The Cabinet of Caligari (1962)

*. Hm. Odd title. We still have a cabinet mentioned, even though there isn’t one in the movie, and Caligari has lost his title of doctor, even though he is.
*. Not that this has anything much, or really anything at all, to do with Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Instead it’s just another riff on the old question of how you can tell who’s mad in a madhouse. That’s something the original Caligari played with, but it has a long history in film leading from Caligari through Spellbound up to Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane (and, by now I’m sure, well beyond).
*. The thing is, it’s such a familiar premise, going back at least as far as Poe, that once you’re alert to it any sense of suspense is swiftly defeated without some really clever twists thrown in. And this Cabinet has no twists. If you haven’t twigged to what’s going on in the first ten minutes, especially given the big wink in the title, then I really don’t know what to say.
*. I’ll allow that it is amusing, in the manner of one of the contemporary Hammer psychodramas or a schlocky Three Faces of Eve. The combination of dramatic earnestness and prestige-picture aspirations with B-movie gimmickry and sleaze makes for an odd fit.
*. The script reflect these pulls in different directions. Apparently director Roger Kay and screenwriter Robert Bloch had a falling out and there was a fight over who was to finally get the credit (or take the blame). Kay also railed against the final cut, saying that Fox had tried to turn the film into something he hadn’t intended.
*. The upshot of all of this is that nobody was very happy with the result, and for good reason. It’s a silly, overwrought and overwritten script with various elements that don’t add up. What, for example, is the significance of seeing Jane as a child? Did something happen to her in childhood? What was the nature of the adult Jane’s insanity? Was she a nymphomaniac? Are we really to believe that her sudden “breakthrough” has cured her so completely? I think that may have been a stretch even in 1962.

*. It’s interesting that the doctor refers to Jane’s treatment as including “chemotherapy,” meaning the use of tranquilizers and narcotics. Today I think chemotherapy is only used in reference to cancer treatments, but I guess the word itself is elastic enough to be used to refer to any drug regimen, which is how it might have been used in the ’60s.
*. Glynis Johns, hopelessly miscast, is an actor cut adrift in an absurd role. Dan O’Herlihy seems a little more at home with the ludicrous material (he’d later play the mad toymaker in Halloween 3: Season of the Witch).
*. Of course what the original Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is remembered for today are its strange sets and bizarre visual style. Here there’s only a nod toward this at the end with Jane’s therapeutic breakdown. Even the peculiar double doorway into Caligari’s office (a normal door immediately opening onto a revolving glass door) is underused as a symbol of her mental state.
*. It is, in short, a mess. More charitably a joke. For whatever personal or production reasons the different parts didn’t come together. What remains is hysterical trash, but it’s not without the interest of a car accident. Being such a minor production it doesn’t rise to the level of a train wreck, but it punches above its weight as a good bad movie.

3 thoughts on “The Cabinet of Caligari (1962)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Not seen this one, but have seen the old version. So…does cabinet mean ‘a small private room’? I always wondered this. I’d expected Dr Caligari to have an actual cabinet, like for keeping his Star Wars figures in or something, but there’s no actual cabinets in these films, right?

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I always thought the cabinet in the first film referred to the coffin-like box he kept Cesare in. But I might be wrong on that. In this movie I don’t know what it could mean. They just seem to have wanted to swipe the title!


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