1940s, 1960s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Romance

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) / Hatari! (1962)

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Director: Howard Hawks
Screenwriters: Jules Furthman ; Leigh Brackett

By Roderick Heath

Howard Winchester Hawks, born in 1896, was a scion of an Indiana family that made its fortune in paper milling. The family often visited Pasadena for the sake his mother’s health, and Hawks grew up there as an increasingly rambunctious lad who found physical outlets in car racing and barnstorming flying even before he’d left high school, plus success as a junior tennis champion. His hotrodding incidentally introduced him to then-cinematographer Victor Fleming, his first major contact in Hollywood. Soon after Hawks worked on some Cecil B. DeMille films in between stints at College, and gained his first directing experience filling in on set for Marshall Neilan on the Mary Pickford film The Little Princess. His flying skills served him well as he was engaged to instruct young pilots during World War I, landing a plumb assignment after a visit by Pickford during his training dazzled his commanders. After the war he returned to Hollywood and used his family’s financial clout to get him in good stead with Jack Warner, and after several years working in producing and screenwriting whilst crashing around with a cohort of similarly macho and venturesome young filmmakers, Hawks decided directing was his true passion. He made his feature directing debut with The Road to Glory in 1926. For the next forty years Hawks would remain one of Hollywood’s most vital and visible players, even before being anointed as an essential American auteur.
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Hawks had been directing films for thirteen years by the time he made Only Angels Have Wings, including outright masterpieces like Scarface (1932). But Only Angels Have Wings marked the advent of Hawks’ mature style and method. Hawks’ family background of successful entrepreneurs probably helped give him some savvy as a businessman within a business that a lot of other filmmakers lacked, an aspect of the man inseparable from the artist. He successfully branded himself and developed a reconfigurable product. He knew that his art was inseparable from the forces that allowed him to make it, the desire of a viewing public to hang out with movie stars, to both see, and see themselves in, such uncanny beings. Hawks’ cinema, more than that of any other director, was the pure synergy of performance and shaper. Only Angels Have Wings holds a contradictory place in Hawks’ oeuvre in some ways. It’s both one of his most cohesive and impeccable films but also a mere preparatory sketch for the work he’d pull off over the next three decades. Hatari!, a product of Hawks’ divisive final phase, is by contrast a much more uneven piece of work, and yet also sees Hawks’ touch often hitting its most beautifully distinctive notes.
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At his best, Hawks was something like the platonic ideal of commercial filmmakers. Particularly today, when filmmakers are often completely indifferent to the qualities and energies of the movie stars at their command or incompetent at utilising them, when special effects rule the blockbuster roost and narratives are so dictated by screenwriting manuals and cast-iron formulae, Hawks’ ability to make movies come alive according to their own internal logic and the interaction of performers seems like a fever dream of what entertainment’s supposed to look like, compared to what it so often is. Hawks worked within an industry just as often strict and inimical in warding off creativity, of course, but he knew how to make it serve him, and the audience. Hawks was reputed for his easy capacity to step between film genres whilst maintaining his distinctive imprint. Hawks’ dramas and comedies usually worked in an obviously divergent fashion, but were never entirely polarised. His dramas depicted intense, very masculine worlds where women prove themselves as capable, whilst his comedies emphasise his male characters being disassembled on the fly by the female.
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Hatari! represents a point where the boundary between the two dissolves, as Hawks entered a cinematic zone obeying only his own sure sense of behavioural sprawl. Only Angels Have Wings gained meaning from seeming to summarise much of Hawks’ life and career until that point, fusing his love of flying, his interest in group dynamics, games of love, and codes of honour, and his cinematic talent for situations of heightened stress like wartime transposed onto a nominal peacetime just gearing up again for a great convulsive moment. The project had roots in Hawks’ experience in scouting locations for Viva Villa! (1934) and his encounters with flyers in Mexico, although it feels more crucially like an idealised and extrapolated analysis of his own youth. Credited solely to Jules Furthman although Hawks and others contributed to it, the script saw Furthman recycling a major motif he’d used on Ty Garnett’s China Seas (1935), that of a disgraced coward trying to earn back respect. But where that was an incidental aspect of Garnett’s work, here it fuses perfectly with Hawks’ overall schema, perhaps as neat an illustration of the difference between genre convention and auteurist sublimation as you can get.
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Only Angels Have Wings is also one of those movies that works because of rather than in spite of the strictures of classic Hollywood’s embrace of stylised artificiality. Travelling performer Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) steps off the boat at the fictional South American town of Barranca for a short stopover and right into the arms of two Yank exiles desperate for a little hometown flavour, Joe Souther (Noah Beery Jr) and ‘Gent’ Shelton (John Carroll). The two men’s eager, jovial competition for her attention soon takes a tragic turn. Both are flyers for the Barranca Airways, a fledgling, low-rent operation run by Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) and bankrolled by bar owner ‘Dutchy’ Van Ruyter (Sig Ruman). They’re trying to land a potentially life-changing subsidy by filling a mail delivery contract for a set period, but in chasing it down they’re obliged to take obscene risks in antiquated aircraft and contend with the often brutal climate in getting over the Andes. Joe is killed when weather closes in and he’s too eager to take a chance on landing in fog so he can have dinner with Bonnie. Soon enough Bonnie and Geoff strike sparks of romantic interest and Bonnie decides to hang around, but is soon confronted by Geoff’s determination to retain his sovereign ethos, the outlook of the pilot inimical to domestic order.
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Only Angels Have Wings saw Hawks consciously trying to transfer the outlook of wartime he’d explored on The Dawn Patrol (1930), an ethos based in omnipresent threat and a prototypical version of existential angst, where the constant fact of death and danger means taking a radically different attitude to it. Bonnie is initially shocked and appalled by the dismissive flintiness adopted by Geoff and the other flyers over Joe’s death (“Who’s Joe?”), and whilst she soon realises it’s an attitude that actually suits her quite a bit, she’s nonetheless compelled by fear and affection to try and stop Geoff risking his life. The fatalism is counterbalance by a study of the richness of human interaction and a panoply of ironic rhymes. Geoff refuses the trappings of domesticity but serves as parental figure to a peculiar family and has his platonic wife in ‘Kid’ Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), one of his pilots and pals whose failing eyesight compels Geoff to ground him. Bonnie embodies traits that blur gender lines, her independence as a musician (as opposed to the chorus girl Geoff immediately asks if she is) and sexual being all footloose and fancy free. The narrative seems to be predicated around Bonnie’s ability to change, to surrender any need to demand her man settle down, but actually ultimately depends on Geoff’s, as he’s obliged to surrender his usual rule of refusing to ask anything of a woman lest she take it as licence to do the same to him.
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Meanwhile the tight-knit scene is crashed not only by Bonnie but Geoff’s ex-flame Judy (Rita Hayworth) and her husband ‘Bat’ MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), who Geoff instantly recognises as a man formerly known as Kilgannon, disgraced after he bailed out of a plain leaving behind his co-pilot, who just happened to be Kid’s younger brother. MacPherson and Judy represent failure in terms of the group ethos – she failed to be supportive to Geoff and he recognises she’s doing the same thing for MacPherson, who in turn has to run a gauntlet of ostracism and put up with being handed absurdly dangerous jobs to maintain his place on the Airways staff. Geoff is obliged to keep him on after grounding Kid, sending him first to fly a mine owner’s son out from a remote plateau, demanding piloting of incredible skill. But mere professional ability doesn’t make a professional. One aspect of Only Angels Have Wings that makes it feel at once like a cumulative statement and a draft is the quality of the machismo running through it. Plainly, it had taken Hawks this long to acquire both the clout as an artist and industry player to make such a movie and summarise his basic worldview with a precision like that of his pal Ernest Hemingway. And yet as he entered his forties and fifties, Hawks became increasingly witty and adept at playing with the gender coding in his movies, tinkering with the entire concept of American manhood and womanhood. But the big daddy morality is played straight nearly to a fault here, with such vignettes as Geoff soaking Judy’s head as prelude to a tongue-lashing.
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Despite her eminence, Bonnie isn’t the classic Hawksian woman, the tough and worldly gamine, but rather is trying to become one. She keeps failing the creed to the point where she accidentally shoots Geoff after trying to force him at gunpoint to stay on the ground. And yet the machismo in Only Angels Have Wings has a performative aspect, one underlined by casting Grant, hitherto an actor known almost entirely for light comedy roles, in a part that might have seemed a better fit for the likes of Clark Gable, strains subtly at the contours of the assured masculine leader figure: Geoff is consciously working to fulfil the role he’s assumed. The type of no-cry-babies-allowed discipline all the characters ultimately agree is necessary to mounting an operation like building an airline off the ground, and yet the toll mounts up to the point where even Geoff is reduced to weeping private after Kid’s death. From one perspective this is a myth of gutsy free enterprise, from another a horror story of venture capitalism brutally and literally illustrated, and from yet another a metaphorical vision of all human endeavour as a duel with nature and circumstance. The most luckless and yet paradoxically the happiest-seeming member of the crew is Tex (Don Barry), who mans the remote mountaintop shack to keep watch on the pass the pilots have to fly through to get over the Andes, often a trap of fearsome weather and huge condors, a jolly Tiresias guiding the pilots on their tilts toward destiny.
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But Hawks’ real focal point is the reaction of his characters to their situation. Geoff states, “I’m trying to run an airline, and I’m not doing it any different to anyone I ever flew for.” As with the majority of Hawks’ later films, the drama resembles less the linear deluge of cause and effect preferred by mainstream narrative but a series of music variations or chess moves, each one reconfiguring the basic initial proposition, testing and revealing the characters and shunting them on to new beginnings, or ends. The MacPhersons turn up just when the narrative needs a new motif and a crystallisation for those already in motion; Kid’s crisis of sight and temperament points the way forward to the end of a way of living. Hawks’ love of having his characters sit down and begin performing music together didn’t simply let him show off his actors’ talents and give his movie pivots of entertaining downtime, but helped bracket such shifts of energy and present a ready and blatant portrayal of such improvisatory happening. Bonnie’s initial arrival in Barranca establishes her as a figure of life and song, chiming in with the waterfront singers and swiftly catching the wind of a new culture and way of being. Her clicking into gear with Geoff and the pilots is dramatized as she sits down at the piano and quickly begins orchestrating Dutchy’s musicians for a show of passion and talent that proves how alive the living are and how dead the dead. Flying as metaphor for life, of course, the importance of retaining a self-ruling attitude towards it as well as grasping for great challenges.
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Hawks, who was probably better at grouping actors together in frames than just about any other director past or present, also loved such sequences on a visual level, allowing him to cram faces and bodies in close relation, as busy and bustling as Hogarth but with the scabrous misanthropy swapped out for its opposite, a love of teeming human energy and unity. The fall-off from the raucous high-point of Bonnie’s piano playing to later as she dabs at the keys signifies the moment for deeper revelations and connections. And misunderstandings, as when Geoff for a moment thinks Bonnie intends to claim a trinket from Joe’s effects for herself whilst in fact intending to gift it to Joe’s heartbroken local girlfriend. The spectacle of human frailty and mercenariness is so much more common than decency it’s easy to make such mistakes. Only Angels Have Wings depends upon an almost metaphysical sense of mission to make itself comprehensible – being a pilot is a calling that transcends the usual and compels men beyond bonds of sense and earthbound loyalty – and that’s clearly signalled in the title, if in contradictory fashion: all are doomed, sooner or later, to crash to earth again.
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At the same time, Hawks seems to be having a bit of fun with the world of moviemaking itself, perhaps no less an enslaving and obsessing profession. Dutchy emits Samuel Goldwynisms like “Include me out,” making him the mogul, with Geoff as director with a surplus of wannabe leading men and in need of a hardy leading lady. And what a leading lady he lands with Bonnie. Hawks was supernaturally skilled at putting across a sexual vibe in his films whilst eluding censors, and makes it very clear Bonnie’s eager to jump in the sack with Geoff, accepting an invitation to his room, only for events and Geoff’s scruples to forestall things. Sex is easy in Hawks’ films, consequences not so much. Arthur, one of the less-regarded but most entertaining stars of her day (having a good year in working with Mitchell, as they were both also in Mr Smith Goes To Washington), had a unique ability to seem at once adorable and offbeat, a quality that serves her well as Hawks uses her to crash the boundaries of the adventure movie with a screwball comedy heroine. Hayworth, who gained a major boost to stardom thanks to her role here, contrasts Bonnie seeming more mature and fitting for Geoff’s purposes, with her cool, level stare and low, lilting voice contrasting Arthur’s chirp, but her lack of moxie is soon revealed as she gets plastered rather than confront her own role to play in the face of her husband’s apparent disgrace.
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Hawks casting Barthelmess, who had fallen a long way from his days as a silent heartthrob, was particularly inspired and one that served the film’s themes intrinsically: the tyranny of exclusion from one’s metier was literally etched on Barthelmess’s face, from a botched facelift, and the impression he makes in the role feels all the more genuine for it. Flourishes of melodramatic inevitability, leading to Kid and MacPherson being forced to pilot together in a desperate attempt to deliver the last mail delivery, are imbued with a certain logic as each new advent sets in motion forces that whittle down alternatives. Kid’s displaced rage over being grounded and stuck with his brother’s betrayer sees him accidentally break Gent’s arm. Geoff is winged after Bonnie sticks him up. As the deadline for filling the contract nears, crisis also gains velocity, as various minor players and converging angsts crash against each-other like pool balls. Hawks’ love of compressed settings gave many of his films theatrical unity of space and performance as well as dramatic intimacy, whilst relying on supple cutting and camera placement to dispel any hint of the stagy. Only Angels Have Wings may be the most perfect variation on this aspect of Hawks’ cinema because it feels intimately joined with overt story and thematic impetus as well as metaphorical vista. It feels likely Hawks was taking some inspiration from the French poetic realist style having its heyday in the late ‘30s, with the same strongly contrasted but also finely textured photographic style and fatalistic concerns, although the sharp feeling of impending doom that defined the French movement is softened.
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Only Angels Have Wings hovers in hallucinatory form, a stage of drama perched between fog-ridden ocean and soaring, jagged model-work mountains, the space in between, Dutchy’s saloon and airfield, an island of life and death etched out in pools of vivid chiaroscuro and expressionist fervour. It’s probably also, visually speaking, Hawks’ finest work. The photography (by Joseph Walker) offers a restrained brand of expressionist heightening. There’s a near-dreamlike vividness to the evocations of the exotic, from the Barranca waterfront where musicians and dancers collect in localised storms of human energies, to Tex’s remote, rough-hewn but cosy vantage amidst elemental extremes of the high Andes. And yet Hawks was one director never terribly interested in pretty pictures: he was always looking for the most concise conveyance of information and the most charged and engaging way of framing his actors. The most striking piece of Paul Mantz’s aerial photography, by contrast, as Bat lands on the remote plateau, filmed in one great, unbroken shot from another plane, swinging about with a vertiginous sense of height and movement. Bat’s success in getting his plane in and out of this nearly impossible setting is powerful both on the thematic level – we see how inured Bat is to danger now thanks to endless humiliation and deploring, as well as serving his professional need in the only way he can now, whilst the stunt flying offers a jolt of real and palpable danger amidst the film’s stylised simulacra.
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The last quarter of Only Angels Have Wings entwines moral and character crises and physical adventures with mischievous perfection, and Hawks’ and Furthman’s tropes, arranged as carefully as dominos, begin to fall. Bonnie’s fear and romantic frustration leads to Geoff’s wounding. This leads to Bat and Kid being forced to work together, flying a new trimotor plane that still cannot surmount the loftiest reaches of the Andes. The two men goad each-other to new daring, only to find their capacities have limits, instead forcing them to take the sopped-in pass, only to collide with one of the condors nesting there. This leaves Kid with a broken neck and Bat forced to try and pilot the flaming plane back to the airfield, displaying such fortitude and daring that he finally dispels the last of the curse upon him and is readmitted to the society of fliers. Kid’s death proves a catharsis for Geoff that reduces him finally to weeping in the shadows, but also releases him to love Bonnie. The fundamental imperfection of men and women, their breakableness in the face of a hostile universe, has been reproven, but so too has the fact of their indomitable capacity. Geoff and Gent are granted a last chance to prove their mettle as together the form one complete, operating man and fill the contract with a few hours to spare. Bonnie realises at the very last moment that Geoff has asked her to stay indirectly through the device of Kid’s double-headed coin, a momentous life moment and dramatic climax hinging on a subtle device.
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Whilst Only Angels Have Wings had taken its keynote from a transliterated quote rooted in Shakespearean tragedy — “A man can die but once, and we owe god but one, and if we pay it today we don’t owe it tomorrow,” — Hatari! is a wayward approximation of the Shakespearean pastoral, studying its heroes out in the wild where the adventures and connections are playful and fruitful. Hatari! carries over many basic Hawksian refrains from Only Angels Have Wings – newcomers breaking into a tight-knit domain of preoccupied specialists, the hero who’s been romantically burned and refuses to initiate a courtship, the musical performance as fulcrum of evolving relationships – but with a much more measured and puckish take on it. The Hawks of a quarter-century later is quite a different artist in other ways. Filmed in bright colour out on the actual African veldt, the business this time around is much less urgent, portraying the Momella Game outfit, dedicated to capturing wild animals for zoos and circuses in the wilds of Tanganyika (today mainland Tanzania). As a profession it’s not nearly as dangerous as bush piloting, if still hardly a soft option. It’s not even so masculine, as the official boss of the outfit is Brandy de la Court (Michèle Girardon), daughter of its founder and well-used to the rough-and-tumble travails of the savannah, although Sean Mercer (John Wayne) is its operational chieftain. The team’s efforts to capture the animals demands a blend of toughness and care that fascinates Hawks thematically and visually, finding in this an almost perfect union of masculine and feminine traits. Where Only Angels Have Wings dealt specifically with exiled American characters confronting the imminent age of the US emerging as a global superpower as well as the threat of war, Hatari! offers a multiethnic sprawl reflecting the vicissitudes of the post-World War II age.
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Mancini’s score, often playful elsewhere, wields a main theme replete with plangent drums and horns evoking a dramatic and intrepid landscape. The newcomer this time is Anna Maria D’Alessandro (Elsa Martinelli), swiftly dubbed Dallas as per the outfit’s tribal lore which demands a good, pithy nickname. A photographer hired to document the capture of animals destined for a Swiss circus, Dallas turns up in Sean’s bed when he and the rest of the crew return from a drinking session after the Indian’s life is saved: having simply claimed the first bed she could find, Dallas offers sexual provocation to Sean right from the start. Dallas initially finds herself well out of her depth as she doesn’t count on just how jarring and strenuous the savannah chases get, but after swallowing her pride and apologising for getting in the way she soon finds her feet. Dallas also instantly falls in love with Sean as the compulsory Hawks alpha, but like her forebears like Bonnie finds him determinedly unreceptive. On the advice of team driver and mechanical wizard Pockets (Red Buttons), Dallas instead starts finding ways of putting Sean on the spot. The team experiences a crisis just before Dallas’ arrival, as one its stalwarts, ‘The Indian’ Little Wolf (Bruce Cabot), is gored in the leg by a rhinoceros. A young French roustabout, Charles ‘Chips’ Maurey (Gérard Blain), asks Sean for the job of filling in for the Indian in the hospital with an opportunistic verve that annoys German team member Kurt Müller (Hardy Kruger), but in donating blood for the Indian and later matching Kurt in a test of shooting skill, he earns himself a place in the ranks. Soon he’s competing with both Kurt and Pockets for Brandy’s affections.
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Hatari! saw Hawks working again with the ingenious crime and sci-fi author turned screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who had collaborated on several of his greatest films including The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1959): Brackett was Hawks’ ideal collaborator as one who enacted the whole business of being a hardy woman in a manly world rather than just fantasised about it. Hatari! broadly reproduces Only Angels Have Wings’ basic structure as the outfit must fill the animal orders they’ve been hired to nab. Compared to the agonising travails of the earlier film, there’s not much more on the line than professional pride, although that’s the most unforgiving taskmaster of all. The Indian’s fear that they might be jinxed in regards to rhinos adds a psychological, even spiritual foil to be overcome, in a similar manner to the insurmountable Andes. The Indian plays a similar role to Kid in Only Angels Have Wings and Eddie in To Have and Have Not (1944), the wounded elder the appointed alpha male plays protector to. Here, however, this aspect is supplanted as the main mode for expressing the protective, quasi-parental need by Dallas evolves quickly from being freaked out by the outfit’s pet cheetah to adopting some young, motherless elephants. She pressgangs the outfit into helping her keep them fed – her skill and abandon as a nurturer is at once perfectly maternal and erotically provocative. Sean hovers in readily bewildered and cautious fascination as Dallas rattles his cage with propositions like, “How do you like to kiss?”
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Hawks loved recycling elements and reframing ideas from movie to movie, considering them from different aspects: whilst several of his films are virtual remakes of others, this reordering gave each a distinct tenor. Wayne’s Durston in Red River (1948) concentrated on the dark and irrational aspect of the authority figure, particularly when haunted by romantic loss and challenged by youthful talent. The boozer characters played by Dean Martin in Rio Bravo and Robert Mitchum in El Dorado were depictions of the sorts of degrading lows characters like Geoff and Sean had certainly experienced following their own romantic crucifixions, as men who try to hide from their emotional anguish in the narcotising delight of booze only to find out all too cruelly what it cost them. Chips and Kurt are reminiscent of the many competitive bucks in Hawks’ oeuvre and also have a quality reminiscent of Kid and Bat, albeit remixed to a less fraught level. Chips’ opportunism in asking for the Indian’s job offends Kurt, who attacks him and derides him. Chips then makes him ask him to help the Indian, and later they directly compete to see who’s the better shooter before Sean’s indulgent gaze: Chips matches Kurt and punches him in the jaw, a last act of score-settling that Kurt accepts with rueful understanding. Later, as the two men compete for Brandy’s affections, they become inseparable pals. Given the intimations of a political metaphor that runs through the outfit’s adventures, they stand for rapprochement between Germany and France in the post-war order, just as the figuration of Sean, the Indian, and sharp-dressing Mexican Luis Lopez (Valentin de Vargas) are the model for a modern North America that’s left behind past conflicts and schisms.
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Hatari! is the longest film Hawks made, although it scarcely has a plot. The comedic interludes verge on silliness at times, in Dallas pressganging the outfit into helping her keep the baby elephants fed, and many scenes of the outfit trying to corral escaped and intransigent animals. A scene of Dallas being inducted into a local tribe’s ranks and painted in blackface definitely puts the teeth on edge now. A late scene where she bathes the animals is pure froth (and yet this provided the film’s deepest impact upon the pop culture as it’s scored by Mancini’s instant standard, “Baby Elephant Walk”). And yet Hatari! nonetheless perhaps comes closest of all Hawks’ films to achieving what he had always chased in a movie, a state of immersion with a set of characters whose actions, traits, and foibles become as familiar as neighbours, living lives imbued with an outsized vitality by circumstance and mythmaking technique. In this regard even the film’s nominal faults help Hawks portray his team in various states ranging from high gallantry to happy absurdity. Sean and Dallas finding connection in playing a piano is a virtual copy of the scene in Only Angels Have Wings. Kurt and Chips entertain Brandy by playing music for her to dance to, only for Pockets to reveal startling ability to cut a rug as he enters the romantic fray. The giveaway for who Brandy actually loves, in such a stoic environment, an only ben an expression of purely reflexive care. After tending with soldierly efficiency to Kurt and Chips getting banged up in a crash, she freaks out with Pockets has a minor fall and nurses him back to health.
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Hatari! exemplifies Hawks’ credo of making use of his actors’ talents and capacities by making them really get in the mix with the animals, and other moments that depend on unfakeable displays of skill, such as Martinelli playing piano, or her rapport with the baby elephants, or Button’s delightful display of dancing. Rather than seeming like some kind of movie star showing off, Hawks taps this sort of thing to make his characters seem all the more palpable: everyone has their party trick, their unexpected aptitude. Unifying rather than interrupting Hatari!’s sprawling behavioural indulgence are the hunting sequences. These come on as long, detailed, scoreless depictions inviting the audience to witness something at once madcap and delicate. The animals quite often fight back and torment their pursuers with unexpected verbe. The actors are unmistakeably engaged in the action: shots of Wayne perched in a catcher’s chair trying to lasso wild animals amidst driving dust and grit, fill the compressed widescreen frames with a sense of pure motion and dynamic engagement. Another of Hawks’ singular capacities was his ability to find a sense of drama in watching people do their work. Of course that’s much easier when work is this different and interesting, but Hawks’ fascination for watching people do such things for money was undoubtedly designed to plug into his audience’s own sense of workaday pride, and as part of their social identity. This was a sensibility he shared with Raoul Walsh and not too many others in the movie world then and now.
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The crew are a team apart, elevated by their communal dedication and general skill. When not dashing about the savannah they’re people with lives elsewhere, contrasting the desperate tenor of Only Angels Have Wings’ exiles, and sometimes signalling an innate love of danger – Kurt is a race car driver. Sean notes a telling similarity between his crew and their proud neighbouring Massai tribes, who maintain a strict ethic in remaining cattle growers and herders and pay another tribe to carry their water. It’s hard not to notice, from today’s perspective and despite the general idealism, the way the team relies on its African workers but includes no actual black locals. The inclusivity of the Africans however stretches to inducting Dallas into their ranks to honour her for her protection of the young elephants, although that’s an honour Sean has to coach her to understand: Dallas’ tribal induction mimics her inclusion in the outfit but in some ways outweighs it, establishing her as someone engaged with the African world in a way the outfit never quite does. Pockets is her temperamental opposite in regards to animals, tentative and clumsy in their presence. But he’s finally able to stake a claim to equality in the team when he develops a device for catching monkeys with a rocket-delivered net, a triumph for gawky mechanic that he doesn’t even see because he keeps his eyes closed.
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The catching season ends with the hoodoo broken and a rhino caught. As if by deliberation, Hawks’ next film, Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964), would purposefully invert the general proposition here as its would-be outdoorsy hero is revealed as a boob way out of his depth needing schooling even in catching fish by female provocateurs. As in Only Angels Have Wings, the climax of Hatari! is a romantic clinch, but comically sustained this time. Dallas flees the crew at the end of the catching season rather than face rejection from Sean, obliging the crew and even her adopted elephants chasing her into town. Whilst perhaps an excessive affirmation of the film’s goofy side, as well as inventing as far I can tell the most famous cliché ending of the modern romantic comedy, this is also perhaps the ultimate display of Hawks’ depiction of a kind of fusion family, mobilised to bring one of their own back to the hearth. Hawks circles back to where Sean and Dallas’ relationship started, with Dallas ensconced in Sean’s bed and even with a pie-eyed Pockets barging in, except with the crucial detail that Sean and Dallas are now married. And this time, in come the elephants again, interrupting all hope of connubial bliss as literalised manifestations of the eventual dangers of marriage – children! Now there’s a frontier of experience the bravest adventurer will shrink from.

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2010s, Chinese cinema, Experimental, Film Noir, Romance

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018)

Di qiu zui hou de ye wan
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Director/Screenwriter: Bi Gan

By Roderick Heath

Bi Gan was inspired to become a filmmaker after by a college viewing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) assured him that you could do what you liked with film. His debut as a feature director, Kaili Blues (2015), instantly marked him in both China and abroad as a new talent with startling accomplishment for such a young voice. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, his second film, is a statement of artistic ambition rare on the contemporary film scene. A surprisingly big hit at the Chinese box office, in part because of a cunningly obfuscating advertising campaign, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is also a film that tries to embrace contemporary frontiers in filmmaking like a bold application of 3D, usually reserved for special effects spectacles, and a unique brand of showmanship to a defiantly unconventional brand of filmmaking. Related to Eugene O’Neill’s great play only by a sense of living in a present inescapably haunted by the past (the Chinese title is equally loose in appropriating a Roberto Bolano book’s title), Bi’s film is neatly bifurcated as a viewing experience, the two halves – the title card doesn’t appear until almost precisely halfway through – corresponding to different states of perception and being.
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Bi’s approach to cinema is certainly original, and his vantage on art film internationalist. Nonetheless he threatens to unify some familiar traits that many other major Chinese-language filmmakers share to varying degrees. The lushly visual and dreamily psychological cinema of Wong Kar-Wai and the painstakingly evocative externalist portraits of Hsiao-hsien Hou meets the gritty reports from directors like Jia Zhangke and Li Yang, and even Johnny To’s bravura genre twists, to make account a deliriously shifting social and emotional landscape. His method, subsuming film noir motifs into a more abstracted and experimental brand of movie, also echoes a long tradition, back to the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain-Robbe Grillet. After all, the obsessions of much modernist art, with vagaries of identity and form, knowing and ambiguity, the sense of paranoia and estrangement pervasive in much of modern life, the uneasy relationship of personal agency with blocs of great power and crises of faith and ideology, conjoin very neatly with noir’s basic motifs, where the individual is so often an existential warrior in such a void. But Long Day’s Journey Into Night plays out a kind of film noir plot in disrupted and spasmodic fashion, used to illustrate a general, ephemeral sense of existence, where one search blends into another and all roads to a nexus of identity, far more ephemeral and romantically charged than such heady forebears.
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The setting fits such a story perfectly, offering a corner of a vast and prosperous nation where nonetheless not many interested eyes seem to be turned and it’s easy to imagine human flotsam slipping through the cracks. As with his first film, Bi’s real subject, or at least the most tangible one, is Kaili itself and surrounds in the southern province of Guizhou, a mountainous, subtropical region that’s plainly missed out on the great millennial economic boom. Bi surveys a backwater vista of decaying, blasted industrial structures, dilapidated enterprise, and drifting, isolated and disorientated people. Bi’s hero Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) is first glimpsed, haggard and grey-haired, after a tryst with a prostitute, on his way back to Kaili after a ten-year absence. Luo seems to have been working at a scrap metal merchant’s as a cutter and welder. Bi’s camera tracks from a view of him driving off in a van and then along rusted metal barrier whilst Luo’s voiceover recounts how his one-time friend Wildcat was found dead at the bottom of a mineshaft. Luo’s return is prompted by his father’s death: he finds his father has left him his van but left his restaurant to his second wife, a move Luo accepts with weary approval. The second wife takes down a clock his father used to sit and drink in front of and replaces it with a photo of the father. Luo checks the clock and finds why it served such a totemic function for him: he had hidden a photo of his first wife, Luo’s mother, in the mechanism. She vanished when Luo was still very young, and he begins trying to track her down.
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One quest for a woman is conjoined with another. Luo also wants to find his former lover, Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), a woman he became involved with years earlier, or who might have been named Kaizhen. She reminded Luo of his mother in some ways, particularly when he first saw her with smudged makeup. At the very start of the film, Luo tells the prostitute he dreamt of a woman, surely Qiwen, who always returns to him in dreams just when he seems at the point of forgetting her. What follows for the rest of Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s first half is a near-random-seeming assortment of scenes that start to fit together mosaic-like, recounting Luo’s present-tense attempts to find where his mother went to, as well as pondering his past with Qiwen and seeking her ultimate fate. Qiwen appears like an apparition out of the mess of Luo’s past. Luo recalls how he met her, as Wildcat’s former lover, tracking her down and catching her on a train that became halted by mudslide.
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Luo seems to rough her up, grabbing her hair and pointing a gun at her forehead, much to Qiwen’s detached and world-weary lack of great concern. As if in compensation after deciding she had nothing to do with Wildcat’s death, Luo took her out to dinner and encountered her again walking down a seedy tunnel wearing a green dress and smeared, blood-red lipstick. Luo showed her the same photo of his mother to her he would later rediscover in the clock. Or are his memories and his present bleeding into each-other? The older Luo visits Tai Zhaomei (Yanmin Bi), a woman in prison who was a friend of his mother’s when she was younger, and mailed the photo to his father’s restaurant. Luo learns things about his mother, including that she was a good singer, and was involved with criminal activities like forging identity cards. Mother and son both seem to have shared a fate to remain rootless and outside the law, and Luo and his father are unified by their fate to constantly dream about the woman they lost.
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Bi’s eliding visuals mimic the haziness of Luo’s memories, replete with rainy haze, reflections, unfolding in places that seem sequestered from the hoary everyday. Bi tends to break up longer, relatively coherent scenes with sudden plunges into subliminally connected recollections, a random access memory for vignettes charged with needling relevance. Luo’s voiceover describes Qiwen as someone who seemed to appear out of nowhere and then return there. His memories of her are often layered and mediated, a face in shadow lit by flame, a solitary figure swathed in green, glimpsed in mirrors and through rain-speckled glass, at once palpable and immaterial. Settings have a similarly conjured intensity, like the tunnel where Luo encounters Qiwen. Or the abandoned building with peeling paint on the walls and water constantly dripping from the ceiling, a place where Luo retreats and apparently once lived in with Qiwen, and which Luo recalls his one-time paramour teaching him a magic spell to set spinning around. Or the grimy railway café where Qiwen makes a fateful statement to Luo, and a cobra is kept in a glass case, rearing up in impotent fury, like an illustration of the lurking danger in their lives.
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Fragments of sublime and languorous romanticism are glimpsed, as when Luo and Qiwen lying kissing by a pond, or talk in the café where the subject is urgent but the mood is distrait, almost surreal. Such flashes of beauty are wound in nonetheless with a threat of violence and deep-seated angst. Luo tells his mother-in-law he’s been managing a casino, a tale that proves to be rooted in an old ambition he and Qiwen had talked about. Another vignette sees Luo promising Qiwen that if they have a son he’ll teach him pingpong. Qiwen wanted to leave Kaili with Luo because a man she knew named Zuo was returning. She recounts to Luo a story of how, when singing karaoke, he told her “I will always find you.” Who Zuo is and his place in the lovers’ life resolves as Bi offers a shot of a man wearing a white hat singing karaoke with Wildcat dangling like a meat carcass, in the bowels of some seedy building, with Qiwen seated but apparently browbeaten by Zuo, who grabs her hair and tries to make her sing with him. Luo recounts having seen Wildcat’s ghost on a train not long after he died, and later there’s a glimpse of his corpse being trundled into the mine shaft that became his last resting place. It seems that Zuo killed Wildcat, and Luo intended retaliation by sitting behind Zuo in a movie theatre and shooting him in the back, but Bi never shows whether he really did the deed.
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Back in the present tense, Luo is handed a handwritten message from Tai Zhaomei by a cop, giving what might be the current name of his mother, Chen Huixian, and an address. Luo visits a hotel, but it’s uncertain whether it’s his mother or Qiwen that he’s tracked there: the jovial but shabby manager tells him about one of his quarries, who used to pay her rent by spinning entertaining stories and stated she was born infertile. Luo visits Wildcat’s mother (Sylvia Chang), a hairdresser who Luo once was an apprentice to. Her account of Zuo’s dealings with her son and Qiwen sound startlingly like what Luo experienced, including being her lover and the deed of shooting a man on her behalf. Did any of this happen at all, or is it Luo’s feverish fantasy, or a blend of conjecture and identification rooted in things that happened to others? Was Qiwen Luo’s fellow survivor and islet of comfort in a harsh world, or a free-floating agent of destruction constantly ensnaring men and driving each to destroy the last? Bi doesn’t exactly answer any of these questions, but continues signalling subliminal connections between people who step in and out of roles in life – villain, victim, lover, parent, child – as time drags them along routes that seem at once utterly happenstance and eternally repetitive and predictable.
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The dichotomous hunt for Qiwen and Luo’s mother conjoins as a search for a kind of cosmic feminine, and often from scene to scene it’s hard to tell exactly which one he’s hunting for in that moment. Lookalikes proliferate. Meanwhile Luo explores a world where casual sights, like a karaoke truck or a boy petting a dog in a train station, will be appropriated and mixed into a fantasy landscape. Consuming fruit becomes an odd motif: Qiwen has a love of pomelos, whilst there’s an extended sequence of Wildcat eating an entire apple, stem and core included, as part of an odd ritual designed to end a feeling of sadness. Bi identifies an entire world of similarly uprooted and estranged people, as his camera notes Luo riding a bus full of itinerant workers sleeping, and a shattered factory populated by singer-prostitutes about to be left without a venue. Much like Jia with films like The World ( 2004) and A Touch of Sin (2013), Bi seems to perceive modern China as a place where the pace and type of change has left everyone’s head spinning, the country fundamentally fractured on the basic levels of community and psyche, the regressive lilt of its backwaters at once dogging the memories of its go-getters but also offering no cheer upon return. But like Wong Kar-Wai, he also sees the way we’re constructed by a mass of ephemeral impressions, always becoming and never more than a sum of the past.
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Throughout Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Bi works in some blatant nods to some beloved inspirations, including the self-animating glass of Stalker and the cattle skull-bedecked motorcycle of Touki-Bouki (1972). Such quotes certainly show Bi working through his cinematic touchstones, but they also serve a function as something like aesthetic milestones, points of recognition and orientation in the midst of a free flux of style. “The difference between film and memory,” Luo considers at one point, “Is that film is always false.” But memory is much more pernicious, blending together all the meal of being and identity, and our favourite artworks tend to become deeply entwined with impressions of places and times (this might also be the first and last film ever made to hinge in part on Vengaboys nostalgia). Tang’s presence in the film, as an international movie star whose beauty has the right mask-like, hallucinatory quality for Bi’s textures, provides another locus of recognition. Qiwen has an air of scarcely being present in mind even when physically present, of being too life-bruised and exhausted to react with anything like passion to any situation, barely bothered to resist clasping hands as if she’s been manhandled too many times to waste any but the minimum required energy fending such abuses off.
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Qiwen’s allure in the grimy and depressed setting Bi shoots is nonetheless inescapable, like something fallen from the sky. Qiwen shares a name with a cantopop star, a name that seems to distinguish her and signal her alien, too-good-for-this-place aura – this touch is reminiscent of Hsiao-hsien Hou naming the heroine of his equally wistful Three Times (2005) after the movie star Bai Ling, counting on such recognition for an archetypal charge: such names spell our moment and become our vehicles of self-expression and identification. Except that when Luo goes to a karaoke venue set up in an old factory about to be demolished, and thinks Qiwen might now be one of the singing concubines who works there, although the emcee-madame thinks he means an impersonator of the singing star, as her ranks are crammed with girls who specialise in mimicking such stars. To be subsumed to an image is to be erased. The opening with Luo chatting with the prostitute who looks something like Qiwen, signals the way Luo tries to retain a grip on the past’s illusions and his inability to move beyond them. Meanwhile he encounters people persisting in their small bubbles of subsistence – the hotel manager who points an ancient musket at his young employee as a bored practical joke, or Wildcat’s mother who works out to a video dancing game. Everyone and everything feels submerged, as if in a flooded city. After talking with Wildcat’s mother, who plans to dye her hair just as Qiwen once wanted to dye her hair red.
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Such throwaway and ephemeral details return transformed in meaning in the film’s second half. To waste time until the karaoke starts up, Luo goes to watch a movie and dozes off with a pair of 3D glasses on: at last the film’s title is displayed and the movie Luo watches becomes his own story. If the first half is an unmoored and skittish portrait of a man trying to sort out fact from fiction in his memory, the second has the fluid and metamorphosis-riddled aspect of a dream. The central conceit of Bi’s approach is that the dream seems much more lucid and negotiable than the section dominated by process of memory, which is associative and leaps time frames with jarring and bewildering randomness, although slowly it begins to add up to a kind of sense. The radical reorientation of style leaves behind the opaque shuffle of events for a rigorous, apparently single-shot experiential excursion, one that might be a “dream” and yet also seems clearer, more coherent, and more literal than the earlier half, albeit one filled with jolts of magic-realism. This section is replete with motifs anyone might recognise from dreams they’ve had over the years – mysterious journeying, strangely conflated setting and places, people who share multiple identities, anxious blends of public ritual and private angst.
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But Bi’s visualising of this, rendered in what is apparently one, long, sustained shot, inverts usual expectations for portrayals of the real and imagined, and ultimately makes you wonder which is which is his imaginative universe. He follows Luo as he enters an underground mine complex, leaves it on motorcycle and then rides a flying fox, entering a sort of industrial citadel amidst a jagged gorge that proves also to be a compressed pocket of reality where the stations of Luo’s particular life-long crucifixion are all neatly contained. People gather in a frigid plaza to watch and perform karaoke, big, beaty anthems echoing plangently around the locale, at once inviting the roaming outsiders and expelling them from the common run of humanity. Luo’s search becomes a literal trek around this segregated reality. Along the way Luo encounters a young boy living in the mine who also goes by the name Wildcat, and who loves playing ping-pong. He meets a woman who’s the spitting image of Qiwen except with a short red-dyed hairdo, managing a pool hall for her boyfriend. Another looks like the old Wildcat’s mother and has the same hairdo as the Qiwen avatar, who begs the hotel owner to come with her on some journey and confesses to be the one who burned down the building where Luo and Qiwen lived.
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Bi’s ostentatious yet resolutely unhurried formal device depends on a number of seamless transitions from shooting stage to stage – the ceaselessly roaming camera speeds before the motorcycle and then seems to glide through the air in arcs of languorous movement as Luo rides the flying fox and he and Qiwen make used of a ping-pong paddle the boy Wildcat gave him that has the potential to become a mode of flight, surveying the citadel and the human flotsam below as if momentarily granted deistic purview. As in myth, Luo has to pass a challenge to move from one zone to another, in his case winning a ping-pong match with the boy Wildcat. Luo has a potency in this zone that eluded him previously. He’s able to masterfully intimidate two teenagers who harass Qiwen, and fends off the hotel owner with a brandished pistol. In much the same way, the subterranean logic Bi employs throughout this sequence, the conjuring trick that is his cinema, ironically gives all a unity, a sense of completeness, that initially eludes it: the film’s second half is a statement of faith in art as a mode for making sense of experience. Luo is free to make associative connections and realise hidden truths. Resources of magic are available and time inverts.
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Each character realises multiple identities. The boy Wildcat could be the lingering spirit of Luo’s dead friend and also his fondly imagined and wished-for son, a reality in an alternate dimension. The vignette of Wildcat’s mother and the hotel owner could be simply be versions of the people they look like. Or smudged representations of Luo’s own mother and her ambiguous fate. Or Qiwen and her current boyfriend. Or future versions of Qiwen and Liu. They can be all at once in part because Bi has spent the entire movie carefully setting up the array of echoes and doppelgangers, generational examples of the same cyclical problems. Bi even has a certain droll sense of humour about the symbolic meaning of all this, as he has Qiwen comment on the symbolic value of the firework as representation of the transitory. In the truly surreal world, such representations break down, distinctions are lost, and opposites threaten to unify. The greater part of Bi’s game here is less to intrigue with such ponderings, however, than to articulate an oneiric feeling nearly impossible to articulate except with the tools cinema gives him. The sense of being at once present and removed from circumstances, of dreaming but also being aware.
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Luo’s encounters have a vital, salutary quality, helping the women he’s known, and by extension himself, escape frames of identity they’ve become entrapped by. The Qiwen he meets in the hillside town lacks the identifying marks that fixed the old one in his mind but nonetheless becomes the one he searches for, the green dress swapped for a flashy red jacket, just as iconographic but declaring a more worldly and contemporary aspect: classic femme fatale become ‘80s thriller neon goddess. Her fondness for pomelos suddenly gains meaning, as the highest rize on the fruit machine she likes to play, longing for fiscal deliverance. Strange as it all is, so much of Luo’s life clicks together like a jigsaw in these scenes, leading to its dizzyingly romantic climax as Luo and Qiwen kiss in the ruined building and do sit it spinning. His camera then threads an independent path, free of reference to his characters, through the citadel until focusing on the burning sparklers Luo left in Qiwen’s dressing room. Symbols of the transitory indeed, but burning brightly. We are of course watching Bi’s movie and he knows it, using the privilege to rewrite his own reality.

Standard
1970s, Horror/Eerie, Romance

Don’t Look Now (1973)

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Director: Nicolas Roeg

Screenwriters: Allan Scott, Chris Bryant

By Roderick Heath

Morning in the yard of an English country home. Christine (Sharon Williams), a young, blonde girl, clad in a plastic rain coat the colour of blood, plays in the drizzle with a ball, skirting the pocked surface of a reedy pond, whilst her brother rides amongst the trees. The scenery is shot in that indefinably specific manner of early ‘70s filmmaking, all soft watery light, grainy mists, and fecund hues of green and brown and grey, the few patches of primary colours alight with portentous power. The playing girl’s listless parents inside the house in the comfortable envelope of their lives, with a touch of youthful cool and countercultural edge still to their learned, bourgeois calm, scents of green tea and marijuana blending with the pot pourri in cool English domesticity. Wife researching the deceptive minutiae of natural phenomena, husband surveying slide stills of the medieval churches he restores as cultural artefacts without any spiritual belief, before he suddenly senses disaster. He jumps up, runs outside, and plucks his daughter’s angelic corpse from the water of the reedy pond. He surfaces in a slow motion shot that captures every stir of water, a depiction of raw, primal agony elongated into a fateful eternity, transmuted into art, a motion Pre-Raphaelite painting depicting transfiguring grief. Art dissolves into life just as future, present, and past splinter and speak to each other in Don’t Look Now.

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The reputation of Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg’s third film as director, has steadily climbed to the point where some surveys have named it the greatest British film of all time. That kind of acclaim is particularly noteworthy given that Don’t Look Now is a horror film, a genre that rarely attracts such regard. But Roeg found a way to make the genre the vessel for stylistic ambition and cinematic invention it hadn’t been since the silent era, and Don’t Look Now straddles modes of filmmaking in singular fashion. Similarly, Roeg, who died recently at the age of 90, defied convention and cliché just as intrepidly. The son of a one-time diamond merchant with Dutch roots, Roeg entered the British film industry as a tea boy and worked his way up through studio ranks, becoming camera operator on a range of prestigious films in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before gaining repute for his second unit photography work on Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Roeg soon served as cinematographer on the likes of Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964), François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968). Working with such filmmakers at a time of great cinematic energy and experimentation emboldened Roeg began developing a distinctive approach to filmmaking. He was soon courted for collaboration with Donald Cammell to make his directing debut with Performance (1970). Many talented cinematographers have tried to make the leap into directing before and since, but even greats from Karl Freund to Jack Cardiff to Janusz Kaminski have made it with often less than stellar results.

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Roeg, however, turned out to be something else entirely, a well-trained technician and product of studio cinema who nonetheless proved a unique and challenging film artist. The dazzling visual sensibility he demonstrated as a film shooter was unleashed, although he was lucky to emerge at a time when filmmakers of all stripes felt freer to improvise with the texture of cinema. Roeg took more advantage than most, and created in his early works bold fusions of narrative and experimental cinema, playing freely with cinematic time signatures and composing images in contrapuntal rhapsodies. Even as his style settled down in later films, they retained an element of jagged strangeness and sensual immersion that was utterly distinctive. The roots of Roeg’s style and status in the midst of a national cinema usually praised, or written off, for its penchant for classical calm and literacy, were evident in Petulia, and took that film’s experiments with structure and time to hallucinatory, hyperbolic places in his first two films. Performance offered a brain-twisting graph of blurring identity and the cacophony of Swinging London’s surreal collision of subcultures, whilst Walkabout (1971), his Australian outback odyssey, depicted a crisis in mutually uncomprehending ways of being which Roeg characteristically conveyed as fractured ways of seeing. Don’t Look Now was comparatively straightforward. Only comparatively, as Roeg stitched a dense fabric of image play and time distortion whilst telling an intelligible and deftly intriguing story. that managed to satisfy the generic requirements of a horror film but also, like some other, rare entries in the genre, moves into a realm of mystification and distortion of reality that lays bare a strange, extreme psychological landscape.

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The unfortunate parents glimpsed at the outset are John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura Baxter (Julie Christie). Sometime after their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams) died in that pond, Roeg rediscovers the pair in Venice, having left their son Johnny (Nicholas Salter) in boarding school. John supervises the restoration of an historic church. The first shots of John in Venice see him and workmen drilling into the church’s fabric like a dentist hacking into a cavity about to release foul and nasty rot. When the couple have lunch in a Venetian café, they notice a woman who seems to be staring at them. Laura learns the staring woman is actually blind when they meet in the washroom. Her name is Heather (Hilary Mason), and the woman she’s travelling with she calls her sister, Wendy (Clelia Matania). Heather claims to be clairvoyant, and she thrills and appeases Laura profoundly when she reports having seen a young girl sitting with them, meaning that Christine’s spirit is close and benevolently watching over them. Laura returns to John in the café but suddenly faints, knocking over the table. She’s rushed to hospital, but quickly recovers and indeed emerges in better spirits than any time since Christine’s death. This epiphany kicks of a subtle polarisation in the couple, as John’s regulation male rationalism seems beggared and suspicious of Laura’s equally regulation female mysticism, but also reunion, as the couple spend an episode of utterly carnal passion, seemingly their first in a long time, fuelled by a sense of liberation from disaster and guilt.

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The basis for Don’t Look Now was a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, who had also provided Alfred Hitchcock with material for Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963), and it has certain similarities – the encounter with the travelling duo of English women recalls Rebecca and the preoccupation with marriage and mating under the pretext of an enigmatic and disquieting plot is clearly reminiscent of many of Hitchcock’s films, going back to the likes of Rich and Strange (1932). The marriage of the Baxters, united both by passion and sorrow, is the true engine of a storyline that covers the span between two deaths, for a film that analyses the ephemeral experiences and connections that constitutes life whilst also suggesting a tentative belief in things beyond. The opening scene sees Laura trying to solve a question her son asked her as to why, if the Earth is round, frozen water is flat, and finds that it isn’t, but the arc can be imperceptible. John’s book, Beyond The Fragile Geometry of Space, sits on the sofa. Perception is limited, existence is infinite. John studies slide photos he’s taken of the church he’s working on, spying a red-clad figure seated on a pew, and when a psychic intimation warns him of Christine’s danger, he springs up and dashes out, knocking over a glass of water that causes the red figure on the slide to dissolve and create an abstract swirl encircling the stain glass window of the church; Roeg cuts between this act of incidental art-making with the terrible sight of John rising from the water with Christine’s body, past and future, spirit and flesh, love and hate all blurring in an inscrutable melange.

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The Baxters in Venice are still a handsome couple, but weighed down by experience, as John testily oversees a project that involves digging into the past literally and finding what he describes as layer of faux-Byzantine fakery after another. Laura loses herself in memories of rain-sodden melancholy whilst sitting in a tony restaurant. The encounter with the milky, staring eyes of Heather and her happy pronouncements of lingering personality and beneficence draw Laura out of depression, even as her prompt collapse sets the world into chaos. Roeg zeroes in on the spilt wine, oil, and salad dressing on the motley flooring, a shot reminiscent of the puddle of commingled perfumes glimpsed in one of the stronger precursors to Roeg’s style, John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), and with a similar import reflecting the director’s obsession with reality in flux. The film’s most celebrated sequence follows soon, as John and Laura reunite in a scene of sexual passion that pushed the envelope about as far as it would go in a mainstream film sporting two movie stars, intercut with shots of the couple dressing and preparing for dining out. Roeg’s careful structuring, including his deadpan sense of intimacy with the couple as they go through the motions of life together, showering and stripping and lazily eddying within the world-precluding walls of their room (save the hapless hotel maid who comes in to find John sitting naked), invites the viewer into John and Laura’s crucial moment of rediscovery of each-other in both the carnal sense and the subliminal.

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Roeg’s easy feel for the erotic was another facet that distinguished him amongst British filmmakers, and set him in both unity and contrast with the other major radical voice of English cinema of the early ‘70s, Ken Russell, fonder of outrageousness for its own sake. Roeg certainly didn’t spurn perversity as a subject, but he was more clean-cut in his way. Walkabout revolved around the sense of threat and disconnection when Jenny Agutter’s prim schoolgirl cannot comprehend the mating overtures of the young indigenous man, although they should be plain and natural enough, ironically identifying the incoherence of the erotic as the perversion; The Man Who Fell to Earth would invert the equation and contemplate intraspecies sexuality as a potentially valid form of communication. In a way, the pivotal sex scene of Don’t Look Now is fascinatingly square in celebrating connubial passion for a married couple, like Last Tango In Paris (1973) for high Anglicans, depending on Sutherland and Christie, at the height of their sinewy beauty as movie stars as well as actors, to fully inhabit the carnal display. It’s also a moment of cyclical meaning, the eruption of the life force that gives renewal between two losses: what is life but a chain of birth and death, and what are John and Laura Baxter but two momentary expressions of that cycle? The presence of the medium who gives hope of spiritual persistence gives hope of other layers of existence, but John and Laura are trapped, and liberated, by their continued existence on the one where the flesh has such exalted potency. Roeg’s crosscutting was aimed at helping get the scene past censors but also makes poetry out of sublime disparity the couple restoring their social visages, their worldly guises, after all the naked ape business: Roeg inverts moralistic assumption by noting the purity of sexuality and the puerile falsity of the restored worldly appearance and its peevish, isolated insecurities as John and Laura contemplate aspects of their bodies and appearance.

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Roeg’s evocation of Venice as a place spies flashes of tourist board-friendly glamour but more often regarding a place of festering, mouldering age, hovering like a semicoherent dream just above the water. It’s cold and out of season, not a summery abode of Italianate cheer but the same place of autumnal persistence of Death in Venice and Across the River and Into the Trees. Roeg drolly notes the workaday locals for whom the city is less a place of picturesque enchantment than a waterlogged, tourist-clogged mess. The staff in the hotel where John and Laura are staying waiting out the time until they can close down, still hovering in faintly desperate helpfulness for their single patrons. The cops roused to action over the most imprecise fears. Streets are as painful and confusing to navigate as memory; John’s attempt to rediscover the pension where Heather and Wendy were living sees him wandering in circles. Rats scuttle about with impunity. A killer is at loose in the town; John watches as the filthy and bedraggled corpse of a dead girl is fished out of a canal. He and Laura hear strange noises and cries for help echoing through the city night, and glimpse a diminutive figure wearing a red hooded coat dashing through the alleys. Roeg’s desaturated images give the city’s waterways a grey, crystalline quality, whilst the crumbling brickwork and paving seem near-organic, not entirely sapped of romanticism but charged with something more elusive and uneasy in its intimations.

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The city is as much as body as John or Laura’s or the corpse dragged from the water, a physical manifestation of an entire civilisation, arthritic in its bones and unmoored in its thoughts. John and Laura have trouble telling bridges and alleys apart. John is nagged by the feeling he’s visited certain places before, or denies having been places Laura swears he has been. The often withholding nature of the city architecture, which can harbour boles of chic modernism or ancient, pellucid beauty, also mediates the story’s invocation of psychological space, and the narrative hinging on characters who can no longer trust things lingering in their thoughts to remain obediently in place. A church John and Laura visit lulls them with its aura of hallowed calm and beatitude, encouraging Laura into ritual and John to lapse into prayer-like introspection. Venice offers elusive promise of communion with the past with all its bedraggled beauty and fetid richness. John’s job automatically invokes a sense of past and present commingling, digging into the matter of Venice itself, piecing together mosaics and restoring gargoyles. John interacts with the marrow of past and understands it’s in part an illusion to be sustained by keen eyes like his, the expressions of the long dead, the ghosts of their minds and eyes, needing faithful upkeep. John’s business is with the substance of human expression, where Heather speaks of the ethereal aspect, weaving unseen like mist around people.

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John has been hired by a bishop (Massimo Serato) from a rich and influential family, who takes solicitous interest in the Baxters’ spiritual welfare (“I’m kind to animals and children,” Laura tells him with fumbling humour and honesty when he asks her if she’s a Christian) and eventually proves to have a more ethereal connection with John, sensing when he’s in danger and witnessing his near-fatal accident on a hoist in the restored church. “Churches belong to God, but he doesn’t seem to care about them,” he notes with sad gravitas: “Does he have other priorities?” Meanwhile John and Laura play out a familiar tension, between her willingness to embrace Heather’s message and the possibility of the supernatural, versus John’s stiff-necked rationalism and simmering concern Laura might be slipping back into an irrational state she seems to have lingered in for a time after Christine’s death. And yet John ultimately proves vulnerable to irrational belief himself as he becomes convinced the red-cloaked figure he keeps seeing dashing through the Venetian alleys could be his daughter. Laura’s visit to speak with Heather and Wendy and gain deeper reassurance as to Christine’s benevolent presence sees John left to get drunk in a neighbouring café: he goes into the pension to find his wife only to get caught lurking by a resident and forced to run off in case he gets arrested as a peeping Tom. John later can’t find Heather and Wendy precisely because they moved out after reports of prowlers, a subtle fillip of humour that’s also a deftly reasoned consequence of plot.

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Roeg described Don’t Look Now as his exercise in film grammar, a concise if rather dry description that hardly encompasses all the flourishes encoded into the film’s tapestry-like form, one that recounts a simple story in the most enriching fashion. Adapting Du Maurier allowed Roeg the chance to offer his own, highly individualised tribute to Hitchcock. As many genre writers have also noted, Don’t Look Now also strongly resembles as an upmarket equivalent to the giallo style that was all the rage in Italian film at the time, a distinctive mode of artfully shot, narratively baroque thrillers also influenced by Hitchcock, instituted by Mario Bava and take up by a range of talented directors including Dario Argento. Roeg might well have taken ideas from Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966), with its similar use of a young female figure that proves deadly in the midst of a crumbling, deserted-feeling city, and the shock finale with its revelation of an unexpected killer certainly has a strong giallo flavour. Argento sometimes betrayed stylistic ambition similar to Roeg, as in the revisited, revised stabbing in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and the flash edits of Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), but Roeg’s specific, more overtly audacious method distinguishes his movie from both his model and his rivals, not just in his approach to editing and his fulsome sense of his characters as more vital than machinations of story and spectacle, but his rejection of the rectilinear succinctness of Hitchcock’s visions and the games of framing in giallo.

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Roeg’s visual lexicon is, rather, restless and troubled, sometimes settling into a careful observational rhythm, as in the build-up to John and Laura’s sex scene, or cranking up to outright jangling hysteria, as he zeroes in on the finale. Roeg and his cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond employ zoom shots and handheld camerawork throughout, and angles that could swoop up high or crouch down on floor level. Don’t Look Now composites a wealth of images that mimic both the psychological reactions of its characters, unmoored as they are from the moment by grief and blurred perceptions of reality, and also their physical straits, anxious attempts at control giving way to increasingly frantic and belaboured searching. Recurring visual touches – water, flashing light, mirrors, broken glass, the colour red – are keys to an associative symbology alongside moments of totemic import for the characters that accumulate meaning as the film goes on and are finally ticked off in the rapid succession right at the end. Immersion, with all its uterine import, is also a state between life and death. Venice sits above the water, defiant but frigid, a lot like John’s masculine being: intellectually hip, as his book indicates, he is nonetheless reflexively entrapped by his own conviction that he’s saner and straighter than anyone. In fact, as Heather realises, he’s rejected his own second sight, and so is at its mercy, inflicted with visions that foretell the future but give no context or sense of the illimitable. The warmth and vitality of John and Laura’s relationship is underscored by lingering shakiness, anxiety and discord finally defined as John berates his wife for being taken in by the two women he dismisses as charlatans.

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When the couple get a phone call from their son’s boarding school back in the drizzly English countryside, telling them Johnny has been mildly injured, Laura immediately flies out, leaving John to his work and anxiously await her return, alone in a cold, grey, decaying labyrinth of a city where every step he takes brings him closer to his end. He becomes distracted after he sees Laura on a passing boat accompanied by Heather and Wendy, and alerts the police, who ask him to locate the pension where the women were living, and have him followed by one of their men. There’s a strong suggestion that heather and Wendy are actually a lesbian couple. It doesn’t feel coincidental that female homosexuality was once sometimes euphemistically described as “Venetian tastes”, and both couples reflect Du Maurier’s divided life as a married mother who often had queer affairs, and John’s reaction to his wife gravitating to the women has an aspect of reactionary jealousy. Roeg finds pathos and humanity in both duos as John’s recourse to the police eventually results in him pathetically apologising to and guiding Heather back to her rooms after he gets a phone call from Laura, safe in England and secure in her restored sense of sanity and security. Everyone, according to Roeg, has Venetian tastes, at the mercy of forces encoded in the blood and the mind, hungrily seeking their fulfilment on the way to dusty death.

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Roeg’s faults as a filmmaker could be as pronounced as his strengths, as he often didn’t know when to quit or moderate his flow of images, and could sometimes lapse into atonal showmanship, as in some of the more sophomoric and drawn-out passages of Performance or The Man Who Fell to Earth. Don’t Look Now stands as his best film precisely because its storyline gave a coldly deterministic enclosure that allowed him to deploy his signature visual invention whilst also compressing it with clear purpose. The notion that fate is pressing down on John Baxter grows all the more omnipresent as Roeg’s camera picks out mysteriously significant sights as casual as a man crossing a bridge or as pointed as a double-exposure vision of Heather’s sightless eyes as John ascends to a rickety vantage to inspect a mosaic only for a piece of falling lumber to almost cause his death. Don’t Look Now has strong affinity with the same year’s The Wicker Man as a bleak game of sliding panels unveiling a man’s predestined fate, complete with a nasty twist involving the search for an elusive girl. Both films tried to define new ground for horror cinema whilst also honouring the genre in some essentials, including their gruesome finales and cunningly delayed revelations of the hovering blade over their protagonists. Don’t Look Now is particularly beguiling in the way it traverses arty pretence and character drama before arriving at a final twist that’s as bizarre and grotesque as anything in horror cinema.

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Along the way Roeg casually tosses off a superb sequence of physical suspense staging as John clings desperately to the collapsed hoist in the church, saved by a worker’s cool and clever efforts. This near-disaster seems to prove Heather’s warnings that John is in danger, but its happy ending also gives the illusion of restored safety. Don’t Look Now is built around evoking a sense of a thin and permeable membrane that constitutes reality, a membrane easy to mistake for solidity and security. The hoist accident sequence dramatizes the concept as John’s secure footing turns instantly to chaos, dangling high above the church floor, debris falling on his bishop sponsor and workers alike. The shock of the incident coming on the back of Johnny’s accident and Laura’s departure informs John’s quick segue into clammy panic after he catches the bewildering sight of Laura with the two women. Don’t Look Now verges on a fatalistic statement that fate claims its pounds of flesh sooner or later, but also strives to make a vital point that it’s precisely the vulnerable, all too perishable bonds of being that give life its beauty as well as pain.

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Despite the mounting sense of portent, the later scenes of Don’t Look Now have a quality reminiscent of screwball comedy in the sense of criss-crossing paths and missed meetings, using Venice’s torturous routes as a stage to enact an anxious sense of disconnection, as Laura dashes back to her husband but can’t quite catch up with him as he takes Heather home from the police station. The faintly comic element twists into panicky concern as Heather experiences a mediumistic fit as she’s possessed by Christine, and tries desperately to warn Laura that John’s headed off towards danger. The climax of Don’t Look Now, as vivid and delirious as its opening, sees John pursuing the small, red-clad figure, oblivious to the cries of warning and fear that often ring out whenever it appears, locking himself inside an abandoned building with it so he can corner it. Roeg offers some familiar horror movie hype here, as the Venetian canals and cavernous ruined interior swim with mist and shadow, whilst his handheld camerawork becomes frantic as Laura tries to chase them down, scuttling over bobbing boats and beating at the locked gate.

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John corners his quarry, who seems until the very last instant to be some lost and desperate child if not an actual ghostly manifestation of his daughter, but turns to him at last finally reveals a wizened and malevolent visage – an elderly, viciously psychotic dwarf who whips out a knife and cuts John’s throat. This is ridiculous touch on one level, of course, but also Don’t Look Now’s most inspired and gleefully cruel conceit. John’s paternal grief and misfiring second sight bring him to a brutal end, his life flashing before his eyes as his life blood gushes out of his neck in a great red spume: Roeg’s most symphonic editing arrives as he revisits sights and actions from the rest of the film and stitches them together in new context, the desperate striving for meaning in the last few moments of a man’s life. The killer has been waiting for John ever since glimpsing her in the church photo, mysteriously conjoined with his daughter’s loss. Could she be regarded as an agent of fate, the minion of some patiently boding evil, or just a random expression of chaos, of the things that maul and mutilate? The coda offers a mordant yet also grand, even triumphant sense of revelation and completion, as it’s revealed his sighting of Laura with Heather and Wendy was actually foresight of them accompanying his body to a funeral on a hearse boat. The salving aspect of this could be Laura’s firm and centred gaze and gentle smile as she buries another loved-one, alone but also bolstered by new faith that nothing is every truly lost.

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1980s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Film Noir, Horror/Eerie, Mystery, Romance

Blue Velvet (1986)

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Director/Screenwriter: David Lynch

By Roderick Heath
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David Lynch’s name is synonymous with a creative style close to a genre in itself. His is an outlandish, numinous, discomforting aesthetic, purveyed across several art forms, where the texture of dreams, and nightmares, can suddenly colonise an apparently stable and homey world, where humans peel apart and become separate entities coexisting in different versions of reality. Lynch has purveyed that style since his early short experimental films, and the grotesque and startling debut feature Eraserhead (1976), a film that so impressed Mel Brooks he hired him to direct the Oscar-nominated hit The Elephant Man (1980), where Lynch successfully synthesised his unique imaginative reflexes with more familiar storytelling needs. Lynch has managed to sustain a truly unique status as America’s homespun surrealist, through works like his Palme d’Or-winning Wild at Heart (1990) and the acclaimed Hollywood fugue Mulholland Drive (2001), as well as the various iterations of the TV show Twin Peaks. That Lynch has managed to pull off such a career against seemingly every current of contemporary fiscal and cultural impulse is in itself an achievement, but it’s also one Lynch has managed with sly concessions to, and annexations of, conventional screen culture. Perhaps the only other voice in modern American film so resolutely self-directed is Terrence Malick, and the two stand in near-perfect polarity: Lynch is as dedicated to trying to charting his sense of the tension between conscious and unconscious as Malick has been in describing his vision of the transcendent.
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As specific and perpetual as a beloved figure of the wilful fringe as Lynch seems now, there was a time in his career when he was a hot property and seemed poised for a relatively ordinary film career. After The Elephant Man he passed on directing Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) to tackle a colossal project, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel Dune. That project turned out to be dismaying experience for Lynch as it was severely recut and released to poor reviews and paltry box office. And yet the experience of it seemed to have an ultimately positive effect on Lynch, who reoriented himself with newly gained technical expertise, and looked for a new way to express himself on his own terms whilst refusing to retreat back into cinema marginalia. Where Eraserhead had taken place entirely in a dream-state filled with the furniture of Lynch’s deeply private anxieties and associative lodestones, with The Elephant Man and Dune he laboured to articulate his feel for the oneiric in coherent contexts, illustrating the awe of the Victorian bourgeoisie when faced with strangeness through a web of dreams that equated industrial grime with natural travesty in the former, and in the latter depicting the process of the human tuning into the music of the universe perfectly enough to orchestrate it.
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With his next film, Blue Velvet, Lynch began a push back in the other direction, slowly nibbling away at his own carefully falsified notion of normality and subjecting it to the perverting whim of the id, and he managed the mischievous project of remaking a subcontinent of pop culture in his own image. Lynch also pulled off a remarkable feat in relation to Horror cinema, as he found a way of making the form arty and respectable. After the days of high expressionist cinema, when it was the genre most fit for artistic experimentation thanks to the likes of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and Nosferatu: A Symphony in Terror (1922), horror films to be accepted as “elevated” horror has to offer a certain level of deconstructed generic impetus and provide carefully parsed and obvious metaphors for various worldly concerns, or apply showy visual touches. Lynch has had a lot of influence on ambitious horror cinema in this mode of late, but in other ways he remains radically at odds with it. Lynch worked to create a charge of disquiet by boiling down a nightmarish lexicon of sights, sounds, and ideas, sometimes but not necessarily desiring to link them to any clear sociological or psychological idea, beyond his certainty that to be human is to be filled with some dank and distressing impulses as well as noble and upright ones. Blue Velvet is the film on which Lynch struggled to articulate the strangely alluring gravity of the dark side, and it remains probably his finest articulation of his obsessions as well as his most controlled.
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Blue Velvet sets images at war with each-other, less any concept of the real world than of inherited ways of seeing it. The film’s acerbically humorous starting point relies on recognition of the paraphernalia of Lynch’s childhood, an idealised sense of small-town Americana, the kind celebrated in ‘50s TV shows and gently tested in beloved texts like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery books, places based around an assumption of a settled and harmonious social system and hierarchy. Lynch sets up his war in the opening scene as he offers languorous shots of well-scrubbed normality – children out of school crossing the street, waving firemen on the back of a fire truck – that aim for a hyperbolic sense of placid, wholesome Americana. A suburban father, idly watering his green lawn, suffers a stroke, collapses in agony on the grass, and lies in a writhing fit, his dog playfully snapping at the spurting hose in his agonised grip. Lynch’s camera descends amongst the grass fronds to study black beetles seething in monstrous reign over this level of existence, under the feet of the soft, pink titans of the higher. The felled patriarch is Tom Beaumont (Jack Harvey), and his son Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to his home burg of Lumberton on hearing the news.
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Jeffrey is confronted by the grotesque sight of his once-strong and commanding father stuck in a hospital bed with a stern array fixed about his head to keep it still and secure, and the two men weep at the inevitable spectacle of the younger seeing the elder in such a state. Walking back homewards across an empty lot, Jeffrey happens upon a disquieting find: a severed human ear, with ants crawling over it. Lynch’s camera delves into the decaying hunk of flesh, which becomes a world unto itself as the grass did, as if it’s not merely a receiver for sonic vibrations but a source of them, soundtrack filling with echoic reverberations and cavernous drones. Jeffrey coaxes the tattered organ into a paper bag and takes it to a policeman friend of his father’s, Detective Williams (George Dickerson). Jeffrey later goes to Williams’ house to ask him if the investigation is turning up anything up. The cop is politely obfuscating, but Jeffrey then encounters the detective’s beautiful high school senior daughter, Sandy, who reports to him some of the snatches of gossip she’s managed to overhear, talk that suggests a nightclub singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) is somehow mixed up with the sordid business. Jeffrey talks Sandy into helping him infiltrate Dorothy’s apartment, posing as a pest control worker, and he manages to purloin a set of keys and return in the night to feast upon scenes he quickly realises no-one should have to see.
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“I can’t tell if you’re a detective or a pervert,” Sandy tells Jeffrey as he readies for his adventure, to which he responds with a crooked grin: “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” The exchange is hilarious in its own, Mojave-dry fashion as it identifies the blend of bemusement and eccentricity underscoring the two young would-be heroes’ mission to do a good turn: the thrill of becoming has its own strange momentum, already dragging them both along. But the exchange also elucidates Lynch’s general proposition. Jeffrey’s desire to solve a mystery also opens up frontiers of tempting experience and the chance to escape mere voyeurism to become an actor, and quickly learning the cost of complicity such a step demands. Sandy is first a voice speaking from the dark – “Are you the one who found the ear?” she questions Jeffrey from the shadows before stepping into the light as the fresh-minted image of a certain ideal of American beauty, at once stolid and ethereal. Sandy has a football-playing boyfriend, Mike (Ken Stovitz), but she quickly falls under the sway of slightly older, slightly more worldly Jeffrey, who entices her with an adventure into illicit zones but remains plastic-wrapped as the perfect blonde suburban virgin. Dorothy is the eternal contrast, dark and mysterious, breathing out her husky strains in performing her version of Bobby Vinton’s song that give the film its title, beckoning to Jeffrey as the incarnation of mature sexuality and the allure of the forbidden.
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Dorothy hears Jeffrey in his hiding place and drags him out under duress with a kitchen knife in her hand. Dorothy is initially anxious and furious, but that quickly dissipates as she considers the handsome young man in her thrall, and in short order has him strip down, seemingly excited by having a pillar of tall and tender young male flesh at bay. Trouble is, Jeffrey isn’t the only one in thrall to her gravitas. As he hides again in her cupboard, he’s obliged to watch as into Dorothy’s apartment bursts Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), walking incarnation of the id, a violent and thuggish gangster who’s taking over Lumberton’s drug trade but seems more concerned with keeping Dorothy on a short, tight leash. Jeffrey is treated to a brutal spectacle as Frank repeatedly punches Dorothy, stuffs scraps of actual blue velvet in both their mouths, and rapes her on the carpet. Tables are soon turned as Dorothy, left alone again as if the invasion never happened, drags Jeffrey to her bed to be initiated into the nocturnal universe. Soon Jeffrey is her regular lover whilst romancing Sandy in a more familiar daylight fashion. Jeffrey makes the leap from investigator-voyeur to self-cast hero in a dark moral drama, except the morality proves slippery and the drama frightening in ways Jeffrey can’t yet conceive. Dorothy soon demands he start hitting her in bed, out of some virulent strain of masochism infecting her, in a way that erases the first few layers of insulation between Jeffrey and “people like Frank” as he describes them. Jeffrey experiences dreams in which Frank is a roaring beast of the veldt, and the fires of transgressive passion are first a flickering candle and then a roaring curtain as he taps the same vein of visceral sexuality in himself.
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The epic scene of revelation and transgression in Dorothy’s apartment sees Jeffrey dragged through one of the film’s many invisible but palpable barriers of behaviour, seeing him pass from concerned young man to voyeur to active participant in the sick drama with startling speed, and indeed, with little real choice. Lynch conflates Hitchcockian tropes at high speed – the snooping neighbour of Rear Window (1954), the wicked knife of Psycho (1960) – and then moves right past them to actively portray the stew of desire and complicity Hitchcock was usually obliged by censorship and genre parameters to only suggest. The moment where Dorothy strips off her curly wig is both wryly amusing and disquieting, a subtler but in a way more intense illustration of Jeffrey’s violation of her privacy as well as signalling the way Dorothy is forced to live out a kind of drag act, remaking herself in the image of Frank’s (and Jeffrey’s) notion of the feminine mystique. Jeffrey finds himself obliged to dole out brutal force to Dorothy in a way that threatens to upend Jeffrey’s very identity, although it’s Dorothy who later cries out, in pain and ecstasy, that Jeffrey “put his disease inside me,” perhaps the disease of youth and hope, the cruellest infection. It’s cliché to say that heroes and villains are quite often two sides of the same coin; Lynch here studies the edge of the coin. More than that, he approaches drama in a fashion that, although its draws on a panorama of modernist concepts, ultimately reveals itself to work more like ancient myth, its characters talismans for the human condition rather than psychological units unto themselves in the modern manner. Much as Heracles could be cosmic hero and bestial murderer depending on the forces enacted upon him by the universe and fighting all the while to define his true self, Jeffrey contains the seeds of hero and villain within and feels both serpents stirring and uncoiling.
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The drama about him works similarly in a system of sign-play that counts upon the audience recognising Lynch’s codes, but Lynch’s cunning in this regard lies in his understanding how common what he’s conveying is: most everyone shares some version, either personally or inherited through media saturation, of the idyllic landscape of Lumberton. Blue Velvet came out in the waning years of the Reagan presidency, and many took it for a corrosive lampoon on the kind of back-to-the-‘50s false nostalgia Reagan and his ilk propagated and which still lingers in popular discourse. And it certainly is that, although it’s hardly only that. Lynch is genuinely, powerfully fond of that lost idyll even as he seeks to diagnose the forces that make childhood and adulthood such irreconcilable states. Jeffrey is both a player in a highly specific and rarefied story but he’s also any young man who’s been bewildered by the evil at large in the world and startled by the ferocity and kinkiness you can uncover in a lover. Sandy is quick to forgive Jeffrey his transgressions in the name of love, as he acts for her in a similar way that he acts for the audience, the one sent out to report back from the fringes and give loan of vicarious thrills. Meanwhile Lynch writes preparatory sketches for the more volatile dance of the homey and the infernal on Twin Peaks as he notes Jeffrey’s mother (Priscilla Pointer) and chirpy but timorous aunt (Frances Bay) as a perpetually comforting duo about the Beaumont house, and depicts Jeffrey and Sandy sealing their romantic pact in the most traditional manner possible, at a high school dance.
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Part of Lynch’s implication here is that every white picket fence and well-swept porch is a couple forged in a similar furnace of lust and perversity, only cocooned, contained, and finally, slowly dissipated through the carefully contrived paraphernalia of normality. Suburbia is a mechanism designed to drain off and reappropriate erotic energy, like some grand, inverted William Reich invention, keeping extreme passions and lunacies at bay but with the price of leaving its inhabitants crumpling husks like Jeffrey’s father or a tense, cautious sentinel like Williams. The frontier of illicit behaviour, as Jeffrey’s mother warns him, is Lincoln Street, where the tract housing gives way to the urban colonising influence of apartment blocks: when Jeffrey and Sandy do finally stray into that precinct, Angelo Badalamenti’s scoring surges with a melodramatic cue that somehow manages to seem both good-humoured and utterly earnest. Much later in the piece the traffic is reversed, as the petty and quotidian, if by no means unthreatening, encounter between Jeffrey and Mike is cut short by the sudden appearance of Dorothy, stripped naked and covered in bruises, reminiscent of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting of “Truth Coming Out Of Her Well” in her appearance as the image of a wraith at once eroticised and ghastly in reporting harsh facts, collapsing into Jeffrey’s arms and sending the Lumberton milksops scurrying for cover. Even an encounter with a guy walking his dog seems charged with strange implication through the way Lynch has the actor stand rigid as if posing for a photo as he looks back at Jeffrey: part of Lynch’s aesthetic lies in the way he seems to be trying to take a perpetual snapshot of the moment when two scarcely reconcilable realities collide.
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Blue Velvet maintains a relatively straightforward storyline and structure by comparison with Lynch’s more overtly dreamlike and associative works. But it also sets up the schismatic souls of his later works like Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, where the same person can enact a panoply of stories depending on a multiplicity of divergence points for narrative; only here and there does Lynch suddenly open up a perfectly bizarre vantage where the pull of the void seems to be invoked. Lynch’s surrealist allegiances are studiously cited, particularly Luis Buñuel, with all the infesting insect life and violated body parts, and Edward Hopper, in the careful depictions of apparently bland settings stirring with intimations of strange transformations and repressed forces: Dorothy’s apartment, with its mysteriously wafting curtains and uterine-coloured walls implies this influence in particular. Jeffrey’s brief guise as a bug sprayer calls to mind William Burroughs’ alter ego’s job as a pest controller in The Naked Lunch. Lynch betrays a powerful admiration for Hitchcock but also declares less famed allegiances. He makes nods to the likes of Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place – Hope Lange, who plays Sandy’s mother, had played one of the younger characters in Mark Robson’s 1956 film of that book – and Vincente Minnelli’s films of Some Came Running (1958) and Home From The Hill (1960).
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There’s also a strong dose of a certain school of drive-in heyday cinema: stuff like Jack Arnold’s sci-fi films where monstrosities roam in disguise in the streets of small towns and shrunken men battle monsters in the basement, and his High School Confidential (1958) and similar efforts by the likes of Roger Corman and Edward L. Cahn, cheapjack myths of high school heroes and debutantes discovering the seamy side of life. Badalamenti’s justly hailed score charts Lynch’s poles expertly, shifting from beatniky jazz to surging Technicolor melodrama cues to shimmering synth-pop tones, befitting the film’s carefully smudged sense of era – the setting is nominally contemporary and yet Lumberton is littered with the paraphernalia of past eras and barely seems to have left the ‘50s. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) had to a great extent beaten Lynch to the punch, conceptually if not in execution, in realising a surrealist aesthetic in a humdrum suburban setting and unleashing destabilising forces upon both that world and the horror-thriller genre as a form. Even the basic situation is the same, a young hero combating a monstrous, barbarically humorous figure come straight out of the collective id to torment and belittle. Meanwhile Lynch seems to be battling his own bruising experience on Dune, remixing images and plot elements from that project into a radical new setting, telling the same essential myth, of a young man who is left rudderless after losing his father and is forced to battle the world’s threat alone. Prophetic dreams play a part in both, as Sandy voices her own augury about the return of robins to Lumberton will spell the end of evil influence.
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Lynch installs some relatively straight-laced thriller twists in the course of the narrative. He introduces Frank’s circle of henchmen and collaborators in capturing Lumberton’s drug trade and singers – and by implication its nocturnal economy of sensual delights. Jeffrey learns that a dark-haired, heavy-set man in a yellow jacket he sees talking with Dorothy and working with Frank is actually one of Williams’ cop colleagues, Detective Gordon (Fred Pickler), who Jeffrey dubs The Yellow Man for his jacket’s colour, with overtones of reference to old weird fiction. Jeffrey’s overgrown Hardy Boy act reaches an apogee as he manages to capture photos of Frank, the Yellow Man, and the rest of the gang associating with a secreted camera. Jeffrey manages to communicate his discoveries to Williams, and after a period of uncertainty as to whether Williams will act upon them, he drops the boom and shoots it out with Frank’s gang in an old-fashioned come-and-get-me-copper shoot-out. Except that Lynch drapes the scene in the languorous romanticism of Ketty Lester’s version of “Love Letters” – love letters having already been described by the ranting Frank as a metaphor for “a bullet from a fuckin’ gun.” This scene manages to both offer a familiar movie convention, the climactic shoot-out, but as with so much of the film subjects it to a bewildering transformation, finding lyrical pathos in the righteous violence, whilst also clearing away all distraction of nominal plot to concentrate on the ultimate confrontation between Frank and Jeffrey.
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Before reaching such an end, Lynch contrives to thrust Jeffrey into Frank’s clutches, caught leaving Dorothy’s apartment just as the gangsters arrive: at once furious and fascinated, Frank steals away the duo for a wild ride in their nocturnal Oz with his goons Raymond (Brad Dourif), Paul (Jack Nance), and Hunter (J. Michael Hunter). They speed around Lumberton’s streets, discovering hidden abodes of bohemian weirdos amongst the hollowed-out shells of the downtown buildings. Frank visits his pal and apparent partner in criminal enterprise Ben (Dean Stockwell), a creature of surface affability and fey calm who nonetheless takes pleasure in casually punching Jeffrey in the gut, and overseeing a bizarre court of riffraff, like a less overtly camp Frank-N-Furter. Ben is a hipster priest stuck away in a corner of small town America, promising silken delights and sadisms, lip-synching to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” with a mechanics lamp shining on his face, in one of Lynch’s signature sequences of bizarre pantomime and performance. Orbison’s song seems to have a peculiar totemic value for Frank, particularly the image of the “candy-colored clown,” that both salves his fury and stokes it. It seems to wield a similar power for Lynch himself, a perfect iteration of a purely American, entirely commercial paean to surreal values, delivered by one of the most eerily emotive voices in the pop pantheon, transmuted here through the self-conscious artifice.
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Lynch surveys this scene mostly in master shots with his actors arranged in rows in a manner reminiscent of the forced, flat framings of early silent film, or like hauling his cast out for a curtain call before an invisible audience of mocking deities. Old women sit apparently oblivious to the weird in the background, whilst Dorothy’s son is hidden away in a side room, driving her frantic with apparent rejection. Back out into Frank’s car again, to the town’s fringes where machinery and the waste of industry loom, and Frank taunts Jeffrey as if still trying to work out what species he has at bay. Jeffrey obliges him by demanding he leave Dorothy alone and eventually punches him, an act that stokes Frank to a gleeful fury but also impresses him: “You’re like me,” Frank grants before having him pulled from the car by his goons and held at bay whilst Frank beats him senseless. The promised violence awaiting Jeffrey finally arrives, and yet there’s a suggestion his show of pith, as well as confirming the aspects of commonality between Frank and him, saves his life, as he gains an iota of respect. In the morning, Jeffrey awakens on the ground, bruised and batted, demeaned and disillusioned, but still and alive and in one piece, coughed out of hell’s gullet as something just a little too hard to swallow.
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Part of Lynch’s shrewd humour lies in his way of conceptualising evil, no matter how inflated and perverse, as something readily understandable to a young man like Jeffrey. Frank is a school bully inflated to the nth degree, with his coterie of giggling companions, existing purely to dominate and humiliate. At first Frank might seem too wilfully extreme, too bizarre a creation to offer social commentary. But Lynch makes clear when he glimpses Frank watching Dorothy perform and when he adopts his “well-dressed man” disguise he’s capable of acting sufficiently ordinary to move amongst daylight people. Normality is a guise he puts on but for him the pleasure of, and motive for, his criminal activities is the way they allow him to mostly dispense with his own, specific veil of behaviour, the one that stands between the inner, id-driven man-child that operates through whim and appetite and what it wants, alternating cruel tantrums and displays of jarring, fetishistic neediness that manifests in the need to control. His random habit of plucking out a facemask and huffing on some gaseous intoxicant makes him look like in turn vaguely insectoid and cyborg, a creation born in the primal age and just at home in a post-apocalyptic landscape. He casts Dorothy as lover, mother, slave, and psychic ashtray, needing to know only what it takes to make her conform to his will. It’s a siren song Jeffrey experiences too, the shocking mainlining thrill of walloping pretty white flesh and watching it turn purple. Lynch never tries to state whether Dorothy’s masochistic streak is a by-product of guilt and anxiety over her family or if it’s a more intricate aspect of her nature, and perhaps it doesn’t matter; everyone is the by-product of their grazings against other bodies and wills, forming and malformed. In the end Jeffrey seems to be just as compelled to place himself under Frank’s fist as her, as if he senses pain is a profound contract with reality that must be paid one way or another.
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Part of what makes Blue Velvet so potent is Lynch’s disinterest in acting superior to his dark fantasy, as ironic as his method often seems: he really is the still-naïve Jeffrey asking why there’s evil like Frank in the world. MacLachlan does well in purveying both Jeffrey’s boyishness and the fleeting glimpses of a kinky spirit behind his eyes, and Rossellini justly made a splash not simply by stepping into a part that demanded so much exposure of her flesh but also in making the emotional extremes displayed by Dorothy so vivid. Hopper’s performance gives the film much of its unique charge of lunatic comedy, as the actor took hold of his own wild man image and used it with cunning effect, presenting not the frazzled, fry-brained hippie he’d been taken as since the early ‘70s but a kind of reptilian overlord. It’s a performance in a similar key of outsized, purposefully cartoonish spectacle as Kenneth McMillan’s as Harkonen in Dune, but more skilfully modulated, as Hopper, with slicked-back hair and snapping teeth, paints his mouth with lipstick and glares at MacLachlan with hophead eyes semaphoring the raw fury and glee of untrammelled release of the inner predatory beast.
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The film reaches its apotheosis in grotesquery as Jeffrey enters Dorothy’s apartment in seeking sanctuary, only to find the Yellow Man and Dorothy’s husband both present. The husband is tied a chair, dead, a red patch where his severed ear used to be, a tell-tale scrap of blue velvet jammed in his mouth, his brains spread over the wall behind him. The Yellow Man stands upright, still clinging to life but with a chunk of his skull blown away, portion of brain winking out at the world, nervous system twitching in blank-minded confusion. A shattered TV screen emitting buzzing white noise illustrates the utter nullity of moment and the still-firing synapses of the Yellow Man even though the station signal’s gone entirely blank. Much of Lynch’s modus operandi recalls Freddie Jones’ decrepit ringmaster in The Elephant Man, half-momentously, half-shamefully promising to show you sights you’ve never dreamt of seeing, and might wish you hadn’t after getting an eyeful; this here is Lynch’s most gruesome and startling flourish of showmanship, one Jeffrey surveys in shock but also in speedy assimilation. His rapidly evolving survival instincts immediately give him a plan and the tools to accomplish it, in making use of the Yellow Man’s gun and walkie-talkie, although he only just manages to pull himself up in making use of the radio as Frank can surely hear what he’ll be saying on it, only to realise he can use that against his foe too.
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When Jeffrey returns to the closet he was hiding in earlier, it’s no longer to gain a vicarious glimpse but escape the deadly consequences of his foray. Lynch never bothers to explain just what went down with Frank, the Yellow Man, Dorothy, and the husband. Not that it matters, as Jeffrey, like Phil Marlowe, often stumbles upon the wreckage of human activities, beggared by the results of such competing passions. Jeffrey defeats the demon by summoning his own killer instinct, but Lynch grants him the peace and ease of a lawn chair. He’s surrounded by signs of restored stability: Dorothy playing with her son, his propeller hat back on his head, an ear again explored by the camera but this time still safely connected to Jeffrey’s head, and the robins of Sandy’s dream have come to peck away at the chaos-invoking ants. It’s very tempting, and easy, to describe the concluding scenes as Lynch lampooning the notion of a happy ending. But in calling back to the childlike fantasia of falsity found in pantomime theatre in The Elephant Man, Lynch seems to me to be chasing a shrewder point, about the longing for a restoration to innocence that can only be achieved through falsifying its appearance. This falseness, the fakery, is not indicted as bad for being such; in fact Lynch seems to believe that’s what civilisation is, a well-composed system of agreements not to look at certain things, out of wise fear of where they lead.

Standard
War, 1960s, Romance, Auteurs, Epic

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

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Director: David Lean
Screenwriter: Robert Bolt

By Roderick Heath

David Lean had been a respected and heralded director since his debut helping Noel Coward realise his vision on 1943’s World War II classic In Which We Serve. His reputation was burnished with a succession of intimate, shaded, romantically charged dramas including Brief Encounter (1945), The Passionate Friends (1949), and Summertime (1955), sharp-witted, dark-edged comedies like Blithe Spirit (1946) and Hobson’s Choice (1953), and lovingly realised immersions in fictional worlds, with his Dickens adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). But today mention of Lean’s name still conjures a very specific connotation, an impression of vast landscapes and dwarfed humans, lengthy running times and grand dramatic canvases, the coherence of space and time so vital in the cinema experience wielded with a unique tension between the titanic and the finite. Lean, chafing against the limits of the British film industry and audience of the time, which was already leaving behind some great talents like Michael Powell or obliging others like Carol Reed to oscillate between home and Hollywood, began to think big. When he started collaborating with American impresario Sam Spiegel, the two films they made together, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), proved huge hits, captured Best Picture Oscars, and made Lean perhaps the most prestigious name in cinema.
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On the hunt for a new project of comparable scale and vitality, Lean next chose to work with Italian movie mogul Carlo Ponti on adapting Russian writer Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, whilst continuing his successful collaboration with screenwriter Robert Bolt and his star discovery, Egyptian actor Omar Sharif. Despite the pedigree, the film was released to lukewarm reviews and played to empty cinemas for a time: if released today, Doctor Zhivago would have been shuffled off to a streaming service and written off as a concussive flop. But the radio popularity of “Lara’s Theme” from Maurice Jarre’s score, abruptly rescued the film by turning it into a quintessential date movie, and eventually it proved one of the most profitable films ever made. To this day it still works for some with drug-like fervour and leaves others cold, and even as it’s retained popular regard, has never really enjoyed the same level of respect as Lean’s previous two works. The rhapsodic yet ironic approach to adventurous war stories with his two earlier projects had allowed Lean to transmute them into veritable cinematic myth, but such an approach seemed quite distinct from the essence of Pasternak’s 1959 novel, which transposed a semi-autobiographical rumination on one of his love affairs to the midst of the Russian Revolution with all its cruel, transformative drama.
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Pasternak’s work had been met with disapproval in the Soviet Union in its attempt to analyse the place of the artist in such a time, and his attempt to reckon with the frail hopes and looming terrors of the country’s crucible age. Pasternak, whose literary reputation up to that point had been as a poet, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature but forced to turn it down by the Soviet authorities, turning the book into a cause celebre. Filming the novel was always going to be a difficult proposition. Although the stage is history at its most vital, the actual subject is personal, intimate, even subliminal. Pasternak’s poet hero Yuri Zhivago was an onlooker, a bit player in history who nonetheless becomes a titan in that history through art. Pasternak’s book got into trouble precisely because it meditated upon a basic contradiction in regards to Communist thought, the concept of history being driven by impersonal forces but only transmissible through recourse to personal perspective, a perspective often inimical to heroic social narratives. Such a story might also seem entirely out of step with the needs of epic cinema.
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But such a character held attraction for Lean, whose focal figures were so often watchers striving to become heroes of their own stories, people who knew they were at the mercy of forces far more powerful than them and yet striving to find purpose and agency. Such protagonists range from the lovers who find themselves ridiculously unable to realise their passion in Brief Encounter, to the course steered by Pip through life under the urging of unknown gravity in Great Expectations, and the messianic delusions and gutter disillusionment experienced by T.E. Lawrence. Lean’s Yuri Zhivago (Sharif) is a pair of eyes, a sensitive instrument watching his world destroy itself whilst experiencing all its ephemeral grace and brute immediacy, as much or more than he is protagonist, clinging to the people who mean something to him but faced with an age that doesn’t just assail his body but wants to deny him the right of his mind. And yet this suited Lean perfectly on the vital level of his relationship with his medium, who had discovered an argot with Lawrence of Arabia that came close to pure cinema, immediately influencing a host of director heroes like Stanley Kubrick and Sergio Leone, giving them permission with a seemingly spacious but actually intensely rhythmic cinematic design, purveyed through great care in alternating delay and effect.
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A scene late in Lawrence of Arabia depicted the faux-titan hero confronted by a hospital filled with ragged, ruined humans in a Turkish military hospital, and slapped by a British officer decrying the outrageousness of the scene before them. Doctor Zhivago inverts the confrontation, depicting a similar scene in which Zhivago happens upon a hospital flooded with the diseased and mangled victims of war, seen this time through the eyes of the healer who, unlike Lawrence, strives constantly and conscientiously to avoid the eye of history except in the mode of its artistic conscience. The film starts properly in a prologue set decades after the main drama, with Yuri’s half-brother Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) a potentate in the Soviet regime, his flag-bedecked car drawing the apprehensive glances of workers on a dam construction. Yevgraf is the first thing scene in the film, a living Soviet Realist sculpture but also a living witness to the struggles of a legendary age – “Do you know what it cost?” he asks of the young engineer (Mark Eden) overseeing the project. The film returns to the setting at its end, echoing the circularity of Lawrence of Arabia with a more testimonial quality: the gaps in Yevgraf’s narrative are also the gaps in history into which people vanish. Yevgraf is seeking the long-lost daughter of Yuri and his legendary muse Larissa, usually called Lara (Julie Christie), subject of a beloved sequence of long-suppressed poems.
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Yevgraf believes one of the dam workers (Rita Tushingham, billed only as “The Girl,” although she’s named as Tonya Komarovsky by Yevgraf) is that daughter, although she’s a nervous, anonymous member of the much-vaunted proletariat. Lean’s deep investment in her protagonist becomes clear in an early scene depicting a formative event of Yuri’s youth (played as a boy by Sharif’s real-life son Tarek), the funeral of his mother. This scene becomes a parade of epiphanies that incorporate obsessive motifs of both Yuri’s outlook and Lean’s cinema – the wind-thrashed autumnal trees and branches tapping against the window glass, the lace-wrapped face of Yuri’s mother, imagined within her coffin, the towering mountains charged with spiritual import and plains of Dali-esque flatness where humans stalk in assailed columns. Yuri’s father’s estate has been embezzled and he has a half-brother he’s never met. His one real inheritance is his mother’s balalaika, an instrument she played as a virtuoso. But young Yuri finds fate almost overly generous to him at first, as he’s adopted into the family of his mother’s childhood friend Anna Gromeko (Siobhan McKenna), who’s married to the affluent and affable Alexander Maximovich (Ralph Richardson), and almost from the first Yuri seems destined to marry their daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin).
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Yuri’s special artistic talent proves to be poetry, an art he gains fame for even as he studies to become a doctor, a calling he feels is connected with the deeply empathic art he creates. Such a connection is acerbically doubted by his tutor, Prof. Boris Kurt (Geoffrey Keen), who takes Yuri with him to attend the attempted suicide of a pathetic couturier, Amelia Guichard (Adrienne Corri), former mistress of Kurt’s urbane and influential lawyer friend Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). Although left no less idealistic by the sight of Amelia’s sweat-sodden and bedraggled body, this visit proves to be a life-changing experience for Yuri, as he first sets eyes upon Lara, the daughter of Amelia: the luminous Lara reclines in teary solitude under Yuri’s gaze. Zhivago witnesses a scene between Lara and Komarovsky that tells him what the audience has already seen: Komarovsky has forcibly seduced Lara and made her his new mistress. Lara is nonetheless engaged to student radical Pavel ‘Pasha’ Antipov (Tom Courtenay), for whose benefit Komarovsky plays the kindly, interested father figure, before he rapes Lara in a spasm of jealous anger.
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Lara writes a confession to Pasha and sets out to kill Komarovsky with a gun Pasha gave her to hide. She wounds Komarovsky in a swank restaurant just as Yuri and Tonya are announcing their engagement: Komarovsky insists she be allowed to leave with Pasha, and they flee to the country. When the Great War breaks out, the disillusioned and unhappy Pasha and the radically committed Yevgraf join the army for their own diverse reasons. Yuri eventually follows to ply his humanitarian trade and meets Lara again in a military hospital as the war effort breaks down, as she’s become an army nurse in hope of locating her missing husband. Yuri and Lara fall in love working together but don’t act on it. When he returns home to Moscow, Yuri finds Anna has passed away and the Bolshevik regime is descending onerously, and a visit from Yevgraf convinces him to take Tonya and Alexander away. They decide to head to the Gromeko country estate outside the town of Yuriatin out in the Steppes on the far side of the Urals, where the war with the Whites is raging, and board a crowded train to make the long journey that takes through landscapes of holy awe and scenes of human devastation. Some of the horror is perpetrated by the roving, mysterious radical warlord Strelnikov, hero of the anti-Bolshevik revolutionaries.
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By contrast with the general admiration for his previous two films, Doctor Zhivago and its follow-up Ryan’s Daughter (1970) were received by some at the time as laborious exercises in brand extension by Lean. From today’s perspective it seems more like Lean was trying to return to the kind of romance-driven films he had often made in the first stage of his career, where Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia had been quite unusual as costly cinema works virtually without women. Doctor Zhivago pointedly revisits many aspects of both Brief Encounter and Great Expectations. Particularly the latter, as Lean revisits many of its key images and ideas, from the vision of a young boy frightened by a seemingly animate landscape, to climactic scenes in an abandoned and decaying house that has likewise come to seem a living entity, a place where that lost childhood must be reckoned with as well as the pains of maturation and the evils of the world. Like Pip, Yuri grows from a timorous boy to a grown man who nonetheless finds himself driven around forces vast and beyond his control, and yet the wandering eye and mind of the poet insistently recreates that world.
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The careful craftsmanship poured into Doctor Zhivago was at once one of its publicised assets and critical negatives: although rendered in a largely realistic fashion, the universe glimpsed in the film represents the exact opposite of verisimilitude, its period Russia completely fabricated in Spain, with added location shooting in Canada. The central set representing downtown Moscow is a vast piece of theatrical setting, a carefully controlled space to allow Lean’s micromanaged sense of cinematic epiphany space to unfold. Such control is evident in the sublimely chilling moment Lara and Komarovsky pass by a silhouetted cavalry officer waiting for a quiet moment to assemble his fellow horse soldiers to attack a protest march led by Pasha: Lean matches one form of violence, intimate and coercive as Komarovsky forces himself on Lara, with another, as the horse soldiers ride down the protestors. The build-up to the attack on the protest is exacting on the level of cutting and generated menace, but Lean then cuts to Yuri’s reaction as witness, relying on the shivering horror on Sharif’s face to convey the impact of violence on his gentle hero rather than indulge the pyrotechnic delight of bloodshed. Pasha is left badly scarred and forced into hiding after the assault, whilst Lara, fobbed off with vague moralisations when she visits a priest continues on uncomfortably as Komarovsky’s mistress.
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One notable irony of Doctor Zhivago is that for a film prized for its romanticism, the romantic element is complex, even grubby, revolving as it does around abuse and infidelity. Yuri, after all, has his great fling with Lara when Tonya is pregnant with his second child. Lara herself is taken advantage of, abandoned, and eventually forced to take up again with the creep who deflowered her. Komarovsky is in many ways the most compelling figure in the film, a man who compares himself to “ignoble Caliban”. He’s expertly played by Steiger, who cunningly brings outsized charisma and urbane authority to the role as well as occasional slips of vulnerability and outright monstrosity, weapons he easily brings to bear in making Lara his lover. Lean signals his nascent erotic interest in her as he playfully drapes one of her mother’s wares, a light silk scarf, about her face, turning her into a houri, and by the time he’s done with her Komarosky has her dressed as a red-clad, teetering tart. Komarovsky embodies the superficial cosmopolitan assurance of Tsarist Russia overlaying brute prerogative and clasping greediness just as surely as the intense, puritanical, neurasthenic personality of Pasha anticipates the oncoming Commissars. “All this is experience of a kind,” Komarovsky retorts to Pasha when they meet and the younger man boasts of his hardscrabble upbringing, with the acidic undercurrent lying in Komarovsky’s certainty the idealistic young hero can’t make a woman orgasm. A note that seems mordantly confirmed later when Yevgraf’s narration describes Pasha’s reasons for joining the army lie in disappointment.
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Meanwhile Yuri weds the lovely, elfin, dutiful Tonya, but falls under Lara’s spell when they’re thrust together in service, in part because like Yuri himself she’s a bereft soul who exists on the fringes of the common psychic landscape. The grace-note quality Lean sounded in the later reels of Lawrence of Arabia here becomes more like a dominant aesthetic as Yuri constantly finds himself stumbling upon human wreckage left by the passages of armies and dogging the tail ends of columns of moving humanity. His introduction to the warzone long with Lara is tending to the mangled men left by their own rebelling soldiers on the road away from the abandoned frontlines. Yuri’s desire to patch together bodies and express the intricacies of the mind are constantly confronted by people who want to do the opposite, to remake themselves as hard and marauding incarnations of a cruel age. Authority, not the false currency of civil authority or mere hierarchical command but the achievement of it through personal fortitude and certitude, was a concept Lean was obsessed with. A revolution is certainly a stage for the genuinely heroic to step forth, as well as the dauntingly monstrous, the insidiously craven, and the snippily officious and small-minded. He rhymes crucial moments when Pasha and Yevgraf part crowds like Moses before the Red Sea and save people close to them purely by dint of a force of charisma and an understanding that the strongest gestures are the simplest. Yevgraf empties out a gang of cackling vultures with a click of his fingers and lets his uniform do the rest of the work.
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Yuri has no authority; his currency as a humanitarian and poet are stolen from him in an age in which others dedicate themselves to unstinting revenge against the rest of their society. Yuri and Lara repeatedly graze against representatives of the new regime, from the Bolshevik soldier who works with them in the hospital and mutters “God rot good men,” in response to another’s praise of Zhivago: Lara’s sharp glance at the soldier bespeaks her recognition that the world is soon going to belong to men like him rather than those like Yuri. Soon Yuri is up against hatchet-faced representatives of the new order in the former Gromeko home who grow timorous and threatening (“Your attitude has been noted!”) when Yuri prods them over suppressing the truth over disease outbreaks and general famine, and feel more at ease trying to strip the Gromekos of the last of their possessions. Political evolution is staked out in evolving iconography. Posters of the Tsar carried by the soldiers marching off to war are soon supplanted by the stylised visages of Lenin and Trotsky looming heroically over the flotsam of the age – hands are outstretched and gesturing in both sets of posters, offering, paternal, inclusive. The very end sees a colossal image of Stalin, his face rendered stark in black and white on a red field, hovering above a drab and featureless urban street, Lara a tiny figure retreating into oblivion in its shadow, perfectly encapsulating the onerousness of the oncoming age of the Great Terror as Yevgraf’s testimony on the soundtrack describes it in his own terms: “A name on a list that was later misplaced.”
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One common criticism tossed at Doctor Zhivago was that it was impossible to make writing a dramatic act, and that the film neglected giving much sense of Yuri as a poet. To look closer at Doctor Zhivago however reveals that Lean actually succeeded in doing something very rare and specific, selling a grandiose work of poetic reverie to a mass audience. Lean doesn’t need to make much of Yuri’s poems in themselves because the entire film has been doing that, purveying a series of landscapes, both elemental and human, charged with totemic meaning. Although the romance between Yuri and Lara looms large in both their lives and the film’s sensibility, it’s easy to forget how little of the film is given over to it, and the couple are left clinging to each-other in large part because they’re forcibly stripped of everything else. Lean had built his cinematic method through his gift for building intensely rhythmic sequences, instilled as an editor but growing as a director to manipulate every element of film to achieve his coups de theatre.
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Doctor Zhivago offered a unique stage to give his visual effects holistic meaning, joining his visual effects to Zhivago’s poetic method, the chains of associated images that become charged with inferred, symbolic import as they accumulate, and also with the relationship of the artistic process with experience, the collecting of such images over the course of a lifetime. The opening scene doesn’t just present the formative images that haunt Yuri and fuel his imagination, but also anticipate his future, the threat of the blasted Siberian wastes Yuri eventually finds himself alone and exposed in. Lean repeats this seer-like element with a dash of humour as Yuri and Lara unknowingly come into contact on a streetcar in downtown Moscow, well before they properly meet: Lean cuts to the sparks on the overhead cable. The slowly wilting sunflowers Lara picks to brighten up the stark hospital space become associated forevermore in Yuri’s mind with the promises of fecund seasons and the specific beauty of Lara herself.
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Lean contends with the idea of cultural memory in part through the textures of his own cinema. Any filmmaker of Lean’s generation, and especially an editor like him, would have gone to school on Sergei Eisenstein’s films. Lean confirms debt and kinship as he nods to Battleship Potemkin (1925) in the demonstration scene – cutaways to children lost in the tumult and brass band instruments kicked along the street by fleeing people – and offers some distinctly Eisensteinian framings, like the shot of sailors saluting Strelnikov’s passing train. Of course, Doctor Zhivago inverts the propagandist tilt of Eisenstein’s famous films, presenting the early years of the Soviet Revolution as a period of glorious slogans and petty, often pathetic or vicious individuals. Lean makes further nods to silent cinema in his lighting, often staking out his actors’ eyes with pencil spots and placing the rest of them in shadow, a technique reminiscent of German expressionism, also kept in mind in shots like one early in the film when the dam workers file out of a brightly lit tunnel, the red star over the tunnel mouth, like they’re emerging from the maw of branded history. The brief scenes depicting the frontline of the war boil down grand, nation-shattering calamity to a few grimly totemic shots of frozen soldiers still manning their posts on the wasteland frontier, like something left over from a primal war. Lean tips his hat to Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by quoting Milestone’s signature lateral tracking shot, speeding along the advancing wave of Russian soldiers as they’re cut down by machine gun.
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Cinematographer Freddie Young, whose work is superlative throughout, pulls of one of his best shots as Pasha, respected by his fellow soldiers enough to follow him into the jaws of hell, seems to be killed by a shell blast, his glasses falling to the snow in colossal close-up. Several key passages of the film are played out in a manner reminiscent of the vignettes of silent cinema. Yuri’s first sight of Lara, seated in darkness on the other side of a pane of glass, encapsulates the notion of romantic vision as a cinematic ideal, framed and inviolate, a scarcely liminal vision upon which breaks a miniature dawn, as Komarovsky enters her room with lantern. In the later scene in which Pasha reads her confessional letter, sparking his anger and then forgiveness, the whole scene is shot through a window with a candle slowly burning away the frost on the glass; the shot dramatizes the bleak emotional straits of the characters as well as allowing Lean to stake pure belief in visual storytelling. The scene in which Yuri finally meets Yevgraf, who comes to visit his brother just in time to save him from the wrath of petty commissars over some stolen firewood, utilises Guinness’s voiceover to report his speech rather than have him interact with Sharif and the other actors, an ironic touch that somehow conveys the awful weight of intervening years and the schism between the half-brothers that’s based around totally diverse loyalties but also retains a certain mutual, guttering admiration.
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Lean’s approach to cinema remains fascinatingly indifferent to spectacle on many levels in spite of the infrastructure on hand: his background as an editor, a composer in the dialogue of duration and severance, is plain enough throughout. The long build-up in the tunnel scene to burst out into a grand landscape segues into a jolting edit before anything can be drunk in. The film’s close-ups are just as epic as the landscapes. The way Lean shoots Sharif and Christie reflects their functions as actors inhabiting roles, Christie often nearly facing the camera, caught in reactive moments – particularly the scene in which Yuri breaks off with her, his voice heard but the man unseen, camera instead fixated on Christie’s face with all its tremulous emotion. The camera becomes Yuri overtly here, but has no existence free of Lara’s feeling. The poet is a void without muse. Like many films of the era, whilst there’s nothing outright anachronistic in sight, the quality of Christie’s hairstyles and makeup still often see utterly modish to the mid-’60s, whilst Sharif looks improbably like a bohemian college tutor in black turtleneck. But Christie and Sharif give remarkably good performances considering the fascinatingly diverse demands placed on them by their respective roles. Sharif had to consciously retreat within himself to play a character who observes and absorbs, whilst Christie plays the emotional lodestone, eyes of blue stirring like the ocean as she suffers predations and woundings.
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The train exodus sequence is the centrepiece of the film, where Lean’s cinema is tied most explicitly to Yuri’s perspective in finding sights and sounds of wonder amongst grimy and tawdry circumstances. The train car is packed with fetid bodies, floor littered with straw crusted with shit and piss, food boiled potatoes, but the world without is a parade of alternating natural splendour and human terror. One of Lean’s great coups comes at the segue from the intermission, as he fills the soundtrack with the tumult of the train on the move although the screen remains black, before a point of light grows and suddenly the train bursts from a tunnel amongst soaring, snow-crusted mountains. A pane of ice frozen across the doorway is shattered, revealing a vast landscape of ice-caked lakes and sepulchral forests. The sun burning through morning mist in the trees during a stop distracts Zhivago until he stumbles into danger as he happens upon Strelnikov’s armoured train. Strelnikov has been mentioned breathlessly before, particularly by the chained anarchist zealot (Klaus Kinski, in a small role that nonetheless instantly made him a cinema weirdo of choice) in the passengers’ midst: Lean’s sleight of hand when Strelnikov’s train barrels past theirs is to reveal Strelnikov is Pasha, who might as well be a chill-blooded zombie arisen from the ice, declaring that “The private life is dead,” and musing that he used to admire Yuri as a poet but now feels obliged to find his work petty and trivial.
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Yuri responds by questioning why he attacks and burns villages indiscriminately, and retorts to the proposition that the point must be made, “Your point, their village.” Yuri learns from Strelnikov that Lara is living in Yuriatin, whilst the manor house that was the heart of the Gromeko estate proves to have been claimed and locked up by Bolsheviks. The family instead retreat into a neighbouring cottage and weather out the winter, and Yuri resists the temptation to visit Lara for a time. But when he does finally meet her in the town, their passion finally blossoms. Fate however still has a malicious joke in store for Yuri, as he’s snatched up by a Bolshevik partisan unit engaged in free-roaming warfare against the Whites, who want Yuri’s service as a doctor and pay little heed to his protests as they shanghai him away for a campaign. Lean offers brief but startling visions of guerrilla warfare, in a cavalry charge across a frozen lake on machines guns, with Yuri and the unit’s political officer Razin (Noel Willman) the only members not engaged in battle.
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Razin nonetheless rules the unit as he reminds his fellow soldiers that “all men will be judged politically,” like a secular inquisitor ready to winnow out the unfaithful. Lean’s admiration for John Ford is signalled through in his use of space and landscape (plus Ford had recommended Christie to Lean after directing her on Young Cassidy, 1964) but a scene here in which the unit massacre some White soldiers who turn out to be boys from a military academy pressed into a glorious, pathetic charge, could be seen as darker meditation on a scene Ford offered as a joke in his The Horse Soldiers (1958). “Did you ever love a woman?” Yuri questions Razin when he dismisses the deaths in the face of history. “I once had a wife and two daughters,” the priest of nihilism retorts. The battle in Doctor Zhivago is to remain alive as a thinking, feeling being in the face of such omnipresent horror. It’s a battle Yuri eventually wins, but at the cost of using up his physical body, a candle burnt at both ends. Part of the film’s allure in the day lay in the way it offered a heightened reflection for the idea of a romantic couple fending off such horrors. Yuri abandons the Bolsheviks as they encounter bedraggled survivors who can’t tell the difference between the uniforms tormenting them, and makes his solitary way across the frigid wastes to return to Yuriatin, hoping to return to Tonya and his children. But he’s left with Lara instead, as Tonya and her father have fled the country. Yuri and Lara decide to spend whatever time they have together, and start living in the Varykeno mansion, much of which is filled with sculptural ice.
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The ice palace is one of the film’s most singularly strange and semi-surreal images, echoing back to Miss Havisham’s infested house in Great Expectations as a representation of something bleak and twisted in the psyche and in the world at large, but also with its little annex free of ice, with the table where Yuri learned how to write still intact and well-stocked. Such a little islet of the mind amidst a threatening shell anticipates the image of the family home drifting in space at the end of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), another tale of blighted romance and agonised becoming. Here Yuri scribbles out the Lara poems in feverish activity whilst awaiting whatever knock on the door portends their fate. Of all people, it proves to Komarovsky who does the knocking, the ultimate sophisticate cynic and survivor having successfully reinvented himself as a useful tool of the Soviets offering safe passage to the far east, to escape the coming wrath of the Bolsheviks now that Pasha has abandoned his Strelnikov identity and shot himself rather than face a show trial. Neither Yuri nor Lara want to make any kind of pact with Komarovsky, but Yuri urges Lara to leave with him with a false promise to follow. Yevgraf wraps up his account by describing how Yuri, sickly and taken in hand by his brother after living in obscurity for many years, heads off to work at a hospital only to glimpse Lara from a tram and try to chase after her, only to collapse from a heart attack and die.
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By comparison with the achievement in pacing and image flow that is Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago often feels by comparison a touch rushed and choppy despite its expanse. This is particularly true of the episode depicting Yuri’s service with the partisan band, which is arguably the most interesting part of the narrative and the one that best justifies the film’s epic lustre, and yet which passes by in a few minutes. The evocation of frantic longing and loss in Yuri’s dash to catch a passing glimpse of Lara from the high windows of the ice palace is perfect, despoiled to a certain extent by Lean and Bolt’s choice to turn a full circle with Yuri’s death scene pushes rather too close to a rather more familiar and sentimental kind of romantic drama. The frustration of Doctor Zhivago is also part and parcel with its enormous success: the carefully fashioned, distinctively intimate poetic drama is constantly nudging against the wannabe pop hit. But the diffuseness of the last act is in part a deliberate reflection of the patchiness of history: history is a gaping hole that swallows people, and only lost but talented orphans like young Tonya emerge, and artwork like the Lara poems testifies to the qualities of the lost world. The film’s very end aims for a rhapsodic sense of becoming as Lean surveys the great dam constructed by the workers, the revolutionary project giving birth to its own wonders.

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1970s, African cinema, Auteurs, Drama, Experimental, Romance

Touki-Bouki (1973)

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Director/Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty

By Roderick Heath

Following its 2007 restoration by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki-Bouki has emerged in recent years to be celebrated as one of the finest products of African cinema. Touki-Bouki made a Sight & Sound Film Poll as one of the hundred greatest films of all time, and these days even celebrities are paying homage to its most famous images. Quite a ride for a film that did make a mark in its time, gaining an International Critics Prize at Cannes, only to then generally sink from view. Touki-Boukis director took another twenty years to make a second feature, as Mambéty re-emerged for a brief spell of productivity before his death from lung cancer in 1998 at the age of 53. Mambéty, born in Dakar in 1945, was the son of a Muslim cleric who, after dabbling in theatre as a student, became interested in film, at a time when an eruption of new cinematic energy was taking place across Africa at the time, part of a general scene of cultural fervour in the post-colonial dawn. Mambéty’s countryman Ousmane Sembène had flown the standard for new African cinema with 1966’s Black Girl.
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In spite of his lack of formal training, Mambéty pieced together a short film, City of Contrasts, in 1968, dedicated to surveying haphazard attempts to synthesise a novel architectural style at various sites around Dakar with a sceptical eye. He followed it with another short that gained some attention, Badou Boy, a portrait of a young scallywag engaged in a duel of wits with a policeman, mediating Mambéty’s own formative experiences and looking forward to the larger clashes driving Touki-Bouki. Next Mambéty set to making his first feature with a budget of $30,000, most of which came from the Senegal government. One irony is that Touki-Bouki is both a perfect emblem of that moment of cultural energy and a reaction to it. Mambéty avoided the kitchen-sink realism and overtly critical style of melodrama being made by Sembène and others, in favour of an approach obviously influenced by the French New Wave, but also wielding a definably independent spirit rooted deep in its native landscape and sensibility. Touki-Bouki defines a more personal, allusive, but hardly disengaged reaction to the moment, celebrating the maddening mismatch of impulses and ambitions beckoning.
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Touki-Bouki emerged as a freewheeling tragicomedy with a rambunctious sense of humour as a well as a spirit of commentary and satirical import that lands all the more sharply for its deceptively breezy disposition. At times Mambéty’s eye is as cruelly excoriating of social disparity as Luis Bunuel was on Los Olvidados (1951), recording the day-to-day life of the poor citizenry who encircle the islet of westernised modernity in the downtown Dakar. His camera pans down from the gleaming ramparts of office blocks and apartment buildings colonising Dakar’s precincts to the shattered slums and shanties scattered around its fringes with a witty, needling sense of contrast, but also a casual familiarity with such violent contrasts. Mambéty sees in them the spirit of a place and a time, the super-modern colliding with the unknowably ancient, the slick with the gritty, the Western idea of time and space with the African.
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Mambéty’s antihero is Mory (Magaye Niang), a young man who makes a living driving cattle to an abattoir to be butchered, whilst his girlfriend Anta (Mareme Niang) is a student attending college. Mambéty’s Dakar is a place of petty jealousies and tolerated pests. Anta lives with her Aunt Oumy (Aminata Fall), a produce seller and low-grade conjurer who lets friends take her produce on credit. Anta is first seen irritably forcing one to put back everything she’s taken if she can’t pay. Anta resists the cajoling, charged demands of a mob of young student radicals in a truck, whose political action meetings seem to be mostly an excuse to pick up girls. When Anta refuses to come to one of their meetings, the radicals, in their frustration, accost Mory when he comes to the campus looking for her, lassoing him and driving across down with Mory tied to the back of their truck. In a rage after this humiliation, Mory flees to a favourite place on the coastline, and Anta tracks him down. The duo make love on the cliffs above the ocean, a sequence Mambéty communicates with shots of languorously rolling, foaming waves on the rocks with the sounds of sex on the soundtrack. Afterwards, lounging in the sun next to the motorcycle, the lovers resolve to leave Senegal by any recourse and head for Paris to make their fortune.
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With a puckish sense of ne’er-do-wells at loose in the world, improvising their path through life, Mambéty’s assimilation of New Wave tropes occasionally feels closer in spirit to Richard Lester than Jean-Luc Godard. Still, Godard is an inescapable influence, with visuals that recall the bright, lushly-coloured, almost pictographic approach of Pierrot le Fou (1965). But there’s a stark, deceptive quality to Mambéty’s style that’s quite individual, unfolding through a succession of images precisely framed and lucidly composed, attentive to the pungent atmosphere of a time and place, in a way that’s almost still-life art, but which also merge to form a brisk and energetic whole. Touki-Bouki unfolds according to its own peculiar rhythms and focal points, but it also plays, interestingly, as a lampoon of a film noir plot. Mambéty’s portrait of desperate lovers making their ploy to escape their circumstances, turning to crime to better their lives, evokes a swathe of noir films and films that coexist on the border between that grim genre and social problem studies, particularly Nicholas Ray’s films like They Live By Night (1949) and Rebel Without A Cause (1956). Except that the crime is tepid and the criminal lovers’ escapades are more than a little absurd, thanks to Mory’s significant overestimation of his own street smarts. The very end can be read as a satire on the climax of that founding text of French poetic realism and noir aesthetics, Julien Duvivier’s Pepe Le Moko (1938).
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Mambéty starts the film with shots of cattle being herded and driven to an abattoir, lazy undulations of the haunches of cattle and the ponies bearing loft the herders filling the screen, for a scene from a rural lifestyle that might as well be taking place a hundred or a thousand years ago. Mambéty quickly despoils the placid mood as he depicts the cattle being slaughtered gorily. This unflinching segue anticipates a similar sequence in Rainer Werner Fassbender’s In a Year of 13 Moons (1976). Mambéty’s motivating spirit is rather different to Fassbender’s punkish effect, but there’s a similar idea at play, correlating the butchery of animals with the brutal processes of personal and historical transformation. Mambéty repeats the motif later on when he shows Oumi slaughtering a goat, all part of the raw and bloody business of providing food, the earthiness of the lifestyle of Mambéty’s fellow Senegalese, laid bare in grim and dazzling detail. Mambéty cuts between Oumi slicing open the goat’s neck with Anta stripping off her shirt in the staring sunlight for her seaside tryst with Mory, evoking a sense of squirming desperation to the couple’s psychic horizons despite the often comic tenor of their adventures, as well as conjoining sex and death as sublime necessities.
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Early in the film Mambéty watches with a documentary filmmaker’s eye as women cue up for clean drinking water, a moment of reportage that could fit into any news report on life in the third world, except that Mambéty turns it into a scene of human comedy as two women begin fighting over their place in the line; when a supervising man tries to break up their tussle, both begin beating him up instead. Authority figures are either wielders of latent violence, like the cop Mory encounters, or absurd occupants of jobs that seem them disseminating a vague sense of state relevance, like the portly mailman who makes the rounds of the shanties on the Dakar fringes, with Aunt Oumi convinced he’s keeping letters from her son from her, and struggles to make a ponderous passage up a hill. Mory’s first attempt to rustle up some cash comes when he decides to take on a dude tantalising and tormenting pedestrians with his prowess as three-card monte. Mory bets a thousand francs he pick out the right card, but when he loses has to flee because he doesn’t have the cash to cover the bet, chased down the street by a mob happy to take off after anything that moves just for something to do.
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Mory manages to elude his pursuers only to come across a cop who enjoys intimidating him with the possibility he might just shoot him for the hell of it, before then asking for a match: Mory is so relieved he offers his whole matchbox. The same cop proves to be a nemesis for the next score Mory and Anta eye, when Anta realises they could rip off the gate take for a wrestling match. Several boxes are left in the cop’s keeping, one of which contains the money. Mory, making a declaration of status as boss man, decides the box on the bottom must be the one. The actual robbery isn’t shown, but Mambéty cuts to Mory and Anta’s getaway, hailing a taxi to transport the stolen box across town whilst Mory pursues on a motorcycle. He’s stopped by an officious traffic cop for driving through a zebra crossing, but Mory makes a successful ploy to scare off the cop by pretending to have seen him at a rowdy party that got busted. The cab driver, a wheezy old man, accidentally drops the cashbox when he’s unloading it for the elated bandits, only for the contents within to prove not riches but a skull.
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The title is usually translated as “Journey of the Hyena,” an apt description of Mory’s skulking opportunism as a criminal who dreams of grand successes, a small predator who darts around the flanks of bigger beasts. The early scenes of Mory and Anta on the beach see Mambéty breaking up the linear flow of images, weaving a texture at once repetitive and discombobulated, fitting for a film about Senegal, the westernmost country on the African mainland. The lovers confront the ocean as a vertiginous frontier standing between them and Paris, which might as well be Oz. Mory decides next to rob a rich gay man named Charlie. Charlie lived in Paris in the past, and now resides in a large modern house on the Dakar waterfront. He lounges about his swimming pool and extemporises airily from his bath whilst Mory gets down to robbing him blind. Charlie introduces a particularly noir-like development in Touki-Bouki’s plot, as a character whose erotic wont contrasts and mirrors the social and financial yearning of the young people and who float in a possible zone of mutual exploitation. The scene could be set like the ugly moment in Midnight Cowboy (1969) where that film’s desperate main character assaulted and possibly killed the old gay man he decided to rob to facilitate his own life escape. But Mambéty wryly deconstructs the canard by making Charlie a humorous and likeable figure whose supine good cheer is just as hapless as Mory’s half-assed criminal entrepreneurship. When he finds he’s been robbed his first response is to phone up the police and chat amiably and teasingly with some officers he’s trying to seduce.
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Charlie represents a gently satirised breed of cosmopolitan colonials. The uneasy relationship of colonised and colonisers is a nagging theme of Touki-Bouki, although Mambety’s credo that “anticolonialist laughter is also laughing at yourself” is illustrated as well, as he considers the landscape of modern Senegal as a strange mutt where eye, heart, and mind can leap from the primal to the space-aged in one survey of the landscape. Dialogue is littered with sniping mutual racism. Oumi and her larcenous patron kvetch about sons of the nation heading to Paris and not coming back, or worse, “They bring their white women back with their diseases.” When Mory and Anta finally do get aboard a passenger ship bound for France, they’re thrust into the company of patronising French teachers who complain in turn about just about everything, from the stolidity of their African students and the extremity of the radical movements back home, and make comments like “African art is a joke made up by journalists in need of copy” whilst proclaiming Senegal barren physically and intellectually. The elders’ solution for everything is to call in a marabout (a variety of Islamic religious advisor in Senegal), and Charlie has the bad news as one who’s supped at the font of imperial beneficence and left no illusion for anyone who follow: “France isn’t what it used to be,” now that it’s no longer the beating heart of a great imperial complex.
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Nonetheless the siren call of Paris echoes irresistibly for Mory and Anta, represented by a soundtrack driven along by the sprightly strains of Josephine Baker’s song “Paris.” Baker, as the black chanteuse who found love and favour in France thanks to playing out an exotic fantasy of a bare-breasted, banana-bedecked jungle girl only then to reinvent herself as the essence of cosmopolitan sophistication, makes for a loaded, ironic touchstone for such ambitions. The cinematography by Pap Samba Sow keeps in mind both the potent colours and design intricacy of African art and also the purposefully flat and placard-like effects of ‘60s radical movie agitprop. Colours blaze with fervent immediacy, the gush of blood from the goat’s neck and the patterns of the kaftans and lettering of city signs all lit up with delirious intensity, as if the world is a great collection of hieroglyphs rendered in colour needing a sympathetic eye to decode. One of the funniest punch-lines comes when it’s revealed that the wrestling match Mory and Anta try to rob is being held to raise money for a statue of Charles De Gaulle, a symbolic erection in the name of continued close connections between France and Senegal.
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Mambéty’s preferred symbol, the lynchpin of the movie and of his protagonists’ lives, is Mory’s bike. It’s a practical instrument, Mory’s transport, his vessel of self-image and independence. Mambéty’s images of an outsider hero on a motorcycle echoes expressions of countercultural disaffection like Easy Rider (1969) coming from overseas and also rhymes with the same year’s radically different exploration of postcolonial crime and rebellion, The Harder They Come. But the bike is also a representation of Mambéty’s concept of Senegalese spirit, circa 1973, and his concept of a culture that’s a fusion of ways of being and experiencing: a cobbled-together chimera, western-made machine festooned with the potent animalistic totem of horns on the handlebars, and an incantatory, rather phallic sculptural veve on the rear. Such adornments elevate the motorcycle from mere device to a totem communing between the human and the animal, the spiritual and the historical. As long as Mory and Anta ride it, they retain a self-sufficient lustre, a dash of romantic heroism. Once they rob Charlie, Anta abandons the bike in a wasteground, leaving it to be retrieved, in a hilariously bizarre touch, by a man dressed like a Halloween caveman, who happens upon it like the spirit of atavistic anarchy, and begins riding it around Dakar in glee.
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Oumi curses Mory for failing to pay her for some rice she gave him, screaming that she hopes he winds up in hell to Anta with an incantatory air – not for nothing, it seems, does Anta call her “the sorceress” – and the fractured sense of time at play throughout Touki-Bouki seems to stem from Oumi’s curse; time, place, and self all splintered and randomly dispersed. The skull the luckless taxi driver finds inside the stolen box seems to be a relic of some esoteric rite, death’s head grinning out at the luckless would-be plutocrats as a reminder of strange and ancient forces working against their venture in self-improvement – small wonder the box it’s in rests under the one they should have stolen, which sports the colours of Senegal’s flag. The sequence following Mory’s robbery of Charlie is nonetheless a comic tour-de-force as he and Anta head across Dakar to the port, even subordinating Charlie’s chauffeur by pretending he’s been told to drive them. In his exultation, Mory strips bare-assed and stands triumphant in the back of the open-topped car, and flees into a lengthy fantasy imagining the two lovers returning from France, rich and powerful. Crowds flock to watch their progress and they’re given all the pomp and paraphernalia of national heroes. Even uppity Oumi dances in celebration before their car whilst the couple lounge with cigars and make like big shots.
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In more prosaic reality they still make a splash as their travel agent thinks she knows them (“Maybe from New York,” Anta suggests). They encounter a man named Margot, a con man they know who’s desperate to escape from Dakar as he’s being hunted down by a dude with a club after some misfired scam: Mory and Anta let him hide in the car into the port. The lovers have succeeded, making it to the ship on time and in style. But Mory is halted on the gangplank by the thought of one of the cattle he herds to slaughter, and suddenly runs off, desperately trying to find his bike. Anta, left alone, waits for him, but when sailing time comes, she remains aboard. Where Duvivier’s antihero was finally consumed and destroyed by his status as exile and petty overlord of a colonial citadel, and died at the dockside foiled in his last gesture of escape, Mambéty inverts the situation: his lovers are separated and his dopey protagonist pulled back to native soil in a sudden pang of realisation of what he’s abandoning, only to find he’s already lost his source of pride and energy. When he does find his bike, it’s been smashed to pieces, its cattle skull mascot broken, the caveman rider terribly injured in a crash. Mambéty sees a generation in flux, a wealth of possibilities on hand but also invisible to the needs of the moment.
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The ship is a vast, beautiful, floating white carcass spiriting Anta away to a vague fortune whilst Mory weeps over his own shattered machine and destiny. Mambéty returns to the pivotal image of Mory, Anta, and the bike at rest on the cliffs above the infinite dreaming ocean, perhaps as a remembered idyll or perhaps a suggestion everything we’ve seen has been one possible path these two might stray along. Mambéty later stated that he made Touki-Bouki to dramatise his own emotional and intellectual reactions when he fantasised about leaving Senegal for any greener grass – tellingly, when Mory halts on the gangplank, a “Mr Diop” is being called for to board – and the film, in spite of Mory’s eventual desolation, elucidates a specific faith, that any place and people retain the seeds of great dreams and possibilities. When he returned to filmmaking Mambéty made Hyènes (1992), a follow-up with a plot inspired by Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, taking up the theme of returning from diaspora to hammer out old debts. Every future is bought at the cost of another.

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1920s, Action-Adventure, Romance

The Sheik (1921) / The Son of the Sheik (1926)

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Directors: George Melford, George Fitzmaurice

By Roderick Heath

This essay is offered as part of the Allan Fish Online Film Festival, a festival founded by Jamie Uhler and hosted by Wonders in the Dark, held to honor the memory of the late cineaste extraordinaire Allan Fish.

Rudolph Valentino. Over ninety years since he died aged 31, his name is still familiar to people who have never watched any of his movies. As the first great heartthrob of Hollywood film, his impact lingers like background radiation in pop culture. Valentino was the defining archetype of the Latin Lover and icon of silent film’s budding cosmopolitan promise, and is still the subject of legend and feverish speculation, particularly in regards to off-screen escapades and omnivorous sexual tastes. Young Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella acted out the essential myth of early Hollywood. He arrived in America as an eighteen-year-old immigrant, struggling in his early days in New York and skirting the outer edges of a scandalous tragedy before taking to the road as a travelling actor. Valentino took the advice of movie actor Norman Kerry to go to Hollywood and try his luck there, but found himself initially typecast as a villain for his dark, exotic looks. Then he was cast in the lead of Rex Ingram’s adaptation of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s bestseller, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, produced by Metro Pictures and released in 1921. Valentino was catapulted to stardom, and in spite of the film’s seriousness as a World War I drama, what everyone remembered afterwards was Valentino’s tango scene.
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Valentino still found himself patronised by Metro and after two throwaway vehicles grabbed the chance to head over to Famous Players-Lasky, where George Melford’s The Sheik, an adaptation of a novel by Edith Maude Hull, who like Valentino was a displaced cosmopolitan who found her life reshaped by travelling. Her wanderings began as a child alongside her parents, including a trip to Algiers, where most of her fiction would be set. The novel had been a colossal bestseller, a perfect vehicle for the star deemed fit to fill the role. Billed second to Agnes Ayres, Valentino was cast as Arab sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. Except that, well, he’s not really Arab. Ahmed is ultimately revealed to be half-Spanish, half-English, one who was found orphaned and raised by a real Sheik in his traditional lifestyle. This was nominally a sop to Valentino’s Latin Lover image but was also designed to ward off the anti-miscegenation crowd who might have been infuriated by the central theme of romance between a white woman and a dark-skinned man. The sight of Valentino draped in a headscarf is up there with Charlie Chaplin’s bowler and moustache and Mary Pickford’s curls as one of the instantly recognisable points of iconography from the silent era regardless, from a day when cinema meant opening horizons and the images projected upon the screen blazed with an intensity of deliverance from the mundane that’s difficult to imagine in our screen-saturated day where our fantasy lives are serviced so often if not always so well.
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Close to a century has elapsed since The Sheik was released, and aspects of it remind me just what a long century it’s been. But it also feels peculiarly familiar in its similarities to more recent phenomena in its queasy, artful exploitation of a perverse romantic dynamic of threat and attraction, a reduction of the world to a pre-modern zone of hot-blooded men who know what they want from a woman. The Sheik opens with a scene in which Sheik Ahmed oversees the purchase of a selection of new brides for his tribe from another, where he sticks up for the right of one man (George Waggner, who would go on to direct The Wolf Man, 1941) to claim a woman he’s in love with over other, higher bidders, an early sign Ahmed is a covert romantic in a world defined otherwise by a crude and transactional sense of male-female relations. Meanwhile, Lady Diana Mayo (Ayres), a character who seems to have been based on Gertrude Bell, has arrived in the Saharan oasis town of Biskra, intending an exploratory venture into the desert and has hired one of Ahmed’s friends Mustapha Ali (Charles Brinley) as a guide. She’s accompanied by her flimsy brother Aubrey (Frank Butler), who tries in vain to talk her out of her expedition.
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Diana is an interloping emblem of modernity with her proto-feminist independence and wilful adoption of a masculine mode of dress for her planned venture. But she also finds herself enticed by the stir Ahmed makes when he breezes into town with his followers and their new selection of brides. Ahmed takes over the town’s casino for the night and bans all foreigners from the building so he and his men can stage a raucous celebration and watch the new wives dance. Diana, seeing a challenge, borrows the costume from a dancer in her hotel and uses it to enter and watch as the Arab men gamble to marry the various women. Diana is discovered when she’s grabbed to be the next lot on offer, and when Ahmed strips off her burka finds she’s carrying a pistol and uses it ward off any harassers before escaping. Ahmed’s interest is stirred and he enters her hotel the next morning to catch a glimpse of her in her room, and she hears him singing a love song outside her window without knowing who’s singing it. Soon Ahmed decides he must possess Diana, so he sabotages her gun and snatches her away, taking her to his desert camp.
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Hull’s book was a racy tale laced with a heady, violent erotic streak, and pushed the implied the rape fantasy much further than the film (quote: “Chattel, a slave to do his bidding, to bear his pleasure and his displeasure, shaken to the very foundation of her being with the upheaval of her convictions and the ruthless violence done to her cold, sexless temperament.”) Director George Melford congratulated himself on restricting to this element to only the faintest implication, as Diana finds herself at the mercy of the imperious Ahmed, who laughs at her mode of dress and declares that she makes a very pretty boy, but he doesn’t want a boy, so he forces her to dress in Arab female clothes. Unlike in the book Ahmed stops short of seeming to actually rape her, declaring “I could make you love me!”, but holds her captive in the expectation she will eventually succumb to the pure force of his throbbing passion. The ritualised stripping back of Diana’s arch western, liberated pretences before the might of an idealised figure of masculine entitlement is nonetheless reproduced exactingly, but that same force is then in turn tamed by the vicissitudes of romantic respect as Ahmed finds himself paralysed by his desire to be loved rather than to merely possess.
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Of course, The Sheik is very dated even as some of the things it exploits have proven insidiously difficult to extract from the modern mindset, exploiting a sexual fantasy of domination not really that far from the kind evinced in recent phenomena like the Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey books and films, mixed up a dubious conception of Arabic men as lascivious brutes, even when they’re actually Anglo-Spanish. One could read it all as self-aware role-play, an idea the film’s 1926 sequel takes up a little more brazenly. What’s undeniable is that The Sheik struck audiences of the day right where they lived. Or, at least, female audiences. Many male viewers reportedly found Valentino irksome in his liquid good-looks and willingness to enact erogenous fantasies for women, and his screen image was a violent switchback from the sort of hale and hearty American leading men prominent at the time. Charges of insidious effeminacy pursued the actor as well, accusations that eventually drove Valentino to stage and win his famous bout against the New York Evening Journal’s boxing writer, Frank O’Neill.
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Part of the problem might well be evinced in the way Valentino readily plays a character here who is supremely powerful in his little world but who, once he finds the woman who will obsess him, then places her at the very centre of all thoughts and ambitions. He is forgiven for his transgressions towards Diana because he at least wants her in absoluteness – there’s no playboy affectation or dilettantish indifference in his persona. Either way, Ayres and Valentino commit to their roles with gusto, and in many ways Ayres gives the more interesting performance in her registers swaying passing haughty self-possession to tremulous fear before her captor-lover and, at last, ardent amour. Valentino’s charisma is still amazingly potent when he’s charged with hawkish attention and brooding lust: his look of supreme erotic intent seems to x-ray whoever the object of that gaze through to the bone marrow. This quality is dramatized when Ahmed first sees Diana, his returned attention shunts her through a rapid succession of involuntary responses, anxiety, embarrassment, desire, revelation.
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Valentino does tread close to the boundaries of the overripe when his Ahmed flashes his eyes and gives an eagerly lustful smile. But what’s most obvious is his excellence as an actor attuned to silent cinema as a vehicle, conveying his character’s states of mind and attitude entirely through gestural and expressive affect, but also most entirely avoiding the hokier screen acting templates of the day: his on-screen stances and motions have a feline concision and fluency. One reason many of Valentino’s vehicles aren’t given much shrift today beyond retaining the man’s image itself is because he worked with no regarded directors, except for Ingram, who wasn’t particularly excited by the young star. But Melford’s direction of The Sheik is better than it’s often given credit for. It’s easily Melford’s best-known effort although he directed movies for over twenty years. Another of his odder claims to repute was handling the Spanish-language version of Dracula (1931) produced simultaneously to the Tod Browning film and which is, in its way, another variation on this kind of demon-seducer tale. Melford also made several imitations of his most popular work like Burning Sands (1922) and Love in the Desert (1928).
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Despite his relative anonymity, Melford’s direction is a great part of the strength of The Sheik, in his lucid sense of atmosphere and drama, establishing a visual motif through his use of the period movie camera’s depth of field in multiple planes of action often subdivided by physical elements, finding of ways of bringing theatrical integrity to the expanse of the desert with his columns of horsemen zig-zagging across the landscape. Archways and doorframes in Biskra, the flaps and panels within Ahmed’s tent, the dunes of the desert, render the film a succession of penetrated layers and chambers, apt for a journey that’s about getting to the heart of a certain way of seeing relations between the genders. The scenes of Diana’s first arrival at Ahmed’s tent and prostration before him are particularly strong, as the winds pummelling the desert set the whole structure about Diana shuddering and swaying, mimicking her psyche’s extreme tumult, and culminating in the affecting sight of her and one of Ahmed’s female servants, Zilah (Ruth Miller), embracing in sympathy.
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For some reason Diana’s brother never gets around to looking for her, and for a complicating flourish Ahmed instead is happy to receive his old friend, the writer Raoul St Hubert (Adolphe Menjou), who’s been his friend since Ahmed was schooled in Paris. Ahmed fears that Raoul might prove a romantic rival, but he really stands in for the side of Ahmed that has been ‘civilised’ by his western roots and education, whilst bandit chief Omair (Walter Long) represents the primitive and bestial facet that only wants to snatch Diana and make her a sex slave. Omair first glimpses Diana when she makes an attempt to ride out of the desert after fooling Ahmed’s French manservant Gaston (Lucien Littlefield): she falls from her horse and Omair’s caravan, returning to the city he controls, happens upon Diana, but Ahmed tracks her down before the bandit can pluck her from the sands. Raoul shames Ahmed for making Diana sustaining the façade of dressing in western clothes again and fronting up to another westerner who will comprehend her subjugation. Omair soon leads a raid, snatching up Diana and carrying her away after she and some of Ahmed’s men valiantly try to fight them off, leaving Gaston and others dead. Ahmed quickly gathers together the rest of his tribesmen and sets off in pursuit.
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The film’s most wistful image, reproduced on one of the posters, is that of Diana’s missive scratched idly in the sand declaring her love for Ahmed, a message that remains in place to spur Ahmed’s resurgence to chase down and take back his woman. Glimpses of Omair’s city deliver the film up to a sense of total immersion in a fantasy concept of a foreign world as a zone totally dedicated to erotic display and intent, with its teeming streets, ecstatically writhing dancing girls, leering male choruses and, at last, the sight of Diana lying unconscious and prostrate on a couch under the watchful eye of a hulking black manservant. In another, significant touch of character mirroring in the play of possession and desire, Omair has a wife who has attempted to talk him out of his kidnapping and when confronted by the sight of her man about to ravage the young white woman tries to knife him in a jealous rage. Omair easily fends her off, but the delay gives Ahmed time to arrive at the gates. He sneaks over the walls, penetrates Omair’s home, whilst his men batter down the gate and defeat the bandits. Ahmed enters Omair’s home and strangles him to death, but is in turn struck down by the manservant. Diana sits by Ahmed’s bed and waits to see if he will recover. Long story short: he does.
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H.L. Mencken’s fascinating meditation on Valentino’s life and death published after his funeral converted the late star into a different kind of archetype, that of the instinctively poetic and philosophical young man who gains all he wants in worldly terms but found it essentially worthless even before he’s cruelly cut down. This narrative connects Valentino less with many other live-fast-die-young movie stars than it does a later brand of idol more associated with rock music, like Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. Five years after The Sheik, Valentino returned to Hull’s property to film a sequel she had written. Just how long a five years it had been seems perfectly encapsulated in the way the film casts him as both an older Ahmed Ben Hassan, now grizzled and long married to Diana, and his grown son, also named Ahmed: Valentino seems have lived just as many lifetimes in that short time. In spite of his star stature, Valentino was in need of a hit, after a couple of less successful films, and quarrelling with another studio, and although he was tired of the image The Sheik had stuck him with, he resumed the part with gusto, carrying over his costar from The Eagle (1925), Vilma Bánky, to play his new love interest. Valentino liked Bánky, who had been brought to Hollywood and billed as “the Hungarian Rhapsody.” The Son of the Sheik finds a reasonably clever way of redeploying the original film’s essential tension as young Ahmed takes a woman captive, whilst offering a different spin on it.
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Here young Ahmed is in love with Yasmin (Bánky), the daughter of a French emcee, Andre (George Fawcett). Andre has fallen so low he leads a band of performers who double as thieves, with the Moor Ghabah (Montagu Love) a glowering and terrible figure barely kept in hand by his nominal boss, who holds his leash with vague suggestions he’ll marry Yasmin one day. It’s Yasmin who really keeps the band with her alluring dancing, a talent that’s also drawn in Ahmed. Yasmin arranges to meet Ahmed in some ruins close to where the troupe camps, but her companions catch wind of this. Ghabah leads them out to take Ahmed captive, tie him up, and plan to ransom him back to his family. Ghabah, recognising Yasmin’s connection to Ahmed, also tells the young man she deliberately drew him into their clutches. Ahmed is rescued the next morning by faithful family retainer Ramadan (Karl Dane), and taken to a friend’s house in the town of Touggourt. Ahmed sees Andre’s troupe enter town advertising their upcoming engagement at a town nightspot, the Café Maure, and when Yasmin sees her lover waves to him, only for Ahmed to sternly ignore her. Ahmed can’t shake loose his apparent betrayal, and he soon reproduces his father’s crime in snatching Yasmin away and taking her into the desert, vowing to her that “I may not be the first victim – but, by Allah, I shall be the one you’ll remember!”
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This central situation, as young Ahmed holds Yasmin captive, offers a great revenge that seems to consist merely of Ahmed standing about in lordly postures and chewing her out some, again with some not-quite-rape heavy romancing as the two bark mutual protestations of loathing at each-other but also can barely keep their hands to themselves. The Son of the Sheik was directed by George Fitzmaurice, whose handling betrays the quickly evolving sophistication of Hollywood cinema. Fitzmaurice was probably picked as director because he had helmed Bánky’s Hollywood debut The Dark Angel (1925). The film lacks the pictorial beauty of Melford’s but makes up for it in lunging storytelling verve and Fitzmaurice’s attentiveness to the essence of the vehicle’s intent turns the act of being loved by Valentino. This crystallises in a scene when Ahmed kisses Yasmin in the very eye of their apparent mutual hate, Valentino stalking towards the camera as it takes Bánky’s point of view and then reversing the shot, gliding in towards Bánky’s face and then cutting to a huge close-up of her teary yet erotically mesmerised eyes. Character experience and audience wont are churned together in a moment of cinematic shamanism, the kind of near-surreal pictorial intensity filmmaking and worship of the star visage from this era could wield effortlessly and which would obsess experimental filmmakers of later years.
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One of the main tweaks The Son of the Sheik makes on its predecessor was to beef up the swashbuckling, and in this the film also represents rapidly solidifying formulas for this sort of thing, the transformation of the cinema art from act of atavism into industrial product. This is clearest in the quick alternations of high drama and comic relief, most of it coming from Ahmed’s sarcastic pal Ramadan, and the physical tussles of the mountebanks Ali and Pincher (Bull Montana and Bynunsky Hyman) in Andre’s crew. The film has a tongue-in-cheek aspect that never overwhelms the drama but keeps it all in perspective as pure daydreaming. Certainly it’s all a template for the maturing ideal of the action movie of a brand where Errol Flynn would soon readily step in to fill the hole left by the death of Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks. Valentino also seems to have been determined to butch up his image a bit: his costuming leaves his arms bare, the better to show off his rippling muscles as he grips and compels Yasmin, before launching into an extended action finale that sees Ahmed performing some quintessential stunts like swinging on a chandelier and making a bold jump onto a horse’s back. There’s even a torture sequence of the kind Flynn would also be often subjected to with heavy whiffs of S&M and homoerotic appeal, when Ahmed is held captive by the criminal band, leaving Valentino’s body scored with dark welts.
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The most substantial subtext lies in the casting of Valentino not simply as the young doppelganger of his father but also playing the old Sheik Ahmed as well, made up with grizzled beard. There’s a kind of audience appeal joke in this – more Valentino for your dollar, folks! But it’s also a commentary on Valentino’s awareness of his improving skill as an actor and a more than vaguely meta gag on his inability to shake the Sheik image. The son is cast in the father’s mould and finds himself entrapped by his father’s psychology even as he attempts to resist his will, a tough voice for the Jazz age scion of the stern old-world father, illustrated when Ahmed straightens out the poker his father bends to demonstrate his strength. The Sheik intends for his son to marry Diana’s cousin Clara, who’s about to visit, but young Ahmed remains aloof. Diana, still played by Ayres, prods the Sheik with awareness of his own wilful, unstoppable determination, cueing a flashback to his kidnapping of her, putting a wryly guilty smile on the old rogue’s face. Valentino plays the two rolls distinctly, occasionally letting the old man show the same florid grins and rolling-eyed glares, whilst young Ahmed is a study in the actor’s more refined sense of effect. Fitzmaurice pulls off some clever, simple special effects in scenes where Valentino plays against himself, including shots where the old Sheik puts his arm around his son, and the two men hold hands whilst duelling side by side in the finale.
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The narrative, such as it is, eventually sees Ahmed decide to send Yasmin back to Touggourt, but her father, Ghabah, and cohort surprise her and Ramadan in the desert. Ghabah makes the mistake of gloating to Yasmin at poisoning Ahmed’s mind against her whilst Ramadan can hear, but Ahmed’s already trying to find her again. The troupe return to the Café Maure, where Ghabah makes it clear he intends to possess Yasmin one way or another. But Ahmed sneaks in disguised: Fitzmaurice reverses the early shot of Yasmin’s swooning before Ahmed as the man now beholds Yasmin again in the delivering ecstasies of dance, eyes glowing from under his shadowing hood, before leaping into action to save her from Ghabah. His father, defying the windstorm thrashing the desert, tracks him and helps him battle off the Café denizens. The eruption of action here is terrific, showing off Valentino’s physicality to the max as the two Ahmeds swing their scimitars and wield off opponents with table, barrels, and improvised firebombs, dodging thrown knives and hurling them back. Father and son fend off the ruffians but Ahmed still has to chase after Ghabah and Yasmin on horseback, duelling his enemy as the pound across the sands. Ahmed loses his sword so he springs upon Ghabah and throttles him on the ground before embracing Yasmin just in time for the fade-out.
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The Son of the Sheik would surely have been the big hit Valentino was chasing even if he hadn’t died when gearing up to publicise it, as it’s a great entertainment by any measure in spite of the lackadaisical plot. Although she never rivalled his stature Bánky’s name is sometimes used like Valentino’s to invoke raciness from a long-ago time, and she was most definitely a luminous and dazzlingly sexy presence. It’s also fun to see Ayres playing the older Diana, now mistress of her desert palace. It’s rather painful to think about what bad luck all these beautiful and talented people suffered: Ayres would die aged 42, her fortune wiped out by the Black Friday crash and career ruined by weight gain, and Bánky foiled, as Valentino might well have been if he had lived, by her heavy accent once sound came. At least on screen they’re all eternally young, gallivanting across a moonlit survey with nothing to do but enact our fantasies.

The Sheik can be viewed here on YouTube…

…and The Son of the Sheik here.

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