[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]
During one phase of their rising-and-falling marriage Susan Anspach says to George Segal, “We’re always putting somebody down.” One of the conspicuously consistent things about Paul Mazursky’s three films as a director—BobandCarol andTedandAlice, Alexin Wonderland, BlumeinLove—is that he doesn’t put anybody down. The frantic chicness of the assumed lifestyles in B&C&T&A was the source of many laughs, but there was a winning innocence about the whole enterprise, on the characters’ part and on Mazursky’s, that saved the film from the sterile socioaesthetic oneupmanship that claims most endeavors in that risky genre. It was the director’s innocence that sustained Alex in Wonderland even amid the protracted, slavish, unimaginative gaucherie of those sub-Fellini pastiches and stillborn “Hooray for Hollywood” highjinks. And the colors of innocence and naïveté continue to fly in his latest film, and they help make Blume in Love a distinct pleasure to behold and share.
I Wake Up Screaming (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) is not just one of the great movie titles of classic cinema, it is one of the films that established the distinctive style and attitude of film noir, from the blast of a headline shouting BEAUTIFUL MODEL FOUND MURDERED to the third degree given to swaggering sports promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) under the glare of a blinding lamp in a rather suspicious room of worn brick and cast-off furnishings, more of a cell than an official interrogation room. Mature is lit up in the center of the screen while hard shadows assault the walls and slashes of light and looming silhouettes give the cordon of cops wrapped around him a look more like intimidating mob hoods than New York’s finest. On the other side of the dungeon door is the public side of the detective’s room where Jill Lynn (Betty Grable), the victim’s sister, is treated more gently, but she’s just as trapped. When the camera swings around we see a cage around her. The picture opens with a punch and the backstory is quickly filled in with jabs of flashbacks, jumping back and forth between the smart mouthed dandy of a promotor and the demure young woman as they lay out the events leading up to the murder of ambitious Carole Landis, the hash slinger promoted to celebrity success by Mature like a noir Pygmalion.
The Visitor (Drafthouse, Blu-ray, DVD), a 1979 Italian giallo-esque supernatural horror with an American cast and a former Fellini assistant taking the directorial reigns with more imagination than storytelling discipline, is not the first Exorcist knock-off to come out of the Italian genre factory. It may, however, be the least coherent. Opening on Franco Nero as a Django Jesus in a heaven with art direction out of Logan’s Run and populated with bald children, it quickly sends John Huston as a paternal emissary (or maybe a particularly grandfatherly God, who knows?) on mission to stop Santeen from taking over Earth through 8-year-old Katy Collins (Paige Conner, more creepy Bad Seed than possessed Linda Blair). There’s also a helping of The Omen, Carrie, The Birds, and the hall of mirrors of The Lady From Shanghai (among many other films), a basketball game with an exploding dunk shot, an abduction out of UFO lore, and Glenn Ford as a police detective who gets his eye pecked out by a falcon.
Giulio Paradisi (directing under the screen name Michael J. Paradise) came up with the story, which recasts the idea of a satanic thriller as a cosmic battle, and apparently keeps rewriting as it goes along. Katy has vaguely telekinetic powers and a strange sense of humor (in a game of tag at an ice rink she tosses a couple of teenage boys out of the rink and through a plate of glass) and somehow the evil corporate cabal’s mission to have Katy’s mommy (Joanne Nail) spawn even more devil children becomes a campaign of torture that lands her in a wheelchair and worse. The cast also drops in Shelley Winters as a cranky housekeeper, Mel Ferrer as the corporate devil, Sam Peckinpah as a doctor (completely dubbed into anonymity), and young Lance Henriksen as the Ted Turner of the Apocalypse. Okay, that’s a stretch, but it does actually take place in Atlanta (though most of it is shot in Rome).
Paradisi may not have a clue about directing actors (Glenn Ford walks through his performance in a daze, though in his defense he probably read the script and ended up more confused than ever) but he has picked up a few tricks from Argento on how to move a camera and from Fulci on how to stage a supernatural freak-out. It’s not particularly gory, mind you, and the cut-rate optical effects of the cosmic finale are so slapdash they become abstract, but that kind of works for this oddball trip.
I confess that this is the first time I’ve tried to review a Blu-ray release via streaming video. It may not have made that much of a difference, for despite the claims of being “restored” the print was filled with minor scuffs, scratches and abrasions and the picture looked a little soft. More likely this is a preservation rather than a restoration, an HD master of a high-quality print.
The press release insists that there are interviews with star Lance Henriksen, screenwriter Lou Comici and cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri, but only Henriksen and Comici were accessible to me. Both artists describe a production where no one had any idea what was going on with the script or the story, including the director, who dismissed all queries when asked to explain. Henriksen is marvelously good-natured about remembering the experience, which he found a delight even though the film is such a mess (his story about getting direction from co-star John Huston is priceless). I did not receive a copy of the booklet that accompanies the disc.
[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?
“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.
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.