1960s, Action-Adventure, Historical, War, Western

The Alamo (1960)

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Director/Actor: John Wayne

By Roderick Heath

For fifty years, the standing set erected for John Wayne’s debut film as director, The Alamo, was a tourist draw outside San Antonio until decay, changing owners and times closed it. Wayne’s paean to patriotic example had a longer life for many as a literal monument than as a movie, which long ago faded into cinematic background radiation, the sort of movie that makes for a Saturday afternoon perennial on television without garnering much interest or respect, to the extent where the original negative is in dire need of restoration. For Wayne, The Alamo had been a labour of love and great expense, one he went into deep personal debt to realise on the scale he desired, and which would, in spite of initial box office success and Oscar nominations, take over a decade to finally recoup costs, and he was consistently irked for the rest of his life when anyone spoke of it as a flop. Wayne’s hopes for the film were both artistically ambitious and bound up deeply with his image of the stalwart all-American hero, both in the public eye and in his own self-estimation, and his desire to try and translate that heft into something lasting, to have an impact as a star on life beyond the movie theatre.
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By the time Wayne got his own production off the ground, a craze for all things related to the Alamo and Davy Crockett had swelled and waned in the previous few years thanks to the popularity of the Disney TV series starring Fess Parker, later edited into a movie, with its naggingly catchy theme song. Wayne however had been hoping to make a film about the event since the mid-1940s. He first tried to make such a film at Republic Pictures, the studio well-known for its cheap horse operas and serials for kids. Wayne had been Republic’s biggest asset for many years, but he cut ties with the studio after executives flinched at the proposed cost for his pet project. The script written for it was eventually produced as The Last Command (1955) with Sterling Hayden to capitalise on the Crockett craze, and Wayne retained several aspects of that version for his own, to be reiterated on a much grander scale. Much more recently John Lee Hancock’s more historically exacting and dramatically shaded take from 2004 was a calamitous box office failure. If Wayne was a little late to the Americana party by 1960, epic movies were all the rage at least, as studios were competing with big-scale productions to maintain their edge over television, and The Alamo was at least well-timed to join those ranks. Wayne wanted to avoid starring in his own project, hoping initially to play Sam Houston, but supposedly found himself obliged to play Crockett to leverage financing. Nonetheless, it’s hard to ignore just how well the part as written was moulded to fit its star and provide a vehicle of self-revelation as well as personal statement.
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Directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh, and Cecil B. DeMille had all helped to forge Wayne’s screen persona and then mine it for dramatic riches, but Wayne’s stature had developed over three decades in all sorts of movies. Discovered for Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930) as a lanky ingénue and seemingly set for the big time, Wayne had been forced after that film’s failure to slog his way up a harder route to stardom through dozens of low-budget westerns and war films in the 1930s and ‘40s. Some of his on-screen appeal seemed sourced in that apprenticeship, arriving as the biggest star of the age not through mercurial success but through dogged application and hard-won gravitas. Wayne long styled himself as a leading proponent of conservative, pro-Cold War politics and voice of fierce anti-Communism in Hollywood, a topic he had tackled in self-produced starring vehicles like Big Jim McLain (1952) and Blood Alley (1955). Wayne had made his first directing foray filling in for William Wellman on the latter film. Everything about his screen persona suited this self-appointed role, his great frame and aura of indulgent but unswerving authority that could seem alternately reassuring and incredibly pompous. Jean-Luc Godard famously commented on the jarring dichotomy of reactions Wayne could stir in him, forced to cry at the end of The Searchers (1956) for his capacity to portray the ferocity and emotional neediness of igneous masculinity even whilst conscious of hating the man’s politics. Eventually, Wayne’s second effort as director, The Green Berets (1968), a would-be epic depicting the Vietnam War, was all but laughed off the screen for attempting to portray a pro-intervention argument in the guise of a painfully clichéd and slipshod production.
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When he eventually came to direct himself, Wayne remained deeply under the sway of the masters he had worked with. Most inevitably Ford was the filmmaker he owed most to and remains linked inextricably with, locked in a frieze in quarrelling productivity – high-strung Ford with his unstable blend of flinty machismo and sensitivity, Wayne with his hearty but ponderous persona niggled at by personal anxieties like his failure to fight in World War 2, a moment for which he might well have been overcompensating for the rest of his days, a weak point for aggravated liberals to take aim at. By some accounts Ford did actually turn up to the set and try to throw his weight around, shooting some second unit footage Wayne quietly discarded. What an Oedipal moment it must have been. The Battle of the Alamo in Wayne’s eyes became not merely a colourful and dramatically representative vignette from American history, but a paradigm for the entire national enterprise, particularly in the face of Cold War’s tests of moral and military muscle and the threatened change of zeitgeist looming in the 1960 Presidential election. Wayne had been vocal during the campaign in his faith in Richard Nixon and contempt for John F. Kennedy, whom he wrote off as a phony rich kid, and hoped the film might count in Nixon’s favour. He inserted a moment in the movie in which some characters regret not voting for Crockett’s return to Congress because the “other fellow gave him four bits.”
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Wayne’s version of history commences well after the start of the Texian revolt against Mexico and the dictatorship of Generalissimo Antonio de Santa Anna (Ruben Padilla). Houston (Richard Boone), the appointed commander of the fledgling Texan army still being assembled and outfitted even as Santa Anna leads a strong professional army north to stamp out rebellion, appoints prickly Southern gentleman and exile Lt. Col. William B. Travis (Laurence Harvey) to take command of a ruined mission chapel turned semi-fortified military post called the Alamo located just outside San Antonio, or Béxar as it was more usually called at the time, and work in partnership with Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark), a former adventurer turned would-be landowning gentleman. Travis and Bowie clash constantly as completely diverse temperaments with radically different notions of war. Bowie favours a frontier guerilla approach. Travis insists on traditional military disciplines in his hopes of holding out against potential siege long enough to let Houston complete assembling his army and to gain relief from a nearby force at Goliad. Their fractious joint command is soon enlarged by a new force of volunteers under former Congressman and frontier war hero Crockett. Crockett, having lured his friends and followers from the Tennessee backwoods to come to Texas nominally for the cause of hunting and partying, convinces them to lend their muscle to the coming fight with Santa Anna’s army.
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The Alamo’s failings as history are both readily catalogued and sometimes knotty. Some commentators have noted that scarcely any scene in it can be called verifiable. Some distortions are relatively minor, like the portrayal of the climactic battle as taking place in solid daylight rather than in very early dawn for the sake of visual clarity. Others are crammed into that very thin nook between documented fact and heroic fantasy, like portraying Bowie as going down fighting and bedridden from battle wounds rather than disease at the battle’s climax. Other aspects Wayne chose to emphasise or excise or whitewash were both fairly typical still at the time but also go some way to explaining why it’s still rather hard to talk about aspects of American history honestly today. Wayne never goes into the causes behind the Texian revolt or the Mexican reaction, preferring instead to offer it simply as a grand clash between free living and authoritarianism, an idea he constantly, and effectively, reiterates on an essential visual level in the contrast between his wildly attired, rowdily communal yet defiantly individual rebels, and the perfectly drilled and depersonalised Mexican army. Of course, history is never that simple. The Texian revolt was undoubtedly sparked by unfair and repressive moves made by Santa Anna as the head of a newly authoritarian government, but one irritant that helped bring down tough measures on the American population in Texas had been the refusal by many to abide Mexico’s antislavery laws.
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One telling aspect of The Alamo lies in Wayne’s affection and admiration for Mexico, perhaps even his tendency to idealise the resilient pith and courtly values of the national character he saw subsisting there, retaining the lustre of certain classical, old-world tenets somewhat lost to the America Wayne otherwise celebrated so enthusiastically. Ford and Hawks were rarely above tossing in a little hackneyed stereotyping with comic relief Mexican characters, but Wayne avoids them completely, even refusing to portray Santa Anna as any kind of creep or fiend (something Hancock’s version, for all its greater adherence to the historical record, felt the need to indulge). Two of Wayne’s three wives were Mexican, and The Alamo noticeably treads close to portraying this aspect of himself as Crockett engages in chivalrous attentions towards a local lady, Graciela ‘Flaca’ de Lopez y Vejar (Linda Cristal). Crockett follows Bowie as gringo interloper who finds himself seduced by the local climes and senoritas: one scene depicts the two men reclining in the evening, Crockett listening as Bowie tries to grasp the essence of the Latino way of life and its appeal to him.
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Shortly after his arrival in Béxar, Crockett encounters an American businessman, Emil Sande (Wesley Lau), who is trying to leverage a forced marriage to a local propertied lady amidst the lawless chaos of the revolt, and is also hoarding ammunition from the rebels. Crockett appoints himself watchdog to Flaca’s interests, fending off Sande not through aggressive display but comic irritation. Sande still sends out a gang of thugs to pound him the street, bringing Bowie and others to the rescue in a street brawl. Soon after, Flaca alerts them to Sande’s stockpiles, and they set out to steal it. Sande stands in for a less reputable side of the interloping American influence, crass, exploitative, and relentlessly patronising to the local mores and people. Obliged to depict a drama that involves throwing off the yoke of Mexican rule, Wayne mediated the tension by bending over backwards not only to avoid any old partisan quarrels, but to offer up unbridled praise for the gutsiness of the Mexican soldiers and the Tejano members of the revolt, like Juan Seguin (Joseph Calleia), whom Travis is ashamed to treat brusquely in the name of maintaining calm amongst his soldiers after Seguin brings bad news. “‘S’funny, I was proud of ‘em,” one of Crockett’s backwoodsmen comments after one ill-fated attack by the Mexican soldiers. Wayne gives the Generalissimo the last, memorable gesture of the film to him as he doffs his hat in salute to the ragged, tiny band of survivors leaving the captured fort.
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Wayne initially portrays Crockett as a kind of feudal lord riding out of prairies at the head of his band of merry men. One vignette offered to illustrate Crockett’s unflinching potency as such reproduces a scene out of DeMille’s The Crusades (1936) in which the hero-king and an uppity subject slug each-other in a test of manhood, one the leader must and does triumph in to retain status as top dog. Early scenes depicting Crockett’s Tennessean cohort emphasise their rowdy, hard-drinking, hard-living good ol’ boys in a manner reminiscent of Ford’s love for similarly boisterous gangs. Wayne indulges a broad and corny brand of Americana, perhaps best inhabited by Chill Wills as Crockett’s pal Beekeeper, who performs a musical number and seems as much like an emcee at a hootenanny as an actor in the film. The Alamo’s screenwriter, James Edward Grant, had been writing Wayne vehicles since the early 1940s, including The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), which had gained him his first Oscar nomination. Grant’s ready mastery of the familiar dialogue and plot patterns of the star’s vehicles undoubtedly felt reassuring to Wayne. But it also explains why a little too much of the film is given over to familiar horse opera motifs – fisticuffs and a cattle stampede and displays of unruly masculine energy – and not enough into meaningful portrayals of some of the authentic players in the actual historical drama at hand. Like Sue Dickinson (Joan O’Brien), Travis’ cousin and wife to his second-in-command Almeron (Ken Curtis), who was one of the few survivors of the siege: although vital to the final images, she’s scarcely glimpsed until half-way through the film.
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With Wayne’s Crockett serving as heavy centre of moral gravitas and the chances for thematic conflict and ambivalence stymied by his determined messaging, the drama has to be chiefly driven by character tension. That comes in the schism between Harvey’s snooty, determined, astringent Travis and Widmark’s truculent, defiant, anti-authoritarian Bowie. The conflict between the pair becomes so heated at one point the two men arrange to fight a duel once their duty to the revolt is dispensed with. Crockett plays mediator, getting Bowie too drunk at one point to act on a threat to withdraw his men, and Bowie and Travis reach a tentative peace when Travis apologises to Bowie after grilling him about receiving a message from outside that proves to have been news reporting the death of Bowie’s wife. The Alamo posits the three men as a troika of American types, Travis the old-world inheritance, Bowie the free but ornery man of the frontier, and Crockett as an ironic union of the two, the more complete version. The totally different acting traditions the three men belong to informs their clashes. Widmark’s trademark edge of rasp-tongued, urban cynicism, which he sustained even as he made a leap from playing villains to heroes, makes Bowie a galvanising presence, particularly when his hard crust shatters when he loses his wife, segueing from quivering rage (“Travis, you might die tonight.”) to desperate exposure before Crockett. This scene is carefully mindful of the fear of machismo in being found wanting and friendship being defined in such circumstances by who you can trust to be around at such a moment. It’s an aspect to the film that feels true to Wayne’s sensibility, as it’s the sort of moment he was a past-master at capturing in his performances.
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Most actors who become directors usually prioritise performance in all its nuances, but The Alamo contradicts this tendency to a certain extent. The dramatic tone is generally that bright, declarative style common in Hollywood filmmaking then rapidly giving way to a new Method acting-influenced realism. Although superficially resembling Ford’s gift for depicting humans in bristling, Hogarthian masses as well as isolated and monumental in the landscape, Wayne doesn’t have his touch for staging comedy or finding truth in that old-fashioned acting style. That’s not to say the film’s empty on that level. Harvey, who had just gained significant attention thanks to Room at the Top (1959), seems awkward at first as he puts on a notably bad Southern accent in his early scenes. Once he wisely softens the accent, he emerges as one of the film’s strongest aspects, anticipating his characterisation of Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) in playing an unpleasant yet upright American blue-blood, admirable in his willingness to play total insufferableness and eventually unearth curious decency in such a phlegmatic character. Harvey’s gift for treading such a line helps earn real impact for a couple of the film’s best vignettes. The first comes when Travis unflinchingly directs infantry volleys on charging enemy soldiers to protect returning raiders, gaining Crockett and Bowie’s grudging admiration. The second comes in the finale, when he gets a suitably iconic death scene, battling Mexican soldiers spilling over his defences with drawn sabre, providing an unexpected jolt of swashbuckling action until he’s shot in the gut: Travis, grinning with a rueful look of perverse victory, breaks his sword over his knee before collapsing dead, the embodiment of the cavalier ideal falling before the age of regimentation and firepower.
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The laborious aspect of The Alamo lies is a penchant for declarative speechifying in highlighting Wayne’s desired messages. Early in the film, as Travis comes to see him and appeal to him to lend his support to the rebellion, Wayne-as-Crockett readily offers up his personal credos: “Republic – I like the sound of the word.” More often, he drafts lantern-jawed character actor John Dierkes, playing everyman warrior Jocko Robertson, into delivering several significant soliloquies whilst staring into the middle-distance in a vaguely prophetic manner, including a paean to duty as a man of common responsibility to his blind wife Nell (Veda Ann Borg), and later a statement of religious belief (“I can never find a way to argue down you that don’t believe…but I believe in the lord God Almighty”). Nell unleashes a tirade on Travis in insisting her husband has to stand with the defenders in spite of his obligations precisely because he seems so beaten down. Some of this stuff does get wearisome. To be fair, Wayne and Grant go to reasonable lengths to make a film about political insurrection and communal action that tries to portray individuals thinking through and responding to such circumstances. Characters communicating, attempting to summarise complex and ethereal sensations and ideas, is a constant motif throughout.
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Wayne tries as a result to imbue the Alamo defenders with a chorus-like quality as they fumble their way through such reactions, as in the scene in which they meditate on the bravery of their foes, and in the contemplation of what death entails that provokes Jocko’s statement of faith. Wayne wants to portray democratic thought and action taking root like the great green tree he has Crockett and Flaca admire during a sojourn together. Such a symbol recalls the great oak in Tolstoy’s War and Peace that invites the meditative eye and heart of its protagonists. Trouble with this aspect of the film is, what we get is less Socratic dialogue than more speechifying that’s spread across multiple characters. As is so often the case, Wayne and Grant fare better when they try to dramatize certain social ideas through the actions of their characters, like Sande and Flaca, who represent the ugly and refined sides of their respective societies. The problem with Crockett’s romancing with Flaca is that it’s necessarily abortive: Wayne’s square idealism chokes off any possibility of transgressive passion between the two although Cristal looks extremely inviting as she leans against a shady bower with bosom trembling in suppressed excitement, only to be hurriedly and literally bundled out of Béxar and the film before the real business of manly men killing each-other gets going.
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The only slave portrayed in the film is aged Jethro (Jester Hairston), whom everybody treats deferentially as common paterfamilias, and Wayne depicts him as the kind of man whose voice stirs respect from everyone: his rebuke aimed at Travis (“Colonel sir — you’re wrong.”) is intended to carry all the more moral weight because it’s coming from a man usually obliged to keep quiet. Bowie frees him and Jethro decides to stand manfully with the garrison, and dies hurling himself in front of bayonets aimed at Bowie. Jethro, like Flaca, embodies Wayne’s idealistic hope that individuals transcend the failings of their societies. But Jethro’s part in the tale draws out a problem with this approach. Wayne tries to validate Jethro as a being who makes his own votes of loyalty and duty once free to, and thus in a way he, like Jocko, represents the Alamo cause at its purest. Wayne seems to have been earnest in his insistence expressed in Blood Alley and The Alamo that non-Caucasian populaces be taken seriously in their search for dignity and liberty, but it was also complicated by his awkward framing of the issue, enshrining paternalist clichés. He lets the slaver off the hook and sticks Jethro with an unswervingly loyal arc, as if slavery was only a temporary misunderstanding between gentlemen.
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In spite of its nominal political agitprop, The Alamo feels most urgent as an attempt by Wayne to describe himself and his uneasy if purposeful relationship with his screen persona, and reconcile it with his private imperatives. Travis notes after listening to Crockett’s early speech to him that he’s not exactly what he appears. Wayne would tell Michael Caine a few years later that the secret to his acting success was talking slowly and little, and it’s hard not to read personal meaning into Wayne’s portrayal of the frontier hero as a covertly intelligent and articulate gentleman who can shift personas according to his company but finds himself all too often caricatured as a hick with cracker-barrel ideas. Arthur Hunnicutt had played Crockett as a canny rustic in The Last Command; to Wayne he’s a man who inhabits a role to please less well-educated but worthy fellows, for the sake of influencing them. He doesn’t don his coonskin cap until half-way through the film, assumed as a sort of costume, stepping into the role he was born and fated to play. Crockett lures his men into joining the Rebellion by having Flaca write out a letter in Spanish which he then has her read to them, a letter supposedly from Santa Anna warning them to clear out lest they be violently chastised, a threat that sets his companions to foaming anger and eagerness to resist. Crockett then warns them that the letter is a fake, designed to illustrate the nature of the enemy and essence of the fight to his men, but he’s already succeeded in rousing their blood to such a degree that they don’t care: it’s enough that his representation of the matter depicted the essence in a way they could understand. Wayne tries here to articulate a statement of faith in his own ability to persuade through art, drawing attention to the very device he’s trying to leverage in becoming a filmmaker.
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Wayne shows a surprising confidence and muscular ability in the film’s visuals, created in concert with DP William H. Clothier. Ford’s influence is clearest in the way Wayne arranges actors in vistas and frames them in sweeping diagonals, spurning ostentatious viewpoints even when surveying the advancing Mexican army. There’s a lovely little visual etude early in the film when two of Crockett’s followers, young mascot Smitty (Frankie Avalon) and old Parson (Hank Worden), happen upon Béxar and signal for the rest to come to them, and the Tennessean party advances into view like a tide, titans thrusting their way out of the ground to enact a legend. He returns several times to a shot of the Alamo’s battered old façade framed and silhouetted against dawn skies with wisps of cloud lit like gold in river sand, a shot that sees the Alamo enterprise as perched at the cusp of advent but also charged with the lamenting quality of a dawn vigil for the fallen.
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The way Wayne offers a constant flow of shots that look as precisely crafted in arrangement of actors and set and colour elements as Victorian art is more individual, as he chases a certain adamantine grandeur more reminiscent of DeMille than Ford. The tendency of widescreen movies of this ilk from the time to be overlit and shot in flat, rectilinear perspectives works for Wayne in this regard, as it’s precisely that frieze-like quality he chases in his arrangements of actors and elements. At least one shot is directly modelled on such a painting, as Wayne painstakingly recreates John Singer Sargent’s “El Jaleo” in the sight of a flamenco dancer performing for Santa Anna’s soldiers whilst the Alamo defenders make a night foray. This shot summarises Wayne’s oddly affecting blend of tony pretence and artistic yearning, evoking a classic tradition of American art and Latin culture as viewed through that prism. The then-massive $12 million price tag attached to the film, which would take so long to recoup, at least seems to have all ended up on screen: The Alamo is one of those grandiose pieces of epic filmmaking so common in the era that compelled purely by dint of the enormous human labour placed before the camera, in the scale of the sets and milling armies of extras.
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The Alamo stands in the shadow of two superior epics depicting besiegement from the same period, Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964) and Nicholas Ray’s 55 Days at Peking (1963): Endfield’s movie would prove an equally grand yet more convincingly terse and stoic celebration of the warrior ethic, whilst Ray’s was a more fervent and fretful kiss goodbye to the age of cavaliers and uneasy hello to the modern world’s complexities. The 1950s had seen the advent of what was often called the “adult western” filled with mature themes in analysing frontier social values and individual characters. The Alamo both fulfils that style as it delves into the violently contrasting heroes, but also feels in part like a repudiation of it – there’s none of the anxious probing of The Searchers or The Naked Spur (1953) or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1963) to it; indeed, the latter film could well have been Ford’s commentary on his star’s mythmaking hyperbole. But The Alamo also feels like it might have influenced some films still to come on. Where many ‘50s westerns looked rather clean-cut, Wayne’s emphasis on his motley Tennesseans and their attire and the protean cultural blending of the frontier suggests the harsher, woollier textures of ‘60s and ‘70s genre movies. Touches like arming Bowie with a large multi-barrelled gun have a quality of historical piquancy that anticipates Sergio Leone’s fine feel for such ephemera. Sam Peckinpah would mimic aspects of Wayne’s film in offering up a crew of jostling grotesques who seem to have stepped out of myth who venture into Mexican territory on a death trip, with Major Dundee (1965), if in serving a radically different vision.
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Certainly, for all the lumpiness of what leads up to it, Wayne’s staging of the climactic battle is a brilliant episode of cinema spectacle, as the Mexican army pours over the battlements and the defending heroes all die in precisely illustrated vignettes. These culminate in Crockett’s demise, where he manages to retain sufficient strength after receiving a lance in the chest to hurl a torch into the magazine and detonate it, literally going out with a bang. Wayne sees the patriotic gore suddenly stymied as the tide of Mexican warriors discover Sue Dickinson and two children – one white, one black, an embryo for modern America – cowering under a blanket, the whole enterprise of slaughter and ferocity of duty brought to a grim and trembling pause by a lingering ghost of chivalry. Wayne offers the sight of them riding out of the captured fort in silent dignity to Santa Anna’s salute as a moment of understanding and apotheosis, point the way forward to an amicable future. It’s also, of course, worth mentioning Dimitri Tiomkin’s great score, particularly his composition “The Green Leaves of Summer,” which pervades the film’s official rectitude with a counterpoint of wistful and transitory evocations. The Alamo certainly isn’t the eclipsing masterwork or powerful totem of republican (and Republican) faith Wayne might have hoped. It’s too patent, too broad and familiar in its specifics, too verbose and dubiously reassuring in its annexation of history. And yet some of its flaws are also wound in with its pleasures, for it’s also an entertaining, outsized relic of a brand of moviemaking rendered in a style now seemingly long gone. The final frustration of The Alamo is that it encompasses many moments where Wayne betrays the touch of an artist, and not a frustrated politician.

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2010s, Crime/Detective, Historical

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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Director/Actor: Kenneth Branagh

By Roderick Heath

Kenneth Branagh, damn his eyes. Few figures in contemporary film remain as eclectically gifted and perpetually vexing. The energetic-to-a-fault Irish-born thespian-turned-filmmaker’s directorial career has provoked acclaim and irritation since his electrifying debut in 1989 with Henry V transformed a 28-year-old best known for his stage work into a major cinematic talent. Branagh confirmed with the success of his second Shakespeare film, Much Ado About Nothing (1993), that he had a unique way with popularising the Bard on film. But his output in this period, as he seemed determined to stretch and express his talents at a breakneck pace, proved hit and miss, and his promise never quite translated into the sort of career his debut signalled, even as he continued to go from strength to strength as an actor. His movies in the prolific decade following his gambit included the flop of his capital-R Romantic film of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) and the swift submergence of his radically odd extrapolation of Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), as well as the violently uneven yet truly epic-scale Hamlet (1996), interspersed with smaller, more personal, spasmodically effective works like Dead Again (1991), Peter’s Friends (1992), and In the Bleak Midwinter (1995). Branagh’s directorial style, his adoration of oversized gestures and scarce-restrained theatrical energy, simply doesn’t fit into the current pop cultural paradigm any more than his love for Shakespeare: it’s the antithesis of cool. The attempt to crossbreed Shakespeare with old Hollywood musical idealisation with Love’s Labour’s Lost did, for the six people who saw it including me, help bring all Branagh’s works into focus as covert musicals – the swooping camerawork, the dialogue delivered in quick, dexterous, recitative-like refrains, the actors perpetually propelled about his frame-stages in giddy motion.
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Two surprisingly excellent films in the mid-2000s, a TV-debuting version of As You Like It and a dazzling take on The Magic Flute (both 2006) seemed to revive Branagh’s fortunes, but the dismissal of his pointless remake of Sleuth (2007) proved he was still a frustratingly patchy creative force. Then, suddenly and unexpected ease, Branagh reinvented himself as an A-list director in Hollywood with 2011’s successful yet underrated Wagnerian power ballad of a superhero flick, Thor. He followed it with two profitable pieces of studio hackwork, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) and Cinderella (2015), that nonetheless bore weird flickers throughout of Branagh’s cavalier romanticism and melodramatic bravura. What other director could find the same traces of bruised humanity and noble instinct in Tom Clancy’s dullard CIA hero as he finds in a Shakespearean king? Murder on the Orient Express is the latest of Branagh’s career-long efforts to invest a hoary property with a new lustre, and it feels like a homecoming, and a restatement of personal delight in film, within the apparently cosy confines of familiar material. Along with Ten Little Indians, the novel is surely Agatha Christie’s most famous, distinguished by one of her most cunningly crafted and ingenious plots and a great setting, one that shares in common with Ten Little Indians and her legendary play The Mousetrap the quality of claustrophobic isolation.
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The plot, as you probably already know: sometime in the early 1930s, Belgian-born, UK-residing private detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh, inevitably) departs Jerusalem after performing a swift and nifty piece of deduction that defuses a nascent religious riot. Travelling by boat to Constantinople (or Istanbul; either way it’s a Turkish delight on a moonlit night), Poirot meets the keen and lovely governess Miss Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and the stoic, upright soldier-turned physician Dr Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr) on the same boat: although affecting to be strangers, Poirot notes their peculiar intimacy. Once arriving in the great city, Poirot encounters a friend, the cheerfully dissolute Bouc (Tom Bateman), nephew of the Orient Express’s owner. When the onerous call of duty summons Poirot back to London, Bouc promises to gain him a berth on the very next Express to London, a promise that proves difficult to fulfil as the train’s first class compartment proves to be booked solid, a bizarre event in the winter season. Nonetheless Poirot gains a berth, and finds himself thrust in with a motley collective including Mary, Arbuthnot, talkative husband-hunter Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), White Russian exile Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her paid companion Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), hot-tempered Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his drug-addict ballerina wife Countess Elena (Lucy Boynton), cheery automobile magnate Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), sternly moralistic missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), and flinty, racist Austrian academic Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe).
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The greyest of these eminences is snake-eyed American art broker Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), travelling with a manservant, Masterman (Derek Jacobi), and business manager, Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad). Poirot’s presence is unnoticed by some of the passengers who exist in their own little bubbles of angst, like Pilar and the Andrenyis, but catches the eye of others, including Hubbard, who seems to zero in on Poirot as an eligible bachelor, and Ratchett, who offers Poirot a lucrative stint guarding him from threats, as he keeps receiving threatening letters, and is worried about the possible repercussions of selling some suspect wares to a group of colourful Italian gentlemen. Soon, the train is trapped in the mountains by an avalanche, and after a night of strange occurrences, Ratchett is discovered in his compartment riddled with stab wounds after an apparently frenzied attack, and Poirot finds himself obliged to identify the killer. Soon the problem Poirot uncovers involves less the question of who would have the motive to kill Ratchett than which one of the plentiful potential assassins did not have a very good reason to kill the man, who was actually an infamous gangster named Cassetti. Cassetti was known to Poirot through underworld whisperings that he staged the kidnap for ransom and subsequent murder of the child of a famous aviator, John Armstrong, and caused the ensuing destruction of many lives connected to the crime and the benighted Armstrong family.
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Sidney Lumet of course filmed the book to great effect in 1975, an unexpected swerve into ritzy entertainment for a director more usually associated with raw-nerve realism. Lumet’s film mediated old-fashioned storytelling values with an invested level of New Wave Hollywood grit, and opened with an inimitable prologue, depicting in monochrome visuals staging events then reported in newspaper headlines set to piercingly eerie music, depicting the central crime that drives many of the events in the subsequent story, the kidnapping of the Armstrong child and the event’s evil consequences. Branagh wisely never tries to outdo this scene. More recently, the story had also been adapted as a telemovie showcasing David Suchet’s beloved characterisation in the role of Christie’s sublimely methodical, ever-dapper detective, although the later entries featuring Suchet lacked the lush, easy style of the late ‘80s TV series in which he pioneered the role. So what need, if any, for another take? Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green answer the question by taking an approach similar to the one Branagh took with Henry V and Victor Frankenstein, trying to see if there’s another layer to the drama under what everyone knows about them. Branagh successfully located the complexity of Shakespeare’s hero, usually drowned out by playing up the patriotic fervour in the play, in his moral guilt and anguished reckoning with the distinction between his place as man and role as king and symbol – an investigative mode that Branagh surprisingly returns to here.
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Another obvious reason to return to this material is that whodunits are everywhere again at the moment. This mostly true on television, whether in Britain with their many procedurals like Midsomer Murders, Canada, with The Murdoch Mysteries, Australia’s The Miss Fisher Mysteries and The Doctor Blake Mysteries, as well as blockbuster Hollywood properties like the CSI and NCIS franchises. For myself, I’m not the biggest fan of them, although I can certainly enjoy them when they’re well done. But it’s a relentlessly mechanical, formulaic fictional mode that often tends to boil the great drama of life and death down to mere puzzles. As critics have noticed long since it was founded by figures including Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle, and codified by the likes of Christie, the whodunit is the most comfortingly structured of subgenres. The world is momentarily thrown into moral chaos by a sudden eruption of festering emotion that pays off in a crime, a killing more often than not, only for a detective with the mind of Aristotle and the purview of a priest-king to step in, identify the guilty party, and ensure the restoration of order follows. Christie’s particular genius at this style rested in her grasp of repression as its key-note, even in foreign and exotic climes rendering the parochial, everyday calm and politeness of the English social landscape on a mythic level, upon which plays of frustration and rage unfold: chafing scions bump off greedy patriarch, outraged wives slaughter faithless scum husbands, tortured good men lose control and choke terrible bitch-queens. Authentic transgressive impulses are identified as an essential aspect of the human condition, and the incapacity to keep them in check is then methodically unveiled and punished.
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More recently, so-called Scandi-Noir, a peculiarly Scandinavian variant on the mode with roots in the overtly Socialist-themed Martin Beck novels of the 1960s, has found international popularity and prominence as it found a way to make the whodunit more socially and culturally interrogative whilst retaining that ever-satisfying functionality, a slant that’s inflected much of the style since. Branagh himself had recently played one Scandi-Noir hero, Kurt Wallander, on television. This mode’s popularity on the stage, where The Mousetrap is the longest-running play in history, and on television, rather than in film, is telling. Alfred Hitchcock only made a couple of authentic whodunits in his long career as the Master of Suspense, sensing they were inimical to his understanding of film. Cinema, that great oceanic space of design and movement, can so easily encompass the drawing room dramas of the whodunit that it tends to dwarf their little sketches of static decorum and deception. Murder on the Orient Express as a property invites the cinematic eye, with the jazz-age elegance and exclusivity of the train setting, the sweep of the Dinaric Alps where the Express breaks down, the panorama of fascinating types aboard begging to be filled out by famous faces. But it also frustrates that eye as the narrative settles down and plays out like most whodunits, indeed as a perfect reduction of the form to essentials: a series of charged interviews between canny investigator and array of suspects. This comes complete with a punch-line that is at once the ne plus ultra of solutions – the everyonedunit – and a total dramatic bust. And yet how Branagh and Green try to negotiate this problem is a great part of the pleasure of their adaptation.
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Lumet managed to make an unusual project work for him because Christie’s tale, however playfully, operated deep within the space of Lumet’s career-long fascination with criminals and law enforcers, how the two often exist in deeply uneasy relationship with each-other, how wretched the avatars of both prove in the crush of pitiless circumstance. Branagh has more an old Shakespearean’s fascination with the figure of the upright and exemplary individual who attempts in spite of their feet of clay to thrust their head into the stars. It’s a thematic fascination he shares in common with a predecessor as a theatre tyro turned movie fiend, Orson Welles, and also like Welles he’s constantly provoked and inspired by the way being totally cinematic also allows him to be, paradoxically, ever more grandiosely theatrical. Branagh’s Poirot comes equipped with a glorious pennant of a moustache, and is imbued with traits that looks awfully like obsessive compulsive disorder, as he’s foiled in his attempts to have breakfast by the inability of the hotel staff to cook two perfectly boiled and arrayed eggs, and constantly annoyed by things like crooked ties. This has a fashionable tilt to it – Sherlock Holmes for instance had often of late been portrayed as inflected with traits redolent of Asperger’s Syndrome – but it’s also part of a more comprehensive attempt by Branagh to both enlarge and engage Poirot as a more defined dramatic player, in a way that links up with an intriguing attempt to critique the whodunit as a whole without betraying Christie’s text.
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Holmes was defined by his creator as “the highest court of appeal,” a fantasy of near-deistic insight into the hearts and ways of men, a blueprint for the concept of the great detective which Poirot readily fell into. Branagh takes this to a logical extreme in the film’s opening, in which Poirot is called upon to work out who, amongst a collective including a rabbi, a bishop, an imam, and a police inspector could have stolen a religious treasure from a church shared by the denominations. The detective swiftly reveals the culprit, defusing the eruptive religious tensions and exposing corrupt officialdom in one gesture, even contriving to catch the criminal by thrusting his signature cane into a slot in the Western Wall. It’s quite literally a vision of the detective as god, peacemaker and restorer, fulfilling that role as deistic intervener to a near-absurd degree. It’s an apotheosis Branagh takes as cue to bring Poirot down a few notches before re-enshrining him, shuffling about in the canon for hints of backstory and finding it in Poirot’s wearied glances at the photograph of long-ago love Katherine, representing a ghost of human attachment perhaps stirred by the twinned presence of the young, beautiful, sharp-as-a-tack Mary and the age-appropriate and dazzlingly lovely if seemingly daffy Caroline. Meanwhile the great detective frets increasingly about his restless, compulsive role as archaeologist of fetid human motives and misdeeds. The derailing of the engine leaves the train without power for a day and a dark night, a time in which people both freeze and sweat depending on Poirot’s proximity to them, stewing personal traumas and dependencies witnessed and stoked in numinous candlelight that thrusts all the characters back out of the semi-modern world and into a less forgiving, more sepulchral world.
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And what misdeeds he soon starts to uncover, quickly discerning links between many of the passengers and the deceased Cassetti, to the point where everything starts to seem either the product of outrageous coincidence or very purposeful design. Branagh began introducing stage traditions of colourblind casting into film with fresh intransigence on Much Ado About Nothing, a habit that was still raising hackles as recently as Thor when he cast Idris Elba as a Norse god, and he continues this habit, although instead of simply casting a block actor in the role of Arbuthnot and leaving it uncommented upon, he uses it as springboard for digging into the social landscape of the train passengers in a manner that moves beyond Christie’s usual seismic examinations of class pretences to also prod questions about race and sex in manner that more proto-modern. There are intimations of romance between Mary and the good doctor given new hues of period transgression, particularly in the face of Hardman’s apparent subsuming of Nazi ideals in the foment of the age. Bouc prevails upon Poirot to take up the investigation by prodding him with the awareness that leaving it to the local police might see Arbuthnot and Martinez persecuted for their ethnicity. A telling joke that lands early in the film involves Arbuthnot catching himself in the act of reproducing the patronising ways of the white west with some Turkish sailors.
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Where Branagh is more mischievous, and ultimately more himself, however, is his subtext based in a sense of theatre lurking behind the proceedings. His Murder on the Orient Express, for all its swooning camera mobility and passages of CGI epicism, is fixed securely in his sense of the tale as one rooted in our liking for actors plying their trade, a liking encoded in the story that demands a cast full of familiar faces to fill out the parts in order to render each and every suspect on a level. Although Lumet also had roots on the stage, such a self-aware lilt was beyond him, as it clashed too profoundly with his realist style. Just as Poirot sees a landscape of people pretending to be what they are not, that’s exactly what Branagh sees and knows the audience sees too. The act of stripping off the guise is played out most outright when Poirot instructs Hardman to drop his Germanic affectations and unveils a Yankee former policeman, who proves to have been in love with a maid of the Armstrongs who committed suicide after being tried for complicity in the kidnapping. Dafoe pulls off the moment in which the dedicated but tiring actor is ever-so-grateful in being freed from the part with a deft glimmer of wit, as the prop glasses and snappy accent are both dropped, and the cop idly mentions the source of the role in a way that recalls Branagh’s acting hero Laurence Olivier and his similar admissions of real-life models for characterisation. Dench and Jacobi have been regular members of Branagh’s band of brothers since Henry V, and indeed Branagh’s casting of Dench in that film almost certainly gave her movie career traction, and their presence lends proceedings the pleasant air of an old stock company reunited. To their number Branagh now adds the likes of Ridley, stretching her legs with impressive poise after her breakthrough in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Cruz, doing not much at all sadly, and Depp, who seems most appropriate in movies playing parts like this now, his formerly quirky male beauty hardening into a mask of ruined disdain.
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As well as old Hollywood musicals, Branagh has worked through his admiration for Hitchcock before, engaging the Master’s obsessive tropes in a thoroughly personalised fashion with delirious plunge into fractured identities and sharp objects on Dead Again, and there are glimmers of it here, with The Lady Vanishes (1938) an inevitable touchstone: the very last shot inverts the opening of Hitchcock’s film. The climactic recreation of Ratchett’s actual killing rejects Lumet’s stately, ritualistic portrayal of the moment in favour of portraying a frenzy of rage from the carefully marshalled but finally unleashed avengers that has a more distinctly Hitchcockian feel for the ferocity lurking under the stoic mask of the average person. Branagh’s camerawork, at once ebullient but also perhaps the most controlled it’s been since his debut, turns the train into a series of rolling stages. The camera glides horizontally along the length of the carriage when Poirot first boards the train to analyse the conveyance, its compartments, and the passengers looming out from them. He repeats this shot at the very end with entirely changed meaning, the gazes of the people out at him charged with salutary complicity, Poirot’s status as adjudicator of fates reinforced but also his separation from the almost religiously transfigured passengers communicated with great visual succinctness and beauty. Elsewhere Branagh tries, much like the actors in the Globe Theatre might once have, with restless contrivance to release himself from the linear confines of the stage that he’s nailed himself to in the form of the train, be it in staging a brief pursuit down through the creaking, icy beams of the trestle under the immobilised train or picking out Poirot and Mary seated upon milk pails through the open doors of the luggage van, hovering in space halfway between heaven and hell in the midst of white-flanked, gold-crowned mountains.
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There’s only so much Branagh can to do to give such a scuffed property a new lacquer of course, and if you know the story then there are few surprises to be had. But that’s precisely what I found so enjoyable here, the murder mystery staged as a dance, an old tune wielded with a fresh orchestration and choreography. And the critiquing aspect of the film remains as a dogging footfall to the main stride of the drama, as Branagh tweaks Christie’s denouement with just enough consequence to remake it more keenly as a moral crisis for Poirot, a reckoning with forms of justice and moral obligation, victim and criminal, beyond his usual understanding of the terms. It’s a way of approaching the story that gives a level of heft to the whodunit mode it usually pointedly rejects: an attempt to get at the visceral nature of crime, the impacts it has on a personal level, and demanding Poirot play his own part. “I see the world how it should be,” he admits early in the film, linking his obsessive characteristics with his moral viewpoint, but by the end of the film such easy linkages have been disrupted, finding nobility instead precisely in the boiling, neurotic desperation of the offended and broken-hearted, particularly Pfeiffer’s striking incarnation of the seething and righteous avenger under the thin coating of courteous disguise. This makes for a morsel of intelligence in a film that is otherwise a blissful time out from the world.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Historical, War

Dunkirk (2017)

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Director/Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan

By Roderick Heath

The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beachfront of the French coastal region of Dunkirk remains one of the most legendary intervals of World War II. The beaten, bedraggled force of 400,000 men, left without recourse after the infamous Nazi blitzkrieg attacks that invaded Belgium and outflanked the Maginot Line, had to be rescued in a military operation that saw the Royal Navy mount a frantic ferry service, with hundreds of smaller craft, borrowed from civilians and even crewed by them, pressed into service to get men off the beaches. As a result, the core of the British army was saved, the Nazi advance found a limit in Western Europe, and the seeds were sown for eventual resurgence and victory. Or as the comic writer and performer Spike Milligan once reported a veteran of the event telling him soon after, “It was a fuck-up, son – a highly successful fuck-up.” Not that you’ll encounter such brusque and irreverent description of it today. Today, the appeal of Dunkirk as an event has an obvious wellspring as a moment of great communal action, one not without its dark side and its ahistorical mythologising attached, but still essentially true, an epic event that allowed the future to happen. It is the first act in the modern world’s creation myth, with D-Day the second, the turning of the worm. It also has a less agreeable facet now, as the rhetoric of Churchillian resolve and the epic stature of the age have been highjacked by sectors of contemporary society to service how they fondly imagine themselves and their quarrels with the realities of our common inheritance. But perhaps the event’s other aspect speaks equally to others, the background of calamity and resolve, the need for this-far-and-no-farther grit in the face of adversity.
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Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Warner Bros. felt reasonably comfortable expending a huge sum of money on recreating the event. That, and the fact that Christopher Nolan is now fully testing the near-unique reach he’s gained as one of the few popular auteurs standing in contemporary Hollywood. Whatever else one thinks of Nolan, it is certain he’s a distinctive, ambitious talent who wants to reach a mass audience but in terms that don’t compromise his specific vision and methods. Either way, Dunkirk hasn’t had a particularly good time when it comes to movies. The event was encompassed but not depicted in William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver (1942), and the subject of a torpid and flimsy Ealing Studios production, Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk (1958). Although the film around it was wounded by the half-hearted pretensions of its source material, Joe Wright’s 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement contained a mini-movie depicting the event that has stood as certainly the finest to date, a five-minute tracking shot of extraordinary choreography and artistry following the film’s tragic hero in the midst of the evacuation chaos, a scene of cruelty and camaraderie, bleak immediacy and woozy surrealism, a desperate search for a locus of order and meaning only to be faced with its dissolution. The overt technical conceit succeeded in its aim of reordering the viewer’s sense of reality.
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By comparison, in the first minutes of Nolan’s film, when one of his main characters stumbles onto the beaches, Nolan’s eye surveys great expanses dotted with soldiers spaced and grouped into the kind of geometric compositions Nolan is extremely fond of. Although Nolan’s Dunkirk proposes to plunge the viewer into a hectic event, even at its most madcap, this film is rather the by-product of a relentless eye and mind, one always imposing calculation and mechanistic contemplation upon the happenstance business of popular art. Nolan takes a familiar conceit from this kind of panoramic drama in depicting action from three different viewpoints – one from a soldier on the beach, one a pilot in the air, and one the owner-captain of a boat pressed into the citizens’ flotilla – but gives it a tweak by presenting them in different time frames. Thus the aerial swashbuckling of RAF pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) takes place over a one-hour period; the voyage of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their young friend George (Barry Keoghan) unfolds over a day, and the survival run of battered soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles) lasts a week. All intersect eventually during the flux of events, with Nolan cross-cutting between the three different time frames, thus finding a real-world way to recycle the dream-state levels of Inception (2010).
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The humans in these scenes, many of whom are scarcely invested in specifics of character or identity and quite often unnamed on screen (thank you, internet), are intended in part deliberately as blank slates and avatars, clotheshorses for Nolan to drape the experiential finery of his filmmaking on: Tommy’s very name signifies him as the essential British soldier. Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy pop up, looking windswept and uncomfortable as two officers, Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant, who stand in for the higher rank’s perspective and to offer fillips of exposition for an event that is otherwise left sketched only in the vaguest of terms as to why and how it came to such a pass. The mission statement here is to thrust the audience headlong into gruelling situations alongside these avatars in events that present, in their microcosmic way, extrapolations of the drama as a whole, in its various layers of eye-level experience. Great history is given a man-sized makeover (and I do mean man; no weepy mothers or sultry French hookers a la war movies of decades past get in the way here; a couple of nurses do get the odd line). Tommy and Gibson are two young privates thrust into each other’s company on the beach, when Tommy, who has just managed to beat a gauntlet of German besiegers on his route to the British pocket, sees Gibson burying the body of another soldier. Although Gibson will not or cannot speak, the two men join forces to try to find a more expeditious route onto a rescue ship, and so volunteer as stretcher bearers, carrying a man aboard a hospital ship, dodging the queues and the bomb craters punched in the long wharf, or ‘mole.’
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Although they’re then kicked off the ship, the two men clamber down onto the underside of the mole to await a chance to slip back aboard this craft or another. But a Stuka bombing raid sinks the ship, and the pair help pluck Alex and other men from the water before they are crushed by lolling weight of steel. The trio flee down along the beach and take refuge with other soldiers in a beached boat, hoping to sail it for home when the tide dislodges it from the sand. But this plan goes awry when Germans beyond the British perimeter start using the boat for target practice, and the tide starts to flood the hold instead. Meanwhile Dawson, a gentleman of the coast who seems to have experience from the last war, sets to sea with a desire to help with his son and his friend aboard, having lost his elder son, an RAF pilot, already in the conflict. They pick up a soldier (Cillian Murphy) who’s survived the sinking of a rescue ship and is suffering badly from traumatic stress. The soldier panics when he realises his rescuers are heading on back to Dunkirk. During a tussle for control of the vessel, George is knocked back down into the boat’s interior and hits his head. Blinded at first, George soon dies of an aneurysm, but Dawson continues with his mission to save more men. Above their heads, Farrier and Collins try to ward off the Luftwaffe bombers playing havoc with the rescue; Farrier can’t tell how much fuel he has left after bullets knock out his gauge, so his fight is defined by uncertain guesswork as to how long he can continue it, whilst Collins is shot down over water.
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I’ve had many issues with Nolan’s films in the past, but I had started to come around with him after the messy yet fitfully interesting third chapter to his very profitable Batman trilogy, and the sometimes excellent science fiction epic Interstellar (2014), a film that eventually foundered on Nolan’s uneasy attempts to fuse Kubrickian grammatics with Spielbergian emotionalism and a glum retreat into sub-2001 mind-bending, but conjured a genuinely epic brand of realist scifi along the way. It was a real movie, as opposed to a cinematic conjuring trick or pseudo-intellectualisation of genre and comic book fodder. Dunkirk sees Nolan venturing into historical drama and factual portraiture for the first time in his career, a choice that promises in abstract to discipline the writer-director within new parameters. And yet for better and worse, Dunkirk is a Nolan film through and through. Few contemporary filmmakers are as confident in wielding the infrastructure of a big-scale movie production in such a way that it remains touched with a strong personal aesthetic, which in Nolan’s case means scene after scene shot in a dingy colour palette, showy editing patterns, and cunningly orchestrated sound effects. Never in the history of cinema have the sounds of men’s muffled screaming as they drown been so peerlessly communicated.
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A fascinating disconnection lays at the heart of Dunkirk, as it did with Interstellar. Nolan is a filmmaker who wants to engage in a voluble sense of human vulnerability, and yet he has little gift as a dramatist, and his human figures tend to stand in for states of mind and feelings rather than experience them. Many said that about Stanley Kubrick, one of Nolan’s evident and oft-cited inspirations, as well, but there were qualities to be picked up in Kubrick, from his coal-black humour to his sarcastic sensuality and the genuine rigour of his shot-for-shot cinema, that are totally absent from Nolan. Take, for instance, the early scenes that see Tommy escaping German bullets, and, when he gets his first time out on the beach, squats down to shit. No worry about mess. Nolan offers this sequence like a bonsai tree, lovely and potted and carefully groomed of all offensive detail as a sop to the supposed grit of his vision, and yet like everything else we see here, it’s preeningly aestheticized. Still, Dunkirk is very much a work of contemporary cinema style, and for a time, this is bracing: there’s no nostalgic gloss or air of antiquity to proceedings here even as the technology tends to look quaint now, like the Spitfires drilling the sky, battling opponents only with a pair of machine guns and their own good eyes to give them effect, and the Lee-Enfield rifles that seem so paltry a defence in the face of mechanised war.
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Nolan stages action scenes as a constant scruff-of-the-neck scramble, as when Tommy and Gibson, apparently delivered upon a rescue ship only then to be torpedoed, are forced to survive near-drowning, or later, when a different ship is sunk and we’re treated to a harum-scarum cacophony of images as some manage to swim for safety and others are cooked by spilt fuel oil lit up by a crashing Nazi bomber. Nolan’s images come on coolly at first but soon begin to pile on with ferocity as hell breaks loose. Yet to make a film about such an event takes a streak of madness, of understanding of what it feels like to have the world drop out beneath your feet, and the capacity to revel in it. And if there’s one thing certain about Nolan, it’s that he doesn’t have a mad bone in his body. This is, after all, the man who remade the id-shaped heroes and villains of the Batman tales into creatures of witless literalism and who structured tales of romantic tragedy and adventures into the mind’s recesses as puzzles with placards at their hearts in Memento (2001) and Inception. The trouble with this approach steadily unveils itself, stripping out such niceties as personality, context, and interest in the authentic players of history and replacing them with these pasteboard exemplars who wear looks of hangdog gravitas. This suits what Nolan actually does with his account of Dunkirk, which is to essentially reduce the event to a particularly gruelling fantasy adventure camp and theme park. Survive the sinking ship. Shoot down the Messerschmitt. Crap on the beach. Dodge the broken pier of death. It’s no wonder Nolan is a god for millennial film buffs; he speaks fluently the language of video game.
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In Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), the famous D-Day beach opening had its calculated side but successful realised a maelstrom of chaos and gore; death comes from every direction, in every manner. Here, Nolan winds up one shot of a creeping barrage of Stuka bombs advancing towards Tommy and blowing up a neighbour with the precious, self-satisfied smirk of a talented child arranging the elements on stage for a puppet theatre. Nolan compensates for his cynicism towards traditional drama by conveying dread through his films’ constant steely mood lighting. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s photography is fine and crisp but plays the same relentless game as Hans Zimmer’s scoring. Before going into the film I kept in mind the way Nolan uses Zimmer’s music to propel his drama and quite often provide it, and with such awareness in mind I became acutely conscious of how marvellously the music is used to high-pressure the viewer, as Zimmer mimics a ticking clock and surging tide. Much like James Brown made his band into a giant percussion instrument to fuel funk’s polyrhythms, Zimmer’s orchestrations are less music than metronome, shunting the images along with false urgency, Pavlovian cues steamrolling us into obedience. The crowds of extras are supposed to be stoic and sullen in patient anxiety whilst occasionally showing their humanity, mostly by roaring approval of certain acts of bravery. But in fact they’re as subject to Nolan’s relentlessness as a moulder of elements as any of Fritz Lang’s crowds depicting citizens of medieval Europe or futuristic Metropolis, devoid of raucous communal life.
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Nolan’s dedication to studying the event through more of a communal than individual lens has a certain worthiness and aesthetic potential, but in comparison to a filmmaker like Miklos Jancso who really could realise historical events in a way where the mass enacted a tale (e.g., Red Psalm, 1972), Nolan is a clodhopper who reduces characters to switchable pieces of a crowd rather than finding character in the crowd. No one swears, plays cards, tells dirty jokes, sings a ditty, gets drunk. This is our contemporary realism: the stuff of life in the margins is excised. It is not important. Importance is now measured in venturesome suffering. Nolan’s attempt to synthesise a restrained emotional palette suits the material, and Rylance in particular handles this well. But dialogue barely serviceable as expressions of human communication drops from the characters’ lips on occasions, as when Branagh’s Bolton stares out to sea and pronounces, “You can almost see it from here.” “See what?” asks Winnant. “Home.” Later, he stares out to sea (he does a lot of this) and, beholding the small boat flotilla heading to the rescue, he’s asked, “What do you see?” “Hope,” he replies. Nolan got paid to write this stuff, folks. Occasional flickers of anger are displayed, mostly with the RAF for their sparse attendance of the festivities, and by the finish Nolan suddenly makes a thing out of the soldiers’ shame in defeat only then to find they’re being greeted as heroes anyway.
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Nolan makes some effort to invest some complexity in his portrait of the situation, particularly in the scenes on the beached boat where Tommy, Gibson, and Alex have taken shelter with a gang of similarly unmoored men from the Highlander regiment. The young soldiers quickly reveal unreasoning ferocity in the face of blind terror. As the boat starts to flood with the rising tide, they turn on each-other. One soldier (Brian Vernel) gets it in his head, in Nolan’s efforts to generate a moral crisis, that they need to throw someone overboard to lighten the boat, in spite of the fact they’re on a sizeable craft where such an action would be utterly useless: they pick out Gibson in his silence as the odd man out, forcing the man to admit that he’s actually a French soldier who’s put on an English uniform to make his escape, his silence a ploy rather than a manifestation of shellshock. Tommy still bleatingly defends him: “It’s not fair.” This sequence reminded me of the similar moral quandary of the two bomb triggers Nolan deployed in The Dark Knight (2008), and it’s just as wince-inducing in its clumsiness as a story device and facetious as a depiction of the panicky idiot lurking under the surface of all men. Even as jittery and desperate as the men here are supposed to be, no-one in his right mind could possibly think through one man off so large a boat is going to stop it sinking. Here Nolan reminded me of some other films with blind spots in this regard, like Joseph Losey’s King & Country (1964), proposing to stick up for the little man in the face of great men’s games but ironically, in portraying that little man as gallant and those others as bestial primitives. When Nagisa Oshima cast David Bowie in his POW drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983), it was to exploit a pop star’s strange and alien beauty and use it ironically, to make him emissary of the human race in a way a Byzantine religious artist might have appreciated, as a vision of the rarefied soul. Nolan casts Styles, likewise a pop star foraying into acting, and buries him in the avalanche of lookalikes, a nobody in a sea of nobodies.
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The same weakness is evident in another of narrative’s strands, as young George collapses and dies, killed in part by the war and its effect on people. If we actually, properly knew who George was, his end might offer some pathos. Peter doesn’t let the man responsible know George has died. He chalks it up to a fortune of war instead, choosing rather to seek memorialisation for George as a young hero of the great event. Nolan makes a nod here to John Ford’s famous dictum of “print the legend” evinced in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). And yet for all its avant-garde visual force and desire to communicate survivalist urges as an overriding trait, Dunkirk is actually astonishingly square as an historical portrait, the exemplification of “print the legend.” There is no political or institutional anger evinced here, or attempt to assess the failures of a mindset as a way of learning what goes wrong in war and why, as there was in, say, Richard Fleischer’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) or Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977). Dunkirk may well have invented a new cinematic genre: the history movie without history. When the great flotilla turns up, envisioned by Nolan as the cavalry running to the rescue, their crews stand upon the decks, chin cocked at noble angles, like they’ve all escaped from some Soviet Realist poster. Rylance’s performance as Dawson is both exceptionally good in its reserve and concision of emotional effect, but it also exemplifies Nolan’s assimilation of cliché: he’s an archetype of everything homespun and simple, soft-spoken and naturally gracious, exactly what we’d fondly like to imagine everyone engaged in this enterprise was like. Hardy’s handsome mug is hidden behind a mask most of the time, elected as stand-in for the Few.
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It feels particularly tempting to compare Dunkirk to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001), a lumbering and ridiculous melodrama that at least signalled some understanding of itself as such, an attempt to visit the past through the lens of that past’s own methods of mythmaking – sweeping cinematic romance and archetypes. Nolan’s efforts here pose as deep and true, but commit the same fraud as Bay did, reducing warfare to an obstacle course whilst affirming movie star credentials through flyboy antics, as Hardy’s masked but dogged hero shoots down about six German airplanes. Man, Tom Hardy is cool. The aerial combat scenes are easily the best thing about Dunkirk however, as Nolan, usually not a director who gives any great thought as to where and why he places a camera, here often tethers his perspective to that of the pilots, their enemies appearing as flashes in the rear-view mirror to the clatter of bullets on the fuselage, or trying to catch a glimpse of a friend or enemy in the water far below. There are only pure equations to survival up here – what you can and can’t see, how long until the fuel runs out. Nolan manages something reasonably original in this way, but then undercuts the exacting practicality as he strains credibility by having Farrier continue to shoot down enemy planes even when he’s run out of fuel, and then barrels in for a perfect landing on the beach, struggling with recalcitrant landing gear all the way.
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Whilst Nolan’s temporal gimmick is engaging on some levels, inviting the viewer to piece together how everything fits in the mind and feel the pleasure of certain actions gaining context at length, I wish it didn’t often provoke to wonder if it wasn’t a great ruse on Nolan’s part to cover up how bad he’s been in the past at tracking action. Dunkirk both held my attention but constantly frustrated it, and by the end left me cold in a way that infuriates. Once, ambition and vision in Hollywood could mean works like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Heaven’s Gate (1980), giant, shambling, endlessly rich mosaics composed of history, dreams, ideas, and fervent emotion. By comparison, Dunkirk reveals how small-minded and blankly impersonal such cinema can be even as Nolan expands the limits of his frames and the impact of his sound and vision. Dunkirk demands to be described in hip clichés like “immersive” and “experiential,” but the cause such aesthetic aims are supposed to serve, in sensitising us to the meaning of individual perspective and placing us in the shoes of people overwhelmed by circumstances, are swiftly transmuting into the opposite, a method used by contemporary filmmakers to turn the art form into something more like virtual reality, sapped of dramatic – and therefore human – values. Along with it, history becomes fodder for a simplistic action-survival thriller – one without the pleasures of pulp or the tatty, bratty cornball of folk history, but instead decked out in its own borrowed finery of import. Kubrick could give you both a moment of profound sentiment like the famous singalong at the end of Paths of Glory (1957) and also a stinging moment of personal rage and black comedy like the anointed martyr who makes his prayers to wine rather than gods. Nothing like that subsists here. This is a cold, barren, sterile beach to die on.

Standard
1960s, Auteurs, Erotic, Fantasy, Historical, Italian cinema

Fellini ∙ Satyricon (1969)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Federico Fellini

By Roderick Heath

Thanks to the enormous impact of La Dolce Vita (1960) and (1963), Federico Fellini’s name had been vaulted into the tiny canon of filmmakers whose names were household words. The phrase “Felliniesque” came to spell out a brand of gaudy, sensual, yearning artistry in the same way Hitchcockian meant suspense and DeMille meant the epic. Fellini’s panoramic grappling with the chaotic impulses of society at large and his own internal universe glimpsed in those two films had also seen the tension between the neorealist Italian cinematic model Fellini had inherited and the fantasticality, riven with expressionistic vividness, priapic excitement, and raw showmanship, that he was increasingly drawn to, seemingly resolved in favour of the latter. The rest of his career was to be given over mostly to riotous conjurations of spectacle, to the point where filmgoers would be split into camps, those who would by and large reject Fellini’s later works as monuments to self-indulgence, and those who would continue to greet them as carnivals celebrating artistic personality at last given its proper imperial status in the cinematic realm, in a way previously denied to all but the most rarefied talents. When his adaptation of the ancient Roman novel Satyricon was to be released in 1969, another version of the same book was also being filmed. So, Fellini’s name was added to the title, turning auteur into brand, a promise, an advertising gimmick, and soon his works like Fellini Roma (1972) and Fellini’s Casanova (1976) wore their authorial mark like haute couture designer labels.
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Fellini had first moved beyond ’s fetid self-analysis approach when he made Juliet of the Spirits (1965), a showcase for his wife and consistent collaborator Giulietta Massina that also extended the navel-gazing favour to her, attempting to evoke a woman’s inner life in similar terms to his own autobiographical tale, in flourishes of visual rapture alternated with discomforting personal confessions and obfuscations. For his next feature (with Toby Dammit, his contribution to Histoires extraordinaires, 1967, in between), Fellini took up the fragmentary novel most often credited to Petronius Arbiter, a contemporary of the Emperor Nero, who was famed in his time as a fashion guru and style expert, who nonetheless eventually committed suicide during an epic banquet, an act intended as both escape from Nero’s wrath and a colossal goad to it. The weirdness, extravagance, and decadence of imperial Rome held obvious attractions to Fellini, as a place both to continue the theme of looking at civilisation’s discontents by turning an eye to the past, and a new stage to turn his new delight in pure optical rapture upon. The artistic atmosphere of the late 1960s had evolved at blinding speed, and in some ways Fellini had done his part to help it along. The monologue about doing away with the dead and dated parts of the modern soul in had been taken up as a generational creed along with aspects of the film’s technique and visual lexicon, and by 1969 Fellini’s once-scandalous approach to sexuality and other corporeal perversities was, if not exactly quaint, certainly restrained. Fellini’s artistic persona was fortunate in many ways, particularly as the things he was wrestling with inside himself were also the things he delighted in provoking others with.
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Satyricon was a particularly challenging project to take on in this regard as the book revolves around a daisy chain of sexual couplings, many of which are homosexual. In Petronius’ book, this subject is tackled with blunt and lackadaisical acceptance in the classical way, if laced with Romanesque attitudes still sadly familiar to us today, in which gay activity was often a low and dirty business fit either for comedy or insults with political connotations. Fellini’s ongoing exercise in self-purgation might well have also driven him to take up such a subject. The director’s fascination with physicality as a realm too often ignored by filmmakers usually happy to offer up fantastic perfection, was rich with both fixated fascination and morbid unease. He filled his movies with galleries of oddball types, an allure that with Satyricon branched out into a more complete regard of the body as censorship limits fell away. Fellini’s love of the great, fleshy maternal body, reminiscent of a pagan faith stretching back to the Venus of Willendorf, celebrated in was his natural theatre of sexual delight, but he pushed past this to try and encompass all forms of carnality. Bodies fill every cinematic orifice of Satyricon, young and muscular, old and pendulous, withered and gross, bulbous and bountiful. A rebellious artist trying to throw off Catholic moralism was also trying to connect urgently with this dance of repulsion and delight. Fellini had offered up some broad queer caricatures in La Dolce Vita, and Satyricon finds him caught in a posture, at once fascinating and perturbing, of trying to encompass pansexual lust as just another wing of the museum.
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Fellini also declared that Satyricon was less an attempt to delve into the past as it might have been but rather as a self-conscious modern attempt to dream it – or, as he put it, trying to give it the same atmosphere as an exploration of a Martian city. Right from its early frames, exploring the labyrinthine world where protagonist Encolpio (Martin Potter) subsists in Rome’s lowest, subterranean precincts along with the rest of demimonde populace, Satyricon inhabits a space replete with dreamlike extrapolations of ancient paraphernalia, whilst the characters walk, squirm, wrestle, play, fuck, and fight in spaces alternately narrow and cavernous. Fellini’s imaginative palate here might well have been stretching back to the spectacles of silent cinema. He had already hinted at his lingering fascination for the oversized zest of Italian cinema in those days when he referenced Giuseppe Pastrone’s foundational work Cabiria with his beloved 1957 tragicomedy Nights of Cabiria, a film that wryly correlated the exiled and enslaved eponymous heroine of Pastrone’s work with a would-be modern equivalent. Pivotal images and motifs from Pastrone’s film float to the surface here, like the face of the colossal temple of Moloch, here remembered in a glimpse of a huge sculptural face pushed down an alley, and a violent earthquake shaking the world of pathetically small people with contemptuous energy. Likewise the monumental sets (overseen by Danilo Donati) harken back to the likes of the grand silent projects of Fritz Lang and D.W. Griffith, whilst also taking licence from the oneiric worlds conjured by the German Expressionists. Satyricon takes place in a barely liminal place, a fact clear even before Fellini strays into a countryside where the sky glows hallucinogenic hues, like a ‘50s scifi movie’s approximation of an alien world, and ocean-going galleys that look like crashed spaceships, painted in hues alternately trippy and earthy thanks to the superlative cinematography of Giueseppe Rotunno.
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Whilst signalling a never-never approach to the Roman text, Fellini’s method actually allows him to get at the essence of another age in ways many more familiar approaches never manage. He creates an infinitely strange scene, full of painted faces and tinny jewellery and totemic objects, ringing dust and febrile sweat and stinky-looking clothes, all so immediate they threaten to peel themselves out of the screen and haunt your nostrils. The early scenes depict Encolpio living in fetid poverty, a student who seems to have abandoned his studies in favour of cohabitation with his beautiful young slave and lover, Giton (Max Born). But his fellow and former lover Ascilto (Hiram Keller) crows on the fact he’s played a vengeful prank on Encolpio by selling Giton behind his back to the actor Vernacchio (Fanfulla) as a pretty face for his stage. Encolpio, after fighting with Ascilto and forcing him to tell where Giton is, confronts the actor, who surrenders the boy when a rich man in the audience reminds him he’s already on thin ice for his habits of satirising the Emperor, making the actor afraid of any further legal troubles. Encolpio is gratefully restored to his bed with Giton, only for Ascilto to come in, and the boy promptly votes to go with him instead, leaving Encolpio alone and desolate again. The earthquake causes the underground complex where Encolpio lives to collapse, and he barely survives. Later, visiting an art gallery, he encounters a friend, the poet Eumolpus (Salvo Randone). He invites Encolpio along to a banquet being held by the immensely rich Trimalchio (Mario Romagnoli), who fancies himself a poet as well, but is really a might vulgarian who oversees orgies of self-congratulation and indulgence.
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Trimalchio’s orgy is the kind of sequence Fellini always went to town with, an extravagant show of what wealth pulls into the plutocrat’s orbit, but lacking the bohemian bravura that often gripped similar scenes in his earlier films. Trimalchio’s festivities are instead crass spectacles where Homer is recited but the real entertainment highlight is the master ordering Eumolpus to be thrown into the kitchen oven as a punishment for his drunken outburst, after he’s pelted with food for reciting his poems. Trimalchio’s servants do drag the poet down to the kitchen and pour scalding matter on his face, but stop short of actually throwing him into the oven. Trimalchio boasts of his desire to own lands right down to Sicily so he travel the length of Italy without leaving his own property, and confesses to a youth spent as sex slave to both master and mistress as part of his long apprenticeship before becoming a crony of the Emperor, with the inference that anyone else who wants to get somewhere needs to get on with such an apprenticeship. Roast animals filled with smaller treats are sliced open, disgorging their goodies like steaming viscera. Trimalchio is carried up through the hills to visit his future tomb, play-acting the mourning rites and genuflecting obligated by his death for his pleasure whilst he’s alive, only for one of his friends to narrate a comic narrative about “the Matron of Ephesus,” a bride mourning her rich husband who falls in love with a soldier detailed to watch a hanged man’s body in the same cemetery. After the soldier’s charge is stolen, the widow quickly volunteered her dead mate’s body as a replacement to save her new lover from punishment: the moment you’re dead, even the greatest man isn’t worth shit.
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The alternately tedious and violently compelling proximity of Eros and Thanatos is an obsessive refrain in Satyricon, depicting a world mostly lacking the kinds of safety cordons between activities and moral precepts we’re used to today precisely because the cycles of life and death move much faster, push harder, demand reflexive action. Antihero Encolpius is finally stricken with impotence – “I’ve lost my sword!” – in the film’s concluding scenes, stripping him of his purest device for expressing his life-lust after his many adventures driven by his own erotic urges and those of others. The only quality that elevates him over most of these others is that he is sometimes touched with an effervescent poeticism that comes at the end of such ventures. When Encolpius and Eumolpus stumble drunkenly away from Trimalchio’s company, they fall down on a ploughed field as the poet recites rapturously and offers his spiritual gift of poetry to the younger man: the path through absurd plenty and grotesque wealth has granted the two men a moment sheer, unbridled beauty and essence-grasping. But Encolpius’ finds his life about to take a strange turn, as he’s picked up from the beach where he fell asleep by slavers and dumped in the cargo hold of a ship, where he finds himself accompanied by Giton and Ascilto.
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Friends of the emperor are collecting attractive young men for his sport whilst voyaging to his private island, and this wayward trio have been imprisoned on the ship of rich merchant Lichas (Alain Cuny). During the course of the voyage, Encolpius spies on the master of the ship and his wife Tryphaena (Capucine) in their floating pleasure dome. Caught in the act, Encolpius is forced to battle Lichas, who dresses as a gladiator and fights well. Instead of killing the younger man, Lichas prostrates and ravages him. This twist leads into pansexual romps that finally result in Lichas, smitten with Encolpius, engaging in a marriage rite with him, under his wife’s seemingly approving gaze. But when the ships reach the Emperor’s island, the passengers are just in time to see the Emperor (Tanya Lopert) surrounded by assassins sent by a usurper. The Emperor commits suicide before they can kill him, so they board Lichas’ ship and when he protests their actions, he’s swiftly and brutally beheaded. The prisoners are all dragged off to serve new masters, but Encolpius and Ascilto manage to give their captors the slip and traverse the rocky, unfamiliar shore they’ve been stranded on.
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Petronius’ Satyricon was a bawdy, talkative, cosmopolitan affair, both a lampoon of a civilisation at its height and a product of it, sarcastically annexing the wanderers of Greek and Roman mythology and forcing them to play out a humorously debased version of those myths, in a manner other artists would take up from Alexander Pope with his The Dunciad to James Joyce with Ulysses. Fellini, although building his film around characters and incidents from the source, nonetheless offered a very different artistic and conceptual beast, transmuting his basis into something that often looks and feels like the kind of crazy dream you’re supposed to have after eating cheese and olives before bedtime. The book as passed down to us is actually a series of portions and extracts, with perhaps hundreds of other pages still missing. Fellini tried to incorporate the disjointed impression this gives the reader in his own film, which segues with dreamy dissolves and interludes between phases of a narrative that stutters forth as a series of tableaux, resulting in an initially bewildering, even maddening sense of flux pervading proceedings. He also bolstered the impression by utilising deliberately mismatched dubbing for the cast, which, as was common in Italian films of the time, was polyglot. Potter, a British actor, had established his fides for this material starring in two 1968 teledramas, Nigel Kneale’s future-shock parable The Year of the Sex Olympics and Philip Mackie’s The Caesars, an intelligent precursor to the better-known I, Claudius. But he was asked to provide the eye of Satyricon’s storm rather than give a star turn, his form an integral part of the wider canvas.
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Upon revisit, Satyricon actually proves quite straightforward, if still governed by its own rambling, discursive attention patterns. Throughout the film, Fellini reduces the screen to a kind of moving fresco filled with bodies and architectural designs, atomising the visual experience. The act of travelling with and through Rotunno’s camera is as vital an act as paying attention to the story or dialogue, indeed moreso, as we are immersed in Fellini’s constructed world. Trimalchio’s banquet is repeatedly punctuated by guests staring at the camera as if it was another, fallible, intoxicated person present to witness this panoply of excess, and elsewhere the photography crumbles into variegated impressions, obliquely viewed. A tracking shot through the underground zone Encolpius inhabits at the outset cruises along a boulevard teeming with vendors, pedestrians, and flotsam of a floating world, and domiciles off the way filled with denizens including ordinary families and prostitutes with clients, all of them reduced to a kind of macrobiological diorama: the fecund business of being conceived, born, surviving, and dying laid out in a wild, near-mindless nest of human animals. Trimalchio’s banquet repeats the same motif, starting with a purification ritual where the guests bob up and down rhythmically in the nude, before the feast where they’re laid out in their prone rows like sardines served up not as food but as witnesses to generosity of the gross overlord. Satyricon certainly offered Fellini a chance to act out his most licentious fantasies about the past as well as way of appealing to the new mood of the cinema audience with his high-psychedelic vision.
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And yet Fellini offers such marvels whilst fumbling towards a new fulfilment, however perversely realised, of the old neorealist ideal of laying out society for the camera to see in all its layers. His mural seethes with a sense of life as lived in different zones, with Encolpio’s journey spans highest social level to highest, by dint of his status as bohemian student and artist, perpetually broke but connected with the minds of the empire, and then as a fool of fortune scooped up and dumped down by the shifting tides of social action. The schism between mind and body had been a central theme Fellini chased down again and again, purveyed through figures like the clown in La Strada (1954) who operates from the most bestial urges and evolves into an empathetic human too late, to ’s Guido Anselmi, tormented by the needs of his physical and erotic selves even as his intellectual and emotional aspect constantly strives to reconcile his facets. His final acceptance of himself and attempt to move past it opened the gate for Satyricon, which dives into a vision of the past that sees that age mostly free of such schisms. No-one is surprised by any urge of the body or mind, although there are opposing reactions to free indulgence. When Encolpius and Ascilto enter an abandoned villa looking for plunder, they instead find an African slave girl hiding away, who joins the men in a threesome, an interlude that’s notable as perhaps one of the few truly joyful erotic moments in the film. The girl giggles in aroused delight at the two men caressing each-other, three free-and-easy people momentarily released from various forms of bondage in a moment of careless sensual indulgence. Earlier, by contrast, a society wife kissing Trimalchio’s mate with tentative Sapphic fascination stirred the macho outrage and lust of her husband.
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Fellini also attempts, amidst all the carnal fetishism, to dig into problems persistent in our communal life. Access to all that splendour is the lot of the rich and powerful. Others are forced to take their pleasures where they can, and the use of other people’s bodies, sexual and servile, is endemic. Encolpio is initially frantic in his desperate desire for his nominal slave, whom he nonetheless gives the freedom of choosing his own path, only to be repaid when the boy rejects him immediately. Vernacchio’s actor troupe hacks off body parts from slaves purchased for performances, then have the actor playing the Emperor “restore” them. Eumolpus is the voice of reason and beauty partly hiding a jealous man longing for sensual delights, bemoaning the decay of artistic and receptivity both thanks to the insidious power of Mammon and luxury dulling the senses whilst craving a little such dulling himself. Trimalchio is revealed as ancestor and avatar of the magnates and moguls who danced through Fellini’s contemporary panoramic works, promising horns of plenty to the agreeable and destruction to the upstarts and time-wasters. The downfall of the young Emperor brings not liberation but a reactionary new regime, no less violent but seemingly more puritanical, celebrating itself with triumphal processions. Some seed here for Fellini’s branding of Fascism as a mixture of holiday camp workout and Busby Berkeley production number in Amarcord (1973). A shot of the crew of Lichas’ ship hauling in the carcass of a dead basking shark recalls the discovery of the mutant sea monster at the end of La Dolce Vita, signalling a continuum, the confrontation with the strangeness of nature and its role as bewildering foil to human arrogance.
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One of Fellini’s boldest and strangest inventions was the figure of a hermaphrodite albino, worshipped as a holy oracle and demigod by people in the surrounding district to the profit of his keepers. In the fourth of the film’s hazily bracketed chapters, Encolpio and Ascilto, looking for a way to make some money stranded far from home, kidnap the demigod with the aid of a hulking local. But the trio haven’t reckoned with the pampered and crippled oracle’s inability to survive the heat and dryness of the landscape, and s/he dies of dehydration. The angry third man attacks his fellows in this disastrous enterprise for their ignorance, forcing them to fight back, and Ascilto knocks him out. The hermaphroditic oracle embodies Fellini’s fascination/fear in the flesh taken an extreme, one that edges into territory anticipating David Lynch’s images of perverted birth in Eraserhead (1976) and the new flesh sagas of David Cronenberg, as the sorry creature pants desperately for water. Incapable of speech, rotund breasts jutting from a sickly white form, the oracle is a weird survival of a misbegotten creation ironically taken up as an icon of religious fervour, and an expression of hazy sexual identity beyond the healthy jutting pricks and mighty breasts of Fellini’s homier fantasies. Encolpio, played by the blonde-haired Potter, and Ascilto, by the dark-haired, aptly satyr-like Keller, occasionally come across as arch queer caricatures with their flashing eyes and sneering, revealing the limitations besetting Fellini’s efforts to escape old frames of reference. But then again, everyone else is turned into a Hogarthian study in essential nature, in the yawing lusty mouths of the high society women and the voracious maws of the menfolk.
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In this way, Fellini accesses one of the defining elements of a pre-modern literature and mythology, where the characters are functions of social or moral values or their antitheses, and embodiments rather than creatures of psychological reflexes. Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of his protégés and a successor as Italian cinema hero, was moving into similar territory with his takes on Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), equally strange if cooler-tempered, headier explorations of the past through a meshing effect of artifice and authenticity in dialectic. Also like his former collaborator, Pasolini would eventually be drawn to study the recent past evil in Italian life, in Salo (1975), through the prism of classic literature, the dose of black arsenic to Satyricon’s bitter but heady wine in contemplating the twinning of erotic excursion and will to power. Ascilto, when first glimpsed, crawls out of the shadows like a big cat, almost the actualisation of Encolpio’s disruptively horny id. The film’s most beatific visions of human nature, ironically and yet also as a consequence to all this contemplation of appetite, mostly involve death, although it’s also present in Encolpio and Lichas’ surprisingly lovely wedding sequence, an episode of tender affection, complete with the aging businessman dressed as a young bride, that defies cynicism. Following their initial escape from the galleys after Lichas’s murder, Encolpio and Ascilto stumble upon an abandoned villa. They’ve just missed the suicide of the master (Joseph Wheeler) and his wife (Lucia Bosè), after farewelling their children on the road, apparently having been obligated to die as adherents of the dead emperor: the husband commands his wife not to do the same as he slices his wrists and slowly bleeds out, but she follows him into death.
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The quiet, even ethereal evocation of loving in the face of death is later rhymed with Ascilto’s death at the hands of a boatman-turned-robber: when he finds Ascilto’s body, Encolpio pauses for a sad rhapsody over the man who has constantly baited and betrayed him but has also been, to the end, a being of enormous life-force, teasing, pushing, defying, aggravating, invigorating. The salutary, totemic quality of these rhyming scenes privileges the characters in them with a sense, however fleeting, of substance achieved in having lived, as opposed to the blithe insubstantiality of actually living, and the tenacity of affections in the face of nihilism. Lichas’s death, which sees his headless corpse collapse to the deck whilst his heads bobs in the water, achieves on the other hand a bleak and shocking effect of suddenly curtailed life and raw violence, his wife gloating from the boat and his husband shocked back out of the bliss of his brief, peculiar nuptials. This moment is linked in turn to Encolpio’s later fight for survival when, in punishment for the oracle’s death, he’s cast into a labyrinth and forced to battle a hulking executioner wearing a minotaur mask. This scene, shot in sweat-inducing close and oblique shots that distort and cut off understanding of the geography, conveys Encolpio’s utter existential desperation as fate has brought him to this nightmarish zone.
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Encolpio escapes death by pleading for mercy from the executioner (Luigi Montefiori), who strips off his mask and vows fellowship with him. Encolpio soon learns he’s been the victim of a mean prank, an amusement for the citizens of a town who celebrate a day in honour of Momus, the god of laughter, and his reward for his elegant pleas is to be presented to a woman, Ariadne, whom he must have sex with to cap the festivities. But this is when Encolpius finds his experiences have left him with only a limp noodle. Fate tosses him a salve as he encounters Eumolpus, who has stumbled his way into a lucrative governorship and has now given himself up to pure hedonism in a brothel called The Garden of Delights. Now he’s surrounded with concubines who happily take to the task of trying to restore Encolpius’s virility in a hilarious ritual where some beat him on the buttocks with twigs whilst others ride a swing over his head, with Ascilto gleefully joining them to pile insult upon injury. Finally Encolpius goes to visit a witch, Oenothea (Donyale Luna), whose own tale is pointlessly but amusingly narrated as her past involves lighting tortures with the radiant power of her crotch. But whilst he does regain his potency with the witch, Encolpius is distracted from the fight that claims Ascilto’s life, like a karmic retribution, the loss of his wild and impish second self.
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Soon Encolpius learns that Eumolpus has also died, just before he was about to make a voyage to sell a fortune’s worth of slaves. But Eumolpus was at least well-prepared for that end, as, with his body wrapped for the grave, his creditors learn that he’s promised them a slice of his fortune in his will if they will quite literally eat him, piece by bloody piece, a gory task the businessmen nonetheless agree to. This makes for the poet’s perfect kiss-off to banal beings of money he hated so much, and the reductio ad absurdum of the tale’s refrains of wealth, possession, corporeal meaning, and death. Encolpio meanwhile joins the freed slaves in making off with the ship and sailing to a remote island that becomes home and haven. The fantasia finally flickers out to a close with Encolpius reaching a state of being roughly coincident with maturity, joining the escapees from the reach of the imperial yoke, entwining the achievement of personal and political freedom and signalling both as states towards which humans are doomed to strive through all the cruel and amusing learning processes of existence.

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Perhaps the most pungent quality of Satyricon from today’s perspective, which is sometimes ironically celebrated as an artefact of the era of its making in a manner not dissimilar to the way Fellini in turn looked back to the distant past as a time of lawless possibility, is its attempt to encompass basic extremes of human nature in a manner free of sentiment or nostalgia, enslaved to no-one’s idea of what cinema should look or sound like except its creator’s, vibrating to its own madcap penchant, at once feverishly beautiful and garishly ugly. The film’s last conceit is one of its most brilliant, after commencing with Encolpius’ laments before a wall covered in graffiti, by returning to this motif with the characters all painted on ruins standing on the lonely sea-shore. These people echo through time in faded, remote images, the thrumming blood of their lives turned to dust but some transcription of their nature left persisting in art, fixing their baleful gazes upon the denizens of another, perhaps no wiser time.

 

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1920s, Fantasy, German cinema, Historical, Horror/Eerie

Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, 1924) / The Man Who Laughs (1928)

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Director: Paul Leni

By Roderick Heath

Paul Leni’s name might not be as instantly recognisable to movie lovers as his fellows in the legendary days of German “Expressionist” cinema, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. Nonetheless, Leni stands with them as one of the major creative figures of that style, of the budding horror film genre, and of the great mature phase of silent cinema in general. Leni beat both directors to the punch in emigrating to Hollywood in the mid-1920s, where he did vital work fusing the concerted visual effects of the UFA approach with the steady, rhythmically intense storytelling motifs of Hollywood, and so perhaps had the most immediate impact on a generation of directors emerging at the time, including Josef von Sternberg, John Ford, and Sergei Eisenstein. Like Murnau, he would die tragically young and at the peak of his talents, in his case from blood poisoning resulting from an abscessed tooth, a sad and ridiculous fate somehow in keeping with the tenor of Leni’s ripely morbid works. Leni’s initial work in cinema came as a set designer and decorator, a vocation he had learnt in the theatres of Berlin, and soon plied for directors including Joe May and E. A. Dupont. He continued to provide art direction for other filmmakers even after he made his debut as director, Dr Hart’s Diary (1917). Leni’s true calling card was however to be Waxworks, one of the near-mythical works springing from the king tide of Expressionism in German film.

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Following Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Waxworks similarly offers an early take on the anthology film, composed of short, distinct but stylistically and thematically related stories. His screenwriter on the project was Henrik Galeen, who penned several Expressionist classics including Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) and Murnau’s Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922). Waxworks commences with a young poet, played by William Dieterle, later to become a significant director himself, invited to visit a waxworks show that travels with a carnival that’s rolled into town: the carnival is popular but the waxworks is ignored. The poet speaks to the manager of the show (John Gottowt) and his daughter Eva (Olga Belajeff), and learns they want someone to write entertaining stories to lend mythos to the major figures in the show, which are Harun-Al-Raschid, the Caliph of Baghdad who featured in Arabian Nights, Ivan the Terrible, and Jack the Ripper, who is conflated here with Spring-Heeled Jack, the supernatural wayfarer who supposedly terrorised London in the late eighteenth century. The poet readily takes up the exhibitors’ offer, and even quickly and amusedly amends a proposed tale when the owner accidentally breaks a limb off the Harun figure; thus the poet begins to tell the story of how the Caliph lost his arm. Leni then begins to illustrate the poet’s historical fantasia, with Harun personified as a corpulent autocrat, played by Emil Jannings. Harun plays chess with his Grand Vizier on a terrace of his castle, only to be disturbed when a cloud of black smoke begins to spoil the day’s splendour. Angry because he was losing the match, Harun sends his Vizier out to track down whoever is making the smoke and execute them. The source of the pollution proves to be the chimney of a baker (Dieterle again), who is married to the most beautiful woman in Baghdad, Maimune (Belajeff again). Delighted with the glimpse he catches of her as she flirts with her husband and then him from her vantage, the Vizier forgets his vicious duty and instead returns to tell the Caliph of this desirable jewel.

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The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), immortal as the founding work of the film Expressionist style, had a cunning metafictional device to frame it, as the protagonists in the central drama of mesmerism and murder were revealed to be lunatics in an asylum, reconfigured into actors in a psychotic’s fantasy. By comparison, Waxwork’s frame has a lighter, humorous quality, as the poet’s fancies are devices for flirting with Eva. Except that Waxworks’ chapters essentially tell the same story over in variances, becoming increasingly direct and intensified in figuring the lovers and the deadly threat. Woven in with this is an equal and increasingly nervous contemplation of the individual vulnerable in the face of ravening power, couched first social and political terms, in Harun and Ivan, and then in the lurking, miasmic pure dread of Jack the Ripper. This first episode offers the theme in a mildly comedic manner, as Harun and the baker make expeditions to claim what the other one has: Harun wants the baker’s wife and the baker, trying to appease her stoked desire for worldly rewards, decides to break into the palace and steal Harun’s wish-granting magic ring. The Vizier’s visit has stoked awareness in both baker and bride of their lowly, straitened circumstances, and their festering resentments break out afterwards, with the baker stomping out on his vainglorious mission with the declaration, “I am a man!” This talismanic phrase recurs with more specific force in Leni’s later film, The Man Who Laughs, but its implicit declaration of the innate rights and stature of the individual echoes throughout Waxworks. It’s not hard to look for its relevance to real-world circumstances at the time – Germany was deep in the grip of the post-war reparations-induced economic crisis. Murnau’s The Last Laugh the same year tackled, again with Jannings, the same theme of desperation and dehumanisation through fiscal crisis.

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In the first chapter, this battle resolves comically after Leni intercuts Harun’s surprisingly clumsy, self-satisfied efforts to seduce Eva, with her husband’s adventures. He steals into the palace and penetrates the shadowy, cavernous reaches of his bedchamber, locating what he thinks is the Caliph but is actually a dummy he leaves in his bed when he goes out on such nocturnal adventures. Believing the dummy is the real Caliph, the baker slices off the figure’s arm and flees, dodging guards and finally escaping the palace with a daring leap onto a palm tree that swings him over the battlement. He returns to his home, as his wife hurriedly hides the Caliph in the only secret place available – the oven. The baker’s venture to steal a fake version of the seemingly mystical jewel proves just as vainglorious as the Caliph’s seduction, and it’s left to Maimune to conjure a fittingly advantageous end for all concerned as she pretends to use the stolen jewel to wish the Caliph to appear alive, whereupon he crawls out of the oven, covered in soot but saved from profound embarrassment, and to repay the favour he appoints the baker the official baker to the palace, leaving off with a final image of the Caliph embracing both partners, cheekily redolent of a ménage-a-trois in the offing.

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This chapter of Waxworks somewhat belies the film’s reputation as a classic specifically of horror cinema, instead signalling a link between the performative professionalism and flimflammer art of the carnival and the stage pantomime, as well as reaching back to the portmanteau storytelling tradition as represented by the Arabian Nights itself, as well as the labours of Germanic anthologists like Hoffmann and the Grimm brothers. This sense of Waxworks as a cultural bridging point is important in itself. The major “characters” of the waxworks are introduced with the actors who embody them noted at the same time, reducing the great historical figures and the big stars to rigid figures, powerless without poets to animate them. Meanwhile the narrative performs a similar function, turning these real beings into functions of a private mythological and psychological universe. The stylisation of the settings, the quintessential flourish of the Expressionist style, aims not for realism but for a brand of minimalist, almost symbolic representation. Whereas with Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and Die Nibelungen (1924), Lang laboured to fuse together the dreamlike aspect of Expressionism’s already-familiar twisting reaches and heavy shadows with a three-dimensional sense of scale and stature, here Leni pushes in the opposite direction, reducing his setting and backdrop as close towards the insubstantial as he can without quite going entirely abstract.

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The curving minarets and bowing walls of the palace, up which snakes the black spout of the baker’s inconvenient chimney. The awesome yet almost melting halls of the palace interior, where minions steal between warped columns and smoke and incense dreamily fill the corridors, is definitely a place of the mind, an inner sanctum of libidinous greed, whereas the baker’s home is almost a cave, curved and womb-like. The second chapter, shorter than the first, repeats the motif of the mighty, arbitrary ruler of life and death imposing himself on a pair of young lovers. This time, however, the theme is Ivan the Terrible, presented as a glowing-eyed lunatic stricken with a compulsive, almost childlike fascination for the horrors he can reap on just about anyone he pleases. Where Jannings’ bluff, hammy performance was suited for the take on Harun as corpulent, casually murderous but actually easily tamed potentate, this chapter offers Conrad Veidt as an unnervingly fixated, spindly-limbed emanation of the sickliest part of the id, glimpsed moving in a stiff crouch along a dank passage that connects his apartments with the Kremlin’s torture chambers.

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This tale, shorter and sharper than its predecessor, strips the bark off the fantasy figuration of lust and power. Leni presents Ivan as a monster governed and, to a degree, held in check by an elaborate network of irrational devices. In particular, a giant hourglass is used to measure how long his victims will be tortured, their names written on the glass. When the sand runs out, so does their tenure on Earth. Ivan’s astrologer, his closest confidant, inspires suspicions in the tyrant’s mind over the loyalty of his head poison-mixer, and so Ivan decides to have him arrested. The poisoner, in turn, vengefully writes Ivan’s name on the hourglass before he’s arrested. Ivan’s dubious pleasures are interrupted with a boyar arrives, asking him to attend his daughter’s wedding. The paranoid Tsar at first takes the old man’s entreaty as a set-up to lure him into an assassination, but then agrees to be a guest, with one codicil: he insists that the boyar dress in his clothes, and vice versa. The Tsar’s instincts prove right, as a hidden gang of assassins tries to skewer him with an arrow as he rides through Moscow, but their bolt, aimed at the regally-dressed figure, kills the boyar instead. Ivan arrives at the boyar’s house and triumphantly announces his arrival, forgetting the detail that the bride’s father is dead. The bride (Belajeff) weeps over his body and her husband (Dieterle) releases a tirade of fury at the Tsar, for which he is instantly imprisoned and tortured. The Tsar also has the bride spirited to his chambers to seduce her. She strikes him with a crop instead, so he drags her down to witness her husband’s sufferings. His pleasure is however cut short as his astrologer brings him the hourglass marked with his name, believing it means the poisoner successfully dosed the Tsar fatally. Ivan spirals into complete insanity as he thinks he’s dying, and he keeps turning the hourglass over, believing this will stay the moment of his death. A title card explains he kept doing this until the day he died.

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Here the insistent correlation of the eroticised id with a will to worldly power becomes more distinctly maniacal and driving, whilst the watch-like parts of the story tick on with swift, precise effect. This chapter of Waxworks seems to have had an almost endless influence on many who have followed, most especially Eisenstein, who clearly drew upon it for his similarly arch take on the Tsar in Ivan the Terrible Parts I (1944) and II (1958), reproducing the angular sets and equally angular performances. Leni himself would build upon it with The Man Who Laughs, and Sternberg would draw on both, surely, for his own visit to the realm of the historical fantasia, The Scarlet Empress (1934).

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The last chapter of Waxworks is very short, almost an appendix, but it’s also the most bizarre and remarkable sequence. Here the poet imagines he and Eva are being stalked around the carnival and town by Jack the Ripper, who seems to disappear like a phantom and reappear, and even manifests in many places at once, as the world becomes increasingly strange and distorted. Finally the poet is shaken awake by Eva: he’s been having a nightmare, and he gratefully embraces his new lover. Here Leni slips all bonds of narrative precept and essentially offers a visualised nightmare, a plunge into a formless state of irrationality, where the poet’s invented enemies and rivals for Eva’s affections void all forms to become a blank, implacable engine of erotic threat. Here is both the seed for the image of the slasher killer who would later maraud his way across many a movie screen in the next century, a psychological conception of threat stripped out of all zone of actual human interest – Leatherface, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees are distant descendants. But Leni’s flourishes of style here also veer into virtually experimental film style in his madly proliferating double exposures and increasingly formless sense of space, used to evoke the complete inward spiral of the psyche towards an ultimate confrontation with that dark character within. Here too is kinship with the lawless effects of filmmakers as diverse as Kenneth Anger, David Lynch, and Maya Deren.

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Waxworks made Leni’s name, and within a couple of years he went to Hollywood on Carl Laemmle’s invitation. His sense of humour as well as style and menace might well have put in him good stead with Tinseltown, and his first American project was to film Crane Wilbur’s comedy-horror play The Cat and the Canary (1927). That film proved a big hit, laying down a template that would soon resolve into Universal’s house style of horror and offering fillips of style that still recur in horror films today, like its restless, entity-suggesting camerawork. Leni’s third Hollywood film, The Man Who Laughs, has a legendary lustre today, in part because of its pop cultural influence, particularly on that perennial enemy of Batman, The Joker. There’s an irony in there, as the eponymous hero of Leni’s film, adapted from the novel L’homme qui rit by Victor Hugo, couldn’t be more different to Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s enigmatic psychopath. Like Hugo’s other, more famous protagonists Quasimodo and Jean Valjean, The Man Who Laugh’s central figure Gwynplaine represents a politically abused but potentially powerful underclass, and like Quasimodo his exterior ugliness belies his fine, tortuously sensitive humanity. The film also reunited Leni with Veidt on new shores. The Man Who Laughs kicks off with a long prologue where, although the settings are more tangible and vivid, returns to the Ivan the Terrible episode of Waxworks as it depicts the English King James II (Samuel de Grasse) and his jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst) descend from palace to dungeon at the news his soldiers have captured the rebellious Lord Clancharlie (Veidt). James gloats over Clancharlie for sadistic jollies as he informs him that, as a punishment in his father’s stead, his young son Gwynplaine has been handed over to a sect of gypsies known as comprachico, who specialise in creating deformed and disabled freaks for carnivals, with the instructions to carve his son’s face into a permanent grin, “to laugh forever at his fool father.”

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The opening scenes of The Man Who Laughs are a remarkable string of images and settings. The statue-lined environs of James’ bedchamber. The jester’s malignant face looking out of a secret passage framed by carved monstrosities. The iron maiden closing around Lord Clancharlie as he prays for his son. The wind and snow-whipped shore where the comprachicos, sent into exile by James after they’ve done his gruesome bidding, flock onto a boat but abandon young Gwynplaine (Julius Molnar Jr) to the elements. The mutilated child gropes his way through a blizzard studded with hanged bodies dangling from gibbets, the harvest of James’ repressions. Gwynplaine comes across a woman, frozen to death but with her infant child still clutched to her breast. He saves the baby and brings her to the parked caravan of travelling actor Ursus (Cesare Gravina), who recognises that the baby is blind and demands of the boy, “Stop that laughing!” before he realises he cannot. Ursus takes both youngsters in and they make a living travelling between country fairs. By the time Gwynplaine (Veidt again) and the girl, named Dea (Mary Philbin), have grown into adults, Gwynplaine has gained fame, bordering on folk heroism, as a clown and entertainer. Along with a band of fellow players, he, Ursus, and Dea enact a play written by Ursus called “The Man Who Laughs.” But fate has a mean gag in store when they roll into Southwark Fair in London’s suburbs, a setting modelled after one of William Hogarth’s famously ebullient but also viciously satiric engravings. Here the comprachico surgeon who gave him his remarkable countenance, Dr Hardquanonne (George Siegmann), now living under a pseudonym, recognises his handiwork on Gwynplaine’s face, and writes a letter to the current holder of the Clancharlie estate, the Duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova), a debauched aristocrat and illegitimate sister of the current ruler Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell). The message however is intercepted by Barkilphedro, now working for the court and visiting Josiana, and he alerts Anne to this strange and potentially propitious discovery: Josiana has been irritating Anne with her wilfully arrogant behaviour and wanton escapades, and a neat device of punishment is now open to her.

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Le homme qui rit was written by Hugo when he was in exile from France for his harshly critical writings on the national authorities, and he wrote it to serve as much as an oddball political parable as a standard historical romance. Leni keeps intact both its nominal setting in English history but also its weird, Ruritanian aspect, using this just as Hugo did – as an excuse to indulge his weird fancies. Although the sorts of things they’re depicted as doing had been real practices in times much further past, the comprachicos were just the first of Hugo’s inventions. After the gruesome, outsized fairytale flourishes of the opening, The Man Who Laughs slowly resolves into something more like a melodrama, if one still laced with dimensions of perversity. Those dimensions resolve as Gwynplaine is tortured by Dea’s love for him, believing he has no right to impose someone of his grotesque stature on her, although she can’t see the affliction. He sees some hope, however, when Josiana visits the fair where he’s performing and, compelled by his strange appearance, invites him to her manor.

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Gwynplaine, convincing himself that if someone can actually love him in spite of his deformity than he has the right to love Dea, accepts the invitation. He finds himself the object of a fetishist’s electric, potently erotic blend of repulsion and fascination, as Josiana rejoices in his hideousness, clearly turned on by it in a sick way that Gwynplaine correctly senses is merely the flipside of the more familiar horror and mockery he receives rather than a negation of it. But then Josiana receives a letter from the Queen, informing her that now Gwynplaine has been found, he will be restored to his rightful inheritance, and she will be obligated to marry him. Josiana’s rueful laughter, signalling awareness she’s about to nailed to this particular point of her character as her cross just as surely as Gwynplaine’s face is his, sends Gwynplaine running. This proves the catalyst for Gwynplaine finally allowing Dea to feel the nature of his disfigurement, a moment that resolves with Dea’s gorgeously corny line, “God took away my sight to see the real Gwynplaine!” Both Philbin and Baclanova featured in two other, quite different yet pertinent takes on the fundamental dichotomy presented here, as Philbin had previously played Christine in The Phantom of the Opera (1926), opposite Lon Chaney, and Baclanova would go on to again be the figure of taunting sensuality before the misshapen in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).

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Even on the cusp of happiness, Gwynplaine can’t escape the peculiar trap that is identity: he’s arrested by royal soldiers and taken to prison, to be press-ganged into Anne’s plan for him. When Ursus follows him there, he mistakes a funeral procession for Hardquanonne, who had been captured and held there too, for Gwynplaine’s. Leni continues to stage remarkable sequences, as when the players pretend to be putting on a normal show to keep Dea from learning of his apparent death, and the lengthy finale in which Gwynplaine is presented to the House of Lords whilst Dea, realising he’s alive, gropes blindly to find her way to him. For all its facets of brilliance, however, The Man Who Laughs is peculiarly lumpy experience dramatically speaking, splitting the difference between gothic grandeur, sickly satire, and sentimental melodrama, before resolving in a manner fit for a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler. The hoary plot never quite builds to any sequences as memorable as those in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which, interestingly, Waxworks star Dieterle would film in 1939), whilst the attempt to go for a crowd-pleasing tone in the final lap is underlined when Barkilphedro gets his comeuppance, his throat ripped out by Ursus’ loyal dog.

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That such a mixture doesn’t entirely blend isn’t surprising, as Laemmle’s determination to repeat the success of The Phantom of the Opera saw a few too many cooks adding to the broth on the script level. But The Man Who Laughs packs a wallop regardless because of the fervour Leni and Veidt invest in it. Here was the perfect role for Veidt and the perfect mythology for Leni. Veidt’s appearance, a dental plate used to make his permanent smile-snarl seem all the more unnatural, offers a face turned into a kabuki mask, rigid and lunatic. And yet watching how Veidt sketches emotions around the edges of this offers a master class in expressive performing. Perhaps the high point of the film, at once hallucinatory and unsparing in its gaze, comes when Gwynplaine first appears on stage at one of his shows. The smile he turns on his audiences gains delirious power, sending the crowd into convulsions and bringing Josiana under the spell of a peculiar charisma, her fixation communicated in a series of superimpositions and dissolves, beautiful (but ugly) man and ugly (but beautiful) man bound together, a visual etude of awareness that one must exist to give meaning the other.

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Gwynplaine’s hideousness sparks merriment, becomes a leer of mutual mockery, a telegraph to the common folk suggesting the dark side of the society they live in, and finally locating an accord with them, on the level of frail humanity, the embodiment of all absurdity. To see Gwynplaine is to have an existential crisis that can only be resolved in laughter, whilst the man himself experiences the sexual thrill of intense masochism being satisfied, and exultation in his rare fame. The vividness of Leni and Veidt’s realisation of this theme surely was to echo on through Universal’s subsequent horror films with their tragic antiheroes. As Gwynplaine eventually rises from the status of clown to lord, he manages the more important evolution, finally voiced when bellows with righteous fury at the stunned toffs and fatuous queen: “A king made me a clown! A queen made me a lord! But God made me a man!” It’s the climactic moment of the film and of the revealing thread of interest that runs through from Waxworks to this film, the depiction of brutal power: Gwynplaine’s declaration of the rights of man is every bit as totemic, and instantly punishable, as the baker and bridegroom’s invective against their tyrants and the evils forced by life in the earlier film.

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Fortunately, Gwynplaine’s new status cuts a swathe through the stunned lords, giving him a brief window of escape before the Queen’s heavies move in, and he stages a successful flight across the rooftops of London. This sequence , as with the baker’s escape from the palace in Waxworks, reveals Leni’s gifts at the free rush of action as well in creating the tangled moods of psychic anxiety. In spite of the never-never setting of both films, or perhaps because of it, a genuine charge of palpable meaning emerges from such flourishes. Leni’s world is a place of wandering, rootless but free artists and yearning poets, twisted beings full of humanity, and monstrous forces of political and social power. But, most fundamentally, for both the poet and Gwynplaine, the man himself is his own enemy. Leni’s small but still vital oeuvre is charged with this sense of duality. The monster is stalking us; the monster is us.

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2010s, Biopic, Historical

Neruda / Jackie (2016)

Director: Pablo Larraín

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By Roderick Heath

The biopic has become the most reliably rancid of contemporary prestige film genres. It’s supposed to be a mode for exploring vital cultural and historical touchstones in stirring, dramatic, thought-provoking fashion, and nothing should be as rich and strange as the life of a great man or woman explored in all its implications. But the biopic has instead become excruciatingly formulaic and facetious even as it reliably captures awards for actors. Pablo Larraín, one of the most interesting talents to emerge on the world film scene in the past decade, has turned his hand to not one but two biopics this year, with the implicit promise to shock the form back to life. He comes mighty close with a diptych of smart, epic, often electrifying filmmaking. Larraín’s cinema has thus far been strongly rooted in his native Chile’s tumultuous modern political and cultural history, explored through films like Tony Manero (2008) and No (2012), works particularly concerned with the lingering ghosts of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a tyranny initially backed by the CIA and defined by the inescapable gravitas of the modern epoch’s dichotomies. But Larraín’s concurrent, more particular interest is with the way we perceive such history and culture, the way they feed and distort each other. Particularly in an age of mass media, that great fount of mutual reference and levelling messaging so often sourced in the United States, the king of the heap in the Americas, the place where butterflies of intrigue and reaction have so often flapped their wings to cause earthquakes in Latin America during the fierce social and ideological ructions and sometimes outright conflict that defined the Cold War.

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Neruda explores relatively familiar territory for Larraín in this regard, taking on an episode in the life of arguably Chile’s most famous cultural figure, the poet and political activist Pablo Neruda, whose experiences and career were forever inflected by the repressive tilt his country took in the 1940s and who died just as the Pinochet regime was ascending in the 1970s. That episode is turned by Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón into a Shakespearean pastoral comedy-drama like The Tempest, where banishment and eternal searching are the prices paid for honesty and the use of magic. Jackie, on the other hand, sends Larraín on a trip north to adapt a script by Noah Oppenheim and stage a shift of perspective, one located right at the great axis of power in second half of the 20th century at its most dazzling and frightening pivot: the end of the Kennedy administration, a grotesque play of blood and toppled power on just about the only modern stage Shakespeare’s tragedies could unfold without diminution. The two films offer a wealth of binaries contemplated in opposition – North America and South America, man and woman, communist vs. capitalist, political vs. creative power. Both films do, to a certain extent, exemplify a tendency in recent biopics to engage in portraiture through deliberately limited focus on the lives of their subjects. Neruda depicts only the few months in 1948 during which the poet attempted to remain hidden in Chile even whilst being declared verboten and hunted by the police, whilst Jackie concentrates almost entirely on the immediate aftermath of John F. Kennedy and his widow Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Kennedy’s attempts to define his legacy and her own life through the process of arranging his burial.

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Neruda is inflected by a peculiar evanescence, at once elated and melancholic, and the use of arch literary tropes to reorganise the reality of the event into something befitting a memoriam to an artist who belonged unashamedly to the age of literary modernism, whilst Jackie depicts an attempt to turn violent, messy reality into a form of art itself. Neruda’s most overt conceit is to offer a viewpoint not through its title character but through his nemesis. This fictional antagonist is Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a fatherless by-product of the nation’s whorehouses and slums who has ennobled himself relatively by claiming the name and heritage of a founder of Chile’s police – a happy bastard, identifying himself with the state and its hard, disdainful fist. His narration, mordant and cynical and casually lyrical as we’d like the poet’s voice to be, drags the film along, offering a constant counterpoint to things seen on screen, delivering witty and withering putdowns of the nominal hero Neruda from the very start, when the Neruda (regular Larraín face Luis Gnecco) is enjoying the last moments of the gleefully feted, decadent artistic-bohemian life he leads even as a Senator of the nation and hero of both the Communist intelligentsia and proletariat. Thus we see Neruda, dolled up in drag amidst his amigos in their orgiastic revels, reciting his most popular poem for the billionth time, as the detective sardonically notes this mob of well-off, well-travelled, oversexed elitists claim to stand up for the ordinary people. But Neruda’s downfall is already nigh. He breaks with the President whose election he supported, González Videla (equally regular Larraín face Alfredo Castro), because Videla has imprisoned union leaders and striking miners in a concentration camp, as prelude to banning the Communist Party.

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Neruda and his wife, the artist Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), try to cross the border into Argentina as they sense the heat rising, but are turned back on a technicality, and soon they’re forced to hide out in the apartment of a glum ally. So begins a game of hide and seek between artist and persecutor where Neruda lives books and missives to taunt and intrigue his unseen opponent, whilst the detective relishes the thought of the prestigious, high-living superstar forced to live a life of drudgery: “By now the poet must be chopping onions for his repugnant fish stew.” But the period sees Neruda more productive than ever, writing the poetic history Canto General and other works taking aim at the government, foiling the government through simple but effective devices for getting his words out. Neruda is blunt about its hero’s failings, his rampant priapic needs, his hunger for attention, his occasionally piggish treatment of his wife as their exile tests and finally nullifies their nonconformist union. But it also carefully teases out his ardent connection with Chileans of all stripes, the real fibre of his conscientiousness, and the peculiar place of the artist in their culture, so often barely detectable and yet equally so vital. Larraín illustrates such moments of genuine connection, as when Neruda visits a brothel and recites a poem for the prostitutes, including a transvestite chanteuse, who later recounts to Peluchonneau the sheer uplifting delight in the candidness of Neruda’s amity in contrast to the contempt and reproach of the law, and the power of his art to elevate. Neruda tries to assure a fellow Communist and hotel maid that the revolution when it comes will make everyone a project of glory rather than diminution to the lowly status she’s always known. Later, when Neruda’s exile is biting more sharply, he weepily hugs a street beggar and gives her his jacket as if his own problems are a mere irritation.

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The detective’s hunt becomes all the more frustrating as he is constantly presented with the problem of the detachment of the people from the power he represents and their tendency to identify with the mercurial poet rather than the adamantine lawman. In a hilarious sequence, Peluchonneau has Neruda’s Dutch first wife invited on a radio show for the sake of character assassination, only for her to rhapsodise about his qualities, apart from the fact he owes her money. Meanwhile Neruda tests the limits of power with delight in the occasions he gets to treat his travails like a freeform artistic act, delighting in disguise – he dresses up as one of the prostitutes in the brothel to elude Peluchonneau, and later poses as a Mexican tourist in splendid white suit – and turning the act of the hunt into a game of signs and obtuse communication, a pursuit where the detective is trying to gain the measure of a system of thought and approach to life he’s purposefully rejected. Larraín employs some devices similar to Michael Almereyda’s equally eccentric biographical study Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (2015), particularly in the deliberately archaic and unconvincing scenes of characters riding in cars before back-projected landscapes. This calls back to both familiar classic Hollywood film technique but also recognises it as a vehicle of surrealist strangeness, a method of the poetic easily found in the supposedly stolid methods of old-fashioned moviemaking. The photography is reminiscent to that of No, which was shot on an old camcorder; the textures of digital cinema here, preternaturally sharp in stillness and fuzzy in motion, refuse sentimentality about the past whilst still sometimes isolating vistas of great beauty and capturing the feel of Chile, particularly during the final phase of the film. That portion depicts Neruda’s escape from Chile, a move sponsored by his Communist fellows as it seems increasingly inevitable he’ll be captured, whilst Pablo Picasso (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) is whipping up international interest in his plight in Paris.

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Little of Neruda’s actual poetry is heard in the film, in part because of a recurring tragicomic joke that most people only want to hear the one poem over and over anyway – Neruda’s greatest hit – and because the film proposes to alchemise it into the texture of cinema itself, as Larraín dances through expressive refrains and motifs, alternating realism and hyperrealism, grit and romanticism, solid historical account and flight of metaphoric fancy. Peluchonneau is nominated as the poetic persona through which Neruda’s self-accosting, sometimes scornful, sometimes alienated contemplation of his place in the world is interrogated. Fillips of airy dialogue drop on the voiceover, as the detective calls the Andes “a wave that never breaks,” and evokes the ghosts of future past as Larraín’s camera explores the hellhole the dissident miners are exiled to in the midst of the Atacama Desert’s aptly desolate reaches. “Those who try to escape turn to pillars of salt,” Peluchonneau recites: “But no-one ever escapes, because the prison captain is a blue-eyed fox. His name is Augusto Pinochet.” The process of mythologising is contemplated as anyone who comes into contact with Neruda in the course of this adventure becomes subject to two layers of transformation, via Neruda’s artistic perspective and Larraín’s filmmaking, in both of which Neruda is the pole of all action. Neruda himself is a kind of artistic act: his real name is Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, a fact that’s used by the government as an excuse to prevent him leaving the country. When Peluchonneau encounters Delia after Neruda has taken his leave of her, heading for the border, she informs him that they’re not real people who have become woven into Neruda’s legend, but rather his creations who are struggling towards life.

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The counterpoint of sound and vision in this manner, the restless, roaming quality of Larraín’s imagery and the ambient commentary by the voiceover, contrasts the game of motion with an increasingly contemplative, transformative perspective, a rite of passage for the innermost soul of the Chilean character, pulled by the unremitting gravitas of stern authoritarian nationalism on one hand and the expansive dreamscapes of the Latin American inheritance. The finale works as both sarcastic, antiheroic replay of such epic journeys in tales of dissidence and exile as those found in movies like Doctor Zhivago (1965), Cry Freedom (1987), and Kundun (1997), with hints of the Homeric grandiosity of westerns like The Searchers (1956) too, as Neruda and his entourage and Peluchonneau and his underlings venture into Chile’s rainy, mountainous, finally mystically-tinged southern regions. Here the detective discovers the limits of authority as a rich local man aids Neruda just for the anarchic pleasure of it, and Peluchonneau’s own henchmen knock him out and foil his mission, as they too don’t want him to succeed, or at least can’t be bothered venturing into danger’s way for his sake. But this is also the scene of a peculiarly rapturous movement towards apotheosis and rebirth. Peluchonneau, dazedly stumbling after his quarry into the snow-capped mountain peaks, “dies” but gains new existence as the emblem of his nation’s confused heart and avatar of the poet’s ability to redefine the national character, the sprout from a seed of awareness and possibility planted by Neruda’s art.

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Jackie similarly deals with a person close to the political epicentre of a nation but also set at a tantalising, frustrating remove from it, forced to settle for becoming a psychological lodestone, and learning to work through the soft power of culture. It envisions Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) as a woman who tried to turn the seemingly supernal role of first lady into the post of national historical conscience, a mission described in recreating her famous television tour of the white house with all its wooden, tentative charm. The murder of her husband John (Caspar Phillipson), an act at once terrifyingly intimate and personal and also instantly the stuff of morbid public obsession, also provides the catalyst for her to take this effort to a larger, more consequential level, in the attempt set the appropriate seal on an epoch suddenly and violently curtailed without any apparent, natural climax. The film’s first third is a headlong experiential event with jarring contrasts between past and present, the present being Jackie’s private, one-and-one interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup) one week after the assassination, and the event itself, pieced together in shards of gruelling detail. It’s made immediately clear that the interview Jackie is submitting to is intended as no purgative of raw emotion or the type of confessional we adore so much today, but a ruthlessly controlled exercise in directing and defining the face Jackie is showing to the world: the journalist has agreed to let her check and edit his notes. Jackie, with her preppie lisp suggesting a delicacy her spiky eyes belie, is still engaged in a campaign that began the instant her husband died, or perhaps has been waged since she married him.

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Jackie shifts into flashback and recounts the immediate aftermath of the President’s death, an almost moment-by-moment recreation except for the crucial moment of the assassination itself, which instead comes in brief, ugly snatches, befitting Jackie’s own confused memory of it and emphasising the moment as something so fast and awful that it can be parsed and probed but never properly known – Jackie’s memories of her husband’s shattered head rolling on her lap, her flailing desperation on the limousine trunk, trying haplessly to collect piece of John’s skull, and the limousine’s flight for safety along a motorway like a headlong rush into a great white void, are just as mysterious to her as to any observer. The passage from downtown Dallas back to the White House is described in exacting terms and clinical detail, stations of the cross visited as Jackie watches Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) get sworn in whilst still wearing her blood-soaked Chanel suit, waits through his autopsy, and rides with his coffin along with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard). Just as Neruda notes the seeds of later history, so here too we glimpse defining moments in the midst of seemingly chaotic events, as Bobby casually sparks Johnson’s feud with him by bossing him around even though he is now in command. These scenes are a tour-de-force for Larraín in conjuring the sensation, at once intense yet detached, of intense shock and grief, and for Portman in capturing those feelings. Her Jackie fumbles for clarity and necessary detail, making plans and declarations of intent and defiance, amidst friends and figures of import, their stunned, patient solicitude in stark contrast to her hyper-intense grappling for focus. Jackie reenters the White House still in that suit, a figure out of Greek drama, the queen suddenly without king or kingdom, dressed in rags of primal violence.

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The sharp contrasts of Neruda and Jackie’s backdrops, the neo-imperial glamour of the Kennedy White House and the earthy environs of post-war Chile where Neruda must hide out, are nonetheless defined by a common sense of space as a form of meaning. The constriction of the poetic impulses Peluchonneau relishes imposed on Neruda contrasts the stage for realising a grand vision of a newly mature sense of power and prestige the White House offered Jackie, as backdrop for high statecraft and meaningful action. Bobby roams its space dogged and taunted by the memories of great acts, particularly a room that was formerly Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet room and the place where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, now the nursery for the Kennedy kids, where Jackie registers the same atmosphere as one of beneficent calm. But this stage turns into a trap for Jackie, filled with the detritus of an irrevocably ended life – the antiques she laboured to restore now have arguably more substance to them. The nature of the battle ahead of her, clearly in her mind even in the frantic moments after John’s death, is how to ensure that his tenure in the office doesn’t get instantly lost in the flow of events and the indignities of history. The Kennedy family wants to claim John’s body and spirit it back to the family plot, but Jackie, with her awareness of history and the role of purposeful theatricality in it, instead lays down a plan to see John entombed as poet-king with pomp patterned after that of Lincoln’s funeral. She picks out a space in Arlington for his grave, braving the sucking mud and rain that lap at her high heels as she finds the perfect spot for the fallen Cincinnatus. But her orchestrations are threatened by possible turf wars as Johnson’s new administration takes charge and with the lingering anxiety that John’s accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald might not have been acting alone. Other conspirators might try to strike at the funeral procession.

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Jackie extends the concerns of Neruda but also more urgently those of No in contemplation of political theatre and its meaning – the use of artifice in defining a common sense of reality. The purposefully poppy, sugary flavour of the advertising at the heart of No, wielded as part of a successful campaign to unseat Pinochet’s government, is here contrasted by the grim and grand business of mourning and memorialising. Jackie finds both an accomplice and a cynical check in this project in Bobby, who, equally angry and frustrated, rails against the amount of work left unfinished, without a firm foundation of achievement except for the double-edged sword that was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackie on the other hand sees this as precisely what lends mythos to her project, the image of the hero cut down midst-battle. Sarsgaard’s casting as Bobby is cunning – not quite as All-American handsome or perma-boyish as the original, he nonetheless readily wields the sharp, critical, hard-bitten intelligence of a foiled and internally injured princeling, matched by Portman’s equal evocation of a similarly unsentimental, but determined spark. Jackie and Bobby’s shared scenes crackle from the mutual awareness of their status as pieces still on the board of political chess but stripped of offensive power and protection, both of them leaking anger and resentment, whilst also riven by powerful, squalid emotion and trying to play appropriate roles as grieving loved ones. “History’s harsh,” Bobby hisses in a squall of bitter pathos as he beholds his sister-in-law as she counsels him not to second-guess himself: “We’re ridiculous. Look at you.” Meanwhile Jackie struggles with the necessity of telling her two children they’ve lost their father, as well as perhaps the grim necessity of using them as props in the theatre of grief. And there’s the looming inevitability of being turfed out of the White House to find whatever life remains for her.

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Jackie is a study in grief and grieving, whilst also analysing how such a figure as the wife of the President of the United States, and indeed any major figure, is so often obligated to find ways to express private and personal feeling in public and discernible ways. Left alone, briefly, in the great sepulchre that is the presidential mansion, she drinks, dresses up, and listens to the soundtrack of that fateful musical Camelot, Richard Burton’s stentorian grandeur scoring as she revisits the yardsticks of a high-life all the while aware that already the living reality of that tenure and the man she shared it with is rapidly slipping into abstraction. Jackie’s true emotional furore, her anger at John’s infidelities and feeling of being pathetically abandoned, she admits to a priest (John Hurt) the White House staffers find for her. The latter part of Jackie rhymes and counterpoints fleeting moments in free-flowing, Malickian snatches. The islet of graceful success that was a performance by Pablo Casals (Roland Pidoux), representing the “Camelot” dream for Jackie versus the heady pomp of John’s actual funeral. The admissions of dark and inchoate feeling Jackie offers the priest versus the carefully crafted but perhaps no less honest descriptions she offers the reporter. The central, irreducible urgency of John’s death and the moments of delirium that followed it, and the moments of pleasure and frivolity that defined the Kennedys’ marriage at its best, still perhaps to be plucked from the fire.

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Though Jackie lacks a device as clever as Neruda’s fictionalised antagonist to tether its ideas together, the same motif is present in Jackie, as the priest and the journalist are both known only by those blank job descriptions, functions of its heroine’s designs, the two faces of the human project, private and public, chorus to her life. The priest sees the anger, sorrow, and desperation, the reporter witnesses Jackie’s thinly veiled contempt as a Yankee aristocrat for media hype and frosty, wilful self-composure in the face of desolation and solitude, but both men are only ever seeing a facet of a person. Portman’s performance is both refined enough not to mute the intense emotion of the character but also detached enough to remind us it’s all an act on some level. The one moment of unmediated feeling comes fairly early in the film, as Jackie wipes her husband’s gore from her face, a distraught mess. It’s a sight difficult to countenance and stands as a biting corrective to the semi-pornographic quality of emotive insight we so often seem to demand in this mode of biography. So here’s a great woman with her husband’s blood splashed over her face. Are you not entertained? For the most part, Jackie counters this, via its lead character’s frost intransigence, with a determined look instead at the sublimation of emotion into creation. We see, bit by bit, the legend of JFK and Camelot fashioned to make sense of a terrible moment and to offer a new locus of political meaning.

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It’s possible to read the film as reclamation and a riposte to Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), a film named for the man but which also utterly erased him and the horror inherent in his demise from its focus, chasing the echo of bewilderment and derangement that followed his death through an endless house of mirrors. Jackie by contrast depicts the paranoia squirming under the surface of the days following the President’s death, the fear of guns and madmen and conspirators in every shadow, but also dedicates itself to studying the acts that rob such spectres of power, as well as the utterly intimate, corporeal reality of such a death. The flaws of both Larraín’s films are as complimentary as their qualities. Neruda has a subtle but cumulatively telling difficulty finding a powerful end-point for its cleverness, in part because there is no natural and obvious climax for a story about the unseen influence of literature. The second half of Jackie maintains its stylistic intensity, but cannot entirely hide the rhythm of the familiar portrait biopic blueprint in Oppenheim’s script – here’s the scene where she reaches a crisis point, here’s the scene where she stands up for herself against a usurper (Max Casella’s Jack Valenti), here’s the scene where she shows spunk and challenges Charles de Gaulle to join her in marching through the streets, jolts of tinny hype in a film that needs none.

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Jackie’s authority remains on a visual level, as it zeroes in for a climactic emphasis on the point where private and public experience coalesce, and Jackie, wreathed in black veil, triumphant in her desolation, becomes martyr. Through Larraín’s eye, the empress of the Yankees becomes, both fittingly and sarcastically, an incarnation of that most Latin American of mythical figures, La Llorona, the spectral mother who cries for her lost children but who also mediates all the grief in the world. But she’s also suddenly a fashion plate, as Jackie sees from a car her personal style on sale in storefronts – pop icon, avatar of chic and grace under pressure. Two such personas could be considered a form of insanity or a fulfilment of a yin-yang view of existence, the withered branch and green leaf. It would be easy to interpret Jacqueline Kennedy as Larraín’s avatar as both student and sceptic of the arts of political myth, disgusted by its necessity. But Larraín’s fascination is more than merely cynical, signalled in No through his ability to see both the absurd and important facets of such arts. The innermost thesis of both Neruda and Jackie is the necessity of such construction, the need to create ways of seeing to counteract the spasmodic absurdity of communal life, which so often seems to take random swerves from the best and worst sides of natures. Even as the fact of that absurdity remains impossible to deny.

Standard
1930s, 1940s, German cinema, Historical, Horror/Eerie

Fährmann Maria (1936) / Strangler of the Swamp (1946)

Director: Frank Wisbar

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By Roderick Heath

Frank Wisbar is today a fairly obscure name in the roll of classic film directors, and yet lovers of horror cinema still remember him for making two of the genre’s finer deep cuts, each film a variation of the same story, made ten years and continents apart. Born in Tilsit, Wisbar (or Wysbar as his name was originally spelt) was conscripted in World War I and stayed in the army until the mid-1920s, before he went into the film industry. He served as production manager on Leontine Sagan’s legendary lesbian-themed drama Mädchen in Uniform (1931), a success that gave him a shot at directing, debuting with the adventure-comedy Im Bann des Eulenspiegels (1932). Wisbar quickly earned the ire of the oncoming Nazi authority by making Anna und Elisabeth (1933), a follow-up to Mädchen in Uniform with the same stars and gay subtext. To play nice with Goebbels’ new Ministry of Propaganda, Wisbar’s next film, Flag of the Righteous Seven (1934), was an adaptation of German-language Swiss writer Gottfried Keller about romance, bourgeois mores, and regional life in the 1800s. The film won an award at the Venice Film Festival, and Wisbar’s career struggled on for a few more years. Wisbar was however to remain deeply at odds with the Nazis, in part because his wife Eva was Jewish: the state stripped him of his passport and forced the couple to divorce, and after he was finally blacklisted in 1938, Wisbar fled the country. He became an American citizen and found a niche making low-budget features and then TV shows in Hollywood. Eventually returning to West Germany in the 1950s, Wisbar found new but strictly domestic success there again with works about dark chapters in the war like the Battle of Stalingrad and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, an adaptation of Wolfgang Ott’s grim precursor to Das Boot, Sharks and Little Fish (1957), as well as post-war issue movies, before his death in 1967.

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Fährmann Maria, or Ferryman Maria, could well stand as the last authentic product of the classic German cinema age, that time when the national industry that stood so tall between the Great War and doomed by the rise of Hitler. The great, endlessly influential German Expressionist movement in film kicked off by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) represented the kind of dark, sombre, highly psychologised drama the Nazis instinctively hated, and Fährmann Maria kept something of that style’s essence alive in a time when it had become verboten, although carefully mediated through a nominally more realistic, folksy approach, exploring a supernatural tale in a manner that also evokes a bygone sense of the Germanic landscape and communal identity: the word heimat, homeland, which was for the Nazis a talismanic phrase becomes a mystically tinged destination in the film. One supporting character, a boozy but good-natured fiddle-player (Carl de Vogt), evokes a cheery, open ideal of the parochial character as he’s constantly held up in his desire to return to his home by his love of the jug and a good time playing for people. And yet an undercurrent of intense unease and dislocation defines Fährmann Maria as it takes on a classic motif in German storytelling, the encounter of a young woman with Death personified in a battle between love and nihilism. That motif of Death and the Maiden was born in Renaissance art and transmitted through music like Schubert’s pieces of that title and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Fritz Lang had used it as the basis of his omnibus film The Weary Death (1921), and F.W. Murnau had transformed Dracula into a variant on it in his Nosferatu (1922). Fährmann Maria’s exceptionally simple dramatic landscape, which isn’t actually based on any specific folk tale but evokes many, nonetheless aims to synthesise an ideal variant on this basic conflict that could well have dropped from the lips of some grandmother around the campfire some starlit walpurgisnacht.

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The setting is a small village and the nearby ferry crossing that traverses a wide river, the few landmarks in the midst of a landscape of wavering, wind-ruffled pines and twitching reeds, and patches of sucking marshland. The rope-guided ferryboat is tended by an old man (Karl Platen), who maintains the service day in and day out, shuttling people from one bank to the other. The river is borderland between two unidentified regions. A mournful song about a ferry crossing resounds under the opening credits: in the transposition into the first proper scene this song is revealed this song is being performed by the fiddler as he’s shuttled across the river by the old ferryman. The ferryman mocks the fiddler for the ease with which he gets waylaid by his appetites and his rootless habits, and explains that the fiddler’s very coin represents the last payment he has to make to own the ferry outright. That night, the old ferryman is awakened by the dull ring of the ploughshare that serves as the gong for service on the far side of the bank, and he hauls himself out of bed to answer it. When he reaches the far shore, he is intimidated by the grim-faced, black-clad man (Peter Voß) he picks up, and as he labours to get the ferry back to the other side, his tugs on the guide rope become increasingly laborious and strained, until he keels over dead from heart failure, and the mysterious man in black begins to pull the ferry back the other way. The old man has been claimed by Death.

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This early sequence is a superb display of technique from Wisbar. Having established the eerie, somnolent, exposed mood of the ferry’s surrounds, he intensifies for physical effect as he cuts between the old man’s face, his hands on the rope, and the implacable visage of Death, the lateral movement of the camera obeying a rigorous left-to-right viewpoint on the ferry’s motion, capturing the sense of strain and the failing pulse of the old man, matched to a shimmering, atonal score, until his hands cease to work properly. Death catches him and lays him down gently, a peaceful fate met at the very apotheosis of the old labourer’s life, his death at the moment of his triumph both a stinging irony but also a deliverance from any form of disappointment. Enter Maria (Sybille Schmitz), every bit the old man’s opposite, a young woman without a home or community, but destined to step into his shoes and face a rather different confrontation with Death. She wakes up after spending a night sleeping in the barn, pausing to listen to children singing in their school house, the pleasure and impossible distance of such inclusivity written on Maria’s face. Wisbar constantly evokes the folk tradition he’s burrowing into here through song and music, arts that bind together communities but also transcend such boundaries – the indolent fiddler is always half-heartedly trying to get home but is just as happy and seemingly more successful out of his native land – as a form of cultural currency people exchange. Maria enters the village and ducks the local policeman, long used as she is to trouble from such earthly powers. The mayor sees her doing this and makes light fun of her, before challenging her to take over the ferry, a job no-one else wants because “the Evil One haunts the far bank,” to prove she can make her stand.

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Maria takes on the job, and quickly becomes an object of fascination for some, including a local landowner (Gerhard Bienert) who regards her and questions her brusquely, but soon proves to be establishing romantic rights over her. One night Maria, like her predecessor, hears the ploughshare ring on the far bank, and goes over to fetch her fare. At first she sees no-one, but then spots a man (Aribert Mog) crumpled on the ground: he mutters something fearful about being pursued, and she speeds him to the other bank as a squad of black-clad men on horseback dash through the neighbouring woods and line up on the shore, watching their quarry glide to safety. Maria stashes the young man in her hut and looks after him as he’s badly injured. The man recovers and they fall in love, but then he lapses into a fever and she’s forced to tend to him during his raving dissociation. She must also keep him hidden from locals like the fiddler, who, drunk and boisterous, wants to cross the river, and then the landowner when he comes around to invite her to a village dance. But during the night, Maria answers the gong and picks up the man in black, whose unnerving visage Maria instantly recognises as bringing evil intent for her lover, and the man quickly announces the fugitive is the object of his search. Trying to lead him astray, Maria escorts him into town and becomes his partner in the dance. This infuriates the farmer, who had deduced Maria had a man in her house, and, believing the man in black is him, publically brands her a slut whilst also inadvertently informing Death his prey is back in her abode.

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Wisbar seems to have been chiefly under the influence of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) with this film, adapting aspects of its aesthetic, like Dreyer’s use of carefully stylised location shooting to create a different brand of crepuscular atmosphere to the heavy stylisation more typical of the Expressionist mode, and utilising Schmitz, who had played a woman suffering a vampire’s attention in Dreyer’s film. The troubled Schmitz had difficulty landing lead roles in the Nazi-run film industry in spite of her talent because she hardly looked the Aryan heroine, but Wisbar’s casting of her here turned this into a strong subtext lurking behind her character’s yearning for a place and role in the world, whilst also exploiting her specific, wounded beauty in a manner that perfectly suits her character. Maria is caught in the void straddling zones cultural, political, sexual, even life and death. Her tentative smile and large, melancholy eyes describe the strain of her life even as she goes about her work with stoic resolve and tries to keep a flame alight in her spirit. It’s clear she’s fended off a hundred men of the landowner’s ilk, but lets a real smile appear like a spring dawn on her face as she falls for the handsome stranger who embodies all the things she has never had but is forced to join her in this psychic no-man’s-land. Maria, usually dressed in gypsy-like garb that suggest the reason why she’s such an outsider, appears before her lover clad in a new dress, albeit a piece of garb that, with its ruffled collar, seems almost anachronistic even for the film’s vaguely nineteenth century setting, as if casting herself in a role outside of time. And that’s exactly where she is: Maria, whose name instantly evokes religious dimensions, takes over from Charon, shuttling souls between worlds across the Styx, giving her some unspoken form of power that lets her challenge Death himself.

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Wisbar’s off-screen troubles lend credence to the hints constantly given throughout Fährmann Maria that he’s not just describing some historical fantasia, however. Although possessed of some lightly used supernatural powers, Death is personified as a resolutely tangible force kept at bay by the rules of the physical world he manifests in, an implacable agent for a dark and oppressive realm. Maria’s lover is specifically characterised as fleeing a repressive government, hazily defined as an imposition of invaders he and his patriotic friends want to drive out, whilst the citizens of the village regard the far shore as a place where the Devil has made dominion. The film’s most powerful images, of the horsemen pursuing the young man ride out of the forest and perch on the shoreline staring at the couple in the ferry, and the first appearance of Death in his trim, black, semi-military uniform, regarding Maria with blood-freezing severity, evoke a definite sensation of totalitarian menace lurking just beyond the limits of the frame and definition. In one scene the young man, in his fever state, begins to enthusiastically sing one of the patriotic songs he and his fellows use as an anthem, suggesting the Nazi love of such anthems twisted into a grotesque dirge that drives Maria into weeping despair. Maria is left cut off from all communal aid as Death realises her deception, even muffling the sound of the church bell she tries to ring to rouse the villagers to the deadly being in their midst with his power, literalising the feeling of being stranded in the midst of a country suddenly wilfully deaf, dumb, and blind to the new predations of power quickly becoming everyday fact. Maria is compelled by Death to lead him through the swamp between the village and the ferry. Maria makes the self-sacrificing gesture that is always the key to the Death-and-the-Maiden tale, and as she prays that her gesture protect her lover, she leads Death along the treacherous path through the swamp, tricking him into falling into the black mud, where he sinks silently into the murk, whilst she manages to keep her footing and escape.

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The final shots of Fährmann Maria see Maria and her lover crossing the river along with the fiddler and gazing out upon Maria’s new country, a grace note that seems a fulfilment of the patriotic dream of reclaiming the homeland, but with the vital, sneaky corollary that it’s a victory of the exiles and outcasts over the forces that oppress it. Wisbar’s visual sensibility is attuned to the horizontal in landscape and movement, a particularly tricky art to master for filmmakers working with the boxy classic Academy ratio, and fitted specifically to the environs Wisbar deals with here, the flat, semi-desolate spaces around the village and the glassy waters of the river, the to-and-fro motions of the boat and of Maria’s queasy dance with Death at the village dance filmed alike, the camera’s very range of movement communicating the stark, transfixing linearity of life in this space that finally, towards the end, gives way to the promise of gold sunlight on rolling mountains. Wisbar’s journey, at least for the time being, went in the opposite direction to his two heroic lovers, going into exile and soon finding his real reunion with his wife impossible. A decade later, Wisbar found a niche in the so-called “Poverty Row” studio PRC after a long period on the beach trying to get residency and a work permit. His first American film had been a teen crime potboiler, Secrets of a Sorority Girl (1945). For his second, he leveraged the notion of remaking his best-known work, and the result was entitled Strangler of the Swamp.

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The basic plot remained the same: after the death of a ferryman serving a remote town, a young woman named Maria takes over his job and finds herself battling a malign spirit for the life of the man she loves. Working with one of PRC’s famously stringent budgets – none of their films, supposedly, cost more than $100,000 – Wisbar transposed the story into a much more overtly theatrical and classically spooky setting, a bayou swamp choked with reeds and vines traversed by the ferry. Strangler of the Swamp strongly contrasts Fährmann Maria in its approach even as its mood of dislocation and morbid romanticism is retained, whilst the alterations to the story point to a different set of animating concerns for this take. Here, the spectral figure isn’t Death itself but the shade of a man killed by his community, and the death he brings serves a programme of retribution. At the outset, the dead body of a villager who has died in the swamp is brought back to town, where the townsfolk begin to argue frantically about their circumstances: several similar deaths have taken place, all seemingly strangled by vines or reeds wrapped around their necks in grotesque approximation of a hangman’s noose. Many think they’ve been living under a curse ever since the former ferryman, Douglas (Charles Middleton), was lynched as a murderer.

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Most of the men involved, including the mayor, Sanders (Robert Barratt), anxiously repudiate the notion even as they clearly live in fear of whatever lurks out in the bayou awaiting them, whilst the women of the village form a determined front, heading out into the swamp to strip down the noose that was used to kill Douglas. Joseph the ferryman (Frank Conlan), whose testimony was vital to identifying Douglas as a killer and who stepped into his post eagerly, sheepishly objects to the women’s proposals that he offers himself as sacrifice to the spectre to mollify its rage: “I’m only seventy! That’s not old for a man! I have plans for the future.” But soon enough, responding to the clang of the gong on the far side of the swamp, he encounters Douglas, a hollow-eyed wraith emanating from the shadows to deliver up stern pronouncements of waiting punishment: Joseph tries to toss the noose the women left on the ferry overboard, only for it to snare on a log, wrap around his neck, and strangle him, thus fulfilling Douglas’ design without any actual violent act. Amongst Joseph’s papers is discovered his written confession to the murder Douglas committed, as well as his admission that he framed Douglas to get his job. But the wraith is hardly satisfied with his death, and continues to await chances to kill off the rest of his lynch mob and their descendants. Joseph’s granddaughter Maria (Rosemary La Planche) arrives in town, hoping to find a place to settle after leaving a life of toil and alienation in the big city. Shocked to learn of her grandfather’s death, she nonetheless determines to take over his job as ferryman. She soon meets Sanders’ son Chris (Blake Edwards – yes, that Blake Edwards) and falls for him, but the curse is hardly averse to tormenting a pair of young lovers.

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Wisbar had joined Edgar G. Ulmer in productive exile at PRC. Like another émigré Fritz Lang’s Hollywood debut, Fury (1936), Strangler reads in part as a condemnation of lynch culture in the US, whilst the decision to locate the story in one of his new country’s more primal backwaters echoes Jean Renoir’s venture into similar climes for his American debut, Swamp Water (1942). Strangler of the Swamp might also have represented an attempt by Wisbar and PRC to tap the same well Val Lewton’s horror films had so lucratively drilled for RKO, with a similarly literate, carefully stylised script to the kind Lewton liked, although Wisbar’s concrete approach to the supernatural stands somewhat at odds with the airier, more suggestive Lewton touch. The style here is also quite different to the restrained, deceptively naturalistic approach of Fährmann Maria, here turning the limitations of PRC’s productions into an asset by employing one spectacularly dreamlike, claustrophobic locale, where the totemic hangman’s noose dangles in the wind from an old gnarled tree, the rickety docks for the ferry jut into misty waters, an old, ruined church looms skeletally in the distance, and the town huddles on the fringes. Wisbar’s fluidic camerawork is still in evidence, tracking the course of the ferry across the swamp with cool regard, if not as carefully tailored to fit the geography physical and mental of the story. The guilt and paranoia experienced by the townsfolk has infected the land about them, and Wisbar goes more a sense of gothic entanglement befitting a dense and miasmic sense of corruption, the overgrown weeds of the psychic landscape. He often uses superimpositions to obscure the images, the appearances of Middleton’s withered, eyeless ghost masked by haze, the reeds and foliage of the bayou crowding the frame, as if animated and determined to invade the human world that clings to this landscape.

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The result makes Strangler of the Swamp something like the platonic ideal of a dankly atmospheric, low-budget horror film. Severed from the culture and place that informed Fährmann Maria’s folkloric lustre, Strangler refits the story for a place that seems to hover right at the edge of liminal reality, a psychological neverland. That said, the story fits with surprising ease into the dramatic landscape of America’s backwood regions and the stark, moralistic, often supernatural flavour of songwriting in those areas – Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie, or Robert Johnson could readily have sung of a similarly elemental tale. Perhaps a seed was planted here for the later burgeoning of backwoods horror as a permanent sub-branch of Hollywood horror cinema. Thematically, Strangler of the Swamp diverges tellingly from its predecessor. Wisbar’s PRC stablemate Ulmer had made his statement of utter moral exhaustion with his famous noir Detour a few months earlier, and Strangler, although ultimately not as nihilistic, seems similarly like a meditation on the psychic landscape left by the war: by the time Strangler was made, the Nazis had fallen and their crimes had stained the soul of humanity. Whereas the community in Fährmann Maria is essentially ignorant and innocent of the uncanny drama unfolding in its midst, Strangler in the Swamp is about vengeance reaching out from beyond the grave to attack a communal guilt – the evil is no longer an invasive one but internal, and the theme of the sins of the father is introduced as Maria and Chris must fight to escape the debt of their parents.

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In the climax, Wisbar revisits the moment from the original when Maria finds she can’t make a sound ringing the church bell and stages it more expressly as sequence depicting social exclusion, as Maria dashes through the village trying to find aid, only to have doors and windows slam shut and curtains drawn by the vengeful spirit’s power, shutting off all recourse for his outsider heroine. Both films obviously share a female protagonist who proves that love is stronger than death and offers her own life in place of her man’s, and in Strangler Wisbar takes this theme of feminine strength further. Maria here meets initial doubts she can do her job but readily adapts to it, but the menfolk of the town are variously foolish, self-deluding, and corrupt, where the women are generally wiser and try to act against the curse where their men obfuscate and deny the problem. Chris’s father objects to his relationship with Maria because he knows she’s the granddaughter of a killer, where his mother (Effie Parnell) recognises her character and encourages the match. When Sanders tells his son he can’t marry Maria, Chris retorts that his own father took just as big a part in murdering Douglas, setting in motion the first rumblings of the generational conflict that would define so much of the post-war age. The town lost its church to fire, the ruins standing in moody isolation out in the swamp embodying the wreckage of the local culture’s ethical standing, and Sanders proposes, instead of rebuilding it with the money the town has collected for the purpose, that they use the funds to drain the swamp instead, his onwards-and-upwards rhetoric exposed as an attempt to avoid reckoning with the past.

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One significant disparity between Wisbar’s two films is that La Planche, although fairly good in the lead, isn’t nearly as enticingly enigmatic or camera-fixating a presence as Schmitz (sadly, both women also died young), and the standard of acting in Strangler, although competent, is merely customary for a low-budget film of the time and place – even the very young Edwards is too callow to make much of an impression. On the other hand, Strangler isn’t weighed down by the smarmy folksiness of the earlier film’s fiddler character. The finale suffers from the hampered staging dictated by the limited setting, involving a lot of stumbling around in dry ice-clogged corners of the set trying to make it look like action is happening. Nonetheless Strangler of the Swamp stands as an example of what a real director could manage with even the most cynically straitened production of the day, a delicious visual experience that offers a real jolt of Wisbar’s poetic streak, and one of the few major horror films of the ‘40s not to have Lewton’s name attached. As in Fährmann Maria, Strangler’s Maria, exhausted by her frantic and desperate efforts to help Sanders in protecting his injured son from the wraith, offers herself in her lover’s place fends off dark fate amidst the sanctified ruins of the church. But Strangler pushes the import of the sacrificial gesture more strongly than Fährmann Maria, in a narrative shaped by a more personal and urgent sense of responsibility: where in the earlier film Death is outwitted by a touch of native guile as well as the ardent honesty of Maria’s prayers, Douglas is mollified by the gesture and dissolves in the night as Maria gives a benediction for his aggrieved soul. In Strangler, the victory feels quite different, as Maria must redeem the whole community through a selfless act, receiving a forgiveness that cannot be asked for, only granted by the aggrieved dead. Maria triumphs over entropy in her personification, however straggly and assailed she seems, of the finer elements of human nature and of woman herself, a detail that points up the irony in her job title. She is the being who encompasses life, death, and rebirth, who spans both shores.

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