Johnny Depp, seedier and more aged than he’s ever played before, stars as a dealer in antique books. When one of his wealthier clients wants him to track down the three remaining copies of a book that, legend has it, was co-written by Lucifer, he has every reason to be suspicious (not the least being that the client is played by Frank Langella). But the paycheck is large enough to overcome his concerns, so Depp flies off to Europe, and the body count starts to rise.
[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
To call Roman Polanski’s fourth feature film a mere spoof on vampire movies is as ridiculously shallow as to call it The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck. Polanski’s own title, DanceoftheVampires, far better suits this ambivalently comic, profoundly troubling sortie into cinema gothic. The villain in the case is the spectacularly myopic producer Martin Ransohoff, who cut some nine minutes from the original film (including some of the best sequences, if Ivan Butler’s description of the British print is to be believed), redubbed certain of the voices (including the director’s own), and slapped that insipid title on the film for its American release. With righteous indignation, Polanski asked that his name not be associated with the film as exhibited in the United States.
In this adaptation of the 2010 stage play by David Ives, Roman Polanski casts his wife in the main role and makes his leading man look as much like himself as possible. As tempting as it is to read autobiographical intention into these decisions, I think it’s probably wise to take them as sardonic jokes. It’s much better to simply watch the French-language Venus in Fur as an extended and often hilarious riff on power plays and erotic gamesmanship, both of which are offered here in ripe-flowering abundance.
Venus in Fur features just two people on a single set. The conceit is that a stage director, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), is caught at the end of a day of auditions by an obnoxious, gum-chewing actress, Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner). He’s casting the lead in an adaptation of the notorious 19th-century novel Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch—you know, the guy who put the Masoch into masochism.
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
In The Tenant Roman Polanski explores again the psychic terrain of guilt, dread, paranoia, fears of sexual inadequacy and hysteria he made so familiar in Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, and Chinatown. Much of The Tenant bears residual traces of Repulsion‘s treatment of insanity and the creaky Gothic nightscape of Rosemary’s Baby. The film is chockfull of the attic-thumpings and disembodied sounds Polanski is so fond of rendering. A bit of lace drifting in the breeze becomes an omen of dread; sidelong glances from normal faces acquire an insidious grotesqueness. Is there in fact a conspiracy against M. Trelkovsky (Tchaikovsky? Porchovsky?—everyone seems to pronounce it differently), the new young tenant who takes over the apartment of Mlle. Schoul, the victim of a suicide leap from her window? Are the other tenants in league to drive T. into jumping as well? What about the burglary of his apartment? The human tooth he finds hidden in a hole in the wall plugged by cotton? The Egyptian postcard? The hieroglyphics in the toilet? Are they all elements of a vast conspiracy to drive him mad?
Roman Polanski once cited Cul-De-Sac (Criterion), a sly little character piece set in an isolated medieval castle on the barren British coast, as his personal favorite of his films, and the closest he came to creating “pure cinema.” It’s also been the hardest of Polanski’s films to see, at least in acceptable (and legitimate) editions. Criterion’s release is the first official home video release in the U.S. and it is a superb disc and a welcome debut of a brilliant black comedy and a wicked little psychodrama.
It’s only Polanski’s second English language film, though he wrote the original script with Gerard Brach before making “Repulsion” and then rewrote it to fit the castle location. While it’s not as demented as Repulsion or as engaging and enraging as Chinatown, this is as assured and as perfectly crafted as anything in Polanski’s career, a miniature where every facet offers multiple reflections. The dialogue is as assured at the filmmaking, and is both right and proper and weirdly warped around the situations, thanks to Donald Pleasance (as the owner of the castle) delivering his lines with twitchy cadences and nervous pauses Françoise Dorléac (as his young French wife) and Lionel Stander (as an American thug crashing their private party while hiding out from a robbery gone wrong) bringing in their idiosyncratic approach to the English language.
Essentially a three-hander (with guests—not always wanted—periodically dropping by), it’s described in the liner notes as a “mental ménage-a-trois,” which I suppose is as good a description of the shifting dynamics of power and submission as any. There’s no real sexual tension (let alone sex) within this group but plenty of playing games and roles, from Pleasance donning a nightgown and eye-shadow in pre-invasion bedroom play with his wife to Stander posing as their surly servant when guests arrive.
[Originally published in Film Comment Vol. 10 No. 6, November-December 1974]
It’s a good idea to recall periodically no director at, say, RKO in the Forties ever passed a colleague on the lot and called, “Hey, baby, I hear they’re giving you a film noir to do next.” The term was a critical response, on the part of some French film freaks, to a body of American movies that had been piling up during the war years, a body that continued to grow in size as the postwar films themselves became increasingly darker and more intense in mood.
Film noir—thephrase—crossed the Channel and passed into English film criticism, where it began to suggest (as almost any colorful phrase has a way of suggesting in English film criticism) some kind of hothouse specimen. Characteristically, American francocinéphiles grafted it onto their own critical vocabulary in order to celebrate not the wondrously rich heritage of their homegrown cinema, but rather the grubbily exotic blooms of Godard (Breathless) and Truffaut (Shoot the Piano Player), themselves in large measure derived from the genuine, originally American article.
More than a decade has gone by and film noir has finally been discovered at home. Not every workaday reviewer employs the term, but many of them have a vague idea what it’s about, and whenever a new movie comes along in which the atmosphere is wishfully sinister and oddball characters proliferate to the confounding of any hope of lucid plot explication, they’ve learned to dive for prototypes in The Big Sleep the way a seal dives for a fish.
[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, Feb. 17, 2010]
Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer was thrilling when first seen back in February, and with the end of 2010 in sight it remains my favorite first-time movie encounter of the year. Polanski and his picture have been honored in Europe, though I doubt whether Hollywood has been paying attention. With one minor factual tweak (I just watched it again yesterday), here’s what I said back then about the film. -RTJ
There is a sequence in the Hitchcock classic Foreign Correspondent when Joel McCrea and his comrades, in a car pursuing another car bearing a man who just carried out a very public assassination in the city they’ve left behind, round a curve and see … an empty road and miles of windmills (it’s Holland). This is one of the cinema’s sublimely creepy moments. How did that car disappear in an infinity of nothingness? Where’s the assassin? And why are the vanes of one windmill turning in the opposite direction from the others?
Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer sustains something like that creepiness for most of its running time. Not so much because of its mystery-suspense plot, reportedly faithful to the Robert Harris novel (Harris and Polanski share screenplay credit). Nor because, the presence of Pierce Brosnan notwithstanding, it strews action set-pieces like a James Bond movie – it doesn’t, though a drive through drizzly New England woods is more riveting than most movie car chases. No, The Ghost Writer is tense, unsettling and deeply thrilling because of the way a master filmmaker looks at the world.
[originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]
THE TITLES, shadow-masked to the old 1.33 format, roll up against a grey moderne background and give way to a series of black-and-white still photos. In the photos a man and a woman are making love, awkwardly, with their clothes on, in the woods. We hear groans—do they go with the pictures? Ecstasy? Agony? Just exertion? The camera pulls back; we see the photographs are being shuffled in a fat workman’s hands. Seated behind a desk nearby, tokenly commiserating but clearly exasperated, Jack Nicholson wears an expensive-looking cream-colored suit. The suit goes with the pre-smog daylight in the room; the light is itself like heavy cream; it looks as if it would feel like heavy cream to walk through. The fat man shoots shy, helpless glances at Nicholson, looking up from the pictures, looking back at the pictures. Then he throws the pictures away and begins to blunder around the walls. “All right, Curly, enough’s enough. You can’t eat the Venetian blinds, I just had ’em installed on Wednesday…. What can I tell you, kid? You’re right. When you’re right, you’re right, and you’re right.”
Nicholson plays a private detective named J.J.—one of them’s for Jake—Gittes. Unlike Philip Marlowe, more like Sam Spade, he has not merely an office but a suite, and at least two operatives work for him. For, not with—he’s the boss. Unlike either Marlowe or Spade (at least as far as the movies tell us), he does “matrimonial work”; indeed, as he will declare later in the film, it’s his “meeteeyay.” He pushes Curly out the door fraternally—Curly is mumbling about not being able to pay until he makes another run on his fishing boat—and lets the creamy light carry him into another room where operatives Walsh and Duffy are waiting with the company’s next client, a Mrs. Mulwray. Mrs. Mulwray thinks her husband is seeing another woman. Gittes affects just enough disbelief to permit Mrs. Mulwray the consolation of knowing that that’s the last thing a man like him would expect the husband of a lady like her to be doing. “Mrs. Mulwray, have you ever heard the expression `Let sleeping dogs lie’? You’re better off not knowing.” But Mrs. Mulwray wants to know and she has the money to pay for Gittes’ services. Her husband—Gittes is genuinely surprised at this one—is the head of the Los Angeles water company.