Reign of Terror and The Yankee Clipper – DVDs for the week

Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book)

Reign of Terror - finally in a decent DVD edition
Reign of Terror – finally in a decent DVD edition

Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (1949) has my vote for the most unique film noir ever made. All the hallmarks of great film noir – scheming and backstabbing characters, hard-boiled dialogue, narrow urban streets and dark alleys wet with rain and crowded with disreputable figures, and of course the shadowy visuals and extreme camera angles of an unpredictable world – are dropped into the chaos and cruelty of the French Revolution, here run by the most ruthless gang of criminals ever seen. Richard Basehart’s Maximilian Robespierre (“Don’t call me Max!”) is the icy criminal mastermind and Robert Cummings puts on his best sneering tough-guy act as an undercover agent who is sent by Marat to infiltrate the Committee of Public Safety and break Robespierre’s death grip on the revolution. Wouldn’t you know that Cummings’ Paris contact is former lover Arlene Dahl? Their reunion is a shock of recognition quickly turned into jaded indifference, wounded hearts playing at calloused detachment while trading hard-boiled expressions of lingering betrayal. Of course, passion still simmers under those cool poses of apathy. Arnold Moss is Robespierre’s mercenary henchman Fouché, an oily, enterprising operative whose allegiance is only to himself, and Charles McGraw has a small role as one of Robespierre’s more vicious thugs.

The plot turns on the scramble for Robespierre’s “black book,” where he’s listed the names of enemies and victims soon to be condemned and sent to the guillotine, and the subsequent gang war free-for-all as everyone looks to grab power by grabbing this tome is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for the chaos and cutthroat power struggle of the real life reign of terror.

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Playing Fair with Mel Gibson’s “Passion”

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Christ's suffering: "a down-and-dirty, medieval vision of flesh ruined and violated beyond enduring"

[Originally written for Queen Anne News, 2004]

In the week since I attended a press screening of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, I’ve talked and argued about religion, with believers and unbelievers alike, more than I have in decades. Every film reviewer, pundit and talkshow host in the country has fervently weighed in for or against this controversial, ultra-gory reenactment of the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life. So much, frequently hysterical, verbiage has heaped up that the movie itself — the way it looks, moves, its way of shaping a primal story into art — gets buried. Indeed, many have just skipped the film entirely, so that their opinions won’t be hampered by actually experiencing the gospel according to Gibson.

As almost everyone knows by now, Mel Gibson invested his own money in this 126-minute visualization of Christ’s Passion — not the euphemized, abbreviated, cleaned-up version that contemporary Christians have mostly espoused, but a down-and-dirty, medieval vision of flesh ruined and violated beyond enduring. (One Catholic novelist objected “to the way Gibson’s film disturbs [emphasis mine] our sense of peace and acceptance of the cross.”)

Distasteful and even embarrassing to many latterday Christians, this horrific chapter of Christ’s life on earth obviously possesses some special, visceral appeal for Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic whom some accused of anti-Semitism even before the film was released. (For the record, I didn’t register any anti-Semitic subtext in The Passion, and I didn’t come away filled with hatred for anyone. For me, the operative emotion was pity: for benighted humankind and Gibson’s religious hero.)

Take a look at the final 15 minutes of Gibson’s 1995 Oscar-winner Braveheart; it’s startling to see how literally Gibson rehearses — sometimes shot for shot — for The Passion, with himself as the suffering Christ. Praying for the strength to die well; spread-eagled on a cross; tempted by a satanic figure; empowered by the eyes of those who witness his awful torture; inspiring his followers with the sustaining legacy of Braveheart‘s last image, a sword-cross planted in the earth — the bloody end of Gibson’s Scots hero presages the formal, stylized contemplation of his god-man’s lengthier, equally barbaric Passion.

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Pre-Code Paramount and Fleischer’s Superman – DVDs for the Week

Pre-Code Hollywood Collection / Cleopatra: 75th Anniversary Edition

Six sexy pre-code films from Paramount Pictures
Six sexy pre-code films from Paramount Pictures

Universal Home Video plunges into the sex, sin and bathtub gin of pre-code Hollywood films with their answer to the “Forbidden Hollywood” series from Warner. The Pre-Code Hollywood Collection is branded as part of the “Universal Backlot Series” but it actually collects six films Paramount Pictures (Universal owns the rights to the early Paramount catalogue), a studio with a sensibility as different as can be from the snappy, punchy, street-smart Warner attitude. Paramount boasted a more elegant style and opulent touch, more glamour and soft-focus gloss than the working class Warner films and a roster of directors that included Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, Cecil B. DeMille and Mitchell Leisen, a director who began as a costume designer and art director on Douglas Fairbanks adventures and Cecil B. DeMille spectacles.

I bring up Leisen in particular because his 1934 Murder at the Vanities is a highlight of the set, a combination backstage musical, showbiz comedy and murder mystery, all with the sex and smart-alecky attitude and snappy pace of the best pre-code studio pictures. Leisen mentored under DeMille as the director transformed himself from silky sex comedy director to self-promoting epic filmmaker and king of the spectacle. Leisen’s earlier film, the classy drama Death Takes a Holiday, is a somewhat lugubrious production but by Murder at the Vanities, Leisen starts to come into his own as a deft director of light romantic comedy and cool, clever Hollywood entertainment. It’s based on a play by Earl Carroll, creator of the “Vanities” stage spectacles, and while he doesn’t appear in the film as such, Carroll’s presence hovers over the entire film through cagey name dropping. Carl Brisson and Kitty Carlisle (as the singing stars and romantic sweethearts) headline the show onstage but the offstage antics by fast-talking manager Jack Oakie (playing a former newspaperman and all-around wise guy trying to prove himself to boss Carroll) steal the film. He outmaneuvers thickheaded Irish cop Victor McLaglen (in his usual hammy lug of a performance) in a race to solve a murder before the curtain drops and handily wins the battle of wits with snappy repartee and smartly delivered quips.

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Off the Beach: Fellini Satyricon

Fellini has been widely perceived as a moralist, ruthlessly portraying the corruption he saw around him in the social, political, and cultural flounderings of postwar Italy. But to regard him as a sometimes appreciative but more often critical observer of his world is to see only half the puzzle—the less interesting half. For Fellini always knew that he was part of the world he beheld, and what haunted him most was the impossibility of objectivity. The quasi-documentary approach of neorealist film-making became meaningful—and honest—only in combination with the self-examination more commonly associated with expressionism.

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Fellini Satyricon: Bodies as landscape

La dolce vita and 8½, still for most viewers the two jewels in Fellini’s crown, present unapologetic self-portraits of the director at two stages of his creative life: the passionate would-be novelist, underemployed as a gossip reporter, unable to avoid becoming what he beheld; and the celebrated film director struggling to reconcile his creative visions with the expectations of an increasingly demanding public and to find common ground between his personal life and his public image. They also reflect a pivotal two-step process by which Fellini moves away from the linear neorealism of his earlier work and toward the surreal episodic narrative form that to one degree or another informs all of his later work.

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Keeping Score – Musique Noir: Investigating the Sound of Film Noir

The sound of noir—plaintive sax solos, blue cocktail piano, the wail of a distant trumpet through dark, wet alleyways, hot Latin beats oozing like a neon glow from the half-shuttered windows of forbidden nightspots. You walk the sidewalks of big, lonely towns, with no destination in mind, following only the sounds, guided by them, wondering where they come from, what hurt souls cry out with such tones.

No one invented the sound of film noir. It grew over seven decades, teased and shaped by the touch and mood of particular composers, particular films, particular times.

The Film Scores of Adolph Deutsch

You need to start somewhere, and the best place is probably with Adolphe Deutsch. Though capable of creating melody, Deutsch indulged in his noir scores a tonal experimentation that suggests the influence of Schönberg—an appropriate choice for a film genre so heavily indebted to the look and feel of German expressionism. With scores for The Maltese Falcon and The Mask of Dimitrios, Deutsch laid the foundations for a language of film noir with specific tonal gestures evocative of foreboding, suspense, surprise, high action, the shock of sudden recognition. And with Dimitrios especially (my vote for the first great noir score), he began building the orchestral sound of film noir.

The same year as Dimitrios, however, Miklos Rosza played a different card in his score for Double Indemnity. Rosza, an unapologetic romantic and exemplar of the Wagnerian strain in film scoring whose love of big melody made him the go-to guy for epic spectaculars in the 50s and 60s (and persona non grata for most of the remainder of his career), created in Double Indemnity a wondrous score, a suite of which was recently made available as an extra on Disc 3 of Tadlow’s magnificent complete El Cid. Billy Wilder gave Rosza both light and dark to work with, and Rosza rose brilliantly to the challenge. To the mood-pinned underscorings of the Deutsch approach, Rosza added melody, and threw the noir sound decisively forward. The spectacular, ominous main theme blankets the film with the sense of doom of a guy who knew all along he should have known better; the resigned, almost despairing love theme points toward his celebrated music for Hitchcock’s Spellbound two years later.

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Silent Light – Mortals and Miracles

The screen opens on the night sky, the stars glowing (not twinkling, mind you, but crisp and sharp and dense as seen from the clarity of a desert, with no city lights or urban pollution to muddy the view). The sounds of night are the only soundtrack, hyper-attentive to the natural world of insects. The starfield suddenly starts to bend and warp as the screen spirals and the camera readjusts. It’s only when the orange and green of dawn begins to overpower the black sky and drown out the stars and dark shadows of silhouettes are slowly revealed that we realize it is the horizon. It’s like watching the world being born in front of our eyes, with the sounds of farm animals waking to the dawn and the Earth rousing from slumber taking over the soundtrack. The camera silently tracks in to the scene, creeping so slowly it’s almost imperceptible but for the shifting perspective.

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Mennonites in Mexico

I can’t recall ever seeing such a vision of dawn as the birth of a new day, of the turning of the Earth as a literal rebirth of life, in a film, let alone in the defining first images. Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas’ third feature, is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico, an insular pocket of agrarian people that feels almost like a portal to old Europe within modern Mexico. This is not some Luddite culture – Johan (Cornelio Wall), the gentle patriarch of the farm family we meet over silent prayer and bustling breakfast, drives a sturdy new pickup and harvests the fields with combines and he joins his children to watch a DVD in a portable TV in a van – but these people hold close to their values, their religion and their way of life. Reygadas’ measured pace and the reflective observation of his patient camera is in tune with the movement of seasons and the cycle of crops, rather than the rush of urban life carved up into deadlines. It’s also in tune with the austerity of their surroundings and the quality of their spiritual lives. They are not a simple people, which sounds more like an insult than a description, but a community of people who seem to take the time to experience every moment, whether it is silent prayer over the breakfast table or a family bath in an outdoor pool.

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Warner Archive Collection – New Access to Old Movies

Warner’s launch of the Warner Archive Collection, its new DVD on Demand site, was well covered earlier this week (see The New York Times’ The Carpetbagger, Susan King at the LA Times and Lou Leminick at the New York Post) but there’s been little follow-up in the days since. Maybe that’s because we’re all waiting for that first disc to arrive before we pass judgment in the efficiency of the system and the quality of the discs. There was a pretty slow response time when I got on the site on Monday, March 23. It had been launched a week earlier but this was the date that the press releases went out and the home video sites and related blogs all spread the news. Everyone needed to check it out and a lot of folks made their first order.

Available from the Warner Archive now
Available from the Warner Archive now

The site launched with a curious collection of 150 films from the Warner Entertainment library of pre-1986 films from MGM, RKO Radio Pictures and Warner Bros., from westerns to romance, science fiction to melodrama, each one priced at $19.95 (or $14.95 for a digital download). They have little broad commercial appeal but have their fans, as evidenced by requests made over the years on sites like Turner Classic Movies and Amazon. Some of the more familiar titles include All Fall Down with Warren Beatty and Eva Marie Saint, Mr. Lucky with Cary Grant (it was ubiquitous on VHS but nowhere to be found on DVD), Abe Lincoln in Illinois with Raymond Massey and Possessed starring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. There’s plenty of early Greta Garbo and second-tier Clark Gable and Joan Crawford and Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy titles, as well as auteur oddities like The Bamboo Blonde (Anthony Mann) Countdown (Robert Altman) and The Rain People (Francis Ford Coppola). I was most excited by the silent film selection and I ordered Rex Ingram’s 1923 Scaramouche. Just yesterday I just received confirmation that my order was sent (free shipping, UPS ground) and is expected to arrive on Tuesday, March 31. It a simple, no-frills disc, just the movie in a case with sleek artwork (and, if available, the original trailer), and George Feltenstein, senior vice president of theatrical catalog marketing for Warner Home Video, promises that they are all presented in their original aspect ratio. Given their source (most, if not all, have already been remastered and run on Turner Classic Movies), we should expect good quality transfers and mastering.

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William Wellman’s Forbidden Hollywood – DVDs for the Week

The studios are finally listening to me! Okay, maybe not, but fifteen months ago I did publish my wish list of Dream DVD Special Editions and Box Sets on GreenCine. Some of those wishes have since come true: Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition (with all three cuts of the film), The Films of Budd Boetticher (featuring all five Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott films made for Columbia), A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell) and Murnau, Borzage and Fox (a far more ambitious project than even I wished for). And one of my “Honorable Mentions” was a “Forbidden Hollywood” collection dedicated to the pre-code films of William Wellman, notably Heroes For Sale and Wild Boys of the Road. Yes, I know that these have been in works, in one form or another, since before I even started the piece, but there is still a little satisfaction in seeing my dreams come true, and this week another dream comes to life: Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three, subtitled “Six classic, provocative films directed by master filmmaker William Wellman.”

forbiddenhollywood3I’ve never been of the camp that embraced Wellman as a “master filmmaker,” though I have always appreciated him as a talented pro with good instincts and clean, no-nonsense direction. He was part of that early breed of two-fisted directors who drifted into the movies from more adventurous jobs. In Wellman’s case, he had been a member of the French Foreign Legion and the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I and was a flying instructor for the American Air Corps in San Diego when Douglas Fairbanks asked him to appear in one of his films, The Knickerbocker Buckaroo. Acting left a bad taste in his mouth but directing intrigued him and he worked his way up through the ranks, becoming a director in 1923 and jumping to the front ranks of the industry with Wings (1927), an assignment he reportedly received largely on the strength of his combat experience. They needed a war flier to helm the film and Wellman gave them the most impressive aerial spectacle the movies had seen. He made more than 80 films in every genre over the course of four decades, but he showed his most interesting directorial muscle in war films (Story of G.I. Joe) and westerns (Yellow Sky, Track of the Cat) and adventures (Beau Geste), while his distinctive snappy, hard-knuckle sensibility came out in urban crime (The Public Enemy) and showbiz pictures (A Star is Born, Roxie Hart).

But for my money, he was never more interesting than in the early sound era, where his energy and audacity powered over a dozen short, sharp, street-smart films filled with saucy sexiness and startling violence and mixed with varying measures of social commentary. Six of those films are collected on this four-disc set (Wellman’s pre-code classics The Public Enemy and Night Nurse have previously been released, the former separately and in the Warner Gangsters Collection, the latter in Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Two) and they are something else, films strewn with wild melodrama, romantic triangles, brawny action and some of the sexiest scenes of heavy petting and passionate smooching you’ve seen out of old Hollywood, with more frank sexuality more suggested than shown but there is no mistaking the suggestions.
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Murnau in Germany – DVDs for the Week (Pt 2)

The Box Set
Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set

DVD has been as good to F.W. Murnau as any silent legend has a right to expect. Milestone Films released a gorgeous edition of his final film, Tabu, back in the early days of DVD. Flicker Alley released the 1922 rarity Phantom (restored by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation) a few years ago. Fox collected his American features — Sunrise (one of the unequivocal masterpieces of world cinema) and City Girl, along with a documentary tribute to his lost drama Four Devils — in the magnificent box set Murnau, Borzage and Fox. And Kino, which released the American versions of Murnau’s Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and Faust on DVD, has been faithfully upgrading and adding to the library with stateside releases of restorations helmed by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation. Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set is an upgrade from Kino’s five-disc The F.W. Murnau Collection from 2003. The disc of Tartuffe is the same the rest of the set is either upgraded or brand new: the recently restored German editions of Nosferatu and The Last Laugh (previously available from Kino in two disc “Deluxe Editions”) and the DVD debuts of The Haunted Castle and The Finances of the Grand Duke and the original German version of Faust, which are also available separately (with Faust offered in a two disc “Deluxe Edition” featuring the earlier DVD release). Milestone’s Tabu, which was on the earlier set, is not here, but it is available separately from Milestone. Confusing? Yes, it can be. If you’ve been picking up the restored upgrades all along, you’ll probably want to skip the box and just pick up the three DVD debuts separately. If you don’t have any of the restored versions, however, the box set is an essential instant collection for the Murnau fan or the silent movie obsessive.

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Shimizu in Japan – DVDs for the Week (Pt 1)

Two box sets reveal the riches of two classic filmmakers with radically different pedigrees. F.W. Murnau has long been considered one of the great directors of world cinema and Kino’s new Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set introduces two rarities in beautifully restored editions and an astounding restoration of Faust. (The review follows later this week.) Hiroshi Shimizu, however, is practically unknown in this country. Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu is as much a discovery as a celebration of this marvelous filmmaker, and I hope it’s merely the beginning of a revival.

Eclipse Series 15
Eclipse Series 15

Look up Hiroshi Shimizu on the IMDb and you’ll find 42 films made between 1924 and 1957 listed under his name. According Michael Koresky in the liner notes to the box set Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu (the 15th set from Eclipse, Criterion’s budget-minded label), he made over 150 films by most counts. That’s a lot of films for a director largely forgotten to time, even in Japan, but it isn’t the number of films that’s most alarming about his neglect. It’s the deftness and stylistic joys, the humor and humanity, the unexpected rhythms and a delightful stories on display in this set of four features. And the longest one of them clocks in at 76 minutes, although the term “tight” or “efficient” doesn’t seem to be appropriate to the generosity of his filmmaking. They are simply small stories, miniatures you might say, which unfold at their own distinctively wandering pace.

The title Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu is perfectly evocative of the films, not simply because they are about characters in transition – a bus driver on a mountain road route, seasonal masseurs who are walking to their summer position at a mountain resort in the first scene, vacationers at a mountain inn during the summer in a momentary community – but because Shimizu as much travel guide as storyteller, taking us on a tour of people and places and the stories of their lives.

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“The Robe” introduced a new Scope

"The Robe" restored for Blu-ray
"The Robe" restored for Blu-ray

Whatever you think of the biblical blockbuster, The Robe, there’s no question that its phenomenal popularity marked a turning point in movie history.

Twentieth Century-Fox, which previously treated it rather shabbily on DVD, tape and laser disc, is finally recognizing its significance with a Blu-ray Special Edition that’s loaded with extra features. Among them: a featurette about the history of CinemaScope, a discussion of the script’s political implications, and an enthusiastic introduction by Martin Scorsese, who vividly remembers the impact it had at the time.

Just weeks after The Robe’s much-ballyhooed debut as the first Scope release in the fall of 1953, the movie was challenging Gone With the Wind by setting new box-office records, and theater managers were widening their screens and beefing up their sound systems.

Before the year was over, Scope had won the battle over screen shape and size, and even movies designed to be “square,” like Shane, were stretched and distorted to suggest a panoramic effect. A few major-studio films, including the Judy Garland remake of A Star Is Born, were partially reshot to take advantage of the new process.

The Robe led the way in replacing small screens and transforming monophonic sound systems. Although some critics suggested that wide screens were suitable only for photographing snakes and funerals, and Charlie Chaplin and Frank Tashlin made fun of Scope in their late-1950s films, the system eventually had an artistic impact. Hollywood’s famous 1950s spectacles and musicals were affected, and so were such meticulously designed wide-screen classics as La Dolce Vita, The Innocents, Jules and Jim and most of Robert Altman’s movies.

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Learning to Do It Right: “The Wild Bunch” – A Personal Reflection

Law and order and grace and understanding are things that have to be taught. … People are born to survive. They have instincts that go back millions of years. Unfortunately, some of those instincts are based on violence. There is a great streak of violence in every human being. If it is not channeled and understood, it will break out in war or in madness. … [The children’s torture of ants and scorpions at the beginning of the film is] an ugly game, but it’s a game children play—unless they’re taught different. They would have had to be taught not to play that game. And man was a killer millions of years before he served a God.

—Sam Peckinpah, interviewed by Aljean Harmetz, The New York Times, 1969

The Wild Bunch is certainly Sam Peckinpah’s clearest, most heartfelt and poetic statement of his deeply-held belief that we are born animals, and that if we become human at all, it is by learning—from others and from our own experiences. We are not what nature or God makes us, but what we make of ourselves.

"The Wild Bunch" - the original poster
“The Wild Bunch” – the original poster

Whether you share that view or not, you’re a fool if you don’t confront it, and an orphan if you don’t let Sam Peckinpah take you on this spiritual journey to the darkest and the brightest sides of human capability.

When The Wild Bunch premiered in 1969, most viewers and reviewers reviled its uncompromising and unprecedented depiction of violence. Peckinpah himself became widely regarded as a violent personality who reveled in displays of brutality; and that legend only widened with Straw Dogs (1971) and The Getaway (1972).

Rarely have a director’s vision and career been so willfully misunderstood. Peckinpah was haunted by violence, physical and psychological, in his personal life and his profession, and he dared to confront it as few artists in any era or any medium have ever done. The fact that, after forty intervening years of de-sensitizing reality, movie violence, and gore technology, The Wild Bunch still has the power to shock and disturb is ample evidence that this film is no simple-minded kill-spree.

As those who refuse to classify Peckinpah and put him away in the box marked “violence” can readily tell you, both the man and the artist had a big, loving heart, and it was apparent to anyone who had eyes, not only in the gentle, understanding Ride the High Country (1962), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and Junior Bonner (1971), but also right alongside the savage violence of his masterpiece The Wild Bunch.

The Wild Bunch addresses violence not only as an individual but as a communal phenomenon, as a way of life and a facet of culture. It’s no accident that this tale of a band of outlaws who “share very few sentiments with our government” and take their last chance as gunrunners to a ruthless generalissimo in the Mexican revolution was written, filmed, and released at the height of our country’s ill-fated adventure in Vietnam. That the American experience has so often been a violent experience is part of the film’s core vision. But The Wild Bunch is neither pro- nor anti-Vietnam. Peckinpah was never as simple as that. And because he wasn’t simple about it, The Wild Bunch remains one of a very few films that capture the complexity of the upheaval in American politics and culture that occurred in the Sixties.

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“Let the Right One In,” “Ben X” and “A Secret” – DVDs for the Week

Let the Right One In on Blu-ray
Let the Right One In on Blu-ray

March 10 is an unaccountably busy week for new films on DVD. Gus Van Sant’s Oscar-winning Milk (for Best Actor Sean Penn and for Best Original Screenplay), Jonathan Demme’s marvelous ensemble drama Rachel Getting Married (which earned an Oscar nomination for Anne Hathaway) and Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay, but Sally Hawkins was robbed of a Best Actress nomination) lead the list, which also includes Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, Cadillac Records (starring Adrian Brody as Chess records entrepreneur Leonard Chess and an all-star supporting playing R&B greats), Role Models with Paul Rudd and Battle in Seattle, Stuart Townsend’s dramatization of the 1999 WTO protests (my interview with Townsend is on Parallax View here).

With such an array of American releases, I’d like to draw attention to a trio of foreign affairs that I fear will be swamped in the deluge.

Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish vampire film / young love horror piece Let The Right One In (Magnet/Magnolia) is grounded in a devoted friendship that bonds two outcasts in a predatory world. Bullied schoolboy Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a loner so blond he looks albino, meets twelve-year-old Eli (Lina Leandersson), a fellow loner hanging around the snow-covered playground of his Stockholm suburb in short sleeves, unfazed by the frozen night. “I’ve been twelve a long time,” she later confesses to Oskar, who understands that there’s something different about this girl who only comes out after dark. Which makes Sweden a great place for her: It’s night most of the winter, and the cold is no concern to a creature that doesn’t feel anything.

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The Night of the Hunter

[originally published on Robert Horton’s blog The Crop Duster on March 1, 2009]

“I’ll be back,” the man calls out, “when it’s dark.” Those words are the warning, and the credo, of every monster that ever slouched through fairy tale or film. Toward the end of The Night of the Hunter, they are uttered by Harry Powell, the evil preacher who burns through the movie like something out of an American folklore nightmare. Few monsters have embodied the shadow side of existence more absolutely than the murderous Reverend Powell. Where Harry Powell goes, it is dark.

Night of the Hunter
Night of the Hunter

Let’s be clear straight away: The Night of the Hunter is one of the greatest films in the American cinema. Although its web of influences can be identified (German Expressionism, the brothers Grimm, the films of D.W. Griffith and James Whale, Mark Twain), it is a singular movie; it resembles nothing else. It is also singular as the only film directed by the celebrated actor Charles Laughton, who suffered from one of the most tortured actor’s psyches ever—and that’s a crowded field—beset as he was by his keen intellect, fragile emotions, and closeted homosexuality. Laughton’s achievement is magnificent: there isn’t a single shot without visual interest, and the narrative tone is an amazing balancing act.

Laughton had distinguished collaborators. The film is based on a novel by Davis Grubb, whose gothic story is closely followed. To write the script, Laughton and producer Paul Gregory chose James Agee, the film critic and author of the Depression-era classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Night of the Hunter is also set during the Thirties). According to Laughton’s wife, the actress Elsa Lanchester, Agee wrote an unwieldy document that Laughton himself had to re-write.

Aside from an excellent cast, the other major collaborator was cinematographer Stanley Cortez, an unusual figure who also shot the glorious Magnificent Ambersons for Orson Welles and the gloriously pulpy Shock Corridor for Samuel Fuller. Cortez was a master of black and white contrast, and The Night of the Hunter afforded rich opportunities for the play of light and shadow; but Cortez also had his hands full with the film’s complex blend of naturalism (no Hollywood version of Mark Twain ever had a small town look as authentic) and stark stylization. Cortez later counted Welles and Laughton as the two most formidable directors he worked with.

You know something is odd from the first moments of the film, when the disembodied heads of Lillian Gish and a group of children fill the screen, hanging amongst the stars of night. Gish’s opening remarks are shaped as a parable to the children, invoking the bible and explicitly making what follows a “tale” intended as a moral fable. “Beware of false prophets,” she warns, and the film jumps to a fantastically strange sequence introducing preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). First the camera swoops down, from a great height, to see children playing in a field (hide and seek, apparently, which also describes the movie’s plot). A child looks in the cellar, only to stop short: a pair of legs sticks awkwardly, almost obscenely, from the door. The cinematic memory can’t help but flick to another great fable, The Wizard of Oz, and the legs of a dead witch curling out from beneath a similar midwestern home.

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“I try to get the essence of things” – An Interview with Horton Foote

[Editor’s note – This interview appeared in a very different form in the November/December 1996 issue of Modern Maturity. The introduction was written specifically for this publication.]

Horton Foote died March 5th, 2009, at his daughter Hallie’s home in Connecticut where he was at work cutting his ‘Orphan’s Home Cycle’ from 9 plays into a 3-act version for Broadway in the Fall of 2009.  Broadway theatres dimmed their lights in his honor for one minute that night.

Horton Foote at his New York apartment with some of his collection of Americana, reproduced with the kind permission of the photographer, Jeanne Strongin
Horton Foote at his New York apartment with some of his collection of Americana, reproduced with the kind permission of the photographer, Jeanne Strongin

I spent a week with Horton Foote in 1993, in Wharton, Texas, the town he had been writing about all his life, in one form or another. The calm, high-ceilinged house he lived in reflected a lifetime of collecting, at flea markets and country auctions, with a great eye and a gambler’s luck. Horton and his wife Lillian had gathered superb pieces of Americana, naïve folk paintings and family silhouettes and mixed them with wit and sureness and a touch of the unexpected.

Coming down the steps in his trademark black suit, both arms outstretched, he was a mixture of warmth and Southern concern and for the week that followed, he had the knack of seeming to sublimate his densely packed schedule to mine. With his cherub’s face and his thatch of silver hair, he was at the same time buoyant and optimistic, and deeply and intrinsically tenacious (that thread common to his finest characters.)

Directly next door, where he put up guests, sits the white bungalow-style house in which Foote was born. Unlike most of the rest of the country, there’s a sense of continuity in Wharton. It comes out in strolls around his slowly emptying town, where Foote is still a local celebrity and can tell the history of every family in every house, many of whom are kin, in varying degrees of closeness.

As deeply rooted as Foote is in Wharton, he has been equally entwined with his family: Lillian Vallish Foote, his inseparable partner of 48 years, and their 4 children: Hallie and Horton Jr. who are actors, Walter, a lawyer and Daisy, a playwright.

In August, 1992, Lillian Foote died, after a brief illness. In September, The Roads to Home opened in New York, the play on which her husband and daughter were working at the time of her illness. The following May, Hallie won an Obie for that performance, which her father wrote and directed.

Sheila Benson: You’ve written in so many forms, how do you think of yourself?

Horton Foote: I’m essentially a story teller, although the people that are hardest on me always say that I don’t have enough story. I guess what will get me going is the human condition. But what I do, through thinking and thinking and thinking and thinking, I try to get the essence of things.

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