1920s, Drama, Silent

Foolish Wives (1922)

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Director/Screenwriter: Erich von Stroheim

By Roderick Heath

Amongst the giants of silent film, Erich von Stroheim looms very large. Not so much for his work, vital as it is, but for his legend, his persona. Von Stroheim all but created the iconography of the larger-than-life, dictatorial, obsessively visionary filmmaker that has echoed in many dimensions through the history of cinema. In his repeated, ultimately degrading clashes with movie chiefs who literally cut several of his great labours to pieces, he helped define two mirroring clichés that still readily define how the culture at large envisions movie directors: the great genius brought down by vulgar moneymen, and the egomaniacal poseur incinerating cash to make extravagant follies. Stroheim, son of middle-class Austrian-Jewish parents, carved himself a place in the United States by affecting the style of a strident Germanic aristocrat and aesthete. He developed a persona in his acting work that played exactly to a certain brand of New World perception of an Old World nabob, a corrupting and depraved roué under a surface of martial rigour and gilded pretence. Stroheim played on the blend of fascination and distaste for such a persona in the American psyche as it entered the First World War, when it wanted to be accepted as a grown-up superpower yearning for the dauntingly elevated aura symbolised by European culture whilst quietly longing to prove native virtues. Stroheim understood this dualism perfectly well, because he was in thrall to it, too, both assimilating himself into the allure of classes to which he didn’t belong and appropriating their glamour whilst relentlessly subverting and despoiling them with an immigrant outsider’s vitriol.
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Stroheim found fame as an actor, his performances as German officers in wartime films earning him the immortal tag of “The Man You Love to Hate.” Such roles included his infamous turn in The Heart of Humanity (1918), where his embodiment of the most unrestrained propaganda poster’s idea of a villainous Hun, killing babies and ravishing nurses, enthralled viewers in a manner not dissimilar to later iconic bad guys like Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter. He simultaneously gained filmmaking experience working for D.W. Griffith, and quickly parlayed his fame and clout into a directing career. That career was relatively brief, but it swung through poles of great success and total ignominy with such force and clamour in the young industry that it still echoes with ring of myth.
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Stroheim repeatedly went all-in on a bet that later seemed like the essence of uncommercial imprudence, but wasn’t actually so unreasonable at the time: that Hollywood could support a wing of ambition similar to the burgeoning European film scene. There, in the early ’20s, it wasn’t uncommon for respected master filmmakers like Abel Gance and Fritz Lang to make multi-episode films that attracted crowds of people willing and ready to be immersed in grand acts of creation. That cultural model was completely opposed to Hollywood’s self-image as a stud farm turning out well-shod, successful sprinters, the model that would win out. Stroheim also sensed that cinema was a drug of allure as well as reflection, a place people went to be delivered from the ordinary, and like Cecil B. DeMille, knew a dialogue of idealism and indulged depravity was part of the appeal. So, Stroheim was happy to extend his established persona in his first two directorial works, Blind Husbands (1919) and Foolish Wives, and sate that desire. With Greed (1924), Stroheim would reveal his deepest, most adamant artistic convictions, and paid a heavy price for them: the scornful drollery Stroheim exhibited as a director at first was scratched to reveal a much more properly dark and rigorous interest in human degradation viewed through art’s transformative prisms. But well before that tragic escapade, Foolish Wives had already been brutally cut down from the epic Stroheim proposed and was the subject of boardroom arguments with young, newly installed executive Irving Thalberg over its grossly inflated cost, mostly stemming from Stroheim’s fanatical attention to detail. Naturally, however, the off-screen controversy was transmuted into gleeful marketing, with the poster declaring that this was the first “million dollar movie”: Stroheim sold the lifestyle of the rich as the stuff of silver screen dreams. However ruefully, Hollywood played along.
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Foolish Wives is much stranger and denser than its sexy melodrama essentials suggest, as Stroheim’s pitch-black humour and fascination with transgressive urges constantly despoils the neat edges of familiar narrative. The filmmaker toys with artistic ideas that still had no name at the time, signalled most unmistakably when, within a film called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim, a character reads a book called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim. Stroheim uses this device to suggest levels of reality in his work, even perhaps to indict it as something the eponymous imprudent hausfraus might hallucinate in the sun after a full day sipping cocktails and thumbing romance novels, their own gleeful vision of depravity on the sunny shores of the Cote d’Azur. Or is it Stroheim molesting those daydreams? He uses this device to insert commentaries that have overt, proto-Brechtian quotation marks around them, highlighting them as distinct from the texture of the work and yet part of them.
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From the opening iris shot, the film has the quality of the dark fairytale it is, depicting as it does two relatively innocent characters taking a path into a shady stretch of the forest in search of experience and encountering imps who live off fat American babes in the woods—except that Stroheim prefers the perspective of his imps, casting himself as Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, supposedly a White Russian aristocrat exiled in Monaco. Stroheim never quite elucidates whether or not Karamzin is a phony, that is, a man born to be a user of other people or a convert to the creed. But his so-called cousins “Princess” Vera (Mae Busch) and “Her Highness” Olga Petchnikoff (Maud George) are his mistresses and confederates in maintaining their lavish lifestyle through con artistry, backed up by bogus cash supplied by counterfeiter Cesare Ventucci (Cesare Gravina).
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Stroheim introduces this coterie of reprobates in his opening scene, a sudden plunge into a little world at the Villa Amorosa, where the perverse is instantly rendered cozy, as Stroheim notes the two women taking their place at the breakfast table with their light, jockeying bitchiness, whilst Karamzin is out performing his morning exercise of target-shooting by the sea. He returns to his villa and indulges what the intertitles call his “cereal” and “coffee,” that is, caviar and ox blood. Ventucci arrives to dole out more of his counterfeit cash, with his feeble-minded but fully-grown daughter Marietta (Malvina Polo) in tow. Olga tells off servant Maruschka (Dale Fuller) by grasping and viciously twisting the flesh of her arm. Karamzin greedily eyes doll-clutching, goggle-eyed Marietta and gives her a bottle of his aftershave as a bauble to remember him by (or whatever it is: Karamzin dabs some of it behind his ears and then tastes it for good measure). This gaudy little crew operate through two-pronged attacks, zeroing in on wealthy, naïve couples, with Karamzin going after the wife and his “cousins” the husband as prelude to seducing and fleecing them. The newspapers announce the arrival of a seemingly perfect mark: the new U.S. Commissioner Plenipotentiary to Monaco Andrew J. Hughes (Rudolph Christians) and his wife Helen (Miss DuPont). The lucky couple are brought into town on a U.S. cruiser and greeted on arrival by Prince Albert I (C.J. Allen). Watching from afar, Karamzin formulates his battle plan, and arranges to meet Helen in an outdoor café where she sits reading (yes, Foolish Wives), paying a busboy to page him and make him seem like a big shot. Karamzin swoops in for the chance to do a gallant turn in rescuing one of Helen’s wind-stirred gloves, to which Helen turns up her nose. A French officer and friend of the Hughes’ gives the pair a proper introduction, and soon he is fully accepted as a friend of the new arrivals, albeit with Andrew’s slightly sceptical regard.
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From the start of Foolish Wives, the clock is ticking for Karamzin and company, as their many sins gallop to catch up with them. The most pathetic character is Maruschka, but she is also the one holding unrealised power. Karamzin had made her another of his household concubines on a promise to marry her, a promise he, of course, perpetually wriggles out of. “I am, as they say, free, white, and twenty-one,” Helen declares to her husband at one point, making remarkably plain her nascent determination to get a little adventure. Andrew wryly retorts with a salute before slinking off to his separate bedroom: “Well, I’m married—sunburned—and forty-one…but—my eyes are pretty good yet.” Much of the narrative (reminiscent of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe) is built around whether Helen will be seduced by Karamzin into giving him her money, body, or both, willingly or unwillingly, but Stroheim plies no sense of endangered innocence. A glimpse of Stroheim’s “book” in the film offers a diegetic comment that Americans’ obsession with making money leaves them uninterested in the social games that obsess Europeans, which could be seen as the director finding an ingenious way to insult his audience but is also a spur to Helen’s adventuring as she reads the book over and over again; by the finale, it gives a sop that contradicts this possible slight, as Andrew stands up for his moral code and Karamzin’s adherence to his proves utterly hollow. A wry, slightly horrifying sequence sees Karamzin at the height of his bantam cock parading wowing Helen and a crowd in a sport-shooting contest using live pigeons released from boxes, leaving little doubt about Karamzin’s ability to shoot down anything not likely to shoot back. Once he’s ingratiated himself sufficiently into the Hughes’ company, he contrives to drag Helen off with him to the Hotel des Rêves, a small, out-of-the-way rendezvous.
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Stroheim’s acid wit is apparent from the outset in Foolish Wives, and the film often has the tone of an extended dirty joke, a semi-Sadean comedy of manners and immorality. The overtones of cruelty and phoniness intimated in the opening scene at the Villa Amorosa (that name a sarcasm that grows ever more vicious as the film goes on) and the vivid strangeness of the characters border on surreal; Karamzin and the Ventuccis seem to have crawled out of some Gogol-esque fantasia. Stroheim intercuts Andrew being received by Prince Albert with Helen’s introduction to Karamzin, both meeting figures who exemplify the local society and creed, the cockroach scuttling under the gilt. The core sequence when Karamzin takes Helen for a day out in the country becomes an epic burlesque of Victorian romantic fiction. The “hotel of dreams” is a waystation engineered for an adventure into pastoral territory that Karamzin knows so well he “was soon able to get himself — ‘hopelessly lost!’” Weather aids Karamzin’s schemes, as a powerful storm blows in whilst he and Helen are struggling through marshy reeds on the edge of a stream. Lightning shatters the footbridge over the waterway, and Karamzin tries to transport them over in a rowboat, only for it to spring a leak and sink. He plucks Helen up and carries her to shore, transformed into exactly the sort of gallant cavalier he strives so assiduously to look like whilst never actually giving a damn for it. They take refuge in an old woman’s cabin, one that Karamzin has used so often for this sort of thing Olga calls it “Mother Garoupe’s Hotel,” a den of picturesque crudity and pastoral filth. Karamzin hovers while Helen dries off and is installed in the owner’s bed. What should be the moment of irrepressible passion is instead a drooling conman waiting for his chance to leap in between the sheets with the blowsy Yankee lady.
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Just as he gets his chance, however (in a scene blurred almost to incoherence to avoid censor furore, but critics still rose to the bait in calling the film as a whole a “slur on American womanhood”), a monk caught in the storm looking for shelter pokes his head through the window and eyes the scene suspiciously. The monk enters and settles down for the night, forcing Karamzin to bitterly nurse a serious case of blue balls in the armchair by the fire until dawn. Throughout this sequence, Stroheim is merciless in mocking not just romantic fancy, but also the kind of idealised rustic melodrama that most other filmmakers, including even Murnau five years later with Sunrise (1927), would ply with ripe sentiment. Olga covers for the duo by phoning the ambassador from the Hotel des Rêves, and once returned to her apartment in the morning, Helen sneaks back into her bedroom. Andrew had responded to her absence the night before with a weirdly patient grin anyway, as if ruefully testing his own limits of tolerance. Stroheim’s reputation as an obsessive craftsman of authenticity has somewhat obscured his great, influential visual talent, though that effort certainly pays off in depicting the teeming street life hovering on the streets of Monaco, brass bands and horse guards turning out to greet the new ambassador amidst gawking tourists, and the central, mammoth recreation of the Monte Carlo Grand Casino. Stroheim’s realistic method represented an alternate tack from the emerging German approach of expressionism, and today might seem to anticipate such later, rigorous, maximalist filmmakers as Kubrick, Leone, or Cimino.
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Stroheim’s often vertiginously geometric graphics, seen at their strongest in the opening and in studying the humans with godlike disdain inside the casino, anticipate Orson Welles at his most baroque and invoke Stroheim’s recurring obsession with humans in relation to one another—class, broadly, but also invoking other forms of power and subordination. Stroheim alternates such shots with densely tangled mural-like framings, with faces, flowers, rococo architecture and stray dust specks all privileged to the point of animation, pointing on to the shot-by-shot deliberation, densely illustrative, of Greed. Yet, the photography of Foolish Wives is as vividly chiaroscuro and drenched in inky murk as anything the expressionists were doing, and Stroheim’s filmmaking often seems as fervently mythological as Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) complete with his mock fairytale castle consumed by flames, the rustic hovel a den of stygian lightplay, and a character’s suicide filmed as a towering shadowplay against the rising sun on the sea. A scene in which Ventucci ushers Karamzin into his daughter’s bedroom as she lies sleeping is shot as a peak moment of visual beauty. Beams of light slanting through the room’s shutters illuminate dust teeming in the air, suggesting something at once unkempt and numinous about the abode and the way Ventucci enshrines the girl he promises to defend at all costs. Ventucci unfolds a knife and jabs neurotically at the air, miming for Karamzin’s edification and perhaps warning. Stroheim was a realist in the same way Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Zola were, providing a fervent, boiling mass of magnified human strangeness emerging from vividly depicted backdrops. Stroheim is often regarded as a filmmaker who tried to force more mature artistic values in American cinema. Here this pretence manifests as literary awareness, both in the nascent modernist joke of the meta-narrative and also in the weird, fragmented intertitles that appear throughout the film, written with a quality close to stream-of-consciousness. These titles provide a witty approximation of some imagined, talented, poet-layabout expatriate steeped in the local habitués and muttering acerbically beautiful notes (perhaps the “Erich von Stroheim” who wrote the book Foolish Wives): “Mondaine — Cocotta — Kings and Crooks — Amoura! Amoura! — And Suicides!” or “Again morning — sun-draped terrace — Sapphire sea — all the world on a holiday — Rifle Fire — Brooding doves — Brutality of man — and still the sun.”
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Karamzin’s success in assaulting Helen’s reputation and good sense on their rural exploit and failure to actually get what he’s after proves a turning point, after which Karamzin’s decline begins. Karamzin’s hunger for erotic satisfaction constantly exceeds his interest in his other projects, whilst his use of other people purely to meet his own desires reaches a hyperbolic point when he manipulates Maruschka into giving him her life savings—a paltry amount by his usual standards, but enough to get him through a night at the gaming tables. Karamzin is at his most entertaining the worse he gets, as when he drips wine on a tablecloth to make Maruschka think he’s crying. Stroheim wasn’t anyone’s idea of a matinee idol, and yet he inhabits his character with such outsized swagger and charisma that he pulls off his own charade of devastating gigolo, his bulbous head, flaring nostrils, and rubbery, sensuous lips like some caricaturist’s attempt to sketch lust, the deadly sin personified—which indeed they often did on film posters. Stroheim plays his role as Stroheim with a glee that’s striking, and hard to find a likeness for in later cinema: he’s just as egotistically masochistic as the wave of Method stars like Brando that would come up much later, always hungry to be nailed up on their crosses, but so willing to play the fiend without a hint of sympathy for the devil, in a drama that takes Mephistopheles from supporting character to centre frame. Obsessed with amorality as it is, though, Foolish Wives is no monument to it—far from it. Stroheim is equally gleeful in tracking his bad characters to ignominious ends and depicting the moments when the worms turn. Actually, Stroheim’s moral compass was rigorous, and to a certain extent, his films boil down to simple lessons—greed is bad, stick with your spouse, marry for love and not gain, etc.—made rich by his realisation, his feel for the contradictory impulses that consume people and poison societies.
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Most crucial and disturbing is his feel for how people often subordinate themselves to characters like Karamzin in their desire for him to give them something they lack—here, sexual pleasure and social status—and the way people like him exploit others endlessly. Stroheim would later take up the theme of sexuality coupled with avarice most intensely in Greed, but inverted; there repression fuels the hunger for money as a malformed need. An earlier vignette of an American soldier who failed to rescue the glove Karamzin retrieved is taken up later when the same man neglects to hold the casino door for her; she rears on him irritably, only to realise the veteran has lost his arms. Stroheim’s irony about appearances and the real nature of soldierly duty is obvious, but serves the purpose of radically shifting the film’s tone. Stroheim takes it a step further as Helen wraps herself in the man’s limp jacket arms and weeps on his shoulder. This scene becomes at once a perverse approximation of a lover’s tryst and a sentimental paean that mirrors the emotional amputees seen everywhere else in the film; it is even shot through an undercurrent of morbid eroticism.
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Stroheim sarcastically restages the Russian Revolution in miniature as domestic-erotic revolt, as Karamzin’s insults to the desperate, fraying Maruschka, drive the servant to lunacy and revenge. This pivotal moment comes as Stroheim depicts her weeping on her bed in her dingy servant’s room, and then zooms in to capture the moment when infernal inspiration takes hold. This camera move was one of Stroheim’s signature touches, the closing in of the camera’s gaze mimicking entrance into the private emotional experience of his characters, and here, coupled with Fuller’s performance, the effect is electrifying. Karamzin pushes his plan closer to fruition during a night on the town, as he has his “cousins” cordon off Andrew at the casino tables whilst he gambles with Helen: she wins a huge wad of cash, and Karamzin coaxes Helen to the villa, where he lays on her basically the same sob story he told Maruschka to get her winnings. Maruschka, however, her wits snapped, sets fire to the villa, entrapping the couple on a high floor.
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The fire department rushes to the scene, along with a mass of rubberneckers, whereupon Karamzin jumps into the waiting canvas ahead of Helen. Sarcastically asked by his soldier friends about town why he did this, he replies coolly that he had to show Helen it was safe. But Andrew, discovering the note Karamzin sent Helen to get her there in the first place, confronts him in the casino. Once Karamzin removes his monocle at his request and tells him, “Go to hell!”, Andrew wallops him so hard he crashes to the floor. During the film’s production, Allen died suddenly, and rather than reshoot his scenes with another actor, Stroheim instead employed a body double. That’s not surprising, as Allen’s performance, subtly comic and intelligent, is excellent. Karmazin tries to brush off Andrew’s humiliation of him, but is left to wander the streets alone at night, disgraced and essentially penniless and homeless, whilst his mistresses quickly pack up their belongings in the villa and flee. Justice, when it comes, is deserved, but merciless: the two women are picked up by fraud police who have been tracking them, stripped of their blonde flapper wigs to reveal the coal-coloured bobs beneath.
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Karamzin, on the hunt for some sort of satisfaction, steals into Marietta’s bedroom in Ventucci’s house. Here, the punitive editing the film was subjected to most clearly affected Stroheim’s concluding ironies and epiphanies. Karamzin’s sexual assault on Mariette was cut, as was Ventucci’s vengeful killing of him: the incident is instead merely suggested as Ventucci is depicted dragging Karamzin’s corpse down to dump in a sewer. The point remains, however muted: Karamzin’s gross rapacity finally destroyed him, and his journey to the bottom is completed in the most undignified way possible, anticipating the gangster antiheroes of the early ’30s and their sticky ends. Stroheim also intended to depict Karamzin’s departure as the rhyme to the reconciliation of the Hughes and Helen giving birth, suggesting the cyclical nature of life. This denouement, like much of Stroheim’s oeuvre, is lost to time and rumour. What’s left of Foolish Wives testifies to a great cinematic talent clearing his throat just in time to have it cut.

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1940s, Drama, Erotic

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Josef von Sternberg

By Roderick Heath

After the collapse of his partnership with Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg’s career, which had traced the upper limits of success as a film director, went into near-terminal arrest. The flagrantly sensual, imperious, outrageous expressionist of the silver screen was out of place in the aesthetically and morally leashed era ruled by the Production Code. Whilst Sternberg lost the big budgets and rapturous, unfettered stature he had in the early ’30s, his grip on sound cinema strengthened, and some of his final films, as patchy, brilliant, and forsaken as Orson Welles’ later work, stand amongst his best. He made a marvellous skid row version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1935), but his involvement with Alexander Korda’s big-budget adaptation of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius proved a disaster when star Merle Oberon was injured in a car accident and Korda pulled financing. Sternberg kept making whatever films he could in the next 20 years, even travelling to Japan to make Anatahan (1953). The Shanghai Gesture, destined to be the last complete work he was able to make in Hollywood, remains one of his most obscure, but is also a prized cult object. The Shanghai Gesture was based on a play by John Colton, a property that several Hollywood big shots, including Cecil B. DeMille, had tried to film. But the potato was just too hot: a lurid, fetid moral melodrama about revenge and degradation set in a high-class brothel. The Hays Office ordered more than 30 revisions to the script before it was finally deemed acceptable, including a shift of setting from bawdyhouse to casino—even then, the potency of the piece was inescapable.
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Sternberg proved the guy gutsy enough to do it, and legend has it he did it whilst lying on a couch all through the shoot. The resulting film is many things, amongst them Sternberg’s expression of enraged contempt for how clean and bogus Hollywood had become. Even the film’s opening credits includes a jab at the hierarchism of the industry as it offers a page in praise of “Hollywood extras,” whose anonymous, massed contributions helped so many films. Another early title assures the viewer that this is a pre-War story, whilst Shanghai of the day was at the centre of an enormous tussle of civilisations, “its fate undecided.” But of course, Sternberg’s time and place is not the real Shanghai of the 1930s, but his imagination’s conjured nexus of mystique and depravity.
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The linchpin of this mythic world is Mother Gin Sling’s gambling establishment in the heart of the old International Quarter. The Shanghai Gesture feels on some levels like the evil twin of Casablanca (1942), with which it shares the setting of a popular nightspot and gaming house at a world crossroads—with Marcel Dalio playing the overseer of games in both—where an old romance comes back to haunt the owner. But The Shanghai Gesture is the virtual negative image of the more famous film: the owner is a woman, and the old romance not only can’t be healed, but sparks a merciless vengeance the moment chance presents itself. For Sternberg, it was also a thematic return to the state of rootlessness and the corrosive nature of erotic need, which tend in his films to lead directly in to one another, expressed through the exotica of unstable 1930s China in Shanghai Express (1932). But whereas that film emphasised mobility and hope, The Shanghai Gesture is again an inversion, a static, sucking whirlpool of evil.
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The production design turns Mother Gin Sling’s into just such a maelstrom, the terraces of the casino interior evoking a tiered descent into Dante’s levelled hell where the roulette wheel spins on and on in the lowest circle, racking up cash and souls. “It smells so incredibly evil,” Victoria “Poppy” Charteris (Gene Tierney) murmurs in sublime delight shortly after arriving and surveying the motley denizens: “I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination.” Sternberg immediately acknowledges through his as-yet innocent, yet already perverse anti-heroine that this is psychological wonderland and repainted reality, where the audience is encouraged to use their own imaginations to fill in the lurid details. Sternberg’s narrative enters Mother Gin Sling’s not with Poppy but with another young woman, an American former chorus girl and exiled chippie, Dixie Pomeroy (Phyllis Brooks), who’s introduced being shuffled down the street by an angry landlord and his comrades to a cop for failing to make the rent. Luck, or something like that, is on her side, as two of Mother Gin Sling’s cabal, “Doctor” Omar (Victor Mature) and gone-native English financier Percival Montgomery Hower (Clyde Fillmore) pass in a car and, taken by her looks, pay off her debt and take her to be assessed for a job as decorative furniture in the casino.
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Mother Gin Sling’s hardly seems like a safe repose, however, as a player’s attempt to shoot himself is dismissed as “Saturday night.” This week’s would-be suicide is regular player Boris (Ivan Lebedeff). Gin Sling makes her first appearance after his failed attempt, chastising him: “I thought we were good friends. Why do you choose my place as a springboard to the upper air?” Gin Sling is the film’s fetishistic heart and villain, as archly formalised in her dragon lady affectations as Ming the Merciless, Darth Vader or any other pulp villain, whilst also recalling the icon of stylised femininity Sternberg always tried to turn Dietrich into. She treads the aisles and stairs of her palace with angular precision, a high-fashion Nosferatu in her rarefied castle. Poppy is brought to this establishment by an asinine guide to the lowlife (John Abbott) in search of cheap thrills, but it soon proves that Poppy has some yearnings to be a cheap thrill. Poppy swaps politely barbed words with Gin Sling when introduced: Poppy teases her about her unlikely name, and Gin Sling pleasantly insults her back by suggesting her name might have been something as generic as Poppy, with the suggestion that there’s scarcely a thing different about where each of them has come from and where they’re going.
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Gin Sling learns from a circle of rich businessmen she counts amongst her regular customers, including Van Elst (Albert Bassermann), that her establishment is the target of strict new laws being imposed by corporate interests on Shanghai. “This is not a moral crusade, which might be easier for you to oppose than big business,” Van Elst warns Gin Sling, on giving her the news she has to clear out. “What do you call this?” ripostes Gin Sling’s bookkeeper (Eric Blore), referring to Mother Gin Sling’s. The herald of change is a newly arrived representative of the India-China Trading Company, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), who is also Poppy’s father. Gin Sling doesn’t recognise the name and is scarcely interested or concerned by this threat, until she finds that Dixie was a former girlfriend of the incoming plutocrat.
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As Dixie describes one of his signature physical mannerisms, Gin Sling suddenly realises that she knows Charteris, and a look of lethal intent comes upon her. Her plot starts in encouraging Omar, her spruiker, pimp, and in-house gigolo, in his attentions towards Poppy, drawing the young woman, who’s fresh from a girls’ school in Switzerland, down to the roulette table, where she gambles with increasing fervor while spouting that eternal line of the neophyte, “I can stop anytime I want to.” But Gin Sling keeps her tethered to the tables by giving her a ready line of credit. Poppy’s real character begins to appear from behind the shield money and social insulation provide. She proves to be a spoilt, dictatorial brat with streaks of outsized carnal desire and contempt, and her jealousy is carefully stoked to a white heat by Omar’s simultaneous attentions to Dixie. Gin Sling barely bats an eye when Poppy is quickly reduced to a drunken harpy decorating her bar.
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Whilst not as floridly stylised as Sternberg’s earlier works, like Shanghai Express, Docks of New York (1928) or The Scarlet Empress (1934), The Shanghai Gesture is just as hypnotic in its less shadowy, but equally artful images, where characters are turned into stylised types defined by physical attitudes and modes of dress. The visual style suggests a touch of Art Deco infused with Sternberg’s prior baroque sensibility, with more emphasis on flow and geometry as organising principle—planes, angular lines, elegant curves and circles explored with tracking and crane shots, particularly the grand, slow descent of the camera into Gin Sling’s casino pit. As opposed to the tangled, semi-surrealist forms of The Scarlet Empress that entangled the protagonists, here, the interiors are spare and spacious, yet just as organic and entrapping, the carefully constructed physical expression of Gin Sling’s understanding of the most putrid parts of her customers’ psyches. The wide shots offers mural-like studies in form and content, as rich and sprawling with detail as the decorative artwork that clads the walls of the casino and Gin Sling’s abode (notably, that artwork was provided by the Chinese-American actor Keye Luke). Close-ups reduce the actors, particularly Munson in Gin Sling’s finery, to kabuki masks of stylised affectation and the fanning shapes of her increasingly ornate pseudo-Mandarin hairdos. It’s easy to think of Dietrich in the part of Gin Sling (in fact, Munson, who’s probably best remembered as Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind, 1939, had, like Sternberg, been Dietrich’s lover in the ’30s), but Munson’s blend of icy malignance and an arch survivor’s cautious precision is excellent. The way Munson walks through Gin Sling’s joint, blind to the human cacophony about her as she contemplates her upcoming consummation with the gait of an empress walking a tightrope is sublime physical characterisation.
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The Shanghai Gesture may represent one time when a censorious attitude from studios and the revisionist instincts of the director made for a work far superior to the source. Colston’s hysterical work was sordid and racist in the extreme, and like many such works (including another film starring Huston, 1932’s Kongo, which was a remake of Tod Browning’s silent film West of Zanzibar, 1927) offers insights into the hothouse nature of sexual fantasy in the Western mind of the era, channelling images of sexual sadomasochism and the simultaneous desire to protect and pillage virginal white femininity through racial Others. Sternberg’s reordered narrative and new characters constructed an infinitely more ironic piece of work. He added two significant characters, Dixie and Omar, to offer protagonists who are observers and alternate voices in the story. Dixie’s American garrulousness is present mostly to deflate the pretensions of the two versions of the Old World, Chinese and European. Her earthy, experienced sensibility directly contradicts the fetid sexual and racial politics at play in Gin Sling’s revenge on Charteris, and she retorts to a jealously bossy Poppy who’s accusing her of trying to steal Omar with a roaring putdown that notes that real character has nothing to do with birth or lot in life. In the finale, Dixie is the lone character who manages to detach herself from the awful spectacle of blackmail and cruelty with cheeky humour. Sternberg delights in throwaway character actions, from the Sikh policeman directing traffic with imperious elegance in the midst of urban chaos, Gin Sling’s accountant gleefully scooping out the night’s profits like a kid fondling his Halloween candy, or Dixie mucking about at a swanky dinner trying to leaven the oncoming mood of disaster.
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Omar is Sternberg’s archest conceit, a character who fits neatly into the line of such Sternberg alter egos as Count Alexei in The Scarlet Empress, whilst painted interestingly as a corrupter who knows but doesn’t much care that he’s a zone of moral nullity because he’s a creation of multiple worlds, a misfit who’s found his place as an imp of Gin Sling’s Satan. A self-appointed doctor (or maybe not) and a self-described mutt of the East with part-French, part-Armenian heritage and Damascene birth, Omar is a conceited lothario who seems to think he’s Greek chorus to his own life. He’s given to perpetually reciting appropriate passages from Omar Khayyam (“If you wanna, you can listen to that Persian tripe, I’m goin’,” Dixie tells Poppy at one point.). He greets his weekly paycheck, dropped from the bookkeeper’s booth to him in the casino pit, with a sarcastic salaam and plays Gin Sling’s bait to get and keep Poppy on the hook. Mature, several years away from major stardom, is splendidly smug in his role as he wears his character’s bogus exoticism on his sleeve and slouches through the film with the lazy sensuality of an experienced libertine until the very finale reveals something more serious long dormant in him. Tierney, another soon-to-be star who would prove an uneven actor, capable of performances both refined and stiff, is equally fun here as the prim British fashion plate who steadily devolves into a neurotic addict and harridan, glimpsed in one marvellous moment seated on a bar top, whining for attention and satisfaction, delivering a backward kick of one foot like a stroppy yearling to a wine glass and sending it flying. Her behaviour wavers between poles like delirium, as she soaks Omar’s face with a G&T before pleading forgiveness in desperate erotic obeisance. Great touch here: Omar holds up his robe to hide their kiss from the room, perhaps less out of gentlemanly discretion than embarrassment to be seen kissing such a brat.
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By comparison, Huston’s performance as Sir Guy, like Munson’s Gin Sling, seems to belong to another species: the world’s aristocrats, who specialise in much daintier cannibalism. Sir Guy is a suave man of the world who seems to have long burned out all his excess passions and now only has a measured solicitude to him. Gin Sling first tries to contact him when he’s in a meeting with the International Quarter’s bigwigs, and when told she plans to keep phoning until he answers, he simply unplugs the phone and gets on with his business. Gin Sling then sends a Russian coolie (Mike Mazurki) over to Charteris’ apartment block to fire a bullet through his window. A fascinated Sir Guy understands the implied message that the coolie will try to kill him if he doesn’t let the winds of arranged fate steer him towards Madame Gin Sling’s place.
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Gin Sling invites Sir Guy and other doyens of Shanghai’s European community for a soiree on Chinese New Year. Gin Sling has some kind of hold on most of them, through threat of scandal or humiliation. She provides a dining table arrayed with little statuettes of each guest; the figurine of Poppy has its head strategically removed. An intervention by Omar, who sells a necklace Poppy pawned for gambling funds, alerts her father to her increasingly fraught, indebted nightlife. He calls her to his office where he announces he’s sending her out of the country. Poppy seems grateful, and Sir Guy sees her off on a plane, leaving him free to venture to Gin Sling’s lair and find out what she’s on about with maximum savoir faire.
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Gin Sling’s Chinese New Year banquet proves to be rather a delirious theatre of cruelty, a banquet where revenge will be served at sub-Arctic temperature, a sequence of slow-uncoiling poison and suppressed hysteria, punctuated by nervously raucous laughs and Gin Sling’s potent, whiplash-like threats to keep her guests in their seats for the purpose of dealing up to Sir Guy a certified public scalding. The evening entertainment starts with a wild spectacle of women in cages being sold off to fishermen as sex slaves, angling just outside the window of the casino’s dining room, a show Gin Sling explains that has only been staged for her male guests’ edification.
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Gin Sling assures her guests this is a show for the tourists only based on past practice, but the show looks frighteningly real, and soon Gin Sling has all but stated that once she was one of those girls, kept at bay by having the soles of her feet cut open and pebbles sewn inside to stop her running off. What exactly happened between Sir Guy and Gin Sling back when he was a young adventurer under a different name is only partly revealed in what follows, as Sir Guy certainly married her back when she was the daughter of a good family, and had a child whose apparent infant death sent Gin Sling running off in a wild grief. Now she believes Sir Guy abandoned her and stole her family’s wealth. Sir Guy is initially confounded as he realises who Gin Sling is, a possibility that seems impossible to him. Gin Sling’s neat line of recrimination is, however, disputed as he claims her family’s money is lodged in a bank even though he thought her dead.
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Still, Gin Sling trots out the crown of her bitter banquet: Poppy, who returned to Shanghai on her own, now thrust into her father’s sight, poured into a glittering silver gown, bow-legged and tousled and swinish in mood and humour, clearly having been treated to every degradation under the sun by Gin Sling’s minions, and having enjoyed it. The tar-thick sense of evil eroticism lurking under the surface of the film finally oozes out here, and plays out in the exchange of close-ups of Huston and Munson, grim wounding and malicious pleasure underneath their studied surfaces. Sir Guy’s attempt to make a graceful exit is forestalled by Poppy herself. Wild-eyed in her drugged-up rage, Poppy has pretences to play the same bitch-queen as Gin Sling, only without the finesse or the smarts. She levels a gun on Dixie, proposing to shoot her for presuming to attract Omar’s eye. Only Omar’s quick intervention stops her.
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Meanwhile, Gin Sling unsheathes a peculiar kind of reverse-racism as she gloats in her triumph over Sir Guy and his weak genes, only for Sir Guy to reveal his own secret: Poppy is his and Gin Sling’s daughter, the child who didn’t die, and so she’s gone to great effort to reduce her own offspring to a wretch. Gin Sling’s attempt to intervene and restrain Poppy in her newfound aggression is met with utter contempt that only grows when Gin Sling tries to argue maternal right, cueing Poppy’s immortal line, “I have no more connection to you than with a toad out in the street!” Mother Gin Sling, her title all the more perverse now that it matches her status, reacts with less than restrained maternal chastisement, whilst Sir Guy, poised on the threshold between dreadful past and empty future, hears a gunshot. Omar has already delivered the epigraph earlier: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit, Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line.” “You likee Chinese New Year?” the Russian coolie asks, for one of the most casually, coldly sarcastic final lines in film history.

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1950s, Drama

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

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Director: Otto Preminger

By Roderick Heath

Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan’s famous debut novel, is a pseudo-tragic morality play flavoured with haute-couture raciness and 10-franc philosophy. Nonetheless, it was a perceptive work that hit a nerve, all the more so for its author’s youth: Sagan, who took her pen name from a character of Marcel Proust’s, was 18 when she wrote it. Otto Preminger’s film version came out four years later. Preminger was a forceful, inventive, but uneven director most at home in dark, intimate narratives, conjuring an hysterical atmosphere fraught with fragmenting assumptions, and creating irony-laden, ever-evolving analyses of whatever material he chose to work with. One of the great scenes of his oeuvre is in Exodus (1960), in which David Opatashu’s relentless interrogation of Sal Mineo slowly peels away the lad’s plucky, aggressive exterior until he confesses the unimaginable pain in his heart. Preminger’s best films work in such a fashion, beginning with a chitinous but brittle sheen, and then digging until a far more complex vision resolves.

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Bonjour Tristesse is one such film. The opening establishes Cecile (Jean Seberg) as one of those blessed creatures who, as Marianne Faithfull would put it, ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair. But far from enjoying her life, she drifts to and fro according to the whims of her playboy father Raymond (David Niven) and several vying boyfriends. All the while, she meditates with bewildered ennui on the events of the previous summer, during which the blissfully pagan lifestyle of her father and herself was first disrupted. Having made their annual retreat to a villa on the Riviera with her father’s squaw of the moment, the platinum-haired, foolish, but likeable Elsa (Mylène Demongeot), Raymond was thrown into a quandary by the arrival of Anne (Deborah Kerr), a fashion designer friend of his deceased wife’s, whom he had forgotten he also had invited.

Such invitations are, of course, code for “come be my concubine for a while.” Anne, a mature and circumspect professional, was disoriented to find Raymond ensconced with Elsa, but campaigned to snare the wayward male, eventually succeeding in drawing a marriage proposal from him. Anne then had attempted to work influence over Raymond and a resentful Cecile, as when she forbade Cecile from dating law student Cyril (Geoffrey Horne) and insisted that she study and resit the philosophy exams she flunked.

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Preminger’s stylistic gambit is to begin in the present-tense with acidic black and white, and then drift into flashbacks composed in bright ice cream colours. The analytical grace of black and white accords with Seberg’s more shaded portrait, as Cecile charges through life with blithe impassivity, barely paying attention when one of her louche society lovers and a casual pick-up in a jazz den start brawling. The moment Cecile, dancing with her father, allows her thoughts to drift back, blotches of hazy blue eat through the image on screen until the bright Mediterranean coast explodes, and the film’s tenor changes immediately to one of kitschy pastels and playful intrigue. The import is clear, establishing the past as a time of happiness and fulsome fun, and the present as grave and regretful, a visual cue to the mystery of what turned Cecile’s life so sour. It also exploits and inverts a cinematic code familiar to, if not readily acknowledged by audiences of the time, when films of presumed seriousness were generally made in black and white and Technicolor was associated with frivolity.

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Preminger subsequently paints Sagan’s story in the declamatory terms of pop art rather than deep psychology, and it’s a smart choice. Sagan’s story was defined as much by elision—what its naïve heroine cannot discern is as important as what she can—and dazzling, distracting surfaces. The cunning narrative relies on the viewer taking as much offence to the prim Anne as Cecile does. Her entrance into the story does not immediately threaten the gaiety of their lives, but Cecile has made clear her utter satisfaction with things as they are. Anne acts with an impolite self-satisfaction that betrays her own insecurity in the situation. In one scene, she enters Cecile’s bedroom when she’s practising yoga and switches off her record player without asking, establishing in subtle, yet definite terms her inability to adjust to anyone else’s rhythm of existence. Cecile’s irritation is readily understandable, but her general brattiness contrasts her own assumptions of maturity. She tosses books to the floor and slams doors in perfunctory shows of anger, and with suddenly acute vigour, jabs a pin into a surrogate doll. An underlying kinkiness to the whole set-up is suggested in the thoughtless intimacy of the father and daughter, which sees them constantly planting kisses on each other, a strain of incestuous desire seemingly better sublimated through Raymond’s young lovers than through the solicitous Anne.

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The story narrows to a wicked point in two specific moments in which Anne is the victim. First, when she arrives, the casual news that Elsa is in residence causes Anne to smash a flowerpot, an action Cecile soon reports in clipped, unfinished sentences to her father, causing Elsa to declare in frustration, “They even finish each other’s sentences! The perfect marriage!” Language—who says what to whom and in what fashion—delineates the borders of family and inclusion. On presuming to become part of their life, Anne says she won’t scold Cecile, but instead try to “influence” her—influence that swiftly enough becomes command. Cecile eventually abandons communication in the present-day scenes, her alternations of laughing disdain and taciturnity stoking the apprehension of those around her.

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The second moment institutes the climax. After Cecile acts successfully on Elsa’s behalf to provoke her father to jealousy, Anne comes across Raymond and Elsa having a tryst in the woods. Cecile stalks Anne to the crucial moment, prancing like a fawn but proving more the serpent in this particular Garden of Eden, and Kerr communicates by expression alone the disorienting force of her humiliation and horror. She drives off in a distraught state and dies in a crash Cecile thinks was suicide. It’s a sequence that is, in its way, as brilliantly staged as any of Hitchcock’s suspense moments, and it resolves the gaudy playfulness of what’s preceded it.

The figure of a young woman whose yearnings lead her to cause, or whose presence causes, destructive acts was clearly dear to Preminger, who had earlier essayed the same theme in several films, especially in his bodice-ripper hoot Forever Amber (1947), Carmen Jones (1954) and his queasily brilliant Angel Face (1952). In the last, a far more psychopathic heroine (Jean Simmons) annihilates her parents and then herself and her lover (both films build to climactic car crashes), and like Cecile, eddied in perturbed, bewildered grief after perceiving her own destructiveness. In the climax of Anatomy of a Murder (1959), James Stewart’s defence attorney lets his opponent walk directly into a trap of his own arrogance, a trap that finally confirms the absence of any definable truth in the case: all that matters is the case that he built. Likewise, Preminger lets his characters declare themselves in broad terms, and then observes them with increasingly lenient, observational intrigue, handing them just enough rope to hang themselves.

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Using the widescreen with compositional grace, he constantly offers lingering group and long shots in which telling details manifest. Sooner or later, the crucial moment arrives, as when his camera sits patiently waiting as Cecilia and a nightclub pick-up dance, only for the other beaux to instigate a fight; or a shot of the strange family gathering on a terrace whilst their maid sneaks mouthfuls of their champagne. There’s a marvelous moment when Cecile returns from having surrendered her virginity to Cyril, attempting, and failing, to coolly light herself a cigarette, and Anne comes to her rescue with solicitous patience.

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The interrogatory approach alters Seberg, with her glassy Midwestern freshness, into a spry and supple assassin and makes blithely gracious man of the world Niven into a childish jackass. The often rigid Kerr gives one of her most comfortable performances from this era, funnily enough, playing a woman defined by her lack of comfort. Unfortunately, Preminger’s fondness for bottle blondes and digging up unpolished starlets to terrorise and/or sleep with yields Demongeot, who delivers an embarrassingly awkward performance early on; yet, she, too, expands her characterisation with some wit as the movie progresses. Horne, a star ingénue for about two minutes at the time, is a total washout. Still, it’s funny to see Martita Hunt, who usually played stern battle-axes, as Cyril’s gaudy, gambling mother. Greco appears on screen as herself, singing the mordant title song by Georges Auric, whose terrific score contorts its core theme through variations of chanson d’amour, hot jazz, and bossa nova, entwining seemingly disparate scenes and moods in unifying motifs.

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A key set piece of Tristesse sees Elsa, who seems at first a cut-out of va-va-voom feminine lushness, but proves herself equipped with the life-love of a nature goddess, leading the others in a communal dance—a state of communal exaltation that also initiates Raymond and Anne’s affair and signals the swiftly approaching crack-up. It’s this mix of indulgence and cynicism, this wide-open perspective, that predicts subsequent films of Euro-anomie, like La Dolce Vita and L’Avventura and best defines Preminger’s films. The brilliant final shot reveals the queasy grief around which the circular narrative tiptoes, whilst achieving a total disintegration, as the self-loathing Cecile stares into a mirror, swathing her sorrow-contorted face in cold cream until she’s a perverted caricature, and the picture blurs and dies.

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2000s, Drama

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

Director: Sidney Lumet

By Roderick Heath

For the past half-century, Sidney Lumet has been modern American cinema’s master of fine-grained mise-en-scène. His sense of life being lived, particularly in big cities, is often unerring, and thus, his touch has always been at its surest in urban dramas and noir films. His recent career Oscar and the ensuing tide of reevaluation has brought him to the brink of the recognition he deserves, but he’s still patronised to a surprising degree. Perhaps it’s the fact that Lumet insisted on having an old Hollywood hand’s type of career, taking on diverse projects for the sheer hell of it, and working steadily through creative barren patches, that’s diluted his appreciation. He is also, to a certain extent, a filmmaker at odds with much of the popular conception of great directors. He’s rarely flamboyant, technically showy, or self-important. He generally uses only the bare minimum of shots he needs to explain a point, and if something can be done in one long take, he’ll shoot it.

Lumet began as an expert adaptor of stage works, and yet he grew swiftly out of theatrical transcription. His movies are distinguished by their lean, actor-centric, matter-of-fact sensibility, and yet they’re always slightly more stylised than you think, with his imaginative use of lenses to emphasise altering perspectives, used most showily in films like Murder on the Orient Express (1975). In this tendency to ever so slightly magnify the ordinary, Lumet achieves something very much like classic American naturalism as defined by Twain, Norris, and Crane. In terms of modern cinema, Lumet is closer not to high-style contemporaries like Kubrick and Frankenheimer, but to Ken Loach and British-style realists.

Lumet’s career is studded with forgettable films that did not mesh with his fundamental gifts, like The Wiz (1978), The Group (1966), as well as with the overrated Network (1976). Yet, his roll of honour represents some of the most rigorous, tough, and intelligent works of American (and British) film: Twelve Angry Men, The Fugitive Kind, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Fail-Safe, The Pawnbroker, The Hill, The Offence, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City, The Verdict, Daniel, and Running on Empty. The ’90s were largely a sorry time for Lumet, apart from some interesting misfires like Q&A and Night Falls on Manhattan, which were all the more sad for fumbling to recapture old greatness.

Working from a script by debut screenwriter Kelly Masterson, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is easily Lumet’s best film since Running on Empty, a welcome return to the dark-saturated, tragic melodrama of his great works. It’s the tale of Hank (Ethan Hawke) and Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman), two sharply defined brothers who decide to knock over their parents’ jewelry store to extricate themselves from financial woes. Hank hires a sleazy stick-up man, Bobby (Brian F. O’Byrne), who gets himself shot by the brothers’ own mother, Nanette (Rosemary Harris), but shoots her, too, before expiring. Unsurprisingly, it’s all downhill from there.

This film is, assuredly, a melodrama. Plot complications stack up with extraneous relentlessness, and most of the characters are defined by a single dominating trait. Yet Lumet and his cast endeavor to bring to the film a Grecian weight with a pared-back, intensive technique, and succeed; the tale and its moral conclusions are blacker than the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat. Lumet lays out the details of these men and their lives like an assassin laying out the parts of his rifle before assembling it—and then proceeds to shoot them dead with it. The film’s biting thesis contrasts self-conscious “loser” Hank with his brother, whose hot wife and higher position in the real estate company they both work for make him apparently more successful, but who is actually an even bigger loser. His debts are larger, his failures broader—how much more he has gained only adds up to how much more he has to lose.

Then there’s grizzled patriarch Charles (Albert Finney), who is confronted first by terrible loss and then an even more terrible discovery that does not dissuade him from pursuing vengeance. Charles is both cheering and chilling in his dedication to restoring a fundamental sense of order to the world once his has been smashed, even to the point of murdering one of his own boys. Before he learns the truth, Charles attempts to apologise for his failings as a father, and Andy attempts to displace his own failings willingly onto his father. But something infinitely malignant, glittering in the dark, has grown between this pair, and becomes pure toxicity when combined with social values and personal desperation that drive a man to seek money at all costs. The main victim is Andy and Hank’s own mother—Harris is an actress who mysteriously manages to become more beautiful every year—who, ironically, displays a level of bravery and pith that gets her killed, but also brings everything else crashing down. All deceits and betrayals are laid bare because she is present where she shouldn’t be, and does what she should not. The old woman who counts for nothing in this drama of masculine fear and rage is actually its catalytic force. Aeschylus would have been happy with the building blocks of this story.

Lumet’s film has some close cousins in contemporary cinema, for example, the recent works of James Gray and Clint Eastwood, in attempting to artfully reproduce the compulsive plot patterns and analytical stereotyping of classic Hollywood melodrama in order to exploit their potential for corrosive social critique. Lumet surpasses these directors in both his refusal to indulge actors and his immunity from sentimentality. Hoffman and Hawke, two thespians prone to showboating, are kept on the strictest of leashes. The reward is some dazzling performing, like the way Hoffman shivers and stutters when he converses with Andy on the phone and realises everything’s gone to hell. Hawke gives his best-ever performance, free of the hipster archness he never before disposed of entirely. Finney continues his incredible late-career resurgence. It’s mesmerising to watch these characters engage in realistic, offhand behavior, like the way both Hawke and Hoffman reveal underneath their attempts to fit into a white-collar world, a fundamental working-class unease—the moment they relax, they pull their shirts out of their trousers. There’s also an eye-catching part from veteran character actor Leonardo Cimino as a hellish minion in the guise of a diamond merchant, all too eager to inform Charles just how evil the world can be.

The film isn’t a true, profound tragedy. It states, rather than explores, the dynamics of the family that’s produced this situation, and the various character relationships are locked in the state they continue in, if more urgently, to the climax. We’re not introduced to the whole Hanson clan together, and so gain little feel for how they work as a unit. Andy outlines his alienation from the group dynamic of mother, father, sister and brother, and Hank has long settled into seething mutual contempt with his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and daughter (Sarah Livingstone).

The role of Gina (Marisa Tomei), Andy’s gorgeous wife, is curious, and ultimately fudged. The film begins with her and Andy in a moment of pure carnal thrill, a marker, reminiscent as it is of Jaime Sanchez and his girlfriend cavorting in The Pawnbroker, of Lumet’s career-long fascination with the brittle excitement and intimacy of the casual lover’s shag. It’s a kind of twilight idyll for them that Andy attempts desperately to maintain, despite the fact that his coke and heroin habits have been rendering him intermittently impotent. Gina mistakes this for lack of desire for her, so she’s been regularly bedding Hank instead. Yet Gina never develops beyond a plot trope, and Tomei is left floundering like an offended valley girl when she finally abandons Andy, a desultory conclusion for an aspect of the story that begins so vividly.

The story of Before the Devil is essentially retrospective, in that it deals with consequences to interpersonal disaster that have preordained worldly disaster. This justifies the film’s approach, which continues circling around the robbery and its grim conclusion, following each character on their separate descent; it’s as if time has stopped, and fate throws up its labyrinthine barriers at every turn. Hank and Andy are wonderfully half-assed criminals. It would take a kind of existential resignation such as James Caan displays in Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) to escape it, but neither Hank nor Andy have the kind of strength required to either avoid or extricate themselves from this situation. Andy comes close, in a final ruthless drive, but his last hesitation and swerving from his purpose to cosset his wounded pride, costs him his life.

Hank survives, at the price of having to run for the rest of his life because of a remaining scruple—he won’t let Andy shoot an innocent woman, and she returns the favor. Ultimately, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is not entirely pessimistic, in that the “right” values do prevail, but Hank’s act of selflessness and Charles’s final act prove that whilst justice can still rule even in the cruelest situations, it can still entail facing the near- inconceivable horror of being exterminated by a loved one, and thus be only one more cruelty.

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