The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me!, US, 1950)

The-Sound-of-Fury-1950-1

Katherine Locke as the ‘wallflower’

Blimey!

In my trawl through films noir I haven’t seen The Sound of Fury is a real find. A short Internet search shows me that it is (relatively) well known but there doesn’t seem to be a video copy available (I saw it on FilmFour).

It’s based on Joe Pagano’s novel (and adapted by him) The Condemned which was derived from real events that happened in San Jose in 1933. The film starts off following family man Howard (Frank Lovejoy) who is desperate for work. He falls in with ‘wide boy’ Jerry (played with demented vigour by Lloyd Bridges) who leads him off the ‘straight and narrow’. Some of the early scenes have a documentary feel emphasising that Frank’s predicament was experienced (and still is) by many; even though he is a good guy trying to provide (this was the patriarchal ‘50s) for his wife and kid, society gives him nothing. As things spiral out of control director, Cyril Endfield goes expressionist as guilt, booze and the attentions of a desperate ‘wallflower’ (Hazel) send him over the edge.

Hazel’s played by Katherine Locke who was better known as a stage actor; here she is simply sensational. I mentioned a few posts back the impact Claire Trevor made in a small role in Dead End; Locke is even better. She conveys the desperation of a woman who feels her looks are fading and her chance of ‘love and romance’ hang by a thread. She manages to convey her fears and hopes in her facial expressions with dazzling speed as she tries to believe that Frank (who is only with her for an alibi) might be the ‘one’.

The climax of the film is truly terrifying and brilliantly staged by Endfield who is better known as Cy Endfield the director of Hell Drivers (UK, 1957) and Zulu (UK, 1964). He was blacklisted by HUA, directed under a pseudonym for a number of years and moved to Britain. The mob scene at the end has a newsreel quality that makes it even more effective. It’s rare to see a film that mixes so many visual styles and it works brilliantly.

Truly terrifying

The only false note the film strikes is through the character of a visiting lecturer who mouths the social message. However, maybe Pagano was right that the audience for the film at the time needed to be explicitly told that mob rule is wrong. Richard Carlson plays the newspaper man guilty of whipping up the violent fervour and he does well even though the role is slightly underwritten; his sensationalism could have been made clearer.

That said, The Sound of Fury is a great film. Fritz Lang’s 1936 Fury was based on the same events and it would be interesting to compare them. I haven’t seen the Lang for nearly 40 years; I doubt it’s better than this. Further reading here.

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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).

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.

 

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (US-France, 1992)

Happy families

I was lucky enough to receive the belated season three of Twin Peaks as a gift so embarked on re-watching series one; I never saw series two when it came out. Series one remains a milestone television series with its mix of the uncanny and humour, much of it derived from the genre mash-up of film noir and soap opera. Season two was more wayward, I found the ‘arch villain’ Windom Earl unconvincing though whether that’s due to Kenneth Welsh’s performance is uncertain. The bizarre Lynch-directed final episode almost redeemed it.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was Lynch’s response to the prematurely-ended, due to low ratings, series (on episode 29, including both series one and two, and a pilot); Lynch apparently had shown little interest in the programme in its second season even though he appeared in a few episodes. As far as he was concerned as soon as the killer of Laura Palmer was revealed, which the television company insisted on, the programme lost its raison d’etre. When Lynch directed he ignored the script, probably because it was trying to explain what was going on. Fire Walk With Me was a prequel to the first series and focused on Laura Palmer whose corpse, in the pilot, stimulates the investigation in the small town. Apparently those who were fans of the series found the film disappointing; when I saw it at the time I was ‘blown away’ by the portrayal of abuse and thought the film was at least as good as Blue Velvet (1986). 25 years later its power remains and I was particularly taken by Sheryl Lee’s performance as Laura; she superbly conveys the girl’s resignation to her fate even as she rails against the forces that have exploited her. It remains uncomfortable viewing.

Given Lynch is in love with surrealism, we can see the first 30 bonkers minutes of the film almost as a short to accompany the feature; unless I’m missing something…

I’ll now embark on the 19 episodes of series three that apparently take Fire Walk With Me as their starting point. I’m enthused enough, at the moment, to then revisit all Lynch’s films for they were all (I haven’t seen The Straight Story, 1999) designed to get us thinking.

Crossfire (US, 1947)

Glorious Grahame

I was prompted to watch Crossfire after seeing Mudbound because I thought it too dealt with the, at the time unacknowledged, PTSD of veterans. Though some of the vets in the film are obviously psychologically scarred by their experience, the social problem it’s dealing with is anti-semitism. Although the film is cast, at first, as a police investigation into a murder as soon as Robert Ryan appears it’s clear who’s guilty; I’m assuming this is true for audiences at the time too. Hence the film is more interested in motivation which, although clear to modern audiences as soon as Ryan says “Jew boy”, may not have been in 1947 (my assumption that racism is obvious today is probably too optimistic actually).

From the opening murder scene Dmytryk’s direction uses shadows expressively placing us directly in film noir territory, and there are some great compositions. It’s a talky film but the dynamism with which he frames the characters is gripping in itself. The great cast also is enough reason to watch; in addition to Ryan there’s Robert Mitchum and Gloria Grahame. Grahame, whose story is featured in the just-released Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (UK), plays her moll with typical bruised tenderness. Although she was typecast as a ‘tart with a heart’ there’s no doubt that her heart is, by necessity, hard. Another great performance is given by Paul Kelly (as The Man) who might be her husband. His slightly demented delivery is almost as disturbing as Ryan’s psychosis.

Noir for a dark world

These performances give the film a modern edge only ameliorated by George Montgomery’s slightly complacent detective; he even smokes a pipe. Montgomery does the character’s world weariness well but he’s too controlled. Mitchum breezes through the film with his usual commanding charm.

I saw the film on the Movies4Men channel; it was sub categorised as Military4Men. I’m not sure who the audience for this channel is (okay obviously men) but they will be better for watching Crossfire.

Vertigo: An Introduction

I’ve just published a guide to Hitchcock’s Vertigo; one of his best films. Here’s the Introduction:

Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, has made a long critical journey in the sixty years since it was first released. At the time critical reaction was cool and the box office for a Hitchcock movie was weak. However by 2012 it was regarded as the ‘best film ever made’ in the Sight & Sound magazine ‘once a decade’ poll of film critics. Some of the original reviews were positive; the New York Daily News called it ‘an artistic triumph for the master of mystery’ (Sandford, 2015). Others were lukewarm; Variety’s critic liked the film but she (identified only as ‘Stef’) also thought ‘the plain fact is that the film’s first half is too slow and too long’; she also committed the sin of revealing the key plot twist.

Vertigo was one of five films that were not legally available for over 10 years until 1983; the others were Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). After they had been on release for eight years the rights to these films became Hitchcock’s and it seems he kept them out of distribution to give his family a windfall after his death (Waymark, 1985). As Hitchcock had ordered all prints in distribution to be destroyed it was virtually impossible to watch them. Before videotapes became consumer items, in the 1970s, it was difficult to see films once they had completed their initial release unless they were screened on television. The inability to see Vertigo may go some way to explaining why it took so long for its greatness to be generally appreciated.

Another reason for the lack of appreciation was that during the 1950s it wasn’t usual to treat Hollywood films as art, they were seen simply as commodities designed to make money. It wasn’t until the intervention of enthusiastic critics during the 1950s, writing for the French magazine Cahiers du cinema, that it was widely understood that even commercial films could be regarded as art.

Francois Truffaut’s 1954 Cahiers article ‘Une Certain Tendance du Cinema Français’ suggested that the best directors (auteurs) could make films that transcended the limitations of the Hollywood studio system and include personal statements in their films. Regardless of the genre, the same themes were present in the films of auteurist directors like John Ford; Peter Wollen suggested that Ford was ‘concerned with the problem of heroism [and] meaningful action in life’ (1972: 81). Auteurs were also likely to have a characteristic visual style in their mise en scene (what’s ‘in the picture’ referring to the content and composition of the image), camera position and camera movement. Ford, for instance, in his black and white films at least, favoured deep focus cinematography. Because of these traits, their films could be regarded as works of art as they were the expressions of a personality rather than simply movies made to make money.

Truffaut’s idea became the ‘auteur theory’ and has had a lasting influence on film culture and there is a widespread belief that the director is the key influence in most films. The problem with this ‘theory’ is it loses sight of many other vital contributions such as the script, cinematography and performance. There is no doubt, however, that Hitchcock is a director for whom the auteurist approach is useful, as we shall see in chapter four. Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock in the early 1960s about his films and the resulting book, Hitchcock (Faber & Faber), was very influential on filmmakers.

For audiences in the era of Classical Hollywood (roughly the 1920s to the early 1960s) the director of the film was of little importance. However they, even before the intervention of Cahiers, did admire Hitchcock and his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62), short ‘tales of the unexpected’, made him a household name. Paramount liked him because he was profitable and a marketable name, much the same way as Christopher Nolan is now. Like Nolan, Hitchcock had a high degree of control over the films he made because he was commercially successful. Critics admired his technical finesse but because he made genre movies (thrillers apart from the screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, 1941, and the 1949 melodrama Under Capricorn, UK), his movies weren’t regarded as the equal of those made by, say, Jean Renoir or Fritz Lang (his German films).

By 1972 Vertigo was 11th in the Sight & Sound poll so, despite its muted reception 14 years earlier, it was already considered to be a great film. Hitchcock died in 1980 and three years later, after a deal with Universal, it was re-released. In the first poll after this, in 1992, Vertigo had moved up to fourth. Such lists, while interesting, are only expressions of (albeit well-informed) opinion and the most important reaction is the one you have to a film. At the time of writing Vertigo is one of my favourite films. One thing for sure is that having spent months immersed in the film my admiration for it has increased. I hope that this book helps you enjoy this great film even more.

You can buy it here.

Gone Girl (US, 2014)

Feminist or not feminist? That is the question

Feminist or not feminist? That is the question

I enjoyed Gillian Flynn’s novel and she has adeptly written the screenplay, directed by David Fincher. I didn’t bother with the film in the cinema because Fincher’s movies have disappointed me since Fight Club (US, 1999) and I didn’t fancy two and a half hours of a narrative I knew. However, primarily through the power of Rosamund Pike’s femme fatale, this is an adaptation well worth watching. Fincher’s mise en scene, with his characteristic flat, antiseptic shooting of bourgeois modernity, is ideal for the film and Ben Affleck, as the slightly vacant hunk, is perfectly cast.

Although I’ve tagged the film ‘feminist’ I’m not sure it is; the debates are well summarised on Bitchflicks. I think the film is an exceptionally ‘open’ (or writerly in Barthes’ terms) text and so what follows is my reading although I’m conscious that this is exceptionally personal (by that I mean, although all readings we make are ‘personal’, with open texts our understanding of the world is likely to have a greater impact on the reading).

As Megan Kearns points out, on the Bitchflicks site, the ‘cool girl’ speech that Amy makes is key:

“The cool girl. The cool girl is hot. Cool girl doesn’t get angry. … And she presents her mouth for fucking.”

This is accompanied by shots of women (chosen by Fincher) and so suggests women are complicit (which they are) in allowing the ‘cool girl’ trope to be exploited by men. However, men are more complicit because of patriarchy, and Fincher should at least have included men within the mise en scene for this speech. Spoiler alert: also, the use of rape by Amy (Pike) to frame a man is contentious however I read her psychopathology as being the result of being pressured to be the ‘perfect woman’ (which began with her parents cannibalising her life as Amazing Amy). So although her murder of controlling millionaire Desi Collins isn’t justifiable in moral terms, I felt it was the right thing for Amy to do in her circumstances (that is, in the plot of a film and not reality). Amy does what it takes to take control of her life in a patriarchal world and, as such, is a feminist character.

This is a femme fatale that destroys the man who falls for her without destroying herself; although that was her original intention.

Flynn’s work is also a brilliant takedown of the romance of marriage; the roles and games we play that are not sustainable. This brings us back to Fight Club (which was a very faithful adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel) which similarly excoriated 21st century, bourgeois existence and Gone Girl is Fincher’s best film since then. His ‘cool’ visual style is a perfect accompaniment for the soullessness of modern existence.