first published here: http://www.biblioman.at/info/Fundus243/artikel_1035018.htm
November 10, 2014
August 28, 2013
In the 1961 film by Nicholas Ray, »King of Kings«, John the Baptist asks Jesus: »Was it you who was foretold or are we to expect another?« I can imagine someone asking Roger Corman this when his first film »Monster from the Ocean Floor« in 1954 burst into cinema’s collective conscious. For me, the other is of course that boiling pot of an industry called Nollywood. An industry that I respect totally and share some of the values and ethos of the Roger Corman canon. To stretch the quote from King of Kings: »…we didn’t expect another but another rose.«
I can’t remember the first time or where I heard of Roger Corman but what I saw and heard was enough, and the man’s name stuck with me then and ever since. I was three feet high and rising at the time in the South African film industry and similarly to Roger, I never went to film school. What I knew then and believe now with all my heart is that telling stories was the fuel that drove me. As a child I would devour stories. I wrote my first novel at six. One of my Uncles used to ask me: »Why do all the characters die?« My response apparently was that »otherwise it would be too long.« Later at drama school I decided to become a director, having long abandoned my dreams of being a novelist. The cinema would be my canvas of choice. In the absence of decent film schools at the time in South Africa, I turned my attention to the masters and mistresses of cinema.
Directors and their films became my teachers. I devoured everything I could find on directors. Ousmane Sembène, Raoul Peck, Spike Lee, Julie Dash, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Poitier, Djibril Diop-Mambety, Alfred Hitchcock to name a few. I would read up everything about these directors and watch their films, and by so doing I was learning the language of cinema from these pioneers. And what was that language? Not just visual story telling but also the power of cinema. There is no music like that musical score in the Korean film »3-Iron« directed by Kim Ki-Duk, no drama like the drama in the cinema of Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi, and I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement of Mira Nair’s »Moonson Wedding«. Watching these films fuelled my passion.
Then I re-discovered »The University of Roger Corman«. His films were never my focus. I am not entirely sure how I feel about all of his films or even if their genres appealed to me. This of course has never been the essence of Roger Corman for me. It was what he was doing and how he was doing it that I latched on to. I liked the idea that he was independent; I liked the fact that his films cost less and made him money; independence is a huge aspect of the film industry. Kwame Nkrumah said first of his newly independent Ghana: »Seek ye first political kingdom and all else shall be added unto you«. If I had Commandments for filmmakers I would start with that. It is a difficult position to negotiate. Independence. In this day and age, when most African filmmakers source funding from Europe and key on the list of requirements is that your film has to say something about AIDS or poverty, I like the independence of Nollywood. And it’s that independence I recognize in Roger. I like the passion with which he empowered younger filmmakers and actors. The roll call of people he gave opportunity to reads like the hall of fame today: Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme. Sometimes filmmakers affect others without even knowing it. In one of my early short films I had no idea about framing a scene in a restaurant with two characters talking. While it seems absurd now, it wasn’t to me at the time. I had no idea where to put the camera. I saw a documentary where Jonathan Demme (a »University of Roger Corman« alumni) said when he made his first film he had gone the night before to watch some other film and he copied the shots in that film to help him get through at least his first day of the shoot. Cut to: me fast forwarding through all the VHS tapes in my mother’s house trying to find a film that had a scene with two people talking in a restaurant so I could copy the shots. That’s »Corman 101« in action.
If the »University of Corman« or »UniCorm« as I like to call it, has a curriculum it would be something like this. Firstly, the emphasis on the low budget. As Jack Nicholson says in the documentary »Corman’s World«: »They (the films) weren’t pretending to be something else.« Fast forward years later to »Nollywood 101«. Those films stand out because they weren’t pretending to be something else. They were a true voice. Nollywood for me, at the time when I discovered it, was a breath of fresh air. The first Nollywood film was »Living in Bondage«. An industry was born. Today in the popular hit track »Oliver Twist« by D’banj he references Nollywood actresses as well as Hollywood royalty. The music video also features an appearance by Kanye West. It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. I might not have ever made a film that could be classified as Nollywood but I most certainly have adopted, like Corman’s students have, some of their ethos. I remember Ron Howard talking about filming the mega big budget film staring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman called »Far and Away«. If memory serves, he spoke about how on a particular day they were running out of time and losing light. He found himself, he said, channelling his inner Roger Corman, and rushing with one cameraman and Tom and Nicole to chase the light. Corman has made over 200 films. Throw a stone in the Nollywood shop of talent and you would find filmmakers with a standard 200-film résumé, and that’s before breakfast. Nollywood might have started with »Living in Bondage« but today the films are screened in multiplexes the world over. Corman might have started with »Monster on the Sea Floor« but he inspired the blockbusters of today. Spielberg’s masterpiece film »Jaws« was essentially a B-Grade movie done with better production value. The rest is history. »Jaws« and »Star Wars« changed the tide of American films and also Roger Corman’s cinema. A high gloss big budget blockbuster had replaced the low budget film. We don’t know where Nollywood will end up but we have seen what Corman has influenced in America. Corman continues to make films but refuses to change his ethos.
I had an interesting experience watching »The Little Shop of Horrors«. I couldn’t remember if I had seen it before. An image popped into my mind of a plant eating people but I couldn’t quite place it. As the film started with that beautiful cartoon drawing and the voice of the detective, I found myself remembering that I had seen it all on stage. As a child I always liked macabre stories and I enjoyed this one immensely. The fact that the success of the shop is tied to blood reminded me of the line from »Interview with the Vampire«: »Drink from me and live forever«. The constant craving of the plant, like Cookie Monster from »Sesame Street«. The film is hilarious as well. I love the interplay of the characters. It is filled with great lines like: »It’s a finger of speech!« Shot over two and a half days, the tale of a man ultimately destroyed by his creation. It’s the stuff of movie legend.
In the documentary »Corman’s World«, he is compared to the Arab maxim: The dogs bark but the caravan moves on. Corman and Nollywood for me continue to move mobile memories forward, the rest of us are barking.
first published here: http://www.friedagrafe.net/film-view/128
»By the Bluest of Seas« (»U Samogo Sinego Morya«) was released in the Soviet Union in 1936. Made by Soviet actor and director Boris Barnet, it was his second sound feature film after »Outskirts« (1933). As such it is routinely identified with the new instrumentalisation of the ›Socialist Realism‹ mode of film-making and with Barnet’s own location within popular (and with sound, musical) comedy, which as Beumers (2003) has pointed out, had become the dominant film genre of the later 1930s in the Soviet Union, »reinforcing the function of cinema under the pressure of ideology … within the popular form of the musical and the predictability of the fairy tale«. And yet responses to the film at the time criticized »By the Bluest of Seas« for being ›overly emotional‹, the script derided for its emotional nature and the director chided for cutting up Sergey Potosky’s score and for continuing to rely on montage forms that were seen as increasingly antithetical to Socialist Realism modes. It is what we might call this anomaly between the film’s designated political mode (by time and place as officially made in the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s under Socialist Realism) and its contrary ›emotional‹ content that we wish to reflect on and through which we will prompt our own feelings of both fidelity and desire for its significance and worth.
This anomaly also has contemporary relevance. Current reviews (of »By the Bluest of Seas« recent DVD format release) echo the view of the film as being a musical comedy, describing it as a ›cinematic fairytale‹, as a ›buddy rom-com‹ (romantic comedy) and as a comedy melodrama. Others, almost predictably from within this inherited discursive placing, refer to it as reflecting a ›fairly lightweight‹ or ›whimsical‹ tale, often connected with a ›thin plotline‹ and showing ›pure frivolity‹, and ending up most tellingly describing it as a … »sweet film and ephemeral. Much like the two sailors, it arrives, stirs the waters and then recedes, slipping easily from your mind but leaving behind a sense of warmth« (Close-Up, Film website). At the same time the film is lauded, given worth, and the reading of it as cinematic fairytale enabled by simultaneously pointing to its apparent apolitical nature. While this is primarily read back through an uncritically inherited critique of Socialist Realism and communism – through such claims as that it is ›lacking any particular propaganda‹, that it is ›completely removed from politics‹, and that it is ›astounding that Barnet was able to make such an apolitical film‹ – a bigger, larger, more pervasive articulation resides within these formulations. This is to deny ›emotions‹ a political frame, to simultaneously read the political as beyond affect and to devalue and reduce in importance, along strongly formed gender lines, the relatedness between the political and the personal, between politics, emotion, feeling and desire. Against this we wish to propose that »By the Bluest of Seas« enables such lines of flight.
In this regard, for us there is also a third frame. We have both recently been centrally involved in a Southern African focused research project under the broad, provoking title of Love & Revolution. What is meant by this and how this can be connected to our discussion of »By the Bluest of Seas« is well articulated in the following: »Love & Revolution widens the frame through which studies of liberation struggles, nationalism and political cultures have been understood, by insisting on the parallel treatment of ›the personal‹, be it the forces of desire, affiliation or emotion. In southern Africa for instance, popular cultural expressions since the 1960s suggest the transformation of individual subjectivities in the midst of nationalist political struggle and social change, especially in urban areas and exile camps. Love & Revolution seeks to co-examine the social and the subjective, the political and the unconscious. There is the potential to explore the way these, and the forms and hierarchies of knowledge produced around them, have often obscured one another despite possible inter-connections. In discursive terms there are deployments of revolutionary language to express the personal, and narratives of affect with the mobilization of powerful symbols to lay claim to the political and the economic. By the same token, Love & Revolution instates the political at the heart of enquiries about gender, sexuality, aesthetics and creativity. The platform provides opportunities to question the dominant categories and archives of analysis, within the subcontinent and beyond. The thematic conjuncture of Love & Revolution interrogates the underpinnings of the nation and shifts in consciousness of the self and the other, and more philosophically, it raises questions about the humanities and humanity itself.«
Boris Barnet, then, clearly occupies an ambiguous position within the canon of Soviet film-makers. Born in 1902 to a family that owned a typographical business, he studied as an architect and painter and then worked as a set designer at the Moscow Art Theatre. In 1919 he enlisted in the Red Army and then, after being discharged due to ill-health, learned boxing in the Main Military School for Physical Education of Workers (Glavvosh). Lev Kuleshov persuaded Barnet to join his collective as an actor in »The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks« (»Cowboy Jeddie«) one of the Soviet cinema’s first great comedies, joining a cast that included future directors Pudovkin, Obolensky and Komarov (Vivaldi, 2011). He then worked as a scriptwriter and then director with Fedur Otsep in the serial adventure ›red detective‹ film »Miss Mend« (aka »The Adventures of the Three Reporters«) released in 1926. Becoming part of the Mezhrabpom Studio collective, Barnet directed his ›Keatonesque‹ first silent feature, »The Girl with the Hatbox« (»Devushka s korobkoy«) in 1927 and »Moscow in October« a state commissioned 10th anniversary film also in 1927, followed by »The House on Trubnaya Square« (»Dom na Trubnoi«) in 1928. This was followed by »Living Things« (1930), »The Ghost« (1931), »The Thaw« (»Lyodolom«) (1931) and Outskirts« (aka »Patriots«/ »Okraina«), his first sound film, in 1933. »By the Bluest of Seas« followed in 1936 as a joint production between Mezhrabpon and Azerbaizhan Film Studios and was shot in the region of the Caspian Sea.
Importantly, although interrupted by features such as »Moscow in October« and »Thaw«, Barnet is firmly located within the Mezhrabphon Studio collective and as such, within what has been located as a more popular and comedic tradition. However, as a number of commentators have pointed out, Barnet has been seen to have straddled the more traditionalist (Protazanov)/ innovator (as in maintaining Kuleshov’s montage influences) divide (as proposed by Nikolai Lebedev, one of the first significant historians of 1920s silent Soviet cinema). More significantly though, in positioning Barnet as a comedy director, and in the rather simplistic associations of him as a director of ›popular comedy‹ and with the advent of sound, ›musical comedy‹, he falls between what Anderson (2008) has called the two ›golden ages‹ of Soviet cinema: the heroic age of Soviet silent cinema with its montage filmmaker theorists (Eisenstein, Kuleshov, Pudovkin, Vertov), and the later ›Russian Thaw‹ (Kalatozov, Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Iosseliani). Rather, as he points out, his ›complex disposition‹ within Soviet film history seems to map him more closely onto the far less esteemed ›Socialist Realism‹ period and brand of film practice, and in his association with Mezhrabphon, with its more popular, comedic and lightweight disposition – he was called the ›Peter Pan of Soviet cinema‹ (Margolit, 168) and ›infantile‹. (Vivaldi, 2011) Against this we might want to register Bela Balasz, the Hungarian born film theorist, critic and writer: »In your films there is an explosion of laughter in the saddest of scenes. A tragic moment is at one and the same time comic … you don’t give a caricature of serious things. You show them in a serious manner … but you simply don’t sift them, you don’t cleanse them of the grotesque and comic details which may stick to the most serious of things …. Tragedy and comedy are no longer in your films two different categories and thanks to this you have overcome that dualism which forces people to see life as either tragic or comic«. (Bela Balasz in Vivaldi (2011))
Our purpose here, though, is not to enter some form of canonical rescue of Barnet. Many have done so, from calling him the ›father of Soviet comedy‹ (Anderson, 2008), to various recent authors calling him the ›forgotten master‹, arguing that he is ›unjustly unknown‹ and ›long overlooked‹ and that he has still ›not been accorded the central place that he deserves in the appreciation of the first half century of Soviet cinema‹ (Vivaldi, 2011). Rather, our purpose in rehearsing Barnet’s genealogy of location and production is twofold: first to suggest the ways that the very categories attached to him limit possibilities of reading and viewing Barnet and »By the Bluest of Seas« beyond the imposed biographic as deterministic; but also secondly that, while he does fit within the parameters of Socialist Realism, this is not just an uncomfortable, or incongruous fit which, while mostly read as determining the ›superior quality of his art‹ might also enable a talking back, if not to Socialist Realism, then to the political ›without shores‹ (to plunder the title of a recent edited collection of essays entitled Socialist Realism without Shores, 1997). Put somewhat differently, we want to hold Barnet’s »By the Bluest of Seas« up against Brody’s (2013) observations that he had »the misfortune of being a lyricist in a time and a place of mandatory declamation, an ironist under a regime of deadly earnestness, a discerning psychologist in a reign of subordinated individuality« and couple this with Vivaldi’s (2011) observation that his »lyrical voice … in which life ›seeped into and washed away‹ all the stereotypes he was directed to shoot« enable a re-seeing and a re:working (following John Mowitt) of the political as affect. In the process, we may further see how ›Soviet man was (un)made‹ (following Lilya Kaganovsky, 2008) and how ›socialist senses‹ (following Widdis 2012) can be brought into critical view.
So – the film. »By the Bluest of Seas« features Nikolai Kryuchkov (Aliosha/ Alyoshka), Lev Sverdin (Yussuf/ Youssouf) and Yelena Kuzmina (Maria aka Misha/Masha/Mashenka). Kuzmina was also Barnet’s wife at the time. Filmed by cinematographer Mikhail Kirilov, written by Klimenti Mints and scored by Sergei Pototski(y) the film is routinely described in terms of its light, lyrical tone, for its depictions of joy, for its ›unfettered enjoyment in visual delight‹ and as an ›uplifting and intelligent comic exploration of love, friendship and humanity‹. It is relatedly stated that it is ›one of the most inspiring, poetic and harmonious cinematic achievements to come out of that great Soviet era of filmmaking‹ and that it is ›in its uncluttered, lyrical and emotional simplicity that the film excels‹. Not surprisingly, the film itself is as routinely, described as ›beautifully crafted‹, as a ›visual poem‹ and the cinematography and score equally praised (albeit that Barnet chopped up Pototsky’s score without his agreement). Perhaps this is best summarized by Anderson (2008): »the evidence is on the screen. That is, whether one cites the filmmakers’ land and seascape photography, the bodily and performative representation of desire and feeling or the emotional stakes for which the protagonists are playing, the unadulterated pleasures of Barnet’s film are there for those with eyes to see and hearts to feel. This is a film with which to fall in love«.
The film opens (and closes) with a montage of the Caspian Sea. Often depicted as some of the ›most beautifully-shot seascapes in the history of cinema‹, this bluest of seas (albeit in black and white) features as the ›emotional scenario‹ for the film as a whole. Actor Lev Sverdin (Yussuf) suggested that Barnet and cinematographer Mikhail Kirilov’s sublime long-lensed filming ›captured the sea’s emotions on film‹. After at least twenty edits, montaging a humanless sea as a central character, two shipwreck survivors enter the scene (Alyoshka and Yussuf). For two days and nights they are pushed southwards and end up being rescued and taken to the island that was their original destination. They are engineers/mechanics dispatched, in the adventure narrative Stalinist mode of the aviator figure to the island where the fishing kolkhoz (collective farm) named ›The Flames of Communism‹ (Lights of Communism) requires intervention. This is so because the majority of the men are away in the East, involved in the Sino-Chinese-Japanese conflict of the 1930s, and Barnet reconstructs a tension between an idyllic island of predominantly women residents (and thus the fulfillment of the shipwrecked sailors’ desires) and the island as a working fishing commune about to encounter the fishing season. This collective soviet Socialist Realism backdrop, though, is about as much as we get to see in this mode. Rather, the majority of the story involves the two engineer shipwrecked friends caught in a love triangle with Masha, who is also an outsider, but the president/chairwoman/farm manager of the kolkhoz. Much of the film is taken up with their friendship, with romantic antagonism and with the rivalry for Masha’s heart where their mutual affections for her threaten both their relationship and their positions within the collective. However, she is, in turn, in love with a soldier fighting in the East. She remains faithful to him and they depart. The sea returns.
As Vivaldi (2011) has suggested »the structure is symmetrical and tone is one of pure nonchalance – no question of meeting production quotas, fulfilling plans, building communism. The film ignores all the rhetoric of the time, all the mannerism of Socialist Realism; all the drama is based on small misunderstandings without any conceivable importance.« There are also some telling formal Barnet devices: the love triangle, or perhaps more accurately quartet (with the absent soldier figure) related to montage, equally visible elsewhere; the crossing of silent and sound film techniques and tones, and the extension of slapstick humour drawn from its silent antecedents, laughter and the grin and his concerns with the body, the surface, and the acts of looking and of feeling. Similarly the film holds a sense of dialogue and narrative that is improvised and gestural, and Barnet’s use of detail and the minimalism of everyday life, as well as his use of irony are all visible as a collective individuality accretes. As Yelena Kuzmina demonstrates, this meant that he ›never kept to the original scenario‹. Rather »[h]e [Barnet] would write out each shot painstakingly and stick these pieces of paper one after another to make a long scroll. Then he would unroll this on the ground and get down on his knees to search for the shot he was about to do. And in the end he would shoot something quite different, improvising on the spot. This is the reason for the ›freedom‹ in his films«. (quoted in Eisenschitz, 1994)
Particular scenes resonate: the opening (and closing) scenes of the emotional sea as humanless subject; the sacralisation of lives in the shifts from turbulence to calm and the ›saving rebirth‹ of Alyoshka and Yussuf, but more dramatically in the ›rebirth‹ of Masha after being lost at sea, washing up on to the sand in front of the two men; the bitter sweet sensuality of this love triangle (not yet a known quadrant and the desired resurrection of her lover from the East) in the eating of lemons whilst declaring attraction and desire; the suit scene where Yussuf is fitted and tickled into a new suit by the kolkhoz whilst attempting to get to declare his desire for Masha over Alyoshka, who has the advantage; the bead scene when Masha intentionally breaks her pearl necklace and the pearls fall in complete melancholic silence; and the scenes of the two men displaying their bodies and dancing shirtless in erotic acts of performative display (and »By the Bluest of Seas« might be seen as one of the sexiest of Soviet films) – these scenes are all compelling in enabling a complex narration of emotions, feelings and desires that are sacred, intense and meaningful. Life is about labour and love and about the love of life within and beyond the collective and the kolkhoz – beyond Socialist Realism. Emotion, if you like, and sexuality and desire, the body, gesture and laughter, if also hurt and bitterness are its dissenting complex subjectivities coming to presence beyond the ›collective make-believe‹ (Kaganovsky, 2008).
Nicole Brenez has suggested that Barnet’s ethology, in the context of Soviet cinema, that was totally ruled by the Administration and that nevertheless produced this outsider film, is the ›euphoria of the body‹. For her the »joy of the body exuberantly plunged into sensations: sensual editing that displays his love of motifs – the sea, the seagulls, the faces – in place of treating a story, and the empathetic literalism of the music that grabs the emotions with the image as abruptly as an impulse and submerges the sequences like an irresistible wave« define this film and Barnet’s ethology (Brenez, 2008). Brenez proposes, then, that the film’s ›long rebirth‹ delivers characters without a past, without a becoming, without a mission, without psychology – they are as they appear concretely, that is to say a sum of gestures; a poetry of gestural invention that brings the cinema back to its origins of live performance: circus, acrobatics, vaudeville, gymnastics. And it is in these repertoires of conflicting gestures: the dramatic rescue becoming burlesque (Yusuf tickled); the declaration of love in grimaces (the lemons); the joy suspended in terror (resurrection of Masha) that both draw on these performative repertoires and give them life. She says Barnet films in the mode of the ›found gesture‹ that articulates with Bulgakowa’s (2005) notion of a ›factory of gestures‹ where the language of the body – posture, manner of walking or sitting, how one holds one’s head – is a series of signifying codes that shift and change alongside social change. As importantly she asks how does the art of cinema register and construct new bodies?
Lilya Kaganovsky (2008) provides one means. She proposes that Stalinist visual culture (and Socialist Realism) propagated Soviet supermen (›new soviet man‹) of extravagant virility. Another form of masculinity (the wounded, disabled, even paralysed hero) was also present and not at odds with the former, but rather that »the two forms of masculinity exist together, together they create the ideal Stalinist man: hyperbolically strong, yet without arms or legs; committed to the cause, yet permanently chained to his bed; visionary, yet blind«. Here, in the double fantasy of Stalinist subjectivity, discipline and failure, enhancement and disfigurement, heteronormativity and heterosexual panic co-exist and co-constitute each other, as Kuntsman (2009) remarks. »By the Bluest of Seas« offers a different reading – one that both brings ›the relations between cultural fantasies, state power, the body and sexual and political subjectivity‹ (Kuntsman, 2009) into play, but which also, in the ways that the love plot fails to work, and in how his ›euphoria of the body‹ and the conflicting and originary lived ›factory of gestures‹ in the film subverts Stalinist (Socialist Realism) masculinities and exposes them as a ›dominant fiction‹ (Kaganovsky, 2008). At the same time in producing these heterosexual anxieties through body and gesture new ›euphorias of the body‹ that are simultaneously both between desire and fidelity and between heterosexual and homosocial bodies and bonds are revealed. Barnet’s film, then, brings dissenting subjectivities of affect, love, feeling and emotion and the political together as gesturally subversive.
For us then, there is a moment (or two such moments) in the film when this is most powerfully articulated. They evolve around the moments when first Aloyshka and then Yussuf discover that their official instruction and directive to provide necessary labour to the kolkhoz has been erased by the sea. In their exclamation of its disappearance the official collective of Socialist Realism is erased by the emotional sea, replaced by their desiring and desired bodies and with gesture and indeed laughter.
Brenez (2008) has articulated how Barnet reflects the registers of laughter as frank and happy, a laughter that »wakes up sympathy to others, that gives us the assurance of being able to overcome all difficulties, small and large; this laughter that makes more reasonable, that destroys spite, resentment, doubt, jealousy.« This moment, from erased word to seen gesture moves subjectivities beyond the empty pages of ›new soviet man‹, beyond the shores of Socialist Realism and into our imagined blue of Barnet’s seas of life and love.
1 The project has been based at University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the Centre for Humanities Research (CHR) and centrally Patricia Hayes and Premesh Lalu, and includes the University of Minnesota (UM) and its Interdisciplinary Centre for the Study of Global Change (ICGC) with Helena Pohlandt-McCormick and Karen Brown, the SARChI Chair in Social Change at the University of Fort Hare with Gary Minkley, and also involving Gopinath Arunima, director of the Women’s Studies Programme, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Martina Rieker, Institute for Gender and Women’s Studies in the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, American University in Cairo.
Anderson, Michael J. Film in New Haven: Boris Barnet’s »By the Bluest of Seas« (1936), from www.taitivelle.blogspot.com, accessed 7 March 2013.
Beumers, Birgit. »Soviet and Russian Blockbusters: A Question of Genre?« Slavic Review (2003): 441-454.
Brenez, Nicole. By The Bluest of Seas. Youtube video, alsolifelike.com/shooting, uploaded 19 November 2008.
Brody, David. Critics Notebook about Boris Barnet’s Outskirts, from www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies, accessed 13 March 2013.
Bulgakowa, Oksana. »The Factory of Gestures: Body Language in Film«, Potemkin Press, 2008.
Eisenschitz, Bernard. »A Fickle Man, or Portrait of Boris Bamet as a Soviet Director’. « Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema: 151-164.
Kaganovsky, Lilya. »How the Soviet man was unmade: cultural fantasy and male subjectivity under Stalin«. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.
Kaganovsky, Lilya. »how the Soviet Man was (un) Made.« Slavic Review (2004): 577-596.
Kaganovsky, Lilya. »The Factory of Gestures: Body Language in Film (review)«. Cinema Journal 51.3 (2012): 168-170.
Kuntsman, Adi. Review: Lilya Kaganovsky, »How the Soviet Man was Unmade«, in Europe-Asia Studies, 61, 8 October 2009, 1483-1511.
Lahusen, Thomas, and Evgeny Dobrenko, eds. Socialist Realism without shores. Duke University Press Books, 1997.
Vivaldi, Giuliano. “Boris Barnet The Lyric Voice in Soviet Cinema”. 2011
Widdis, Emma. “Socialist Senses.” Slavic Review 71.3 (2012): 590-618.
first published here: http://www.friedagrafe.net/film-view/78
Except for a number of details and optional characters, a more or less complete story can be told in one sentence: One day a man woke up and found that he was dead. Taken in literal-minded fashion, such a story is a staple of countless schlock horror movies, with their parade of the living dead, the mandatory blood and gore, and the predictable endings. And then there is a film like Rudolf Mate’s »D.O.A.«, a remarkable and unpredictable example of film noir.
Beginning with the title, whose meaning is not disclosed till the end, and the justly famous opening sequence where the camera in a long tracking shot follows the main character Frank Bigelow to a police station in Los Angeles (»I want to report a murder.« »Whose?« »Mine.«), the film slips and slides away from our expectations, including our expectations of film noir as a genre. To take the most striking example, the staccato dialogue just quoted: in »D.O.A.« the detective figure does not just investigate a murder; he is the one who has been murdered. The corpse is the main character. All good noir is to some extent meta-noir. Noir is neither a matter of content (violence, misogyny, cynicism) nor is it a mere formula. Rather it is a style and sensibility that develops in large part out of a sense that the relation between cause and effect, or at least our understanding of such relations, have become hopelessly obfuscated. From this point of view, noir is the exact opposite of the Sherlock Holmes type of detective story where the armature of cause and effect still holds. No matter how violent, puzzling, and formless the world of late-Victorian London seems to be, the act of detection is still possible, and the detective remains a reassuring figure of justice and moral order. By contrast, in »D.O.A.« and other examples of noir, the relation between cause and effect is not so much non-existent as suspended, or existent only sporadically. Hence while judgments, especially moral judgments, still have to be made, they cannot be made with certainty or conviction, but have an ad hoc quality to them. The same goes for affective relations, especially the erotic and intimate ones: they are always a quagmire and never a safe haven. In noir, all birds are black, including Maltese Falcons, which make it difficult to tell the genuine from the fake, the right deduction from the sidetrack. The only certainty is the dead certainty that signs can mislead in an infinite variety of ways.
»D.O.A.«, we learn in the last scene, stands for »dead on arrival«, a medical description of someone arriving at a hospital with no signs of life, and so cannot be treated. The film plays a number of variations on this motif, which is essentially a motif of circularity: the circularity of arrival and departure (death), of beginning and end, of cause and effect. It is the motif of the ouroboros, the image of a snake swallowing its tail. The frenetic action we find in the later part of the film is the spectacle of Bigelow acting like a dog chasing his own tail. After the dramatic opening scene, the film flashes back to the events leading up to it—yet another instance of circularity. The flashback begins in leisurely fashion, but this quiet part of the narrative, seemingly so banal and even kitschy at times, not only ends with Bigelow’s poisoning at the Fisherman’s Bar, but also sets out in a crucial way the terms and tonality of the rest of the film, its hidden sine qua non.
Frank Bigelow is a relatively successful accountant and public notary working in Banning, California, a small desert town whose sole distinction is that it is »on the way to Palm Springs«. His confidential secretary and girlfriend, Paula Gibson, is an efficient, reliable, and not bad-looking woman who appears entirely devoted to him. Yet Bigelow feels trapped and hammed in, and wants to get away. »Get away from this town or get away from me?« Paula asks peevishly, as Bigelow has no intention of bringing her along in spite of her insistence. The unspeakable fact, the answer that Bigelow cannot give, is—from both. What Bigelow suffers from perhaps even unbeknownst to himself is boredom: what medieval monks cooped up too long in monasteries know as acedia, »the indolence of the heart«; what Samuel Johnson in his moral fable »Rassalas« calls »a desire for desire«. The hard truth is that what Banning/Paula arouses in Bigelow is not desire but a desire for desire. Nevertheless, it is also for this reason that the Paula character displays a surprising complexity.
The importance of Paula comes out as soon as we compare her to the »good girl secretaries« that we find in other examples of noir. Unlike these secretaries who usually put in brief appearances and function as mere plot appurtenances, Paula is present throughout the film: sometimes as moral support, sometimes as source of information, and sometimes (towards the end) even as the object of Bigelow’s romantic sentiments. Her ubiquity is all the more significant in a film where there is no real femme fatale figure. It is true that in the course of the action, Bigelow encounters a number of attractive and deceptive women—the secretary Miss Foster, the wife Mrs. Philips, the model Marla Rakubian; but every one turns out to be relatively innocuous compared to say the dangerous deviousness of Brigid O’Shaughnessy in »The Maltese Falcon«. In »D.O.A.«, in place of the femme fatale who is beautiful and dangerous and plunges the detective into erotic quagmires, we find the ordinary and safe Paula, who nevertheless represents danger of a different kind: the safe haven as quagmire. Let there be no mistake on this point. Notwithstanding Bigelow’s protestations of love (most incongruously when he delivers them over the phone with the goon Chester next to him threatening his life), the story is not about Bigelow being blind to Paula’s virtues in the beginning, only to discover she is the love of his life in the end. This would indeed reduce the story to banality. Paula is not so much a character that we can approve of sentimentally, or disapprove of cynically, but the name of a problem, a problem that remains one till the end. The problem can be stated by reversing the film’s title: »arrival« is death; or less gnomically, a routine life, however comfortable, is the corpse of a life; a quagmire can look like a safe haven. Having said this, the question still remains: what happens when we try to escape from boredom and break with routine? These then are the terms set up for Bigelow’s getaway.
The apparent antidote to boredom seems to be the excitement of the big city—San Francisco, which together with Los Angeles and New York, is the habitat of so many noir films. Bigelow arrives in San Francisco on market week, determined like everyone else to have some fun. »Why does everyone come to San Francisco to tear loose?« asks a hotel bellboy. Every time Bigelow spots an attractive woman, we hear an incongruous wolf whistle on the sound track. The hotel room opposite his is full of exciting looking people who seem to be having a good time. (Ironically, they are just like him: out-of-towners out to live it up before they return to their ordinary lives.) He is invited to join them and he dances a samba with his host’s wife. The group then moves down to a jazz club, The Fisherman’s Bar, by which time Bigelow is beginning to find his new friends, initially so exciting, a little tedious. He moves from their table to the bar to chat up another attractive woman. It is at this point that he is poisoned. A stranger in overcoat and scarf whose face we do not see switches his drink. He wakes up the next morning feeling out of sorts, and ends up in a doctor’s office. The initial diagnosis is that he is in perfect health; however, the lab tests show that he has been poisoned by a toxin that has no known antidote. Shaken, Bigelow consults another doctor for a second opinion, but the verdict is the same. »You have been murdered!« the doctor tells him. The poison that he swallowed with his drink is a »luminous toxin« that glows eerily in a test-tube when the lights are switched off.
What is this luminous toxin? It is just as mysterious as the reason why anyone would want him dead. By the way it glows in the dark, it looks more like a magic elixir, an alchemical rather than a chemical substance. It is also possible to associate it with the bright lights of San Francisco, and with the city more generally: the city as both an antidote to boredom and itself a toxin that has no antidote. Yet another pairing of contraries is as follows: the poison is luminous and visible under certain conditions, but ordinarily invisible and hard to detect. Visibility and invisibility chase each other in an endless game with no clear outcome, making the task of detection so much more problematic than just finding the culprit, and more akin to trying to solve an impossible epistemological puzzle. From this perspective, »D.O.A.« is the real precursor of neo-noir films like Roman Polanski’s »Chinatown«. »You may think you know what you are dealing with, but believe me you don’t,« says the arch-villain Noah Cross to the detective J.J. Gittes or Jake. Jake is trained to follow clues, but now they all mislead. Working in a world of petty corruption—marital infidelities, embezzlements—he cannot grasp a world of real corruption. Hence the more Jake tries to help, the more harm he does. He may have seen much, but he understands little. Noir begins when voir is severed from savoir, and the invisible cannot be translated into the visible without loss. Ultimately, the »luminous toxin« may be the emblem of existence itself as the fatal coupling of desire and disappointment.
Just as Jake tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, so Bigelow tries to find out who poisoned him and why. Now begins an extremely convoluted series of events, which will take several viewings of the film to get straight. Every avenue of investigation that Bigelow embarks upon turns out to be a sidetrack: the term is used several times to indicate its importance. The more clues he uncovers and tracks down, the more the case turns cold.
• A first clue is a Mr. Philips who Paula said had urgently tried to contact Bigelow after he left town. When Paula calls again after Bigelow’s poisoning, she tells him Philips had just died. To find out if Philips’s death had any connection to his own imminent demise, Bigelow goes to Philips’s office in Los Angeles, where he meets first the secretary Miss Foster, who passes him over to the office controller Halliday. Halliday informs Bigelow that Philips’s death was a suicide. To find out more, Bigelow visits the widow Mrs. Philips. At her apartment, he meets Philips’s brother Stanley who tells him that Philips was arrested two days ago for selling a shipment of iridium to the businessman Majak that turned out to be stolen goods. Philips faced a stiff prison term. Was that the reason for his suicide?
• This first hypothesis appears dubious when Paula calls the next day to say she had found a bill of sale for a shipment of iridium that Bigelow had notarized for a George Reynolds made out to Philips. The bill of sale would clear Philips of criminal charges, so removing the likelihood that he committed suicide. However, the bill of sale is nowhere to be found and Reynolds had disappeared. To learn more, Bigelow returns to Miss Foster and twists her arm (literally) for information. She reveals that just before calling Bigelow, Philips had gone to see his mistress Marla Rakubian, and returned quite upset. At Marla’s, Bigelow finds her packed to leave town. In her suitcase, he discovers a photo that he recognizes as Reynolds, but signed with the name »Ray«. To find Reynolds’s address, Bigelow goes to the studio where the photograph was taken, only to learn that the photo is that of »Raymond Rakubian«, who was using the name »Reynolds« as an alias. When Bigelow leaves the studio with this information, someone shoots at him, but he escapes unscathed.
• At this point, some thugs led by the psychopathic Chester abduct Bigelow and bring him to Majak, the buyer of the iridium. Marla is with him. We learn that with Marla’s connivance, Raymond Rakubian under the false name George Reynolds unloaded stolen iridium on Philips and then Majak bought it back from him legitimately. As for Reynolds/Rakubian, it turns out that he is Majak’s nephew, but more importantly, that he died five months ago, so cannot have anything to do with Philips’s death. At the moment Bigelow tracks down the hottest clue, the case grows cold again. »Now you know too much,« Majak tells him, »so you must go.« Majak orders Chester to kill Bigelow, but he manages to escape. Returning to his hotel, he finds Paula waiting outside. Bigelow tells her he now knows he loves her, and asks her to wait in the hotel lobby while he takes care of unfinished business.
• Bigelow appears at Miss Foster’s apartment, believing she knows more than she is telling and accusing Stanley of being the one who had shot at him. There have been hints that Miss Foster and Stanley are more than business associates. At this point, Stanley, who had been listening to their conversation, staggers into the room looking very ill and grasping his stomach. »You have been sidetracked,« he informs Bigelow, waving at him a letter he had discovered just that afternoon in Philips’s desk proving that Halliday and Mrs. Philips had been having an affair. When Stanley confronted them with it at dinner, Halliday poisoned him. Bigelow now rushes over to Mrs. Philips’s apartment and extracts a confession from her. It was Halliday who made her steal the bill of sale. Philips had discovered the letter only the day before, and when he confronted the pair, Halliday pushed him over the balcony and made it look like suicide, with the motive being his legal problems. That was why getting rid of evidence that there had ever been a bill of sale was so crucial. Bigelow was poisoned because Halliday was afraid he knew too much. Bigelow is determined to seek out Halliday and finds him emerging from his office dressed in the overcoat and scarf of the unknown man at the Fisherman’s Bar. A gunfight ensues and Bigelow shoots Halliday.
Bigelow’s flashback ends with the disclosure of a culprit, but the film itself does not close on this dis-closure. This resolution on the level of plot, this formal tying up of loose ends, may be the ultimate sidetrack insofar as it takes us away from the issues of circularity and reflexivity so central to the film. To address these, we have to return to the parentheses that bracket the flashback: the opening and closing scenes in the police office; as well as to the way the film is able to present provocative images—of time, of knowledge, of desire—in the idiom of the »B-movie« where we would least expect to find them. These parentheses and images are what make »D.O.A.« more than, and other than, a complicated »whodunit«.
Take the use of the flashback and its relation to time. In all flashbacks in cinema, everything that we see as unfolding in the present is already past. However the flashback can be used less to allow an experience of time, and more as a device to reshuffle chronology. This type of flashback ends with past and present clearly resituated as distinct moments in a linear chronology that re-establishes order. By contrast, in »D.O.A.« what we experience in the flashback is time rather than chronology and order. Time is experienced when a live character is already dead, when every present is always already past, when slowness (the first part of Bigelow’s flashback) is not the opposite but the double of frenetic movement (the second part). It is when time is not reducible to chronological order, it is when we no longer understand time, that we experience it as such.
Something analogous can be said too about the image of knowledge. In the last scene (so much more than just a formal coda) our attention is directed retrospectively to the events just unfolded. Bigelow’s final speech has the ironic form of a quasi-syllogism: 1/All I did was notarize a bill of sale; 2/But that piece of paper would have proven that Philips did not commit suicide…he was murdered; 3/That’s why Halliday poisoned me. The image of knowledge that emerges from the irony, here and everywhere else in the film, is not one of knowledge simply as what we know, but as the gap between what we know and what we think we know. In »Chinatown«, Jake knows less than what he thinks he knows, as Noah Cross informs him. In »D.O.A.« which in this respect is much closer to Alfred Hitchcock’s »The Man Who Knew Too Much«, we find someone who knows more than what he thinks he knows. This is knowledge in the Lacanian sense of »in you more than you know.« We are all carriers of secrets without knowing it; secrets that like a virus may turn out to be destructive and self-destructive.
As for desire, we find its image nowhere more clearly presented than in the final inchoate words that Bigelow utters, so reminiscent of Jake’s incomprehensible words at the end of »Chinatown«: »Would you…Paul…Paul…« We should not fill in the blanks too hastily and say that Bigelow’s last word is the name of the woman he loves. After all, it is not a name that he utters (»Paula«) but a fragment of a name (»Paul…«). What seems more to the point is to say that what the inchoate words conjure up is something like the inchoateness of desire, which can result in a violent »crime of passion« (Philips/Mrs. Philips/Halliday), or its opposite, what we might call a crime of non-passion (Bigelow/Paula/Banning). It could be argued that Bigelow would be murdered anyway, even if he did not get away to San Francisco—but that would be a film that knows nothing of vicious affective circles like »a desire for desire« and has no need for emblems like the luminous toxin. What that emblem suggests is that in an important sense, Bigelow is not killed by someone, or by a chemical substance, or even by the city. He is »dead on arrival«, killed perhaps like all of us by a toxin with no antidote: life.
first published here: http://www.friedagrafe.net/film-view/83
May 22, 2012
keep reading this article here: http://drnorth.wordpress.com/2008/11/23/why-dont-you-send-us-a-photo-chantal-akermans-news-from-home/
May 21, 2012
Director of Programming, Austin Film Society
Wilder’s 21st film, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, was a project he had dreamed of starting for a long time. After the Peter Sellers fiasco when beginning KISS ME, STUPID, Wilder gave up on his dream duo of Peter O’Toole and Sellers as Holmes and Dr. Watson and went on to other projects. By 1968 he was finally ready to make a more honest portrayal of Doyle’s detective by including references to his use of cocaine and suggestions of his sexual orientation. He chose two members of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company to play Holmes and Watson: Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely. This production was designed to be released as a special engagement “road show” – a long, elaborate film with an intermission and only two screenings a day, like other “big” movies of the 1960s. It was budgeted at $10m, the largest of Wilder’s career. Elaborate sets were erected at Pinewood Studios in London: a large segment of Baker Street, an ocean liner, and a working submarine with a Loch Ness monster turret/periscope. Filming began in May 1969 and continued through the summer, 12 hours a day, every day. Wilder was a stickler for detail and timing. By October the strain was becoming too much on Robert Stephens, who accidentally-on-purpose took a large quantity of sleeping pills washed down by glasses of whisky. He survived, but there was a two-week shutdown of the production. Wilder was contrite and told his Sherlock that they would slow the pacing down, but once Stephens returned to the set, it was just as frenetic and precise as ever. Shooting finished on December 13, 1969 after seven months of intense filming.
Wilder’s version of the completed film was 3 hours and 20 minutes long. Preview audiences found it dull and the Mirisch brothers (producers) and United Artists (distributors) panicked. They decided not to do the road show or the special roll out and simply distribute it as a regular film of a “normal” length. The chopped up version came in at 2 hours 5 minutes, with 1 hour and 15 minutes cut out. Conceived as a four-movement “symphony,” THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES was severely re-edited, loosing one story altogether and seriously truncating others. It opened in the fall of 1970 and made only $1.5m before disappearing. Wilder had suffered another major disappointment.
So, it was rather foolhardy to take on a failed Broadway play as his next film project. Samuel Taylor’s AVANTI! had run only 21 performances on Broadway in 1968. Even before it opened, Charles K. Feldman (producer of Wilder’s THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH) had bought the rights, specifically with Billy Wilder in mind. But Wilder was focused on his Sherlock Holmes film and put AVANTI! aside until 1970.
By then, IAL Diamond was busy with some other project, so Wilder began work on the script with Julius Epstein, followed by Norman Krasna, and concluding with Luciano Vincenzoni, who had collaborated with Sergio Leone on THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1967). With his new co-writer ready to work in 1971, Wilder shifted the story from a rich, young American falling in love in Italy to an Italian-American trying to “recapture his father’s romantic past.” However, when IAL Diamond became available, Wilder turned to his trusted co-writer to work out yet a different plot. Once Jack Lemmon had expressed interest in the film, the character of the rude antagonistic protagonist became a man in his 40s, the highly successful son of a highly successful father, director of the family businesses, and friend of the rich and powerful. Wendell Armbruster Jr would be going to Italy strictly on business: to pick up his father’s corpse after a car accident and return him to a large corporate funeral to be eulogized by Billy Graham. Armbruster Jr. was not to be a likable man, but an up-tight, finger-snapping Ugly American for whom “foreigners” in their own land can’t do things “right” (i.e., the American way) or fast enough to suit him. The opening pages of the screenplay describe Wendell Armbruster Jr: “He went to Cornell, he’s a young Republican, he occasionally plays a game of squash with S. Agnew [disgraced VP under Nixon]. To him, W. Cronkite is a Maoist and R. Nader is a pain in the ass.” Jack Lemmon, often likable in his roles, seemed to enjoy playing opposite his usual type.
Wilder had only one actress in mind for the role of Pamela Piggott, Juliet Mills, whom he had first seen in the play Five Finger Exercise in London when she was only 16. She was the daughter of veteran actor John Mills and sister of Hayley Mills (THE PARENT TRAP). By the time Wilder was ready to make AVANTI!, Mills was living in Los Angeles and was available after the cancellation of her TV sitcom Nanny and the Professor. Wilder felt no need to audition her; he simply asked her to add 25-35 pounds to her petite frame. She did so by eating three huge, starchy, fatty meals a day and drinking lots of Guinness stout with her father. To keep her weight up during filming, Wilder had ice cream brought in at 4pm for a snack, a big snack. He couldn’t afford to have her returning to her original, petite size while the cameras were rolling.
For the role of the solicitous hotel manager, Wilder considered a number of Italian actors bur finally settled on British actor Clive Revill, who had so adroitly played the Russian impresario in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Screenwriter Vincenzoni returned to the fold to help with the Italian dialogue and customs. For director of photographer, Wilder chose Luigi Kuveiller, a respected Italian cinematographer who had shot A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY, which impressed Wilder and captured the kind of light that he desired in AVANTI!
Ischia, Italy would be the main location with smaller scenes shot in Amalfi, Naples, and Portofino. Interior shots were done in a studio in Rome, where the hotel corridors and rooms were constructed. For this film Billy Wilder abandoned his beloved Panavision wide-screen and returned to the increasingly standard screen ratio of 1.85:1 (almost twice as wide as tall), the same format he had used in SOME LIKE IT HOT.
Interestingly, Wilder had the sets designed to accommodate the dialogue: how long would it take to move from one point to another while delivering the lines? For that he worked closely with the production designer, Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who was intrigued to be working with a director who found a way to complement set design and dialogue.
In this tale of a son discovering his father’s secret life, there was a bit of Wilder’s own life. Billy was 66 years old and Armbruster Sr. died at the age of 67. Wilder had certainly had his fair share of affairs and liaisons, as well as marriages. He just didn’t keep very much secret, unlike Armbruster Sr. He doubtlessly saw some of himself also in Armbruster Jr – always busy and full of nervous energy. But it was that energy that allowed him to make movies, not run a corporation, which he would have hated. And Wilder embraced all the joys of life, unlike Armbruster Jr. who seems to be trapped by his frenetic success. And finally Wilder had buried his father in Berlin around 1930. His father was visiting the city and ended up being buried in a country not his own. Wilder was so busy with his own life that he probably came to feel that he hadn’t really gotten to know his father at all, much like the father-son in AVANTI!
Just because there were a few topical references in AVANTI!, critics in 1972 decided that Wilder’s latest film was a political film and therefore a flop since it didn’t go far enough in castigating America for being in Vietnam. There is certainly a time and place for political analysis of movies, but AVANTI! should not have been criticized for not doing well for what it wasn’t even trying to do in the first place. Wilder saw the film as about love: a son’s new-found respect and love for his dead father, love between an American businessman (Sr) and a British manicurist, who died together, new love between a middle-aged man (Jr) and a younger woman, and love of Italy and its beautiful settings. Unfortunately, this ultimately sweet romance failed at the box office and lost $700,000.
Billy was heartbroken once more, just as he had been by the merciless editing of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, but with AVANTI it wasn’t a studio cutting his film to bits. It was critics not understanding what he was saying with the film. In a way, the censors had been far easier to deal with and get around. Wilder realized that the film world was no longer the one he had come into in 1934. What he had considered as one of his better films began to seem “too soft and too tame” for the times and the new breed of directors taking over Hollywood and American screens.
Still, he went on and made a remake of THE FRONT PAGE (another pairing of Lemmon and Matthau, 1974), FEDORA (a disastrous return to aging actresses hiding from the world, 1978) and BUDDY BUDDY (final pairing of Wilder-Lemmon-Matthau, 1981). That would also be Wilder’s last film even though he would live another two decades.
In 1988 longtime co-writer I.A.L. Diamond died, but Billy kept thinking of new script ideas and continued writing on his own. He never lost hope that he might return to the soundstages again. He revealed that he thought of himself as middle-aged until he reached the age of 90; when he mentally multiplied 90 by 2, he knew he was no longer in the middle of life. In 1989 he auctioned the bulk of his famous art collection through Christie’s and made $32.6m, more than he had earned from all his films.
Letting Billy Wilder have the last word, I’ll close with quotations that he felt described his life and viewpoint:
“People say I am cynical. I am not. I deal with the rat race and the human condition, the people who aren’t rats who are caught up in it.”
“I am a writer. I only became a director so they wouldn’t get my script wrong.”
“I’m the lion tamer who has lasted and not been eaten by the lions.”
Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard, the Life and Times of Billy Wilder (Hyperion, 1998)
Kevin Lally, Wilder Times, the Life of Billy Wilder (Henry Holt and Co., 1996)
Charlotte Chandler, Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, a Personal Biography (Applause Theatre and Cinema books, 2002)
first published here: http://www.austinfilm.org/Page.aspx?pid=1155
May 20, 2012
michael j. anderson on Michael Snow & the 1970s Aesthetic of Excess: La Région centrale (1971)
If 1970s film aesthetics was defined by a single common feature, it was the principle of excess. In Hollywood, this quality of excess manifested itself in the further roll-back and transgression of Hays-era prohibitions, leading not only to the so-called Hollywood Renaissance of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but also to the well documented explosion of exploitation cinema. In Japan, the X-rated pink movies of the era bested Hollywood’s comparatively mild attempts to create a morally retrograde cinema. India witnessed the emergence of a relatively artless blockbuster cinema to compete with similar developments in Hollywood excesses in their own right – while Europe seem to discount the concept of popular cinema altogether. Indeed, in that latter context, the art film experienced its least commercial instantiation with running times often exceeding the 180-minute mark: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) comes in at a lean 165-minutes when compared with Céline and Julie Go Boating’s (1974) 190 minutes, Jeanne Dielman’s (1976) 201 minute-length, The Mother and the Whore’s (1973) 210 minutes, the four hours of Theo Angelopoulos’s Travelling Players (1975) and Manoel de Oliveira’s Doomed Love (1979), and of course, most spectacularly of all, Jacques Rivette’s 773 minute Out One (1971) and its 4-hour abridgement, Out One: Spectre (1972).
Along with Stan Brakhage’s Scenes from Under Childhood (1967-1970), Michael Snow’s 180-minute La Région centrale (1971) extends this principle of excess to the avant-garde. Of course, it is not simply for the film’s punishing duration, but more importantly for the scope of its ambitions – another era hallmark – that La Région centrale rates as one of the defining examples of 1970s film art. Like the cinema of Rivette, Snow’s concerns itself foremost with allegorizing his medium’s basic ontology. Before expanding on the particulars of this process, however, a brief description of the film’s singular technique might be helpful. From IMDb:
[La Région centrale was] entirely shot using a robotized camera set on the top of a mountain in the Canadian wilderness – in winter. The camera was mounted on a mechanical arm that could move in any direction (even upside down). Using instructions recorded on magnetic tape, the filmakers could control the arm’s movement, creating short “routines” that had do be checked and programmed daily. During the entire movie the only sound heard are mechanical blips and electronic noises synchronized with the camera movement…
From the start, we see a series of fluid, spiraling camera movements punctuated by jerky in-camera reframings. The shadow of the aforementioned apparatus is visible on the frozen ground. Shortly, the view shifts from a Smithsonesque (“Spiral Jetty”) pebble field to the horizon of this Northern Québec locale. As the film continues to unspool, the pre-programmed ‘routines’ slowly omit more and more of the icy, light blue sky until we are faced with this barring-less color field. At this juncture, the camera movement of the prior passages has become virtually invisible, though it is equally clear that the same strategy continues (which the return of the horizon will soon confirm). In the meantime, Snow’s image has collapsed into virtual abstraction, rendering the texture of the grainy 16mm stock increasingly visible.
So too are we made aware of the camera’s lens in the extensive flaring that characterizes this and a number of the film’s subsequent ‘routines.’ In these, moreover, the glass surface becomes progressively dirtier, thus giving us a sense of a world delimited by the lens’s impermeable boundary; the camera at this moment is more than the lens – it is a behind the glass as well.
The physical properties of the camera, however, are made clearest still in a series of jagged, diagonal vectors that imitate a bouncing when the camera quickly shifts directions after reaching the ground line. In these moments, the camera’s physical volume, its embodied quality in essence, is made manifest: the camera can only move through negative space; its lower limit is the same as the human body – even as it seems to travel freely through the heavens.
Speaking of the camera’s export to the upper reaches of the visible, Snow begins by offering us progressively larger glimpses of the Québec skies again before thrusting into the deep blue. Thereafter, Snow offers us segments of each splitting the screen, first horizontally and then vertically. With the latter configuration in particular, especially once the camera movement is sped up to the point of abstraction, Snow imports a sense of his mise-en-scène as film stock, passing through the projector in a succession of moments too quick to glimpse on the atomic level of the individual frame. In a similar passage rapidly skimming the surface of a mountain lake, La Région centrale mimes an image stream, run too quickly to be examined, but theoretically subject to a slowing that could again make the image readable once more. What we have is projection in short.
Snow’s work, in sum, highlights both the element nature of the medium – its division into discrete frames unspooled too quickly to be seen – and again the process of projection itself, with landscapes running horizontally and vertically before our eyes, at an ever-changing pace. In this respect, La Région centrale bares more than a passing resemblance to the work of Brakhage, from Anticipation of the Night (1958) onwards. This particular film is echoed in the film’s brief night-time segment with the moon swinging quickly across the upper right corner of the frame. In fact, as we see this single, luminous object crossing the screen, its projection like a flashlight broaching an otherwise pitch black theatre, we are made aware of its trail scorched onto our retinas in its absence. Metonymically, we are reminded of the film’s winter landscape, out-of-view, but still present in our collective remembrances. No less than Brakhage, La Région centrale is about the act of seeing.
As the film reaches its conclusion, Snow’s abstraction becomes even more pronounced with a thin band of land briskly moving in and out of our view. On this occasion, a second of the director’s work, Mothlight (1963), serves as a reference. However, in those moments of purest absence, the films of Paul Shartis emerge as the closer point of comparison, as for instance the filmmaker’s N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968), which seems to counter Wavelength’s arguments for an ontology of cinema emphasizing space with one that highlights the fundamental work of light in the medium. (I was fortunate enough to see both films on a Madrid double bill eight years ago – one of the finest avant-garde double features I suspect I will ever see.) In this regard, La Région centrale positions itself as summa for the North American avant-garde of the previous two decades, while reframing this tradition within the newly emergent aesthetic of excess that would characterize the rest of the decade.
In the end, La Région centrale is the spiritual twin of Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) and that film’s allegorization of the filmmaking process. Then again, if there is greater emphasis on the act of creation, of invention in Rivette’s subsequent opus, Snow’s film emphasizes the projected image and therefore the experience of film viewing itself. (So they are fraternal twins, I guess.) In other words, Rivette seems more concerned with the making and Snow with the seeing. Of course, this is not to limit Snow’s ambitions: La Région centrale further makes us aware of our place on this planet, the workings of gravity and its stipulated absence, and finally this planet’s revolving trajectory through the heavens. Snow’s masterpiece is not only reflexive, it’s cosmological. There is, in other words, an excess of ambition here.
michael j. anderson
this review first published here: http://tativille.blogspot.com/2008/04/michael-snow-1970s-aesthetic-of-excess.html
May 19, 2012
May 18, 2012
this review first published here: http://notcoming.com/reviews/womanisawoman/
May 16, 2012
more great roger corman posters are here: http://sonofcelluloid.blogspot.com/2010/08/roger-corman-poster-gallery.html
keep reading this review here: http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=26611
May 15, 2012
first published here: http://sensesofcinema.com/2007/cteq/bellboy/
this review first published here: http://www.japannavigator.com/2011/09/japanese-film-akibiyori-1960-by-ozu.html
May 14, 2012
Screen: Danish Drama; Carl Dreyer’s ‘Ordet’ Is a Visual Sermon
Published: December 16, 1957
TWO unyielding forces permeate Carl Dreyer’s “Ordet”—the revered old Danish film-maker himself, and his beloved, omnipotent God of Elijah. And since each demands the same thing — total submission — every paying customer at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse must eventually gauge “Ordet” for himself. For in his latest screen drama the painstaking scenarist-director has remolded, as only he could, or would, a “miracle” play, originally penned by the late Rev. Kaj Munk in 1932.
This Kingsley International release, which opened Saturday, is an experience, not a show, and certainly no entertainment—a visual sermon of scalding, spiritual intensity. It uncoils, when it moves at all, like a majestic snail. Dreyer novices are warned.
The time, apparently, is some twenty-five years ago. At the fade-in, a family of marshland farmers worriedly trails an idiot son, who calls himself Christ. It closes, like the thickest of Bibles, as the demented theological student approaches the open coffin of his sister-in-law and, at the simple urging of her child, calls her back to life. These simple-living people are stern practicing Christians, frankly puzzled by varying doubts and at ideological odds with an even sterner clan down the road.
Mr. Dreyer’s primary concern is the first patriarch, magnificently played by Henrik Malberg. The old realist simply can’t accept the idea of modern miracles, not with one vigorously indifferent son, Emil Hass Christensen, and the other, his “cross,” a scriptural-tongued lunatic. In this role, as the catalyst who miraculously solidifies the family, Preben Lerdorff Rye (from “Day of Wrath”) glides in and out eerily, moaning in concert with a relentless wind howling outdoors.
Confronted with such a plot, most film producers would take to the hills. Mr. Dreyer, instead, reportedly took a quarter-century for thought, and it shows.
Framing a superlative cast in the simplest of settings, he has evoked a rigid but powerful blend of speeches and faces—the Dreyer trademark. Photographically, the canvas suggests a stained-glass window, with graying daylight, more often lamp glow, washing over a few cottage interiors. Very rarely, a wagon lumbers across the grassy horizon outside.
Both emotionally and intellectually the picture is hypnotic, and some portions will nail the spectator to his seat. One sequence of a sheeted woman, Birgitte Federspiel, dying in childbirth, as up-stairs her unhinged brother and little daughter equably discuss the hereafter, is even more harrowing than the witch-burning in “Day of Wrath.” In perhaps the most indicative scene of all — Mr. Rye’s spiritual babbling about a car’s sweeping headlights—the car remains out of sight.
Both the dedicated old man who created it and this extraordinary film are best appraised in two lines of the competently subtitled dialogue. “It takes him a little too long to make the Amen,” notes Mr. Malberg (of the village pastor). Then, “I prayed with all my heart; you see the result.”
ORDET, written and directed by Carl Dreyer, based on a play by Kaj Munk; produced by Palladium Film, Copenhagen; released here by Kingsley International pictures. At the Fifth Avenue Playhouse.
Morten Borgen . . . . . Henrik Malberg
Mikkel . . . . . Emil Hass Christensen
Johannes . . . . . Preben Lerdorff Rye
Inger . . . . . Birgitte Federspiel
Peter, the tailor . . . . . Ejner Federspiel
Anders . . . . . Cay Kristiansen
Kirstine . . . . . Sylvia Eckhausen
Anne . . . . . Gerda Nielsen
Doctor . . . . . Henry Skjaer
Clergyman . . . . . Ove Rud
Maren . . . . . Ann Elisabeth Hansen
this review first published here: http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9806E1DA1E3EE23BBC4E52DFB467838C649EDE
Voyage to Italy (1953)
reviewed By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Cahiers du Cinema called Robert Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia, “the first modern film.” It’s hard to dispute that. Watching Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders playing a struggling married couple traveling abroad, we get the sense that movies were no longer fooling around and had finally gotten down to business.
This great masterpiece was the third of five feature films that Rossellini and Bergman made together (plus one short, a segment in the omnibus film Siamo donne). The others are Stromboli (1950), Europa ’51 (1952), Joan of Arc at the Stake (1954), and La Paura (1954). The legend has it that Bergman wrote to Rossellini after having seen some of his early films, and offered her services as an actress. Though they were already married to other people, they fell in love and caused an international scandal. They were married for seven years and had three children, including Isabella Rossellini.
Their body of work together is considered one of the pinnacles of cinema, with Viaggio in Italia at the forefront. The movie was a failure upon its release, and as best as I can tell, it was re-issued at different lengths, with different titles, including Journey to Italy and Voyage to Italy. Now, however, even though the general consensus has shifted, no effort has been made to restore and release the proper version on DVD in the United States, not to mention the other Rossellini/Bergman titles. Hopefully this oversight will be corrected soon.
Bergman stars as Katherine Joyce. An uncle has died and she and her husband have traveled to Naples, Italy to see their inheritance, a huge villa, and hopefully sell it. Sanders, who was probably best known for his Oscar winning role in All About Eve (1950), stars as the husband, Alex. The movie opens with Alex sleeping in the passenger seat of their car, with Katherine (Bergman) driving. This silence continues after he wakes; they can’t seem to talk truthfully. They complain and comment to one another, but neither one seems to really know how to approach the other. When Katherine tells a story about an old flame, a poet, Alex dismisses the episode as “foolish.”
Waiting around for some buyers to decide, Alex visits Capri, leaving Katherine at the villa. He tries to pick up a girl there, fails, and considers sleeping with a prostitute. Katherine, meanwhile, sees all the sights; the ancient sculptures and other attractions seem to lend a huge sense of perspective to her troubles, but leave her feeling sadder than before. The couple begins to talk about divorce.
The movie ends in a moving, triumphant moment, but perhaps the most poetic moment comes a bit earlier, when Alex and Katherine visit a site in Pompeii that has been newly excavated. They watch as two ancient bodies, locked in an embrace, are uncovered. The scene has a profound effect on Katherine, and then on Alex as well.
Viaggio in Italia does have a realistic look, and the scenes of awkward non-communication between the two actors take center stage. But Rossellini’s skill is apparent in the so-called throwaway scenes, the sights, the locals, and the way they enter and leave the frame. Like this year’s The Tree of Life, Rossellini manages to throw in centuries of history for perspective. By comparison, the problems of these two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans.
this review first published here: http://www.combustiblecelluloid.com/classic/viaggio_in_italia.shtml
May 13, 2012
April 24, 2012
April 23, 2012
keep reading this review here: http://eightandahalfcinema.blogspot.com/2007/03/mgm-musicals-02-summer-stock.html
April 22, 2012
this review by dennis grunes was first published here: http://grunes.wordpress.com/2009/11/03/rio-grande-john-ford-1950/
April 20, 2012
Felicitous Rooms: Fritz Lang’s House by the River
David Cairns October 20, 2005 Cinémathèque Annotations on Film, Issue 37
House by the River
House by the River (1950 USA 88 mins)
Source: NFVLS Prod Co: Fidelity Pictures Corporation/Republic Prod: Howard Welsch Dir: Fritz Lang Scr: Mel Dinelli, from the novel by A. P. Herbert Phot: Edward Cronjager Ed: Arthur D. Hilton Art Dir: Boris Leven Mus: George Antheil
Cast: Louis Hayward, Jane Wyatt, Lee Bowman, Dorothy Patrick, Ann Shoemaker, Jody Gilbert, Sarah Paddenn
Why does the crime of murder have such a potent clutch on the imagination of all human beings? I freely admit that I don’t quite know, this after years of studying murder from the viewpoint of the dramatist. The fascination of murder and violence for the human psychology is probably inherent. […] Gradually, and at times reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that every human mind harbors a latent compulsion to murder. (1)
In fact, Fritz Lang (1890-1976) was more than a student of murder – he was interrogated by German police in 1920 under suspicion of having actually murdered his first wife. The death was eventually – and not too convincingly – labelled suicide, but murder, suspicion and legal persecution haunt the director’s subsequent work, and are duly present in House by the River.
Lang, who trained as an architect, made many films with architectural features in the titles: The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Secret Beyond the Door (1948), are and the fascinating B-movie rarity House by The River.
In 1950 Lang was coming off a flop, the aforementioned Secret Beyond the Door. This gothic romance/psychodrama about a deranged architect who may have murdered his wife, and who collects “felicitous rooms” where famous murders have been committed, on the theory that certain spaces preordain the events that unfold in them, was a project close to his heart and for which he had helped develop the script.
As a result of this failure, and perhaps due to his troubled relationships with movie producers, Lang’s stock in Hollywood had now fallen somewhat, though it would later rise again and allow him to make several A-list noirs.
But now he faced a choice between handling subjects less suited to his temperament (like the Technicolor war-yawn An American Guerrilla in the Philippines, which he shot later in 1950) or making his own kind of film – the dark psychological thriller – on greatly reduced budgets. House by the River represents an instance of this latter option.
House by the River is a gothic melodrama, and it marshals its limited resources to create a rich and pervasive atmosphere of decay and corruption, even though the threadbare production values often show. It’s also the Lang film with the strongest camp appeal. Though the director never attempted a comedy, and his work is not generally noted for its humour, here there is an unusual vein of absurdity which infuses the plotting, the performances, the cheap sets, and Lang’s immaculate but overheated mise en scène. It has some of the low-rent madness of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) – it’s Lang’s most Ulmeresque film. Both films feature accidental but felicitous strangulations of inconvenient women, and Lang’s star, Louis Hayward, starred in several of Ulmer’s films. Like Ulmer’s best work, The House by the River comes from poverty and it goes insane almost immediately.
Hayward, exuding fey neurosis, plays an unsuccessful mystery writer who finds himself – as Lang heroes rather tend to do – embroiled in a nightmare of concealed homicide. Attempting to seduce the housemaid, he inadvertently throttles her, and must spend much of the rest of the film vainly trying to dispose of her body and explain her absence, with the unwilling cooperation of his better-natured brother (Lee Bowman). Hayward then, somewhat perversely, appropriates his own homicide as material for a best-selling book, and the possibility of financial profit accruing from the crime is too much for his accomplice’s conscience. And all the while the ceaseless movement of the flooded river threatens to deliver the slaughtered servant back to her killer…
Amid tatty sets (actors practically scuttle sideways to avoid brushing the backdrops and rumpling the sky), Lang presides over a highly stylised, near-expressionistic drama of human corruption and implacable fate. At turns bizarre, hysterical and compelling, House by the River embodies all of its director’s idiosyncrasies, and takes some of his obsessions to ludicrous extremes.
Lang’s lead, Hayward, is a fine, sensitive actor, a South African who had been traumatised by his service in the Second World War. Hayward’s career boasts three macabre masterpieces. In James Whale’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), he plays identical twins, and differentiated his performances by playing them an octave apart. “You’ll never sustain it”, protested Whale, but Hayward, a trained singer, proved him wrong (2). In René Clair’s rarely screened and under-appreciated comic whodunit And Then there were None (1945), he’s a perfect light leading man, whose glib charm remains unsullied by the audience’s belief that he’s recently slaughtered an entire African tribe. He’s that kind of actor.
Here, under the eye of another master of the macabre, a wayward Hayward twitches and overplays like Vincent Price on speed, but the terror you see in his face is real: he was petrified of Lang, who persecuted his entire cast without compunction, creating a poisonous atmosphere on set which seems to seep into the celluloid of the film itself. Lang may have intended this exact effect, though it’s hard not to suspect that his behaviour would have been just the same if he had been directing Herbie: Fully Loaded (Angela Robinson, 2005).
Despite the low budget and quickie schedule, House by the River is often visually arresting, displaying Lang’s genius for composition and cutting. As his biographer Patrick McGilligan writes:
Light splashes off surfaces, moonlight spills through frosted windows, the wind riffles the trees and curtains. Everything in the film is dark and shiny and foreboding. Scene after scene shows the director at the height of his ingenuity – working out of the depths of his own despair. Lang’s direction was never so lush or smothering. (3)
The resulting film is flawed, but its flaws are Lang’s own, and fascinate just as much as the more successful sequences. House by the River may not be one of the very best of Lang’s American films, but it is perhaps the most characteristic, showing all his obsessive themes and stylistic mannerisms at their most florid and intense. The film is seldom screened, and any chance to see it should not be missed.
Fritz Lang, “Director Tells of Bloodletting and Violence”, Los Angeles Herald Express 8 December 1947, quoted in Fritz Lang: His Life and Work. Photographs and Documents, ed. Rolf Aurich, Wolfgang Jacobson and Cornelius Schnauber, in collaboration with Nicole Brunnhuber and Gabriele Jatho, Filmmuseum Berlin – Deutsche Kinemathek and jovis Verlag GmbH, Berlin, 2001, pp. 391-392.
James Curtis, James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters, Faber and Faber, London, 1998, p. 333.
Patrick McGilligan, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, Faber and Faber, London, 1997, p. 369.
this article first published here: http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/cteq/house_by_the_river/
April 18, 2012
Bitter Rice (Riso amaro 1949)
Giuseppe De Santis’s 1949 film Bitter Rice (Riso Amaro) is powerful, exciting stuff. It’s a bewildering, multi-layered, and voyeuristic experience that borrows from so many different film styles, particularly American film noir, that it defies categorization. While it’s usually easy to red-flag films with multiple writers, this is a rare example where too many cooks did not spoil the broth: Bitter Rice credits a whopping eight different writers, and while this may account for the film’s slight case of schizophrenia, it nevertheless netted an Academy Award nomination for Best Story — and with or without accolades it’s still one hell of a movie. It also features a gloriously charismatic new actress who electrifies the film. There’s so much, on so many different levels, in Bitter Rice worth talking about that description becomes frustrating merely for the lack of a good starting place! One certainty is that this is a movie better seen than read about; so if it weren’t nearly impossible to find a copy I’d happily advise all to stop reading and just go watch.
On a water-cooler level Bitter Rice could be described as a romantic crime piece with undercurrents of Greek fatalism, and that if it has a flaw it’s an admirably pedestrian one: it tries too hard. Instead of the typical boy / girl story we get two of each, comprising a complex romantic quadrangle. Introductions are in order: Walter (Vittorio Gassman) is a thug and petty thief — as greasy as he is good-looking. His squeeze and sometimes-accomplice is Francesca (American actress Doris Dowling), a pretty but bitter thing who could be Ann Savage’s sister. Italian stud Raf Vallone is Marco, a cynical veteran about to drum out of the army after a decade’s service. Finally, there’s Silvana — Bitter Rice’s ball of fire. In the late forties former beauty queen Silvana Mangano made the easy transition to film; this is the picture that made her a minor international sensation. Walter Winchell offered the understatement of the decade when he said, “Silvana Mangano is sexier than both Mae West and Jane Russell.” Winchell didn’t go very far out on a limb but his point is well taken; even with her unshaven arms (leading countless critics to describe her as “earthy”), Mangano has a positively spectacular screen presence: it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes off her — she owns the film. Mangano keeps her real first name intact here: the Silvana of the movie is an “earthy” peasant girl, one fully aware of her own sexuality and the powerful affect she has on men and women alike.
keep reading this review here: http://www.noiroftheweek.com/2011/01/bitter-rice-riso-amaro-1949.html
April 17, 2012
by Alan Rode
“I don’t think you fully understand, Bigelow. You’ve been murdered.”
The portrayal of an innocent John Q. Public suffering punitive consequences due to a seemingly minor transgression is an essential film noir theme of the 1940’s and early 1950’s. This compelling formula was used effectively in numerous films including Phantom Lady, Detour, Quicksand, Side Street and Desperate. All of these noir vehicles are based on the proposition that the slightest misstep by an Honest John (or Jane) can turn a pleasant existence into a one way trip to Miseryville.
This noir motif reached its zenith in D.O.A. (United Artists, 1949). D.O.A. takes the victim of circumstances theme to its darkest apogee. An entirely innocent man has his life turned upside down and horribly ended due to the most inconsequential of acts.
The film opens with the camera trailing the back of Frank Bigelow (Edmund O’Brien) as he walks into the L.A. Homicide bureau accompanied by the somber Dimitri Tiomkin score. Bigelow eases himself into a chair by the Homicide captain?s desk and proceeds to report a murder- his own. A literal whirlpool appears on screen to denote a flashback while Bigelow starts relating the final twenty-four hours of his torturous existence to a room of transfixed homicide dicks.
Frank Bigelow is a CPA from the backwater desert town of Banning, California. He is in love with his girl Friday, Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton) who is pressing him for a serious commitment, but Frank has the restlessness of a sailor who hasn’t hit a good liberty port. At length, he decides a solo vacation to San Francisco is the ticket. Bigelow tells Paula that his objective is relaxation, but after checking in at the Hotel St. Francis, he immediately hooks up with a group of hard-drinking traveling salesmen. Frank concludes the evening making an unsuccessful play for a milieu-obsessed blonde in an Embarcadero juke joint. Seated with his back towards the bar, a mysterious stranger wearing a scarf is shown switching the glass containing Bigelow’s drink.
Bigelow awakes the next morning at the St. Francis, hung-over with a bellyache to boot. After declining a hair-of-the-dog remedy from room service, he jumps on a cable car and, still feeling queasy, enters a doctor’s office. The avuncular doc initially assures him everything is okay then does a double take when the lab reports are checked. Frank Bigelow has absorbed a luminous poison that has no antidote and is 100% fatal within the week. After being advised of his diminished life expectancy, Bigelow panics and runs out of the doctor’s office. He bursts into a hospital emergency room and implores the doctor on duty for a second opinion. The doctor confirms the original diagnosis, (an era before HMOs) brandishing a glow-in-the-dark test tube containing a poison sample from Frank’s innards. When the doctor theorizes that the poison was mixed with the prodigious amount of booze Frank consumed the night before, Bigelow rants that he is clueless about why he was poisoned. It’s now the doctor’s turn to get panicky as he phones the Homicide Squad. When the shaken Frank inquires about the phone call, the doctor replies, “I don’t think you fully understand, Bigelow, you’ve been murdered!”
Bigelow flees the emergency room, running off-tackle through crowds of San Franciscans until he runs out of gas in front of a newsstand. He reflects on the finality of his dilemma, then determines to find out why he was murdered and by whom. Paula phones him at his hotel room and casually relates that a Mr. Eugene Phillips from Los Angeles, who was trying to get ahold of him repeatedly the day before has unexpectedly died. Bigelow is immediately off to L. A.; frantically pursuing the only lead to his murderer before time runs out.
The complex trail of clues and red herrings rapidly multiply in the City of Angels. Bigelow speaks to Phillips’ business partner, Halliday (William Ching), his secretary, Miss Foster, (Beverly Campbell (Garland)), Brother Stanley Phillips, (Henry Hart) and Phillips’ widow (Lynn Baggett) in rapid succession. Bigelow learns that Phillips committed suicide shortly after being arrested for selling stolen rare metal, iridium, which was purchased from a man named Reynolds. Bigelow subsequently discovers that he notarized the iridium bill of sale for Phillips when he passed through Banning some time ago. After a series of U-turns, Bigelow is kidnapped from his hotel room by a group of thugs led by the sadistic Chester (Neville Brand).
Bigelow is brought before an urbane, but sinister man named Majak (Luther Adler) who is more than curious about Bigelow’s probe. Majak tells Bigelow he is looking for the wrong man, relating that while he bought the stolen Iridium, he had no reason to kill Bigelow, until now. Chester drives Frank Bigelow to his pending execution, salivating over the prospect. Frank eschews his last rites by jamming his foot on the brake pedal and jumping out of the car. After a drug store shootout, Chester catches two slugs from a cop, and Bigelow escapes.
Bigelow bursts in on Miss Foster and Stanley Phillips and discovers business partner Halliday and William Phillips’ widow are having a long-term affair. Stanley relates his sister-in-law’s treachery while doubled over after being poisoned dining with Halliday and Mrs. Phillips. Bigelow confronts the duplicitous widow and offers to toss her over the same threshold her husband recently departed from. Mrs. Phillips admits that Halliday is actually the mythical Reynolds who brokered the crooked iridium deal and left Phillips holding the bag as the fall guy. Halliday threw Phillips off his own balcony with the sudden death being chalked up to suicide. After he discovered that Phillips was phoning Bigelow’s office trying to locate a copy of the bill of sale, Halliday poisoned Bigelow in San Francisco to take care of loose ends. Bigelow finally catches up with Halliday outside his office in the Bradbury Building and empties his revolver into him.
As the flashback returns to the Homicide Squad Office, he finishes his tale, “All I did was notarize a bill of sale!” Bigelow then drops dead on the floor. When one of the cops asks the hard-bitten Homicide Captain how to annotate the file, he barks, “Better make it dead on arrival.” A black ink stamp of “D.O.A.” is appended on Bigelow’s file and the credits roll.
D.O.A. reflects the photographic roots of director Rudolph Mate. He compiled an impressive resume as a cinematographer in Hollywood from 1935 (Dante’s Inferno, Stella Dallas, The Adventures of Marco Polo, Foreign Correspondent, Pride of the Yankees, Gilda, among others) until turning to directing in 1947. The lighting, locations, and atmosphere of brooding darkness were captured expertly by Mate and director of photography Ernest Lazlo.
Dimitri Tiomkin was one of Hollywood’s most renowned film composers who linked up with pantheon directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra to create some of the most memorable film scores in movie history. Winner of four Oscars (High Noon, The High and the Mighty, The Old Man and the Sea) and nominated for many others, Tiomkin’s D.O.A. score is integral to the melancholy mood of the film.
Edmund O’Brien carries the film with a frenetic energy that occasionally goes over the top. D.O.A. is so rapidly paced that a viewer is inclined to search for a towel to help O’Brien dry off during the movie. O’Brien was a veteran of many film noirs (Act of Murder, 711 Ocean Drive, The Hitchhiker, Shield for Murder, among others) and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1954 for his portrayal of a (you guessed it) frenetic press agent in The Barefoot Contessa.
A true craftsman, Luther Adler’s portrayal of Majak is the personification of understated evil. The film debut of Neville Brand as the vicious Chester is also notable. Brand, one of WW II’s most decorated combat soldiers, parlayed his primitive visage and simmering rage into a successful film career of nut-jobs, heavies and he-men.
D.O.A. holds up well after a half-century and provides first-rate entertainment. For film noir enthusiasts, it is a mandatory commodity. As a warning, steer clear of the 1988 remake with Dennis Quaid and Meg Tilly. Like numerous remakes of original works, it is hard to imagine a worse film.
Alan Rode is a film noir aficionado living in San Diego, California.
this article first published here: http://www.filmmonthly.com/film_noir/doa.html
April 16, 2012
keep reading this article here: http://www.randybyers.net/?p=239