Monthly Archives: December 2014

Illegal (1955)


*. This is a film with a history. It’s based on a 1929 play titled The Mouthpiece and was, I believe, filmed three times. The first film version was in 1932, and it had the same title as the play.
*. You’d think from this that it would be a great story, or at least be well written. But it isn’t. It’s contrived and preposterous. I’m not sure why anyone would have wanted to make it into a movie once.
*. Robinson punches a witness and wins his case just like that? Why does Garland order Scott killed? Doesn’t the moll know that she’s in danger testifying against her boss? Wasn’t there an easier way to kill the embezzler than gunning him down in public in broad daylight? Wasn’t Robinson taking a huge risk drinking all that poison? Why does a professional like Ellen break down so pathetically as soon as she’s arrested? None of it makes sense, but I guess any legal drama sells.


*. In earlier versions of the story Robinson’s character of the fallen D.A. Victor Scott was in love with Nina Foch’s Ellen. But here that’s avoided through making Scott a father figure to Ellen. Any romance would therefore have an incestuous angle to it, though it is, remarkably, still hinted at in the scene where Scott comes to visit Ellen in jail right after her arrest and says he was “the wrong man for you.” As it stands, that’s a rather awkward line.
*. Yes, that’s DeForest Kelley (misspelled Kelly in the credits), “Bones” himself, going to the electric chair.
*. As another interesting bit of trivia, the Maltese falcon seems to have found its way into the D.A.’s office. It’s sitting on top of the bookshelf just inside the door. After all that fuss spent looking for it . . .
*. The best thing about this movie is the DVD commentary with Nina Foch. Foch had gone on to become a film professor and was 82 when she did the commentary (she would die a couple of years later), and she’s full of excellent observations about the making of not only this movie but other movies of the period.


*. She has no illusions about the grandeur of the golden age. Instead she is quite critical of the stiffness and unreality of the filmmaking of the period. She even says to her sidekick Patricia King Hanson at one point: “I don’t think pictures are worth the effort you bring to them.” Ouch.
*. Foch’s main complaint is that because of the fixed lighting and primitive sound recording people had to be posed like statues. They couldn’t act fluidly, move naturally, or respond to one another. Overlapping dialogue, for example, was impossible.
*. As she explains: “We weren’t making movies about actual human beings in the way that we later did.” The spare set dressing is part of the same critique: “This is a world where nobody lives.” The slow editing adds to this sense of stilted formality, as do wardrobe elements such as Garland’s perfectly folded pocket handkerchief: “It’s all right there in the handkerchief even, everyone has the three points . . . because it’s very hard to match disorder.”


*. Another delightful point Foch makes has to do with the first editions and other rarities she says could be found among the books purchased in bulk (“by the yard”) for set dressing. I don’t know how likely that would be in a film like this, however, where the books are likely all old legal serials of no value at all.
*. Did people keep bottles of Scotch in their kitchen cabinets back in the 1950s? And not notice when they were empty?
*. Edward G. Robinson’s reputation as a tough guy was always a bit weird. He was a great actor just to be able to sell it. You have to shake your head at his bolstering his client’s claim to toughness by saying “he’s as big as me.” In fact, he apparently stood on apple boxes to get up to Foch’s height in their scenes together.


*. Those are works from Robinson’s own art collection on the walls of Garland’s office, by the way. Robinson was a great collector of Impressionists, but why does he pronounce Degas as he does? That’s not the French pronunciation, which he must have known.
*. I don’t think this was Jayne Mansfield’s first movie appearance, but it was her first role, and it closely parallels Marilyn Monroe’s part as a gangster’s moll in The Asphalt Jungle. As an aside, Foch repeats the urban legend that Mansfield died when she was decapitated when her convertible slammed into the back of a truck and went partially underneath it. In fact, she was not decapitated but her head was crushed.
*. Don’t bother calling for a doctor or an ambulance or anything like that when Scott collapses in the courtroom. Just let him give his final words to Ellen and wrap up all those loose ends as quickly as possible.
*. I love how the final shot has Jayne Mansfield cantilevered over the railing to the witness box, her bosom suspended over Robinson’s prone form. I guess if that doesn’t revive him then nothing will.


The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)


*. Ugh. Of course. An inevitable “Ugh.”
*. It didn’t have to be this bad, but the concept had flaws from the start, beginning with the typical Hollywood approach of taking a classic property and “updating” it with a bigger budget and state-of-the-art special effects. The problem here is that in the original the effects were already pretty decent and have since become iconic, while the story was corny and had to work very hard to carry a feature. Hollywood’s target for remakes should be great stories that were let down by their effects or production values.
*. Then there’s Keanu. I guess they thought he might work as an alien. And he does a credible job. But the part is a total blank. Michael Rennie seemed a bit more engaged, I thought.


*. I can’t get over how stupid the military is presented as being. They have no idea what is going on aside from the fact that the situation is clearly not “under control.” They are totally outclassed by the alien technology, but still keep trying ever heavier weapons because that’s just what authoritarian jerks in uniforms do.
*. Firing missiles into the cloud was my favourite tactic. It made me think of Chief Wiggum on The Simpsons shooting his pistol at a cloud of germs.
*. Gort (or more properly GORT in this film, since his name is a military acronym) is rather selective in his targets when he takes the form of a swarm of metal locusts. Why that particular truck? Why that stadium? These are just “wow!” scenes they threw in to give the audience a bit of what it paid for.


*. Cleese’s advice to Helen Benson: “Change his mind. Not with reason but with yourself.” Hm. Well, she is Jennifer Connelly. Alas, as Roger Ebert observes, Keanu Reeves is “the first co-star in movie history to elude falling in love with Jennifer Connelly.” So: no dice.
*. I actually think it would have made more sense if she had tried to seduce him. As it is he is converted by witnessing her hugging her step-son. He only then realizes that Earthlings “have another side.” This is beyond trite. How long have they been observing Earth? And yet he is surprised to learn there’s some truth to the Professor’s banal observation that people are driven to change at times of crisis?
*. A movie with an environmental message? It would have been easy to put one in, but here it’s left pretty indirect. The alien sphere looks like a green and blue planet. And there’s reference made to a “tipping point” but no explanation of what this means. Really, the reason we’re doomed as a species could just as easily be due to human bellicosity as global climate change or the destruction of the environment.
*. I wonder if they pulled back from having a more explicit environmental message because they didn’t want to be seen as controversial, or risk alienating the “drill baby, drill!” crowd. Whatever the reason, it’s odd to have a film that is so manipulative end up being so pointless.
*. The ending is a total fudge. Are we going to change our ways? Probably not. But the alien threat has gone away. Back to business as usual then. Fire up that SUV and let’s head to McDonald’s. Burn baby, burn.


The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)


*. It’s always a little sad revisiting old favourites and finding them not all that you remembered them to be.
*. On the DVD commentary track Nicolas Meyer mentions how his eight-year-old daughter had been riveted by the “simple story, simply told.” I think this is a common response to this film: that we liked it when we were kids. I might have been a bit older when I first saw it, but I think I felt the same. Today, not so much.


*. It’s a classic, with certain images (the minimalist robot Gort and iconic flying saucer) and lines (“Klaatu barada nicto!”) that are now part of pop culture. It regularly appears on lists of the greatest SF films of all time. And yet I think people mainly watch it today for its folksy charm. I find it quite dull, like a half-hour Twilight Zone episode stretched out unnecessarily. It has an unusual but effective score, some good performances, particularly those of Rennie and Neal, but it just isn’t very interesting.
*. It’s striking how unfazed everyone seems to be by what’s going on. The powers-that-be display little sense of wonder, urgency, or anxiety at being visited by a brother from another planet. The president may have some concerns, but he’s obviously a busy man so he has his secretary look into things. As for other world leaders, they’re more worried about matters of diplomatic protocol.


*. The intention seems to have been to make a down-to-earth, matter-of-fact, almost documentary style SF movie that would in turn make the fantastic elements more believable. Fair enough. But you never feel like the movie is getting into gear. Even Herrmann’s score is atmospheric rather than dramatic, because it’s not a dramatic movie.
*. Wise makes a very good point when being interviewed in the Making the Earth Stand Still documentary that pace is not the same thing as speed. As he puts it, “pace is interest.” A suspenseful or compelling movie can be very slow moving. But the story here isn’t interesting enough to take at a slow pace, and it’s hard not to notice all the shots that are held too long, and scenes that don’t advance the story at all.
*. From Bosley Crowther’s review in the New York Times: “in a fable of such absurd assumptions as this one amusingly presents, cold chills might be more appropriate than lukewarm philosophy. One expects more — or less — than a preachment on political morality from a man from Mars.”


*. Michael Rennie. As soon as you hear the name you start singing “Science Fiction Double Feature” in your head. Because what else did he do? A lot, but nothing you’d be likely to remember. On the commentary track Robert Wise tells the story of Zanuck writing a letter to him saying that he’d seen Rennie on stage in London and didn’t think he’d been in any films. In fact he had been in a bunch of movies in England, and this was his third for Fox.
*. They originally wanted Claude Rains to play Klaatu, but Rennie nailed the part. With his narrow frame, deep-set eyes, and lacquered hair, he has more than a touch of the alien about him. Alas, to quote Crowther again: “this genteel soul, while charmingly suave and cosmopolitan, is likely to cause unguarded yawns. His manners are strangely punctilious for a fellow just off a space boat, and his command of an earthly language must have been acquired from listening entirely to the BBC. Nice chap, Mr. Rennnie, but a bit on the soft side, don’tcha know.”
*. The appearance of Sam Jaffe’s Professor Barnhardt was apparently based on Einstein. So why does he have a picture of Freud in his study?


*. I like how the montage of stopping the power all over the world takes us from the grand (Times Square, the British Houses of Parliament, the Arc de Triomphe) to the mundane (the woman whose washing machine has stopped, the blender that won’t mix the milk shake, and even the milking machines that don’t work in the dairy).
*. Could the wires holding up Patricia Neal when Gort carries her in his arms be any more visible? It looks like they didn’t even make an attempt to conceal them.
*. If everyone believes Klaatu is dead, why do they lock him up in a cell? Again, it’s surprising that no one seems that interested in a dead alien.
*. Barnhardt asks Klaatu what will happen if his group rejects Klaatu’s proposals. What are the alternatives? Klaatu responds that there are no alternatives and that “the planet Earth would have to be eliminated.” So what’s the point of even calling a meeting? What is there to be decided? Klaatu just has to tell the world to shape up or face obliteration.


*. Robert Wise and especially Nicolas Meyer are far too rough on Hugh Marlowe (playing insurance man-on-the-make Tom Stevens). I think Marlowe is fine in a limited role as an egregious, two-dimensional heel. Meyer thinks he could have been made more sympathetic, but I’m not sure the film had room for such a character, or would have known what to do with him.
*. How awful is that reference to the Almighty Spirit at the end? It was requested by the MPAA, but if the Almighty Spirit is in charge of things anyway, we don’t really need the race of robot enforcers keeping the peace, do we? I think it’s best to ignore the line and accept that God has arrived in a machine.


Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987)


*. In my notes on the original Silent Night, Deadly Night I tried to argue that it really wasn’t all bad. I won’t extend the same charity to this title.
*. This is one of the worst movies ever made, a true disaster right from the start.
*. As you probably already know if you’re reading this, a huge chunk of the movie, I would guess about a third of the total running time, consists of flashbacks to the first film. And what’s left doesn’t exactly trip along at a quick pace. Notice how long they stretch that opening credit sequence out for, as the orderly sets up the tape machine. And then at the end two sets of closing credits crawl by (for both this film and the first).


*. How did this happen? Because originally the idea was to just re-cut the first movie and re-release it in a new version. But instead the people who had been approached to do the edit decided to make a sequel that would incorporate all the best parts from the first film because they had almost no budget to shoot new material.
*. From such clumsy and inauspicious beginnings things fell apart completely. There is no evidence of talent in any department: writing, acting, directing, or production design. Indeed, there’s no evidence that anyone involved even cared. On the commentary the writer and director mention “winking and smiling” from the moment they set pen to paper, and as the commentary continues it becomes clear that they thought the entire project a joke. Which actually helps.


*. Eric Freeman’s performance is notable mostly for the workout he gives his eyebrows. But let’s face it, with this script he was doomed anyway. “You’re good, Doc. You know all the moves. But I could squash you like a bug.” “Mother Superior! I’ve got a present for you!” “Naughty this!”
*. So young psycho Ricky first honks the horn of the jeep, then starts the engine, then puts it into gear, and then drives his victim over, all while said victim just stands there in front of the jeep waiting for him to do it. Come on.
*. There are only two moments, lasting maybe six seconds in total, that I thought any good at all. Spearing the loan collector with an umbrella and then having it pop open on the other side was creative. And, of course, “garbage day!” is a classic bit of nonsense that has gone on to become a popular Internet meme.


*. So there you have it. I think this one belongs on a very short list of worst movies ever. And it’s often so bad it’s pretty good. What lets it down in this regard is the amount of flashback material in the first half, which sits like a pig in a python. If they’d only had the opportunity to shoot more of their own material they could have made it even better/worse.


Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)


*. A movie whose vilification is perhaps only exceeded by that of I Spit on Your Grave. The Stocking of Outrage special feature on the Anchor Bay DVD gives a good sampling of the critical response, though it’s odd they don’t mention Siskel and Ebert’s epic condemnation, which I distinctly remember watching (it was one of the show’s all-time highlights). Roger and Gene basically called out the names of everyone involved in the film while saying “shame, shame.”
*. We don’t have critics saying things like that any more. The death of outrage? I guess. I know I don’t get as worked up about such matters. I figure people get the movies they deserve, more or less.
*. Did Silent Night, Deadly Night deserve such public shaming? Not entirely. It actually wasn’t the first film to feature a killer Santa Claus (that may have been Tales from the Crypt), and when you break it down it’s really not all bad.
*. The script, in particular, is solid. I say that in a relative way, meaning “solid, for a low-budget slasher film.” Yes, it’s very crude in its psychologizing, but unlike Freddy or Jason or Michael, Billy actually has a psychology and interior life, one that the entire first third of the movie is devoted to explaining.


*. Sticking with the script, there are nice verbal cues repeated, and amplified, throughout (in particular the justice of punishing the naughty). And Billy’s final tip over into madness is well prepared for and credibly triggered (the office Christmas party, and his sudden introduction to alcohol, combined with his being forced to “play” Santa).
*. Also, I like the concept of the evil Santa because so much of the Christmas myth is capable of this double interpretation. If you’re good you get presents, but what happens if you’re naughty? Shouldn’t you be punished? And, as the song goes, what is Santa doing sneaking around at night when no one can see him, and creepily watching us all the time? As Kim Newman points out, “a lot of children found Santa frightening even before the movies depicted him as an axe-wielding psychopath.”


*. The whole intro is psychologically astute in other ways as well. Christmas is a time to be together with family, but in this case “family” is a catatonic grandfather in a mental hospital, and old people are terrifying enough to small children anyway. Right away you’re uncomfortable even though nothing seems to be wrong . . . yet. We’re even left with an uneasy feeling about Billy’s mental health. Does he only imagine grandpa trying to frighten him? Nobody else sees Gramps come to life.
*. Another nice touch is the kindly nun as Billy’s Ahab, though I thought this part of the film could have been developed more.
*. In sum, I’d say this movie is better written than its more successful peers, like Friday the 13th, Halloween, or The Hills Have Eyes.
*. Of course what I’m talking about here is the film’s basic concept and design. What lets it down, mainly, is a very limited budget. It’s really cheap, and it looks really cheap. Embarassingly so. I mean, what the hell is that front door that Billy knocks down made of? A single sheet of balsa wood?
*. The low budget probably hurt the movie most in limiting the gore quotient to only one half-way decent “kill” (Linnea Quigley as the girl who is impaled on the deer’s antlers while her boyfriend remains strangely oblivious to what is going on upstairs). The rest of the murder and mayhem is pretty uninspired. The sledding boy who is decapitated was OK, but I believe this was cut from the theatrical release.


*. Charles E. Sellier Jr. What an odd director. The creator of The Adventures of Grizzly Adams (the first film I ever saw, on a double bill with Charlotte’s Web), and the evangelical producer of family-oriented Christian films. Yet this is one of his only directing credits. In the audio interview included in the DVD’s special features he says that he took the job as a favour to a friend at TriStar, and only ever saw it as a derivative bit of hack work (no pun intended). In the event, apparently he didn’t even direct the violent scenes because he was uncomfortable with them. He also, wisely, wanted no part of the sequel.
*. Wow. Did you see how sneaky Andy and Pamela were in getting away from the Christmas party for a little make-out session in the storage area? That’s hard to do without anyone noticing, especially when there are only seven people at the party in the first place. But then I’ll bet someone did notice!
*. Jonathon Best plays Billy at age 5 and he looks like an illustration from the book he’s reading come to life, what with his Bambi eyes and red, round lips. What a great bit of casting. He just screams innocence about to be defiled.


*. Robert Brian Wilson as grown-up Billy is actually pretty good. He could have played the part way over the top, but he seems as though he’s holding something back, as though he’s still fighting some kind of inner battle with his demons. Or perhaps he was just having serious doubts about having taken the role in the first place . . .
*. There’s nothing like that classic three-step jump cut when we discover Mr. Simms’s body with the hammer sticking out of his head. That’s a horror staple that goes back at least as far as Frankenstein (in the scene when the Monster first appears), though I suspect the more direct influence here comes from its use in The Birds.


*. Enjoy the little things. I love how, in the scene where Officer Barnes is hunting Billy down, the voices of the children singing inside the orphanage can be heard beneath the louder sound of the wind blowing across the plains. That’s nice sound work, and quite effective in the way it underscores how isolated we are (distant, muffled voices underneath empty, blowing wind).
*. The cutaways to the Christmas dolls during the toy store massacre, on the other hand, are just trite. A clear sign of a director with no feel for the genre and no idea what he’s doing.
*. It survives mainly as a historical curiosity today, a mid-80s succès de scandale that gave us the indelible image of Santa holding a bloody axe. Judged on its own terms it’s actually one of the more thoughtful slasher films from the period, though it’s finally undone by an impossibly low budget, a general lack of talent, and a director with no feel for the material.


The Nativity (1910)


*. Christianity, unlike other religions of the book, has always embraced images of the divine (albeit with a few iconoclastic interruptions). This has given rise to a lot of Western art’s greatest hits, as well as an ungodly amount of trash and commercial crap. In the latter category go most Biblical spectacles, and pretty much anything to do with Christmas holidays.
*. That said by way of introduction, this short film isn’t really a “spectacle,” being a one-reeler with a limited budget. Herod’s throne room is particularly unimpressive, undistinguished by anything more than what appears to be a lion-skin rug. And the location backdrops barely rise above high-school set decorations. Those palm trees! That sphinx!


*. I mentioned Western art’s greatest hits. There’s always a tendency for Bible films to be drawn toward this visual tradition. Mel Gibson, for example, consciously mined it in The Passion of the Christ. Here again we’re very much in the world of staged artwork. Without any title cards, or even a title for that matter, you’d still be able to identify most of what’s going on.
*. There is, however, an impressive development of depth of field for a series of what are fairly static theatrical tableaux.


*. Animals are a director’s nightmare. The docile and sleepy sheep in the first scene here are well behaved to the point of appearing tranquilized. I wonder if they were. The camels that bring the wise men to Herod seem more recalcitrant. But camels are like that, aren’t they? Such ungainly beasts out of their native element.
*. Feuillade was still working on developing a sense of film narrative. This is a short film going over a very familiar series of events and yet I still found it a bit hard to follow. There’s no strong link of cause and effect between the different scenes, Feuillade just shows us one thing happening and then another. Perhaps he felt he didn’t need to explain what was going on, but I think it more likely that he just wasn’t there yet.
*. Commerce and religion. Is there a real spiritual sensibility at work here? Is this film an act of faith? Or is it just a much-loved story tricked out with some primitive effects (like the appearance of the chorus of angels at the beginning), in order to take advantage of the public’s interest in the new technology?
*. I’m not sure how you could tell. Spirituality in film is hard to do: the very nature of the medium works against you. (Much the same has been said about making anti-war films.) But there’s more to religion than religious feeling. There are conventions and public rituals and mythologies. What’s interesting, at least to me, is how in early films like this you can already see the affinity between Christianity and a new form of popular art.


Faust (1994)


*. This movie is one of those out-of-the-way gems that I like to recommend to people who are looking for something a little different. It’s odd, erudite, entertaining, can be approached on many different levels, and it’s not a movie many people know.
*. It’s sort of like a silent film, what with the lack of dialogue. There’s really nothing outside of lines being read from a script, and yet it never gives you the feeling that anything is being left unsaid that would help us better understand what’s going on. It makes you wonder how much of what we say is unnecessary and extraneous, just a way of passing time.
*. Without language, how much more heightened becomes the visual sense, the need to look for meaning in what you see in things? Even the map to the theatre isn’t so much a real map as an image in need of interpretation. “Faust” has to consult a city map in order to find out where the place indicated by the red dot actually is, as nothing is marked or labeled.
*. Images constitue the language of thought, dreams, and film, just as poetry is our natural language of speech. As Aristotle put it, “the soul never thinks without an image.”


*. Of course when you watch a movie like this now you immediately think of Mr. Bean. Comedy is one of the few places where you still see silence being used effectively. And yet why shouldn’t silence lend itself just as much to horror, mystery, or a sense of philosophical dread, as it does here?
*. What’s it all about? Well I don’t think it has much to do with the Faust legend, at least as its usually understood. This version is usually said to be loosely based on Christopher Marlowe’s play, but aside from some of the lines there’s not much of a connection.
*. For one thing, there’s little exploration of Marlowe’s major theme of the consequences of hubristic ambition. I think this is mainly because there is no “Faust.” There’s just an ordinary Joe (actor Petr Cepek, whose overcoat, cigarette, flashlight, and general rumpled look recall Columbo) who gets sucked into a performance of Faust and reads (or lip synchs) a part of the play.
*. The Faust we get here isn’t after knowledge so much as companionship. That bachelor flat and lonely-guy meal are pretty depressing. He wants a baby, but can’t make one himself. And as for Helen, she’s only a sex doll who lures him into the catacombs.


*. In that sudden transition from sex to death (chasing Helen into the crypt) I think you see the main theme Svankmajer is developing. What he seems most interested in is our fall or seduction into a world of mortality and decay. It’s there in the time-lapsed fruit in the window going from ripe to rotten, and the fast-aging baby becoming a skull. Even the environment is a labyrinth of dilapidated ruins of modern and ancient buildings.
*. I wonder what the significance is of all the close-ups of mouths. It’s most obvious when the puppets are talking, but we also zoom in on Faust’s mouth when he is giving a speech, and when he’s stuffing his face with food (or when other people, or puppets, are stuffing theirs). Perhaps it has something to do with the line Marlowe gives Faustus, that “The god thou serv’st is thine own appetite,” but given that the imagery attaches to everyone and not just Faust I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s something less, and more.
*. Appetite is, however, Faust’s downfall. He can’t keep away from that honey of generation, even when he knows that it’s a lie and will betray him. Players and painted stage (to stick with Yeats) take all his love, and not those things that they are emblems of. But it’s not a personal tragic flaw, product of Faust’s overweening pride. It’s the human condition. As Faust runs out of the theatre another man is coming in to take his place in the eternal drama.


Faust (1926)


*. On every re-viewing I’ve felt a little more in awe of this film. It has spectacle mixed with incredible effects, great performances, and every scene, nearly every shot, is richly composed.
*. Murnau is truly painting with light and shadows, with the contrasting forces introduced right from the opening shots of Mephistopheles standing in silhouette before the angel.
*. It’s a contrast made earlier in Nosferatu. where Orlok is a creature of the night, sometimes represented as a shadow, destroyed by sunlight at the end. This is an original addition to the vampire story, not found in Dracula.


*. The story here borrows from Goethe, but I wouldn’t call it a film version of that text. Instead it’s a new interpretation of an old story that teaches basic moral precepts: be careful what you wish for, don’t be too ambitious, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. It’s an archetypal story that covers a lot of ground. David Thomson observes that “you can get yourself into a state of mind that reckons nearly every interesting movie ever made is a version of the Faust situation.”
*. I love how Mephistopheles falls backward to the earth, like a scuba diver dropping off the side of a boat, after the making of the initial wager. That’s such a wonderful little touch.


*. Emil Jannings was a great silent actor. He could certainly ham it up (at a time before the extensive use of close-ups turned the essence of film acting into “less is more”), but he could also be subtle, even in his garish make-up. His slightly bulging, swiveling eyes and flickering tongue are, if not reminiscent of the old serpent, unmistakeably lizard-like.
*. Of course, the problem with having such a great, scene-stealing villain is that when he’s not on screen you feel some of the life go out of the movie. This is Jannings’s film almost as much as it is Murnau’s.


*. It seems right that the devil should also be a lecherous voyeur, always spying on Faust’s trysts. It tells us there’s something impotent about his lusts, even when he’s fooling around with Marthe. copping an outrageous feel. Where were the censors?


*. Expressionist sets all seem like works of art more than actual living spaces. The streets, windows, desks, doorways, and shelves here are pieces of sculpture, with limited practical use. The pile of books just inside Faust’s doorway, for example, can’t possibly be standing up on its own. It must be glued together.
*. I didn’t come away impressed by Gösta Ekman as Faust, but he does have great make-up. I couldn’t believe that the same actor was playing young and old Faust. Even being awareo of it I had trouble seeing it.


*. Murnau’s last movie before leaving for America. It was a hugely expensive production (never tell an artist that money is no object) and didn’t do well at the box office. I think the importance of a strong, simple narrative was forgotten (as Griffiths would forget it when going from Birth of a Nation to the equally brilliant but less enjoyable Intolerance).
*. There seems to have been a wistful idea at work of bringing high culture to the masses. But how many big budget art films have ever been successful? I doubt that’s much of an ambition for anyone today.


*. The magic carpet rides above a landscape of what are obviously models, but I still like the results as much as I would actual aerial photography. I love the tin moon, cotton clouds, and cardboard castles. I also like looking at snowflakes that are actually chicken feathers. And those elephants! How could you not love those?
*. Janning’s cape and widow’s peak seem an obvious inspiration for Lugosi’s Dracula. This is also hinted at in his appearance over the village as a giant bat.


*. I think Camilla Horn is really very good, projecting innocence, vulnerability, budding sexuality, and goodness, without being overly sentimental or cloying in a part that invites it. The role was originally pitched at various stars. Murnau had seen Mary Philbin in Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera (where she played Gretchen on stage) and wanted her. Greta Garbo was in the running. Leni Riefenstahl threw her hat in the ring. Lilian Gish came close to being cast (but she wanted her own cameraman).


*. John Barrymore was originally thought of for Mephistopheles. UFA really wanted that American market. Even before sound and the language barrier, there were identifiable national stars.
*. Murnau was a perfectionist and control freak like Stroheim and Kubrick. There were endless re-takes, and every little detail was fussed over. This ramped up costs, and fatigued the actors considerably. Apparently there were up to 20 takes of some scenes, and all of these were shot with two cameras. A lot of film was used, and as a result it’s hard to settle on any one definitive version of this film.
*. The Language of Shadows documentary included on the Kino DVD makes a good point about how the appearance of Mephistopheles in Faust’s room is more frightening when first seen from a distance than as a close-up. True, and it makes me think of the same effect in Nosferatu, with the shot of Count Orlok outside Hutter’s door. But why should this be the case? I think close-ups, especially coming as a jump cut, are more startling, but evil seen at some distance is more unnerving and mysterious. Evolutionary psychology kicks in: do we still have a chance to run away?
*. There were interesting changes made from German to English text for the American audience. My favourite is when Mephistopheles excuses Faust as he’s “a blue-blooded Prince” in the German version and as “a prince rich as Midas” in the American. America’s aristocracy of wealth makes being rich better than having royal blood.


Maidstone (1970)


*. Let’s get this part out of the way. At the end of Maidstone Norman Mailer and Rip Torn get in a fight. It’s the one scene that everybody remembers from this film. Torn might have been acting under the influence of drugs. He seems more than slightly out of it, not quite sure if he’s still in character (the kind of “tilt” condition that Robert Downey, Jr. discovers Ben Stiller in at the end of Tropic Thunder).
*. So is the fight “real”? I’m not sure. If Torn had really cold cocked Mailer with a hammer he might have killed him. I don’t know how staged any of it was, or, if it was staged, who all was in on it. But I guess that’s the point of the movie.


*. Was this the first mockumentary? No, because there were slightly earlier examples (one of them, Take the Money and Run, came out just the year before). Is it even a mockumentary? I think so, even though it takes itself seriously. It’s just that the more seriously it takes itself the funnier it is. That doesn’t mean it’s a comedy, but that approach to it is open.
*. Admit it, if you’d come to this movie after watching Wild 90 and Beyond the Law you wouldn’t have been expecting much. But this film is more than a curiosity. The sound may not be clear but it’s audible, and there are signs of competence in the filmmaking and even an interesting concept underlying it all (if still no proper “story”).
*. I find Mailer somewhat interesting on politics. I don’t find him interesting at all on sex. Unfortunately, he often conflated the two.


*. Mailer himself still can’t act, and embarrasses himself when he tries. By trying to act I mean mainly his adoption of different accents and funny voices. Was there no one around to tell him that this wasn’t working? Perhaps no one on this set. Though perhaps part of Rip Torn’s rage was a sense of professional pride asserting itself.
*. It’s experimental film-making, and like Wild 90 and Beyond the Law it can’t fully commit to the experiment. We end with the camera pulling back to show us it was all a show, and in this case even have to listen to a discussion of what the point of it all was. That’s the irony of Mailer’s filmmaking: his audacity is never sure of itself. Like a lot of towering egos who take to the stage, he was basically an insecure guy.


The False Magistrate (1914)


*. This is the last of the Fantômas serials and it’s in the worst shape, with lots of gaps where the film has been unrecoverable. Even the opening photo montage of mug shots where we go through Fantômas’s transformations is missing.
*. It’s a shame, because I think this one had the potential to be the best of the lot. The usual elements are all there (like the ambushes from out of the bushes or behind a door, or the nice use of locations), but they’re especially well executed.
*. The jewellery robbery, for example. Of course there had to be a robbery, but the set up here is interesting and well presented, especially with the shot that takes us through the wall between the two rooms. Fantômas’s escape at the end was also very clever. I was expecting some variation on the trap door, but his last letter as magistrate freeing himself in advance took me by surprise.
*. The surveillance and pursuit sequence is also very well handled. It’s hard to present a chase effectively without a lot of editing (this is one of the main reasons D. W. Griffith was driven to pioneer so much in this regard), but Feuillade gives us a chase that is suspenseful and easy to follow. You know Fantomas is going to give those two guys the slip, but you’re not sure where.





*. The bell tower double-cross is another stand-out set piece, though here too you can see Feuillade straining against the limits of what he can do. There’s a nice climbing pan as we follow the one gang member up the ladder into the bell, but he can’t really go beyond this.
*. What happens to the crook in the bell, by the way? Does he fall out along with the jewels when it is rung? Does no one notice him up there? I don’t recall any mention of how he got down, or if he fell, or if he died up there.
*. Why does the magistrate go into the luggage car? It seems an odd place for such a distinguished gentleman to hang out and have a smoke.
*. More time is given over to Fantômas himself here, and I think his limits as a villain are starting to show. His girlfriend Lady Beltham is gone but he still can’t let any mention of money or jewels pass by without it triggering a nervous response that forces him into criminal action, no matter what the costs. Aside from his sinister sense of humour (which isn’t indulged much in this film), there’s nothing else to him.
*. So as I say, it’s a shame we don’t have a full print of this one. Still, given the low survival rate of movies from this period we should probably just be grateful for what we have. And there seems something fitting in our not having Fantômas’s final escape. It’s like he’s vanished again.