Monthly Archives: June 2015

Rain (1929)

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*. Film is the most fluid of art forms: the image you see on the screen is never fixed, as your eye is always being drawn through the ribbon of celluloid.
*. That’s a pretty banal observation, but in 1929 the movies were still new, and this one is an essay on movement.
*. Rain is defined almost as much by the street as it is by the rain. It’s another ode to the city, part of an early documentary movement that included films like Moscow Clad in Snow, Berlin: Symphony of a City, and Manhatta. This time we’re in Amsterdam, the Venice of the North, hustling through its crowded, rain-slick streets.

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*. The street itself is another riverine image, a sort of paved canal that traffic flows through. When wet, it turns into a mirror.
*. As with most city films, the citizens remain anonymous drudges. The only face we see is the man in the hat who feels a falling drop and looks up at the sky. And if you blink you’ll miss even that.
*. The film tells a story. Joris Ivens shot it over a period of several months but through terrific editing he gives the illusion of a single shower. We first see the wind picking up, registered in blowing tree tops, laundry, and awnings turning into sails. Then the umbrellas start to come out like fields of mushrooms.
*. One of Ivens’s recurring themes has been described as the search for certainty in a chaotic world. That’s certainly the impression we get here. At least since Leonardo water has been associated by artists with chaos, flux, and mutability. That’s what the people are fleeing from in Rain, hiding under umbrellas shaped like helmets, or taking shelter onboard buses.

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*. The rain changes the world by changing our perception of it, turning windows into watery slides, creating melting, running patterns in our field of vision out of its rubbery tracery.
*. And we’re made to feel as though there is a pattern: a seemingly random one like that shifting flock of birds in flight. This pattern doesn’t contrast with the order and pattern of the street so much as complement it, the two blending together as in that eloquent shot of the water surging in a sheet like a camera wipe across the screen.
*. This movie came out the same year as Ralph Steiner’s H20, and comparisons are often made. What strikes me is that in Steiner’s film you’re looking at water and seeing more in it. In Rain we’re looking through water, reality being distorted either through the effect of the rain on windows or by the way puddles and other wet surfaces reflect the light.
*. Photography created anxiety among the avant-garde in the visual arts. How were they to compete with the new technology of film? After all, the camera was more accurate at capturing external reality, and it didn’t lie.
*. But it does, as Steiner and Ivens both demonstrate. It plays tricks on our perceptions, shapes our ways of seeing. And there’s nothing really natural about even the most natural, most essential element of life. Even water can be the stuff of art because when we look into it or through it we are always seeing portions of ourselves.

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H2O (1929)

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*. 1929 saw two short experimental films studies of water. One was Joris Ivens’s Rain. The other was Ralph Steiner’s H2O.
*. Rain is a movie with a brief narrative: rain comes to soak the streets of Amsterdam. H2O has no such complicated story to tell.
*. We begin with images of water as power. We see it shooting forth from taps, being made to do work, roaring over ledges.
*. But then something happens. It turns into an entirely non-progressive film. The movement we see registers on a flat surface, the images almost totally abstract. It becomes a movie that’s more about the play of light and the illusion of texture than the ability of the imagery to represent anything: an exercise in camera doodling, throwing up animated Rorshach blots that give us little hint what we’re looking at.

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*. The vibrating images have a visual rhythm that, I think, works better without the soundtrack. At least I find it more suggestive that way. If you add music to a series of abstract images, the music takes over, setting the imaginative tone.
*. I have this movie on the Kino DVD of avant-garde, experimental cinema from the 1920s and ’30s. The label made me wonder: just how avant-garde is this movie? I don’t think visual effects like these were that special in 1929. And it seems to me that a lot of more mainstream filmmaking from this period was just as daring and experimental. Indeed, almost all filmmaking in the 1920s had to be experimental, as the medium was still so young it was constantly in the process of inventing itself.
*. This point made me think of Eric Hobsbawm’s short book Behind the Times: The Decline and Fall of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Gardes. In brief, Hobsbawm describes the visual arts of the early twentieth century as consumed with anxiety over the way traditional representation had been overtaken by mechanical means: the painter’s easel replaced by the camera. The avant-garde’s answer was to make the visual arts less directly mimetic, more abstract. In this, however, they failed, as “whatever the avant-garde tried to do was either impossible [i.e., to communicate meaning or express their times through pure abstraction] or done better in some other medium.”
*. Steiner was using the new technology of film in this sense of being avant-garde. What makes H2O different from other “experimental” films of the time is that in eschewing narrative and representation it presents itself as a distinctly artistic experience. You’re not watching a film like this for anything as vulgar as a story, or for scenes drawn from contemporary life. What that leaves us with is a visual concept poem that reads like an exercise in technique. It’s interesting (I won’t say pretty) to look at, but at the end of the day all you’re going to see in those jumping Rorshach blots is whatever’s inside your own head.

Carnal Haven (1975)

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*. America entered the so-called Golden Age of Porn, or “porno chic,” in 1972 with the cultural watershed of Deep Throat, closely followed by Behind the Green Door and Devil in Miss Jones. So by the time of this film, skin flicks were definitely a thing.
*. It was still a time, however, when exactly what kind of a thing porn would be was up for grabs. Deep Throat had been a brainless sex comedy, Green Door had art house pretensions, and Miss Jones was imbued with a dark psychological/existential angst.
*. What is Carnal Haven? It’s packaged as a public service announcement. The credits begin with a notice, addressed to the producer’s “Dear Fellow Human,” which makes the claim that the movie you’re about to see is going to be good for you.
*. The rest of the credits, by the way, are just as much fun. The movie was “Written Produced Directed Fotographed (sic) and Edited by Troy Benny.” That’s quite an accomplishment, but Carlos Tobalina wasn’t proud enough of his work to put his real name on it.
*. Not that you can really blame him, since I doubt any of the names on the credit roll are real, beginning with the star, who is inexplicably billed as “Mss. Sharon Thorpe.” Is that Mistress? Manuscript?
*. But back to sex film as therapy. The narrator goes on to claim that “complete sexual release is essential to your health, to your psychological and emotional sanity.” This introduces the film’s plot, which is about four couples experiencing difficulties in their relationships who visit a sex clinic run by “Klein & Wasserman, Medical Doctors.” After a bit of instruction at a blackboard it’s off to the orgy room (mirrored ceiling and all) for some hands-on instruction in moves like the “Inca Nut” and the “Gypsy Grip.” The female doctor (I’m not sure if she’s Klein or Wasserman) leads the way here with the rallying cry “fucking is just good clean wholesome decent fun!”
*. For the most part the advice seems reasonable. Much emphasis is given on sex being enjoyable, and how to locate and stimulate a woman’s “joy button.” Could the claims to this being an educational sex film be true?
*. Nothing dates like porn. The men here have sideburns and moustaches, while the women are . . . natural. As for the sex, if you’re not into swapping and orgies then this won’t be for you. Despite trying to present “real couples” in therapy, even by the end of the movie it can be difficult to tell who is doing the fucking.
*. By today’s standards, the production is quite primitive. Dismal lighting, focus, choreography, and, of course, all that hair, make it hard to actually see much of anything. With a few exceptions, the money shots are disappointing. Nobody seems much into it, and the women often have to struggle with the flaccidity of their partners. Today’s porn consumers are used to erections created through a combination of drugs and editing. Back in the day you had to work a little harder. What we see here isn’t quite as bad as Divine trying to get a rise out of Danny Mills in Pink Flamingos, but it’s close.
*. The writing is silly and the actors know it. Several times they seem about to crack up. But the concept isn’t a bad one. We’re pulling (sorry) for these regular folks to get their lives back together, if only to hasten the end of the movie.
*. A final note says that everything we’ve seen has been presented for educational purposes and there’s nothing illegal about it. Which is just covering “Troy Benny”‘s ass. The stated goal is to achieve “carnal haven” (presumably a nod to adult star Annette Haven, who only appears in a brief lesbian coda), but there’s also a very American subtext. These couples aren’t just saving their relationships: we are told that a happier bedroom leads to them getting raises, or even new jobs. In a hilarious (albeit racist) twist, the sole black man is revealed at the end to be a superfly pimp, and business is now booming! Pretty soon he’ll be able to buy that Cadillac he’s always wanted.
*. The moral of the story is that carnal haven is good, and should be its own reward, but better sex also has material benefits. The money shot indeed!
*. Needless to say, this wasn’t the future of porn. A visit to the sex clinic would continue to be a porn trope, but without any pretense of the film itself being in any way beneficial or educative. That might just mean the end of hypocrisy and legal subterfuge, or the end of something else. Not innocence, but maturity?

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Triumph of the Will (1935)

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*. Hitler was already Reich chancellor when, after the death of Hindenburg, he became Reich president as well. He was now simply the Leader, a radical point that this movie was made to both announce and promote. This film was “commissioned by order of the Fuhrer.” No name, or even official title, necessary.
*. That meant everything. One people, one Reich, one leader. As Rudolf Hess shouts at the end (they are the final lines we hear before the closing anthem): “The party is Hitler! But Hitler is Germany, and Germany is Hitler!”
*. This is a record of the 1934 sixth annual Nazi party rally at Nuremberg. The year before, Leni Riefenstahl had made a record of the fifth party rally, titled The Victory of Faith. It was basically a dry run for this film, a way of showing Hitler what might be done along these lines. But also a lot had changed in a year.
*. In particular, in 1933 Hitler had been paired with the head of the SA (the stormtroopers, or brownshirts), Ernst Röhm. Röhm, along with much of the SA hierarchy, had been purged in the Night of the Long Knives, and for obvious reasons Hitler wanted them erased from the historical record. Hence, a new movie, with an overriding message of party unity.

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*. The SA are, however, still central. Their new commander, Viktor Lutze, is prominently displayed throughout, and both he and Hitler make speeches about how old wounds have been healed. The events of the previous year are silent subtext to all this, never directly referenced or referred to beyond mention of a “dark shadow” that had passed over the movement.
*. Continuing the film chronicle: the army wasn’t happy with their brief appearance here so Riefenstahl had to make another movie, Day of Freedom, featuring the troops. Despite all the uniforms on display in Triumph of the Will, what you’re seeing are party members and members of paramilitary civilian organizations, not soldiers.
*. The opening is famous, seeming to be located in a city of clouds, an aerial landscape that might suggest Valhalla. Does the shadow of the plane over the old city of Nuremberg also seem like Mephistopheles spreading his wings over the town in Murnau’s Faust? Well, not consciously.
*. Roger Ebert: “It is a terrible film, paralyzingly dull, simpleminded, overlong, and not even ‘manipulative,’ because it is too clumsy to manipulate anyone but a true believer.”
*. I don’t agree. Ebert is particularly put off by the fact that — unlike the film that he chooses for comparison, Woodstock — “Riefenstahl’s camera is oblivious to one of the most fascinating aspects of the Nuremberg rally, which is how it was organized.” In part this is forgetfulness on Ebert’s part (he asks, for example, “how did the thousands eat,” but mass food preparation and serving is shown in the Hitler Youth camp), but such neglect was also a creative decision. In The Victory of Faith you do see the stands being constructed before the arrival of Hitler, the preparation of the ground. But I don’t think Riefenstahl (or Hitler) wanted that in the final cut. The rally is a giant Wizard of Oz production: if you see the little old man behind the curtain working the lights and the bellows to make all the effects then those effects are ruined.
*. That said, I am curious about how much overtime the workers at the flag factories got producing all the swastikas that get carried around here. How many sheets had to get sewn together to make those giant banners?

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*. The “sea of flags” effect, by the way, was Albert Speer’s idea. He should have got a production design credit for this film, as the look of the Nuremberg rallies was all his inspiration. But he isn’t even here in a cameo.
*. While I don’t agree with Ebert about the movie being dull, I find a great deal of boredom in it. I think this can only be fully appreciated by someone who has some experience with military drill, and the excruciating dullness of spending long periods of time “marching up and down the square” and, even worse, standing at ease in formation.

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*. Those massed phalanxes of stormtroopers sure look pretty, but they must have been standing out there for hours just so Riefenstahl could get her shots. God that must have been painful.
*. I wonder if sheer boredom was behind a lot of the cheering and waving the Nazi salute. At times it almost looks like the crowds are doing an early version of “the wave” to keep themselves occupied.
*. It’s a wonderful job of editing. I doubt there’s a single cutaway to a reaction shot that actually matches up with anything said by any of the speakers. I think Riefenstahl just used generic shots of people saluting and cheering in the same way television studios use a laugh track on a sitcom, as a way of reinforcing the mood. But it works.
*. I also like the editing in the speeches. They were probably quite dull, but as we get them here they’re little more than sound bites. Even Hitler’s final address, which I think may be presented in its entirety, is only a few minutes. Riefenstahl does keep things moving.
*. The only really boring part of the movie for me is the parade, which unfortunately comes near the end. I guess it would have been a slight to leave anyone out, so we have to watch as everyone marches past. In rather poor formation, I might add.

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*. We can give Hitler credit for at least one thing: killing the toothbrush (or, as it has come to be known, “Hitler”) moustache. This wasn’t a very fashionable scrap of facial hair even at the time, though we see several people here sporting them, perhaps in imitation of their boss. Hitler thought it offset his long and pointed nose, but I think it still looks awful. Hitler also wore a slightly bushier variation than regular, which makes it even worse. Oddly enough, the only film stars I can think of to sport one were comedians: Chaplin and Hitler’s almost exact contemporary Oliver Hardy. I guess it always seemed somewhat pompous and funny.

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*. What kind of salute is Hitler giving in response to the outthrust arm of the Nazi “hail” motion? It just looks like a casual, even lazy, backward flip of his hand.
*. While the theme of the rally is party unity, and it’s true that the masses of people tend to become geometric shapes on the ground, it’s not true that there is no personality on display. In a manner reminiscent of Eisenstein, Riefenstahl is always cutting between the crowd and the individual, juxtaposing character portraits with group formations.
*. Take two examples. In the first, the individual women in the crowd when Hitler arrives. They aren’t just excited but aroused, in a couple of instances even licking their lips. This Fuhrer is a sexy beast.

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*. That attraction is underlined by the physically magnetic effect he seems to have on the crowd (again, an effect achieved wholly through editing). We see people standing on tiptoe, climbing poles and buildings, getting up on shoulders, hanging out of windows, looking through binoculars and holding cameras over their heads, straining, always straining, to see over the crowd, to see a show that we in the theatre audience have the best seat in the house for.
*. A second example of individual portraiture: On stage during Hitler’s final speech, Hess looks on with rapt adoration while Goebbels is clearly taking mental notes from someone he considers to be the master. Julius Streicher, arms curiously akimbo while seated, looks like a gorilla, blinking and nodding his head as though having trouble following along. Goering is the only one who appears thoroughly bored (as I suspect he was). He can’t wait to get off the stage and head to the banquet hall.

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*. What about Hitler as orator? Today he’s easily derided as foolish looking, but if you watch him here with an open mind you can see what appealed to people. He could emote, he could rhetorically pluck the strings of an audience’s feeling. Was it all an act? Historians still debate his authenticity. He was certainly a performer on stage, one who practiced the art of public speaking tirelessly. But I think he took his calling seriously.

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*. It’s sometimes said that Hitler wouldn’t have been successful in the television era, but I’m not so sure. He wouldn’t be a successful politician in our era, to be sure, but that’s because of other shifts in style (I leave aside the content of his message). I think a movie like Triumph of the Will makes it clear that he understood how the new medium of film could be used to shape and package a message. Indeed he understood this better than Goebbels, who didn’t get along well with Riefenstahl and didn’t much care for her movie.
*. So is it a great movie? I think Riefenstahl does a great job making something out of some pretty dull material. You just have to compare this film to The Victory of Faith or Day of Freedom to see what she could do when inspired. In those movies she was only doing a job, providing a record of the events. Triumph of the Will, despite her protests to the contrary, is a crafted work of manipulation from beginning to end.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

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*. There are two unavoidable questions: Why did he do it? and How does it measure up to the original?
*. I’m not sure why he did it. He’d always thought of doing a remake, at least as early as 1940, when he pitched the idea to Selznick. But he seems not to have been all that keen, and was apparently mainly trying to help out a friend (Angus MacPhail, who co-wrote the original) while fulfilling his contract with Paramount for another picture.
*. These, however, are practical considerations. What creative reasons did he have for remaking this specific film? Here’s where I’m not sure. He didn’t really want to do a “remake” but only wanted to keep the basic plot and the Albert Hall sequence. Indeed, when he had John Michael Hayes write the script he only told him the outline and specifically instructed him not to watch the 1934 version.
*. My guess is that he just wanted to go back to the Albert Hall and do it bigger, louder, and in colour. Better? Well, that’s the other question.

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*. How do the two films measure up against each other? Francois Truffaut thought the remake “by far superior to the original.” Hitchcock himself accounted for the difference by saying “that the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.”
*. I’m not convinced by Hitchcock’s explanation. In 1934 he was already a pro. When he was later asked to clarify the distinction he said that “the difference would be in the original The Man Who Knew Too Much I wasn’t audience-conscious, whereas in the second one, I was.”
*. Again, I’m unconvinced. Hitchcock was about as audience-conscious a director as there’s ever been right from the beginning.
*. I’m of the opinion that not only is the remake nowhere near as good a movie as the original, it’s a downright bad movie judged on its own.
*. In a head-to-head comparison it fails mightily. To start with the big things: the villains aren’t nearly as compelling. Of course Bernard Miles was never going to be able to equal Peter Lorre’s Abbott. That was a given. But Miles’s wife is only a weak, sentimental version of Abbott’s dour nurse, and she unbelievably gives the game away at the end.
*. The bad guys no longer present a clear political threat. The Cold War was nothing like Europe in the ’30s, and while the film originally had a stronger anti-communist bent it’s hard to see much of that in the finished film because references to communists and what was going on in Hungary were taken out by Paramount. So instead of a rather wimpy gang of fellow travelers all we have is a ludicrous bit of Ruritanian intrigue.

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*. Then there is the running time. The remake is 45 minutes longer and is usually criticized for not being as well paced. Which is pretty obviously the case.
*. The real problem with the longer running time, however, is that all the extra stuff just makes the film that much messier. As is well known, Hitchcock wasn’t interested in plausibility. If the story didn’t make sense, so what? In a 75-minute movie based on such a philosophy, less is more. Here we get too much information not adding up, and too many unconvincing plot points.
*. Does it really never occur to Dr. McKenna that “Ambrose Chapell” might be a place? It was the first thing I thought of. And why he never confides in the police is something even his wife can’t understand, much less the audience. I mean, isn’t he an ex-military man? One could go on endlessly. More movie just means more confusion and lack of continuity.

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*. The first film was funny in an understated way. The remake is painfully un-funny. The dinner in Marrakesh is a drag. The slapstick fight in the taxidermist’s shop is stupid. The joking banter about how the McKenna’s travels have been financed by various operations performed back home might have been funny in 1956, but for audiences today, especially those with some experience of public health care, it’s downright offensive.
*. Why change the kidnapped child from a daughter to a son? Nova Pilbeam was terrific as a wilful little troublemaker. Freckled Hank seems far less capable. His singing “Que Sera, Sera” with his mother in their hotel room was another cringeworthy moment.

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*. I guess I have to mention that song. Actually, I like it. It’s a nice little tune. But I wonder: what does the audience at the embassy think of it? They sure don’t seem to be enjoying it much in the cutaways. Was this deliberate? A way of showing that this kind of music isn’t their thing?
*. I mentioned in my notes on the 1934 version how I didn’t think the musical cue for the assassination had been properly prepared for. In his interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock insisted that it had, but I don’t think he really believed this. Here he does more ground work to set it up, giving us a preview of the concerto and the one-note man with the cymbals under the opening titles, and then having Mr. Drayton play the phonograph with the musical cue for us not once (as in the original) but three times.
*. I do like the Albert Hall sequence, but it’s about the only part of the film I enjoy. The rest of the film seems terribly awkward. The rear projection for the Marrakesh scenes looks fake, and when Louis falls to the ground in the dirty street we then cut to a scene where he is clearly lying on a bare studio floor. This made me wince.
*. Cringing, wincing . . . these are not good reactions. And don’t even get me started on how good ol’ Doc McKenna decides the best thing to do is to drug his wife before telling her what happened to their son.
*. The opening titles are portentous nonsense (” A single crash of cymbals and how it rocked the lives of an American family.”). The final line is a throwaway gag that flops (“Sorry we were gone so long, but we had to pick up Hank!”). Why did he do it? I’m still not sure.

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The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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*. That’s Leslie Banks as Bob Lawrence and Edna Best as his wife Jill. You may know Banks from The Most Dangerous Game and Henry V. He’s the one who looks like a loaf of bread. You probably don’t know Best. You almost certainly don’t care about either of them here. This movie belongs to Peter Lorre.
*. It was Lorre’s first English film, and despite being shaky with the language Hitchcock saw what he wanted: an unsettling mixture of nastiness and vulnerability. Where had we seen such an insouciant, jokey killer before this? Lorre’s Abbott must be among the first.
*. It’s also considered by some to be the first Hitchcock film. At least that’s how he described it (though he said the same thing about The Lodger). More precisely, he called it “the real start of my career.” In the words of Guillermo del Toro, it’s the film where Hitchcock “first births himself.”
*. What does this mean? In terms of genre: a suspense thriller with lots of comic moments. In terms of theme: the innocent man caught up in a web of villainous intrigue. In terms of structure: a near total indifference to plot so that the story progresses through a series of set-piece sequences.

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*. Pauline Kael complained that “Hitchcock seems sloppily unconcerned about the unconvincing material in between the tricks and jokes (a fault that persisted in the later, stodgier version, he he made in 1955).” But surely this was a fault that characterized Hitchcock’s entire career. Few of his film are convincing in terms of their general plot. The plot is nonsense, just an excuse to move us from the dentist, to the temple of the sun worshippers, to the Royal Albert Hall, to the climactic siege.
*. I think this is one of the things that makes Hitchcock such an attractive figure for critics to write about. It’s almost like there aren’t any individual stories being told, but just one undifferentiated oeuvre where these climaxes can be discussed independently, or only in relation to “Hitchcock” in general: the shower scene, the crop duster scene, the Royal Albert Hall scene, etc.
*. Yes, Bob and Edna are decent people in over their heads. But the flipside of this Hitchcock theme is also in play, as it usually is: ordinary, decent-seeming people who are actually evil.
*. The temple of the sun worshippers is the best example. They seem like a bunch of harmless eccentrics, not a gang of thugs. But then a sweet little old lady sticks a pistol in Bob’s back when he tries to leave. And it’s noteworthy that when he escapes and finds a policeman, the cop takes the word of Lorre and his “Nurse” over that of Clive. You know you’re failing a normalcy test badly when those two weirdos are more convincing as upstanding, law-abiding citizens than you are.
*. In the script, the character of Abbott was originally described as “an elderly, genial Englishman.” This would have reinforced the theme of villainy concealed beneath a “normal” exterior. But Lorre introduced a different note altogether. As if he wasn’t suspicious enough already, his appearance is enhanced with that long scar and a crazy punk stripe in his hair.
*. I take it, by the way, that the cut over Bob’s eye after the fight is meant to echo Abbott’s scar. They are blood brothers now, but fighting on opposite sides.
*. Is it so surprising that Clive can’t convince the policeman of what’s going on in the temple? Who is Clive anyway? He may be a figure of fun, what with his blank mind and thing for playing with toy trains, but he’s still creepy. And what is his relation to the Lawrences? Indeed, what is with the Lawrences marriage? Is it “open”? Who is Louis Bernard? Even little Betty seems to sense the ambiguity there, calling him “Uncle” (because “you’re just like an uncle, aren’t you?”) and insisting how much her mother likes him.

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*. Criterion did a nice job restoring this film, as they often do. Perhaps too good? After Bob and Jill kiss in one scene you can clearly see a strand of saliva hanging between their lips. I didn’t need to see that!
*. I wonder if audiences have changed, or if Hitchcock overestimated our ability to register subtle cues. Example: I didn’t pick up on the significance of Ramon’s slick hair or Abbott’s musical pocket watch until second and third viewings. These cues meant nothing to me the first time I saw the film.
*. I also thought it inadequate to just play a few seconds of music on the phonograph to give Ramon (and the audience) the cue for the assassination. This doesn’t serve its intended purpose because there isn’t enough of the music, and it isn’t memorable enough, to build suspense. In the Albert Hall scene we’re only going off of visual cues (the gun barrel extending past the curtain, the cymbals getting ready to be struck), not musical cues. Hitch in his Truffaut interview seems to have thought that he had given enough of a musical cue but he had not. He resolved to do more in the remake.
*. I feel much the same way about the use of music in The Lady Vanishes, where I didn’t recognize the code tune in its various renditions. But perhaps I’m just not very musical.
*. The Rules of the Game is often held up, on Renoir’s word, as a portrait of a society “dancing on a volcano.” In fact, it seems to me that Hitchcock in the ’30s was more in tune with the anxieties of the day. This is obvious in the political message his films have, with German spies and the threat of war looming (Gibson draws in the parallel of the attempt to assassinate Ropa with Sarajevo in 1914), but it’s also there in that general sense of uncertainty and bubbling danger, of innocent people caught up in a vortex.

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*. What is the “thin crust” (John Buchan) of civilization that holds us over the abyss? What is it that keeps us from falling off the ledge of the building (in our pyjamas)? The amibivalence in Hitchcock’s answer is what I find most interesting about his work.
*. The short answer would be a respect for order, a recognition of the proper forms. But the police are . . . the police. They represent authority, but they’re not to be trusted. And British respectability and keeping up appearances isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. Even Charters and Caldicott aren’t all Charters and Caldicott. Furthermore, as we’ve already seen, what seems decent and respectable is often only a dangerous facade.
*. That British sense of aplomb under pressure can be both annoying and dangerous. It’s akin to the kind of thing Monty Python would send up in The Meaning of Life: the stiff upper lip as sometimes comic, sometimes obnoxious, obtuseness.
*. Or perhaps it’s not British aplomb so much as a class thing. Notice how elegantly Louis Benard (who was not originally supposed to be French) dies at the beginning. Why, he barely notices at first that a high-powered rifle has shot him in the chest. That blood stain will likely ruin his shirt.
*. But isn’t this the anxiety behind every suspense film? Where are safety and security to be found? In Hitchcock there’s nothing we can be sure of.

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Beat the Devil (1953)

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*. It was meant as a joke. Or “lark,” to use John Huston’s word. But a joke on who?
*. On Humphrey Bogart? He was stuck with a big chunk of the bill, having put up a lot of his own money to get it made. But, as Pauline Kael observes, he “looks rather bewildered through much of it, as if he hadn’t been let in on the joke.”
*. Roger Ebert, on the other hand, sees Bogart “all but cracking up” at some of his dialogue. So was he in on it then?
*. Or it is a joke on the audience? Bogart thought so, declaring it a “mess” and that “only the phonies think it’s funny.”
*. If it was a joke on the audience they weren’t getting it. Literally. The movie bombed. There’s a lesson in that. Confusion and ambiguity are cardinal sins in popular entertainment. They do, however, help a movie last. What is initially alienating will later grow on audiences, given a chance. You keep coming back to movies like this because you can’t help feeling that you’ve missed something essential.

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*. The plot itself isn’t that confusing. What’s impossible to figure out is where each of the characters stands in relation to it. One wonders again: who is in on the joke? Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida both seem to know more than they’re letting on, which may be why I find them both so unnervingly sexy. “Things don’t happen to be what certain people imagine,” says Major Ross. We can question the source, but not the sentiment. Even the purser aboard the Nyaga seems to be having a laugh at everyone.
*. The making of this film was notoriously off-the-cuff. In particular, the script was being written on the fly. Despite this, it is not only witty but subtle. Peter Lorre on the subject of time is particularly good, and Bogey on money. And then here is Ahmed shushing Jennifer Jones: “in my country, a female’s lips may move but her words are not heard.” That’s just strange. One wonders what Ahmed would have done had he ever met his profane idol, “the peerless Rita Hayworth.”
*. Three faces in the frame. Such a composition makes sense when dealing with the gang — the “three men in a tub” as Bogart calls them — but we see the same technique elsewhere throughout the film, and in fact there are four members of the gang.
*. Three is an ideal dramatic number. The third wheel might be an audience, or a mediator, but is never superfluous. And three figures work so well together in a shot, especially when they’re stacked, as they so often are here, without crowding.

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*. Is the geography worth wondering about? Where are we? Somewhere in Italy? And then . . . ?
*. Is all the adultery worth wondering about? It’s remarkably casual. You have to wonder whether the Dannreuthers and the Chelms are really married, or even count as couples. They certainly seem to go at it without any hang ups.
*. I was relieved to see Gwendolen’s frank recognition of the age gap. Bogart was twenty years older than Jones, and looks forty years older. It’s another thing that makes you not quite trust her.
*. It’s so sad what happens when these movies fall into public domain, the “tragedy of the commons.” I wish someone would take the care to put out a cleaned-up, special edition of this one. My DVD is dubbed a “Collector’s Edition,” but that’s another joke.
*. Parts of it are still quite funny, especially the more absurd moments. I love the scene in the square with Peterson getting nowhere in his interrogation of Gwendolen Chelm (“Sin?”). And I’m very fond of the entire Maltese Falcon-style cast of eccentrics: Robert Morley as a downmarket Sydney Greenstreet (from Gutman to Fat Gut), Peter Lorre a bit older and much rounder, and a really nasty Ivor Barnard as a ridiculous but not-quite-harmless British thug.
*. Does it look forward, or back? Here are a couple of expert opinions.
*. Roger Ebert, looking back: “Now that movies have become fearsome engines designed to hammer us with entertainment, it is nice to recall those that simply wanted to be witty company.”
*. David Thomson, looking forward: “It’s as if, by 1954, if you please, enough knowing people had got the sure sense that it was all over, that more or less everything that followed was going to be a camp version of some lovely, foolish memory of the golden age. That anxiety has not been dispelled. Equally, who is to say that every film fan is not now as daft and as isolated as the Arab prince who hungers for word of the great Rita Hayworth?”
*. Yes, we do know the type. The hookah-smoking Ahmed is an onanistic fanboy. Perhaps a species of cinephile, but not a moviegoer (if they even have theatres in his desert land). He would have thrived on the Internet. And what kind of a shirt is he wearing in his first scene? It looks suspiciously feminine.
*. Personally, I’m not sure if it looks forward or back. There are few movies quite like this, but they do happen, and they have happened at all different times. James Whale’s The Old Dark House is one example, and I’m also reminded of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, another celebrity genre lark where you have an even stronger sense that you might not be having as much fun as the people involved.
*. The ending, with Bogart pronouncing “this is the end” (he was originally to say “if this doesn’t beat the devil,” thus explaining the otherwise enigmatic title), suits such a shaggy-dog story. At least he’s laughing though. So somebody must have thought it was funny.

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I, Robot (2004)

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*. What would we think if this movie had started out with a sexy women getting out of bed, showing off her body in her underwear and in the shower. Will Smith (Spooner) is just treated as a piece of meat here, still looking quite buff from Ali.
*. If Spooner’s entire left arm and shoulder is bionic, then why is he lifting weights with it?
*. This is such a stupid movie, and I’m not sure the makers were aware of just how stupid. On the commentary they explain that the opening credits were supposed to appear as though they were an abstract representation of the inside of a positronic brain. Huh? Given a positronic brain is an entirely made-up bit of technology, what would an abstract representation of the inside of it be like?
*. After Spooner (Smith) finally gets dressed, he hits the street and meets Farber (Shia LaBeouf). Farber throws a football at him and Spooner pretends he’s going to catch it, then lets it sail past him. Farber then falls in with him and begins some banal, clichéd banter about girls. I guess the football wasn’t that important because it’s gone and forgotten now. Meanwhile, Farber is a totally useless character that we immediately understand is just being introduced now so he can be re-introduced at a later point when needed (even though he is so useless he is never really needed).
*. Next up: Spooner witnesses what he thinks is a robot stealing a purse. He gives chase (after ordering a passerby to hold on to a pie he’s been eating instead of simply putting it down on top of something). This despite the fact that nobody else on the street seems to care what’s going on. It is already clear to us that this makes no sense, given the three laws of robotics. Later, the chief of police will be baffled at Spooner’s behaviour. As baffled as we already were while witnessing it. Spooner, of course, has no explanation.
*. The only explanation is that they want to introduce the idea that Spooner doesn’t trust robots. But couldn’t they have thought of a more believable way of doing this?
*. Anyway, here the movie is only ten minutes old and I’ve given up all hope on it being any good. As the adage goes, if you have a good script you’ll always have a movie that’s at least OK. But if you don’t have a good script the movie will never be any good. Even in the CGI age that holds true.
*. Director Alex Proyas is best known for Dark City, a good movie that I’ve always felt was somewhat overrated, and not quite as original as it’s made out to be. This movie isn’t as good looking (I find the CGI particularly unimpressive) and it lacks any hint of originality. According to Proyas the spherical wheels on the car were “fresh and original,” but aside from that Chicago in 2035 is a bog standard Tomorrowland and even the robots, which you would have thought would have been the one design element they had to get right, are generic and dull. It’s very helpful, and perfectly ridiculous, that they have a bright red light turn on in their chests when they go bad.

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*. En masse, the robots appear as a swarm of locusts, these crowd scenes being the kind of thing CGI seems to have been made for. They couldn’t have done Lord of the Rings without those digital armies. But I often wondered if the human crowds were being done the same way. Why is it that the people outside the U.S. Robotics building just keep walking along nonchalantly, apparently not even noticing Sonny crashing into their midst and then running away? I guess this wouldn’t be the first SF movie where the real people were less human than the androids.
*. Lots of product placment, especially from Audi (the make of Spooner’s car). This is quite irritating because in most movies you can justify at least some product placement as the result of wanting to create a realistic environment. But is it necessary in a film set in the future? For example, the fact that Spooner wears Converse sneakers has to be explained by him being a retro fashion hound.
*. I have nothing against men wearing earrings, but Spooner’s are so big they’re distracting. I kept thinking they were accessories for his phone.
*. It’s nice of James Cromwell to show up in those slick hologram messages where he tells Spooner . . . absolutely nothing.
*. The initial clue Dr. Lanning leaves Spooner is a copy of Hansel and Gretel. This is a “clue” because it’s a story about children following bread crumbs. So the clue is that there are clues to follow! Wow. Now that’s screenwriting. On the commentary track screenwriter Akiva Goldsman says Lanning’s plan was all about leaving a series of clues that would lead to each other like dominoes falling. This is not the way the plot works. At all.
*. I think there’s only one “clue” that Lanning provides and that’s the picture of the ruined bridge that Sonny draws from his subconscious programming. But this isn’t any kind of “clue” because it magically illustrates a scene from the end of the movie that Lanning would have had no way of imagining. So . . . go figure.

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*. When the story isn’t stupid it’s clichéd. And I mean clichéd in an extreme way. Our gumshoe is a laid-back tough guy who walks with a pronounced shambling sort of strut. He speaks in one-liners. Not very snappy or witty one-liners, but they’re one-liners. His sidekick is a tight-ass scientist, an ice queen who has to melt, who has to learn that while she has all the facts on her side, he has the truth. The bad guys are a great big evil corporation in a tall office tower. Sure, there’s a bit of misdirection about who’s really in charge of said corporation, but that makes no difference to the formula.
*. Of course Spooner is so obsessed with the case that his chief has to ask him to hand over his badge. Because that’s what always happens! Even if it isn’t necessary for the plot. There has to be a scene where the chief says “Give me your badge.”
*. The credits only say the script was “suggested by Isaac Asimov’s book.” The main thing they took was the Three Laws of Robotics. After that they were freestyling. Or drowning. Take your pick.
*. They don’t make anything out of the Three Laws, even after introducing them a second time in a very awkward bit of expositional dialogue. After all, the whole problem is that the robots have evolved beyond the Three Laws anyway.
*. So VIKI is running everything, and when she’s destroyed . . . all the lights come back on in Chicago and the robots return to normal? How does that work? The operating system crashes and everything goes back to some default setting?
*. Alex Proyas: “Are we making it too complicated for a mass audience? Are we making it too rich and detailed?” No. Relax.
*. It’s just another comic book action film. With his bionic arm Smith is even a kind of superhero. It’s dull visually, and the story is only an excuse to hang the big effects scenes on. There’s nothing more to say.

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Bloodsport (1988)

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*. Bloodsport is actually one word. In 1988, before the Internet permitted and then required that all words be run together into web-address portmanteaus, that was rare.
*. Like a lot of young men in 1988, I was terribly impressed by this movie when it came out. I may have even seen it twice. But I don’t think I ever watched it again until recently.
*. It hasn’t held up well. Of course the music and the fashion styles have all dated, sometimes in humorous ways. I can overlook the reporter’s big hair, but Jean-Claude Van Damme’s outfits look so conventionally gay they’re funny. Which, of course, makes his declaration of love for Jackson at the end all the more eyebrow-raising.
*. What I found most surprising, however, was how bad the fight scenes were. The fighters’ movements seem very slow, and entirely unconvincing. None of the fighters have much in the way of defence and basically the losers just stand up straight, with their hands down at their sides, waiting to take unrealistic highlight-reel shots to the body or head.

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*. Even throwing dust in the eyes of your opponent is a cliché (it’s used, for example, against James Cagney in City for Conquest, which was 1940). And by the way, how on earth does the ref, and everyone in the stands, miss that? Or are there no rules at the kumite, short of not killing your opponent?
*. The fights were choreographed by Frank Dux, whose story this presumably is. I add the qualifier because controversy surrounds a number of the claims made at the end about how dominant a fighter Dux was.
*. Of course all of the movie that isn’t the kumite is bad, but I had forgotten just how bad. Much of the dialogue sounds like it’s dubbed, even when I don’t think it is. I suspect the terrible writing has something to do with it (“You break my record, now I break you, like I break your friend!”). The set-up is the usual cliché about the warrior who has to win the tournament to honour his dying master and avenge his fallen friend. The reporter (what was her name? Janice?) is something even less than a romantic interest. She’s a cutaway at the main event, reacting in delight or horror at the proceedings. The bad guy is . . . Bolo Yeung. Enough said.

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*. Given the size of the shaved and glistening pecs on Van Damme and Yeung one could be forgiven for thinking that final match was about to descend into a wild bit of lesbian pornography. You have to imagine the response of Groucho Marx, who famously said that he never went to see a movie where the man’s tits were bigger than the woman’s (I think he had Victor Mature in mind).
*. Another example of how much things have dated is the wild chimpanzee fighting style of the African fighter. I don’t think you’d get away with presenting a black fighter as a monkey today.
*. Poor Forest Whitaker, to be seen in such a bad movie and not even have anything to do. Even his partner seems annoyed at his presence most of the time.

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*. Van Damme isn’t much of an actor, though he did go on to show . . . something (self-awareness?) . . . in JCVD. It wasn’t important for ’80s action stars to be able to act. They had to have a physical presence. Van Damme had that, and he could do the splits. He’s really good at doing the splits. They became his signature.
*. I’m not twenty years old any more, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to watch this movie again. Sure, some of it is so bad it’s funny, but that’s not enough. At least it isn’t for me, any more.

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Mad Love (1935)

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*. A return to The Hands of Orlac. Except they really went in a different direction this time, with Peter Lorre’s Doctor Gogol displacing Colin Clive’s Stephen Orlac almost entirely.
*. Lorre had a thing for stealing scenes, and movies. This was his first American film, and he came to it from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, which he yanked out from under Leslie Banks and Edna Best.
*. He was terrific as the criminal mastermind Abbott in Hitchcock’s film, but here he reverts to the sexual predator and psychopath he basically invented in M, a figure he would go on to revisit again and again.
*. Why? Sure, he’s creepy, what with his air of vulnerable evil and manic puppy-dog eyes. But what makes him seem so perverse? The silky accent? Or is it  just his sense of coiled resentment, a lethargic and downtrodden figure until he finds release in violence? The scene where he gets (or really takes) his birthday kiss from Yvonne is a good foreshadowing of what’s to come.
*. I wish there was more passion in Gogol than what we see in that kiss. Of course you couldn’t get away with much at the time, but I was wondering at the end just what Gogol wanted to do to (or with) Yvonne. Was he just looking for companionship? Love? Sex? Does he want to hurt her? In the audience at the Grand Guignol he seems to be getting off on watching her being tortured, but at other times he acts like a sentimental romantic.
*. How do you make the “moon-faced” Peter Lorre (his common appellation) appear even more moony? Have him shave his head! Or rhyme his bald noggin with a circular light fixture. That works well too.

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*. That exaggeration into caricature can be thought of as a product of director Karl Freund’s background in Expressionism, which had a thing for such grotesque effects.
*. It looks like Lorre’s hair still hadn’t grown out by the time he filmed Von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment, which was up next (and was part of the deal for his making this movie with MGM).

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*. Gogol’s later appearance as the resurrected Rollo is even more bizarre (and frightening). What a medical-mechanical monstrosity! But can we talk about Frances Drake’s eyebrows? Are they another touch of the grotesque? They appear to be drawn right into her hairline. Was that the style at the time, or another exaggeration?

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*. What is it with the association between pianos (or organs) and madness? Is sitting at the keyboard just something that evil geniuses like to do? Who was the first of these to appear on film? Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera?
*. Edward Brophy as the killer Rollo? Really? I’m sorry but that’s just bad casting.
*. Pauline Kael thought this movie had something to do with Citizen Kane. In addition to the fact that Greg Toland shot parts of it, she also thought Orlac (I think she must have meant Gogol) “might almost be an early sketch” for the elderly Kane, “and a white cockatoo turns up in both” films. I share the doubts Steve Haberman expresses on his DVD commentary.

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*. It bombed very badly at the box office, but has since become a minor critical darling. Personally, I don’t find it a very entertaining film, despite all of the talent involved. Even given the short run time it manages to get pretty dull and has a lot of stuff that feels unnecessary (like the operation on the crippled little girl).
*. This is a horror plot that seems to have always been with us, having been remade many times with slight variations. My sense, however, is that it works best when the focus is kept on the schizophrenic Orlac character. As it’s reimagined here the story becomes a more familiar tale of beauty and the beast. Yes, it’s Lorre’s movie and he’s great. But that’s also the problem.

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