Lady of Deceit (US, 1947)

aka ‘Lady of Deceit’ and ‘Deadlier Than the Male’

This deft thriller, with film noir morality, was directed by Robert Wise with a (I think) rare lead for Claire Trevor and sleazy support from Walter Slezak. I found Laurence Tierney a little wooden but then his character does epitomise blockhead male stupidity. The plot swings from murder in Reno to high class San Francisco where the ‘blockhead’ manages to marry a newspaper heiress (Audrey Long). What’s most interesting is Trevor’s character who takes the femme fatale role however Tierney’ s Sam doesn’t need to be seduced to destruction. The nihilism is piled up and topped by Slezak’s private eye who points out that subverting justice is expensive when taking a bribe.

As ever Elisha Cook Jr. manages to be disconcerting even when he’s being reasonable and Esther Howard does the lush old lady with telling pride.

It’s another gem unearthed watching the Talking Pictures channel (Freeview UK).

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60 years ago today: Vertigo

Hitchcock’s  Vertigo was first released 60 years ago today; to celebrate this classic here’s an extract from my guide to the film on its expressionist visual style (available here).

 

Expressionist mise en scene seeks to externalise the disturbed state characters’ minds through distorted perspectives created by, for example, settings in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Germany, 1920), the enormous sets of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (Germany, 1926) and chiaroscuro lighting in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, (Germany, 1922). Much of Vertigo is edited to be from the perspective of the mentally unstable protagonist so expressionist techniques are ideal to convey his weak grip on reality.

The scene where this is most apparent is when Judy is finally transformed into Madeleine. Judy’s cheap hotel has a green neon sign just outside her window that creates the garish green light that fills the scene. When she finally appears fully as Madeleine we see her, from Scottie’s point of view, suffused (by filters) in green light; she appears ghostlike – see below.  In a way she is a ghost because she is Madeleine returned from the dead and exists only as a creation of Elster and Scottie. Although the neon sign is casting the green hue the scene is not realistically lit; the exaggerated greenness makes it expressionist. The bed, where presumably they are about to have sex, is also in the frame.

The green light on the return of Madeleine makes her ghostlike

When they kiss, a virtuoso shot revolves around the couple and the background fades to black to be replaced by the stable at the Mission when Scottie had last kissed Madeleine. Before Judy was ‘made over’ he couldn’t bring himself to kiss her. He looks up and sees the stable, which is obviously not really there; we are seeing what he is thinking (see below). The troubled expression on his face suggests he suspects something’s not right.

The stable appears in Scottie’s memory as he finally gets to kiss Madeleine again but he’s thinking something’s not right

Hitchcock remarked that this scene was linked to an earlier one when Madeleine visited Carlotta’s grave which was also given ‘a dreamlike, mysterious quality by shooting through a fog filter’ (Francois Truffaut Hitchcock, 1978: 306). This link reinforces the idea that the dead have come back to life.

These expressionist moments emphasise that Scottie’s mental state is unbalanced and so his attempt to remake Judy is the product of a disturbed mind. It’s clear from the film that he should have loved her for who she was: as she said when composing her letter of confession, “love me again as I am for myself”. It is rare in Hollywood to find such a tortured protagonist, though these were a feature of film noir, particularly as James Stewart, whose star persona was of an uncomplicated good guy, is playing the part – see chapter five.

In Vertigo expressionist flashing colours are also used to signify mental anguish. For example, throughout Scottie’s nightmare colours flash on and off. At the start of Judy’s flashback, where the truth is revealed, the screen is suffused with red during a close up of her anxious and pained face (see below). The choice of Ernie’s restaurant as a setting was probably due to the décor, which is overwhelmingly red. The meaning of red depends on the context it is used however it is regularly associated with passion and violence and this fits Vertigo perfectly. Hitchcock also used the device in Marnie where flashing colours signified the protagonist’s mental breakdown.

The screen is suffused with red at the start of Judy’s flashback indicating mental anguish

Another expressionist device is the zoom-dolly used to convey Scottie’s acrophobia when he looks down. The camera zooms forward and simultaneously, at the same ‘speed’, dollies backwards so the background seems to fall away even though, because of the dolly, what we can see in the frame remains the same (see below). Camera operator Irwin Roberts is credited with creating this effect for Hitchcock.

The zoom-dolly makes the background appear to fall away while the composition of the frame stays the same

After Madeleine has fallen from the bell tower, the final shot of the scene is a typical Hitchcock high angle shot – see below. This unusual perspective, which has the effect of distorting what we can see hence its expressionist nature, signifies how disturbing the events are.

A typical Hitchcock high angle shot after Madeleine has fallen from the bell tower

A similar high angle shot is used to establish the scene when Scottie’s nightmare, after Madeleine’s death, presages his mental breakdown.

One of striking ways Hitchcock is an auteur is that even the casual filmgoer knew exactly what to expect from his films: he was the ‘master of suspense’. So it wasn’t just critics who were aware of his authorship, audiences knew they were more or less guaranteed to be thrilled by his films hence his box office success.

 

Dead End (US, 1937)

Lost love

It was a real treat to revisit Dead End as it was a reminder that Hollywood, via independent producer Sam Goldwyn here, didn’t always ignore working class poverty. Adapted by Lilian Hellman from Sidney Kingsley’s hit play, Dead End focuses on a day in the life of a poor neighbourhood in New York. It melodramatically mixes poor and rich; road works necessitate the latter using the service entrance for their ‘high end’ apartments. While the focus is on the ‘dead end kids’, teens who are already delinquent (played by members of the original Broadway cast), the generation before them is where the real interest lies. Joel McCrea and Sylvia Sydney are the leads playing decent folk being worn down by the lack of opportunity; the Depression was still causing economic ruin. Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor play the gangster returning to his roots to see his old girlfriend.

Goldwyn often employed William Wyler to direct and Dead End is also graced with Gregg Toland’s cinematography. There are scenes of chiaroscuro lighting that suggest film noir – years before the genre started – and a few years later he was photographing Citizen Kane. The film has quality everything: script, stars, direction, cinematography and great set design by Richard Day. Kudos to Sam Goldwyn for pulling it all together.

Although we unsurprisingly get a hopeful ending it’s not exactly happy and the rich are shown for the heartless leaches that they are. If McCrae and Sidney are a little too nice there’s no missing the menace of Bogart’s wanted man who’s found a life on the run is not good enough despite his wealth. The brief scene where he and his old flame are reunited is electric; Trevor easily matching Bogart’s understated brilliance. She’s had to become a prostitute and has one of those coughs that signify the character is dying. The joy they feel at seeing one another again after many years shows what might have been but their poverty ‘insisted’ instead that they lead lives of degradation. The scene is cinematic brilliance.

Apparently there’s some deep focus cinematography in the film, which Wyler was to become well known for, but that didn’t strike me. The shootout between McCrea and Bogart, the chiaroscuro I noted earlier, is brilliantly done. They don’t make ‘em like this any more. Film noir was about to enter Hollywood and became the darkness on the edge of its town.

Annihilation (UK-US, 2018)

Entering the uncanny

Apparently Paramount were doubtful about the box office appeal of writer-director Alex Garland’s follow up to Ex Machina so chose to distribute it via Netflix internationally. In commercial terms they may have been right as it’s only grossed just over $30m in North America, but in artistic terms we are missing out in not being able to readily see such an interesting looking movie in the cinema.

Garland’s freely adapted the first of Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘Outreach’ trilogy and I enjoyed the film more than the book. He channels the spirit of Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) – both USSR – through a more mainstream sensibility. The ‘Outreach’ is an alien zone where, using a horror movie trope, a group of scientists enter with the expectation of being ‘bumped off one by one’. The group is all female but the gender politics are not the issue; one character points out that they are ‘scientists’ rather than ‘women’.

There is plenty of exciting action but, like Ex Machina, Garland is more interested in the ideas: issues of identity; grief; our place in the universe; evolution and so on. He’s packaged this in a fascinating narrative that features a number of excellent performances. Natalie Portman in the lead and Jennifer Jason Leigh, channelling her ‘slightly-psycho’ persona, are particularly good.

Mark Digby’s production design is fabulous, the landscape ranges from being subtly altered, and therefore uncanny, to the bizarre and beautiful.

Annihilation is another reason why Netflix may be becoming indispensable which, alongside Amazon Prime releasing Suburbicon (2017) a month before the DVD, is a concern for cinema distribution. Whilst blockbusters continue to make cinemas a viable business, niche movies are increasingly squeezed and no matter how much I’m impressed by the picture on my television IT’S NOT CINEMA!

Do the Right Thing (US, 1989)

I’ve just published a guide to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Here’s the introduction:

In Florida on February 26th, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who had been shopping at a convenience store, was shot and killed by vigilante George Zimmerman. Zimmerman had called ‘911’ to report Martin’s apparently suspicious behaviour and was told not to follow him. However the vigilante did so and claimed self-defence after shooting the boy. Florida’s ‘stand your ground law’ meant, as officers accepted Zimmerman’s version of events, he was not charged. After a national outcry he was eventually sent to trial where he was found ‘not guilty’. For many this outcome was another example how the American legal system discriminates against ethnic minorities and, in response, the activist movement Black Lives Matter was created.

This lack of concern about black lives certainly wasn’t new: in 2009 Oscar Grant was shot and killed, when he was lying face down on the ground being arrested, in Oakland, California; the killing was dramatised in Fruitvale Station (2013). The officer, Johannes Mehserle, was prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter and served very little time in prison.

Initially Black Lives Matter seemed to have no effect as African American lives continued to be lost in contentious circumstances. Michael Brown, an 18-year old, was shot in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, and several days of protests followed. Earlier that year, in New York, Eric Garner died after being held in a chokehold by officers even though the NYPD had banned the use of this method of restraint. Nearly 30 years after Do the Right Thing featured the death of a black man at the hands of the NYPD using a chokehold, it is clear that the sore of racism, with its roots in slavery, still festers.

Spike Lee’s emergence as a high profile filmmaker wasn’t simply due to the quality of his films but also because he became, for a time at least, an African American voice that mainstream media could not ignore. Although Lee’s messages were often misrepresented, the success of his films and skill in promoting himself led him to be considered to be a spokesperson for African Americans. Due to the institutional racism that restricts Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) access, non-white voices are heard relatively rarely in mainstream media. Hence Lee, one of the few high profile African Americans in the film industry, became the conduit through which the mainstream media and audiences heard an African American perspective. Although his ambition was to be a filmmaker, not a spokesperson for his race, he hasn’t shirked the responsibility and has ensured that, in most cases, he has control over his films so he could say what he had to say.

However putting the burden of representation on one person’s shoulders is not only unfair but also impractical: one person cannot speak for a variegated group. One of the consequences of this is that Lee became a focus of criticism from African Americans because his films didn’t represent black culture the way they understood it.

At the other extreme, racist critics attacked Lee simply as a tactic to shut up a ‘diverse’ voice. The burden carried by Lee, and other ethnic minority artists who have mainstream appeal such as Beyoncé, is their art is inflected by race in a way that white artists’ work rarely is.

In 2017 Michael Slager was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for killing, when a police office, African American Walter Scott. Maybe this is a sign that the Black Lives Matter movement is working. As Do the Right Thing suggests, it is vital to continue fighting against racial oppression.

 

Available at Amazon here.

The Shape of Water (US, 2017)

tOgeTHER

I hope you’ve seen this film but if you haven’t don’t read this: go see.

I was uneasy about Phantom Thread a few shots in but I was sold on The Shape of Water during the first shot that ‘steadicams’ through Elisa’s (Sally Hawkins) underwater apartment. The beautiful (throughout) set design becomes magical as the ripples of water wobble our vision. We are in a fairy tale land where it appears that there will be a happy ending but, as in Pan’s Labyrinth, the reality of the time – the early ‘60s – threatens political violence.

Del Toro loves monsters; he apparently made a pact with them that he would love them if they allowed him to go to the toilet and so avoid wetting his bed when a child. Misunderstood beasts populate his films, most obviously in Hellboy 2 where the hero tells his girlfriend that it’s great in the troll market because no one stares at him. The monster in The Shape of Water is based on ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’, an early 3D movie released in 1954.

Paul D. Austerberry deserves plaudits for the production design, it almost trumps the narrative, but there is no doubt that it is Guillermo del Toro’s vision we are seeing. His colour schemes are always calculated – green dominates here – and always beautiful to look at. As is Sally Hawkins’ magnificent performance as Elsa, a mute whose loneliness leads her to the ‘monster’. Richard Jenkins, as a closeted gay man, is also excellent in his heart breaking portrayal of being a man ‘out of his time’. Not only does his homosexuality make his life difficult his commercial art has become unfashionable.

It’s 1963, Cold War paranoia and civil rights protests are ongoing in a country under siege from, as the film suggests, itself. The civil rights protests are only referenced in passing but the hatred of the ‘Other’, intensified by the Cold War, is the focus. Michael Shannon, the film’s real monster, plays the security man who wants the ‘creature’ dissected. The Russian spies are played for laughs but are – apart from the sympathetic scientist – as culpable as the Americans.

Elsa’s apartment is above an Orpheum cinema, with is showing the Biblical epic ‘The Song of Ruth’, and it is as if all the ideas of cinema have percolated through the roof to infiltrate her life. Of course, cinema infiltrated del Toro’s life as a boy and his films are on-going homages to films he loves but he manages to avoid pastiche, in the way Tarantino has no wish to, and so offers a rich dish of layered meanings. The poster for The Creature from the Black Lagoon featured the titular ‘monster’ carrying out the pathetic female lead; del Toro reimagines this to make the female a protagonist of verve and resource. Her silence is contrasted with the loquacious Zelda (Octavia Spencer on great form) who also representsAfrican Americans; both are also working class cleaners in the government research institute.

Shannon’s stricken Strickland’s middle class life, with its burgeoning consumerism epitomised by his purchase of a ‘teal’ Cadillac, comes across as a ‘Stepford Wife’ hell and is particularly disturbing when he has sex with his wife. Strickland is literally rotting, his injured fingers turn black and he constantly eats sweets, and his soullessness is only matched by the ‘five star’ general who isn’t impressed by loyalty. Strickland’s shown putting into practice the manifesto of The Art of Positive Thinking and we see how its philosophy to be empty.

At the heart of the film is Hawkins’ Elsa whose pathos, particularly in the musical sequence when she imagines finding her voice, is moving. Doug Jones’ creature is a magnificent costume brilliantly embodied. The film requires more than one viewing to revel in its cinematography and marvel at the marvellous.

The Post (UK-US, 2017)

The woman in front of the man

The Post, with the award-baiting combination of Hanks-Spielberg-Streep, tells a tale from 1971 that is vital now. Spielberg reportedly ‘rushed’ the production because of the film’s topicality: who will hold governments to account, the role of the fourth estate, if newspapers don’t?

The Pentagon Papers were academic investigations into the Vietnam War commissioned by the Secretary of State for Defence, Robert McNamara, which found that the war was unwinnable. This conclusion was not shared with the American public and hundreds of thousands of people died because the war continued. McNamara, by the way, was the subject of the Errol Morris’ brilliant The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (US, 2003). It wasn’t until the New York Times scoop, they were leaked by Daniel Ellsburg, that the Papers were revealed.

The Post, however, focuses on the Washington Post which also ran the story, having received the Papers after the Times, when the Nixon administration took out an injunction to prevent further publication; this was the first time in US history that the government had gagged a newspaper. I’m not sure why the focus is on the Post though it has a good story to tell; the leader of the Times’ legal team, James C. Goodale, claims the film is good but ‘bad history’. I’ve no reason to disbelieve him.

However, it is as a film about now that The Post excels. Obviously the relationship between news reporting and government, particularly in America where Trump shouts ‘fake news’ at anything he doesn’t agree with, is particularly contentious. The newspaper industry has been declining for nearly 50 years but the rise of Google and Facebook, that suck up advertising, has destroyed the business model for the ‘quality press’ that relied on delivering valuable audiences to advertisers. The film shows the vital role the press has and so raises fears about the future as newspapers’ influence declines. In the UK, it seems that the press have retreated from their role as the ‘fourth estate’ (the other three are government, the courts and the church), which is meant to hold those in power to account, and become even more partial in terms of their political orientation. The Daily Telegraph recently led with the ridiculous claim from defence secretary Gavin Williamson that the Russians can kill thousands of people by interfering with the power supply. Giving credence to Williamson’s attempt to distract from a story that embarrassed him suggests their news standards are wallowing in the gutter.

The other topical aspect of the film is the role of women in the 1970s. The Post’s owner, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), constantly finds herself in rooms full of male executives who don’t take her seriously. She is shown to rise to the occasion and, in a great shot, when she leaves the Supreme Court, a line of adoring young women watch her. She makes a stand publishing the Papers even though it could have caused problems with the Stock Exchange floatation happening at the time. The film suggests this is to protect the newspaper but Goodale says it was to pay stockholders’ estate taxes. To further tarnish her apparent heroism, she became a print union buster later in the decade – see here.

When the paper finally goes to press, Spielberg ensures we see the whole hot metal process, an incredible technological effort required to produce newspapers in those ‘good old days’. Except, of course, they weren’t really good it’s just that things are worse now.