Fiona’s stuff in his suitcase, which he claims she asked him to carry because her luggage was full. Later Laura attends a birthday party thrown for Dean at his workplace where she registers the discomfort of some of the women who work with him in meeting her, whilst Fiona presents Dean with his birthday cake. Laura rings her father, Felix (Murray), an art dealer by profession, gadfly and roué by habit, to ask him for his opinion: he unreservedly agrees with her suspicion, and dashes to New York to offer emotional support and investigate at the absolute faintest sign of interest, arriving outside her building in a town car with his stoic chauffeur Musto (Musto Pelinkovicci) behind the wheel.

Laura’s struggle with the fate of being inserted into the domestic realm echoes the theme of young women cocooned from the flow of life in The Virgin Suicides (1999) for whom self-destruction is ultimately their only gesture of self-actualisation. On The Rocks avoids such melodramatic gestures, preferring to posit itself as a tribute to jauntier old movies like George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient (1964), Blake Edwards’ farces, her own father’s You’re A Big Boy Now (1967), and the gadabout chic of ‘60s Italian cinema, in unleashing its dynamic father and daughter duo in a comedic romp around New York and, later, Mexico, trying to prove Dean’s perfidy. But On The Rocks ultimately isn’t that kind of movie: indeed it can be described as a movie about people who want to live in that kind of movie. Felix’s choice of roadster, a vintage red Ferrari, underlines the lineage, and for a few brief moments when Felix hits the accelerator and gives chase to Dean and Fiona in a taxi through the streets of Manhattan the fantasy becomes enveloping. Ultimately On The Rocks’ palette is more ironic and realistic. Felix is rich and cunning enough in handling people to live out such fantasies to an extent, but even he finds himself subject to consequences. That exhilarating cross-city chase ends abruptly when Felix is pulled over for speeding.

The film’s first dialogue, heard in voiceover over the black screen, presents Felix as laying perpetual claim to his daughter even as she’s about to marry. Two watches given as presents signify Laura’s dual fealties to father and husband. The elephant in the room when it comes to On The Rocks of course is the temptation to take it as a self-analytic struggle with being the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, and perhaps also her relationships with some famous beaux like Spike Jonze and Quentin Tarantino, high-powered male artists all. Sofia had dealt with the feeling of living in the shadow of a father whose very presence shifts the gravity of the world around him more allusively in earlier films but here directly contends with the theme of trying to forge a separate identity from a man who’s a genius at charming and dealing, whose ethos is extraordinarily hard to reject because it’s so blithely attractive on many levels. Coppola doesn’t however designate Felix as an artist, but rather a merchant of culture, so his adventures are immediately rendered less epic, despite his plain sense of pride and achievement as he recalls selling his first major artwork. Felix’s method of talking his way out of a speeding ticket, cleverly creating a sense of familiarity and intimacy between him and one of the cops through pretending to have known his father, depends on a certain roguish confidence that he can wriggle his way out of many a situation lesser mortals will be consumed by. “It must be very nice to be you,” Laura comments with sour amusement.

Laura’s conversations with Felix are regularly punctuated by his flirtations with waitresses and strongly charged encounters with some of his female buying clients as well as one of Laura’s fellow moms despite his advancing age. Laura is irked as she perceives how adroitly he weaves webs of contacts that allow him to sell artworks even whilst helping her out. Felix is a show that doesn’t stop, leading to the perhaps inevitable moment where Murray-as-Felix sings, regaling a crowd of tourists with a rendition of “Mexicali Rose” that walks along the edge of absurdity and yet keeps its footing. Of course, Coppola is also satiating the audience’s presumed desire to hang about with Murray, relaxing within the electron field of his dryly witty, pseudo-blasé persona whilst also harnessing it to make a deeper point about Laura’s journey. Felix’s skill with keeping people and children entertained is repeatedly evinced, including one shot where Coppola captures him sprawled like an Orientalist painting’s harem girl on the floor of Laura and Dean’s apartment with their kids in trying to teach them to play cards, completely relaxed in his personal bubble. Meanwhile he regales Laura with his opinions on the impossibility of sexual monogamy for men with facetious bravura: “That’s hardwiring. Keeping the species alive. The woman passes through an emotional filter. Man doesn’t pass through the emotional part. It goes directly from the eyes to the ass.”

Of course, as the film unfolds the self-serving edge to Felix’s rhetoric is gradually unwound, more about justifying his own appetites and lapses than arriving at some deep truth about human sense and sexuality. He likes reciting the kinds of scientific theories about sex and evolution Sunday newspaper editors love (“When we finally stood up two legs, it was the women with the rounded breasts that mirrored the haunches that were most exciting to the males.”) His advice on how to avoid losing a man to Laura is to retain her own sense of sexual worth and charisma, advice that Laura of course is having a small crisis in not being able to follow. In Lost in Translation Coppola’s avatar was similarly suffering through worrying about her husband’s fidelity and the problems of being subsumed into a marriage, but where there Murray provided a liquid-state all-purpose celebrity pal /father figure/boyfriend here Felix is a more specific dramatic creation, one reminiscent of the role Jim Jarmusch gave him as the aging lothario in Broken Flowers (2005). Laura’s decision to contact Felix after being weirded out by Dean proves more consequential than she suspects as he, actually rather lonely and bored, is all too happy to jet in from Paris to the rescue to energise and upset his daughter’s life, but what’s really in play is a story where father and daughter slowly work their way towards a reckoning that’s been a long time coming.

On The Rocks tries to deal with some states of mind and being that are by and large difficult to make movies about, something Coppola has managed before, achieved in such striking and sinuous contrast to her father’s grandiose visions of society and history as achieved in epics like The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now (1979), but not so far from some of Francis’ personal films like The Rain People (1969) or One From The Heart (1981). Sofia rejects even the stylistic grandeur of such movies: Coppola chases singular, crystalline portraits of emotional and psychological straits. More exasperatingly, On The Rocks faces a particular problem in that its core theme doesn’t feel fresh: in fact, it lies well over the border in a realm of the hoary. Tales about the offended offspring of carelessly priapic papas have been a dime a dozen from Gen X writers and directors, constantly avenging the allure of the missed sexual revolution with their latchkey kid angsts. What makes the film work, and partly if not entirely escape the scent of mould, is the way Coppola goes about telling it. Setting up the investigation theme almost inevitably proves to actually be a chance for father and daughter to come to terms with each-other and to reach a moment of catharsis, both characters projecting their neurotic impulses onto Dean who proceeds oblivious to the whole enterprise, and indeed emerges from the whole exercise smelling like a rose.

On The Rocks is a difficult film to pin down in giving an overall verdict because I both liked what it managed to pull off, whilst also wishing Coppola had developed it more. Laura’s emotional journey doesn’t compel as much as it might because it ultimately affirms her choices to an almost hermetic degree. On the other hand, it does manage to chart the mood of frazzled emotional tension and mental exhaustion that’s pretty accurate to the moment. It’s a movie that manages at once to be a break of escapism and one of piercing pragmatism. As a work of emotional autobiography the film feels at once like an addendum to her woozy remake of The Beguiled (2017), a film which didn’t work for me overall but certainly conveyed Coppola’s choice to leave behind the perma-adolescence that afflicted many of her earlier characters and contend, through the viewpoint of Kirsten Dunst’s repressed spinster losing the bloom of youth aroused and then terribly spurned by the fox in the henhouse, with the pains of getting older and losing what gave you hope without yet having gained what you need. On The Rocks pursues a similar evocation of questioned sexual self-worth whilst also wrestling with Laura’s sense of poisoned expectations of marriage.

Such expectations ultimately stem from Felix’s infidelity and break-up with her mother, and their conversations throughout the film zero in on this topic with increasingly revealing and truthful layers. Murray’s restrained but still potent showmanship dominates, but it’s Jones who has to stitch the film’s human drama together. Part of what hampers On The Rocks is that Laura isn’t a particularly entertaining or vital character: she’s a writer but her profession feels a bit too much like one of those jobs sitcom characters have, and too often Coppola uses her as the sounding board for Murray-as-Felix’s monologues. To be fair, that’s part of the point: I’ve known some wilted progeny of high-powered, egocentric personalities. Jones’ excellence, stuck with playing the potentially thankless role, forces it into focus. Jones expertly counters Murray in their game of acting chess with subtle body language, as in the way she stiffens and takes on a languid air of indulgence when Felix first starts off on one of his sexual theorems, and registering Laura’s air of forlorn panic as when Felix informs her that his sources have told him Dean bought something from Cartier’s, the sensation of her borderline irrational fantasies suddenly becoming more tangible and her face stretching out ever so finely as if all the blood in her body just fled down to her feet and nearly dragged her expression with it.

Laura registers Felix’s past actions as specific crimes against her sense of familial security whereas Felix describes them as the result of a simple parting of the ways between himself and her mother in terms of where their lives were heading, before noting with finite heartbreak that the woman he left her mother for, his former assistant and an artist, died earlier in the year, and becomes clear that Felix has reconnected with Laura because he desperately needs someone around to help ease his own sense of panic in mortality. It’s this steady, refined, almost imperceptible accumulation of personal and emotional detail that makes On The Rocks work. Coppola winnows the film’s emotional texture down to one astounding shot of one of Laura’s tears falling into her martini in languorous slow motion whilst Baker’s version of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” murmurs on sound. This is close to Coppola’s finest, most exactingly crafted bit of directing to date.

The air of forlornly romantic desolation connects with the general adoration of New York as a physical and psychological space, shot by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd as a great bauble of glass and metal and colour, hovering always in promise and also alienation, much as Coppola filmed Tokyo and Versailles. Eventually Laura and Felix follow Dean to a Mexican seaside resort where they hope to catch him with Fiona, a place where Felix seems in his element regaling tourists with songs, casually arranging potential big sales, and calling greetings to new friends from the hot tub, whilst Laura sits locked in a Hopper composition in her bedroom, stewing in disquiet and detachment from the phony conviviality. The actual climax of father and daughter’s quest is gained in comedic diminuendo as Laura receives a cell phone call from Dean, who’s had to dash back to New York, just as she and Felix sneak up on his booked room where they’ve glimpsed Fiona swanning about. The film comes close to another major cliché in this sort of thing insofar as the film doesn’t quite reveal Fiona to be a lesbian, although she introduces Laura and Felix to her “friend” in equivocal manner.

But again Coppola rescues things by delivering a sly punch. The sting of humiliating self-revelation here proves perhaps worse than uncovering infidelity, as it shows Laura that her own neurosis and Felix’s glib propulsion have brought her to such an end. Laura soon unloads on Felix for taking things over and encouraging her worst impulses, and dresses him down for his many failings. “You can say it to my face now,” Felix says, in a brilliant little bit of acting from Murray, twitching ever so slightly as you see Felix forcing himself to turn off any temptation to retort or defend himself and withstand Laura’s upbraiding. “What happened to you?” Felix eventually does comment with a sad, isolated gaze: “You used to be fun.” Which might indeed be Coppola’s way of defusing that question of her own artistry: growing up is always a prickly, often joyless process. This sequence is also superbly shot by Le Sourd, capturing the strobing of lightning out to sea and the sparks of beachfront bonfires, wind-twisted curtains and jutting agave plants, touristy affectations of the picturesque accumulating genuine dreamlike beauty. Laura finally falls asleep on the waterfront and awakens in the bleary morning, forced to accept herself for company. The script doesn’t finally paint Felix as any sort of villain; quite the contrary, his confessions throughout eventually indicate that his rhetoric is a way of shielding himself from still-bewildering cruxes of behaviour where the real pain lies in the way he can’t quite see how they couldn’t have happened, even if he’s not exactly let off the hook. Ultimately, frankly, his pathos ultimately feels more substantial and intriguing than Laura’s.

The ultimate frustration of On The Rocks is that in spite of its quality and honesty you’re still left with the feeling Coppola could and perhaps should have done more with the themes and actors she has in play: too much of the film left me with the feeling of Murray and Jones caged when they should have been unleashed, the nods to exploiting their talents as farceurs left as just that, nods. Some of On The Rocks’ concluding shorthand gestures feel a bit obvious and vestigial, too. We know when Laura complains that she can’t whistle since giving birth she will be whistling very well by film’s end and it never stops feeling like a device. The symbolism of the swapping of watches, Felix’s vintage gift boxed away in favour of Dean’s flashy Cartier present, reminded me of the rather clunky opening of Somewhere that showed its hero literally going in circles: for a subtle artist Coppola can try a too hard. It could also be said that Dean ultimately never feels like a particularly convincing character. Wayans plays him well enough, broadcasting on a low-wattage frequency of affection for Laura that makes it difficult to take seriously the idea he’s really having an affair, but he’s still something akin to Schrodinger’s Husband. Dean could be revealed to be loyal or adulterous and either way it wouldn’t give him much defining characteristic and Laura is ultimately willing to think he’s unfaithful because otherwise he’s a bit too good to be true. The note of romantic mystery sounded at the outset, the arc of bewilderment and seeking sounded in that fateful kiss between husband and wife that opens up gulfs of identity to be explored, suggests possibilities that the film ultimately swerves around. Perhaps that’s a field of exploration for Coppola’s next film.

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