1990s, Drama, Mystery

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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Director: Stanley Kubrick

By Roderick Heath

Legendary and lauded as most of them have become, few of Stanley Kubrick’s later films landed immediate punches with viewers. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) took time to find an audience, A Clockwork Orange was so controversial in its time Kubrick removed it from British cinemas, Barry Lyndon (1975) was written off by many as a prestige-seeking objet d’art, and even The Shining (1980) underperformed badly on first release, catching neither the Oscar-bait nor the Friday the 13th (1980) crowds.

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And everyone knows that Kubrick’s final film, a mordant and menacing sexual satire, gained a collective shrug from general movie-goers, even after the death of the director and the pairing of then-married superstars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman earned it an avalanche of hype. I found Eyes Wide Shut a deliciously weird, funny, beautiful, and original piece of work, then and now. Eyes Wide Shut did for writer Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle what Apocalypse Now did for Joseph Conrad—transpose it to the modern day without ejecting its crucial flavour of timeless, mystified sensuality, filtered through a cutting sarcasm that was Kubrick’s own.

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Frederic Raphael, who wrote the screenplay with Kubrick’s aid, had tackled similar themes, with some similar narrative touches, in Two for the Road (1967). Kubrick’s ironic-realist approach always shaded into a deep stylisation, and Eyes Wide Shut was stupidly criticised for being unreal-seeming when such was the whole damn point of a film based on a “dream novel.” But it’s a judgment I also take issue with: I can think of very few better films that capture with accuracy the haunted feel of a great city late at night as we follow Cruise as he stalks the frigid streets, lost in mists of sexual jealousy and aching fear.

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Sold as a sexy thriller, which means, in standard terms, a tawdry morality play like Fatal Attraction, Kubrick’s swan song is closer in spirit to Italian horror films, Val Lewton (particularly The Seventh Victim, 1943), Ernst Lubitsch, and the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs.” Eyes Wide Shut isn’t actually about sex—it’s about what it means to individuals and to couples and the anxiety it engenders, built around the basic joke that the top male movie star of his era can’t get laid. That would be Cruise, who plays Dr. William Harford, who can readily be seen (as Cruise did in his two other best roles after it, in Magnolia and War of the Worlds) one of his cocky ’80s golden boys getting a rude shock when it comes to growing up.

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Fit, handsome, prosperous, and criminally self-satisfied, Harford and his wife Alice (Kidman) leave their gorgeous apartment and young daughter (Madison Eginton) for an evening at a party thrown by Bill’s wealthy, randy patient Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) and his wife (Leslie Lowe). Bill encounters a friend who dropped out of med school, jazz pianist Nick Nightingale (Todd Field, before becoming a Kubrickian director), and playfully chats with two models (Louise J. Taylor and Stewart Thorndike) who try not so subtly to sell him on a threesome. Alice dances with the fishy Sandor Szavost (Sky Dumont), who, with gentlemanly affect and a strong whiff of sleaze, tries to make her.

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Bill is soon called upstairs to aid Ziegler, who is hurriedly putting on his clothes near a naked girl named Mandy (Julienne Davis) sprawled on a chair, almost dead from a drug overdose. She comes to, and Ziegler asks Bill not to speak about this, which Bill takes as all part of the business. Alice extricates herself eventually from her would-be lover’s arms, but suspects that Bill may have gone romping with the models, an anxiety that doesn’t reveal itself until the following night. After a day in which Bill works and Alice, an unemployed gallery curator, packs Christmas presents, they get stoned together. Alice taunts Bill with a story about her powerful attraction to a young naval officer she encountered a year before at a resort she and Bill visited.

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Before the discomfort of the revelation can be settled, Bill is called away to “show his face” at the apartment of one of his patients who has died, commencing a series of charged scenes in which Bill is confronted by distorting mirrors to his plight: the dead man’s daughter (Marie Richardson), who’s willing to throw away her fiancé for a professed love of Bill; the fur-clad, oddly named hooker Domino (Vinessa Shaw) he meets on the street, whose professional glaze slips in dealing with her good-looking, charming, slightly befuddled client; a European costumer, Milich (Rade Sherbedgia), who rents out his pubescent daughter (Leelee Sobieski) as a prostitute; and a gay hotel clerk (Alan Cumming) who swoons, figuratively, in his presence, not long after a mob of obnoxious frat boys have assaulted Bill on the street and hurled homosexual abuse at him. Most dizzying and bizarre of all, Bill crashes an orgy of a secretive cabal of society patricians, alerted by the intimations of Nick, who plays music for their hedonistic mock-religious rituals while blindfolded. Bill wanders through the mansion while dozens of black-draped, masked guests cavort in approximations of passion with the exquisite females provided for their entertainment.

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One of the faceless, lushly formed women chooses him as the assembled pair off, but seems to recognise him. She warns him to leave, but he’s soon hauled before the assembled hedonists and forced to remove his mask. Only the masked girl’s intervention seems to save him from a grisly fate, and Bill is ejected with a warning to keep his mouth shut. It’s a scene that evokes and exploits a deep anxiety, desire (both sexual and social) seguing into the needle-sharp moment of being revealed and humiliated. After Bill returns home, Alice awakens from a dream and recounts it to him. It is startlingly similar to his experience, and for Bill, the settled boundaries between life and fantasy, waking and dreaming, threaten momentarily to dissolve. In the clear light of day, Bill finds no solace: in retracing his steps, he finds Nick has vanished, receives another warning from the cabal, and soon suspects that an ex-beauty queen, found dead from an overdose, may have been his guardian angel from the orgy. He senses he might be pursued around town by what may or may not be malevolent agents.

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Like most of Kubrick’s other films, Eyes Wide Shut is indeed coal-black comedy, but the humour tends to die in the throat: the recurring gag that goes beyond a joke quickly enough is that while he gets come-ons from every direction, every flirtation Bill engages in, consciously or unconsciously, sees him frustrated or embarrassed. He withdraws from Domino when he gets a call from Alice; later, when he returns to visit her, he’s about to screw her roommate Sally (Fay Masterson) when she halts their tryst with the news that Domino has AIDS. The darkest reflection of his appetites comes with Milich and his daughter, who whispers a come-on in his ear and backs away in a provocative pose, and later appears at her father’s side as he explains he and her Japanese fancymen (Togo Igawa and Eiji Kusuhara) “came to another arrangement.” The film is, in many ways, a comedy of manners, and again like most of Kubrick’s films, it is about how social ritual masks games of power and desire, a method Kubrick initiated with the contrast of the elegant waltzers and the office politics that destroy hundreds of men, in Paths of Glory (1957), and evolved into more delicate and intricate shadings.

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That Bill becomes the ultimate in uninvited guests is both the biggest and coldest of the string of humiliations he receives. The unmasking is also Bill’s “outing,” for a recurring counterpoint to his desire to reaffirm his masculinity that leads him into situations that rob him of it. He’s taunted as gay by rowdy, vicious young men, and becomes the object of Cumming’s obvious ardour. There’s a quality of vicious humour in using Cruise, so long associated with on-screen potency and off-screen rumours, and the narrative constantly moves to cut off both Bill the character and Cruise the actor from the usual recourses. He is transmuted from beaming, cocky would-be stud striding through the party with two women on his arms, to weeping, unshaven fool of fortune confessing every minor and major seamy act of the previous two days.

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The great conspiracy that Bill considers unwinding proves to be little more than a bunch of rich wankers having a good time, as Ziegler, who was one of them, admits to get him to stop digging into what is nonetheless a potentially volatile situation. He awakens Bill to the fact that the dead girl, his saviour, whom he was able to recognise in the morgue from the colour of her eyes, was Mandy and that her death was, so he swears, her own stupid fault. It’s particularly galling for Bill considering that despite his mask, Mandy could recognise him, or least sense his outsider status. The long sequence between Ziegler and Bill is one for which Pollack received almost more praise at his death than he did for the films he directed. As was once said of Liv Ullman in Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1966), Pollack cuts like a knife through the mouldy cheese of Bill’s self-absorption. Victor accuses Bill of spending the past two days in a metaphorical jerk-off. Ziegler’s admissions deflate Bill’s mounting panic and put a leash on—but do not seal away—the genie of erotic dicontent, as Bill’s journey has conclusively revealed a pattern of how people use one another in sexual situations for whatever motives and prices. Only in his marriage is there something more than a variety of economics involved.

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Eyes Wide Shut is also about marriage, its failings, frustrations, and intrinsic intensity; the shadow people lovers construct from each other and the damage that results from the demolition of those images; and the necessity of both the construct and the demolition for the survival of any union. Bill and Alice’s intimate moment after the first party sees them touching each other but admiring themselves in the mirror, trapped in a state of narcissistic self-contemplation by their experiences at Victor’s. Alice’s admission of her deepest temptation, which mingle desperate ardour both for another man and for her husband, sends him out to half-consciously replicate the journey, to provide himself with objects of desire, and then reject them for his wife. He, in his waking life, and she in her dream, tear apart the false versions of themselves in order to return to where they essentially began. I’ve never liked Kidman as an actress more than here, with her mordant deliveries in the hypnotically brutal confession scene, and her weary, frightened, but hopeful affect in the final few moments.

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Kubrick’s visuals, festooned with shades of muted colour and embracing warmth contrasted with deep blues and evocations of a frigid northern city night, light Bill’s path between inside and outside, acceptance and rejection. Beneath the fastidious, facile realism of the details, the expressionist intent is readily apparent in the city sets that, like Val Lewton’s settings, vibrate with stylised liveliness. Kubrick had quoted Euro-horror before in The Shining, which utilised the fetishist visual patterns of Dario Argento with impunity, and Kubrick’s saturated colours and textures here again resemble Argento’s. The orgy sequence, with its sex-as-theatre dreaminess, clash of flesh and formal clothing, and psychedelic music, evokes many a work of Euro underground sex-gothic and surrealist cinema. It’s an aspect that many viewers seemed blind to, perhaps because Kubrick had always been assumed, despite the distorted expressionist violence and comedy and pop-art reflexes in Dr. Strangelove (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) (and classical art in Barry Lyndon), to be a careful realist.

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The film’s core musical theme is Shostakovich’s “Jazz Suite,” a cunning choice that fuses the lingua franca of America and Europe in a jaunty waltz time that contributes to the blurring of space and era. But as well as making its own felicitous quotes of other oeuvres, Kubrick readily referenced his own obsessions all the way through. His script for the unproduced Napoleon had a scene in which a young go-getter is ushered into decadent society to his shock and delight. Milich’s daughter is another Lolita. The film’s mix of formal elegance and impudent humour reflects how deeply the influence of Vladimir Nabokov, whose Lolita he filmed in 1962, seeped into Kubrick’s style. What is rare about Eyes Wide Shut and what made it a particularly lovely coup de grace, is the final, fecund warmth it tries to locate between Bill and Alice. It is able to approach the nature of human decency as well as corruption, leading to one of the greatest, pithiest, most meaningful final lines in any movie.

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1950s, Comedy, Mystery

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

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Director: Alfred Hitchcock

By Roderick Heath

A children’s skipping rhyme from the same corner of London where Alfred Hitchcock was born:

Jack the Ripper’s dead

And lying in his bed

He cut his throat with Sunlight soap

Jack the Ripper’s dead.

To me, that’s Hitchcock’s background and sensibility in a nutshell—the alternations of awful violence with casual humor, childish wit, bloodlust and surrealism mixed into a deft doggerel.

The Trouble With Harry is Hitchcock’s breeziest, yet also his most esoteric film, the closest he came to bringing his native love of black comedy to the screen. The film is easy to forget amidst the near miraculous run of his mid 50s films (six films in three years), busy as it is alchemising the intrinsic angst that’s so iron-grey in I Confess (1953) and The Wrong Man (1956) into a morbidly comedic counterpoint. In The Trouble With Harry, death is the springboard for a people coming to life. This is, of course, an essential aspect of all his films, but usually fulfilled with an explosion of danger and intrigue, not Shakespearean pastoral romance.

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Beneath its modest exterior, The Trouble With Harry is Hitchcock his most personal sense of humour and human foible. The physical beauty of the film is a wonder to behold, with its lustrous autumnal landscapes and casually perfect framings, and the tone is exactly the sort of casual black joke Hitch loved so dearly, composed of multiplying ironies and sarcasm for social sacred cows. The New Wave film critics who made an icon of Hitchcock always seemed to regard his jester’s humor as an impediment to viewing the inner artist, but in fact it’s impossible to extract, and you wouldn’t want to. But it’s a mistake to call The Trouble With Harry a comedy per se. It only gains a comedic patina with its sly, quietly absurd refrains: the burials and unburials of Harry; the peregrinations of the dreamy, poetry-reading Doctor Greenbow (Dwight Marfield) who keeps tripping over Harry’s corpse and not noticing; and the utter lack of concern anyone has for the dead guy who suddenly complicates their lives.

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The basic, obvious gag of the film is that where sudden death—especially murder—is supposed to be a calamitous moment demanding the forces of justice and social propriety to engage with due solemnity, very often, that’s not how it work. Harry’s death, which three of the main characters think they caused, validates their existence as something more than mere doormats of fate. Timid, middle-aged virgin Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick), retired tugboat captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), and deadpan, runaway wife Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine) are all escaping something oppressive in the way the world has forced them to inhabit pre-formulated roles. Wiles’ fantasies of being a sea captain who’s travelled the world obscure the humdrum reality of his actual working life. Miss Gravely’s blooming out of the part of repressed, man-fearing spinster commences with a forthright response to a perceived assault. And Jennifer has refused to play anymore in a silly remnant of a patriarchal tradition, happy to be free of the last encumbering representative of it: the hapless Harry, who only married her because his brother, father of her son, died in the war, and then he became strangely, horribly obsessed with her.

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Standing with them and also apart is the film’s tenderly mocking take on the cliché of the heroic, individualist artist, embodied as Sam Marlowe (John Forsyth), a proto-hippy dropout painter who doesn’t give a fig whether anyone likes his paintings as long as he has enough to live on and pursue his vision. His works are the type of nonfigurative scrawls that lead to the inevitable joke of the painting being viewed upside-down; as his loyal storekeeper friend and art dealer Mrs. Wiggs (Mildred Dunnock) puts it, “I don’t understand your work, but I think it’s lovely.” When a rich man (Parker Fennelly) recognises his genius, Marlowe sells everything for only what is vitally important to his friends, including the film’s punchline object, a double bed for him and Shirley to share. He’s a figure of fun with his edge of pomposity and oddball imagination, but the film also hinges on Marlowe’s capacity as a creative visionary to build community: he’s the one who remakes Miss Gravely as a new woman and draws the three “murderers” together into a band of outsiders. Marlowe never sees something as it is, but as it might be.

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The four main characters—five if one counts Jennifer’s toy-gun-toting son Arnie (Jerry “Beaver” Mathers)—each summon a classic Hitchcock figure that’s also a perfect square of types: elderly eccentric fantasist; young eccentric artist; virginal spinster; droll, experienced younger woman; and Puckish, amoral, time-ignorant kid (he literally gets yesterday and tomorrow the wrong way around, a malapropism that eventually serves a deftly clever purpose). There’s an intrinsic link between art, sex, and death, signaled in the opening credits, where a childish drawing reveals sundry, everyday features of the small New England town where the action occurs, and accidentally, felicitously, incidentally offers Harry’s corpse at the conclusion, over which, of course, “Directed by Alfred Hitchcock” appears. It’s Hitchcock delighting in his ghoulish reputation, and claiming his peculiar provenance—the artist of murder.

Arnie, standing over Harry’s very real dead body with his toy gun, is both a jokey admission of the put-on that’s about to take place and a tacit concession to the idea of just how much fantasies of death and killing are part of human nature. From there the film follows with jovial concision this thesis: birth, creativity, death, and around again. As in classical drama, the film’s very structure contains this circular idea, as it describes the arc of a full 24 hours everything is back in place at the conclusion, but only after having been completely rearranged. The very first shot of the film is of the town’s church, traditional crucible for life starting and finishing. As in the Elizabethan pastoral, the characters congregate for a time and without actual reason in the woods where anything can,and does happen. Normal social mores slip away, and life reinvents itself.

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Not that the guilty Catholic Hitch is entirely absent: it’s just that he plays a game here with the nature of guilt. His characters are on the retreat from being anyone until they think they’ve killed Harry. It takes sin (that is, experience) to know life and then discover redemption. Although animated in the lightest of fashions, Wiles and Gravely can only really escape their rut through believing in their guilt; Jennifer can only breathe easily once Harry is dead; and Sam’s life and art only make a breakthrough once he’s committed himself to other people. Present is a curious, contradictory ethic: the living are responsible to each other. The dead body is trouble precisely because it’s an encumbrance apt to cause legal difficulties. But Harry’s passing also liberates and draws together people; his being dead is both the end of one type of responsibility and the beginning of another. Justice looms in the ineffectual form of suspicious hick deputy Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano), who gets a whiff of a possible crime and thinks he has evidence in the sketch Sam has made of Harry’s face.

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Of course no one has actually committed a crime: Harry’s death was natural, though possibly exacerbated by various wallops on the head, and the much ado about nothing finds a gentle conclusion. The Trouble With Harry is a film about and full of small pleasures. The action climax is Sam altering his portrait of Harry and so ruining it as potential evidence, and its most vital moment is when Miss Gravely weighs up a coffee cup she’s considering buying for when she asks Wiles around to her place, a moment of crystallisation so sacrosanct Sam and Mrs. Wiggs fall silent and watch.

Screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who died last November, wrote four superb scripts for Hitchcock in a row at this time, which probably made him Hitchcock’s most reliable of writing collaborators (apart from his wife, Alma Reville), and he would go on to write glossy domestic dramas like Peyton Place (1957) and Butterfield 8 (1960). Though the story ambles a bit slowly to its conclusion, his crisp dialogue is peppered with double entendres (“Do you realise that you’ll be the first man to…cross her threshold?” Sam asks Wiles when he finds the Captain has a date with Miss Gravely). The cast, even the peculiarly cast Forsyth, as well as MacLaine, delightfully, deftly dry in her screen debut, assay their roles with perfect poise.

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Hitchcock is at his least showy throughout most of the film, but even his minimalism emphasises his mastery when he delivers such humorous and telling framings as when Arnie stands over Harry’s body, his boyish amazement framed by the two vertical shoes of the very dead man, or when the camera pans slightly from a laboring shovel to take in Wiles watching with a content expression, and we realise it’s Miss Gravely digging up the body this time. He lets you see Harry’s face early on, but later deliberately masks and avoids it, as Harry fades further from being any more than just a body, and becomes an abstraction. Otherwise, Hitchcock is perfectly content soaking up the langorous air of New England, the widescreen planes of his landscape absorbing and contrasting raw natural beauty with the tidied geometric forms of farmland divided by rows of trees and fences, emphasising the patterns created by a fecund interaction of mankind and environment. (This stylistic patterning anticipates how he would build a rather more urgent tale of death and nature in The Birds). The Trouble With Harry also claims a very important place in Hitchcock’s oeuvre for the very simple reason that it’s his first film with a score Bernard Herrmann, the composer who seemed, within a couple of movies, to have joined at the hip with Hitch.

Like the Doctor with Harry’s body, Harry’s a film that is always ready to surprise me when I stumble over it.

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1940s, Famous Firsts, Mystery

The Verdict (1946)

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Director: Don Siegel

By Roderick Heath

A tale of a vigilante policeman that begins with the peal of a church bell—this could describe Dirty Harry (1971), the biggest hit of Don Siegel’s career. And yet it also describes The Verdict, Siegel’s directorial gambit of 25 years earlier.

Siegel had been for many years the top editor at Warner Bros, contributing his superb montages to films like The Roaring Twenties (1939) and Across the Pacific (1942). As Siegel put it: “I actually shot more footage for Warner Brothers than any of their highly touted directors, but when I went to Jack Warner and said I wanted to be a director…He said ‘Look, I can get directors a dime a dozen. But who am I going to get to do the action sequences, the inserts, and the montages?’ So I said, ‘Fine, pay me what you pay the directors, and I’ll carry on doing that stuff for you.’”

After a couple of shorts and a lot of patience, he finally got to helm a vehicle for one of Hollywood’s strangest, and yet most entertaining, double acts: Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, who had proven their star worth without Humphrey Bogart in two terrific films, The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) and Three Strangers (1946). The Verdict is Victorian era, and right from the brilliant opening shot where Siegel’s camera swoops in on the tower where the bell tolls in Newgate Prison’s chapel tower for a condemned man on a fog-wreathed night, it’s easy to spot his talent. As well as establishing Siegel’s visual fondness for vertiginous heights and angles, the shot also anticipates one in Dirty Harry in which Siegel’s camera swoops upwards dizzyingly from Harry Callahan’s (Clint Eastwood) torture of Scorpio (Andy Robinson) in the centre of a football field; both shots entwine the sometimes cruel and salutary nature of a thirst for justice with godlike perspective.

The condemned man here is Harris, convicted for the murder of social scion Hannah Kendall. The man who convicted him, Supt. George Grodman (Greenstreet), meditates on the ironies of a profession where success means taking a man’s life: “I have no personal feelings. We are only instruments of justice, like the court that condemns.” But Grodman is in for a nasty shock. Called in by his superior (Holmes Herbert) at Scotland Yard, Grodman learns from his chief rival—the ambitious, supercilious Supt. Buckley (George Coulouris)—that he has proven Harris’ innocence. Scandal erupts and tars the Yard’s competence, and Grodman is forced to retire. The case haunts him, not just because of Harris’ fate, but also because the murder victim’s nephew, Arthur Kendall (Morton Lowry), is his next-door neighbor and friend. Grodman sets out to write an account of his career.

Grodman’s best friend, artist and bon vivant Victor Emmric (Lorre), attempts to cheer him up by throwing him a birthday party, inviting Kendall and another next-door neighbor, liberal MP Clive Russell (Paul Cavanaugh). The pairing of Kendall and Russell is disastrous. Russell detests Kendall who, as a mine owner, exploits and degrades the men who are Russell’s constituents. Russell threatens to silence him once and for all when Kendall promises to pressure him with the identity of his secret mistress. Kendall, not a popular man this night, also argues with his girlfriend, singer Lottie Rawson (Joan Lorring), before settling down to bed. The next day, Kendall doesn’t answer the knock at his door by his batty, smitten landlady, Mrs. Benson (Rosalind Ivan), and she runs next door to fetch Grodman. He busts through Kendall’s door, and warns Mrs. Benson not to look…

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It is assumed that whoever killed the aunt returned for the nephew. Buckley leads the investigation, and casts his unctuous suspicion on everyone. The case is baffling, as there’s no explanation for how the killer got out of the locked room—even a burglar (Clyde Cook) can’t work out a method. Grodman is hugely amused by Buckley’s floundering, and he and Victor begin a little sleuthing, chiefly an excuse for Victor to romance Lottie.

Lottie is suspect when she attempts to retrieve a valuable watch fob she gave to Kendall, and is caught by Buckley. Attempts to locate the fob prove fruitless until it’s suggested it was buried with Kendall, prompting his exhumation. Lottie is released when the fob is found, but is now stalked by a shadowy presence assailing her with warnings not to talk about Russell and his mistress. But Lottie has already blabbed about that to Buckley.

Russell becomes the chief suspect, and his refusal to divulge the name of his lady friend entraps him. Meanwhile, Victor’s suspicions are closer to home, and he searches Grodman’s apartment. When the stalking presence tries to enter Victor’s bedroom, he takes a shot at it. Russell is tried, and sentenced to death. Grodman convinces Russell to let him track down his mistress, the estranged wife of a Lord, and convince her to confirm his alibi. Grodman pursues her all over France, only to catch up with her at her funeral.

With all avenues of saving Russell from the gallows exhausted, Grodman triumphantly confesses to the murder. Having realized that Kendall killed his own aunt for her money, and then used Grodman in setting up Harris for the fall, and with no way of proving it, Grodman took justice into his own hands. He used many contrivances designed to muddy the waters and fool Buckley as much as possible, but won’t let Russell pay the price for his acts.

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Siegel handles the stringent production expertly, slathering the action in fog and shadow. With some terrific actors, Siegel conjures the kind of ripping yarn that’s a pure pleasure to watch. Even the awful Cockney accents of the bit players add cheesy fun. Siegel replies to the evidently low budget with an economic, but technically accomplished style, with expressionistic camera angles, careful lighting (witness the ghoulish delight that is the exhumation scene), and inventive model work (as in the opening shot) to conjure an elegantly bogus Victorian London that looks like the one you imagine when reading a Sherlock Holmes story. Indeed, The Verdict was based on a novel, The Big Bow Mystery, by Victorian writer Israel Zangwill. Zangwill’s novel was a social satire and riff on the detective genre that was already cliché-ridden. Siegel and screenwriter Peter Milne toy with the novel’s elements to give it a more individual moral imperative. The murder victim is changed from an orator of leftist values into a filthy example of capitalist evil, and the progressive, Russell, is the pillar of conflicted conscience whose life must be saved. Grodman’s actions and motivations have been altered to make his crime utterly sympathetic.

But it’s the detail of Grodman’s ironic status as both avenger and murderer that proves Siegel was fascinated by the idea of breaking the law in a heinous fashion to achieve justice, which casts Dirty Harry, still often regarded merely as a sop to reactionaries, in a different light. Harsh reversals of moral expectation and identification are a Siegel trademark—witness the people who have to fear and kill their own neighbors in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the schoolgirls who are far more dangerous to the soldier than he is to them in The Beguiled (1969), or the criminals who gain our empathy in Escape From Alcatraz (1979). Many Siegel heroes are criminals, bastards, or not what they appear to be. He took that last device to an extreme in Body Snatchers, but also including heroic figures like Robert Mitchum’s army officer pretending to be a gangster in The Big Steal (1949) and Shirley MacLaine’s whore-dressed-as-a-nun in Two Mules for Sister Sara (1971).

The Verdict is a transitional film. It straddles genres that were running out of puff in post-war Hollywood—the crisp, quaint mystery yarn with an Anglophile bent, Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Moto, Philo Vance, The Falcon, The Saint, and all the other detective franchises and one-offs and the Universal-style gothic chiller. The Verdict pays homage to these, whilst, simultaneously, the harder, dark-drenched, morally ambivalent noir genre was taking grip. Siegel toys with the structure, sympathies, and style of The Verdict to make it count as a noir work; though the first two-thirds of the film are fun in the Holmesian tradition, the last third in which Grodman’s efforts to save Russell gain in grim urgency, take it to another level.

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Siegel observed of Greenstreet and Lorre, who work together so well on screen they seemed to have been doing it for decades, that they actually had very different work habits: “If you changed so much as a comma, Sydney was upset…He wanted to get his cues down to the word, and studied his part very carefully. On the other hand, not only didn’t Peter study, but he would come on the set as if he didn’t even know what studio he was in.” The Verdict riffs on their screen personas. It’s fun seeing Lorre play a party animal and ladies’ man, but Victor is also incurably morbid, crowing, when Kendall’s body is exhumed that “I’ve always had an unconscious desire to see a grave opened, especially at night!”and complaining, in illustrating Grodman’s book, “I’ve done three stabbings in a row! How about a nice juicy strangling?” The film uses Lorre’s real-life hobby of sketch art creatively. And there’s a recurring gag where Grodman remarks on Buckley’s attempts to fill Grodman’s britches, emphasizing the capacious girth of Greenstreet’s posterior. Backing them up is Coulouris, always a joy at playing slimy arrogance. One weak link is Lorring’s lousy accent.

It’s far from being a great or perfect film. It’s weighed down by standard touches, like clumsy comic relief and the ever-tiresome staple of the shoehorned song-and-dance number, here a “racy” song performed by Lottie, in a “Royal Music Hall,” which looks more like a bad theater restaurant. Although it portends many of the themes and interests of Siegel’s career, in other ways, its retro, studio-bound class is at odds with the style the director would develop. With The Big Steal, Siegel dragged the noir film out on location and kept it there, leading to the stark, utterly modern stylishness Siegel had mastered by the time of Coogan’s Bluff (1969) and Dirty Harry. But The Verdict is a delightful melodrama and the sort of film that stands for what Old Hollywood at its best was all about.

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1970s, Mystery

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Director: Billy Wilder

By Roderick Heath

Sherlock Holmes comes just behind Dracula as the most portrayed fictional character on the movie screen, but few films about the great sleuth hold claim to greatness. One of the few is Billy Wilder’s elegiac The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. It was a dismal flop on release even after being shortened drastically from its original three hours plus, which is a true pity, as it stands as probably Wilder’s best post-The Apartment work in his unique genre of films, so ruthless in observing human nature but so deeply sympathetic to it.

The personal attraction of Holmes to Wilder is intriguing and crucial. Holmes is the quintessential intellectual’s idealised self. Holmes is mythic and eternal because Conan Doyle deliberately avoided rounding him out. He presented a man that avoided normal human entanglements – in a word, women. With his usual writing partner I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder sets out to mock and subvert Holmes, and yet strengthen him as a man. The opening credits roll over the disinterment of Holmes’ and Watson’s personal effects, 50 years after Watson’s death, with Watson’s (Colin Blakely) accompanying letter promising the revelation of the more discreet details of Holmes’ life that were left out of his heroic Strand magazine accounts. Holmes’ deductions are skewered in the narration’s account of a murder’s solution: “You may recall that he broke the murder’s alibi by measuring the depth to which the parsley had sunk in the butter on a hot day.”

Holmes (Robert Stephens) is bored, and, thus, crabby, exacting (he berates Mrs Hudson (Irene Handel) for cleaning up his filing system, which relied on the depth of dust for dating) and puckishly humorous as he complains about Watson’s distortions of him for the stories. Holmes wastes time sawing his violin, composing monographs on varieties of cigar ash, and finally taking to his seven-percent solution for days at a time (“Holmes, aren’t you ashamed?” “Thoroughly, but this will fix it.”) to kill his great energy. Holmes is suffering in the emergent cult of celebrity. His life mythologised by his friend, devoured by the public, he is a target for everyone who seeks to pick his brain for trivialities. Searching to escape this rut, he surveys various available cases and offers. One is from a circus owner, whose six-man midget acrobatics team has vanished. Holmes concludes from the offer of five pounds to find them (“that’s not even a pound a midget!”) that the owner’s a stingy blighter and the midgets obviously took a better job.

Watson insists they accept two free tickets to the Imperial Russian Ballet’s production of “Swan Lake”. On top of his hatred of ballet,Holmes is wary of ulterior motives. Predictably, Holmes is spirited backstage by the ballet’s director-general Rogozhin (Clive Revill, who here and in Avanti! provided priceless comic performances for Wilder). He is introduced to prima ballerina Madame Petrova, who has an unusual offer: Holmes is tofather a superchild with her in exchange for a Stradivarius. Rogozhin explains, as Holmes chokes on embarrassment, that Holmes was not their first choice for a father:

“We considered Russian writer. Tolstoy.”
“Oh that’s more like it, the man’s a genius!”
“Too old. Then we considered philosopher. Nietzsche.”
“Absolutely first-class mind.”
“Too German. Next we try Tchaikosvky.”
“Oh you couldn’t go wrong with Tchaikovsky.”
“You can and we did. It was catastrophe! Women – how you say – not his glass of tea.”

This last revelation provides Holmes with the perfect excuse to opt out, claiming to having been in a relationship with Watson for “five happy years.” Watson,meanwhile, dances in ecstatic abandon with ballerinas at the backstage party. As word of his apparent predilection spreads, he promptly finds his dancing partners made up of men. Watson, enraged, storms into 221B Baker Street. Holmes calms his distraught friend, who fears scandal, by reminding him of his legendary heterosexuality. “Yes,” Watson declares, “I’ve got women on three continents who can vouch for me!” But when Watson asks Holmes if any can vouch for him, “ I hope I’m not being presumptuous…But there have been women in your life…?” Holmes’ chilly reply is, “The answer is ‘yes,’ you’re being presumptuous.”

This sustained comic movement brings up two important themes: shifting identities (the swan who is not a swan has several fellows in the story) and the question of what kind of sexual creature Holmes is. The possibility of his being gay is, for Holmes, a preferable smokescreen. We’ve heard him protest that Watson has “given people the distinct impression that I’m a misogynist. Actually I don’t dislike women. I merely distrust them.”

Soon, Holmes and Watson are presented with a classic case. A woman (the always tantalising Geneviève Page) is brought to them by a cabbie who found her in the river, assaulted, with Holmes’ name on her lips. Holmes is brutally eager to get solve the case (“the sooner we find who she is, the sooner we can get rid of her!”) Holmes is disturbed by her crying in her sleep, and finds himself grasped by her, stark naked, in a feverish state, thinking he is her husband. Picking up various clues, he tracks down her belongings and identifies her as Gabrielle Valledon, wife of a Belgian engineer. When she’s clearheaded, Gabrielle explains her husband disappeared whilst on a job in England, working for a company called Jonah, Ltd., with only a postal address for contact.

Checking out this address, they find only an empty shop where letters picked up by a wheelchair-bound lady, and a cage full of canaries, a number of which are picked up by some workmen and transferred to a smaller crate lined with copies of The Inverness Courier.

The mysterious Jonah is mentioned again; even more mysterious is that a letter left by the woman is addressed to Holmes. It is from his brother, timed to the minute, requesting a meeting. Their trip to that museum of Empire fossils known as the Diogenes Club is occasion for Holmes to theorise about his brother’s involvement in all sorts of Foreign Office shenanigans. Christopher Lee’s Mycroft radiates a calm, acid authority as he warns Holmes to drop this case, shrinking his younger brother from indomitable hero to bohemian brat meddling with grown-ups’ games. Of course, this merely deepens Sherlock’s interest. But Mycroft may have a point. Mme. Valladon has an odd habit of flashing Morse code with her umbrella to an accomplice on the street.

Holmes and Gabrielle travel to Inverness as “Mr and Mrs Ashdown”, with Watson posing as their butler, riding third class, conversing – one-way – with a group of Trappist monks who are reading the Book of Jonah in their Bibles and whispering in German to each other. Meanwhile, in their sleeping compartment, Holmes, explains to Gabrielle why he distrusts women:

“The most affectionate woman I ever knew was a murderess. It was one of those passionate affairs at odd hours right in my laboratory. And all the time right behind my back she was stealing cyanide to sprinkle on her husband’s steak and kidney pie…”

“You musn’t judge all women just because…” Gabrielle protests.

He cuts in, “Of course not. Just the ones I was involved with. And I
don’t just mean professionally. Kleptomaniacs. Nymphomaniacs. Pyromaniacs. Take my fiancé for instance. She was the daughter of my violin teacher. We were engaged to be married, the invitations were out, I was being fitted for a tailcoat, and 24 hours before the wedding, she died of influenza. It just proves my contention that women are unreliable.”

This explanation for Holmes is brilliantly offered by Wilder as an affliction of cruel logic for a rigorously logical man. After a grievous early loss cheated him of a traditional romantic sensibility; of course, the devious genius obsessed with criminals would be most attracted to women with hints of unstable or criminal tendencies, the only ones with minds that work like his, to tantalise all the poles of his personality. That he is attracted enough by Mme. Valladon’s beauty and mystery is enough to rattle him; the more intelligent and supple she proves, the more rapt he is.

As this unlikely threesome book into their hotel room overlooking Loch Ness, Watson swears he saw the monster in the loch, strenuously disbelieved by Holmes. In a graveyard they witness a burial of coffins, one large, two small, which the gravedigger (Stanley Holloway) tells them was a father and two children who drowned in the loch. Then comes a peculiar spectacle, four schoolboy mourners who, as Holmes realises even before seeing their wizened faces, are midgets, the band who abandoned their circus; two of their fellows are now buried. Holmes, Watson, and Gabrielle disinter the larger of the two coffins, fearing it might contain M. Valladon, in the night, and find the engineer buried with several dead canaries stained ghostly white, signs of gas poisoning. Gabrielle is distraught, with Holmes providing less-than-delicate consoling, but soon they’re back out, searching for any sign of where Valladon was working, with Gabrielle signalling via umbrella code to the Trappist monks trailing them. At Urquart Castle, they find restoration works being run by an auxiliary of the Diogenes Club and soldierly guides who know nothing of history. Holmes pursues his gathering theory, and he, Watson, and Gabrielle ride a rowboat on the loch chasing the monster. He is able to hear, through Watson’s stethoscope, a throbbing engine beneath the waves, just before the “monster” surfaces, overturns their boat, and heads for its “lair” in Urquart Castle.

Returning to shore, sopping wet but unharmed, Holmes is called for by a carriage and driven to the castle. Holmes is confronted by Mycroft, who explains to him what Holmes has already deduced – that the navy is testing an experimental submersible, the HMS Jonah, crewed by midgets; that it is run by a battery system built by Valladon that, when it leaked and mixed with water, produced gas that choked Valladon, and what he surely has not deduced – that Valladon’s real wife was murdered weeks before and the woman posing as her now is Ilse von Hoffmanstall, a German agent who has subverted Holmes’ method and used his abilities to trace the Jonah project.

In silent agony, Sherlock now must watch as Mycroft, in fatuous style, shows Queen Victoria (Mollie Maureen) the craft. Victoria, pint-sized, grandmotherly, is delighted by the machine, and asks, innocently, “Where’s the glass bottom?” Mycroft explains confidently that she misunderstands the machine’s purpose: “Jonah is to be commissioned as a warship!” Victoria’s horrified opinion, almost word for word that of a real British admiral, is, “It’s unsportsmanlike! It’s un-English!” and orders it destroyed.

Sherlock is given the job destroying the warship, which he does, and unmasks Ilse with dutiful melancholy. He gives Ilse the gift of knowledge that she outwitted him. As she is driven away by Mycroft and his men, she signals with her umbrella “Auf wiedersehn” to him. Some months later, after she has been exchanged back to Germany, Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft, informing him that Ilse was shot for spying by the Japanese. Holmes turns back to the seven-percent solution, which even Watson cannot argue against, and Holmes disappears in his room.

This is one of the most gossamer tragedies ever pulled off in a film, one highlighted by Miklos Rozsa’s sublime score. But it’s hardly depressing, as the film’s richly funny texture endures in the heart. It’s worth stating that Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely are possibly the best Holmes and Watson ever. Properly, they’re both relatively young, especially Blakely’s Watson, a boyish-at-heart ladykiller and slightly ridiculous, and Holmes, stuck somewhere between Oxford and Bohemia, portrayed with enormous wit and feeling by Stephens. There’s so much to praise in the film it’s almost absurd to say that it’s unsatisfying. You can’t help but wish that three-hour epic with more discursions, more humour, more detail, was extant. As Holmes experiences with Ilse, this film is the beautiful mystery woman you have all too briefly, but it’s somehow enough. l

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