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Star Wars (1977)

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aka Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (reissue title)

Director: George Lucas
Screenwriters: George Lucas, Willard Huyck (uncredited), Gloria Katz (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

Most films lose their battle for cultural attention. Sometimes that proves an advantage. They’re free to be constantly rediscovered, to be alive for each viewer in a different way. Other films win the battle, and the price they pay for this can be they become so familiar they stop being seen, in the sense that, as a shared point of reference for a vast audience, they lose any quality of the unexpected, and instead become unshifting landmarks. This is especially true of Star Wars, which has been in turn celebrated and blamed for a monumental detour in screen culture in the years since its release. Decades after their first viewing my parents still mentioned the gobsmacking impact of the opening images of Star Wars, with the sight of a small spaceship fleeing a colossal pursuer, the passing of which unfolds on a new scale of imaginative transcription through cinematic technique. Suddenly the movies grew bigger than when D.W. Griffith besieged the walls of Babylon or Cecil B. DeMille parted the Red Sea. There’s a video on YouTube presenting an audio recording made by a mother and her young son during their first viewing of Star Wars in a movie theatre in 1977. The whoops of joy from the audience greeting Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) cowboy yelp when he intervenes in the climactic battle, and the applause when the Death Star explodes, record a great moment in mapping the idea and ideal of moviegoing: you can hear the audience in the palm of a filmmaker’s hand, experiencing everything old being made new again.

That said, I would say the moment that makes Star Wars what it became arrived a little earlier in the film, during the scene where the assailed heroes Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) are trapped between two forces of enemy Stormtroopers whilst perched on the edge of a chasm. Whilst Leia exchanges fire with Stormtroopers on a high vantage and another band try to break through the sealed door behind them, Luke improvises a way of swinging across. John Williams’ music indulges a flourish of florid emphasis as the young would-be white knight and the lady fair in the flowing silk dress swoop across to freedom. This moment condensed generations of movies, serials, comic books, and their precursors in fantastical literature and theatrical melodrama and on and on back to classical folklore, into a new singularity. A moment that somehow manages to exist at once with scare quotes of knowing around it, an ever so slight tint of camp not really that far from the jokey, satirical lilt of the 1960s Batman TV series built around both puckishly mocking and celebrating juvenile heroic fantasy, whilst also operating on a completely straight-faced level: this is the universe Star Wars has successfully woven by this point, one where that heroism isn’t a wish but simply part of life.

The genesis of Star Wars is today just about as well-known as the movie itself. Young filmmaker George Lucas, taking time off after releasing his debut feature THX-1138 (1971), wanted to make a film out of the beloved comic strip Flash Gordon, but couldn’t afford to buy the rights. After rifling through the history of the subgenre commonly dubbed “space opera” the strip had sprung from, Lucas sat down and began dreaming up his own, working through variation after variation on his ideas until finally arriving at the form that would become so familiar. Even before Lucas scored a hit with American Graffiti (1973), he was able to convince 20th Century Fox boss Alan Ladd Jr to back his other, riskier project, and got American Graffiti’s cowriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz to punch up the dialogue. That nobody quite knew what they had on their hands is made clear by the film’s first teaser trailer, which evinces in lacking Williams’ scoring that the images still had thrilling energy on their own, even as it completely fails to communicate the tone of the thing. The roots of Star Wars are far more liberally free-range of course – Lucas took obvious and largely admitted inspiration not just from Flash Gordon but from DeMille, J.R.R. Tolkien, Akira Kurosawa, Fritz Lang, John Ford, Sergei Eisenstein, Frank Herbert, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, Isaac Asimov, Alistair MacLean, James Bond, the movie version of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories, Edgar Rice Burroughs, cultural theorist Joseph Campbell, and a panoply of Saturday matinee adventure serials and 1950s war, fantasy, and swashbuckler films. The real trick was fusing them all together into something not just comprehensible and individual but, on the whole, original, something the audience that greeted its release in 1977 beheld as new and exciting despite its hoary components, and which instantly sank hooks deep into the popular consciousness.

The trick lay partly in the way Lucas made the film, with perfect confidence in the medium, but also in the way he framed it. Those air quotes hover about the entire movie, as Lucas approached the material as if it was an artefact, something designed to seem like it had an identity that existed long before Lucas stumbled upon it, a little like the hero of his other great pop culture creation, Indiana Jones, and the relics he plunders. Star Wars has an odd relationship today with its many follow-ups and imitations. It’s become a singular point of reference as Lucas and others built vast fictional precincts around its story, which is a lot more complex than it’s often given credit for, but exceedingly straightforward in terms of its essential plotting, and built upon manifold reference points of its own. If Star Wars had failed at the box office it would still be perfectly sufficient unto itself, except perhaps in the detail of its major bad guy Darth Vader not getting a comeuppance at the end, and even that could be taken as a nod to the finale of The Prisoner of Zenda, where Anthony Hope resisted killing off his charismatic villain too (and indeed also brought him and other characters back for a follow-up everyone likes to pretend didn’t happen). And yet it’s conceived and executed as a story within a story. The in medias res plunge directly into the middle of a story already in motion not only nodded to the storytelling method of ancient epics, but also to the more profane traditions of the serial drama. The branded title card, the fairytale-like epigram “Long ago in a galaxy far, far away,” and in-universe flourishes, including character and place names that sound like they’ve been translated into some other language and back again, and the technological and architectural design – all cordoned the experience of Star Wars off into its own discrete space even as its roots lead off in every direction.

This aspect was greatly amplified when upon the film’s first rerelease in 1980 Lucas added to the opening explanatory crawl a new detail – suddenly the singular movie became “Episode IV,” specifically titled “A New Hope,” designating it as not merely a work in itself but part of what was then still an entirely theoretical legendarium. Compared to some of the films in the series it birthed, including the richer, darker palette of Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), or the more lushly romantic and deceptively complex prequels, the original seems oddly stripped-down, absent some of the accumlated mythos, but it’s also that essentialised quality that helped it land so powerfully. Star Wars came out when dependable movie genres were dying and proposed a way to revive them through transposing their setting, freeing them from the constraints of real world reference points. The Western no longer had to be rooted in the increasingly, cynically questioned reality of the American colonial experience, the heroic war movie no longer the provenance of another generation. Star Wars was also a pure product of its cultural moment even as it seemed to reject that moment. Lucas based his all-encompassing evil Empire on the Nixon White House and the struggle against its predations in the Vietnam War zeitgeist, but with enough cultural echoes of other struggles – the American Revolution and World War II most obviously – to give a mollifying smokescreen. Lucas consciously turned the abstract, alienated parable of THX-1138 into something more readily engaging, more commercial, more communal, whilst still working with the same basic elements.

At the same time it can be said Star Wars grew conceptually out of the sporadic popularity of a certain brand of pop art-inflected moviemaking and TV that burgeoned in the late 1960s, encompassing the likes of the Batman TV series, Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), Richard Lester’s antiheroic deconstructions of adventure films like his Musketeer movies and Robin and Marian (1976), and retro pulp tributes like Michael Anderson’s Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975) and Kevin Connor’s Burroughs adaptations. Moments like that swing across the chasm have a similar informing spirit to Lester’s films in particular, although Lester would probably have had them thud into the wall just to one side of the landing. The comedy in Star Wars helps build up the heroic infrastructure rather than question it ironically, lending it propulsion as the characters react to situation  but also ultimately helping create credulity rather than undercut it. Lucas’ famous stylistic flourish in punctuating scenes with wipes rather than dissolves or jump cuts, nodding to both Kurosawa and 1930s serial forebears, had already been employed by Anderson in recreating the old serial style on Doc Savage, if to much lesser effect. Science fiction film in the first half of the 1970s has a largely deserved reputation for a thoughtful, clever, but often grim sensibility, although playful fare wasn’t entirely dead, and was chiefly hampered by budget restrictions and directors who had little technical facility: witness the way the Planet of the Apes movies remained popular but had their budget cut with each entry.

Along came Lucas, who above all had schooled himself in the nuts and bolts of film production like few directors before or since. Star Wars in its time connected with similarly successful works by Lucas’ friends – much as it translated the generational anxiety of Francis Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) into a radically different generic zone and also presaged Coppola’s mythopoeic war movie Apocalypse Now (1979), it also accompanied Steven Spielberg’s semi-incidental companion piece in baby boomer sci-fi mythicism, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), arguably the superior movie but much less influential, in finding a way of tapping into a cynical audience’s hunger for transcendental cinematic experience. Those genre, industry, and imagination-altering opening moments of Star Wars, as a colossal Imperial Star Destroyer chases down a much smaller rebel spacecraft, give way to more familiar precepts. A gunfight between Rebel warriors and invading Imperial Stormtroopers, a conflict highly recognisable from who knows how many low-budget sci-fi movies and TV shows where people fire ray-guns at each-other along corridors. Two comic relief factotums stumble through the struggle. The great villain of the piece makes his dramatic entrance, directing the unleashed carnage. The newness lay in the veneer of strangeness applied through the technological vision, informed by the tangible and specific atmosphere inspired by Ralph McQuarrie’s design work and John Barry’s production design, and the canniness of the filmmaking.

Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic, but in creating a fictional zone that does actually include magic, or something like it, Lucas and those designers moved instead to cut across the grain of that and make the craft, machines, and equipment look palpable, as gritty, purely fit-for-purpose, grimy, and banged-about as the technology familiar to us: the Millennium Falcon, one of the series’ enduring icons, complete lacks any appearance of streamlining or aesthetic edge, and its appeal lies instead in its steely-looking functionality, like a Frisbee with a golf club head stuck on the side and a giant blazing energy portal in back. The Star Wars films have long been talked about as vital creations of audio effect as well as visual, thanks in large part to Ben Burtt’s groundbreaking labours. The care for the effect of sound as a storytelling device is plain at the get-go, as Lucas builds tension through the eerie, threatening noises the rebels warriors hear as their crippled spacecraft is intercepted by the Star Destroyer and drawn into its docking back, the fighters grimly waiting for the assault they know will be coming through the airlock bulkhead. Suddenly, action – the bulkhead door cut through and blasted out in moments, invading Stormtroopers plunging through. The Stormtroopers would eventually become a kind of punchline in movie lore as easily killable enemy soldiers, but here they’re first introduced as blankly terrifying and competent enemies, suffering a couple of casualties whilst shearing through the Rebel ranks, quickly setting them to flight.

The film’s wit on a visual exposition level is also made apparent as Lucas seems to undercut the cliché of villains dressing dark colours whilst merging set decoration and costume design with a deliberation scarcely seen in cinema since the days of Lang and Eisenstein, by having the Stormtroopers clad in white armour that matches the polished white environs of the rebel spaceship. It’s as if they’re animated parts of the ship rather than mere invaders, the technological paradigm threatening the paltry humans. Ironically, the most “human” characters we get for much of the first part of the film are the “droids” C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), seemingly hapless pseudo-sentient mechanical beings caught in the midst of war and terror. This was in part the result of editing choices to make the early scenes more fluid, but the consequence was to provoke a distinct new idea of what a protagonist in a movie could be. The twist on cliché twists back as we gain out first glimpse of the enemy commander Lord Darth Vader, emerging from the blown bulkhead and resolving from smoky haze, pausing to survey the scattered corpses of the rebels before sweeping on. Vader is swathed in black like a superscientific edition of Dracula, the embodiment of evil from the very first, face masked, breathing registering as a hoarsely filtered sound. Here is a figure who exists between the two paradigms, a fusion of man and machine where the combination is most definitely malign, and whose appearance has been carefully engineered, both for the people within this particular world and for those watching it, for the pure sake of intimidation.

Whilst actor David Prowse, the actor filling out Vader’s costume, would have his voice dubbed over by the originally unbilled James Earl Jones, his talent as a mime is nonetheless very important to Vader as a character in his ability to convey a remorseless purpose, an inherent physical aggression and fixity of purpose, charging the way he moves, even before he’s portrayed as throttling and tossing about rebels and fearsomely confronting and accusing the captive Princess Leia. Leia herself, a diplomat and envoy for the newly defunct imperial senate, makes her own impression in standing up this figure of menace incarnate. The casting of Fisher, a 19-year-old progeny of Hollywood royalty invested with levels of knowing far beyond her years, proved perfect for amplifying the way the script plays updating games with the figure of the classical aristocratic heroine, inflecting the hauteur with pure ‘70s California sass. But Leia first enters the movie in the shadows. Like Vader, she is initially glimpsed amidst smoky haze as a figure, resolving out of the pure stuff of myth, the incarnation this time of good in her white silken garb, even as her actions are initially ambiguous: she’s seen from the bewildered viewpoint of C-3PO as she loads information into R2-D2, before gunning down a Stormtrooper and getting shot herself with a stunning blast. Leia condenses the movie’s whole frame of cultural reference into her petite frame, fulfilling a role directly out of legend and melodrama tradition, whilst also presenting modern spunk and attitude.

It’s well known that Lucas took strong inspiration from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) for the early sections and general narrative shape of Star Wars. C-3PO, and R2-D2, or Threepio and Artoo as they’re generally dubbed, are inspired by the two shit-kicker peasant antiheroes of the Kurosawa film, and their early travails similarly playing out in a desolate setting that eventually sees their path intersect with proper heroes. The differences are important, of course. Threepio and Artoo are robots, and instead of wandering medieval Japan, they eject from the captured spacecraft and land on the neighbouring desert planet of Tatooine. One thing that’s a little surprising today about Star Wars is how coherent and consistent the story is, despite the outlandish conceptual conceits, and when the need for such a thing is often casually dismissed as an interest in such genre zones. The plot stakes are initially vague, but soon gain shape and urgency as it becomes apparent Leia used Artoo as a last-ditch vehicle to try and get the plans for the Empire’s new, terrifying superweapon, the Death Star, to her fellow Rebels. The Death Star will soon provide both a partial setting for the story and the great threat driving the last act. Leia’s choice of Artoo as a messenger capable of slipping the net of Imperial scanning proves inspired and logical, where humans would be detected. Artoo is characterised as knowing in ways well beyond his nominal status and electronic twittering language, whereas Threepio, despite his effetely loquacious and pompous manner, knows even less than he thinks, and this disparity proves a propelling element for the story as well as a source of character comedy. The two split up once dumped by their escape pod in the desert, with Threepio furious at his companion for maintaining his wilful way, only for both to be quickly snatched up by a race of nomadic scavengers called Jawas, who specialise in selling on anything of value they find.

Artoo’s capture by the Jawas creates an unsettling atmosphere as Artoo makes timorous sounds as he becomes aware of hidden, watching beings in the desolate landscape around him, a little like a character from some early Disney animated short. A Jawa jumps up and zaps him with a paralysing ray gun, causing Artoo to topple over with a slapstick thud. This brief but ingenious sequence illustrates both Lucas’ talent at toggling swiftly between tones whilst kneading them into the unfolding narrative, switching between points of view and allowing the audience and onscreen characters to discover things in tandem. That the Jawas are themselves diminutive and faintly absurd in their frantic industriousness leavens the note of creepiness they initially strike. The process of them bundling Artoo to be sucked up into a huge tube connected to their giant crawling vehicle is allowed to play out without any dialogue necessary, using visuals to present the already rapidly expanding sense of this universe and the teeming oddity and wonder, and the oddly familiar opportunism, it contains. This evinces a sense not just of a variety of sentient species and their technology but also clues to the social setup on Tatooine, with its many kinds of survivors with different ways of weathering the blasted and seemingly dead landscape, and also the way this eventually feeds the narrative back from vacant outskirts towards the centres of power in the universe. Threepio’s own encounter with the Jawa sandcrawler sees him calling out to the distant vehicle in appeal, framed as he is by the huge skeleton of some long-dead creature. Once both Artoo and Threepio are trapped within the shadowy, sleazy space of the Sandcrawler’s belly, Lucas offers glimpses of the other robots of radically differing designs the Jawas possess, an early example of a motif taken up more vividly and strangely in the later Mos Eisley cantina sequence, where Lucas delights in showing off a vast array of peculiar beings.

Artoo and Threepio are soon sold to Owen Lars (Phil Brown), who lives with his wife Beru (Shelagh Fraser) and adopted nephew Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who engage in what is described as “moisture farming” somewhere in this flat and barren zone. Here the narrative performs another zigzag whilst also reorienting to another viewpoint, and another genre: now we’re in the classic Western territory of the isolated homesteaders and the wistful young farmhand. Luke, like the heroes of American Graffiti, is on the verge of moving on. Where Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt in that film suffered cold feet, Luke seems desperate to “transmit my application to the Academy this year.” Like the characters of American Graffiti and the protagonist of THX-1138, Luke’s voyage of discovery is announced via imagery of the sun, with a small but important difference. The rising sun in the first two films signalled the end of childish things and simple dichotomies of choice, whereas the setting sun(s) here preserve the dreaming: thanks to both the visuals and Williams’ plaintive, evocative scoring, this locks that pure moment of yearning in a crystal of expressive perfection. Luke Skywalker gazing at the twin suns setting is of course a singular character, a young man eager for experience and as much pained as excited by his dreams, and is also the audience itself, an essential avatar for every dreamer, every anxious eye turned onto the cinema screen looking urgently for transportation and release. It’s also a moment of incantation, immediately rewarded by Luke being presented with his mission, when he heads back into his repair space to find Artoo missing and Threepio hiding in anxiety. Hamill, doomed to be remembered for a long time as a failed star, was too perfect for the role in providing a ready connecting point for the audience: if Fisher was Hollywood royalty Hamill presents heroism as looking a bit like a SoCal surfer. But Hamill was crucially able to communicate Luke’s deep emotional need underneath the dreamy, frustrated optimism and youthful charm duelling with his early callow streak.

Generational tension is also in play. Owen doesn’t want Luke heading off to “some damn fool idealistic crusade” and is afraid that Luke “has too much of his father in him.” But Luke is bent on a course that will eventually lead him to the “dark father.” At this point the mythos of Star Wars was still evolving and things that are now set in concrete were still nebulous at this point, but the connection between Luke and Vader is already predestined, Vader identified as “the young Jedi” who “betrayed and murdered your father.” He is the ultimate and inevitable nemesis for the young man who has to find his way not just through space but pick his way through the wreckage of a collapsed political paradigm and a waned parental generation. Luke quickly gains the call to adventure when, as he cleans up Artoo, he accidentally plays the end segment of a holographic message recorded by Leia, addressed to an Obi-Wan Kenobi. The portion of Leia’s appeal with its looping, totemic phrase “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” gives Luke the first intimation that he’s stumbled onto something tantalising in its import. Moreover, it’s personally suggestive to him in the familiarity of the name Kenobi, making him think of the local hermit Ben Kenobi. This in turn gives Artoo a lead, and he quickly flees in his determination to fulfil Leia’s assignment to fetch the old sage and press him back into action for the Rebel cause, forcing Luke and Threepio to follow him into the rocky wastes.

But it’s the vision of Leia herself, beautiful, distressed, rendered ghostly in the flickering holographic recording, that powerfully evokes a fundamental psychological need, as if Artoo is projecting Luke’s own private anima, the pure spirit of romantic longing that is also a direct urging towards great things. If Darth Vader is the dark father, Kenobi is of course his counterbalance, part Gandalf, part guru, part aging but still able gunslinger from a Howard Hawks movie. These two spiritual parents supplant Owen and Beru, who are murdered by Stormtroopers on the trail of Artoo and Threepio, and are bent towards their own fatal showdown. Lucas presents a brief synopsis of that vital Movie Brat foundational text, Ford’s The Searchers (1956), as Luke ventures out into the wilderness and encounters both savagery in the form of the Sandpeople, also called Tusken Raiders, another nomadic and larcenous desert race but these frightening, brutal, and seemingly subhuman, forms a bond with a protective paternal stand-in, and returns to the homestead to find it burning and the smouldering skeletons of loved-ones sprawled nearby. The pacing of Star Wars in this portion is a telling counterpoint to many of its imitations and even direct follow-ups. Where, say, Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) crams four different special effects-heavy set-pieces into its first hour, Lucas’ template only offers one, at the very outset, and then a couple of minor tussles. The sequence in which Luke is attacked by a Sandperson whilst he think he’s safely surveying them from a distance is a good example of restraint as well as a spasm of violent action.

Lucas plays a game with viewpoint, harking back to the obsession in THX-1138 with viewing through technological detour as Luke spies on the Sandpeople through the fuzzy image of a pair of electronic binoculars, only for a strange rush of motion to rise into his field of vision – a Sandperson suddenly looms in front of him, the safe vantage suddenly and rudely swapped for imminent danger. This is impressive and clever not just on a visual exposition and drama-setting level but also on the thematic: this is the first, actual occasion where Luke is faced with a genuine danger in the course of his nascent adventure, as what was before remote and harmless is suddenly very real and deadly. It’s an early test Luke fails, as the Raider, swiping down at him on the ground, easily bests him, and the Sandpeople dump his unconscious form and begin looting his hovering “speeder” (the closest thing to a reliable old Chevy in this universe). The actual disabling blow to Luke isn’t showing, only the fearsome and disturbing image of the creepily masked Sandperson brandishing its club and releasing a triumphant, bloodcurdling cry that echoes off amongst the surrounding canyons, a recourse back to the mood of the early moments on Tatooine and the permeating mood of disquiet and dislocation in an oneiric space. For the first but certainly not for the last time in his career, to occasional disquiet, Lucas displaces the old, racist function of Native Americans in the Western narrative onto the imaginary race of the Sandpeople, who are daunting but are also small potatoes, displaced from their role in many Westerns as engines of turmoil and resisters of civilisation, whilst nominally defusing the cultural tension between myth and reality that was rapidly dismantling the Western’s pre-eminence. Here, instead, the Empire is both the zenith of civilisation and its purest foe. That it’s not just humans and droids who are jittery in this region is made clear when the Sandpeople are suddenly driven off by a weird cry and the sight of a weird being looming into view. This proves to be Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness) himself. He quickly admits to Luke to being the former Obi-Wan, in one of those indelible little instances of various elements – Guinness’ incarnation of wistfully ruminative good-humour and Williams’ trilling woodwinds on sound – woven together to forge mystique and spark new mystery even as the answer to a propelling narrative question is resolved.

The reference point of The Searchers is purposeful not just in orientating the audience to a fantastical universe in terms of pre-existing generic touchstones, but also arguing with its essence, the source of the intimidating power it had for filmmakers of Lucas’ generation. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards was above all a man, one with a history, who cannot erase his past mistakes but finally avoids making new ones, and provides uneasy mentorship to Jeffrey Hunter’s Martin Pawley, who eventually learns to stand up for himself, but that means placing himself in the way of a bullet. The Searchers is a work for an age where the crux of drama fell to grown-ups, where Star Wars is the by-product of a youth culture, made for a generation for whom the most dramatic events of the average life take place between the ages of 15 and 25, and so the stress of the story moves from the older man’s experience to the younger’s. Star Wars presents the orphaned hero as severed from continuity, forced to essentially invent his own method of maturing when the adults are dead or dying: by story’s end he has lost all his elders, but the lessons he has learnt are literally ringing in his ears as he takes up the mantle. The killing of Owen and Beru invests all that follows with an emotional wellspring that doesn’t need reiterating. The grammar in the scene of Luke’s discovery of their remains is simple but enormously effective. The camera tracks in imitation of Luke’s point of view until he focuses on the scorched skeletal remains of his aunt and uncle, and Lucas allows a medium close-up of Hamill as he registers the awful moment. Importantly, the rhythm of Hamill’s gestures are the same as in the earlier sunset scene — gazing on in fixation, dropping his gaze and hiding from his reaction for an instant, before resuming with a new glaze of acceptance, except this time with different, terrible, life-changing import. Lucas then cuts to a long shot of Luke before the burning homestead as Williams’ music swells. His solitude and complete excision from what was just a day earlier a stultifying but settled and stable life is encapsulated, before an inward iris wipe shifts the scene.

The depiction of consuming evil and raw violence visited by offended authority immediately segues into a sequence depicting Darth Vader preparing to use a hovering droid to torture Leia for information about the Rebels’ secret base. That’s soon followed by a sequence where Death Star’s commander, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing), uses the threat of destroying Leia’s home planet Alderaan with the Death Star’s incredible firepower to get the information out of her. Leia gives an answer, albeit a deceitful one, but Tarkin still destroys Alderaan because it fulfils the basic function of the Death Star, which is to inspire fear, as a substitute for any lingering vestige of collaboration and consultation (“The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away,” Tarkin reports). Such moments obviously indict the Empire as a truly despicable beast one absolutely no-one will mind seeing taken down a few pegs, but also as one possessed of reasoned motives and a sense of what their force is intended to achieve. Which points to another peculiar aspect of Star Wars: as the title suggests, it’s preoccupied by war. Not a war like, say, the clash of civilisations in the Trojan myths, or a fusing of factional chaos into order as in the Arthurian cycle. Lucas instead presents a specifically modern political paradigm, however naively rendered: absolute authoritarianism versus romantic resistance. Not at all hard to see Lucas fretting over the military-industrial complex, with the Death Star as the atomic bomb, the deaths of Owen and Beru as suggestively My Lai-eque. Luke, Han, and Leia (and Chewie, Artoo, and Threepio) remain individuals even when they join a faction, a point underlined at the film’s end where the characters remain smirking and ironic even when being showered with rewards in the midst of martially regimented ranks.

Kenobi’s brief narration of the truth of Luke’s background and its connection to the current events, once Kenobi takes Luke to his remote domicile, is in itself a little marvel of screenwriting concision and general mythmaking, with its allusions to the Old Republic, the Jedi Knights, and the Clone Wars, all grounded not just in recent political history but in the personal identity of both old man and young. All of these have long since been elaborated upon, but here are allowed to float as grand things lost to time and nearly to memory in the age of the supplanting Empire. Kenobi hands to Luke his father’s lightsaber, a tantalising weapon, ridiculous but irresistible, humming with totemic power and meaning, a little bit Excalibur, a little bit Notung, a little bit the sword D’Artagnan’s father gives him. Guinness, not an actor who needed by this point in his career to prove himself in any fashion and easily the biggest name in the film, lends inestimable sagacious presence, encapsulating the nature of the Jedi, composed, restrained, intelligent, moral, and spiked with just the faintest edge of world-weariness and regret over the calamities of the past. Here finally the whole of Leia’s message is seen and its import processed. Luke displays the classic resistance to the call to adventure when Kenobi tries to enlist him in his looming mission to spirit Artoo and the stolen plans to Alderaan. Luke, who was champing at the bit to leave Tatooine hours earlier, still feels the tethers of responsibility as well as intimidation when actual adventure demands. Soon Luke has a double motive to join the Rebellion, as both the entity in large has killed his guardians, and a personal grudge against Vader.

When Luke sets off back home with Kenobi and the droids, they come across the shattered sandcrawler of the massacred Jawas. Luke, grasping the reason for their slaughter, rushes home too late. Finally and completely freed from who he was, Luke elects to “learn the ways of the force and become a Jedi like my father,” and he and Kenobi make for the spaceport of Mos Eisley, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” crawling with Stormtroopers looking for the droids, but also a motley collective of species representing a cross-section of the galaxy’s swarming populace. The cantina sequence, where in Luke uneasily mingles with a rough crowd of humans and aliens representing the demimonde of innumerable worlds whilst Kenobi looks to hire transportation off Tatooine, is another inspired, instantly iconic vignette. Again, it’s a fairly familiar situation, redolent of a thousand tough saloons in a thousand westerns, but transformed with the application of sci-fi elements. Here are manifold species, ingeniously designed and animated through makeup and puppetry, drawn together in one place by what is to a human eye at least a perfect logic, sharing a penchant for intoxicants and doing dirty business in a disreputable dive. There’s even, for added piquancy and indeed resonance, the spectre of seemingly arbitrary prejudice, as the bartender tells Luke the joint doesn’t serve droids, forcing Artoo and Threepio to withdraw.

Appearances can also be deceiving: one of these motley denizens, the huge, hirsute Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), appears one of the roughest, but is actually an intelligent being who falls into conversation with Kenobi, and proves a link to the rest of the story. Luke is picked on by a pair of bullies looking for a fight, but gets one instead from Kenobi after he tries to defuse the confrontation. Here, for the first time, the lightsaber is seen in action, in a vignette that again utilises Luke’s viewpoint to underline the startling impression of the weapon’s deadly precision in the right hands, and alters the visual technique to effect: glimpsing a blur of motion punctuated by the already familiar sound and flash of the weapon and the dreadful scream of the suddenly curtailed thug as conveyed through a brief handheld shot, Luke focuses on his severed arm lying on the floor amidst drops of blood. Kenobi slowly eases from his tense and ready poise as he’s sure no-one else wants to try it on, and disengages the lightsaber. Whereupon everyone in the bar, momentarily arrested by the spectacle, goes back to what they were doing. Strong as lore-enhancing action; just as good as wry pastiche of classic gunslinging spectacle.

This sequence fulfilled a largely ignored promise of science-fiction cinema until this point in presenting a vision of a universe of deep variety and eccentricity that nonetheless evokes something amusingly familiar in its concept of sentience. It comes directly after Kenobi has given Luke a first demonstration of Jedi power, using psychic influence to get past some searching Stormtroopers with seemingly casual ease. The threat of Jedi power to the Empire becomes clearer here, and suggests a symbolic link with the artist’s relationship with power, dismantling it through artfully broadcasting on wavelengths incoherent to the authoritarian mindset. The first encounter with Han Solo is consequentially defined by him being at first just another of these shady characters in a shady den, so shady indeed he’s no sooner finished arranging to fly Luke, Kenobi, and the droids to Alderaan than he’s accosted by Greedo, an obnoxious, green-skinned, snouted bounty hunter who wants him dead or alive, preferably dead, to please their mutual master Jabba the Hutt, a gangster Han owes money too. Fans were understandably aggravated by the clumsy revision of this scene in Lucas’ 1997 special edition of the film, which tried to reforge this confrontation to make it seem that Greedo shot at Han first, where the point of this moment is defining Han as accustomed to dealing with dangerous opponents with both guile and brute force. Moreover, it established him as a character entirely adapted, just as Kenobi already has, to this environment, knowing precisely when and how to unleash deadly force. Han’s motivations are also plain enough, his motivation to make money not just pure greed, but necessary to extricate himself from a deep hole.

Han emerges from a different wing of pop culture to Leia, Luke, and Kenobi, and a nominally more modern one. He’s initially a film noir hero connected to Bogartian characters like To Have and Have Not’s (1944) Harry Morgan, putting both and craft on the line and urged on by his uneasy place in the food chain of profit motive, and whose streak of heroic decency only emerges over time. A sceptical figure for whom The Force has no meaning. Someone whose actions and reactions can be surprising, at least in his first outing, because his nature seems confused and dubious, his actual values concealed under a hard shell of wiseacre pith and stoic cool. Where Luke is pure youth and Kenobi is wise experience, Han lurks between, a player in the game who knows all too well how hard the game is and sees no way out of it. He’s the essential interlocutor in the drama, negotiating the perspective of the more cynical sectors of the audience. There’s keenness in the difference in dialogue patterns attached to each character. Kenobi’s speech is courtly, structured, replete with aphorisms and slightly archaic curlicues (and, it’s worth noting, sounds exactly the same as the dialogue in Lucas’ prequel trilogy), whereas Luke, Han, and Leia are more “contemporary,” particularly Han, who shifts from salesman lingo to gunfighter terseness on a dime. When Han improvises a line of verbiage after he, Luke and Chewbacca shoot up the Death Star prison command, in trying to keep more Stormtroopers coming to them, he reveals a more subtle survival skill than gunplay, and it’s a trickier one, one he doesn’t quite pull off. It’s a moment that became the seed for a more sustained comic streak to the character as scene in later movies, but the striking thing about Ford’s performance on his first go-round, and the character he’s playing, is precisely that hard, ambiguous, deadly edge he’s allowed, a quality that the notes of occasional diffidence in Ford’s performance only helps strengthen.

The cantina scene is also an example of a renowned aspect of the film’s aesthetic, its presentation of a convincing physical universe, where the technology, no wonder how fantastic, and the settings and life-forms have a solidity and a feel that evokes some inchoate need for a splendid diversity of life. The close-ups of Artoo and Threepio present the tiny scratches and dents all of their bodies, looking just like what they are, machines who have been working since the moment they were first switched on. That first shot of the Star Destroyer completely rejects what had been the general sci-fi movie faith in sleekness as the totemic quality of the futuristic, appealing instead to everyday associations in the age of technology and industry where things are busy and functional, their workings often obscure to those not directly engaged in the making or upkeep. Moreover, the special mystique that distinguished Star Wars then and now is evinced not merely in the busy paraphernalia of set, costume, FX, and makeup design, but in the careful construction of mood, and the connection of that mood to the deeper underlying aesthetic. Artoo and Threepio’s desert wanderings, Luke’s venture out after Artoo and his encounter with the Sandpeople, the meeting with Kenobi – all of these scenes weave a sparse, dreamlike mood, nudging the realm of fairy-tales where the young and vulnerable venture into the dark woods alone, whilst also evoking the vast spaces of Salvador Dali’s surrealist landscapes and Lang and DeMille’s oversized, monumental evocations of past and future.

This pervasive mood continues even when the heroes are trapped within the “technological terror” of the Death Star, a place containing pockets infested with nightmarish monsters and tremendous canyons of space, where crucial mechanisms seem to have been deliberately placed to make them difficult to access without master control of the apparatus. From the careful downward pan from deep space to a triptych of tantalising planets that sets up the inimitable opening, we are drawn in two different directions, at once tactile and subliminal, where both the evocations of scale and the ghostly image of Leia touch the boundaries of a Jungian zone. In this regard Star Wars rearranges the spare, haunting, submerged imagery explored in THX-1138 for clear narrative ends – it feels very telling, for instance, that the sight of a flashing point far away in an otherwise featureless zone, the sign that helped THX and his companions escape the void prison in that film, is here recreated when Threepio sees the Jawa sandcrawler miles away in the deep desert. The underlying oneiric quality is rendered more literal in the first sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke comments that the planet Dagobah is like out of a dream, before heading into a place that makes the stuff of his subconscious come to life. In this manner, despite its bright and jolly visual palette and love of chitinous technology, Star Wars is in essence a full colour distillation of the early Expressionistic urge in cinema: the entire design of what we see is an animation of a psychological zone. It adds another axis of torsion to the film as a whole, working in synchrony with the multi-genre play, travelling back to the point where all stories become one somewhere in the subbasements of the consciousness.

The gathering crew of Luke, Han, Chewbacca, Artoo, and Threepio, with Kenobi at first and later Leia, forge a core gang of heroes, at once describing a child’s idea of adult life, and an updated take on teamed-up heroic bands ranging from the Argonauts to Dumas’ Musketeers. Luke’s first glimpse of Han’s ship, the Millennium Falcon, sparks his inimitable comment, “What a heap of junk!” only for Han, with ever so slight irritation and a dash of professional smarm, to talk up his souped-up hot rod (this is also the viewer’s first glimpse of the ship, unless one has only seen the reedit, which clumsily inserted a cut scene featuring Jabba). Han boasts that his ship has accomplished legendary feats, like a sword in myth, and that’s pretty much the function it has here, as a tool of greatness, serving for Han as the lightsaber does for the Jedi, albeit simultaneously deglamourized as the tool of a roguish smuggler and a mutt of machinery. Things of value in Star Wars often turn a slightly absurd face to the world, in a way that, whilst the overall story seems to be bending reality towards a romantic vision, the nuts and bolts cut across the grain of the traditionally heroic. The “your kind” droids are dynamic players. The nobody farm boy is a future hero. The old hermit is a great warrior. The shady loser in the bar is a man of myriad gifts and his “piece of junk” a ship out of folklore. All require only the correct stage to operate and interact upon. The Falcon also signals that Han is essentially a spacefaring version of the drag racers in American Graffiti, keeping one step ahead of the cops in his workshop-cobbled racer: Ford, who had played Bob Falfa, the blow-in challenger to the local racing champ, in the precursor film was here promoted to a lead role, initially just as slippery and ambiguous, but showing his true mettle when he unleashes thunderous havoc on the Stormtroopers who try to intercept them before fleeing at top speed.

After the thrills of escaping Mos Eisley and the Star Destroyers patrolling around the planet, the voyage on the Millennium Falcon provides a respite, but still provides important character and scene-setting elements, particularly as Kenobi uses the time to start introducing Luke to using The Force, including learning how to defend himself against beam-shooting drones without using his sight. The idea of The Force provides the essential new aspect of the appeal of Star Wars, distinct from its precursors. Of course, Lucas hardly invented science-fantasy as a subgenre, and space opera had sported quasi-supernatural and magical powers since its earliest exemplars. The Force owed a little something to the role of the spice in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels as a device charged with metaphysical vitality occurring in a universe otherwise defined by technocracy, and perhaps the Ninth Ray in Burroughs’ Barsoom novels too. But The Force provided Lucas with a supple tool, one that gives definition to both story and character. The Force is itself a distillation of traditions, part wuxia film chi power, part 1970s New Age creed (Guinness found himself fending away offers to become a guru), with a description as “an energy field created by all living things” that evoke the craze in those heady days for things like auras and Kirlian photography and biofeedback. Lucas offered a version of it anyone could get on board with, given the very faintest lacquer of rationality in stemming from the life-force of beings rather than being a power working on them (Lucas would firm this up to much complaint in his prequel trilogy). The Force also operates on the same quasi-medieval level as other elements of the story, echoing an age of human thinking where faith in unseen forces was immediately connected with perception of the world, and renders the good-vs-evil motif more than symbolic: those extremes of action and principle are instead literal powers in the world that become more significant, more dangerous, more cruelly tempting, the more one becomes attuned to its workings.

At the same time, The Force is also a metaphor for the screenwriter’s power, drawing its heroes together and gifting them with advantage in situations where they would otherwise flail and die, and excuses coincidences that would make Charles Dickens blush. That Kenobi experiences the extermination of Alderaan resembles an artist’s capacity for pure empathic connection. It’s also chiefly registered in this original outing through its absence. The Force, along with the Jedi Knights who once wielded it as “the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic,” has slipped beyond the horizon of general cultural memory. “That wizard’s just a crazy old man,” is all Owen has to say about Kenobi. Han disdains Kenobi’s championing of it, claiming to only put faith in a good blaster. The only force user in their prime on hand is Vader himself, who casually throttles Imperial Admiral Motti (Richard LeParmentier) from a distance, after he echoes Owen’s description of Ben in referring dismissively to Vader’s “sorcerer’s ways” in comparison to the Death Star’s encapsulation of technical and military might. This scene makes the strength of the Force, even its “dark side,” very clear, and establishes that not only does Vader adhere to it but considers it a higher loyalty than whatever political faction he works for. One reason, perhaps, Tarkin is described by Leia as “holding Vader’s leash,” nominally holding him, as a kind of discrete weapon himself, in obeisance to the needs of the military hierarchy and the more stolid precepts of the era he is ironically trapped in enforcing. In the following films Vader ascends to sole command once it becomes clear another Force user has come onto the scene. Kenobi’s demonstrations of The Force are craftier. Even in the climax when Luke decides to trust his primal, mystic intuition rather than technology at Kenobi’s unseen insistence, it’s a matter of a slightly heightened edge of awareness added onto skills and talents he’s mastered through his youth on Tatooine: he’s already an experienced pilot and a good shot, tested in both indeed in by the extremes of his home planet in a way that proves to transcend tamer learning processes.

Tarkin himself represents authority at its most icy and contemptuous, a pure minister for technofascist force and the relish of wielding it, to the point where he’s able to boss even Vader around with supreme confidence. Cushing’s presence in the role provided an authentic link to some of Lucas’ genre film touchstones, and much like his characterisation of Baron Frankenstein in the Hammer Films series, Tarkin acts like a surgeon remaking the universe in his own image, entirely divorced from any sense of consequence: he plainly gets more satisfaction from shocking and tormenting Leia than from exterminating millions of Alderaanians. The heroes’ journey to Alderaan goes all wrong as the Death Star is still hovering near the field of debris left from the planet’s destruction, and the Falcon and its crew are scooped up in a tractor beam and brought forcibly aboard the awesomely massive station. It’s a pity that, by necessity, the Death Star had already been glimpsed by this point, considering the effective pitch of ominous realisation that something incredible and indelibly threatening looms before the hapless heroes, captured as Kenobi murmurs in awe, “That’s no moon, it’s a space station,” the Falcon already having ventured too close to avoid capture.

Han’s quick thinking as a professional evader of authority helps them escape initial discovery by hiding in smuggling compartments, and the heroes infiltrate the Death Star, managing, in the early glimmerings of a theme flowing right through the initial trilogy of films, to turn their nominal disadvantage of small numbers to great effect with guile and improvisation. Whilst trying to work out a way of escaping the station, they’re distracted when Artoo plugs into the station computer network and finds Leia is a prisoner aboard. Han, Luke, and Chewbacca take the chance to rescue her, whilst Kenobi moves to shut down the tractor beam. Compared to the careful story, character, and mythos-building of the film’s first half, this portion becomes something of a tour through the hub of different but connected genres, like innumerable war and adventure films where the heroes put on enemy livery and sneak about, before invoking classic cliffhanger situations, as the foursome dive into a trash compactor when it proves the only escape route only to find the walls closing in, and when Luke and Leia encounter the aforementioned chasm. True to the essence of such adventure stories, the characters emerge most fully reacting to peril, from Han’s edge of aggravation ratcheting higher along with the danger and as Leia’s presence perturbs him, gaining a head of madcap steam useful for the fight, to Leia revealing her own talents for quick thinking and unexpected gutsiness in a laser battle, and Threepio cleverly adlibbing in a tense situation when Stormtroopers burst in on him and Artoo. There’s an edge of comedy to much of this, in the queasily funny diminuendo where Threepio thinks the whoops of joy he hears from the quartet in the trash compactor are their death throes, and Han howling in trying to seem like a small army to intimidate some Stormtroopers only to be forced to retreat when he runs into a squad room, and the Stormtroopers themselves trying to seal off his escape only to foil themselves. Except again perhaps in that chasm-swing, the humour is blended into the texture of the action, rather than commenting on it – a subtle but important distinction, as the characters are absurd within these situations rather than the situations themselves kidded.

The high spirits dampen when the other thread of character drama reaches its climax, as Kenobi, who’s been sneaking about the Death Star interior with all his Jedi art, encounters Vader, who has sensed his presence and lies in wait. The sight of Vader on the vigil, clutching a lit lightsaber, this one glowing a malefic red, and guarding the way out from within the Death Star’s labyrinth, returns after the jaunty swashbuckling to the innerverse of myth and dark fairy-tale. Like the Minotaur in the labyrinth,  the dragon on the road through the forest, Death waiting at Samara, Vader is a malevolent force at the height of his powers and cannot be escaped. But Kenobi is the smarter and braver opponent, knowing exactly what he needs to do, in providing a key distraction for the other heroes to get back to the Falcon, and to complete his new mission of helping Luke become a Jedi. Kenobi proves unafraid of perishing upon Vader’s saber, indeed confident that he will ascend to a new kind of strength and influence in death, and after giving Luke a knowing sidewards glance lifts his lightsaber and takes the death stroke. Luke unleashes his anguished wrath on Stormtroopers and manages to cut off Vader by forcing a bulkhead to close (I love the shot of Vader still advancing with unnerving fixity until the doors shut tight) and he and the others finally flee on the Falcon, with the effect of Kenobi’s sacrifice already clear, as Luke hears his disembodied voice guiding him on. They manage to destroy a flight of four small Imperial ‘TIE’ fighters sent after them, but Leia correctly suspects they’ve been set up by Vader to lead the Empire to the Rebel base.

Again, the plotting here is sensible despite all the fun derring-do. Moreover, the mythos is again still expanding even as it seems to be resolving. The clash between Kenobi and Vader, whilst far less physically dynamic than many subsequent, presents the first true lighsaber duel, suggesting the fierce concentration and skill required to fight in such a fashion, as well as revealing the powers of the Jedi extend beyond death. The fight with the chasing TIE fighters is a vivid piece of special effects staging, but is most important as the moment that sets the seal on the bond between the heroes, with Han simultaneously congratulating Luke and warning him against cockiness, and Leia joyfully embracing Chewbacca, who she called a walking carpet not that long before. These particular Argonauts are fully defined. They reach the Rebel headquarters on a moon of the planet Yavin, a jungle zone where cyclopean ruins are repurposed as the operating zone for the Rebels, another fittingly dreamlike zone that also again visually underlines the dialogue between the arcane and the futuristic. The contrast between the teeming greenery of Yavin with the desolation of Tatooine also speaks to Luke’s evolution, arriving in a place where he’s no longer faced with a paucity of options but an overwhelming explosion of experience.

On his first two films Lucas had mediated a spare and evocative style, employing subtle zoom lensing and layers of mediating effect, both visual and aural, with a documentary-like effect, at once seemingly happenstance and carefully filtering, with manipulation of the captured images in the editing room to imbue them with a density accruing a very specific mood, the fractured reality of THX-1138 and the seamless melting between vignettes in American Graffiti. Star Wars inevitably wanted a more forceful touch, and getting the right editing approach proved difficult until Lucas assembled a team including his then-wife Marcia. Lucas’ choice of a clean, bright, easily legible look, achieved in uneasy collaboration with the veteran cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, imbued the film with comic strip-like fluency that sometimes look like Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art panels filmed (particularly in the whaam!-rich climax), and the varying wipe techniques that simultaneously provide keen brackets for each stage in the journey whilst also constantly urging the story on. The best, wittiest example of this comes after the attack by the sandpeople when Luke and Kenobi retrieve Threepio, who’s been sundered in pieces in the melee, and as the two men pick up his top half the screen wipes up as if daintily covering his sorry state. If the landscape shots were patterned after maximalist talents like Lang, Ford, and David Lean, the interpersonal scenes and character group shots have a stark, clean hardness and efficient use of the frame more reminiscent of Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh.

The stylistic rules Lucas set down dispensed with slow motion, Dutch angles, zooms, non-linear or associative edits, and anything but the most functional tracking, handheld, and crane shots. This approach harkened back to another age of cinema, rejecting much of the New Wave stylistic lexicon that had infiltrated Hollywood even if the film’s overall glitz seemed cutting-edge, wringing all the visual energy from the interaction of elements within the shots and the rhythm of the cutting. It would be borderline ridiculous to talk about Star Wars without talking about Williams’ score in more depth, as well-trodden a topic as it is. The mission brief Lucas handed Williams, recommended to him by Spielberg, was to provide a score reminiscent of the kind Erich Wolfgang Korngold did for the likes of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940). Whilst he had already provided some major hit films with scores, including The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Jaws (1975), it was with Star Wars that Williams made himself a genuinely rare thing, a star composer, and almost single-handedly revived the ideal of the big orchestral film score at a time when most were rather spare, pop-inflected or muted and atmosphere-chasing. This in turn had an impact that’s sometimes been less than salutary in terms of the bombastic strains that decorate many a recent blockbuster-wannabe. Listening to Williams’ score in isolation is an instructive experience in distinguishing it from pale imitations, in encountering the dense layers of instrumentation as well as the illustrative cunning invested in each motif and phrase, the evocative tenor of even the most casual passages as well the instantly recognisable, quite Pavlovian intensity of tracks like the title theme, Leia’s theme, and the scoring for the setting suns scene, as well as the skull-drilling catchiness of the oddball space jazz played by the cantina band. Star Wars would still have been a success without the music, but the film with the music became something else: Williams allowed Lucas to plug more directly in the purest language of fantasy.

Despite being remembered as the film that enshrined the ideal of the special effects blockbuster, Star Wars was hardly a huge-budget film, costing half of what Irwin Allen spent on his marvellously awful The Swarm (1978) around the same time. Lucas had a specific desire to create special effects on a par with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but didn’t have the time or money to pursue the same painstaking work as Stanley Kubrick and Douglas Trumbull had achieved. So the special effects team (which included new luminaries of the field John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, Richard Edlund, and Phil Tippet) took advantage of evolving technology and created the motion control camera, a computer-guided mechanical system that allowed photography of model work to be made vastly easier and briefer. Which helps the overall aesthetic of film more than simply in being dynamic and convincing: the action scenes are the moments when the camerawork becomes unfettered, tracing vivid lines and arcs of motion, most impressively in the climactic Death Star attack as the camera adopts a fighter-eye-view of plunging into the equatorial trench, visuals that have an immersive vigour barely seen in cinema before. The impact of these effects in 1977 was colossal, and they still, despite the odd awkward shot, look very good: indeed the original work has aged far better than the terrible CGI inserts Lucas purveyed in his special edition.

But a great part of the texture and pleasure of Star Wars lies in its small touches. Threepio laying slain Jawas in a pyre with paltry but definite sense of duty. The tableaux of the aliens in the cantina locked in conversations of varying intensity. Luke chasing away Jawas who take too much interest in his speeder, and the long-snouted spy who tracks the heroes through the busy alleys of Mos Eisley. Chewbacca playing a variety of animated, 3D chess with the droids. Shots of Imperial soldiers perched on catwalks and work stations beholding awesome vistas of space and colossal energy surges. So much of this stuff bolsters the impression of richness and incidental commotion in the Star Wars universe, even as it never feels tempted, as many such movies do, to collapse into a succession of world-building exercises. That’s largely because of the basic plot, which resolves in an attack by the Rebels in small fighters and bombers trying to take advantage of an identified weakness in the Death Star, working according to the information Artoo has brought them, with Luke volunteering to pilot an “X-Wing” fighter amongst their ranks. Before setting off to war Luke has a charged confrontation with Han, who seems determined to return to type and declines joining the Rebel assault, but offers Luke a salutary “May the Force be with you,” to the young tyro – a vital concession for the arch cynic, underlined when it’s hinted he might have other intentions in mind. A fine little character moment that also has inevitably large consequences for the way the story plays out.

Perhaps the only addition for Lucas’ special edition I feel was effective is the restoration of the subsequent vignette of Luke encountering his old friend from Tatooine, Biggs (Garrick Hagon), giving context to Luke’s early mention of him, and bolstering our sense of Luke’s movement as a character. Biggs goes to bat with a superior in assuring him of Luke’s great piloting talent. Notably, in the coming fight Biggs’ death and Han’s resurgence are signal moments, one leaving Luke to find the nerve to survive alone and the second proving he doesn’t have to. The Rebel pilots try desperately to fend off the Imperial fire long enough to deliver a hit that can ignite the station’s reactor. As a climactic sequence this has many forebears in classic war movies including The Bridges At Toko-Ri (1954), The Dam Busters (1956, which Taylor also shot), The Guns of Navarone (1961), and 633 Squadron (1964), as the impossible mission to knock out the enemy extermination machine comes down to the wire. The obeisance to this specific wing of the war film makes sense – this is, after all, a film about war in the stars, as well as handing Lucas a situation easy to make sense of and render propulsive and exciting. But it also stands to a degree at odds with most of its follow-ups, in winnowing down the concerns to a single act of martial courage, where in the later films the schism between the Force users as a microcosm of conflict and moral contention, and the more standard warfare as macrocosm, would become a consistent contrast and finally, in Return of the Jedi, pulling ethically and imperatively in differing directions.

The assault on the Death Star is nonetheless one of the great movie sequences, thrilling and, as clear-cut as it is conceptually, impressively intricate as a feat of filming, editing, and scoring. Part of the beauty here is the way the outcome is kept in contention, as in The Guns of Navarone, until the very last seconds of the battle as the Death Star looms closer and closer to blasting the Rebel moon and the attacking force is whittled down. Tension constantly whips up as Luke is finally left almost alone, Biggs is killed, and new comrade Wedge (Denis Lawson) is forced to withdraw after saving Luke’s life, whilst Vader leads a tag-team of TIE fighters taking out the small foes. In their brief moments between life and death the Rebel warriors become shining avatars of heroism whilst they’re chased down by enemy pilots who wear black, grinning skull-like masks (one of many nods to Eisenstein’s stylisation of the Teutonic knights in Alexander Nevsky, 1938). Artoo is badly damaged by Vader’s gunfire. Luke again experiences Kenobi’s guidance and switches off his targeting computer, signalling his new confidence in using the way of the Force, pure instinct, for the last possible chance at a day-saving shot, which he’s only saved to give thanks to Han’s intervention, which accidentally saves Vader in turn when his fighter is flung off into space. There’s an extra edge of malicious pleasure supplied by Tarkin, as intense and nervelessly cool as ever, calmly ordering the moon’s destruction and confidently expecting victory until he and everything else that comprises the Death Star explodes like a small sun, spraying the void with a trillion gleaming pieces of superheated matter – the end of evil and the death of thousands becomes a brief vision of strange and perfervid beauty.

This all works on both the level of pure myth – the pure knight guided to victory by the hand of his magic guardian and the aid of his fated companion. And on a rather more profane level, a very American story of the star quarterback scoring the winning touchdown thanks to his own personal Jesus and his defensive tackle. The film’s last scene sees Han and Luke presented with medals by Leia and the fully repaired and lively Artoo making his presence known, before they’re applauded by the ranks of Rebels. This climax has been a strange object of contention despite seeming to offers plain old heroic validation, as snarky commentary has been levelled at this noting its seeming similarity to some shots in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). Most likely, the reference points are the same, both drawing from Lang’s rectilinear framings and fascination with a finely balanced tension between order and decay as the ranked humans and the grandiose cyclopean surrounds, as well as the Michael Curtiz swashbucklers that drew on Lang. In that regard Star Wars is of course much truer to the source, particularly as, again, the tone here is at once officially noble but also comedic. Han, Luke, and Leia can’t keep a straight face through the ceremony, Han winks at Leia, and Luke gives Threepio the nod to let Artoo come out, shattering the formality of the proceedings, telling us these heroes remain themselves and not puppets of power.

No-one looks at Star Wars as a work of private imagineering and pop art anymore; it’s become its own sequestered thing, practically a substitute for the mythologies it references. How well Star Wars works, then and now, depends on one’s attachment to the fantastical, to that state it evokes that’s located in the subliminal zone between childhood and adulthood, the place of epitomes and symbols and the need for excitement and release, even as it masquerades as a story. Such art is generally described as escapist, but there’s no such thing, really, as escapism, as such works simply transmute experiences into other less immediate, less realistic, but, conversely, more powerful forms. It’s a truism now to state that Star Wars begat a specific style of cinematic blockbuster that gained a complete stranglehold on pop culture. What’s more peculiar, though, is that it didn’t. Certainly Star Wars gave science fiction box office voltage for a time, proved that special effects could be a force equal to star name marquee appeal in drawing people into movie theatres, and inspired a host of cash-ins ranging from cheap and cheerful to monumentally expensive. But for decades after Star Wars most successful movies were still in old-fashioned genres driven by old-fashioned filmmaking precepts, in large part because aspects of it were too hard to mimic. Rather than revive space opera, Star Wars permanently foiled it by assimilating it all into an essential glossary. Star Wars rather laid a seed for imitators constantly trying to revisit the specific feeling it captured, a feeling it was trying itself ironically to recall. Which is perhaps the deepest underpinning reason for Star Wars’ indelible success, on top of all the basic cinematic things it leverages to effect. The ultimate act of homage it tries to pay is to the cinematic experience itself.

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2020s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Historical, Uncategorized

The Last Duel (2021)

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Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriters: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Nicole Holofcener

By Roderick Heath

Ridley Scott’s first film in four years wields the unavoidable feeling of a culmination, and repudiation, more than forty years after his debut feature, The Duellists (1977). Scott’s career hardly seems finished yet and yet if he had retired after making The Last Duel the sense of circularity in regards to The Duellists would be irresistible, particularly in coming after his divisive but brilliantly grim and meta revisit to the Alien series, Alien Covenant (2017). Here he offers another film with “duel” in the title, sustaining in part the same driving theme of irrational and self-destructive resentment and fixation and acts of antiquated violence, as well as casually casting two American actors as period Frenchmen and avoiding Old Vic accents, to the consternation of some. The differences are revealing, of course. The Duellists was made heavily under the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), whilst The Last Duel, whilst paying overt homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951), sees Scott truly wrestling with only one master, himself. It’s also now more than twenty years since Scott revived his stature as a major Hollywood director with Gladiator (2000), one of his most popular and beloved movies, albeit one that dated with punishing speed. Scott’s been returning to and improvising variations on that hit since, partly for obvious reasons – sticking “From the Director of Gladiator” on a movie poster featuring some hairy, sweaty dude clutching a sword seems an easy sell, even as these revisits have generally failed with audiences – but also, as has become increasingly clear, because it was the gateway into his late career obsessions.

So Scott has been revising Gladiator’s straightforward, even simplistic exalting of heroically bemuscled men resisting tyranny (I’ve long thought of Gladiator as less a modernised sword-and-sandal film than as a period transposing of the sports movie, depicting as that mode usually does the physically dynamic sporting hero as the only figure left to use who can transcend pure commerce and stick up for individual will in determining outcomes) from different angles of questioning, in the tangle of religion and sectarianism explored in Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), and the exploration of emerging democratic impulses as presented by folklore in the violently uneven but doggedly interesting Robin Hood (2010). All of those films dealt in varying ways with Scott’s recurring late-career fascination with the birth of a modern concept of individual worth and identity in relationship with raw tribal identity and political power. The Last Duel completes the arc in essentially renouncing Gladiator’s fantasy, by recounting an obscure but fascinating nugget of authentic history, involving a duel to the death. The battle between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris was one of the last to gain official sanction as a holdover of the old chivalric faith that trial by combat invoked direct deistic judgement. The clash was held outside Paris in 1386, after Carrouges accused Le Gris of raping his wife Marguerite.

Through its very nature and moment, the event of that duel rests on a fault-line in historical consciousness, confronting our lingering fascination for the days of old when knights were bold and ladies fair walked with wafting silk trailing, with our simultaneous cynicism, which is also the period setting’s, an emergent scepticism close to the cusp of the Renaissance when, whether the powers that be admitted it or not, people knew damn well God didn’t express his will through two guys trying to murder each-other. It’s the sort of subject one could imagine an array of great filmmakers tackling with very different art – Robert Bresson, say, casting his dour eye on men wrapped in cold grey metal bashing each-other to death, or Richard Lester, impishly smirking at the absurdity, or Ken Russell, relishing the ritual of bloodshed and locus of wilful lunatic energy. For Scott, it’s a story that engages multiple strands of his career long concerns and stylistic explorations. The Last Duel offers a chance to bind together ways of seeing, ways that unfold on multiple levels – the narrative itself proffers multiple versions of the same events according to different viewpoints, correlated with the way the film operates as both a definite portrait of a historical epoch and a parable for contemporary concerns.

Unlike Rashomon, The Last Duel doesn’t hinge on a disinterested party’s viewing of events. Instead it presents the viewpoints of Carrouges (Matt Damon), Le Gris (Adam Driver), and Marguerite (Jodie Comer). After a brief prologue showing the preparations for the title duel in all its careful ritual measure presaging the unleashing of pure physical force, the relationship between the three characters is sketched in Carrouges’ opening narrative. Carrouges, the son of a respected Norman knight, sees himself as a doughty, unappreciated, wronged and justifiably frustrated man who has to pay his way through the brutal and dangerous life of a professional soldier. He saves Le Gris’s life when the two men are involved in an ill-advised but honourable attempt to lift the English siege of Limoges in 1370. Whilst they remain friends for a time afterwards, their bond sours as Le Gris becomes a trusted agent of their mutual lord Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck) and is increasingly favoured by him to the extent of being handed both Carrouges’s father’s former title and estate. Carrouges marries Marguerite, the daughter of Sir Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker), an aristocrat held in general odium for formerly siding with the English. Carrouges is willing to overlook the disgrace in the face of Madeleine’s beauty and the opportunity to get hold of fine new estates.

One valuable parcel of land, Au-le-Faucon, which Carrouges firmly insists Thibouville give as part of his dowry, is instead claimed as recompense for feudal dues by Pierre and then handed over as a reward to Le Gris. Carrouges sues Pierre over the title to the estate, but fails, earning the lord’s peevish enmity and convincing Carrouges that Le Gris is plotting against him. Carrouges and Le Gris reconcile for the sake of accord amongst Pierre’s vassals, but the peace doesn’t hold, and Marguerite eventually reports to her husband that Le Gris assaulted her whilst Carrouges was in Paris collecting payment for one of his military ventures. The second narrative presents Le Gris’ perspective, seeing himself as a man of talent and intellect suitably rewarded. Pierre, disliking what he sees as Carrouges’ stiff-necked, charmless, and resentful persona, prefers Le Gris as an industrious employee and friend, inviting him into his inner circle and nightly orgies. Le Gris sees himself as tested to the utmost by Carrouges’ increasingly paranoid and irate streak and generally poor judgement, and feels an immediate connection with the multilingual and well-read Marguerite when he encounters her after reconciling with Carrouges, a connection which he interpreted as inevitably romantic. When questioned about his visit to the Carrouges castle to expiate it, Le Gris explains, “Of course she made the customary protests, but she is a lady.” The third chapter illustrates Marguerite’s experience, a perspective from which both Carrouges and Le Gris are seen as stripped of their pretences and self-delusions.

In terms of the film’s interlocking units of storytelling, each bearing the contrasting imprint of a different screenwriter which Scott has to stylistically unify, the impossibility of knowing crashes against the certainty of result. Damon’s chapter hands himself a part that hinges on his screen persona as a man who people tend to underestimate, for his curiously nondescript good looks, turned increasingly heavy-set in middle-age and matching capacity to play men driven by deeply repressed social or class resentment. Affleck’s chapter is as much a lampoon of Hollywood players in the fashion of his own movie Argo (2012) as it is a portrait of a destructively egocentric pair of men. Holofcener brings the feminine perspective, forcing a discomfortingly close identification with Marguerite as she sweats through several different forms of abuse. The real history invoked in The Last Duel is opaque. Just what really went down between the Carrouges and Le Gris is unknowable beyond what they themselves said happened. The film itself finally is not. I gritted my teeth just a little bit as Scott designated the first two chapters as “the truth according to” but the last, more than a shade archly, sees “the truth” as those words fade more slowly from the screen. The ultimate point of Rashomon was that people inevitably see events that encompass them with a slanted perspective, according to the way they think of themselves and of other people. But fair’s fair: The Last Duel has a different end in mind, that yes, there can be a specific and ultimate truth that other people don’t always want to see, for whatever reason, and that people can also edit their own reality to make sense of what they do.

With a kind of irony allowed only to deities and film directors, Scott can make his film equivalent to the proposed metaphysical reasoning behind the concept of the trial by combat itself, as a vehicle to reveal such hidden truths. Only at a couple of points in the film does Scott and his trio of screenwriters entirely contradict what has already been portrayed, a way of approaching cinema that has a controversial aspect, as it requires the camera which reports narrative to us to lie. But it is used here with exacting purpose. Thus, where Carrouges remembers his attempt to intervene when the English slaughter French hostages at the Battle of Limoges as a valiant if doomed charge demanded by honour and humanity, Le Gris recalls as a calamitous surrender of reason to emotion that cost victory in the battle and almost got him killed. The event binds the two men in their erratic orbit, whilst also defining their relationship to Pierre, whose power over their lives and careers plays no small role in what happens. Carrouges becomes increasingly convinced that Le Gris, perhaps constantly aggravated by owing his life to the older, tougher knight, has become pathologically fixated on taking his stuff and showing him disrespect. Le Gris sees Carrouges as increasingly ridiculous and impossible in his lack of moderation and reason, and that he himself is merely the accidental beneficiary of Carrouges’ self-invited bad luck. Pierre’s personal detestation of Carrouges, sparked by his actions in the battle and reinforced when Carrouges sues him, and his indulgence of Le Gris, reinforces the deeply personal nature of power the age, as the lord has the right and facility to award and strip favours and posts, to oversee and manipulate legal contests, and generally make life easier or harder. Moreover, as Pierre admits to Le Gris in speaking of Carrouges, “He’s no fun.”

Affleck, in a performance reminiscent of the kind Peter Ustinov once gave in movies like Quo Vadis (1951) and Spartacus (1960) in the way he manages to offer levity and glimmers of satirical anachronism without despoiling the overall texture, portrays the medieval lord as a man with a strong streak of smug brattiness, but also a keen sense of his own prerogative and a good sense of which people will meet his needs and those who will not. Pierre comes to lean on Le Gris as both an intelligent manager of his affairs who can get things done, chiefly by employing standover and shakedown tactics to get money out of his vassals and tenants, and as a friend and confederate who comes increasingly to share and enjoy Pierre’s predilection for hedonistic pleasures, pleasures that are readily served up by the in-built pyramid scheme that is medieval social structure. Affleck helps to also bridge the film’s period setting and the more contemporary concerns, pitching Pierre as an indulgent friend and protector for Le Gris, and coaching him on how to handle Marguerite’s accusation: “Deny, deny, deny.” Affleck and Damon of course owed much of their breakthrough as major Hollywood players to the now disgraced and jailed Harvey Weinstein, and this line had the stinging quality of something they might have heard bandied about the Miramax offices at some point. Scenes depicting Pierre playing the easy, jocular host for his circle of friends, making a tart speech farewelling his pregnant wife as she heads off to bed, similarly lampooning a certain kind of Hollywood grandee as he and Le Gris then settle down to the proper business of buttering up the gathered with choice bawdiness.

A key encounter in the course of the tale as a whole sees Pierre deftly counter Carrouges’ scarcely controlled fury in reminding him of what he has every right to do, in a scene where Carrouges confronts Pierre and Le Gris at the celebration of Le Gris being given his father’s title. This scene is cut away from in Carrouges’ chapter, as he reports to Marguerite that he feels he spoke well, whereas through Le Gris’ eyes it’s the spectacle of his old friend making an ass of himself before a much-amused crowd, where Carrouges’ anger is self-defeating, and his attempt to argue to Pierre that Le Gris is a snake in the grass falls totally flat. Carrouges sees himself as a kind of working stiff of the aristocratic warrior class, the guy who, robbed by The Man and unfairly penalised for standing up for his rights, has to go to Scotland to find work, risking life and limb, gaining a knighthood in the process but still returning home to what he feels is snooty disdain. Glimpses of combat in the film in which Carrouges fights at Limoges and in Scotland exemplifies the famous formula of life being nasty, brutish, and short, but battle is also a realm where Carrouges is at least comfortable and competent. This self-portrait is undercut to a degree later when Marguerite learns Carrouges neglects collecting rents on his estate, and takes it in hand herself. Which is actually a nice depiction of one rarely elucidated aspect of medieval life, when the running of a great estate was a task that needed intelligent and competent people and often fell to wives to perform when their husbands were off at war, which tended to be frequent.

The Last Duel in this fashion assiduously details the mores and structures legal, military, and financial that underpinned feudal Europe, and examines the way those things meshed with the people who inhabited it. Part of the challenge in making such a film is to animate the very different ways the society of the age understood cause and effect, truth and falsehood, and individual identity itself, even as the actual people are entirely recognisable to us in their motives and emotional and behavioural extremes. Carrouges, for instance, is revealed through signing his name with a mark, to be illiterate, not uncommon for his time but giving a fascinating and revealing dimension to his feelings of paranoia and persecution in the face of Le Gris’ learning and competence in abstract matters like finance and letters. This represents an entire world at once readily visible to Carrouges but also entirely incomprehensible, much in the same way that much biliousness today stems from the simultaneous ubiquity and incoherence for many of dominant areas of specialised learning like computer technology or high finance. As the titular duel itself confirms, this was still a time when a fearsome price to be paid in physical suffering was supposed to both substitute for, and potentially alleviate, spiritual suffering. Or, to take another attitude towards the same idea, fear of the latter was made more palpable and therefore more impressive and real by the threat of the former, helping create a kind of mental surveillance system to ensure good behaviour.

A very crucial part of the plot of The Last Duel as it reaches its home stretch is the revelation that loss in the duel for Carrouges also means an even more terrible fate for Marguerite too as the accuser, placing Marguerite in an impossible situation according to the sexist and doctrinaire rules of the time. Marguerite would be brandished a liar and heretic through the failure of her husband’s muscle rather than through any reasoned parsing of her testimony, and whilst Carrouges himself certainly risks violent and gruesome death in the hunt for satisfaction, still rather pleasant compared to being burned alive. Marguerite doesn’t even learn this until they’ve travelled far too far down this road to turn back, but she successfully maintains a façade of adamant poise in front of the hearing. Carrouges, knowing that Pierre controls the local courts and can therefore ensure Le Gris’ acquittal, as he does, instead petitions the king for the right to trial by combat, which means weathering a hearing presided over by the king and his Parlement including church elders. Le Gris, for his part, turns down the plea by a cleric, Le Coq (Zeljko Ivanek), to take advantage of a loophole that will let the case be heard in an ecclesiastical court instead, nullifying the risk of the combat, insisting that to do so would be tantamount to cowardice and a tacit admission of guilt, which means he is, more subtly, a victim of a similar bind to Marguerite.

At the same time, the contemporary likenesses are hardly disguised as the film’s driving concern is winnowed down to the offence done to Marguerite, an offence that to gain any kind of justice entails risking still worse suffering. The hallowed cliché of “he said, she said” trotted out in ambiguous accusations of sexual misconduct played here as a particularly lethal game of chicken. The problems identified in the period are the problems of today when it comes to such matters. Marguerite has the right to have her accusation taken at face value and seriously delved into, but faces the presumption that she’s a pawn, or a harlot, or a conspirator in her husband’s desire to revenge himself on Le Gris, who himself has friends in high places who can stymie any semblance of justice, and so she must submit to questioning tantamount to another form of rape as her sex life is probed. Meanwhile by this stage she’s grown heavy with child, an event that might be the ironically late fulfilment of her marriage contract with Carrouges or the product of Le Gris’ assault.  It would be more than a bit rich to call Scott the inventor of Hollywood feminism, but what he did do was create, with Ripley for Alien (1979) and later Thelma and Louise (1991) and G.I Jane (1997), templates for how popular cinema approaches such things. Marguerite is a particularly potent extension of this facet of Scott’s oeuvre, in the way her presence is used to purposefully unpack the kind of warrior mystique Scott served up so ripely in Gladiator. But she’s also something of a critique of that iconography of strong women. Marguerite is at the mercy of the men around her, be they officially protective like Carrouges or predatory like Le Gris, and her attempt to stand up for herself never really escapes this zone. The Last Duel dismantles the idea of the white knight standing up for his abused lady, but it also firmly reminds that the kinds of empowerment fantasies we see in a lot of movies today are just that.

Carrouges’ self-perception laid out in the first chapter is undercut in the second and finally laid totally bare in the last, particularly when his reaction to Marguerite’s rape is revised from calm sympathy to one of raging peevishness, seeing himself wronged before Marguerite and demanding she prostrate herself so he can try and efface Le Gris’ imprint on her. It’s an ugly scene that largely dispels what little sympathy one has for Carrouges by this point. But the film succeeds in being more nuanced than expected on this score. Carrouges’ anxious desire to sexually please his wife whilst knock her up avoids the standard vignette in a lot of recent historical dramas of a brutishly indifferent husband, and even in this scene there’s the feeling this is another of Carrouges’ incoherent emotional expressions, beset by the absurdly provoking notion that he can literally fuck Le Gris’ taint out of his wife’s vagina. Driver has perhaps the most perfectly medieval face to appear in cinema since Ron Perlman with the added advantage of being considered handsome, and he gives perhaps his best performance to date as Le Gris, particularly in his playing of the crucial rape scene(s) where he seems to be acting a little drama to which he’s written the script in his head with scarce reference to reality, a playlet in which he’s the ardent suitor locked in a game of erotic hide-and-seek with a proper but lusty lady, much like the games played in Pierre’s chambers every night. Indeed, Scott films one such game, which culminates in the beginning of an orgy, and then recreates the framing in Le Gris’ version of his attack on Marguerite, suggesting the degree to which his reality is by this point forged by the bubble he lives in.

The shift to Holofcener’s presentation Marguerite’s viewpoint adopts a similar tactic to Affleck’s but with a different frame, ticking off chick flick clichés. Marguerite contends with her haughty and critical mother-in-law Nicole de Carrouges (Harriet Walter) whilst being left alone with her for long stretches of time, and hangs out with her social circle amongst the real castle wives of Normandy like Marie (Tallulah Haddon) as they assess the local male talent, with all agreeing Le Gris scores high in the looks department, casual fun which provides another bitter consequence as Marie later resents Marguerite for her accusation against Le Gris. Marguerite weathers her returned husband’s anger over showing excessive quantities of boob, having adopted the queen’s latest, risqué fashion, and experiences bewildered frustration over her primary function, trying to bear children for Carrouges, with her clueless husband shooting blanks and leaving her resolutely unsatisfied, although in her inexperience she has no way to express this, much in the same way her husband cannot himself articulate his most powerful needs.

More substantively, Marguerite is able to put her intelligence and learning to beguiling use in running Carrouges’ estate and expertly assessing Le Gris’ real character whilst seeming to charm him, a foray that leads her to ultimately agree with her husband that Le Gris is a cunning but facetious personality, but also backfires as she hooks Le Gris’ interest. Comer, hoisted to prominence playing a globetrotting assassin in the TV show Killing Eve, gives a formidable and completely different performance here that immediately and firmly establishes her as a major movie actor. She’s particularly interesting in portraying not just the more spectacular dramatic moments, but in touches like her Marguerite suddenly crying whilst trying to sustain a conversation with Marie, and her slight air of pleased self-approbation as she reports her observations of Le Gris to her husband as they dance and notes the advantages in her way of handling problems. A crucial moment comes late in the film when the Carrouges matriarch confronts Marguerite and accuses her of stirring up dangerous strife to suit herself, and mentions that she herself was raped once when young, a secret she kept for the sake of avoiding more trouble, exposing a vast gap not simply in attitude towards such a crime between her and her daughter-in-law but in their methods of survival, as Marguerite notes the cost such stoicism has inflicted, solving nothing, salving nothing.

Alien Covenant achieved a mode of brilliant self-indulgence for Scott as a garish self-satire, restlessly rearranging and re-enshrining horror and melodrama canards whilst using them as fodder for the theme of a creator moving forward with eternally dissatisfied hunger, inventions both great and flawed left in a billowing wake. The Last Duel encompasses a similar reflex, albeit it more applied, in its triptych of auto-critiquing storylines. As well as allowing Scott to revise and complicate his own popular mythologies, The Last Duel unifies strands of his cinematic reflexes evinced throughout his career. Scott’s exactingly wrought and densely layered visual tableaux have sometimes been purely decorative but in his best work also support his attempts to weave a holistic vision of a created, or recreated, world, in movies as diverse as Blade Runner (1982) and American Gangster (2007). The latter film tried to do something most similar gangster films avoid and show how the criminal enterprise worked from the mastermind to the junkie at the bottom of the food chain, shedding light on the antihero’s wilful blindness to the misery he causes, and The Last Duel exhibits the same top-to-bottom thoroughness. The Martian (2015) was more jocular and light-footed in its similar preoccupation with process, exploring the manifold forces human and cosmic required to save one stranded human being. Blade Runner wove dreamlike visual textures from a rigorously detailed setting, and touched on a similar fascination for the depth of the cinematic frame as a zone where every grain or digit can contain meaning, most particularly in the long sequence of Deckard exploring a photograph for clues in the mystery he was unravelling, a sequence of which The Last Duel can be described as the feature-length extrapolation.

The business of husbandry is codified in a sourly funny and cunningly layered vignette, in which  Marguerite looks on in bewildered anxiousness whilst her husband gets furious over a big black stallion breaking into the stall of his in-season white mare and trying to mount her. This potent unit of imagery comes straight out of Shakespeare’s Othello but converted from verbal usage to visual. This image doesn’t just comment on their marriage and the impending act of sexual violence, but delves to the bottom of things, establishing how everything in this world is the attempt to desperately control the power of natural forces over the tentative stability of social structures, a world where dynamic, daemonic urges are scarcely leavened by fear of hellfire or a well-swung mace, and the weak are at the mercy of the strong. More subtle but most vital as a visualisation of theme and character are the three different versions of one kiss, which Carrouges bids Marguerite give Le Gris as part of their ritual of reconciliation. What is for Carrouges a glancing, purely polite gesture is for Le Gris a striking moment of chemistry and for Marguerite a perturbing signal, conveyed through both the actors’ actions and the variation in Scott’s camerawork. Such dramas that eventually finish up consuming a nation’s attention, as well as ultimately threaten three lives, can pivot on such fleeting yet intense moments, infinite realities packed into such junctions of human attitude.

The portrayals of the rape itself in both Le Gris and Marguerite’s chapters, again exemplifies the filmmaking care even in showing something that isn’t pleasant to watch. Small details tellingly differ – where, say, Le Gris sees Marguerite leaving shoes behind her like a saucy maiden discarding clothing, Marguerite remembers as simply accidental in the course of her flustered fear – and so too does the visual language. Scott holds back for the most part in Le Gris’ version, filming mostly in wide shots that emphasise the physicality of the event, Le Gris as lanky coyote after Marguerite’s darting roadrunner, before concluding with a point-of-view shot of Le Gris looking down at Marguerite’s face in contorted profile. Le Gris’ version of sex is duly pornographic, defined not by connection but by the erasure of need, and his self-created fiction resumes as he makes his apologies and leaves. In Marguerite’s version the shots are more intimate and urgent, climaxing in a long close-up on her shattered expression as Le Gris penetrates her and then leaves her, the storm having visited and then departed like some deeply ugly and surreal dream, reminiscent in a way of the imagery of violation and sudden, sundering ugliness in Alien.

The attack can only be properly avenged in the trial by combat, which means the Carrouges must work tactically, making their friends and social circle unwitting confederates by telling them and using them in the project of forcing the King to pay attention, circumventing Pierre’s control, essentially the medieval edition of a social media campaign. The hearing the King calls eventually sees the parties grilled by legal minds, a sequence that’s used to encompass the most egregious aspects of the period’s approach to things like sex and justice. The young monarch, Charles VI (Alex Lawther), essentially treats the event as a particularly juicy entertainment, whilst the duel itself is a spectator sport that’s also like watching a movie in that everyone has their rooting interest. Scott builds suspense as the film nears the duel as the potential price Marguerite must pay becomes clear, a truth that displaces the tension over Carrouges and Le Gris’ fates onto her, as she stands up to her irate husband with intense and righteous anger but then finds both a source of solace and further worry when she has her child and wonders if the infant will soon be orphaned after such a long effort by the parents to have him. Carrouges meanwhile is left isolated in both his alienation from Marguerite and most of the onlookers who want to see him fall, and Damon does an excellent job in invoking pathos in the character even when that’s not the focal point through his stolid, chastened affect as the moment of confrontation with mortality looms.

The duel, when finally returned to, represents an apotheosis for Scott in terms of sheer moviemaking craft,  capturing with concussive immediacy both the awful violence of the fighters and the nightmarish state of watching it with the certainty that life and death acted out on the sand is also one’s own fate being settled. The cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, with its stern, frigid, muted grey-blue palette only swapped out for the honeyed glow of candlelit interiors, mostly rejects the penchant for beauty found in Scott’s other historical films, and here become furious and alive in a way that feels as cutting-edge as anything Scott’s ever shot – beautifully dashing tracking shots cleaved brutally with inserts of mounted camerawork pursuing the duellists into the joust. Thunderous editing of both images and sound helping lend you-are-there palpability to the shattering lances spraying splinters, horses colliding with walls, and cold steel blades sinking into soft warm flesh, and none of it seems to be augmented with special effects, a particular blessing in this accursed moment in action filmmaking. Every blow and movement communicates physical effort and cost. What it isn’t is a cheer-along struggle of good and evil, even as Scott finally allows Carrouges to become what he wanted to think of himself as, the plucky, honourable underdog with a righteous cause, as he faces not just Le Gris’ unexpected fearsomeness in the fight but the general disdain of the aristocrats in the crowd, including Pierre, who want their charming favourite to win.

The fight comes to its terrible, gruesome end as Carrouges manages to outwit Le Gris and tries to force him to confess, before showing his dagger into the man’s mouth, a bloody and awfully intimate mirror to his assault on Marguerite. Carrouges, still faintly hapless even after proving himself awesomely tough as he needs the king’s cue to face and embrace his released wife, now exhibits sufficient poise to offer Marguerite to the crowd for exaltation as well, before leading her to an under-construction Notre Dame, whilst Le Gris’ corpse is hung up naked and pathetic. Even Pierre is offered a moment of pathos as he’s left clearly mourning his friend. Carrouges fails at being a hero but finally triumphs in offering the crowd a better story, of a knight who has vindicated his wife. Scott nonetheless suggests the awful, lingering bleakness under the relief nonetheless as he cuts out the noise of the cheering mob and has only the sound of Marguerite’s strained breathing on the soundtrack as she rides in slow motion. A brief coda does give a modest dose of reassurance as Marguerite is glimpsed as a happy mother whilst Carrouges has gone off to get himself killed in the Crusades. But it’s with that image of Marguerite after the duel where the film should have ended, with that feeling that won’t go away, like standing on the beach with a colossal wave about to crash down upon you.

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The City of the Dead (1960) / Night of the Eagle (1961)

aka Horror Hotel / aka Burn, Witch, Burn!

Directors: John Llewellyn Moxey / Sidney Hayers
Screenwriters: George Baxt / George Baxt, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson

By Roderick Heath

The City of the Dead and Night of the Eagle present two small gems of horror cinema, closely connected by the moment of their making and their basic genre film business. Both are products of the flourishing horror cinema in Britain inspired by the success of the Hammer Horror films. Each was directed by an interesting filmmaker well-known to genre fans but few others. The City of the Dead was written by the mystery writer George Baxt, who went on to co-author the script of Night of the Eagle with Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. Both films offer horror narratives set firmly in the present day and involving witchcraft. Both are partly set in academia, hardly the usual location for horror apart from the reaction of the odd flunked student. Both are evidently influenced by other, recent great and popular films but have their own specific charm. Both were awkwardly retitled for American release. But the two films are quite distinct in other ways, exemplifying how movies can be both very similar in their basics and yet divergent in approach: The City of the Dead is a lesson in making the most of a miniscule budget to weave a classical brand of atmospheric dread, whilst Night of the Eagle is a study in psychological tension and metaphorical power.


The City of the Dead represented an early foray into producing British genre cinema by the entrepreneurial American producers Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, about to become two of the more consequential figures in that rarefied realm. The duo first collaborated in the US on the rock’n’roll craze-exploiting film Rock, Rock, Rock (1956) and a handful of other B-movies. The duo reached out to Hammer Films honcho Michael Carreras, trying to entice his involvement with a new version of Frankenstein Subotsky had written. Carreras became interested but eventually cut out Subotsky and Rosenberg, and his The Curse of Frankenstein, upon release in 1957, proved an earthquake that permanently revived horror cinema as well as, in the short term, making the UK the epicentre. Subotsky and Rosenberg moved to avenge themselves by moving to Britain and forming the production entity Vulcan Films, which would eventually be reorganised into the better-known Amicus Films, which tried thereafter to be a rival to Hammer. Amicus would produce an enjoyable if interchangeable series of anthology horror movies like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964), The House That Dripped Blood (1970), and Tales From The Crypt (1972), and sci-fi flicks like Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Kevin Connor’s Edgar Rice Burroughs trilogy. Baxt had originally written the script as the intended pilot of a TV series to star Boris Karloff, and when Subotsky took it over he performed rewrites, adding a subplot and giving himself story credit, whilst the film’s stringent £45,000 budget was partly obtained from Nottingham Football Club.

For a director, Subotsky hired John Llewellyn Moxey, who at 35 had recently become a TV director. Moxey’s knowledge of how to conjure a convincing drama out of the most stringent needs definitely helped with The City of the Dead. The film kicks off with a prologue that’s intriguingly similar to the beginning of the same year’s La Maschera del Demonio, and anticipates the like of Witchfinder General (1969) and The Devils (1971) in evoking the bleak history of witch hunts and executions as a gruelling and gruesome social phenomenon. Moxey opens with the townsfolk of the small Massachusetts village of Whitewood in 1692 dragging Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) to be burned at the stake as a witch. Selwyn screams out for help to one of the men in the crowd, Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall), but when asked by the town elder supervising the execution (Fred Johnson), if he consorts with her Jethrow denies it. When Selwyn is tied to the stake and set on fire, she and Jethrow both make appeal to Satan to help her, and Selwyn begins to laugh with pleasure as thunder rings out as if answering her prayer, whilst the baying crowd chant, “Burn witch, burn!”

Moxey cuts to history professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) enthusiastically repeating the same chant as he instructs his students on the event in contemporary times, to the rapt fascination of prize pupil Nan Barlow (Venetia Stephenson), and the wry lack of interest of her boyfriend sitting in on the lecture, Bill Maitland (Tom Naylor), whose quips infuriate the teacher. Nan’s brother Richard Barlow (Dennis Lotis), who is himself a teacher at the college, quickly gets into an argument with Driscoll, as his own hard-headed lack of credulity and interest in the historical events clashes with Driscoll’s preoccupation, as Driscoll notes the historical record suggests the lingering influence of malefic forces in Whitewood, which also happens to be his home town. Nan is despite Bill and Richard’s scorn so interested in the seemingly irrational subject that she tells them and Driscoll she wants to travel through New England during the term break and collect independent research on the topic, including a visit to Whitewood. Driscoll gives her directions and the name of a hotel in the town to stay at, and Nan heads off after promising to meet them at a cousin’s house in two weeks. On the rough and misty road to the town, Nan picks up a hitchhiker, a tall, plummy, sardonic man heading to Whitewood and who just happens to look just like the long-ago Jethrow Keane.

Nan is briefly perplexed when, upon arrival in Whitewood, Jethrow seems to slip out of the car without her noticing, but she soon books into the hotel, The Raven’s Inn, run by Mrs Newless, who also happens to look rather like Elizabeth Selwyn. The hotel has a plaque announcing it stands on the spot where Selwyn was burned. The town of Whitewood is a quiet, fog-shrouded place with a neglected church, a blind and ominously advising pastor, Russell (Norman MacOwan), and silent, glaring citizenry. Nan does encounter the blessedly normal Pat Russell (Betta St. John), the granddaughter of the pastor, who’s just recently returned to the town and opened an antique store. Pat digs out a book from her collection entitled A Treatise on Devil Worship in New England in trying to satisfy Nan’s researching needs, and Nan arranges to borrow it for the duration of her stay in town. Back in the hotel, however, Nan begins noticing strange incidents, as bracelet she likes to where vanishes, a dead bird skewered with a pin turns up in a drawer, and a sprig of woodbine appears on her door, all details that happen to recur in the historical documents recounting the human sacrifices Selwyn and her coven liked to perform. And there’s also the little matter of some eerie singing emanating up through the floorboards. When she finds the key to the old hatch in the floor of her room dangling from her window, Nan descends into a labyrinth under the church, where she’s suddenly grabbed by some robed and hooded figures and dragged to a ceremonial altar, where she’s laid prostrate and stabbed to death by Mrs Newless, who confirms she is actually Selwyn.

The pleasures of The City of the Dead walk a line that can strike many as campy, with its air of threadbare charm and almost comically oblivious characters. A brief vignette of Stephenson parading about in 1950s bodice and garters is a flash of sexploitation that’s both amusingly obvious as a ploy and dated in that women often wear less on the main street of my town these days. But it’s the kind of movie that’s held together by the conviction everyone involved wields. The ploy of setting up Nan as the apparent heroine of the movie and then killing her off sees The City of the Dead often compared with the looming example of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Given the filming and release of the two movies it seems unlikely Psycho had direct influence – Moxey’s film started shooting before Hitchcock’s – making The City of the Dead more significant and ballsy in this move. Psycho nonetheless announced a great genre sea-change, auguring in today’s general norm for the horror movie, built around lurking killers dealing out gruesome demises in modern, mundane locales, rather than the classical arsenal of supernatural monsters and stylised historical, foreign, or psychologised settings. The City of the Dead mediates the two ages with its simple but sufficient storyline. Another of the film’s obvious quirks is being a British film set in the US, which had been done before and is chiefly notable in this case for Lee doing a surprisingly good accent. Devil worshipper movies had been relatively uncommon before the late 1950s in Horror cinema except in when safely relegated to exoticised forms like the many misconstruing takes on voodoo, in part because they tended to be stringently censored, testified by the edits The City of the Dead underwent and the controversy sparked by The Devil Rides Out (1967) a few years later. One of the few previous major examples was Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934).

The City of the Dead avoids playing out as a kind of drive-in take on The Crucible insofar as it makes no bones about the supernatural nature of the events, even as it offers a sliver of sympathy for the devil as the viciousness of the repression of the witches scarcely seems preferable to any evil they can deal out, and the result is perpetually dooming Whitewood to subsist as a canker subsisting into the officially purified modern world. Witchcraft as a subject was a potentially fruitful one for genre filmmakers as it tackled the basic schism between the audience’s scepticism, backed up modern psychological and political understanding, pitted against a chthonic credulity. Despite the American setting, The City of the Dead also gave birth to a stratum of peculiarly British horror films involving heroes stumbling into strange communities where arcane cults and mores rule, a plot pattern that neatly encompasses a very British sense of the tension between communal mores and upsetting outsiders, modernity disturbing the balanced tensions underlying a fantasy vision of a settled, ordered, homey past. On came straight-laced variations like Devils of Darkness (1965) and The Witches (1966), ambitious and wilfully odd variations in The Wicker Man (1973) and Kill List (2011), and lampoons like Bloodbath at the House of Death (1983) and Hot Fuzz (2007).

Moxey had been born in Argentina, one port of call where his family had depots for their coal and steel business. Moxey underwent training at Sandhurst, the famous British military college, and fought in World War II, but left the armed forces after the war already world-weary at 20, and decided to instead realise a childhood ambition to get into show business. Moxey only made a handful of feature films in his long career, but they include several cultish gems of low-budget filmmaking, as he followed The City of the Dead up with the fascinatingly antiheroic World War II spy story A Foxhole in Cairo (1960), the gritty Hands of Orlac variation Hands of a Stranger (1964), and a string of Edgar Wallace-derived thrillers including Circus of Fear (1966), a thriller enlivened by Moxey’s flashes of visual wit, including Klaus Kinski dying with a huge leering mask in his grip, a great opening sequence depicting an armoured car robbery on Tower Bridge, and a general glaze of drizzly, moody British charm. When the low-budget UK movie scene began to dry up, cheating Moxey of any further chance of breaking out into higher-profile movies, he returned to work entirely in television and soon moved to Hollywood, working on shows as varied and beloved as The Saint, The Avengers, Mission: Impossible, Mannix, Hawaii 5-0, Magnum, P.I., Miami Vice, Murder, She Wrote, and the pilot episode of Charlie’s Angels, as well a number of telemovies. His signal success in the latter field was the hugely popular telemovie The Night Stalker (1972), which birthed the cult TV series starring Darren McGavin.

Moxey’s great eye, backed up by Desmond Dickinson’s excellent black-and-white photography, and ability to conjure a powerful atmosphere with minimal elements, are clear right from the opening shot in the Whitewood town square, coals burning in a metal brazier looming in the foreground with sketchy shapes of a bent tree and town buildings just visible through the heavy pall of fog, out of which resolves a mob of period Puritans on the warpath. Moxey then carefully orchestrates the ritual condemnation that follows as Selwyn is first seen, dragged out from the prison with her imperiously sensual and boding gaze cast down upon the momentarily arrested villagers: the camera scans their stricken faces for a moment before settling on one woman who hisses, “Witch!” and earns a gob of spit from Selwyn in the eye, kicking off the baying abuse again. When Selwyn sets eyes on the waiting stake she stares in dread, and Moxey has two more harridans of the village loom in the frame, one pointing to it and crying, “Burn the witch!” Selwyn’s terror, crying out Jethrow’s name, and the puckered rage of the villagers, puts one immediately on the imminent victim’s side, but Selwyn is nonetheless exactly what they think she is, and she makes her pact with Lucifer as the flames lick her flanks (much of her vow was cut out of the film’s American release under the title Horror Hotel). Moxey cranks up the note of murderous hysteria as his camera tilts and swoops up to the variably frantic, blood-lusting, wailing faces of the crowd whilst Selwyn, sensing her plea has been heard, begins to laugh with malefic joy.

The rest of the film’s first half revolves around Nan as the blonde, creamy-skinned co-ed falling under the spell of a mystique of devilry and atavistic forces more powerful and enticing in their dank vividness than the bright lights of the world she knows. The film’s cramped budget, as is often the case, is cleverly employed to help build the drama’s sequestered mood, from the relative normality of Driscoll’s lecture through to Nan’s encounters with the odd citizens of Whitewood, where the signs of lurking threat and oneiric eccentricity seem so overt one could rightly expect any visitor to run away screaming. The undercurrent of weird intensity Driscoll forges in his lecture is lightened by Bill’s jokes (“I’ll bring the matches.”) which feel, in their way, distantly anticipatory of the self-aware tone of something like Scream (1996). The recurring use of Ken Jones’ jazz music for diegetic music is an amusing touch but also one that Moxey uses with a degree of cleverness, managing to seem both drowsily seductive whilst also letting sounds of the ordinary, current world infiltrate Whitewood and its surrounds. Moxey’s glimpses of a number of couples dancing in the cramped lobby of the Raven’s Inn recalls the similarly eerie and stylised glimpses of a stygian dance in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) just as the story recalls Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943). Moxey makes the dance, to which Nan is invited by Selwyn in her guise as Mrs Newless, seem at once romantically inviting and quietly creepy and unreal, like a show put on Nan’s sake, which it is: when Nan emerges from her room after getting dressed, the crowd is revealed to have suddenly broken up, the music they were dancing to abruptly turned off: Nan’s solitude suddenly feels dangerous. The only potential ally Nan seems to have is the chambermaid Lottie (Ann Beach), who cannot speak but still tries to warn her, only to be foiled because Selwyn keeps a close and threatening watch on her.

Whitewood seems a place where the sun never comes up and the fog never lifts, a cute way to mask production shortcomings but also providing a deliciously iconic genre film setting. Whitewood is the essential Horror movie ghost town, a throwback to the purely stylised, set-bound variety of horror movie setting once seen in the Universal Pictures horror movies like The Wolf Man (1941), the kind where ground mist ran like rivers and twisted trees loomed like withered crones doing interpretive dance. Roger Corman seems to have emulated it for his The Haunted Palace (1963), and indeed whilst The City of the Dead isn’t based on H.P. Lovecraft like the Corman film, it is perhaps the first movie to capture a Lovecraftian mood in its vision of a fetid, forgotten corner of New England where strange cabals meet and dark forces hold sway. John Carpenter probably likewise remembered it for his own Lovecraftian riff, In The Mouth of Madness (1994). Moxey’s great images continue, most particularly in a recurring shot where first Nan and then Pat drive along the road to Whitewood in the foggy dark and see Jethrow picked out in their car headlights, standing at a crossroads, filmed from within the car: technically clever, this motif also helps Moxey firm up the urban legend texture he’s chasing, presenting the kind of frisson that’s come over anyone who’s ever driven along a dark country road at night. The shot occurs a third and fourth time when Barlow and then Bill drive to Whitewood, but do not see Jethrow. Bill instead sees the looming supernatural vision of the laughing Selwyn on the stake, so disorienting that he swerves off the road and crashes into a tree.

The build-up to Nan’s sacrifice is particularly good in vignettes like the dance and Nan’s spacy, somnambulant voice as she recognises it’s Candlemas Eve, one of the two favoured nights for witches’ Sabbaths. The noted plot detail that Nan’s stolen broach allows the witches to “call” her at least papers over the question as to why someone as smart and well-versed in this lore as Nan doesn’t flee the moment a clear pattern starts accumulating. Of course, there’s another dimension to this, in Nan’s desire to know, with all its quasi-erotic underpinnings. She falls under the intellectual spell of the charismatic Driscoll, inspiring her to travel to a place that represents the dark reservoir of history’s septic sense of sexual knowledge and falls prey to waiting fiends, amongst whose number Driscoll eventually reveals himself, his face becoming visible under the cowl as he and Selwyn lean over Nan just before killing her. Later Driscoll is depicted performing a minor sacrifice with a caged bird in a sanctum in back of his academic office, a moment to which Lee applies all of his grim-browed conviction. Driscoll delivers a memorably simple epigram in riposte to Barlow’s forceful insistence on rationalism: “The basis of fairy tales is reality. The basis of reality is fairy tales.” One significant common and immediate precursor for The City of the Dead and Night of the Eagle is Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957), with both films mimicking that film’s heavy emphasis on the clash between realist and mystical worldviews, with a particular pertinence to the way Horror as a genre suddenly came roaring back at the time after the craze for science fiction earlier in the decade. In turn, Val Lewton’s films with Tourneur and others in the 1940s hover in the background, and The City of the Dead channels something of a Lewton feel in the moments quiet and subtle strangeness in pockets of detached reality, the dialogue between moments of quiet, even hominess, and pressing threat.

Moxey performs a jagged jump cut from Selwyn bringing the knife down on Nan to her and Barlow’s cousin slicing her birthday cake at a party in her house, where Barlow and Bill wait with increasing unease for Nan. Once it becomes clear she’s late, they set in motion an investigation, and some detectives visit The Raven’s Inn. Selwyn-as-Newless claims Nan left without any notice without paying her bill. Pat reclaims the book she loaned Nan from Selwyn and later travels to Barlow and Driscoll’s college to talk with them, and after Driscoll fails to throw her off her talk with Barlow and Bill convinces them to head to Whitewood and look around for themselves. On the return journey Pat picks up Jethrow, making it clear she’s the anointed sacrifice for the Witches’ Sabbath, a particularly apt victim for the witches as she’s a descendent of the original, cursed villagers. After crashing thanks to the tormenting vision whilst following Barlow to Whitewood, Bill crawls out of his wrecked and burning car and stumbles towards the town, whilst Barlow himself checks into the Raven’s Inn and then encounters Reverend Russell, who explains how the walking dead now control the town, but also recounts the formula for their destruction. Lottie is murdered by Jethrow and Selwyn when they catch her trying to leave a note for Barlow, whilst Bill manages despite his grave injuries to stumble into town just as Barlow finds Pat kidnapped and the Reverend dead.

The climax is suitably breathless and gripping as Moxey brings things home with ingenious cheapjack hype. Barlow searches for Pat, stumbling across Lottie’s corpse hidden in the labyrinth under the hotel, before managing to snatch Pat away from the sacrificial altar. The pair flee up into the cemetery only to be met there by more of the coven: in a deliciously campy-creepy shot, the Satanists lift their clawing hands from under their swathing robes to grab hold of their prey. Forced to wait until “the hour of thirteen,” that is an extra toll of the bell at one a.m., before they can kill Pat and claim another year’s extension on their undead existence, the coven are obliged to stand around just long enough for Bill, obedient to Barlow’s shouted instructions, to pluck out a crucifix from the cemetery ground and wield it as a weapon of faith whilst Barlows pronounces a ritual adjure. Even a notably good bit of knife-throwing from Selwyn, planting her sacrificial dagger in Bill’s back, doesn’t put him down for good, and the coven all erupt in flames screaming as the shadow of the cross falls on them, save Selwyn herself, who flees. Bill finally dies muttering Nan’s name. Barlow and Pat chase Selwyn, only to find her in The Raven’s Inn under the plaque describing her death, where she’s become a burned and blackened corpse.

Despite its many intersecting lines of story and theme, Night of the Eagle takes a very different approach. Night of the Eagle is more obviously made in the mould of Night of the Demon, down to its title (and borrowing that film’s cast member Reginald Beckwith), but it’s actually an adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s 1943 novel Conjure Wife. Leiber’s book, one of the most famous and influential horror novels ever written, had already been adapted once as the Weird Woman (1944), a solid entry in the enjoyable series of B-movies starring Lon Chaney Jr and made under the imprimatur of the radio show Inner Sanctum. Baxt redrafted the script, which had originally been written by the lauded genre writers Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont as a collaborative project: both men were connected at the time with the TV series The Twilight Zone and Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe film series. Matheson and Beaumont’s love of the novel acknowledged how it presented an ideal model for blending mundane realism and suggestive supernatural menace, and it’s had the same impact on writers since. The movie project was first taken up by Corman’s usual backers at American International Pictures, and farmed out to their regular production partners Anglo-Amalgamated. When the film was released in the US by AIP under the title Burn, Witch, Burn!, it came with an awful opening narration provided by the inimitable Paul Frees and new opening credits that removed Baxt’s name.

The Scots-born director Sidney Hayers, who worked as a top-flight film editor in the 1950s, made his directing debut with The White Trap (1959) and quickly forayed in horror with the impressively Sadean Circus of Horrors (1959). Hayers’ directing career ultimately proved disappointing, rarely living up to the remarkable control of Night of the Eagle, although he would later make the striking wilderness drama The Trap (1966), starring Oliver Reed and Rita Tushingham, which would transfer Night of the Eagle’s fascination with marriage as a kind of loving war in depicting a rudely matched couple surviving life on the frontier, and the lurid but effectively disturbing and atmospheric rapist-on-the-loose thriller In The Devil’s Garden, aka Assault (1971), a film that would return to a school setting with a rather darker and more direct approach to the idea of fetid institutional repression and vicious abuse feeding each-other. Hayers had a potent feel for percolating sexual hysteria and agents of monstrous will, both of which inform Night of the Eagle. The film commences with protagonist Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde), a professor in a small, unnamed English college, lecturing his psychology students in matters of ritual belief and custom, in the face of which he maintains a ruthless scepticism, writing the phrase “I Do Not Believe” on the blackboard, a missive that will turn significant much later, but is offered here as a kind of reverse magic spell to exorcise all demons of irrationalism. Norman is much enjoyed by his students, most particularly his smitten prize pupil Margaret Abbott (Judith Stott), much to the aggravation of her boyfriend Fred Jennings (Bill Mitchell), a much less enthusiastic student.

Norman’s male colleagues Lindsay Carr (Colin Gordon) and Harvey Sawtelle (Anthony Nicholls) are enormously admiring of their young but brilliant and energetic colleague, and it seems he’s going to land the chair of their department. Harvey’s wife Evelyn (Kathleen Byron) is teeth-grindingly angry about Norman’s seemingly inevitable rise. Her sister Flora (Margaret Johnston) is Lindsay’s wife and also a professor at the college as well as Margaret’s guardian, and also walks with a limp. She seems more sanguine, and likes commenting on it all with teasing, ironic distance. The three couples and the college dean Gunnison (Beckwith) and his wife come to Taylor’s house for a night playing bridge, where the factional tensions register despite the air of genteel entertainment, with Norman’s wife Tansy (Janet Blair) playing the expert hostess but registering a certain jumpiness. Once their visitors leave and Norman goes to bed, Tansy makes excuses to begin a frantic search of the living room. Eventually she finds a tiny fetish figure pinned within a lampshade. She burns this and, relieved, heads off to bed. But Norman begins to find many similar items around the house, these all planted by Tansy herself, including a jar full of dead spiders. When he confronts Tansy about them she tries to dismiss them as keepsakes of a journey they once took to Jamaica to investigate voodoo practices, but Norman is unconvinced. Eventually the fraying and desperate Tansy admits they’re totems she uses to ward off forces of black magic she believes are constantly assaulting them, combating them using methods she was taught by a bokor named Carubias and which she first turned to when Norman almost died in an accident. Norman forces Tansy to burn them all, despite her conviction this will leave them undefended.

The key beauty of Leiber’s novel was the contrast between the insular, seemingly placid, rather dry world of the little academic grove that was its setting and the invocation of vast, powerful, inchoate forces, strongly anticipating some of Shirley Jackson’s fiction, and the clever way this contrast was joined to a story that played witty games with the basic theme expressed by the old saying, “Behind every great man is a good woman.” Leiber took that idea to an extreme in the tale of Tansy warding off the magical attacks by her fellow campus wives in an ongoing contest to fuel success or impose ruination. Night of the Eagle simplifies this aspect to a degree, as here Tansy only has one real foe, although the faculty politics are still drawn with amusing, stinging accuracy, particularly once Norman is exposed to malevolence involving jealousy and misdirected passion which could well manifest normally in any school setting, and the potential professional dangers that can befall a man like Norman Taylor feel all accurate, perhaps even more today than in 1961. Once Norman makes Tansy burn all her protections, including one she keeps in a locket with her photo that results, with particularly ominous import, in the photo being burnt too, nothing seems to change, and Tansy is briefly willing to entertain the possibility she really was being ruled by her anxiety. But soon events begin to rattle Norman’s assurance: he gets a lewd phone call from Margaret, is almost run down by a lorry as he enters the college, and is threatened by Fred. When Margaret, in a volatile state, tells Flora that Norman raped her, Norman confronts her and gets her to retract her statement, and she flees after tearfully telling Norman, “I hate you!” Shortly after, Fred pulls a gun on him. Norman manages to get it away from him, but the swiftly mounting number of sudden calamities starts to make Norman think Tansy had a point after all.

Night of the Eagle offers similar characterisations to The City of the Dead – Margaret and Fred resemble Nan and Bill as your basic Jane and Joe College, if here pushed through the gates of self-combusting neurosis by forces beyond their ken. Norman is a more high-powered and abrasive version of Barlow, similarly dismissive of the supernatural but far more zealous about his self-image as an unshakably lucid mind. Hayers presents him as the acme of a certain ideal of a high modernist intellectual, fascinated by the meaning behind cultural arcana but also dismissive and contemptuous of any belief system contrary to his own, his own neo-puritan project one of ridding the world of its shadows. The crux of the drama is the relationship between Norman and Tansy, as an only slightly intensified study in heterosexual marriage as both a meeting and clash of personalities and ways of seeing and knowing. Norman’s aggressive confrontation of Tansy’s beliefs ape a familiar pattern in horror movies, of the hard-headed man correcting female inanities, reacting to Tansy’s supernatural dabbling as if she were a closet gambler or alcoholic, only to teasingly invert the certainties as Norman becomes increasingly frantic and unmoored. Equally often in horror movies the anxious woman proves correct, and here that turn is given hyperbolic force. The phrase “It got on my nerves” recurs in the movie, and Hayers conveys that feeling of locked-in, up-close, frayed-nerve portent, from the early scene of Tansy searching for the hidden fetish she knows her enemy has brought into her home with increasingly febrile purpose. Cinematographer Reginald Wyer’s zoom lensing keeps pushing closer and collapsing perspective to ratchet up the visual impression of things pressing in, whilst William Alwyn’s score unsubtly but effectively matches with its own agitating force.

The title comes from the imposing eagle sculpture that sits ominously perched above the main entrance to the college, directly outside the window of Flora’s office: for much of the film it seems the emblem of the many raptors eager to peck over Norman’s career bones. The aura of threat becomes more immediate when Norman receives a tape recording of one of his lectures about supernal ritual practice as a psychological phenomenon, and tries to make Tansy listen to it. His professorial words dismissing all irrational forces are undercut by a strange, undulating sound dubbed in underneath it, a sound Tansy recognises as a sorcerous invocation. She switches the tape recorder off, much to Norman’s anger, but the phone rings and the same sound comes through the receiver, and some monstrous form that releases a grotesque shriek thuds against the front door. Tansy manages to yank the phone cord from its connection just as Norman opens the door, and after being buffeted by a blast of the rainy night sees the caller has vanished. Here, as elsewhere in the film, Hayers generates remarkable hysterical energy that builds swiftly from baseline calm, aided by Wyngarde and Blair’s terrific performances, his hawkish features and hatchet-like force of personality colliding with her bright-eyed and vibrant anxiety, and the forceful editing rhythm betraying Hayers’ background.

Now entirely convinced that the enemy means to destroy Norman, Tansy gives him a laced drink and makes him recite words that will transfer any curse onto her, as a selfless gesture in her hope to die in his place: such gestures are the flipside to the tension between the couple as each is finally revealed to be willing to go to any length to save the other. When Norman awakens he finds Tansy gone, and figures she’s heading to the seaside cottage they own. He manages to catch up with the bus she’s taken but crashes off the road when forced to swerve out of the way of an oncoming truck. One the lorry drivers is a black West Indian immigrant (Frank Singuineau), and Norman awakens to focus on the totemic necklace around his neck, an odd little touch that obviously harkens back to Tansy’s embrace of magic in Jamaica whilst also suggesting the manifold ocean of belief Norman floats upon in a manner that’s correlated with the reverse colonisation of England, the nascent multicultural state. Norman shrugs off his injuries and continues in a hire car, but is too late to reach the cottage before nightfall.

Hayers keeps the tension mounting as the narrative begins to move with breathless pace, and delivers another great little set-piece here: Norman, realising he might find Tansy in the local churchyard thanks to a note he finds in one of her occult books, dashes along the moonlit beach, unknowingly passing Tansy who sits blank-eyed and motionless behind a boulder. When he reaches the churchyard cemetery, he claws his way through the old and overgrown tombstones and enters into a crypt. There Norman desperately performs a ritual to reclaim Tansy, whilst Hayers cuts to her robotically walking into the ocean as if to drown herself under the evil influence. Finally Norman gives up in a flurry of despair, only to turn and see Tansy standing in the crypt doorway, sodden, rigid, and staring-eyed, still under trance but having obeyed Norman’s ritual call back out of the water. Hayers manages here to deploy classical genre imagery – the craggy coastline and the lonely cottage, the gnarled and ancient graveyard, the creepy sight of the mesmerised Tansy returned – but still not any sign of literalised menace. Reginald Wyer’s grainy-gleaming, chiaroscuro photography and tight lensing enforce the tunnel-visioned reality of the characters as well as heightening the drama whilst also remaining real-feeling.

Indeed, Night of the Eagle manages something that Night of the Demon, thanks to that film’s producer-enforced glimpses of the demon, never quite got to do, in that it occurs in a grey zone of credulity: if the mood of The City of the Dead feels Lewton-like, Night of the Eagle is closer to Lewton’s ideal on a dramatic level in keeping things ambiguous. As dialogue throughout in the film hints, everything we see might be the result of entangled hypnotism, hysteria, and coincidence, even after the spectacular climax, although of course that kind of influence wielded with a malicious design could be scarcely less frightening than the occult. Norman takes Tansy to a doctor (Norman Bird) whilst she’s still under a powerful influence, but she manages to utter a few words, asking him to take her home. There, she wakes up, and everything seems perfectly normal again. But once Norman goes to sleep, Tansy goes into a trance again, leaves bed, goes into the kitchen, selects a big knife, and sets out to stab Norman to death. Norman manages to fight her off and notices that as she’s being compelled she walks with a limp, and he realises that Flora is the sender. After Tansy collapses and Norman puts her to bed, he goes to the college and seeks proof, finding a photo of him and Tansy attached to a fetish.

When Flora enters her office, Norman confronts her and puts on the tape recording of his lecture with the incantation, forcing her to shut it off. Flora then drives Norman to flee by building a deck of cards and affecting to set fire to the Taylors’ house; at that moment their cat sets off a conflagration that begins burning down the house with Tansy in it. Attentive filmgoers might then and now have expected Byron, so specifically associated with her role as the crazed nun in Black Narcissus (1947), to prove the agent of satanic mischief, but her presence proves a red herring. Johnston’s grinning malevolence nonetheless galvanises the climax, the sardonic quality her Flora had in the early scenes now touched with hints of lunacy and sadism as well as proud pleasure as she teases Norman about having his cage rattled by “just a silly woman,” revelling in the puppeteer power she can wield over people and institutions in compensation for her debilitation and general sexism, although of course she has no qualms about making her own ward a plaything for her own ends.

Flora turns the tape recording on and broadcasts it over the school loudspeaker system, and Norman begins to see the eagle statue seeming to relocate itself constantly as he tries to leave the college grounds. The statue soon comes fully to life, a colossal bird of prey swooping from on high with eyes set on ripping him to pieces. Ripping open Norman’s jacket and a chunk from the head of a statute, the beast soon crashes through the college front door when Norman tries to lock it out. Even here, as the film seems to finally indulge special effects and a literal manifestation of the sorcerer’s art, Hayers is judicious and the effects are good with smart use of a real bird and models, apart from one unfortunate shot where the string tied to guide the bird is visible. Wyngarde’s performance, which hints at the edge of hysterical energy in Norman in the first scene and gradates it throughout, reaches its tousled, sweat-caked apogee as Norman is reduced to screaming terror, backing against the blackboard in his classroom as the bird corners him there, his squirming incidentally erasing the word “not” from the slogan he wrote there at the beginning.

Norman is saved from the manifestation by Flora’s husband bemusedly entering her office and complaining about the noise on the loudspeakers: Lindsay switches the audio back to the office, alarming Flora as she plainly fears the curse might rebound, whilst for Norman the eagle and all signs of its visitation suddenly vanish. This again opens up the possibility that the eagle was a hallucination provoked by some mesmeric quality of the tape recording. Norman dashes home and finds the house on fire, but Tansy is safe amongst the onlookers. Meanwhile as Flora and Lindsay leave the college the eagle statue suddenly toppled and crashes down upon her, killing her instantly, the reel of audio tape unspooling across the gravel from her corpse. A nicely ironic blowback comeuppance that still offers the tiniest fig leaf for clinging on to a rational explanation. In any event Night of the Eagle is a superlative little movie, one that could still use more attention, and it both compliments and contrasts The City of the Dead perfectly as a relic of a time when all you really needed to make a good horror movie was a fog machine and a creepy sound effect.

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Freaks (1932)

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Director: Tod Browning
Screenwriters: Willis Goldbeck (uncredited), Leon Gordon (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

The Horror film and controversy have long been conjoined in general understanding, culminating in moments like the infamous “video nasty” debate in the UK in the 1980s. The concern that Horror movies are colonising minds with perverting images, unleashing barely-quelled inner demons, or lending some strange flesh to dark fantasies usually kept secret if not safe, is one that can still drive popular argument. Whilst there were undoubtedly controversial movies before it, Tod Browning’s Freaks is nonetheless the great antecedent of such debates. Freaks is the most fabled, notorious, and elusive of great Horror movies from the first half of the Twentieth century, and such a description could also be applied to its creator. Browning stands as likely the first true auteur of the Hollywood wing of Horror cinema, reaching his apogee of fame with 1931’s Dracula and its follow-up, Freaks. Browning, born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1880 with the real given names of Charles Albert, was the son of a successful builder. At age 16 did what many a youngster has dreamt of, and ran away to join the circus, which had become his obsession. After stints as a roustabout, a barker, a contortionist, a dancer and entertainer on Mississippi riverboats, a magician, a clown, and an acrobat, he achieved notoriety with his buried-alive act, “The Living Hypnotic Corpse,” before moving on to become a vaudeville performer, and adopted his perennial nickname because it was the German word for death. Short leap then to acting in movies, making his debut at age 29, with a vast amount of life and performing experience already behind him. Browning joined D.W. Griffith’s company. In 1915, Browning was involved in a car crash that cost a fellow actor’s life and nearly killed him. The crash was the direct result of the drinking problem that would dog Browning throughout his life and ultimately foil his great talent.

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During his recovery Browning started working behind the camera for Griffith, including as an assistant director as well as playing a small role in Intolerance (1916), but his previous speciality in comedy now gave way to a brooding obsession with physical deformity and ominous melodramas preoccupied with revenge, culpability, illusion, and social exile. Browning’s early feature directing work is hazy, with some uncertainty whether some works he was credited with were ever even actually shot, but he was certainly on the move by 1917. He found success at Universal Pictures directing a string of exotic melodramas starring Priscilla Dean, one of the top leading ladies of the time. Whilst making The Wicked Darling (1919), in which Dean played a slum girl forced into crime, Browning met the star collaborator he’s best-remembered for working with, Lon Chaney, who played Dean’s victimiser in the film. Chaney was already well-known for his incredible feats of physical transformation, and within a few years he had become one of the biggest stars of the silent age, with his make-up and prosthetic effects often bordering on the masochistic, and he became the perfect living canvas for Browning to act out his dark fantasies with. Their true alliance began with 1921’s Outside The Law, in which Browning cast Chaney in a double role as a slimy gangland villain and a kindly Chinese man, with one character murdering the other. Browning and Chaney owed much to the creative indulgence of young producing whiz-kid at MGM Irving Thalberg, and Chaney like Browning had an immediate personal grounding for his fascination with physical difference, as the son of deaf parents.

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Browning and Chaney’s work together included a string of successful, near-legendary movies including The Unholy Three (1925) and its 1930 sound remake, The Unknown (1926), the gimmicky vampire movie London After Midnight (1926), and the lurid exotic thriller West of Zanzibar (1928). Chaney’s death from throat cancer in 1930 ended the partnership just as Browning was gearing up for Dracula, intended as another Chaney vehicle. Browning’s huge success with Dracula carried multiple ironies. Chaney’s death and pressure from Universal Pictures, obliging him to stick close to the template of the stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel once its star Béla Lugosi was cast in the lead, contributed to Browning’s reportedly erratic involvement the shoot, with its director of photography Karl Freund gaining credit for rescuing the picture. Dracula’s enormous, zeitgeist-altering success papered over many sins, and Browning was brought back to MGM, where he had made most of his Chaney vehicles: despite the studio’s general resistance to making horror films, the genre’s enormous profitability couldn’t be ignored, and Browning, as a known quantity, seemed the man to make them. There Browning made Freaks, with proved another career-damaging fiasco, before his impudent, self-reflexive remake of London After Midnight, Mark of the Vampire (1935) and The Devil-Doll (1936), his last major horror movies, mixed in with other movies, before his last feature work, 1939’s Miracles For Sale.

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Today Dracula’s reputation has shrunk greatly, perhaps a little too much: the film’s aesthetic of eerie stillness and somnambulist dread convey much of the book’s flavour in spite of the clumsy elements transposed from the stage. The central performances from Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing are still perfect, and even its oddly evasive approach to physical horror gives it a unique charge, as if grazing the edges of truly obscene things. Freaks is nonetheless easily Browning’s best sound film, and very likely his masterpiece. Browning took inspiration from the short story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, the tale of a circus bareback rider named Jeanne who marries a dwarf named Jacques for his money whilst actually loving her performing partner Simon. Browning kept little of Robbins’ story except for the specific triangle mentioned above and the fateful act of the bride carrying her husband at their wedding feast. Freaks’ calamitous reception from studio, censors, and eventual audience is an irreducible part of its legend: Thalberg backed the film right through filming but disastrous preview screenings made him cut half an hour from the 90 minute film, and when the film proved only intermittently popular it sold on to the infamous early independent exploitation filmmaker and distributor Dwaine Esper, who added a hyping moralistic scroll to the opening. Today the opening with the MGM logo and the single title card have been restored: the title card proves to be a poster torn through by a hand in a brusque and potent gesture that confirms this film will be something unusual.

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The flashback structure harkens back to Robert Wiene’s ever-influential Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919), and the films share a circus setting and inside-out sense of social reality. A sideshow barker (Murray Kinnell) entices an audience with the strange and shocking story of one of his human exhibits, offering a salutary message to the crowd of gawkers: “You laughed at them, shuddered at them, and yet but for the accident of birth, you might be even as they are,” and notes that, “Their code is a law unto themselves – offend one and you offend them all.” The barker then moves to the side of a pit wherein resides “the most astounding living monstrosity of all time,..she was once a beautiful woman.” The twinned concepts of beauty and monstrosity are immediately tethered in the language of spectacle and showbiz, each necessary to the successful purveying of entertainment-as-business and which also provides a way of living to those who fall at either extreme of the dichotomy. The opening gives away the ultimate twist of the story, as Browning dissolves from the barker noting this particular former beauty was once called “the peacock of the air” to the image of Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) perched on an acrobatic swing high under the circus big top. The peacock of the air eventually becomes the fowl in the pit in Browning’s particularly savage and punitive take on the familiar tradition of dark storytelling, one built around a morality play climaxing with highly ironic punishment. Robbins’ gleefully sadistic tale resolved with Jacques murdering Simon and forcing his wife to carry him right across France like the horses she used to ride, digging spurs into her back all the way.

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The contradiction built into Freaks as a film, the simultaneous demystification and humanist embrace of the “freaks” themselves and the ultimate segue into their nightmarish eruption as a force of strange vengeance, is complex and not entirely free of qualms. But it’s also very much the film’s ultimate subject: the imagery of the freaks chasing down their prey with grim and homicidal purpose ought to be scarcely more disturbing ultimately than the many instances of contempt and verbal abuse turned on them throughout the preceding hour of cinema, with many of the “normal” people portrayed as attractive but loathsome and the “freaks” as a warm, proud, individualistic bunch. An early scene sees a gamekeeper, Jean (Michael Visaroff) leading his estate owner employer (Albert Conti) through forest, gabbling about glimpsing unnatural creatures dancing in stygian scenes in the depths of the estate, only to find the freaks picnicking and at play under the care of Madame Tetrallini (Rose Dione), their mother figure amongst the circus employees. When the intruders disturb their play the “children” as Tetrallini calls them scurry to her in fright despite her admonitions, and the estate owner contrasts the rabid offence of his gamekeeper by graciously giving them permission to stay and not acting at all perturbed. Browning quickly makes the freaks seem normal and defines them as innocents who have to buy their moments in the sun with an expected edge of risk of reviling and rejection.

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Browning and his screenwriters Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon offer the stable of freaks in the unnamed circus, which is travelling through what seems to be rural France that is the setting for the entire film, as both a world apart but also as just another coherent working community, granted collective integrity and independence precisely and ironically because of their peculiarity. There’s no interest in the circus folks’ interactions with patrons, with the estate owner and the groundskeeper the only outsiders glimpsed, and they’re sufficient to represent the world. Much of Freaks is indeed more an oddball, gentle sitcom rather than a horror-thriller, as Browning emphasises the interactions between the circus denizens, some of it encompassing the casual cruelty of the usual towards the unusual, but most of it mediated with the gentler by-play between characters, but with the actual plot simmering away from the earliest frames of the flashback, as Hans (Harry Earles), a midget in the circus, stares longingly up at Cleopatra as she dangles from the highwires, with his fiancé Frieda (Daisy Earles) gazing on helplessly as she registers his smitten distraction. Hans is one of Browning’s most habitual character types, a figure who feels his humanity all the more ferociously despite not being perceived as an entire person. “They don’t realise that I’m a man, with the same feelings they have.” Hans reacts with aggrieved vehemence when he feels his sovereignty and his instinct for protectiveness have been offended, shrugging off the familiar mockery of most of the circus hands but standing up with unbridled rage when they extend the same mockery to Cleopatra when she’s playing up to him.

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Browning’s films with Chaney fixated on figures who both invite and deal out mortification and whose perversities and neuroses are written in the flesh, most particularly the antihero Alonzo of The Unknown who elects to have his arms surgically removed so he can emerge from a life of hiding, an act designed to make real his extended performance, and Dead Legs of West of Zanzibar, whose physical paralysis is explicitly connected with his moral rot and desire to debase others, as he drives his adopted daughter into forced prostitution in a campaign of revenge. In Dracula he mostly passed off the imagery conveying such grotesquery onto the world surrounding the characters, particularly in the visions of Dracula’s castle, alive with seething, crawling, scuttling animal life, a visual motif he repeated in Mark of the Vampire as well as proffering a multilayered, self-satirising joke about role-playing and the deceptive appeal of woolly-minded narratives. Later, in The Devil-Doll, Browning found a new metaphor for exploring the artist figure and his literal human puppets as vehicles of delight and menace. Freaks as traits in common with all of these but with an inevitable caveat: Browning’s stars are entirely themselves, requiring no make-up or fakery, presenting a wing of show business ironically defined by inescapable reality rather than hiding from it or rewriting it at whim.

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Hans also possesses another quality Browning constantly gave his protagonists, a grim need to ultimately confront the moment when he will be exposed and humiliated. Earles had played the leader of the gang in The Unholy Three, where he gleefully tore to shreds the enforced childish image for midget actors by playing a vicious, dictatorial master criminal (that film was also based on a Tod Robbins story). The relationship between Hans and Frieda is a core facet of the drama and one where Browning takes their emotional experiences with absolute seriousness and psychological attentiveness, allowing Harry both dignity in his transgressive passion, seeing nothing sick or aberrant about his erotic needs stoked by Cleopatra, even as he enacts the arc of a thousand chumps in noir films like, say, Elisha Cook in The Killing (1956), haplessly under the sway of a beautiful, heartless woman who nonetheless hooks him not just by appealing to basic erotic urges but to his complex, masochistic streak, the desire for aspiration and degradation constantly cohabiting. Frieda’s maternally styled affection for Hans is the kind of selflessly suffering love that fuelled a thousand romantic melodramas in turn. Browning allows the couple a depth of pathos and emotional intricacy, and his shooting is attentive in visual language to such intensity and schismatic feeling, as when he has Hans abruptly turn from Frieda and walk out through a door where he hovers beyond the threshold, the two contained by frames within frames in their different spaces of angst and longing. “To me you’re a man, but to her you’re only something to laugh at.” Ironically the casting of the two Earles, who were actually brother and sister, is just about the kinkiest touch in the whole movie.

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Browning presents both authorial and audience surrogates in the clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) and performing seal trainer Venus (Leila Hyams), who form a quirky romantic coupling as the story unfolds and maintain an entirely equable friendship with the freaks. They contrast many of the other circus workers, like the two jerks who tease the “half-woman half-man” Josephine Joseph. Josephine Joseph fancies the circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), who is first introduced breaking up with Venus, who he kicks out of his trailer. In one of the film’s many, notable pre-Production Code touches, they’re depicted quite directly as being merely shacked up together. After storming out on Hercules, Venus pauses to launch into a rhetorical harangue at Phroso, who listens in bewilderment as he strips off his performing costume, before suddenly flaring up, chasing after her, and delivering his own by way of angry consolation. Phroso is Browning’s artist hero, granted an extra degree of awareness in some things but slightly too distracted by his creative process in others, as when he gets too absorbed in building a prop for a gag he thinks up to remember to go on a date with Venus – Browning offers a good visual gag as it seem Phroso is having a bath out in the open before the unabashed Venus, only to pull back and reveal Phoros has cut the bottom out of the bath and has mounted it on wheels, and is only stripped to the waist. This nonetheless segues into Phroso and Venus’ bashful first kiss. Phroso’s acts notably depend on him playing games with his own physical identity, making a quip, “You should’ve seen me before my operation,” and dressing in costume that allow him to suddenly seem headless. Rather than aspiring towards the appearance of strength and normality, his theatrical project is to be more like the freaks.

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Much of the film’s midsection is similarly given over to portraying the peculiarities of life in this subculture, laced with hints of perverse experience, particularly in the case of the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet (Daisy and Violet Hilton). Daisy is engaged to marry one of the circus performers, the stammering Roscoe (Rosco Ates), who regards Violet with the kind of pecking hostility many a husband would turn on a sister-in-law constantly hanging around, and it’s made clear the sisters share sensations: Roscoe warns Violet off drinking too much because he doesn’t want a hungover wife. Later, famously, when Violet becomes engaged to a lothario, he kisses her and Daisy quivers in shared ecstasy. This follows Phroso and Venus’ kiss and precedes Roscoe and Phroso glimpsing Hans leaving Cleopatra’s trailer, in a roundelay of vignettes grazing the edge of the peculiar erotic life of the circus denizens, although in one case of course the appearances are deceiving. Roscoe is introduced to the fiancé, who graciously tells his soon-to-be-brother-in-law, “You must come to see us sometime.” Roscoe’s anxiety about being unmanned by his unusual marriage is at once rich and understandable considering makes a living himself through blurred gender identity, dressing up every night as a “Roman maiden” in some act. The comedy of manners plays out simultaneous to the darker drama. Roscoe makes Phroso crack up when he comments that Cleopatra “must be going on a diet.” In fact Hercules quickly catches Cleopatra’s eye and becomes her conspiratorial lover, and when he glimpses Josephine Joseph gazing on in lovelorn disquiet, he punches them in the face, much to Cleopatra’s amusement. This is actually the most overt and shocking moment of violence actually seen in the film.

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The palpable physical reality of the performers makes Freaks as much an historical document as a movie. Some critics have theorised Browning intended Freaks as a riposte to the eugenics movement, then at a height in the US, by showcasing the ingenuity and physical genius of his performers, as well as their personalities. Certainly the film’s general pitch counters the kind of thinking behind such a movement, seeing the specific worth in the variously abled performers, and comprehending their often amazing physical attributes, which provide Browning with much of his movie. One wry scene sees an acrobat yammer on about his act to Prince Randian, ‘The Living Torso,’ who has no arms or legs but patiently lights himself a cigarette purely with his mouth, after he which he announces proudly, “I can do anything with my mouth.” Johnny Eck, ‘the Half-Boy,’ born with sacral agenenis leaving him without legs, trots about on his hands with an astounding sense of motion and balance. ‘The Armless Girl’ Frances O’Connor, primly and precisely eating and drinking entirely with her toes whilst chatting with Minnie Woolsey, aka Koo Koo ‘The Bird Girl’. Three people with microcephaly, or pinheads as they often were called at the time, appear in the film, including one marvellous vignette of Phroso jesting with the performer Schlitzie (who was male but is referred to in the film as female), in a scene that breaks down any barrier between the movie and capturing Ford and Schlitzie interacting, Schlitzie’s bashful delight as Ford teasing her about her new dress before Schlitzie becomes mock-angry with him when he offers to buy one of the others a big hat, giving him a slap, and then a reassuring pat.

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Freaks’ European setting, despite the large number of very American actors in the movie and the strong aura they keep alive through the film from the American circus community Browning had known, situates it squarely in the emerging Hollywood gothic horror movement’s air of displaced and cloistered reality. That thin wedge of divorcement allows Freaks, like the previous year’s Frankenstein, to present a thorny commentary on social norms without seeming to. Like James Whale’s film it revolves around communal rejection of the “abnormal” and climaxes with an act of mob justice, but where Whale at that point was could only signal a degree of empathy for the monster but had to ultimately side with the wider forces of society that sets out to destroy the destructive reject, Browning wholeheartedly embraces the outsider perspective with all attendant social and political meaning. His freaks are a community apart, both entrapped by the circus but also protected and allowed to be functional within it. That communal identity and integrity have appeal, and Hans, despite becoming independently wealthy thanks to an inheritance, still sticks with the circus because to leave it would be to leave society, a notion confirmed at the very end, although by then it’s an act of choice. Once Cleopatra hears about Hans’ inheritance, it encourages her to move from merely profiting from Hans’ occasional gifts and gaining private entertainment from his ardour, to thinking about claiming his riches through marrying him and then killing him. Frieda accidentally reveals Hans’ fortune to Cleopatra when she makes a pathetic entreaty to the willowy beauty not to play around with Hans.

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The ready potential for a circus setting as a metaphor for moviemaking and the attendant industry of beauty-manufacturing is something other filmmakers haven’t neglected, from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth (1952) to Sidney Hayers’ Circus of Horrors (1960). Freaks goes deeper and bites harder in beholding the circus as the ideal amphitheatre for such preoccupations, taking to an extreme the negotiation between an audience fused from painful flesh and taunting dreams and its objects of illusory beauty, and the will to tear those objects to pieces when they prove human. For Browning, who had been a part of the larger but in many ways just as insular and segregated world of working entertainment for his entire life, the freaks are a particular example of a loving human commune, and obliges the audience to identify with them as surrogates in the midst of the Depression and the usual business of surviving in the world. Cleopatra and Hercules are mockeries of the usual business of movie stardom and its obliged identification with the usual winners in society, the strong and the beautiful, surviving like vampires off the figurative and literal theft of others’ time, money, and aspirations, and repaying with contempt and violence. Baclanova’s casting played on her other best-known role in The Man Who Laughs (1926), where she played the fetishist Duchess turned on by caressing the edges of ugliness. Here by contrast she plays a person pretending to indifferent to physical difference, but with a similarly extreme evocation of sensual cruelty and egotism.

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The film’s infamous apotheosis comes when Hans and Cleopatra are married and hold a celebration attended by the friends of the bride, which in Cleopatra’s case is just Hercules, and Hans, being his sideshow pals. Browning even gives the episode a title card, as in a silent film, to give it special import: “The Wedding Feast.” The circus folk all do their party piece for the sake of entertainment in the giddily cheerful moment, from Koo Koo doing a weird shimmying dance on the table-top, to a sword-swallower and fire-eater doing their bits. Cleopatra wastes no time in beginning her husband’s slow death as she poisons the wine he’s drinking, and gets swiftly drunk to the point where she scarcely conceals her passion for Hercules and treats Hans with patronising good-humour, pinching his cheeks and pouring him cups of poison. One of the dwarves, Angeleno (Angelo Rossitto), proposes they hold the ritual induction for a new member of their circular with a loving cup, which he passes around whilst trotting along on the feast table, and the freaks begin chanting, “One of us! One of us! Gooble Gobble, gooble gobble!” The song is both childlike and goofy but also nagging and perturbing in its monotone repetition, the sound of the community rejoicing in their own weirdness, a veil dropped. The amplifying rhythm of the editing, both vision and sound, blends the chanting with Cleopatra and Hercules’ raucous laughter into a hysterical gestalt, until Hercules comments to Cleopatra, “They’re going to make you one of them, my big duck!”

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Squinting drunkenly to behold the proceedings more closely, Cleopatra’s amusement abruptly wanes, as she stands and beholds the scene now as a stygian vortex threatening to consume her, and she reacts with sudden, noisy rage, bellowing, “You dirty, slimy freaks! Freaks! Freaks!” The horrendous force of Cleopatra’s abuse and rage lands like a collective slap to the face, and she flings the contents of the cup at them, driving them out. When Hans protests she’s made him feel ashamed, Hercules and Cleopatra compound the humiliation as the strongman scoops him up and deposits Hans on Cleopatra’s shoulders, and as she forcibly piggybacks him around the ring Hercules grabs up a trumpet and begins blowing it merrily, at which point Browning mercifully fades out. This scene sees the film’s uneasy aesthetic, with its observant, often wry tone interspersed with darker notes of mockery and bigotry, abruptly cohere. The way the feast builds in intensity into a spectacle of rejection and cruelty is almost without parallel, treading the finest of lines in evoking both sides of the equation, the group enthusiasm of the freaks in their ritual of acceptance and the repulsion of Cleopatra. She comprehends the ritual’s meaning as a reversal, however malice-free, of the familiar power dynamic: suddenly the secret lode of force is not located in being superior to or even accepting of the freaks, but in their act of accepting, and Cleopatra experiences the moment as, in quintessential Browning fashion, deep humiliation. The party degenerates into a sickly mockery of family dynamics – Cleopatra and Hercules treat Hans as their child in order to reclaim their authority.

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The next day, the two “normal” people make their apologies to Hans, using their drunkenness as an excuse and all but demanding acceptance of the apology because it was all “just a joke.” Which points to the key quality Freaks remains painfully relevant even as its setting and most of its particulars have faded into vague cultural memory and surreal hyperbole, in its comprehension of the little games of dominion and dominance involving things like who has the right to laugh at who enacted all day, every day in society, with the swaggering bullies playing the aggrieved parties in being obliged to act contrite. Hans, troubled and ill, soon collapses as Cleopatra’s poisoning takes effect, and a doctor only diagnoses ptomaine poisoning. Nonetheless the wedding feast has alerted the other freaks that something sleazy is going on, and they form a silent, attentive cabal who now focus their collective attention of proceedings, hovering with silent, boding interest. Their staring presence discourages Hercules from assaulting Venus when she confronts him about her suspicions. Nonetheless he and Cleopatra agree that Venus must be silenced. Meanwhile it becomes clear that far from oblivious to what the couple are trying to do to him, Hans is now aware he’s being poisoned, as Angeleno visits him as he feigns sickness, and Hans mimics Cleopatra’s assuring ministrations with a queasy smile.  As the circus caravan heads on to another town along a muddy road amidst a thunderstorm, Cleopatra continues to poison the bedridden Hans whilst Hercules moves break into Venus’ trailer and kill her.

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Here, Browning finally shifts into outright horror imagery and an eruption of action that, whilst hardly arbitrary, nonetheless presents a radical stylistic and thematic reversal appropriate to the theme of tables-turned vengeance. The idea of the “code of the freaks” as mooted by the narrating barker, whilst certainly codswallop invented for the film, nonetheless has the pricking insistence of a campfire tale, an idea promulgated to frighten the young and the foolish into being a tiny bit mindful of what they say and do, and might have had some roots in the real culture of the circus. The thunderstorm provides pummelling rain and flashes of lightning that nicely punctuate the dramatic pivot of the entire movie, when Hans suddenly sits up his bed as Cleopatra tries to ply him with poison and demands the bottle she has in her pocket. Browning weaves an increasingly odd, tense, eerie mood, as Hans’ friends hover and Angeleno blows a creepy tune on an ocarina, before the menace becomes overt, as the visitors unveil a jack-knife and a gun. Baclanova handles the moment when the penny drops with memorable poise, freezing with suddenly wide, glaring eyes and vanishing fake smile as Hans demands the poison bottle. Meanwhile Hercules slips out of his trailer and drops back to attack Venus in hers, whilst Frieda, having eavesdropped on Hercules and Cleopatra making plans, warning Phroso of his intentions. Hercules smashes through the door of Venus’ trailer, but Phroso manages to catch him and the two struggle in the mud. Hercules is skewered with a knife by a dwarf as he throttles Phroso, and the wounded strongman squirms away in the mud as the freaks advance on him. Cleopatra’s trailer hits a broken branch and breaks an axle. Cleopatra flees screaming into the rainy night, chased by Hans and the other little people.

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Freaks’ ploy of sustaining a tone to proceedings that seems at first to belong to a different genre but also calmly sets the scene for a radical shift, and eschewing overt terror and the stylisation of the Expressionist-style Horror film until an eruption of jaggedly ugly violence, has proven a source of real power over the intervening decades, power other genre filmmakers have channelled. Movies like The Wicker Man (1973) or Audition (1999) with their similarly jarring shifts from sustained eccentricity to hideous reckonings might still exist without it, but its influence feels crucial, as well as its less immediate echoes through art-house filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, who would repeatedly pay tribute to its rarefied evocation of the circus as a place apart from society where social laws become both relaxed and microcosmic. Here too are inklings of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1978), with its complete entrance into a nightmare zone where the humanity of the misbegotten and mangled becomes too terrible to bear. The finale, discomfortingly, depends on the sudden reversal of the way the freaks have been presented until now: where before the film normalised them, suddenly Browning offers them scuttling through the rain and mud with insinuating motion, turned to pure nightmare fuel.

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On the one hand, this seems to contradict the message of the film until this point, as Browning literally and purposefully makes the freaks dirty and slimy as per Cleopatra’s words. But the real charge of the sequence is in the spectacle of the freaks’ surrendering of their hard-won humanity for the sake of revenge, a spectacle consistent with Browning’s other works: to suddenly see even the gentle Schlitzie as an armed and dangerous being is a genuinely disturbing spectacle. To be human is to also have a dark, dangerous, wilful side as well as a sense of justice, two innate qualities that can’t always be easily separated especially with a group such as the freaks who are without recourse, and the freaks get things done as they will. The finale obviously suffered greatly from Thalberg’s editing, as well as the postscript: the extant film dissolves from the sight of Cleopatra screaming as she’s chased through the woods back to the wraparound sequence of the barker recounting the story. His concluding words embrace ambiguity, as if he’s been an unreliable narrator: “How she got that way will never be known. Some say a jealous lover. Others, that it was the code of the freaks. Others, the storm. Believe it or not, there she is.” Browning reveals what’s left of Cleopatra, now scarred, with both her legs and perhaps her tongue cut away and possibly left insane, making some sort of living jammed into a duck costume for the amusement of the crowd, left subsisting at the nexus of human and inhuman, sense and nonsense, served as erotic travesty.

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Originally, it was supposed to be made clear that this was taking place in a dime museum called Tetrallini’s Freaks and Music Hall, suggesting a move from Madame Tetrallini to give her stable a permanent home. It was also made clear that Hercules survived the freaks’ vengeance but was glimpsed singing in a high voice as another act in the museum, hinting he had been castrated. As it is, Freaks elides such clarification, and indeed, the glimpse of the mutilated Cleopatra suffices as a punch-line, with all its grim and perverted implications and final embrace of a total, hysterical devolution into dream-logic and sadistic fantasy. In some prints, the film ends with this as the appropriately ghastly last image, but there’s a coda in others depicting Hans now living in a mansion, having cut himself off from other people, only to be visited by Phroso, Venus, and Frieda. Where the barker’s narration hints at unreliability, the possibility that everything seen and heard in the account of the duck-girl’s creation is phooey, the coda renders it inarguably true. It also tries to mitigate the fact that Hans is seen amidst one of the cabal chasing Cleopatra down. Frieda assures him she knows he tried and failed to turn his friends from their dreadful punishment, and his current isolation is driven by guilt, eased finally by the couple reconciling. The coda might well have been shot by Thalberg in an attempt to mitigate the bleak splendour of the climax with a note of reassurance, and its does work to an extent, in that it gives the romantic triangle that was at the story’s heart a nominally happy ending. But nothing can quite win out over the image of the twisted, feathered Cleopatra squawking away in the sawdust…

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Black Widow (2021)

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Director: Cate Shortland
Screenwriter: Eric Pearson

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

It’s odd at this point that a Disney-Marvel superhero blockbuster could seem like an underdog, but Black Widow feels like one. The so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe series’ domination of pop movie culture grew wearisome for many well before the clumsy and disappointing but historically successful Avengers: Endgame (2019), and the enforced cessation of it during the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to drain the steam from the juggernaut. Black Widow, the chief victim of the hiatus in being pushed back a year, has then become an ideal target for a takedown. Making a solo outing for Scarlett Johansson’s lithe engine of destruction is fraught with ambiguities. Marvel was long weak at the knees when it came to female superheroes fronting their own movies, having previously only dared it with Captain Marvel (2018), a film with an utter nonentity for a protagonist, and might as well have simply been delivered as the succession of internet memes it so patently wanted to spawn. Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff was by contrast the most genuinely interesting of the classic line-up of heroes in the film franchise, a warrior whose gifts were more those of enormous precision and skill rather than force and magic powers, with an enigmatic background involving lodes of trauma and guilt, allowing her to seem more than just another Smurfette in a crowd of fast and bulbous pals. The character, introduced impressively in the otherwise awful Iron Man 2 (2010), was presented as a professional femme fatale, enticing with a passively sexy veneer only to reveal by degrees the hard-as-nails and omnicompetent combatant beneath.

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After numerous stand-out roles as a child actor, Johansson hit stardom with her performance in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (2003), where she surprised everyone with her display of intelligence and soulful maturity despite still being a teenager, successfully playing a character older than she actually was. Perhaps not since Lauren Bacall had a female star come along who seemed to worldly wise beyond her years, and that aura certainly informed her casting as Natasha, a woman who’s lived ages before her 30th birthday. But Johansson struggled to make good on her promise with lacklustre performances in films like Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2004), and she skidded around in the next few years, mostly in middlebrow award-bait movies. It wasn’t until she played Black Widow and embraced a more populist appeal that her screen persona finally resolved, playing deftly off her clammily hailed sex appeal but also giving the perfect vehicle for her to assume a cagey kind of sovereignty, creating an image she parleyed into vehicles as different yet commonly rooted in her persona as Under The Skin (2014) and Ghost In The Shell (2017). Meanwhile Natasha provided a great foil for her co-stars in the Marvel films, particularly Chris Evans’ Captain America in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) where the two shared what Natasha wryly noted was his first kiss since 1945.

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Cate Shortland’s Black Widow faces a special challenge, in being both a star vehicle reliant on Johansson in the role – she’s billed as one of the executive producers – and also a salutary farewell to her and a potential set-up to posit her replacement. The character was killed off in Avengers: Endgame, sacrificing herself to obtain one of the super-MacGuffin Infinity Stones to save half the universe. On paper it was a gutsy, nobly selfless end for a character driven by a stinging awareness of her moral compromise, in practice an odd and clumsy outro for a figure who never quite got her due and then suffered from being identified as the expendable one not required for the big punch-up finale where she was ridiculously supplanted by an array of suddenly inducted female superheroes. Black Widow is set in the series continuity between Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), avoiding revising Natasha’s death, a weirdly deflating move, but also one the film turns to its own advantage in exploring its own fin-de-siecle mood, trying to give her fate some new meaning. The film begins in suburban Ohio in 1990, depicting young Natasha (Ever Anderson) and her sister Yelena (Violet McGraw) playing and strolling with their mother Melina (Rachel Weisz). Later they settle down for dinner as their father Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) gets home, only for him to announce that the great adventure he once promised to take them on is now imminent.

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Turns out the family isn’t really a family, but a carefully planted group of sleeper agents sent to steal information by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a power-mad hold-out from the Communist era still running covert operations. Alexei is the closest thing the Soviet Union ever created to Captain America, a supersoldier codenamed Red Guardian, and he’s seen casually managing feats of strength and agility, including clinging onto the wing of the aircraft they use to flee to Cuba after dodging American agents. Natasha has to fly the plane after Melina is clipped by a bullet. Once they arrive in Cuba, where they’re met by Dreykov, the family is immediately disbanded, Melina spirited away for surgery, whilst Natasha snatches a pistol to ward off threatening soldiers from harming Yelena. But in imagery interpolated during the subsequent opening credits, Natasha and Yelena are glimpsed with a number of other frightened girls being shipped back Russia in a cargo container, deliberately reminiscent of human trafficking. We, or at least anyone familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, know what happens to Natasha at least, as she’s put through the ruthless training program for female assassins Dreykov runs called the Black Widows. The program is run out of a secret abode called the Red Room, the mere name of which sends a shiver up the spine of anyone who knows of it, but none of the Black Widows actually know where it is because of the elaborate security protocols.

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Cut to twenty-odd years later, as Natasha is being hunted by former General, now Secretary Ross (William Hurt), the asshole-in-chief overseeing the implementation of the Sukovia Accords designed to put a check on superhero activity. Natasha easily keeps a step ahead of Ross, relying on her fixer pal Mason (O-T Fagbenle) to provide her with equipment and safe houses. He leaves her in a caravan in rural Norway along with a bundle of her belongings transferred from a safe house she used to keep in Budapest. What Natasha doesn’t know yet is that the now-grown Yelena (Florence Pugh), also a Black Widow, has secreted something very important and very dangerous amongst her belongings. Yelena belongs to the subsequent generation of Widows who, after Natasha successfully defected, were subjected to chemical brainwashing that left them all completely unable to resist any orders from Dreykov. On a mission in Morocco to track down a renegade former comrade, Yelena caught a face full of a red gas that suddenly freed her will just as she fatally stabbed her quarry: an older Widow created an antidote to the enslaving treatment. Yelena is obliged with her new-found freedom to keep it out of Dreykov’s hands, turning to Natasha who had no idea Yelena was still a Widow and thought Dreykov was dead, because she and Clint Barton blew up Dreykov’s apartment in Budapest along with his young daughter.

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On a plot level Black Widow is nothing special, a little bit Bourne, a little bit Bond (Shortland includes a scene of Natasha watching Moonraker, 1979, on TV, signalling which particular Bond template the film will soon follow), a little bit Boris and Natasha from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. It stakes out similar territory to Andrew Dominik’s Red Sparrow (2017), which dealt with the harsh training of Russian female agents and might as well stand in for the mostly off-stage experiences of Natasha, Yelena, and the other Widows, and David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde (2017). Both of those, whilst not particularly good in their own right, went to places Black Widow might have gone and maybe should have in dealing more overtly with the guilty fantasy figure of the ass-kicking, hard-loving female spy, but Black Widow tries to stay wedged in the confluence of family adventure flick and dark-and-gritty genre film. Hard action aficionados and those who love the Marvel movies for their flashy special effects and generally bouncy tone will likely find it a frustrating watch because the nominal storyline is often placed aside for long tracts engaging in interaction and hard reckoning. Deep down it’s a character drama wrapped in the glitz and glamour of a tent-pole epic, studying the obverse of the usual driving power fantasies of superhero movies, in depicting people who are despite their abilities all human wreckage, stymied by circumstance and conspiracy, trying desperately to hang on to what few fragments of grace and worth they have left.

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Shortland, who emerged with the excellent debut feature Somersault (2004) and eventually followed it up with Lore (2014) and Berlin Syndrome (2017), has been until now associated with quietly intense art house dramas that double as dark fairytales, with a fascination for young and naïve female adventurers abroad, often thrown into situations with complex and duplicitous men who may or may not mean them harm. What’s surprising is the degree to which Black Widow feels of a unit with her earlier work, down to retaining a toned-down version of her trademark jittery visual style utilising handheld cameras and shallow-focus, ever-so-slightly disorientating camerawork. Of her three films Berlin Syndrome, a complex and discomforting work about a young woman held captive by a man she’s had a one-night stand with, probably landed Shortland the job of directing Black Widow, as both her most recent and one concerned with enslavement and coercion, although the opening scene with Natasha and Yelena playing feels closer to Somersault’s portrayal of hapless innocence and a blithe attitude to a world hiding cruel fates. Shortland’s approach is most effective in the early scenes which smartly establish the fake family as nonetheless inhabiting a working simulacrum of normality and functioning, as Melina schools the two girls with her vast knowledge of biology, before returning home to a family dinner where the chemistry of the family members feels genuine, no matter how many secrets everyone is keeping. The escape plays out as a mostly realistic thriller-action scene only punctuated by Alexei’s feats of strength. It all has a down-to-earth quality that worked well in the first MCU entry, Iron Man (2008), before the fantasy and sci-fi aspects trucked in from the source comics took over, and was revisited to a degree in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the entry in the series Black Widow most closely resembles.

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Of course, that kind of approach isn’t going to last forever in a movie that nods to Moonraker as a style guide, but Black Widow sustains it for a surprisingly long time. Indeed, there’s a surprising level of mostly implied but sometimes quite immediate meditation on cruelty and suffering, stated unnecessarily in the Nietzschean catchphrase Natasha and Yelena learn from Melina: “Pain only makes you stronger.” From the nightmarish tint of the opening credits vignettes Black Widow does its best to consider the process that made Natasha and Yelena so damn tough and capable as involving much pain indeed, including the previously-mentioned but still discomforting detail of their having received forced hysterectomies, which proves to be almost an aside compared to the level of control imposed over the newer Widows, who can be forced to blow themselves up. Young Yelena cries over a scraped knee; the older one uses a knife to cut out the tracking chip implanted in her thigh once she gains her autonomy. Returning to confront the institution that pulled her apart and refashioned her into something both more and less than human, Natasha is obliged to face up to the crimes she committed not only for Dreykov but in her campaign to escape his clutches, which claimed, as Natasha puts it, collateral damage. Natasha is genuinely shocked when she tracks down Yelena and her sister tells her Dreykov is still alive, so the sisters break Alexei out of the Siberian prison he’s been cast into for years hoping he knows the truth. He in turn leads them to Melina, who has remained Dreykov’s thrall and collaborator, having played a vital part in developing his mind-control methods, which Melina demonstrates on one of her pet pigs in a queasy moment.

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There’s an interesting edge of the Sadean to all this, communicated through Shortland’s obsessive use of red as a totem, symbolising, natch, the lingering influence of the Soviet Union but also associated with blood, suffering, plundering, and the loss of (and regaining of via the red gas) autonomy. Background trauma is a fairly compulsory aspect of modern heroic identity in fiction, particularly for superheroes, but Black Widow digs into something more rarefied and disturbing, conscious as it is that everything that makes Natasha a potent figure is also sourced in a history of anguish, down the to eventual, brutal revelation that Dreykov had her birth mother, who Natasha thought abandoned her, killed when she kept searching for her daughter. Shortland’s images, which often manage to escape the blandness of contemporary digi-cinema, feel more attuned to bodies, presences, putting muscle behind Johansson’s cumulatively palpable performance. Winstone’s Dreykov is a comparatively weak villain, but for a purpose. The career soldier and master of puppets is rather than someone actually brave and tough himself someone accomplished at using them: he’s less like an octopus with his tentacles reaching into everything and more like a lobster, safe and strong as long as his shell holds. The organisation he runs is one of the few ever presented in pop culture that feels as insidious and perverting as Fritz Lang offered in his Weimar thriller films, more so even than any of Bond’s antagonists, with Dreykov inhabiting his sky castle, plotting to quietly control the world and army of mind control victims, boasting that he can with one command cause financial chaos and cause mass starvation.

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Not, of course, that Black Widow makes as much of any of this as might have: despite offering something grittier than any other MCU film, it’s still trapped within that universe and all attendant commercial necessity. But it keeps its focus on the characters and the story infrastructure around them provides a blueprint describing their emotional landscape. The film’s best choice is almost entirely excising the rest of the MCU from proceedings, with Yelena making a quip about Dreykov not looking for revenge against Natasha lest he bring down “one of the big ones” from the Avengers on his head, and Alexei waxing nostalgic about battling Captain America in his glory days, only for one fellow prisoner to note that Cap was still in the Arctic ice when Alexei claims to have fought him. Yelena makes an acid comment at one point about Natasha posturing as a hero figure to little girls despite her history of bloodshed and the lack of choice afforded Yelena and the other Widows. It’s a nice line that makes a gesture towards dismantling the much-repeated pieties about superheroes, particularly the few female ones on the Marvel and DC movie rosters, serving as presumed role-models for their young audience when Natasha herself is not an easy identification figure. The film is then reasonably courageous in not trying to remake Natasha as some kind of straightforward character, but letting her inhabit a story with some nasty barbs. Only the character of Mason feels superfluous for someone as skilled in taking care of herself as Natasha, seemingly only really present in the movie to provide a kind of drone male all the better to show off Natasha’s dominant stature.

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The pivotal scene in the film comes once the “family” is reunited, observed in all their mismatched yet oddly bonded identities, cueing a dinner table scene with alternations of grievance, fury, affection, snarky élan, and personal chemistry: it’s a more interesting breakdown of the concept of a gang of would-be heroes as a family than the several others littering the current movie scene because the characters all have pretty good reasons to hate and mistrust each-other on top of sharing a relationship that was only ever a nominal ruse. And yet they find themselves inheriting all the urges and instincts of reality, as when Alexei tries in his oafish yet well-meaning way to comfort the injured and betrayed-feeling Yelena. Harbour’s Alexei is called upon to provide most of the film’s comic relief as the battered faux-paterfamilias, and yet even he’s stricken with an even worse dose of the same crippling melancholia. The once-proud representative of his nation, degraded and imprisoned through treachery, trapped in aging impotence boasting about opponents he never got to face before struggling to squeeze himself into his old costume, is finally given a moment to shine in the climax as he goes up against Dreykov’s secret weapon, the masked monstrosity codenamed Taskmaster.

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Taskmaster makes several attempts to catch up with Natasha and Yelena, almost killing Natasha when tracking down the cure shipped to her in Norway and then chasing the sisters through the streets of Budapest in an armoured car, two strong action sequences that thankfully don’t overstay their welcome. Taskmaster as antagonist has one intriguing specific ability, to match and exactly mimic an opponent’s fighting style. Taskmaster’s true identity would only be difficult to guess for anyone who’s never seen a movie: it’s actually the now-adult Antonia (a wasted Olga Kurylenko), left badly disfigured and paralysed by Natasha’s bomb rather than killed, and allowed to move by a computer chip installed in her spine that’s made her exponentially more strong and agile, at the price of being reduced to her father’s pure servant of will. This revelation is a bit rich given Taskmaster’s distinctly masculine build when masked, but then again a few dozen horror movies have pulled the same trick. More to the point, Antonia personifies Natasha’s sense of spurring guilt, and her turning out to still be alive helps finally mollify that guilt, whilst also providing her with a Frankensteinian doppelganger, the damaged emblem of what the other Widows only exhibit psychologically.

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Black Widow, as movies of this kind have to at the moment, must walk the middle path between the two most annoying factions in the online world: those policing it for any hint of sexuality that might give a teenage boy even the slightest pretext for a boner, and those policing it for any signs of unwanted “woke” messaging. For the former, well, there’s a coterie of fit women in catsuits, if never lingered on. Despite it being an inherent part of their function and training, the Widows seem to have had their sexual cunning and power removed along with their reproductive organs. As far as the latter goes, the Cold War redux themes are entirely facetious – Dreykov’s project is simply the accruing of power with only a veneer of Soviet nostalgia. The metaphors for villainous misogyny are rather more barbed and tightly wound into the story, but never belaboured through speechifying: they’re allowed to speak for themselves on the essential dramatic level. There’s been controversy recently as it’s emerged that the Marvel production house has been hiring directors from the indie film world to provide a veneer of creative cool and an injection of diversity but not letting them handle their own action scenes. Such a practice was once pretty de rigeur in Hollywood – Michael Curtiz and William Wyler amongst many had practiced action staging hands sub for them – but it does explain why the action sequences in the Marvel films tend to all feel interchangeable. I can’t complain here though: the mostly down-to-earth style of thrills in the early action scenes, and the final eruption of big, Bond-style chaos at the end, are exceptionally well-done, even if noting that a crashing car in the Budapest scene is infuriatingly CGI-rendered. I understand the temptation to take such short-cuts but it hurts the very essence of this kind of movie.

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The scene where Natasha and Yelena break Alexei out of jail, hovering over the prison with a helicopter and trying to scoop the old Red Guardian up before an avalanche hits, is good fun and at its best when the stunts look real and dangerous, like Natasha ducking the choppers’s sweeping tail rotor, but again is hampered by recourse to too many obvious special effects. The reality and film-texture-distorting impact of such effects might be said however to help such movies keep a foot planted in their drawn source material. The crucial dynamic in the film is most obviously between Johansson’s Natasha and Pugh’s Yelena, offering decent chemistry in their alternations of spiky attitude and quiescent affection. Their relationship is also informed by the women playing them, Johansson the still relatively young but by now weathered professional and familiar face pithed against Pugh, emerging as a star of potential after gaining attention with performances in films like Lady Macbeth (2017) and Midsommar (2019) where she played characters who meet evolve into fiends in the course of purging their own torments. Pugh’s still-young yet leonine face provides a great counterpoint to Johansson’s sleek features. Whilst she doesn’t yet have anything like the same following, Pugh offers real potential as a nominal replacement, partly because Yelena is a less sanguine creature partly defined by her edge of disdain, teasing her sister for being nearly as ludicrous as she is heroic, mocking her as a poser for her signature superhero landing in the film’s best running joke.

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But it’s Johansson’s film and she helps put it over the line with Natasha’s climactic meeting with Dreykov, after she and the rest of her “family” are ambushed and captured by Dreykov’s men thanks to Melina secretly calling them in. Dreykov is eager to reclaim Natasha not just for revenge but because she can help him subvert the Avengers and finally emerge from the shadows to become world dictator. Dreykov’s fail-safes include a mental block preventing Natasha from attacking him, triggered by his pheromones. Thankfully, Natasha’s long-established capacity to use her opponents’ overconfidence and arrogance, seen before to best advantage in The Avengers (2012), here resurges in a piece of narrative three-card-monte as it emerges Melina told her what to expect and how to circumvent it. Natasha gains access to Dreykov by wearing a mask disguising her as her mother, whilst Melina, Yelena, and Alexei escape from captivity and set about destroying the Red Room, which is actually a huge flying techno-fort hovering above the clouds.

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The confrontation between Natasha and Dreykov, which nods to RoboCop’s (1987) Directive 4 as Natasha finds herself unable to stab the man who perverted her life and murdered her mother, takes on a real edge of pathology as Natasha provokes Dreykov into punching her repeatedly, grinning all the time as he takes his best, meanest shots with a mocking pleasure bordering on masochism, a willingness to take punishment for her cause usually only reserved to male heroes. It’s a moment that highlights Johansson’s overqualified but definite affinity for the part, and gains its self-mutilating climax when Natasha, disappointed by Dreykov’s blows, instead smashes her nose against his desk to sever her olfactory nerve, freeing her to wail on him with impunity. Intervention by the other Widows saves Dreykov, as Natasha is despite her prowess overwhelmend and brought to the brink of ruin, only to be saved Yelena’s quick-thinking intervention. This leads to a fitting moment as Natasha releases Antonia, trapped by Alexei and Melina after a fight, from a prison cell as the Red Room begins to disintegrate, willing to face Antonia’s augmented wrath rather than leave her to die.

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Yelena finishes up killing Dreykov by thrusting an explosive into the rotor of his hovercraft before it can take off, exploding the craft and hurling Yelena out into a freefall towards earth. Natasha, in a spectacular nod to the famous opening of Moonraker, leaps from the Red Room and plunges after her whilst trying to pull on a parachute amidst falling hunks of flaming debris. Everything ends well, with Antonia and the other Widows successfully freed from the mind control yoke, Dreykov’s network open to dismantling, and the wayward family surviving and making their peace. Natasha heads off to her ultimate fate with her past thoroughly laid to rest. A brief post-credits coda in the usual MCU fashion provides the gambit for a new looming conflict as Yelena visits her grave and some shadowy government screwball (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) hiring her to go after the man supposedly responsible for her death, handing her a picture of Clint. Black Widow isn’t a transcendentally great entry in the current superhero cycle, mostly hamstrung by its inability through obeisance to its franchise setting to go as far as it should have in embracing a more grown-up and gruelling type of story. But I still liked Black Widow more than I’ve liked most blockbusters in several years, and it cured some of my sourness towards the MCU, because it goes as far as it does.

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The Traveller (1974)

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Director / Screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami

By Roderick Heath

Tehran-born Abbas Kiarostami first dabbled in painting as a teenager in the 1950s, won a competition that got him to his home town’s School of Fine Arts, and supported himself during his studies by working as a traffic cop. Kiarostami soon vaulted into a successful career in advertising in the 1960s, gaining filmmaking experience shooting TV commercials and creating titles for movies. Iranian cinema grew rapidly in terms of films produced in the 1960s, and a New Wave movement began to gather steam, sparked by films like Davoud Mollapour’s Shohare Ahoo Khanoom (1968), Masoud Kimiai’s Qeysar, and Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (both 1969), with a stringently realistic, neorealist-influenced approach and resolutely earthy and immediate subject matter. The Ayatollah Khomeini was reportedly so impressed by The Cow that it convinced him not to ban cinema in Iran after the Revolution of 1979. Inspired by the burgeoning New Wave, Kiarostami and some other new directors set up the Kanoon Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, to make movies for and about young people, and it soon became a notable production outfit for a string of important films. Kiarostami made his first film for it with the 12-minute short The Bread and Alley, leaving behind his schooling in the slickness of commercials for a more boldly original and experimental approach as he infuriated his crew by insisting on shooting a key scene without cuts, testing out his early conviction that he could generate greater intensity and conviction by reducing shots and edits to a minimum.

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Kiarostami officially made his feature-length debut with 1973’s The Experience, but he considered his true debut film to be his follow-up The Traveller. In the late 1980s Kiarostami rose to international prominence, cemented when he captured the 1997 Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry, and helped other Iranian directors like Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf present a vanguard reintroducing the country’s culture to the world at large. Unlike many other Iranian filmmakers, Kiarostami weathered the Revolution, in part because his sense of parochial identity was a deep vein in his art, even liking to weave classical Persian poetry into his films, although his two late masterpieces released before his death in 2016, Certified Copy (2010) and Like Someone In Love (2012), were made outside the country. Kiarostami’s mature cinema was equally acclaimed and derided for his peculiar approach to narrative cinema, often eliding seemingly crucial details and dialogue, utilising stringent long takes and a minimalist but beguilingly flexible visual style. The Traveller, an adaptation of a story by Hassan Rafi’i, has many hallmarks of a debut feature, emerging from the earnest zeitgeist of the era’s emergent national and regional film movements, counting the likes of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and The Bicycle Thieves (1948), François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), and Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) as immediate ancestors, and looks forward to subsequent independent films like Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), in making a truthful-feeling study of the theme of a young person on an odyssey negotiating a world filled with indifferent if not actively hostile adults.

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Yet The Traveller is also something quite individual, a brief (73 minute) but vigorously expressive statement of intent from a director soon to become a major creative force. Wrought in the starkest production fashion with its lingering shots and cheap, black-and-white cinema verité-style photography, it’s also touched throughout with qualities of humour and flashes of dreamlike wistfulness. Kiarostami opens with images of boys playing street soccer in an alley in of some well-weathered corner of the town of Malayer. The passion of the boys for the game soon becomes quite apparent. There’s not much else for them to do in this place where a lot of them drop out of school and get into trades, and the older boys are already holding down jobs like bicycle repairmen. Kiarostami’s renegade antihero is Qassem Julayi (Hassan Darabi), a scallywag whose obsession with the sport, and the Persepolis football team in particular, is clearly linked with a sense of frustration and ambition he cannot otherwise articulate. The son of a carpenter, Lar, Qassem is becoming increasingly alienated from his family and schooling and pouring himself into his soccer obsession. After playing in the street match witnessed at the outset, he turns up to school with a bandage around his head and jaw claiming to have been delayed by a toothache and a trip to the dentist when he was actually playing, much to a teacher’s deeply sceptical response: “I hope it rots.”

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Qassem spends what little money he has buying a magazine for a photo of one of his player heroes, managing to use his father’s name to get a little credit to make up the shortfall, but he’s later sprung reading the magazine in class, the teacher prowling around behind the class and launching his sneak attack, and it’s clearly the most exciting thing that’s happened all day. His English teacher seems just as distracted by the outside world as his students, like Qassem silently doing sums over costs during class, as Qassem tries to work out how much money he’ll need to catch a bus to Tehran and see a big match live. Meanwhile at home Qassem faces constant pestering from his unceasingly critical and complaining mother (Pare Gol Atashjameh) who berates him for failing to study and pushes for him to quit school and get into a trade too. There’s a note of deadpan humour as her complaints continue all during dinner whilst his father doesn’t speak a word, seemingly having resigned himself both to her talk and Qassem’s errant nature: “It’s all in one ear and out the other,” she decries his lack of attention before asking for money to attend a mourning ceremony. Meanwhile Qassem seems to have trouble doing his studies by the dim lamplight in his house.

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Qassem irritably criticises his friends for playing badly during one of their street matches, but then admits that he didn’t play so well either, because he was too distracted by thoughts of going to Tehran to catch a big league game. His mother comes to school soon after and whinges to the school principal (Mostafa Tari), repeatedly commenting that she doesn’t know how to read and write whilst asking what should be done about Qassem’s bad behaviour, which has taken a new turn as she believes, correctly, Qassem has stolen five tomans she had squirrelled away. “You come once a year to see if the little vagrant is coming to school?” the principal demands, and declares: “He is not a child, he is a monster.” After a continuing dialogue of theatrically desperate appeal and contempt, as the principal sighs that he can’t punish the students without risking parental complaints, the mother gives him permission to do what he sees fit, so the principal calls Qassem in and begins caning his hands, the increasingly distressed Qassem nonetheless insisting all the while that he did not steal the money. Kiarostami cuts, with a sense of both dark humour and pathos, to one of the neighbouring classrooms, where the teacher is instructing his class on the workings of the heart whilst trying to ignore the sounds of Qassem’s punishment.

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In keeping with the Kanoon project’s avowed purpose, The Traveller is a film relevant to the kind of young person it’s about, but lacking any kind of pandering or patronising glaze. It’s a rigorously unsentimental, entirely convincing portrait of a boy, doing things many a boy has done regardless of cultural background, allowing the brat to be a brat whilst also understanding him. Whilst the film regards many of the adults around Qassem as vaguely absurd, there’s still a touch of sympathy for his mother, who really does work constantly whilst she complains about his bad attitude. Many films about childhood and adolescence take on a similar shape to The Traveller in depicting a youth engaged in an obsessive quest to realise a personal dream, often taking tentative steps towards adulthood in the process. It’s the sort of storyline that can generally be relied upon to touch a fond chord of memory in grown-ups, if also perhaps one of aggravation in parents. But where many stories of that type are nostalgic in cast, The Traveller is the very opposite, charged with anxious energy as it contemplates a budding antihero whose immediate future is bearing down upon him. Making Qassem a soccer fanatic roots him securely in his world, signalling his desire to join a crowd rather than follow some esoteric path, although his desires and impulses mark him as an outsider.

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Early in the film one boy leads his fellow students at Qassem’s school in a group prayer, a brief spasm of rhapsodic communal inclusion, although of course in their midst Qassem shows to Akbar the pilfered five toman note, his own private religion something rather distinct. The subtle joke about football being something like a secular religion in Iran seems not to have dated, as the theme of trying to attend a soccer match as an expression of both individual will and communal engagement would later be taken up, with obvious shifts in emphasis, by Panahi’s Offside (2006). The attitude of institutional cynicism displayed by the teachers is one of Kiarostami’s targets here, perceiving school in mid-1970s Iran as something like a prison for teachers and students alike, all sharing a penurious, demoralised distaste for their lot. Kiarostami is bitingly sceptical about the efficacy of the corporal punishment constantly turned on the kids, which he sees more as an outlet for adult frustration and aggression than as a cure for bad behaviour.  “He will just hit us – forget about Math,” Qassem comments when debating whether to go to class or get down to his more pressing business.

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As unscrupulous as Qassem’s behaviour becomes at points, the clarity and direction of his passion is singularly lacking in everyone else he knows. With his friend Akbar, Qassem begins looking for ways to add to the five purloined tomans, figuring he’ll need about forty to make the journey. He tries to sell his fountain pen to a storekeeper who coolly rebuffs Qassem’s forceful sales tactics (“You sell to kids but you won’t buy them from them?” Akbar queries incredulously) and calmly explains whilst never breaking from his menial tasks how buying from a wholesaler works to the pushy lads, who then moves on to trying to offload a stamp collection. Akbar steals a broken camera from his grandfather’s shed and the duo try to sell that: one potential buyer notices the camera is missing parts, but offers five tomans for it, but Qassem is angered by such a low offer. Instead, he comes up with a scheme: he and Akbar start pretending to take photos of their schoolmates, affecting a vaguely official mandate to charge them five rials apiece.

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The imprint of neorealism is vital with The Traveller, in the way Kiarostami shoots locations in artful but unpretty fashion and elicits immediate performances from a mostly non-professional cast, and some anticipation of the way he would regularly blur the boundaries between fiction and documentray. Qassem and Akbar run through the streets and bazaars of Malayer, a place that seems perched somewhere between ancient and modern worlds, pungent and ghost-ridden at the same time. Historic town architecture is recorded for posterity by Kiarostami’s camera along with oddities of the moment like the wall in a shop festooned with professionally modelled photos. But there are hints throughout of the unusual blend of impulses that would eventually define Kiarostami’s cinema. The visual texture and language changes during Qassem’s fake photography session, taking on a lyrical quality reminiscent of Truffaut in moving into montage, wielding rhythmic editing with some sprightly music now on the soundtrack, as Kiarostami matches Qassem’s cheeky wit with his own cinematic variety. He notes Qassem tucking his accumulating cash in his back pocket whilst lining up his shots of the other kids, and moves in from regarding the kids in distant poses to close studies that capture the children in all their alternate individuality, some fierce, some friendly, some humorous, some bovine.

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This allows Kiarostami to use Qassem’s eyes in capturing his generational fellows in all their collective and individual qualities, whilst Qassem play-acts something like a movie director as he instructs his subjects in their poses. The first hint here of the kind of meta-narrative play Kiarostami would often return to his movies, like the revelation of the moviemakers at the end of Taste of Cherry and the choose-your-own-narrative-truth of Certified Copy. Where in his later films Kiarostami would often feature loquacious and intelligent adult characters who work to verbalise their worldviews or play games with them in long, rolling conversations, The Traveller is more familiar to a certain extent as a social realist study in dealing with a boy whose age precludes him being able to articulate his problems. His actions are his expressions, but Qassem nonetheless has a certain quick-witted pugnacity in his interactions when he’s trying to gain something, cajoling insistently in his attempts to sell things of no value whilst insisting they do. “I’ve taken thousands of pictures with it,” he protests to the man he tries to sell the camera to, and, when he offers too little, “I passed up a better off last week.” Qassem definitely seems to have the stuff of a businessman in him.

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The problem with the inspired con trick at the school is it just doesn’t bring in anything like enough money. Depressed, Qassem and Akbar try to study for a vocabulary test, filmed in a tableau that becomes for the boys an unconscious lampoon of their school experience: Qassem testily waves a stick whilst Akbar stumbles through an array of thematically appropriate words: “Outlaw – it means a rebel…Discipline, obedience…Ambition, the desire to make progress.” Qassem suddenly has another brainwave to save his project, and sells his street team’s nets and gear, despite the whole team having pooled money to buy them. Qassem justifies himself because as the captain he’s always stuck with the job of lugging it around, and nimbly talks a member of another team into buying them, netting 25 tomans. Finally able to buy his bus ticket, Qassem hitches a ride back towards home from the station on the back of a horse-drawn buggy, perched with dangling feet above the road. This sequence presents Qassem at his height, having actually proven he can, by hook and by crook, affect his own destiny with the gift of the gab and unscrupulous manipulation if with little thought of inevitable consequences, now rejoicing if in bumpy manner in a sense of liberating motion, Kambiz Roshanravan’s sprightly traditional score matched to the whirling wheels of the buggy.

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The very title of The Traveller establishes Kiarostami’s preoccupation with characters whose physical wanderings, their incessant seeking, are matched to their attempts to understand themselves, to strain at the limits of their personal universes with all their small insults and frictions, whether seeking to enter others or even nullify themselves to end the questioning. Kiarostami’s film would later become famously preoccupied by characters driving and the things they do when nominally going someplace, culminating notably in the suicidal central character and his argumentative passenger of Taste of Cherry, their fierce verbal arguments matched to restless voyaging. Qassem is defined specifically as a boy in motion, shark-like in his need for constant forward movement, driven on by a specific motive to try and get something done before a looming psychological hammer, one he doesn’t quite understand, drops. Upon returning home and hiding his ticket in a schoolbook, Qassem faces a long, anxious wait and can’t risk falling asleep and missing the bus which comes through at near midnight. Akbar tosses stones at his window and keeps calling pathetically from the street, his loyal helpmate now unable to follow any further on his grand odyssey. Finally, when the appointed hour comes, Qassem sneaks out of his house. Where earlier in the film Kiarostami noted the streets of Malayer busy with merchants and artisans, now Qassem runs through a silent and deserted labyrinth. He only just manages to catch up with the bus and get aboard, and rides off into the great Iranian night.

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As Qassem’s bus arrives in Tehran, Kiarostami lingers on a shot of a man walking along the roadside as bus after bus arrives, each one presumably packed with travellers who, like Qassem, have their own little odysseys to enact, whilst connecting the heart of Tehran to the body that is the rest of the nation. Kiarostami avoids passing any overt judgement on Qassem’s amorality, perceiving his spurs and his neediness shading into desperation, which registers all the more plainly on his face as the film unfolds: the closer Qassem comes to his goal, the greater the ease and risk of losing it, a principal Kiarostami illustrates with bittersweet clarity. Of course, it’s tempting to link Kiarostami’s sidelong sociological observations and recording with the transformation that would come upon the country a few years later. Even with the pervasive gentle humour, it’s not hard at all to register a miasma of frustration and simmering disquiet, an air of recessive and backward testiness where the illiterate and entrenched incompetently rear the sort-of educated who confront a lack of outlets for their raised expectations. When Qassem does finally reach the football stadium, militaristic-looking policemen maintain a heavy-handed presence to stop any shows of wrath when the tickets sell out, which, of course, they do just as Qassem reaches the vendor.

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As the cops urge away the luckless, Qassem manages to still procure a ticket from a scalper and enters the stadium. Sitting in the bleachers with the adults attending the game, he gets into conversation with a weaver. After all his seemingly selfish and unscrupulous actions throughout the film Qassem is nonetheless generous, even insistent, in offering to share his food with the weaver, and the older man seems to embody something appealing to Qassem, who notes that as an independent worker he’s relatively free in his life. When Qassem furtively asks the weaver if he thinks Tehran kids would be his friends, the weaver replies that he does, but Qassem then recounts how he tried to befriend some who moved to Mayafer only to be rebuffed, and he irritably describes them as snobs: the weaver can only silently muse on this anecdote. When he learns the game isn’t going to start for three hours yet – sitting and waiting and chatting with other fans is something the weaver and everyone else takes to be part of the ritual – Qassem eventually decides to roam around for a while, exploring the environs near the stadium.

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The climactic scenes wield stinging irony as Qassem’s restlessness, having brought him this far, leads him away from his cherished goal, clambering over scaffolding in an arena being renovated and gazing in through the window of an indoor swimming pool. He knocks on the glass to attract the attention of a kid within, and tries to ask him how deep the water is, but the other kid can’t hear him and irritably turns away. This brief vignette that’s perfectly naturalistic and yet contains symbolic force, crystallising something deeper about Qassem and his journey, his solitude, unable to make himself heard, cut off from the world he seeks and his luckier doppelganger within, the infrastructure of that world a window and also a wall. Tired because he didn’t sleep at all the night before, Qassem sees a number of men sprawled on a grass verge under trees taking a nap before the game, and he lies down to join them.

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Qassem sleeps as the other men awaken and head off, and has disturbing dreams of being hounded and punished, of being caught cheating in class. His school fellows chase him down and take him captive, and then he’s suspended upside down and beaten on the soles of his feet, the other kids and his mother looming around him as sentries of judgement whilst he wails in pain, but without sound. Here Kiarostami confirms at least on a subconscious level Qassem knows he’s going to pay for everything he’s done, and it might even be said to finally offer a degree of imminent moral satisfaction. But Kiarostami maintains sympathy for the lad, inverting a usual method in showing us his dreamscape is no place of escape but rather where the things he quells during the day hatch out, with awareness of how all too often people elect to proceed in spite of physical threats with transgressive behaviour because otherwise they’ll kill some part of themselves, and the imagery of punishment is distressing.

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There’s a hint of the underlying influence of Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), another classic about needy youth with its patina of surrealism mixed in with the harsh realism. Qassem lying down to sleep with the grown men contains a hint of political as well as personal parable, as if he’s performing an act of surrender. The punchline, of course, is that Qassem finally awakens late in the day, and runs up into the stadium only to find the match over and the crowd gone, leaving behind only their rubbish flitting on the breeze as if he’s the sole survivor of a slovenly apocalypse. Qassem, the boy in motion, lost in finally surrendering to immobility what he tried so hard to obtain, cheated by his own weak flesh. A lovely tragicomic ending, one that also sees Kiarostami perhaps deliberately reversing the cinematic device at the climax of The 400 Blows. Where Truffaut arrested his young runaway in an eternal frieze, poised between past and present, youth and adulthood, Kiarostami’s lingering long shot watches as Qassem starts running again, arcing away out of sight along the rim of the stadium. Qassem can only dash on to meet his fate, at loose and trapped, travelling without moving. For a film as short and straightforward as The Traveller seems at first to be, it’s a work entirely alive with promise.

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Major Dundee from Arrow Films

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Dear readers, if you just can’t get enough of my writing, or if you just want a top-notch edition of a classic film, Arrow Films are releasing a new limited edition blu-ray of Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee on June 28. The release features both the theatrical and restored versions, the former in a 4K scan, commentary tracks by an array of critical and scholarly luminaries, a visual essay by David Cairns, spectacular artwork by Tony Stella, and an essay booklet featuring writing by Farran Smith Nehme, Jeremy Carr, and yours truly. This is a beautiful thing, people.

Here it is at the Arrow site
At Amazon
Via Zavvi, UK
Via HMV
Via DiabolikDVD
Via Grindhouse Video
Via Zavvi, US
Pre-order in Canada via Unobstructed View

You can also read my Film Freedonia essay about the film (not the same one as comes with the disc) here.

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Mikey and Nicky (1976)

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Director / Screenwriter: Elaine May

By Roderick Heath

In memoriam: Ned Beatty 1937-2021

It’s both excruciating and exalting to note that Elaine May was only the third woman to be a member of the Directors Guild of America, after Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. Born Elaine Iva Berlin, May was the daughter of a travelling Yiddish theatre producer. When her father died when she was 11, her family moved to Los Angeles. May finished up dropping out of high school at 14, and later hitchhiked to attend the University of Chicago because it took students without high school diplomas, by which time she had already married her first husband, whose name she took. Quickly gaining a reputation for sparking arguments with teachers and students with outrageous and original statements, May found a simpatico mind in fellow student Mike Nichols. The two of them joined an off-campus theatrical group and began stirring attention, with May’s childhood theatre experience giving her a head start in confidence and authority. After Nichols was asked to leave the group for having too much talent, he and May formed a partnership in a comedy act that was soon generally hailed as groundbreaking and quickly gathered popularity, but their working technique proved to impossible to sustain and they called it quits in 1961. Both started on a path to becoming filmmakers as Nichols concentrated on directing theatre and May started writing for stage and screen and acting in movies.

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Whilst Nichols achieved success as a director with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  (1966) and The Graduate (1967), May had to wait until 1971’s A New Leaf until she arrived as a moviemaker. Despite gaining some cult attention, May’s debut effort wasn’t a good experience, as her initial vision for the film was brutally edited by the studio. Obsessive filming practices, arduous and exacting editing process, and clashes with cast and studios became something of a hallmark of May’s productions as well as their odd and spiky brilliance. Her second film, The Heartbreak Kid (1972), was written by Neil Simon and proved her only real hit. Mikey and Nicky had a long and troubled shoot despite being initially slated as a fairly modest, low-budget drama, with May gaining industry infamy for the amount of film shot on set in her quest to get the best out of her actors. She finished up hiding two reels of the movie to keep the studio from sacking her and re-cutting the film again, but she finally lost a court case over control of the footage and the studio patched together a version to release that ultimately flopped. This, on top of all the squabbling, meant May didn’t get to make another movie until Warren Beatty, believing she still had unfulfilled potential as a filmmakers after she had written his Heaven Can Wait (1978) and parts of Reds (1981), hired her to make 1987’s Ishtar. But that experience proved another debacle as Ishtar became synonymous with egotistical on-set clashes and messy production resulting in a violently uneven if excessively criticized film. Her directing career finished, May nonetheless had success writing scripts for Nichols’ The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1997).

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Mikey and Nicky is certainly a highpoint and quintessential example of a celebrated strain of 1970s American cinema with emphasis on a raw, urban, unruly texture, as well as Hollywood’s uneasy and ultimately brief turn to auteurist cinema at the time, willing to give much rope to directors on the off-chance they might come back with a hit. Because May, who originally wanted Charles Grodin to play Nicky, finished up hiring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk to play the title characters, Mikey and Nicky is often seen as an extension-cum-assimilation of Cassavetes’ heavily improvised, off-kilter brand of independent filmmaking and narratives often revolving around stressed-out menopausal males. But whilst like Martin Scorsese’s early films and others on the ‘70s film scene May was assimilating Cassavetes’ influence, Mikey and Nicky is subtly distinct from Cassavetes’ films in form and style. It represents amongst other things May’s carbolic portrait of relationships between characters whose surface amity contains aspects of parasitism and destructive intent, sometimes mutual. To a certain extent May’s second two films reflect a meditation on her own artistic method over and above their immediate subjects, fumbling with deliberately errant process towards synthesis and insight in a manner reminiscent of the way she and Nichols made comedy: the shambolic texture, actually, carefully achieved, is the entire point.

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If the dopey songwriters of Ishtar presented a tellingly non-talented meditation on the concept of creative partnership, Mikey and Nicky is quietly vicious as well as wryly melancholic in portraying the hallowed, in pop culture terms, pair of pals from the old neighbourhood who know each-other inside out, resentments and failures of support turning gangrenous. Mikey and Nicky begins with Nicky (Cassavetes) locked in a hotel room in downtown Philadelphia, unshaven, filthy, stewing in a zone of fetid fear and paranoia. Having called his friend Mikey (Falk) and begged him to come but arranging a rendezvous down in the street, he sees Mikey down below wandering around in confusion, and gets his attention by tossing down a towel wrapped around an empty bottle. Mikey ascends to his room and quickly gets annoyed and frustrated as Nicky insists on grilling him timorously through the locked door. Once he finally does gain entrance, Mikey learns that Nicky expects he’s a target to be killed by mob assassins, for reasons hinted at throughout: Mikey and Nicky both work for gangster Dave Reznick (Sanford Meisner). Nicky and another employee, Ed Lipsky, who were in charge of the syndicate’s bank, started pilfering funds. Now Lipsky’s turned up dead, and Nicky expects to follow him soon. Mikey’s best advice to Nicky is to get out of town while he has the chance. What Nicky doesn’t know is that Mikey is trying to lead Reznick’s hired killer Kinney (Ned Beatty) to him.

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May’s perverse and sandpapery sense of humour manifests in the opening scene of Mikey’s attempts to follow the signs literally dropping from the sky that lead him to Nicky, before attempting to mollify the pathetic man within with gentle, increasingly irked entreaties through the hotel room door. “I don’t want you to see me like this!” Nicky insists. “Will you stop being a horse’s ass?” Nicky retorts: “How’m I gonna see you I haven’t seen you before?” Mikey tries breaking the door down and fails, but Nicky finally lets him in. Nicky is at his most desperately needy, embraced by Mikey and sobbing, and Mikey is soon making like a parent trying to feed an errant baby in trying to give Nicky a pill for his stomach ulcer, a sign of just how well the two men know each-other in all their physical and mental sore points. The latent ferocity and edginess within Mikey contrasts Nicky’s dishevelled paranoia, as Mikey quickly swerves from softly patient appeals to sudden ruptures, first when trying to access Nicky’s room and later when he goes to get coffee for him, an expedition that takes much reassurance and negotiation to undertake. Watched by the frantic Nicky from on high, Mikey enters a diner where the counter man (Peter Scoppa, who was also the assistant director) refuses his request of two coffees with separate milk and cream because that’s not how their orders work: Mikey tries playing along but suddenly leaps over the counter and manhandles the waiter until he surrenders the cream.

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Part of the reason for the film’s long and expensive filming was May’s delight in Cassavetes and Falk’s well-oiled and expert improvisatory energy and underlying friendship. But May wasn’t being merely indulgent, as the film evolves less as a portrait of a couple of mob-connected schmucks than an investigation of what friendship, particularly the male variety, actually means. May covers similar ground in a way to what Scorsese tackled in Mean Streets (1973), in the deep affection and mutual frustration of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro’s characters, but more mature, more deeply ingrained and spoiled. The official topic is the complexity and sometimes downright strangeness of male friendship, whilst at the same time, May’s fascination with people locked together in a blend of expedience and needfulness is a connecting thread in the three films she wrote as well as directed, particularly the marriage in A New Leaf where one of the partners is intent on murdering the oblivious other, but here gets its most complete examination. As Mikey and Nicky leave the hotel room once Nicky shaves and regains a modicum of his former savoir faire, they wander around town (May had to shift the shoot from Philadelphia to Los Angeles mid-film because of the budget overrun) and winnow through their lives and keep getting into randomly combative encounters. Nicky constantly seems to sense, however inchoately, the trap Mikey is leading him into, whilst Mikey often seems barely aware of his role in this lurking danger, even at one point deciding to leave town with Nicky to make sure he’s okay, even though he also reports back to Reznick on the phone, who then passes along the mission details to Kinney.

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Mikey and Nicky was a highly personal project for May. She reportedly drew on memories of members of her family connected with the mob, and had been kicking around variations on the material since the 1950s, perhaps with an eye initially to realising it is a theatrical project. The relationship of the two men has a more than faint echo of a classical kind of comedy duo, not perhaps May and Nichols themselves, but with distinct conceptual roots in the same kind of theatrical diptych. A schlemiel Vladimir and Estragon with all the shaggy, disparate energy that can well ironically from mental and moral exhaustion preserved. Once freed from the cage of his room and also set up on the open range that are the city streets, Nicky keeps wanting to go see a movie at his favourite theatre: a true movie lover will defy death to get their fix. This proves a curveball for Mikey’s efforts to rendezvous with Kinney, as he initially manages to get Nicky to settle down with him in a seedy bar to drink beer and milk: Kinney however gets lost when trying to find the bar, having to ask directions, and gets there too late. Mikey this time uses his oblivious wife Annie (Rose Arric) as interlocutor with Kinney by leaving word with her about the movie theatre they’re heading to. But as they ride the bus to the theatre Nicky suddenly decides he wants to visit his mother’s grave as they pass by the cemetery where she’s buried, and the two manage to get off after a fight with the driver (M. Emmett Walsh).

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Nicky’s unique capacity to keep pushing the envelope mixed with an edge of compelling charm, contrasts Mikey’s initially more disarming but also blindsiding blend of the gentle and the eruptive. When the two men go into a bar filled mostly with black patrons, Nicky get into an altercation with a man (Eugene Hobgood) after paying attention to a woman who proves to be his wife (Marilyn Randall). Rather than act apologetic or otherwise back down, Nicky responds with racist provocations, both infuriating but also unbalancing the other men, seeming just feckless enough to make them unsure as to what secret reserves of power or mere masochism he has. When another patron (Reuben Greene) tries to intervene and prevent a fight, he squares off against Nicky and comments, “We might be black, but we ain’t stupid,” to which Nicky retorts, “Then how come you’re black?” Later he insists on smoking on the bus and draws Mikey into helping him wrestle with the driver when he won’t let them get off the bus by the front exit. It’s a wonder he lives as long as he does. Nicky’s displays of crazy-brave truculence and his ever-ticking metre of macho investment in power relationships are given a rare edge by his fatalistic paranoia and efforts to prove he still has some remnant potency in the world with his refusal to be intimidated, but are also seemingly distinct aspects of his character, only more circumspectly worked.

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Mikey and Nicky roam through an insomniac world of intractable service workers, hostile gun-wielding storekeepers, edgy drinkers, exasperated hit men, sanguine but increasingly annoyed gang bosses, frayed and exhausted wives and mistresses, and all the other flotsam of the great American city at night. Their own messy and random shows of will and wont, incarnating the spasmodic spirit of people adrift on such a night even if they are technically renegades from the daylight world, contrast the people who need rigid lines of demarcation to keep up defences between them and the general craziness at loose. Meanwhile Kinney, who has the demeanour of a travelling salesman and about the same level of passion for his job – at one points he grumbles that with all the expenses he’s occurring the pay for the hit will hardly be worth it – is led on a merry dance through the same nocturnal world looking entirely out of place and sighing his way wearily through trying to find them in the movie theatre and driving around in circles in a haphazard search pattern. It’s hard to believe Kinney is a killer, but as the finale finally demonstrates, he’s good enough at it. Once he and Mikey are thrust into each-other’s orbit they form a duet of mutual aggravation as Mikey tries to guide him to where he last saw Nicky, before they’re forced to go to Reznick and argue over whose fault it is they couldn’t find him.

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“You won’t like ‘em,” ran Paramount’s resolutely uncommercial tagline for the film’s poster, and it is perhaps truth in advertising, as Mikey and Nicky are not particularly lovable or admirable or interesting guys, even as May and the actors makes them so palpable it’s impossible not to identify with them on some level. Nicky’s clammy, heart-galloping awareness of danger loans him a veneer of relevance as a representative of mundanity on the edge, all the voracity, conceit, pathos, and sheer balls of a natural-born shyster amplified and given glamour by proximity to death. Part of May’s fascination with the two, as avatars of the male of the species in general, seems to stem from a queasy amusement and desire to grasp at how they’re essentially a married couple, and have certainly sustained a more profound relationship with each-other than the women in their lives. One portion of Nicky’s seething lode of angst lies in his recent break-up with his wife Jan (Joyce Van Patten), who’s taken their baby to live with her mother after finally wearying of his general bullshit. Mikey by contrast plays at maintaining a stable suburban life with a wife who seems to barely know him but who insists he maintains a respectful and adult relationship with: “I don’t treat my wife the way you do,” he tells Nicky reproachfully, “If I’m gonna be late, or if I’m gonna be out all night, I call.” Mikey’s way with putting people on the spot with peculiar shows of honesty is both fascinatingly unguarded and also explains why he tends to put people on edge.

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Despite their closeness however there are vast gaps in what Mikey and Nicky know of each-other. Their fumbling search through the darkened cemetery in search of the grave of Nicky’s mother becomes a vaguely philosophical and metaphysical quandary couched in resolutely regular guy terms. Mikey bats off Nicky’s questions about his feeling about the possibility of an afterlife, which Nicky confesses he’s feeling keenly with his life under threat, before stating he doesn’t believe in it: “That mishigas I leave to the Catholics.” Mikey notes with a certain remnant resentment how much his late father liked Nicky because he always used to kid him. The two men are just about the only people they remember from their shared youth still alive, and Nicky himself confesses to wishing everyone from their youth was still alive, trying to articulate the feeling of being adrift in a world that has lost all its old markers of insularity and recognition, the gravity of identity that provided some illusion that the world at large had coherence: now there’s only the night world. Eventually it’s revealed Mikey gave Nicky his introduction to Reznick’s crew only for Nicky to quickly take root and become a bigger and flashier success, whereas Mikey learns that he makes Reznick uncomfortable. Mikey’s playing along with the attempt to set up the hit on Nicky is partly motivated through self-preservation instincts, knowing well his proximity to Nicky could make him suspect.

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The apotheosis for Nicky’s brinkmanship tendencies comes when he finally decides to visit his current girlfriend, Nellie (Carol Grace), a lonely woman willing to do just about anything for company. Mikey tries to strike up conversation with her as she explains her liking for keeping up to date by listening to the radio news, but it eventually forced to sit in her kitchen whilst Nicky seduces her and screws her on the living room floor. May shoots much of the scene in one, long, deadpan long shot from the corner of the room, encompassing both the carnal act in the foreground and with Mikey shrunken to his outpost in the adjoining kitchen at the back of the frame: May eventually moves to a shot of Mikey sitting and listening with a queasy look of wonder at how he’s finished up at such a point in life. Nicky however needs to twist the knife in both his companions a little more by convincing Mikey all he needs to do is make a play and he can have sex with Nellie too, but when he tries Nellie bites him and Mikey slaps her back before storming out. Nicky chases him, but Mikey furiously repudiates any remaining friendship with Nicky in recognising this as just the latest in many acts of wilful humiliation and bastardry, and the two men begin a fumbling brawl in the street.

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This entire sequence is remarkable in the fine-tuned inflicting of discomfort on both characters and audience, exposing the cruelly casual misogyny wound into Nicky’s worldview and which Mikey buys into until it literally bites him back, along with the signals of perversity that make all three of act the way they do, their mixture of need and pain and old-fashioned lust that must be worked through in a series of false guises. The encounter also rips the scab off all the wounds suffered by Mikey and Nicky’s supposedly umbilical relationship. Every slight, every piece of Nicky’s macho showmanship and one-upmanship, becomes a seed of grievance, whilst Nicky insists on further provocation and retaliation by smashing Mikey’s watch, which he loaned him earlier, Mikey’s only keepsake of his father, sparking their tussle. May gives away the fact that Mikey is betraying Nicky and leading him to his death so early in the film it removes any hint of suspense or mystery, and instead demands the viewer ponder why Mikey is doing this. During their fight Mikey confirms his belief Nicky sabotaged him with Reznick by “Making me out to be a joke.” Nicky defends himself by claiming he brought Mikey into the bank and also reminds him of the time he loaned him $200 when he needed it. Mikey response is to take $200 from his wallet, throw it on the ground, and tell Nicky, “You’re a piece of nothing,” the gesture that finally drives Nicky to attack him.

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The foreboding, which never really feels like such until the axe drops, invests Mikey and Nicky’s vignettes with implicit irony often intensified by Mikey’s split mind, as when Mikey, offended by Nicky’s suspicious questions, tells him, “I suggest you find somebody you can trust.” Once they split apart, the film changes gear subtly, as Nicky’s peregrinations become a series of encounters that underline how completely he’s managed to destroy his life and alienate anyone who might help him, in a manner that both fulfils the character study aspect of the tale and also its echoes of classic poetic realist and film noir works where a man out of time and luck searches for safe harbour. Meanwhile Mikey, in a manner quietly similar to the way Walter Matthau’s antihero of A New Leaf finds himself trapped within matrimony, is obliged to suffer his way through the rest of the night in the company first of Kinney, and then Annie, who reflect back only incomprehension and pettiness. Mikey finds Kinney in his car still waiting outside the movie theatre and drives with him around the streets where he left Nicky, at one point seeming to finally spot him and chasing him down, only to find it’s the wrong guy. The pair’s low-level bickering and frustration at not being able to find Nicky leads them to both go to Reznick and explain their failure.

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May used two different cinematographers in the course of shooting the bulk of a third and then had Lucien Ballard film the finale. The film’s ragged aural and visual language stemmed in part from the long shoot and the studio’s ultimately dismissive approach to getting it finally finished (at various points in the release version you can see film equipment and crew members hiding in bushes, flaws May cleaned up in her director’s cut), and the technical problems May had in making sense of the footage she had shot, often ending up with sound and vision forcibly patched together, particularly noticeable during the fight with the bus driver. But it also feels entirely appropriate for a portrayal of such flailing straits and exploring the fringes of big city life. May’s vision of her characters’ nocturnal odyssey pungent and authentic in its evocation of dive bars and dirty phone booths, rain-sodden streets and blearily bright shops backed up by the woozily intense and intimate camerawork, very often using hand-held camerawork. Beatty’s Kinney is the most conspicuously lost figure in this world, sometimes threatening to dissolve into the haze of mist and neon. The role deftly exploits Beatty’s excellence at playing superficially bland characters harbouring hidden strata of weirdness, sharpened to a wicked point when the man’s true nature emerges in the climax. Safe harbours beckon but a gauntlet has to be run with so many: the succession of encounters with taciturn workers in boles of commercial life ends with Nicky entering a candy store where he seeks out ice cream and comic books as if he’s reverting to childhood whilst the elderly owner packs a pistol and curtly tells his customer not to get the comic books sticky.

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Mikey and Nicky’s relationship to power, the dynamo of their city’s underworld life however cutely it’s hidden behind the dreary frontage of Reznick’s perfectly ordinary house, is the force that keeps them in an orbit, each allowing them to put up Potemkin villages in their lives to maintain some basic semblance of purpose and prosperity, something Mikey seems better equipped at maintaining than Nicky. May’s simultaneously sarcastic and realistic approach to depicting authority was to cast Meisner and William Hickey as Reznick and his lieutenant Sid Fine as both men were hugely influential and respected as acting teachers more than as performers at that point. Supposedly she originally wanted to cast a Paramount executive as one of the gangsters, only for the studio’s owner to nix the idea, but the mischievous attempt confirms the film is in part a sardonic meditation on May’s own relationship with money men. Meisner is particularly good as the stony, terse mob boss who is nonetheless as much prisoner of his employees’ quirks and incompetency as they are of his power, worn to quiet exasperation by the comedy of errors reported to him throughout the night and then grunting uncomfortably as Mikey insists on apologising for Reznick not liking him before laughing and sending him home. Reznick proves why he’s the man at the top of the totem pole at least by realising Nicky will probably turn up at Mikey’s house at some point and he insists Kinney wait outside for him, obliging Mikey to explain patiently that his neighbourhood has its own patrol service that will swoop down on anyone loitering like that.

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Nicky is at least canny enough to keep dashing into the shadows anytime a car passes by, in between attempts to take refuge first with Jan and then with Nellie. Jan is charged with hissing rage at him, at first barely interested in his protestations that he’s being hunted: “They’re gonna kill me.” “Well, I’m not interested…people get angry when you steal their money.” Nicky’s desperately clingy attempts to wring some iota of affection from her earns her smouldering anger, telling him to instruct her how his girlfriends and Reznick treat him so she can copy them. Nicky’s rejection is compounded as his infant daughter starts crying when he tries to play with her. There’s a final show of something like compassion from Jan as she asks of Nicky before embracing him, “What do you want from me, to die for you?” Nicky’s final scenes have grace-notes of self-awareness, as when he comments toJan about his fight with Mikey, “I did too much to him.” There’s similarity in May’s simultaneously acerbic and empathetic portrayal of Nicky’s unmoored neediness to what Lupino offered the more officially sympathetic title character in The Bigamist (1953), viewing masculinity in its troubled, exposed, love-needing state. At the same time May and Jan and Nellie share a trait of sensing the limits of such empathy.

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Nicky’s return to Nellie’s apartment is an even more telling seen as he busts her door chain and swaps slaps with her, before wearily settling on her bed and confessing he set up the scene earlier because he was angry she slept with two other guys he knows, only for Nellie to retort that he sent them to her, well aware of the games Nicky likes to play and was happy to go along with their subterranean logic, but finally rebelled when it became too obvious, too clumsy, too much about Nicky’s ego rather than some kind of naughty conspiracy. Mikey meanwhile keeps a vigil looking out his living room windows, groaning as Kinney keeps circling the house and attracting the patrol’s attention, whilst Annie insists on staying awake with him, leading to the pair to begin a fumbling conversation as the insecure Mikey asks his wife whether he repeats himself when he talks as Nicky accused him of, and when she says, “I never notice it,” he commands, “From now on when I do something, notice it.”

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May evokes her own character in A New Leaf as Annie is defined as a woman blankly grateful for the semblance of suburban normality Mikey has given her even, half-singing “You walked into my life!” in her gratitude for being delivered from solitude and pining, even if the cost is living with someone she barely knows in the real sense, scarcely aware of what he seems to do for a living or the meaning of all the signs and portents accumulating through the night until the final gunshots. And yet she doesn’t know things that have cemented him and Nicky together in their shared reality. Mikey eventually mentions to Annie his younger brother Izzy who died of a fever when he was a teenager, one of the tales of the past mentioned briefly between Mikey and Nicky earlier. Mikey begins recounting the pathetic story relating to the smashed watch, which his father, who he describes as “a sour man,” gave to Izzy as he was dying, then reclaimed it after he passed and gave it to Mikey. The one totem of Mikey’s father he has had and lost was actually a kind of cursed object reminding him of the paternal love he was never granted, whereas Nicky and Izzy were able to illicit it.

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Annie’s bewildered, empty reactions reveal a total incapacity to process her husband suddenly revealing the void in himself. May here seems to be clawing at some common, barely acknowledged sense of trauma connecting the bodies of American life, ensconced now in prosperity but with feet in the muck of a past that’s still raw in memory. This sets the scene for the devastating climax as Nicky arrives, demanding entry, with Mikey pretending to not be home and getting Annie to fend him off instead. When Nicky spots Kinney approaching in his car, his demands become more frantic and desperate, slamming the wood and crying out “Get me a doctor Mikey!” over and over. Mikey starts pushing furniture up against the door to keep him out, barricading himself against the looming chaos with the stuff of his bourgeois life. Finally Nicky’s cries are silenced as Kinney fills him bullets and drives off with a look of satisfaction. May fades out on Mikey’s haggard expression as he rasps a final request for Annie to go to bed. As May started regarded Nicky’s face in the first seconds of the film, so she ends it regarding Mikey’s look of glazed, haggard fatigue and dumbfounding, as if Mikey is not so much shocked and sad that he finally did such a thing to a friend as he is amazed he had the capacity to do it, that in the end self-preservation was the strongest and most authentic of instincts. Now Mikey is alone in the most profound sense, the last keeper of profound memory, full of stories boring and irrelevant to anyone else. One of the great endings, for one of the great American films.

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The General (1926)

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Directors: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton

Screenwriters: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton, Charles Henry Smith, Paul Gerard Smith

By Roderick Heath

This essay is offered as part of the Fifth Annual Allan Fish Online Film Festival 2021, 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, considering films in the public domain and/or available online

Long after most of the continent of silent cinema split away and became the rarefied preserve for a sector of movie lovers, silent comedy has retained its impudent life, its heroes still recognisable. The works of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Max Linder, Mabel Normand, the Keystone Kops, and even the ill-fated Fatty Arbuckle still have the ability to charm and wow any given audience. Think of how many pastiches of it you’ve seen over the years, automatically making the connection between farce and the stylistics of silent cinema, a language unto itself. Silent comedy survives because the emerging art form and style were uniquely well-suited. Slapstick, loud and crude and personal on the stage, became a weightless ballet of pure movement without sound and the ancient traditions of mime and farceur suddenly found a new and perfect venue, cutting across all conceivable boundaries of cultural and linguistic tradition. Despite an intervening century of argument about the two actor-directors, Chaplin and Keaton merely offered distinct takes on the basic comic concept, of a man fighting both other humans and the random impositions of life in a rapidly modernising world for their share of dignity.

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Chaplin’s Little Tramp, trapped eternally on the wrong side of the glass from acceptance into the world, had a least a certain degree of roguish freedom, a capacity to pick himself up and move on after calamity, to compensate for his eternal exile. Keaton’s characters were trapped within the world, surrounded by bullies and blowhards as well as ornery if not downright malignant machinery, more able to play the romantic lead but always obliged to prove himself, never given the option of failure or surrender. Keaton, blessed with the real first name of Joseph as five previous generations of Keaton men had been before him, emerged from his mother in the town of Piqua, Kansas in 1895, a pure happenstance as his parents were vaudevillians and that was where they happened to be at the time. Keaton’s father was in business with Harry Houdini with a travelling stage show that sold patent medicine on the side. Keaton supposedly gained his stage name when he weathered a tumble down a flight of stairs at 18 months of age, and Keaton himself said it was Houdini who so anointed him. Contrary to his later persona as impassive and unflappable, Keaton’s initial persona in his performances with his parents was a temperamental brat who would fight with them and hurl furniture about.

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Keaton had to dodge enforcers of child labour laws to continue his career but he was on the rise as a teenager as his alcoholic father faltered. Around the same time as a stint in the army during World War I, Keaton encountered Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, already an established and popular comedy star, who encouraged him to try acting in a short he was filming. Keaton adapted so quickly Arbuckle brought him into his company immediately. Initially uneasy about his new medium, Keaton nonetheless became swiftly enraptured by the mechanics of filmmaking, borrowing, disassembling, and rebuilding a camera overnight. After making 14 shorts with Arbuckle, including his directing debut The Rough House (1917), Keaton gained the backing of Arbuckle’s producer Joseph M. Schenck and appeared in the first of his solo starring vehicles, The Saphead (1920). As he moved into making feature films, Keaton tried to stretch his screen persona, but had more luck with stretching his approach to filmmaking to a degree that was at the cutting edge of filmmaking at the time, resulting in exercises like the still-vital experimental cinema of Sherlock Jr (1924) and the self-satirising, proliferating selves of The Play House (1921) poking fun of the one-man-band tendencies of Keaton and many of his fellows.

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Demonstrative in his early appearances on screen, Keaton began perfecting his “great stone face” act. He became the emblematic stoic, beset at all times by the random perversities of the world and muddling through. Keaton was proud that his persona was essentially that of a working man, getting on with things, holding to principles no matter how drastic his situations became. The General, Keaton’s magnum opus, came after an unbroken run of success, but Schenck, who by this time was the head of Metro Films, soon baulked as Keaton spent upwards of $750,000 on the production. Keaton shared directing duties with his constant writing collaborator Clyde Bruckman, and filmed the movie, set in Georgia during the American Civil War, in Oregon instead to take advantage of the old-fashioned railway equipment still littering the landscape, including two vintage locomotives the production bought up for shooting. The shoot became increasingly arduous particularly as the engines kept sparking fires in the locality, and the climactic shot of a train wreck became the single most expensive image created in the silent era. The General proved a failure with the 1926 audience and also critics who seemed bemused by Keaton’s insistence on blending comedy with more serious aspects. This hurt Keaton’s career, compounded when his production company collapsed during the shooting of Steamboat Bill, Jr (1927), and forced him to take refuge with MGM, a partnership that began well with The Cameraman (1928) but soon became a ruinous straitjacket for the creatively sovereign and personally fraying Keaton.

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The reason for The General’s failure seems mysterious today, given that it’s long since taken pride of place as Keaton’s most regarded film and one of the essential works of cinema in general. There are some possible reasons, including the unpopularity of films with its Civil War subject matter, as well as more subtle dimensions to what Keaton was trying to do. The General’s simple plot is also the engine of its purity, a work about motion and possessed of it, the mechanical problems with which Keaton liked to illustrate a proto-existential worldview now become not only an aspect of the drama but its governing and dominating infrastructure. Keaton was inspired by the true story of a raid to steal a train and wreak havoc led by Union soldier James J. Andrews, as recorded by one of his men William Pittenger in his memoir The Great Locomotive Chase. The real story wasn’t a lark – Andrews and several of his men were captured and executed as spies – but a surprising amount of the story’s detail, including the name of the captured train and a pursuit by hand-cart, wove its way into Keaton’s telling. Keaton cast himself as a train driver whose chief motive is recapturing his beloved locomotive, the General, from the men who steal it.

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There’s a touch of irony, given the way even the Civil War seems to be being perpetually refought rhetorically today, apparent in the way Keaton decided to play a character who becomes a Confederate hero because it suited his assailed, everyman persona better, noting that given the South lost the war it was easy to take pity on. The film conspicuously avoids any degree of political dimension beyond automatic sectarian feeling, but the very name of Keaton’s character, Johnnie Gray, identifies him as the emblematic Southerner. The first dialogue title card tells us, “There were two loves in his life. His engine – and—” before cutting to the photo of Johnnie’s lady fair Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) pinned to the engine canopy. At the outset Johnnie pulls the General and the Western and Atlantic Flyer train behind it into the town of Marietta, Georgia, in early 1861. Johnnie’s simplicity and almost childlike affect are confirmed as he happily shakes hands with a couple of urchins interested in the engine, and the lads bend over in inspecting the pistons in imitation of Johnnie’s focused obsession with the running of the locomotive. The kids follow Johnnie single-file through the streets of Marietta as he advances with intent towards Annabelle’s house, only for him to pass by Annabelle herself whilst she’s borrowing a book from a friend: she spots him and joins the procession to her own front door, before politely stepping before Johnnie and entering her home before inviting him in.

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There’s already an amusing obsession with linear movement, pursuit, and little surprises of chance here that reverberate through the rest of the film apparent in this gently comic sequence. The emphasis is placed on Johnnie’s intense experience of the moment, his tiny gestures and large all part of his attempt to maintain a glaze of courteous eligibility to Annabelle and her family. Inside, the two boys sit in polite attendance whilst Johnnie tries to woo, and finally to get rid of them he makes like he’s leaving, donning his hat and waving the lads through door, before closing it on them. Johnnie’s romantic connection with Annabelle is however immediately threatened with far more dramatic import for him than any other factor as her brother (Frank Barnes) informs her father (Charles Smith) that Fort Sumter has been fired on and war is breaking out. Father and son immediately prepare to go volunteer, as does the virtually oblivious Johnnie, who nonetheless once his patriotic duty is pointed out to him becomes properly determine to follow through.

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Heading to a general store where the clerks have set up a swiftly formed recruiting office, Johnnie finds himself refused induction without reason, although the audience is privy to the recruiters’ conversation about him which establishes he’s far more useful as a train driver than a soldier. Johnnie, in his annoyance, tries again with face partly concealed by a cocked hat, using a pseudonym and, guessing why he was refused, also giving another profession. Recognised and refused again, his next attempt to steal another man’s induction card sees him finally booted out the back door. Walking past Annabelle’s father and brother as they queue, they invite him to stand in line with him, but he sadly shakes his head. Taking this as his sign that he doesn’t want to serve, they tell Annabelle about Johnnie’s cowardice, and Annabelle refuses to listen to Johnnie’s account, telling him no to speak to her again until he’s in uniform. Keaton illustrates Johnnie’s forlorn lot with one of his most famous visual gags, as Johnnie settles wearily upon a piston and doesn’t notice to one of his fellow drivers moving the train down the line, Johnnie lifted and lowered by the motion of the piston in an ingenious counterpoint to his arrested obliviousness. This is one of the great screen depictions of sadness, and one that also suggests a rather bluer joke: Johnnie will be alone with his piston for some time to come.

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Johnnie’s predicament elicits sympathy for his protagonist, in a fairly familiar manner for Keaton, as misread and beset, regarded with suspicion as unmanly and shiftless. When the narrative picks up over a year later, Keaton depicts a Union general, Thatcher (Jim Farley) making plans with his chief spy Captain Anderson (Glen Cavender), who wants to raid into Confederate territory, steal a train, and use it as a Trojan horse to wreak havoc along the line to make Thatcher’s planned advance easier. Unfortunately for Johnnie, the General proves in the right place and the right time for Anderson and his men to grab as the train pulls up in their planned rendezvous town of Big Shanty. Annabelle is aboard the train as she’s heading to visit her father who’s been wounded in battle, with Johnnie shooting her mournful looks as he tends to the engine. Annabelle goes back to the train after everyone’s alighted for dinner to dig through her valise for her purse in the baggage compartment, just as Anderson and his men congregate by the train and move suddenly to capture it. Anderson takes Annabelle captive and ties her up whilst the train tears out of the station. Johnnie, seeing only his train being taken, give chase on foot, pursuing along the narrowing course of the railway line into the distance as everyone else gives up.

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The following chase is an extended set-piece where both the orchestration of the great, unwieldy train sections and Keaton’s willingness to constantly put his body on the line, his ability to depict struggle and imagination purely by body language, are equally important. Small wonder Keaton was considered quite the heartthrob by female fans. First Johnnie clambers aboard a handcart and manages to get it moving by utilising his whole body weight upon the crank. He’s given a chance to catch up as Anderson keeps stopping the General so his team can rip up the tracks. When Johnnie hits the gap he’s thrown off the cart as it runs off the tracks, throwing Johnnie off, the luckless engineer landing on his backside whilst the cart tumbles down the slope into a river. Undaunted, Johnnie spies a man who’s just hitched up his early bicycle at his front gate: in a perfect blend of Keaton’s athletic prowess and his skill in framing it, he dashes into the shot, springs upon the seat, and takes off in renewed pursuit without missing a beat. He follows it up with a hilarious travelling shot of him trying to ride the wooden-wheeled bike along a bumpy path only to tumble over again. When he manages to reach the next stop on the line, Kingston, Johnnie finally returns to his native realm as he alerts the soldiers on a pulled-up troop train to the theft, explaining he thinks deserters took it, and leaps to the controls of the engine named Texas, only for him to accidentally leave behind the soldiers as the engine hasn’t been connected to their carriage.

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The General is reminiscent of Keaton’s earlier The Navigator (1924) in revolving around his character’s battle with a large and intractable piece of machinery – there it was a ship, and Keaton was playing a rich kid learning independence. The General by contrast offers up Johnnie as an ordinary man who knows how to do one thing exceedingly well: run a train. He approaches everything else with the same quicksilver inspiration fuelled by necessity, proving himself remarkable if also often ridiculous throughout, which could be Keaton’s ultimate commentary on being human altogether. That Johnnie doesn’t even know that both of his “loves” have been snatched by the raiders gives antiheroic piquancy to his adventures. When they’re finally reunited and Annabelle expresses her thanks for him coming to rescue her, he looks like he’s tried to swallow a doorstop for a moment before simply going along with it. Johnnie ultimately finds himself gaining real heroic status by the film’s end, but he’s also just as often lucky or unlucky. Keataon’s single most famous and endlessly recreated joke, the collapsing wall in Steamboat Bill, Jr that falls upon the oblivious hero with his life only saved by his body lining up with a window, contained a similar sense of both the haphazardness of life and the vulnerability of people as well as the mysterious grace that pulls them through danger.

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Today, it feels as if The General has had its deepest impact less on comedy than on modern action cinema, with its depiction of chaotic events caused by a similarly blend of heedless motive and snowballing cause and effect. The film’s imprint can be registered in sequences as disparate as the climax of Stagecoach (1939), the desert truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and a vertical edition in Die Hard (1988), as well as overt tributes like the climax of The Lone Ranger (2016). One of the few followers who genuinely grasped onto what Keaton had demonstrated with the film has been Jackie Chan, who set about emulating him in both his action and comedy staging and dissolving any conceptual distance between the two, as well as playing with Keaton’s mechanistic sensibility. Of course Keaton didn’t invent a connection between slapstick comedy and action: it was lurking since the very beginning of cinema, Chaplin had done funny-thrilling cliffhanger sequences like the finale of The Gold Rush (1923), and Lloyd made a career out of them. But the way the action plays out in The General, hinging on details like the rate the trains burn wood at and use up water in their boilers, and the limitations of the trains as machines that can only move where track lets them, tries to take a certain realism as a starting point rather than a burden or nicety for Keaton in creating his epic slapstick.

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Decades later, in an interview for the book The Parade’s Gone By, Keaton would recall the problems presented for comic filmmakers by moving from short two and three-reel films into features, because previously none of them had ever done anything as undignified as write a script. Longer films demanded strong storylines rather than haphazard farce, unless they could fit in a dream or fantasy sequence. Writing films for them became chiefly a matter of coming up with a good start and a good ending and everything in between would take care of itself. The situation presented in The General could almost be a commentary on this creative process, setting up the motivating idea and finding every way possible of impeding the rush to the end. With Sherlock Jr Keaton had taken the dream option to dig into the very workings of cinema and correlating them with the malleability of the psyche, The General instead surrenders most of the way to the working of the world, the machine, the narrative. One possible reason the film didn’t quite land with its contemporary audience might well lie in the fastidiousness of Keaton’s method in this regard: the situation isn’t just a pretext but a structure, the necessary linearity of the train chase Keaton’s vehicle for exploring cinema narrative itself as a chain of events.

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When Johnnie loads a cannon he’s hauling in his attempts to halt the other train, only for the cannon to start losing inclination: after haplessly detaching the cannon car, Johnnie flees right to the very cowcatcher on the train’s front in his fear of the cannon going off: right at the last moment the curving of the track abruptly opens a clear field of fire for the weapon, which goes off and blasts a crater narrowly missing the General and the raiders. In another ingenious bit, Johnnie, trying to clear the tracks of sleepers the raiders drop behind them to impede their pursuer, balances uneasily on the cowcatcher and fumbles to grab up one sleeper and uses it to flip another out of the way. This stunt, exceptionally dangerous and utterly beguiling, is also in the flow of Johnnie-as-dynamic-problem-solver a rough draft for video gaming. In terms of staging and technique this sort of thing wasn’t so different to the meticulously orchestrated automobile and trolley car chases Mack Sennett had done with the Keystone Kops, but Keaton’s more meticulous, slow-burn method approach resists their frenetic tenor.

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The paradox in this is it helps Keaton achieve a more authentically absurdist tone. Johnnie keeps blinking in bewilderment when an unhitched carriage from the train ahead seems to appear and then vanish, and twists in seemingly settled forms and functions, like the missing rails that throw him from the handcart: everything works until it doesn’t, and the tunnel-visioned Johnnie is as helpless despite his proactive efforts in the face of such undermining as the audience. Keaton illustrates how and why Johnnie keeps getting this impression, but the man himself is left with the woozy impression of reality suddenly rewriting itself. So whilst The General doesn’t entirely lack the flecks of surrealism in his earlier films as inanimate objects do strange and unexpected things and quirks of chance and fate unspool with teasing wit, Keaton nonetheless insists on a precise sense of how his jokes connect with the necessarily rolling logic of the situation. Keaton was making a movie for a cinema age that was evolving, becoming more technically and aesthetically engaged with its own nature: whilst radically different in form from what the Soviet realists were doing, Keaton nonetheless explores his awareness of cinema as a system of images.

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At the same time The General also nudges the melodramatic style of early silent film in a manner that suggests Keaton was already feeling and playing upon a certain tide of nostalgia. When Anderson ties up Annabelle, the film recalls the straightforward suspense scenarios of the days of Pearl White, whilst the storyline as a whole nods back to Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1906). Keaton makes sport of the melodrama elements, of course. Once Anderson is knocked out during Johnnie’s recapture of the General, he starts reviving at one point, potentially threatening a fight or hostage-taking, only for Anderson to be accidentally knocked out again, and he doesn’t stir again until the very end. Nostalgia is indeed a powerful impulse throughout The General with its blend of dreaminess and immediacy in looking back to days of yore. The storyline pastiches the romantic mythology of the era with Annabelle the curly-tressed maiden of good white Southern stock who must be rescued, but Keaton teases it in ways D.W. Griffith never would have. Annabelle’s name pays heed to Edgar Allan Poe’s lost heroine. Keaton had poured over photos by Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner to absorb the period look, and the influence is plain, both in the crisp approximation of the old daguerreotype image and the sensitivity to light and shade in the moments of scenic beauty he allows, glimpses of flood-flooded forests and glistening hills of grass.

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Indeed it’s easy to see Keaton lampooning Griffith, making sport of one of Griffith’s famous “iris” shots when Johnnie spots the captive Annabelle through a hole in a tablecloth, and in the finale when Johnnie advances with a flag like Ben Cameron in The Birth of a Nation (1915) only to accidentally take up a heroic pose on what he thinks is a rock but proves to be an officer bent double. Keaton’s take on Johnnie’s loyalty is hardly antiheroic – actually Johnnie is one of the great screen heroes, almost casual in his acts of astounding bravery once properly motivated. But he does incidentally deflate any sense of grand and noble motives beyond wanting badly to be perceived as worthy by Annabelle and to do a good turn for people he knows and bewildered by everything outside that frame of reference: Johnnie is utterly ordinary in this regard. In the motif of Johnnie being ostracised for not becoming a soldier Keaton seems to have been more thinking of the schisms over such things that gripped all sides during the decade-past Great War, offering implicit sympathy for anyone who couldn’t serve as they might have liked. In the climax Johnnie reverts to a childlike state as he playacts a leader of importance whilst a proper Confederate General (Frederick Vroom) rides a white horse behind him, men gesticulating in imperious manner, the real manipulator of life and death on a mass scale and his impish, accidentally satirical mirror.

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Johnnie’s distraction is at a zenith when he keeps laboriously chopping wood for fuel whilst the General and the Texas barrel past the Confederate and Union armies, breaking the handle on his axe and leaving him still trying to chop with the head. If as Talleyrand said treason is a matter of dates Keaton offers it more as a matter of place: Anderson hurriedly changes out of the Confederate uniform he’s donned as they enter the Union zone, and later Johnnie has to reverse the procedure, casting aside the Union uniform he puts on to rescue Annabelle. The Union raiders think the pursuing train is packed with avengers on their trail, and so throw everything they have in Johnnie’s path to hinder him. They only, finally realise their pursuer is a single man when they halt the General atop a trestle bridge and rain down firewood on him. Johnnie stops the Texas and runs off into the woods as a driving rain starts. Soon he happens upon a farmhouse which the Union soldiers are using as a headquarters Johnnie sneaks into the house and finished up hiding under a dining table the Union men gather around to discuss the next part of their campaign, alerting Johnnie to the army’s planned sneak advance across a railway bridge at Rock River. Keaton’s delight in discursive twists in the scenes he sets up extends here as the scene seems set up for Johnnie to be exposed and chased out, but even getting burnt by a cigar and almost sneezing, not to mention beholding the captive Annabelle, don’t manage to overwhelm his composure.

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Johnnie’s rescue of Annabelle is a more subtle example of Keaton’s gift for deadpan staging – a club clutched by a disembodied hand reaching out of a doorway knocking out a sentry; Johnnie dresses in his uniform and then wallops another guard with his rifle butt with the same cool sufficiency. A toppled vase during Johnnie’s plucking Annabelle from her room doesn’t attract attention, but when she’s caught in a bear trap Johnnie extracts her only to get himself caught three times. The pair sleep out the dark and stormy night and find the next day what seemed like the middle of nowhere is adjacent a Union army camp. Johnnie and Annabelle prove an able team as Johnnie proposes to sneak Annabelle onto the train by stuffing her in a sack that was filled with boots and getting close enough so that she can pull a pun detaching the engine from the train being formed behind it, before Johnnie stows her in a boxcar. Johnnie then springs into the cockpit, knocks out Anderson as he oversees the operation and pushes out a couple of other men, before gunning the engine and tearing out of the camp. Union soldiers immediately give chase in the Texas. This time the reverse chase is faster, more urgent affair, as Johnnie tries for most part to maintain his lead on the chasers, but faces a lack of fuel.

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The wry spectacle of Johnnie and Annabelle working to keep their escape going in their different ways helps elucidate another dimension to the film, as Keaton’s musing on coupling as the natural and unnatural consequence of love. In this regard Keaton might have been taking a little inspiration from Arbuckle, whose comedies often revolved around trying to settle into domestication only to be faced with mounting chaos. Keaton had built his film persona around the disparity between his own wiry, hangdog appearance and his physical dynamism, and the constant motif being underestimated. This motif is linked here to the way Johnnie proves simply doing his job is heroic and worthy of mythic valorisation, where it’s initially read as a moral failure by those who require more exalted proofs, insufficient to win Annabelle’s hand. Their intuitive partnering whilst on the run sees Annabelle as inspired in helping foil their pursuers: at one point she ties a rope between trees on the trackside, a device Johnnie doesn’t think will work, but it proves to slow and stop the chasers: the couple are already married in essence as a working partnership. At one point Johnnie gets left behind when he jumps from the train to work a switch, so he runs down the slope to where the railway doubles back, only for Annabelle to manage to throw the train into reverse, returning the way it’s come and forcing Johnnie to dash back up the slope again.

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But Annabelle also tries to domesticate Johnnie’s work space, cleaning up the cockpit with a broom and carefully selecting pieces of wood worthy of fuelling his engine. Johnnie sarcastically hands her a twig to add to the fire which she happily does, whereupon he starts throttling her, before suddenly kissing her, and turning with equal suddenness back to his tasks. It’s both a funny and faintly shocking moment, then and now, capturing something violently bipolar about love, both delighted and infuriated by the cost of surrendering personal realm to another. Finally Johnnie and Annabelle reach the Rock River bridge and set it on fire. When the Union commanders try to send the Texas through after it as they launch their assault, the bridge collapses as the Texas passes over, dumping it into the river below. This amazing shot – the one that cost all that money – is the climax not just of the railroad action but of Keaton’s entire, life-sized aesthetic, and one that counteracts the absurdist pull of his jokes. Here, finally, the laws of gravity and probability assert their usual, implacable prerogative – on Johnnie’s enemies.

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Johnnie and Annabelle deliver warning to the Confederates about the attack, and the battle sees the Confederates managing to beat back the Union soldiers. Johnnie is an amusing spectacle acting like a commander whilst waving a captured sword, the blade constantly flying out of the hilt, but he becomes more engaged as the General sends him down to instruct an artillery battery as the Union soldiers are creeping their way across the river using boulders as cover. As Johnnie tries to explain himself to the gunners, a Union sniper keeps shooting them down one by one, Johnnie increasingly bewildered by why soldiers keep dropping dead as he speaks to them. This is probably as dark a piece of humour as Keaton ever offered, punctuated when he draws his sword and the blade flies off again, only to land right in the sniper’s back. As he tries to fire off the cannon himself, Johnnie misfires the cannon, but his wild shot knocks out a weir holding back river water that crashes down upon the Union soldiers and drives them back, helping end the battle. This finale offers a key change from the structure of the rest of the film, and Keaton was criticised at the time for mixing in straight warfare with comedy. It nonetheless a brilliantly filmed sequence that contains some of Keaton’s most gorgeously crafted shots and elegantly sarcastic humour.

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Johnnie finally becomes not just a hero but a soldier, the trade he happily declares his profession as he’s enlisted into the army. This comes after the Confederate General commands him to take off Anderson’s false uniform in what seems to be a moment of punishment and reckoning, only for the General to then procure him a Lieutenant’s uniform, donning it before the delighted gaze of Annabelle and her wounded father. The film’s very last joke revisits the sitting-on-the-piston gag but now with Johnnie settling down to kiss Annabelle, adjusting their position so he can rapidly salute the enlisted men passing by. If the first version of this moment contains an extremely coded masturbation joke, this one is about getting properly down to business. It’s also poking fun at the natural next stage of Johnnie’s journey, negotiating the perversities of a different kind of machine: the military. The General was first screened on the last day of 1926 in Tokyo of all places, with the likes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Abel Gance’s Napoleon, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, Sergei Eisenstein’s October, William A. Wellman’s Wings, and a host of other films all released within the months on either side, a moment that marked the high-water mark of silent cinema’s ambition and genius. But the form’s apotheosis was also its sunset, and the transfer to sound would claim many victims, including Keaton. Either way, The General is one of the great films, silent or talking. It’s also something better than great: it’s actually, genuinely funny.

The General can be viewed for free on YouTube and innumerable other places.

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