30/10/2013

The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920)


Robert Wiene's seminal Gothic masterpiece of sleepwalking, murder and madness, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, remains the totemic example of German expressionism, one of the greatest of all horror or silent features and boasts both cinema's first twist ending and one of its earliest frame narrative structures. Wiene's film of Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer's screenplay is universally admired and as influential a work of art as they come*, routinely referenced and parodied throughout the near-century since it first came creeping out of Weimar Germany. Its story concerns a mysterious travelling fairground act, comprised of the titular showman (Werner Krauss) and his exhibit, an omniscient somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt), whose arrival in the mountain town of Holstenwall in northern Germany happens to coincide with a spate of violent murders. But is all as it seems? And just how reliable is our narrator?

Janowitz and Mayer were disillusioned veterans of the Great War who believed in the potential of cinema as a new medium through which to convey important ideas to a mass audience. This commonly cited biographical detail has led to a great deal of critical speculation over the last 93 years as to the true meaning of the film. Siegfried Kracauer, for one, famously read Caligari as a prophetic warning against tyrannical powers seeking to control the populace through universal conscription. Caligari could also equally be read as a comment on contemporary unease about psychoanalysis and its broader ramifications, to offer just one other obvious interpretation. At any rate, the story the two writers concocted, though its conclusion arguably owes something to Edgar Allan Poe, was entirely their own and is all the more remarkable for that, fitting seamlessly into continental Europe's grand tradition of fairy tales and horror stories. 


The film's aesthetic, and its painted canvas sets in particular, seem to remain its most enduring calling card. Expressionism was concerned with giving outer voice to the inner emotions by distorting realistic landscapes and architecture to echo and evoke the mood of the protagonists or the tone of the narrative. Here, the ominous arrival of Caligari and Cesare warps Holstenwall like a carnival mirror, twisting its winding streets and alleyways at sharp angles and elongating its windows and doorways to suggest a cracked and fragmenting dreamworld, crooked and somehow deeply wrong. Wiene's nightmarish visual style has been much imitated, but never put to better use.

*One of the most recent films to tip its cap to Caligari, however obliquely, was Shane Carruth's extraordinary self-made and distributed Upstream Colour (2013), which also dealt with sleepwalkers being manipulated into committing crimes, albeit financial rather than homicidal.

24/10/2013

The Violent Men (1955)


Edward G. Robinson was reunited with Glenn Ford and Barbara Stanwyck, his co-stars in Destroyer (1943) and Double Indemnity (1944) respectively, for this workmanlike but enjoyable psychological Western from Rudolph Maté for Columbia. Taken from Donald Hamilton's 1954 pulp novel Smoky Valley, The Violent Men treads similar thematic terrain to Shane (1953) in presenting an upstanding hero, John Parrish (Ford), reluctant to join a range war that appears increasingly inevitable because of the aggressive behaviour of a posse of agitators bullying local farmers and nesters into selling their land to ambitious ranch tycoon Lew Wilkison (Robinson). The latter is crippled having been shot during a swathe of similar skirmishes a decade ago and his manipulative wife Martha (Stanwyck) has long since embarked on an affair with his virile brother Cole (Brian Keith), a melodramatic scenario that is probably the film's real point of interest. Stanwyck is firmly in Lady Macbeth mode here, more Phyllis Dietrichson than Annie Oakley despite the setting, and her love for the undeserving Cole, a meat head if ever there was one, drives her to increasingly desperate measures. Her daughter Judith (Dianne Foster), the Wilkison family's voice of reason, is disgusted by Martha and her comeuppance at the hands of a foe she's entirely underestimated is satisfyingly abrupt.


Attractively shot in CinemaScope, making good use of the heather groves and snow-topped peaks of its California and Arizona shooting locations, Maté's The Violent Men is an unsurprising but solid piece of filmmaking, finding a good use for three stars best known for noir and slightly past their sell-by dates. Hollywood used to turn out this sort of thing every other week like it was nothing. Nowadays, a man's lucky if he encounters one or two films of this calibre a year.

18/10/2013

Imitation Of Life (1959)


Douglas Sirk's final feature, after the extraordinary purple patch that brought us Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written On The Wind (1956), was another superlative melodramatic weepie, this time boldly addressing the problem of racial prejudice for the Civil Rights era. A second adaptation of Fannie Hurst's 1933 novel, which had already been filmed as a vehicle for Claudette Colbert in 1934, Sirk's updated version concerns an unlikely alliance between two single mothers, aspiring Broadway actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and unemployed black divorcee Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), after their paths cross at the beach and their daughters become friends. Living together in a rundown New York apartment, Lora and Annie's odd couple relationship proves mutually beneficial, but Annie's daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker), born white, proves increasingly troublesome, angry at her mother for the self-loathing she feels and the alienation she suffers at school. Lora soon meets an influential, if sleazy, agent (Robert Alda) and her career takes off, enabling her to provide her surrogate family with a life of material splendour. However, as both Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) and Lora's own daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) grow up, this peaceful idyll is shattered by adolescent rebellion, hormones and long-suppressed resentments, with tragic consequences for the saintly Annie.


To my taste, Imitation Of Life is a little baggier than some of Sirk's finest work and misses Rock Hudson's soulful presence. Hudson is replaced by John Gavin, an actor who featured in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and would go on to serve as the US Ambassador to Mexico during Ronald Reagan's Hollywood presidency. Gavin is fine as the photographer turned Madison Avenue man who is spurned by Lora for not staying true to his art only to win her back later in life, but he lacks star quality, especially when playing opposite Turner and Dee (later the wife of crooner Bobby Darin). However, this is first and foremost a Woman's Picture in the old-fashioned sense, with the Oscar-nominated Moore and Kohner taking centre stage for the final third. I personally preferred Moore's brand of dignified suffering to Kohner's bratty runaway act (Sarah Jane flees to Vegas to become a burlesque dancer, poisoned by one too many hot jazz records), but it's Turner's tears at Annie's bedside that really win the day. The cathartic closing funeral, in which Sarah Jane throws herself hysterically upon her late mother's casket, is also impressively staged, interestingly shot and something of a reverse-Gatsby: it's so well attended that even Mahalia Jackson is there!

P.S. Legendary comedian Richard Pryor was apparently dishonourably discharged from the US army and briefly imprisoned after repeatedly stabbing a fellow recruit who had presumed to laugh at a screening of Imitation Of Life while both men were stationed in Germany together in 1960. Well played!

13/10/2013

Jánošík (1921)


Juraj Jánošík is often described as the Slovak Robin Hood, a seminary student who became the leader of a band of outlaw highwaymen, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor on the mountain passes of Central Europe in the early eighteenth century. Feared by the corrupt Hungarian aristocracy and revered by the serfs for whom he fought, Jánošík soon became a mythic figure, a legend in his own lifetime, until he was finally captured and hung in 1713. His legacy endures and he remains a symbol of resistance against oppression in a land that saw more than its fair share over the course of the twentieth century. So important a figure is Jánošík to the Slovaks that a society of wealthy émigrés meeting in Chicago in the early 1920s decided to bankroll a film documenting his exploits in a popular new medium. Forming the Tatra Film Corporation, this consortium of investors hired director Jaroslav Siakel, Czech star Theodor Pištěk, a skeleton crew and an otherwise non-professional cast and dispatched them to the Old Country for location shooting, using a novel by journalist Gustáv Maršall-Petrovský and a play by Jiří Mahen as the source material for Jozef Žák-Marušiak's screenplay. The team may have set off with only a half-completed script in their suitcases, forcing them to ad-lib the rest of the story, but their finished film gave Slovakia a place in the history books as only the tenth nation to make a full-length feature film, a major achievement for this small but redoubtable nation.


I was lucky enough to see Jánošík screened at the Barbican yesterday in partnership with London's Czech Centre, with live accompaniment from a quintet of native musicians on violin, piano, lute, guitar, harmonica, pipe and fujara, performing and singing an eccentric semi-improvised score. Although Siakeľ's film is really in rather bad nick, it retains a ramshackle charm and serves as an attractive record of the verdant splendour of the Slovak countryside, its picturesque villages and traditional costume. The film's rise-and-fall of a bandit narrative closely follows the universal folk template but it's no less exciting for that, with the director clearly taking inspiration from early Hollywood westerns in his depiction of hold-ups and horse chases through the forests. Jánošík ditches his priestly vestments and embarks on a life of crime to avenge his parents after his farm labourer father is beaten to death by the local land baron's henchmen as punishment for presuming to take a day off to tend to his dying wife, a tragic backstory that gives our hero a satisfying revenge motive and immediately wins our sympathy for his cause. The sinister appearance of the elegantly moustached Vladimír Šrámek as his nemesis, Count Šándor, all dandyish decadence and beady-eyed malevolence, is also a great pleasure to behold.