Category Archives: 1960s

Torture Garden (1967)

*. So if you come to this knowing it has nothing to do with the novel by Octave Mirbeau but that it’s one of the horror anthologies put out by Amicus the first thing you’re likely wondering at is the presence of Burgess Meredith and Jack Palance.
*. Well, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing were originally slated to star but since Columbia was supplying the money they wanted a couple of American names, hence Meredith and Palance. I don’t know if Palance took Cushing’s part or if he just jumped up to star billing. It’s not that it’s a big role anyway, though I think Palance is effectively countercast as a raspy connoisseur of Poe.
*. Aside from that quirk in the casting, this is a very typical Amicus product. Direction by Freddie Francis. Script by Robert Bloch (based on stories he had written). Four brief spooky tales bound up in a supernatural frame story.
*. I didn’t find this one very interesting. The main problem, I think, is Bloch’s script. The stories are pretty stupid, the frame is silly, and there’s a real lack of energy to drive things along.
*. That frame consists of Meredith as Dr. Diabolo, a fairground sinister who curates an exhibit of macabre waxworks. One of these is introduced as Atropos the Goddess of Destiny who holds the hypnotic shears of fate. When one of Diabolo’s guests looks at the shears they are offered a vision of their future doom in the form of a dark fantasy vignette.
*. This all seems a stretch to me, even beyond the usual. Here is Dr. Diabolo’s spiel: “There is a theory: the past, the present, and the future are merely different aspects of the same moment in time and space. You understand that theory? Then perhaps you can understand that since a drowning man can view his entire past in a few seconds, he can also view his future by the same rule.” How can you argue with that? After all, he is a doctor.
*. Stretching credulity further is Dr. Diabolo’s commentary that the visions of Atropos are warnings about “things that can be.” But these are not visions about things that anyone could believe actually happening, however far-fetched they may seem. They aren’t like the premonitions of disaster served up in the Final Destination movies. Instead they are weird tales of supernatural occurrences. And why would anyone be frightened by predictions of evil cats or killer pianos?
*. The same concept of prophecy was used in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, which I believe was the first of the anthology horrors Amicus did and which was also directed by Francis. To be honest, I think the idea of having the fates of the characters revealed after the fact, though it leads to some other problems, makes more sense. This was the route Amicus later took with Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror.
*. The first story, “Enoch,” is very dull and predictable. Just another case of the grasping heir getting more than he bargained for with his inheritance.
*. “Terror Over Hollywood” struck me as the best of the bunch, and even stole a march on The Stepford Wives by five years (though the basic idea is nothing new). Beverly Adams is also great as the rising star Carla Hayes.
*. This segment also illuminates an interesting cultural shift. I think a lot of us might ask today what the big tragedy is about Carla’s fate. Hasn’t she wound up with everything she always dreamed of, and more? Success, fame, money, beauty . . . forever? Today, of course, the idea of transplanting (or uploading) one’s consciousness is something a lot of money is being spent researching. If only we knew the secret of Dr. Heim!
*. “Mr. Steinway” is about a haunted piano. At the end of the story it pushes the heroine out of a window. Really. The piano. It was going to take something special to make that work.
*. “The Man Who Collected Poe” is a somewhat interesting idea but it gets a very pedestrian treatment without any real twist. A lot of people like this episode the best but I think they’re just deferring to the leads. There’s nothing special about it.
*. It’s odd that Palance seems to have an almost orgasmic look on his face at the end. Was such a climax not frightening to him, but a consummation to be wished?
*. In sum, the individual stories, though weird in terms of content, are all pretty basic. Greed and ambition are punished (even the girl in the third story is an obnoxious climber, with her “Leo belongs to me now”). The frame ends on a bizarre note, not because of the silly revelation of Dr. Diabolo’s identity but because of his final interaction with Palance. What happens there? What deal have they struck?

*. The production is what you’d expect, and the same goes for Francis’s direction. He shows off his usual affection for depth of field, foregrounding or backgrounding key elements like the shears, a glass of medicine, a trapdoor, the tines of the pitchfork, the mother’s portrait, or the set of keys. But that’s really his only flash of style here.
*. As with all of the Amicus anthologies, it’s not a great movie but you do get something mildly entertaining. If you’ve seen enough of these, you’ll have a pretty good idea why the format never really took off. That’s a shame, as it always had potential (see Dead of Night or Kwaidan). But for various reasons it remained stuck in a rut of inexpensive and formulaic quickies.

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Kwaidan (1965)

*. Kwaidan is a movie that vibrates on a string of tension plucked between opposing elements in its design. I know that sounds kind of fluffy, but I’ll try and explain.
*. Most obvious, at least at a first glance (and a first glance is all it takes), is the opposition of nature and art. Kwaidan flaunts its artificiality in nearly every shot. There are only a few scenes that were filmed on location, the rest being shot inside what was a converted airplane hangar (that was being used as an auto warehouse at the time) because there weren’t any studios in Japan big enough for the sets.
*. What gives rise to the tension is that this isn’t a movie of notable interiors but one largely set out of doors, filled with forests and rivers and lakes and dazzling skyscapes. I’ve even heard it suggested that the stories are meant to represent the different seasons, though I have trouble seeing it. In any event, it’s a movie that constantly evokes the natural world, but in outlandishly unnnatural ways. The skyscapes are operatic backdrops (Coppola was obviously a student, borrowing those floating eyes for Dracula), and even the sound of the blowing wind is played on flutes.
*. Another opposition, much commented on by Stephen Prince in his DVD commentary, is between surface and depth. On the one hand there’s what Prince identifies as the imitation of traditional Japanese painting and its “flat, 2-D pictorial space” that mitigates any sense of volume. On the other, there is the frequent use of foreground items, often with a thematic intent (for example, a post or other vertical barrier dividing a pair of characters), or the tunnels of trees, or gates and doorways seeming to open unto endlessly receding vistas.

*. I also think of the use of colour to create a sense of depth and space, which is something Welles did in The Immortal Story (1968). Is it a coincidence that both films were their respective director’s first feature work in colour?
*. Then there is the opposition of sound and silence. Welles too thought that music in film allowed silence afterward, and even suggested that this silence was music’s most important role. As Prince notes, that’s also the function it has here, as the odd score by Toru Takamitsu deliberately loads up calculated intervals of silence. Assistant director Kiyoshi Ogasawara remarks that the point was to show how “silence is also sound.” The one creates the other.
*. Here’s another pair to consider: unity and diversity. Kwaidan is an anthology-horror film, a genre not usually identified with the art house or high production values. Such films are often only loosely held together by a frame narrative, but there is little attempt at that here (or none at all, depending on how you read the ending). This makes the audience wonder what it is that connects them, or if there is any connection aside from their all being adapted from the stories of Lafcadio Hearn.

*. In his Criterion essay, Geoffrey O’Brien writes that “the first three stories Kobayashi chose to include all involve broken vows, broken not through conscious malevolence but through what seem like unavoidable circumstances.” Well, yeah. Sort of. This seems awfully loose to me though. Sort of like “angry ghosts.”
*. Personally, I don’t see much in the way of a unifying theme aside from the fact that all the stories deal with the supernatural. But because they’re all collected here together we instinctively look for ways to combine them, to see what they have in common in less obvious ways. The alternation of horror and sadness mentioned by Ogasawara strikes me as a good insight, but again it’s rather vague, describing a general tone adopted toward the material rather than a guiding principle.

*. Finally, I’d point to the opposition of big and small. On the one hand it’s an epic, the most expensive Japanese film ever made to date, filmed in the vernacular of the historical costume drama and even incorporating a giant naval battle scene. But it’s also a movie that was shot on what I think were just a couple of studio sets, however elaborately designed. In short, it’s a movie that feels cramped and expansive at the same time.
*. These are some of the ways I look at Kwaidan. There are others, like the tension between the Kubrickian exactness and control of the film, its flatness and precision, with its subject matter of heightened emotional states, but you get what I’m saying. It’s a movie that rides a balance between all of these opposites and remains hard to pin down.

*. One of the things that makes it hard to pin down is that it’s hard to connect to what came before or after. I think in particular of how bizarre and extreme Japanese fantasy and horror films were soon to become, from Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968) and Obayashi’s House (1977) to today’s J-horror, but those movies don’t feel anything like Kwaidan despite some surface similarities. If there’s a link to Kwaidan it’s in the anti-mimetic or anti-realistic rendering: the highly artificial sets and nervy music. But still, they seem very different.
*. At three hours, does it go on too long? Of course purists will howl no, but it’s a question worth considering. It was cut in order to be shown at Cannes, and an entire story (“The Woman of the Snow”) dropped for the American release. Only recently was it restored to its original length.
*. I find that the slow, deliberate camera work and pacing does work against the film somewhat, but in ways that I can’t really put my finger on. Obviously Kobayashi isn’t in a rush, and that’s his style, but for all the loveliness of the film to look at I do think that it’s missing something.

*. I mentioned already that’s it’s not a movie that inspires much in the way of a larger interpretation. I don’t see a unifying theme to it. The same could be said of the symbolism. Most obviously there is the all-seeing eye in the sky. What is the meaning of this bit of design? Prince’s commentary takes a stab at it, referring to it as the eye of God and the surveillance state, the “cosmic celestial eye” and the “nightmarish translation of this ideal of imperial divinity and slavish service to it.”

*. Perhaps, but I don’t see what that has to do with the action. My hunch is that the eye is like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s billboard of the eyes of T. J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby. These eyes became the novel’s most famous iconic image, but Fitzgerald may have just thrown them in because he was struck by the original cover art for the novel. I have a hunch the eyes in the sky here might be the same: evocative but perhaps merely whimsical.
*. As for the final image of the man in the urn, that may be meant to be Hearn but I think it’s really Kobayashi himself, waving at us like the image of God that scientists saw in the photographs of the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe. I think it’s a perfect touch to place at the end of such a heavy film. Heavy, and light.

Twice-Told Tales (1963)

*. From the TCM website: “After completing Tales of Terror (1962), Vincent Price took a break from Roger Corman’s low-budget but atmospheric adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories and tried something different with another studio. The result was the United Artists production, Twice-Told Tales.” Wait a second . . . did they say “something different”?
*. This is an obvious sequel to Tales of Terror, from a not-so-obvious source. I mean, The House of Seven Gables? Really? As was done with the stories of Poe in the earlier film, we are talking very, very free interpretations of the source material. Only “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” by the way, was included in Hawthorne’s volume of Twice-Told Tales.
*. Aside from the different sources, there are two other big differences. First: No Roger Corman. Sidney Salkow does a decent job, but you can feel the lack of imagination. Second: No Richard Matheson. There’s no humour or wit in the script, which makes it all seem stuffy and heavy. Is that a distinction we could also make between Poe and Hawthorne? Maybe. But Hawthorne could have a light touch.
*. You’ll tell from this that I didn’t like this one as much as Tales of Terror. I’m not sure moving to United Artists even led to having more money to play with. No one could make a movie for less than Corman, but I haven’t been able to find a budget for either movie reported. This certainly doesn’t look like a movie that cost any more to make. Not that it looks bad — the collapsing house at the end is respectable — but it doesn’t look any better.
*. I wonder what the first house to drip blood was. There would be a lot of them later, but were there any before this? I’m sure there were but I can’t think of them.
*. Is the poison plant acidic or radioactive? Or both? At one point Rappaccini refers to being burned by “radiation from the acid’s heat.” Does this make sense?
*. Poor Vincent. He just kept playing this jealous or bitter loser at love. Three times here. In the first story his mistress marries his friend (so he kills her). In the second his wife leaves him and his daughter despises him. In the third his new bride can’t wait to run into the arms of a rival. I wonder if this thematic consistency was intentional.
*. The first two stories in particular are downers. And the first is rather odd. Price is (sort of) the villain of the piece, but he’s also the sole survivor. Are we meant to feel sympathy for him at the end?
*. I don’t see this as being of much interest to anyone other than a fan of the horror films of this particular period or of Vincent Price. I think more might have been made out of the stories, but it wasn’t. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” in particular really drags (despite Joyce Taylor looking lovely), and it doesn’t have the sort of shocking climax that anthology-horror specializes in. But then nothing about this movie stands out very much, for good or ill.

Black Sabbath (1963)

*. Chekov! Tolstoy! Maupassant! Damn, we’re taking the high road here! Just because it’s a low-budget anthology horror film doesn’t mean it has to be Poe or Lovecraft!
*. Alas, the stories here have barely any connection to the work of these big-name authors. The origins of all three, in so far as they can be said to have origins, come from the pulps. You just can’t dress this genre up and take it anywhere.
*. I guess I should file these notes under the original Italian title, I tre volti della paura (The Three Faces of Fear), since it was released in America as Black Sabbath in a much cut (and indeed rearranged) form by American International Pictures, and I’m talking about the Italian version here. But I’ll stick with what’s most familiar.
*. I don’t think there’s any point denying this movie is trash, but Mario Bava made great trash and seems to have been perversely inspired by a low budget. The first and third stories here are delightful exercises in minimalism and constraint, with lonely women being terrorized by, respectively, a ringing telephone and the sound of dripping water.
*. So forget about the stories. They’re not important anyway. What’s important is the construction of suspense and the theatrical and otherworldly atmosphere evoked by Bava’s signature elements: dramatic zooms, wandering dollies, and garish, pulsing pools of colour.
*. “Death by self-suffocation.” Hm. That sounds a bit like swallowing your own tongue. I’m not buying it.

*. Apparently both Roger Avary and Quentin Tarantino say they were influenced by this film’s structure when writing Pulp Fiction (1994). Tarantino remarked in an interview that “what Mario Bava did with the horror film in Black Sabbath, I was gonna do with the crime film.”
*. I guess this was in the very early going, as I don’t see any connection between the two films in terms of structure at all. There’s no attempt in Black Sabbath to connect the three stories in any way other than the thematic, and even that is pretty loose (with the middle story, about the vampire/Wurdulak, being the outlier).
*. I think the third story is the strongest, with the rictus grin of the dead woman being a truly frightening motif. The first film struck me as rather obscure, especially given how minimalistic it was. The American release version was changed dramatically, and the fact that it could be changed so much tells you something.
*. The middle story, “The Wurdulak,” is the showpiece, with star Boris Karloff (who also does duty as the frame narrator) buried under living-dead make-up and a shaggy wig. Unfortunately it is also the most predictable and doesn’t give us anything more than another vampire tale playing out among the usual Universal-style sets. The shot of Karloff riding his stuffed mount through the night and  the little boy pleading to be let in are the only highlights.
*. The introduction is lousy, but the final pull back, revealing Karloff on his hobby horse riding through the studio, redeems the frame somewhat. I like this way of winding up, especially given Bava’s usual over-the-top manner of presentation. Did he take any of this seriously? Probably not.
*. I’m still not sure I understand this film’s reputation. It has its moments, but I can think of at least half a dozen Bava movies I’d rather watch. I think the English title helped given it a certain cachet. This is weird, as it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the movie, but it certainly caught on and stuck in people’s heads.
*. Today I think a lot of people reference it without knowing the movie very well, or from confusing it with Black Sunday. I’m not even sure if the members of Black Sabbath saw it before taking their name from a marquee they saw across the street from one of their shows. In any event, I think it’s second-rate work, only of interest to hardcore Bava fans.

Tales of Terror (1962)

*. Wherein Vincent Price really finds a home with American International and, more than anything else, with Poe. Because he looks like he belongs in the nineteenth century, and that creepy voice . . .
*. Price is fine here, but I think most of the credit actually should go to Roger Corman. You can argue over whether he was a great director, or could have been a great director had he chosen to go a less commercial route. But the fact is he was always a good director. He wasn’t averse to trying different things and adding a few notes of style, and while these weren’t always successful there’s rarely anything in one of his movies that doesn’t work. He knew how to put a movie together.
*. As examples here I’d note little things like the slight zoom into Peter Lorre’s Montresor as he spies on his wife making love (in the old-fashioned sense) with Fortunato, or the composition of the death-bed formation in the final story, going from a theatrical presentation to a shot through the headboard of the bed.

 *. I also like how the stories are arranged. You usually want to begin and end these omnibus films with your strongest material, but in this case, with only three stories (P.O.E.: Poetry of Eerie would give us 13!) that rule of thumb doesn’t hold. Instead Corman places the strongest, and longest, story in the middle. This is where it belongs because it also has a different tone from the other two stories, being the only one with a clear comic bent.
*. So all-in-all, a solid job of direction by Corman. The only place where I had to cringe a bit was with the shots of M. Valdemar approaching Basil Rathbone appearing totally out of focus. I take it this was to disguise some really lousy make-up effects of the rotting face, which would have made showing the face a loser no matter how Corman chose to do it. Still, I think he should have trusted with whatever effects he had. It would have been better than just blurring the shot.
*. Holy May/December! I thought for sure that Joyce Jameson was playing Peter Lorre’s daughter, not his wife (she was 27 years younger). Ditto for Debra Paget and Vincent Price (she was 22 years younger). Then in the first story, “Morella,” the dead wife literally replaces the daughter. Is this a problem? It’s not unfaithful to Poe, who married his own child bride.
*. I wonder if it’s possible for spider webs to cover as much interior as we see them on in the first story. The dining table looks like it came from Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations. I have some experience with cobwebs, having lived for a long time in an old house that I never cleaned. And, well, I think there are limits to how much webbing you can have.
*. Most accounts of the horror-anthology genre refer back to Dead of Night (1945), which is a great movie but is in many ways atypical. What I mainly mean here is the extent to which it foregrounds the frame narrative that introduces the different stories. That was never done as well, and in many later efforts it was almost entirely disposed of. Here we get Price doing a bit of voiceover and some animation, but there’s no attempt made at providing a framing story. In retrospect, that seems to have been more of a British thing, though it was revived by the V/H/S franchise.
*. It’s a good script by Richard Matheson, interpreting the sources with intelligence and economy. Sure it’s a very free-spirited mangling of Poe. But the cross-hatching of “A Cask of Amontillado” with “The Black Cat” makes sense and is done well. And why not? I’m not one of those people who believe that classic texts have to be religiously adhered to. If the changes work, then filmmakers should feel free to interpret and re-interpret. I might not like what Altman did to Raymond Carver in Short Cuts, but it was an Altman movie. This is an AIP production. It isn’t Poe.
*. I’ve always wondered about the exchange in “The Cask of Amontillado” where Fortunato cries out “For the love of God, Montresor!” and Montresor answers “Yes, for the love of God!” What does this mean? Is it just madness? In the film version, when the police discover the walled-up bodies it’s due to the howling of the entombed cat, which leads one of the cops to say “What in the name of God . . . ?” I wonder if the echo was intentional, and if Matheson was puzzling over the original exchange as well.
*. At the time it was easy to sniff at fare like this. The New York Times review, for example: “a dull, absurd and trashy adaptation of three Edgar Allan Poe stories, broadly draped around the shoulders of such people as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone (who at least bothers to act). Skip it, if possible.” This isn’t even strictly accurate, because it’s actually an adaptation of four stories condensed into three. But while it’s clearly a Corman quickie, I found it to be a good-looking production where everyone seems to have done their part. Price, Corman, and Matheson were nothing if not professionals. Quite a lot of success in art as well as life consists in just doing your job.

The Immortal Story (1968)

*. It may be immortal, but it’s not a very well known story. I mean film. Thanks to Criterion for putting this one out in such a nice release (with a commentary and lots of extras), because I’d never managed to see it before now.
*. I’ll also confess that I’ve never read the Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) story it’s based on. I think I should, since it’s the story here that I find to be the movie’s biggest flaw. What Welles saw in Blixen (who he apparently rated only just below Shakespeare) is a mystery to me.
*. I get that the story is meant to be a kind of parable, but of what exactly? Isn’t a parable, especially one presented, as here, in such a bare, minimalist manner, supposed to have at least a surface meaning that is easy to grasp? But what is The Immortal Story about?
*. Take the title. In his commentary, Adrian Martin asks the question of what the immortal story is. He figures it just refers to a man and a woman having sex, which is the most ordinary and natural thing in the world. It is this story that the dried-up Clay wants to (re?)connect himself to.
*. That doesn’t seem right to me. Clay’s purpose is more obscure, having something to do with making a mere story (a fiction) into something true. Does he really care what the particular story is about? Wouldn’t any story do?
*. Then there is the story itself. It’s treated as a running gag that everybody knows it. I think even modern audiences will find it has a familiar ring. An old man pays a young sailor to sleep with his wife.

*. Is that an immortal story? As I understand it, what’s meant by “immortal story” here is one without any known author or original source that re-occurs in different forms in different cultural contexts. Basically it’s an archetype: one of the mythic building blocks of narrative, a part of the collective unconscious.
*. If we allow that the sailor-gigolo story is such an archetype, it seems odd to me that Clay wants to make it true by re-creating a fictional version. I mean, Virginie (Jeanne Moreau) is not his wife. Indeed, it’s not clear to me if he ever even sees her except through the curtain, briefly, in the bedroom scene. So the story isn’t being made true, it’s only being dramatized.

*. Welles rejected the interpretation put to him by Peter Bogdanovich of Clay being the director. I think he was just playing with Bogdanovich. This is obviously the role Clay has in the film: he has the script, he hires the actors, gives them their lines, and oversees the production in every regard.
*. If Clay is not the director then he’s God. Levinsky makes such a parallel explicit in the way he describes Clay as the prime mover in the universe. It’s also suggested by the various thrones Clay occupies. Welles seems to have had a thing for thrones. He might have just thought he looked good in one. Or he might have got tired of standing up for long periods of time.

*. Martin calls Welles “the best commentator on his own work.” It’s hard to agree. In general, I think artists (authors, filmmakers, whatever) are some of the least reliable commentators on their own work. And among unreliable artists, wouldn’t you put Orson Welles in one of the top spots?
*. In sum, I really don’t care for the story. It just seems to be trying too hard to be suggestive of something, but it’s not clear what, and the characters remain merely symbolic. Clay is God the director. Virginie is the fallen woman. Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio) is the facilitator. Paul the sailor is . . . what? Everyman I suppose.
*. Are we really supposed to believe that Paul was stranded on a desert island? That sounds like just another immortal story. Though I’ll admit that he does seem like a stranger from another planet.
*. Does that mean Norman Eshley was miscast? I’m inclined to think so. Martin likens him to a gay icon I guess because he seems a bit passive or feminine and his bleached hair looks silly. Plus he’s a sailor. Does that change the story though?
*. If Paul doesn’t look much like a real sailor, he sounds even less like one. What he sounds like is a British stage actor being asked to speak very slowly. And he is not helped by his lines, which make him sound even more like an alien.
*. Apparently the lines were hard to hear as well. As usual the sound was all added postproduction and the synchronization wasn’t right on the English version. Manny Farber found only four of the lines to be audible. He wasn’t missing anything. If not for the music and the nice effects (like the crickets) I honestly think you might enjoy this movie more if you just turn the sound off.

*. If Paul was too grimy and covered in tar to get into Clay’s carriage, don’t you think he might have taken a shower or washed up before he went to bed with Virginie? I mean, you do have to at least try, man.
*. There is, however, no faulting the look of the film. Welles hadn’t done a feature in colour before, and had made comments about how he didn’t like it because it emphasized visual elements over actors (as I think it does here), but he took to the new medium like Michelangelo took to fresco.
*. Cinematographer Willy Kurant praised the framing and composition in particular. He called Welles “very, very rigorous” when it came to such matters, and it shows in nearly every shot. And I have to wonder if this is a dying art. For all the expense and accomplishment that goes into art direction and production design today, who really does framing as good as this? I’m trying to think of recent films that struck me as really accomplished in this regard and not coming up with much. Yet Welles apparently did it on the fly.

*. Speaking of on the fly, damn that fly on the doorjamb in the scene between Virginie and Levinsky at the bedroom door! Or should we see it as a bit of serendipity? I don’t think there’s any way it could have been intentional (you can’t wrangle flies), but is it a flaw? Perhaps we can see it as foreshadowing Clay’s attempt to later be a fly on the wall, observing the bedroom re-enactment.
*. In addition to the framing there is an exotic sense of design (the bedroom as jungle, complete with cricket sounds) and a striking and unorthodox use of colour and lighting. That dining scene made me think of the Red Room on Twin Peaks so much that I think Lynch must have had it in mind, even subconsciously.

*. Colour and lighting are also an integral part of the framing, which is used throughout to create depth of field and a strong sense of space. Zones of colour, light and shade, demark different areas as much as physical boundaries and shapes. A yellow spotlight or a band of shadow are as material as the bend in a tree, a doorway, or the frame of a mirror.
*. I’ve never made a secret of my feeling that Orson Welles was the greatest genius in the history of film, and I think The Immortal Story only underlines this by showing how much he could make out of such unpromising material. It certainly has its flaws, but it’s so smooth, gorgeous, and accomplished in all aspects of the filmmaker’s art that it still invites being studied and enjoyed.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

*. Last Year at Marienbad is a puzzle film, of the kind that does not allow for a solution. Its meaning can be argued over, but never finally determined. For some people that is its weakness, for others its strength.
*. This obscurity was intentional. Screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet thought it “a pure construction, an object without reference to anything outside itself.” That’s of course impossible for any image or use of language, but it does help explain the film’s sense of presenting a time and place hermetically sealed off from rest of the world. It’s only when the camera settles on these figures that they come briefly to life. When the camera dollies or pans away we can be sure they all go right back to their version of the mannequin challenge.

*. Obscurity, however, doesn’t mean that interpretation can run free. Resnais didn’t think of the film as a total enigma, only one whose reading would be unique to each viewer. But I think there are still limits. On the Criterion DVD Ginette Vincendeau presents us with the possibility that it may be a post-nuclear war movie, or that “A” (Delphine Seyrig) takes over the narrative at the end. I find the first suggestion to be crazy and the second not based on any evidence. I prefer Roger Ebert’s reading of “X” (Giogrio Albertazzi) as the author/director (or auteur). “Isn’t this how writers work? Creating characters out of thin air and then ordering them around?” Yes, I can see this. But then Ebert has to enter caveats and we know we can’t take this line of thinking too far.
*. It’s a movie that has always divided opinion. Where some find it difficult others find it empty. The Medved brothers, for example, included it in their volume of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. I wouldn’t go that far, perhaps because I don’t find it as frustrating so much as simply odd. Once you realize and accept its difference then you won’t get so angry.
*. For example, the most interesting part of the documentary on the making of the film  that’s included in the Criterion DVD (Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad) has the script girl Sylvette Baudrot showing a chart she had made breaking the film down into separate time threads, with some left “indeterminate.” Of course, once you allow for the existence of an “indeterminate” time or narrative thread then the whole scheme falls apart. How many times does “A” die? Or does she die? Drawing up such a chart strikes me as a pointless exercise, though I’m sure lots of people have given it a try.
*. Nor do I think that looking for sources or later signs of influence helps very much. With regard to the first, it’s often said that Adolfo Bioy Casares’s novel The Invention of Morel provided some of the inspiration, but I don’t see that as being of much assistance. Apparently Casares based the character of Faustine on Louise Brooks, and “A” in Marienbad (the Faustine figure) had the same model. But I’m not sure what any of that means. Meanwhile, would “X” be the fugitive narrator from Casares’s novel? Are these characters only holograms? I suppose it’s possible, but then a lot of things are possible.

*. Looking to movies it might be thought of as having influenced, I find the link to horror films most suggestive: from Carnival of Souls with its haunting organ music and protagonist who doesn’t know she’s dead, through Daughters of Darkness (Delphine Seyrig returning to a classy hotel, an “edifice of a bygone era,” as a decadent vampire), to Kubrick’s The Shining. Pauline Kael, who was not a fan, thought the characters (“or rather figures”) to be “a tony variant of the undead of vampire movies” (and “M”‘s likeness to a vampire was noted by many other critics as well). But in going down this road I know I’m just pursuing my own subjective reading, being someone who spends a lot of time watching horror films. I’m sure anyone could find similar connections to other genres, like romance.
*. So if everything is so indeterminate, what can we say about Last Year at Marienbad? I guess the thing that stands out the most is the look. By this I mean the excessively stilted, formal arrangement of the pieces and the players. The sense of refined stasis that reinforces the notion of a closed world from which there is no escape or release. Even emotion seems out of place. When “M” shoots “A,” does he do it in a fit of passion? It doesn’t look that way to me. Even the “rape” scene (if that was what it is) seems almost ridiculously out of place.
*. As Mark Polizzotti says in this Criterion essay, “though Marienbad is generally considered a love story, it is perhaps the most rigidly codified seduction ever filmed, with nary a hair out of place. X pursues A with B-movie persistence, but his ardor seems more focused on winning her over than on satisfying his passion: one can barely imagine them kissing, let alone making love.” So how can we imagine a rape and a murder?
*. Nor do I have the sense of passion being repressed or sublimated in some way. Instead, emotion seems to have drained from Marienbad, or wherever they are, along with all the colour. “X”‘s pursuit of “A” is just a routine, like playing all those games against “M” that he doesn’t seem to mind losing. But then he appears to be the only one who knows that he’s been through all this before.
*. My own take on it, for what it may be worth, is less that the characters are caught in an endless loop (as in The Invention of Morel) as they inhabit slightly different threads of time in alternate universes. At times these threads seem very close indeed, as when we get the series of shots of “A” in her death pose, which are all slightly different. But in other threads she hasn’t been murdered at all. Then, at other points, the threads seem to cross. Perhaps the “A” who “X” is talking to at some particular moment doesn’t remember seeing him at Marienbad last year because she really wasn’t there. Then, later, he meets up with an “A” who has.

*. At one point, following this reading, we actually get to see a number of threads simultaneously, a rare moment of temporal conjunction. This is in the shot of the three images of “A” as though being reflected in a pair of mirrors. Except these are not reflections, as “A” makes different movements in each. It’s like three different Marienbads cross over at once, at which point they will begin to diverge again.

*. It’s a magic moment, but among the few I can point to. I won’t deny that I don’t love this movie. It’s the kind of film that has to be watched over and over, but one does so at least partially out of a sense of duty. It lures us with a meaning that I don’t think it has, but I’ll still grant it’s a work of art that teases us out of thought. I don’t think it’s an empty experience, but I do find it to be a modest one and probably not worth that much thinking about.

Nightmare in Wax (1969)

*. The premise of a murderer who makes wax effigies of his victims apparently goes back to a short story by Charles S. Belden titled “The Wax Works.” The story remained unpublished however, and I’ve never been able to track a copy down. So these are obscure beginnings.
*. For all intents and purposes, however, things really got started with Mystery of the Wax Museum, a 1933 film that seems to have been a kind of afterthought following up a similar production the year before (Doctor X). Nevertheless, the hook was set in the popular imagination, especially with the success of the 1953 remake House of Wax starring Vincent Price. But I think the movies were only tapping into something deeper. We are used to seeing mannequins in store windows that we might initially mistake for real people. Well, what if they were real people?
*. The story also draws on another horror archetype: that of the deranged artist obsessed with his muse. It’s the direct offspring of Phantom of the Opera, and has had nearly as long a life. The artist-muse connection would continue in minor variations on the waxworks theme such as this film and Crucible of Terror, but would oddly disappear from the 2005 production of House of Wax, which opted for the rustic psychotic-family plot.
*. Now let’s turn to a consideration of Nightmare in Wax. We won’t be long. This is an ultra-cheap Crown International flick that makes for an ugly and poorly constructed retelling of the myth.
*. The idea had promise. It’s not just a remake of the earlier House of Wax movies. In particular there are two big differences.
*. (1) It’s a Hollywood movie. Evil genius Vincent Rinard (Cameron Mitchell) is a make-up man and his nemesis Max Black is the mogul in charge of Paragon Pictures. The museum is the Movieland Wax Museum, a real place in Buena Park, California, acknowledged in the end credits as “the authentic Hall of Fame in wax of the world’s great stars.” I think a lot more could have been done with this angle (aren’t Hollywood stars all plastic people in the first place?), but as it stands at least it’s an interesting update on the original story.
*. (2) The figures aren’t in fact waxen corpses but rather living models injected with a hypnotic paralyzing agent. This is as creepy as it is ridiculous, though in the end it tends to come down heavier on the ridiculous side. Just for starters, since the victims can’t even blink how do their eyes not dry out?
*. One other positive worth noting is the way Vincent is disfigured. Max throws a glass of wine at him while he’s lighting a cigarette and this ignites his face. Would this work? Probably not, but it is kind of weird and surprising.

*. Outweighing all of this, however, is the lack of talent involved. At the top of the list are those two banes of most low-budget film productions: poor lighting and dismal sound. You can’t see anything in all the dark. Or in all the sunlight. Check out the scene of the two cops driving around during the day where the car’s interior is like a black hole. Then you can barely hear a damn thing given the gummy sound. There are some howlers of bad lines in this movie but you have to really strain to make them out.
*. The effects are predictably bad as well. Vincent’s melted face consists of an eyepatch and a bit of plaster on his cheek. That’s it.
*. Despite the interesting new wrinkles added to the traditional story everything moves at an awkward pace. There’s a lot of talk where nothing important is said. We get the point of what’s going on, but further elaboration just makes things less clear.
*. Then there’s the ending. Spoiler alert! But how can you spoil an ending this bad? Basically Vincent wakes up and we find out that the whole movie was a bad dream. Pre-marital jitters. Why they went with this when they had a decent enough ending available — Vincent falling into the vat of boiling wax, much as his predecessors Lionel Atwill and Vincent Price had done — is beyond me. It turns the whole movie into a joke, albeit one that isn’t funny at all.

The Killers (1964)

*. The title was sometimes given out as Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, which was highly misleading. Director Don Siegel (who had actually been considered to direct the 1946 version) thought keeping Papa’s name in the title didn’t make any sense, didn’t want to use any of Hemingway’s dialogue, and indeed didn’t want to keep anything at all from Hemingway’s story but the initial idea of the guy who doesn’t want to escape his fate. A fate which is now finalized not in a diner but a home for the blind. Which might be a metaphor. Or something.
*. I don’t care for this movie at all. It has a few nice elements, but a lot more bad than good in it.
*. The thing that stands out the most is its look. Yes it’s flat and bright and sunny where noir was dark and shadowy and textured. This is in part due to the setting (California and Florida mainly), but perhaps more to the fact that it was originally shot as a TV movie. It couldn’t air on TV because it was too violent, but the damage had been done. Paul Schrader, referencing this film: “Technically, television, with its demand for full lighting and close-ups, gradually undercut the German influence, and color cinematography was, of course, the final blow to the ‘noir‘ look.”
*. Post-Tarantino I guess we can’t say that such a look is a poor match for this material, but in this film I still feel the disjunction. Everything about it has a meretricious feel. Critics have tried to salvage it by tying their praise into counterintuitive knots, as in Geoffrey O’Brien’s very good Criterion essay: “”when the film came out, the fakeness and mismatches made it seem not less but more real: movies like this helped confirm the notion that a recent era of authentic luxury and nuance (reflected in the exquisite textures of forties Hollywood) had given way to a cheap, mass-produced simulacrum. What was up on the screen had a new tackiness that in many ways very much resembled the world outside the movie theater.” But this seems like being too clever by half.
*. More than the look, however, I think it’s the casting that really undoes it. Not Lee Marvin. He’s great here, warming up for a similar role in Point Blank. But the rest of the cast is pretty awful.

*. It’s not fair to blame Angie Dickinson for being no Ava Gardner, but she isn’t. What’s frustrating though is that her character isn’t filled in any more than Gardner’s Kitty. Who is Sheila? Is she just a vacuous moll who likes pretty things? Is she a scheming mastermind? We never know. And she’s even killed offscreen, without any of Kitty’s final ambiguous hysterics.
*. I really love Charlie’s line to her just before he kills her. She’s trying to exculpate herself and he cuts her short. “Lady, I don’t have the time.” I think that must have been a steal from Out of the Past, where Mitchum tells a similarly plaintive (and duplicitous) moll “Baby, I don’t care” when she asks if he believes her.
*. Ronald Reagan. Here’s the obligatory note that this was his last theatrical film and the only movie where he played a villain. He doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself one bit, and apparently he wasn’t. I don’t buy him for a minute as a heavy, which is actually kind of weird. I say that not as a knock against his politics, but just because playing an operator like Jack Browning should have been natural for him. So why does he seem so totally out of place?
*. Not quite as out of place, however, as Clu Gulager. I think his health-obsessed hit-man could have worked, but there’s just something about his performance that makes him seem too lightweight to be taken seriously. I think he was just wrong for the part. Really wrong.

*. Ditto for Norman Fell. Come to think of it, aside from Marvin this may be the most unthreatening collection of gangsters ever. And John Cassavetes, who might have been believable as a hood, is instead turned into a somewhat naive gearhead who I couldn’t understand turning to a life of crime (in the 1946 version Lancaster’s Ole had a long criminal history before being recruited for the heist).
*. Manny Farber, of all people, said that this “scummy Siegel remake of The Killers . . . far outclasses the Siodmak epic.” I have no idea what he was talking about. Outclasses?
*. When Johnny North says he has “calluses on my rump,” do you think he’s referring to hemorrhoids?
*. Wow. In 1964 even racecar drives didn’t wear seatbelts. And apparently Cassavetes barely knew how to drive.

*. I’ve never seen a hood in a gangster film stick his gun into his back pocket. In this movie Marvin has his whole holster stuck into his back pocket. Isn’t that weird?
*. It’s really neat how Johnny, lying in his hospital bed with his eyes wrapped in bandages, lunges wildly at his garage partner but never loses the cigarette from his mouth! Neat, or ridiculous.
*. I can’t think of any way this movie improves on the Siodmak version. In particular, it seems much bulkier. Compare the interminable scenes at the racetrack with the boxing scenes in the original. And there’s no comparison at all between the brilliant and economical heist in the original (all one crane shot, perfectly choreographed), and the highway robbery here. Why do we have to see them driving down the same roads three different times?
*. I’ve mentioned before how good Siegel filmed chase scenes (see my notes on The Big Steal and The Lineup). But the driving scenes here are ridiculous in their use of back projection (the go-kart scene is the worst offender), and boring in their use of overhead shots (the aforementioned rehearsals for the heist). It’s like Siegel had forgotten everything he ever knew. On the other hand, he was starting to really show a liking for pointing guns at the camera.

*. Well, I think this is a pretty lousy movie. It’s slack, miscast, not that well written, downright silly in places (the killers in all three versions — I’m including Tarkovsky’s — are almost comic figures), and it just plain looks weird. But . . .
*. But I have to recommend it for one of my all-time favourite pieces of (what I’m sure must have been) dramatic improvisation. There stand Ronald Reagan and John Cassavetes in their highway patrol outfits and sunglasses, getting ready to stop the mail truck. Reagan is tall, commanding, and looks born to wear the uniform. Cassavetes looks the opposite. As the mail truck approaches Reagan curtly dismisses Cassavetes, saying “I’ll do all the talking.” Cassavetes leans away and nods his head, pointing at Reagan. You’re the man, Ronnie. This is hilarious. I laugh every time I see it. So you should definitely watch The Killers just to see it. But in the end, it’s only a meme moment. It does not the movie make.

Casino Royale (1967)

*. The one word you’ll see used in almost every review of this movie, both contemporary and appearing more recently online, is “waste.” I’ll just quote Leslie Halliwell, who called it “One of the most shameless wastes of time and talent in screen history.”
*. It was certainly a waste of money, going over double its original budget, and indeed coming in as more costly than the “serious” James Bond films being made at the same time. Money was just being thrown around. Woody Allen was amazed that he was put up in an expensive hotel for weeks before they even got around to shooting his scenes. It was that kind of thing.
*. More than money, however, it was a waste of talent. I mean Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, David Niven, Woody Allen, Deborah Kerr, a really nice performance by Joanna Pettet, the beauty of Ursula Andress . . . plus at least five directors (the final sequence was co-directed by the stunt coordinator), and maybe twice as many screenwriters. Included among the latter group were names like Ben Hecht and Billy Wilder, whose early drafts were tossed. Waste, waste, waste.

*. The other word that gets used, only slightly less than “waste,” is “mess.” Those five directors and dozen screenwriters should give you some idea of what is meant by this. Everybody here was just doing their own thing, and nobody seemed to know what anyone else’s thing was. Roger Ebert thought it “a definitive example of what can happen when everybody working on a film goes simultaneously berserk.” An opinion shared, I think, by everyone who has ever seen it.
*. Ebert’s review though helpfully reminds us that there were actually quite a lot of comedies in this vein coming out at the time. Chaotic zaniness was part of the zeitgeist.
*. That said, it’s really hard to overstate just how big a mess this movie is. The plot is completely incoherent, with none of the big or little pieces connecting in any way. What’s with that car wash scene? Who are those women? What’s the point of Evelyn’s dream after being drugged, which comes complete with its own theme music? Why present that big floorshow just to introduce the character of Mata Bond? Doing up the spy school to look like the sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was certainly interesting, but what the hell was the point? You can’t make any sense out of this film.

*. The result plays a little, or a lot, like a variety show: a feature-length Laugh-In. Aside from the bits with Woody Allen none of it is very funny. The timing is all wrong for comedy. The cameos become disruptive and alienating, and include in-jokes that I’m not sure many people will get today. The “Born Free” music plays when a lion jumps on top of the sedan in the opening scene, for example. Or Stirling Moss (a race car driver) chases after the bad guys on foot while Sellers gets in a racing car. Or Peter O’Toole shows up playing the bagpipes and asking about Richard Burton. Or George Raft stands at a bar flipping a coin. In the closing credits he is billed as playing “Himself.” I wonder what that means.
*. Having said all this, I have to confess that I really love this crazy piece of crap.
*. I don’t know why. I’ve always been a big Bond fan, so maybe that’s part of it. I like watching such a talented cast tossed into the pool without a clue about what’s going on and responding in different ways (Sellers actually thought the movie was going to be played straight and not as parody). The sheer incoherence of the proceedings makes the whole thing into something like a psychedelic Rorschach test, letting us make what we will out of the shifting shapes and patterns that appear on the screen.

*. Most of all, however, I love the “Casino Royale Theme” written by Burt Bacharach. Ever since I first heard it some thirty or thirty-five years ago I’ve had it pop up in my head at all different times. The other big hit from the movie, “The Look of Love,” is better known (and a nice enough song in its own right, with vocals by Dusty Springfield), but Bacharach’s nutty theme is so good it even makes you forget about the (missing) canonical Bond themes. If there is a golden thread holding all of this mess together, it’s coming out of Herb Alpert’s trumpet. Great stuff.
*. Obviously this one makes you think of the Austin Powers movies, which only began arriving thirty years later. So if nothing else you have to give it credit for being ahead of the curve. And compared to those movies, I think Casino Royale holds up quite well as a bit of authentic nonsense.