Review


[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Boxing films are always something more than about boxing. The violent quality of the sport, the limited space of the ring and the unique social profile of its participants render it conducive to productive artistic interventions. Adapted from Joseph Moncure March’s prose poem of the same name from 1928, The Set-Up (1949) centres on Stoker (Robert Ryan, in a characteristically tough, anti-heroic turn), a 35-year-old boxer riding on a string of failures, getting ready for what may be his last shot at success. Unaware that his managers have made a $50 deal with the opposing team to ensure he loses the match, Stoker prepares for the fight against the wishes of his girlfriend (Audrey Totter), who wants him to give up fighting and settle down.

It isn’t usual for Hollywood films to be adapted from poetry. But March’s composition, which one commentator described as “a noir poem”, with its vernacular language and short, punchy verse lends itself easily to cinematic transcription. March himself was a film enthusiast who admired the economy of movie storytelling (“I learn something of value every time I see a picture, even if it’s rotten—and when it’s a really good one, my eyes pop out and I feel like taking up embroidery as a life work.”) His poem’s protagonist is a black man described thus: “Pansy had the stuff, but his skin was brown / And he never got a chance at the middleweight crown”. In the screen adaptation, this character is changed to a white man, Stoker, who identifies with the one black boxer in the changing room.

This whitewashing of the protagonist has two effects. One, it shifts the story’s social focus from race to class. Hollywood before the Civil Rights Movement was still tongue-tied on the question of race, but it was always more responsive to the plight of the poor white. With the war over and veterans returning to civil life, the triumphalist tone of war-time movies made way for a more sombre atmosphere in films dealing with urban realities. RKO studio head Dore Schary, director Robert Wise and writer Art Cohn were well-known liberals with interest in social themes. In The Set-Up, they use the situation of a washed-out pugilist to emphasize the impossibility of the American dream and the persistence of violence in public consciousness.

The first time we see Stoker, he falls face down on the ring following a knock-out. This downbeat image gives way to a shot of a street with neon lights sardonically reading “Paradise City” and “Dreamland”. Stoker, like his peers, clings to the dream against incredible odds, always believing in the illusion that he is “one punch away” from success. The Set-Up is certainly an underdog story, but one which recognizes that the underdog loses the war even if he wins a few battles, especially when the system is betting on his failure. Stoker does come out on top against his rival in the ring, but soon as he leaves the arena, he is thrashed by a group of men who break his right hand for good. Casinos, those embodiments of the American dream, have taught us the lesson: you don’t get to win against million-to-one odds and walk away scot free.

Making Stoker a white character also imparts a markedly existentialist thrust to the narrative. This is because stories amenable to existentialist reading, or written in existentialist terms, were often structured around a white, male subjectivity. Stoker’s predicament is explicitly formulated as that of a man trying to find meaning in an absurd universe. He is an aging boxer struggling to prove his worth in a world where the new is constantly replacing the old. In the changing room, he experiences vicarious pleasure and fear watching young, idealist debutants getting ready for their first match or expressing their hope for a chance at the title. This boxer of twenty years, whose sole supporter is another aging newspaper boy, sees the doors of his life shutting one by one. The spaces he inhabits in the film—his apartment, the changing room, and the arena—seem like claustrophobic, enclosed spaces with no exit.

More than the boxing ring, it’s the changing room around which the film is structured. This constricted room of male bonding, whose busy activities are filmed in deep-space compositions, is a zone where men can express their vulnerabilities without self-consciousness, a privilege unavailable in the ring or elsewhere. All the emotions Stoker experiences before his final shot at success — fear, ambition, disgust, temptation and domestic anxiety — are externalized through other characters in the room, who serve as a kind of Greek chorus. The changing room is a purgatory of comings and goings, a limbo between dream and reality. It is also a transitional space located literally between home and the ring; Stoker keeps peeking out to see if Julie has left their apartment, his anxiety relieved when he notices that she might be on her way to the match.

Julie, though, refuses to enter the arena. She spends her evening wandering the city streets, gripped by the dread of imagining Stoker hurt beyond repair. A moment of respite finds her observing young boys and girls indulging in pranks and games of chance at a penny arcade—a dream-like space as artificial as the ring. The film gives the appearance of unfolding in 72 minutes of real time. But it nests two experiences of time within its narrative. Julie’s 72 minutes agonizing over her boyfriend’s fate feels much longer than Stoker’s waiting for his match, which marches on like the clocks we see throughout the film, implacably, indifferently. It’s this binocular perspective of time, accelerating or slowing down depending on whose point of view it’s sharing, that lends the film a meditative, philosophical quality.

Julie’s refusal to enter the arena is also a refusal to partake in its violence. Throughout The Set-Up, and during Stoker’s fight in particular, Robert Wise intercuts the boxing with reactions of people in the arena. As men and women whoop and holler, changing their allegiance to whoever is landing the harsher blows, we witness a primal taste for animalistic violence sublimated in sports. Images of bellowing spectators make us aware of ourselves as movie viewers, revealing the sadistic gaze underpinning all violent spectacle, a gaze that has the power to kill. To this end, Wise photographs the match from outside the ring, so that the ropes are visible at all times during the fight. This decision conflates the film viewer with the spectator in the arena. It also creates a sense of entrapment around the fighters, who come across as captives made to kill each other for mass entertainment.

But that doesn’t prevent The Set-Up from being a spectacle in itself. Wise, who edited Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), exhibits a dynamic style comprising of elaborate camera choreography, wide-angle, high-contrast cinematography that makes use of all image planes, and a great sensitivity to the movement of boxers in the ring. The film barely has any musical score, and its soundtrack is made almost wholly of dialogue and environmental sounds. Even so, we don’t feel distanced from the action for a moment. In presenting the fight in all its vigour and energy, but breaking it regularly with somewhat repulsive shots of gesticulating spectators, the film has its cake and eats it too. Like many of the wonderful films discussed in this column, The Set-Up is a thing and its opposite, suffused with those perplexing, contradictory impulses that make the best of classical Hollywood cinema so rich and alive.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

With the American economy recovering under the New Deal and workers getting back to the factories, it would seem that a more fundamental anxiety about the industrial age resurfaced in Hollywood cinema. Fordist production of the previous decades had vitiated the skilled workforce, reducing the factory employee to a tiny cog in the production machinery—an awareness that was heightened by the brief favour socialism enjoyed in the country in the late 1930s. Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) responded most famously to this alienation of the worker by satirizing the principles of industrial management. The Paramount production Reaching for the Sun (1941) takes a less jovial route, exploring the theme within the framework of romantic comedy and marital drama.

Adapted from Wessel Smitter’s novel F.O.B. Detroit (1938), Reaching for the Sun follows Russ (Joel McCrea), a backwoods clam-digger who moves to Detroit to work in a car factory so he can afford an outboard motor for his boat. He plans to get back to the countryside as soon as he purchases the motor, but just as his roommate and colleague Bennie (Eddie Bracken) warns, he falls in love, marries and has a child in the city before he knows it. Obliged to toil at the factory to support his family, but also facing the opposition of his wife Rita (Ellen Drew) who wants to continue living in the city, Russ finds his dream of moving back to the woods slipping away from him.

Russ is first presented an innocent idealist living in harmony with nature, untouched by the harsh realities of industrial life. He lives for his clams, whistles at birds and deer. There’s not a resentful bone in his body: when he sees another clam-digger making a bigger haul with his motor boat, he simply tilts his head, as though to say “lucky man!”. McCrea’s towering stature bestows a rich dialectical quality to the character. Despite his lumberjack-like build, Russ is a gentle giant who gets knocked down repeatedly by Herman (Albert Dekker), his romantic rival at the factory. He keeps his hands close to his body even when he’s agitated. When he punches through a door in a rare fit of rage, it’s an evidently clumsy blow, made against his natural instinct.

Rita, in total contrast, is a world-wise city girl, a waitress and a taxi dancer who ribs Russ’ Southern-boy courteousness (“What will you have, or is that too personal?”). She has no abiding relation to nature: she doesn’t want to move to the countryside and falls into a brook the only time Russ takes her there. When they relocate to a new house, Rita points to a sorry excuse for a tree, telling Russ she picked this spot because she knows how much he loves nature: “The man said in the spring it has leaves and everything.” Just beyond this tree is a construction crane moving about its limb ominously.

The central theme of Smitter’s book, reprised as a secondary motif in the film, is modern man’s enslavement by his own inventions. “A machine geared to a man is one thing. A man geared to a machine is something else.”, writes the author. When we first see Russ in the film, he wedges out a truck stuck in the mud using a pair of logs. But the initial temptation of an outboard motor gradually brings him in contact with bigger and bigger machines. His first fight with Herman is with bare fists, the second with crowbars and pliers, and his final battle takes place through gigantic machines the two men operate. In the latter skirmish, Russ and Herman are barely visible, having become ghosts in the machines.

The film’s primary focus, however, is the machine that modern life as a whole is. Director William Wellman and scriptwriter Leslie River displace the immediate socio-industrial thrust of Smitter’s story on to an existential plane. Their Russ is a Thoreau-like figure wanting to live away from community in self-sufficiency, but who is caught in the rigmarole of social life, his personality gradually hollowed out by everyday grind. When Rita blasts him for obsessing over his outboard motor, he pensively tells Bennie that, without it, “I’ll be like everyone else”.

The machine thus comes to represent the life Russ dreams of, the identity he tries to hold on to. But, like the car in Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik (1958), it is also a physical entity that supplants Russ’ human relations. Just after he purchases the motor, Russ carries it gently like a baby wrapped in rags. He addresses it with a “she” and nurtures dreams for it. In a humorous scene, he and Bennie try to get the motor started in their boarding house, just as two bumbling men would handle an abandoned baby. The machine competes with both Rita and Russ’ real baby for his attention and resources; at one point, it lies next to him on his marital bed, after Rita and her baby have left the house.

A contemporary New York Times review regretted such a comic treatment of the subject, criticizing the way the film strips away the socio-political import of the book. While this may be a fair objection, it should also be noted that the light touch of the film does not imply frivolity of intention. Producer and director Wellman, who retired early from filmmaking to spend more time with his family, often made pictures about characters who had to make hard choices between professional and personal lives. He recognizes the modern apprehension at the heart of the story. His success lies in finding a form that registers this hefty idea without letting it overwhelm the narrative.

A number of scenes in his film function on a register that is neither wholly comic or dramatic, an ambivalence that works in its favour. In a reconciliatory exchange, Rita inquires how important she is for Russ. Russ tells what she wants to hear, but when she asks “more than the outboard motor?”, he goes silent in a manner that’s both poignant and funny. In another sequence, Russ and Bennie attend a class for to-be-fathers where they are to learn how to handle newborns. It’s a broadly comic scene about changing gender roles, but Russ’ reaction to the idea of washing a baby’s bottom, a mixture of fear and worry, is the opposite of what such a comic scene demands. Towards the end, just after Rita has left with the baby, Russ receives a laudatory certificate from the class for being the best father—an ironic moment that’s tragic even if Rita and the baby were with him.

This heartfelt angst about the costs of domestic life is complex and unresolvable, all the more why the film’s ending seems so ridiculously contrived. Where Smitter’s novel leaves Russ hopelessly crippled after an industrial accident, he not only gets artificial legs in the film, but is able to move to the countryside with Rita and the baby. While there’s little reason to suspect that Wellman, known for his obstinacy and independent spirit, had to compromise, the postcard picturesqueness with which this tacked-on happy ending is filmed — Rita tossing a steak and singing a folk tune in the country house—can’t possibly be taken at face value. Considering that Wellman shows a large banner at the car factory reading “Quality First” (and not “Safety First”) just after Russ’ accident, we may suppose self-parody at work. It may be that a country on the brink of a great war simply needed to believe in such happy endings.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[Disclaimer: I know the filmmaker Arun Karthick on Facebook. In principle, I don’t write about films by people I’m acquainted with. But since Nasir had a worldwide screening on YouTube as part of the We Are One festival, I thought it okay to write about it. Take it with a pinch of salt all the same.]

Arun Karthick’s Nasir is built on a series of refusals. As a non-Muslim filmmaker telling the story of a poor Muslim man, Arun seems to have felt that the only way he can negotiate this dilemma is by refusing to give in to objectifying characterizations of Muslims typical of a whole lot of non-Muslim cinema. So very little about Nasir (Koumarane Valavane) marks him as a Muslim in the viewer’s eyes. He doesn’t wear a kurta, doesn’t have a skullcap and doesn’t shave his moustache. We never see him eat meat or biryani. He doesn’t live in a Muslim ghetto, his impoverished neighbourhood accommodating poor of all stripes. His speech is plain, largely untouched either by Dakhni Urdu or the prevalent Kongu accent of Tamil. His household isn’t teeming with children; in fact, Nasir doesn’t have a child of his own, and he takes care of an orphaned, developmentally challenged teenager at home. This considered refusal of artificiality must not be confused with authenticity.

This extends to the dramatic construction as well. Right at the outset, we learn that poor Nasir needs money: he has an ailing mother and a memorial ceremony is around the corner. It’s the most melodramatic of all premises. But the film refuses to take Nasir through a parade of frustrations, disappointments and humiliations. The drama is constantly deferred, relegated to the margins, until late into the film. The filmmaker is mostly content in observing Nasir’s workaday over 24 hours, starting from his morning routine until his walk back home from work late in the evening. Nasir works at a clothing outlet, and the film captures his interaction with colleagues, customers, his boss and his family at length, interspersing it with pensive moments of Nasir smoking beedi.

Nasir is a relic from another time, something of a poet adrift in a commercial world. He listens to music on a tape recorder, writes loving letters to his wife who’s away from home for just three days. Like his poetry, his understated but distinctly innocent romanticism are at odds with a universe of short-term relationships and teenage affairs. His long letter to his wife—doubling as an elaborate expository device read out as voiceover—is interrupted thrice by instances of violence. But Nasir is out of pace with the world in other ways as well. As an unmarked Muslim unbound by his community and uninvolved in debates surrounding Islam, he mentally lives in a time and place in which he could survive behind the general anonymity of the city and the marketplace.

Echoing this isolation, the film hems close to Nasir’s perspective of things. The viewer experiences only what the protagonist experiences. Nasir is the centre of the cosmos on whose margins tumultuous things unfold, things that he keeps at bay unwittingly or not: signs of anti-Muslim sentiment and political mobilization in the city. A shorter sequence at his shop transposes Nasir’s condition temporarily onto a female co-worker. As the men at the outlet discuss porn, sex and adultery, the camera leaves Nasir to follow the young woman around the store as she tries unsuccessfully to ignore this ostensibly uncomfortable discussion.

Nasir’s observational approach isn’t new, and it plants itself firmly in the Hubert Bals-sponsored tradition of meditative fiction filmmaking. The film starts out with extreme close-ups of scenes from Nasir’s household, partially blocked or obscured images offered through layers of fabric or grills so that the viewer squints to perceive what’s happening. This formal scheme loosens up as Nasir sets out for the day, the scenes at the clothing shop serving both as visual and comic relief. The filmmaker often fixates on minute details of décor, setting or actors’ bodies, with one afternoon sequence around Nasir’s nap turning into an abstract vision of a state between dream and waking life. While this fetishization of the ordinary remains eccentric and tasteful for most part, it sometimes tips over into the exotic, such as when we see Nasir’s prayer at the mosque—a rare sign of his Islamic affiliation—at great, almost voyeuristic detail that goes against the general principle of the film.

On the other hand, the film’s treatment of the city of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, where the story is set, is quite refreshing. My recent memory of the city on screen is in the noxious Suttu Pidikka Utharavu (2018), where it’s a contested town filled with treacherous North Indian immigrants and Muslims to be strictly policed and surveyed from apartment rooftops. In Nasir, in contrast, we witness the city almost exclusively from the eye level on the street.

To be sure, the film does not purport to offer an objective, value-neutral glimpse of the city. For instance, we hardly see any political or film posters on its walls, or hear Dravidian political rhetoric—sights and sounds that are integral to public experience in Tamil Nadu. And the same could be said of the deep-seated caste and ethnic fault lines of the city. In Nasir, it would seem that these details have been supplanted by a pan-national communal discourse: Jamaats and Mahasabhas announce themselves on the walls as Nasir walks from his neighbourhood to the larger city—sequences whose lengths seem determined by the soundbites from mosques or BJP speeches we hear on the soundtrack. And a vaguely suspicious North Indian presence is still felt on the narrative periphery, most notably in the ubiquity of Ganesha idols during the Ganesha festival, which here becomes an occasion for Hindu assertion and mob violence.

Even so, Nasir does a good job of capturing the unique visual culture of the state, the sensory overload it imposes on the public, vying for its attention akin to the shop worker who calls out to potential customers: flashy private vehicles at a mofussil bus depot, serpentine chains of stores selling the same wares, coloured decorations cutting across roads like wires, etc. More importantly, it touches on the fragile cosmopolitanism of the city, easily upset by politically-motivated communal polarization.

Critics have hailed Nasir for its reserve, its abstinence from grandstanding, its relegation of the political to its margins and its refusal to give a message. While some of it is true, I think this profoundly mischaracterizes the film. For one, the rejection of messaging is new only as far as one compares it to mainstream Indian cinema, a comparison with little possible ground. Nasir is as far from mainstream Indian cinema as it is from Hollywood; its lineage is different and specific. Considered in light of other Rotterdam-funded films of the past two decades, its minimization of the political and its refusal to preach is wholly in line with that tradition.

Moreover, it isn’t to the film credit to say that it focuses on some fuzzy humanism, keeping the political and the communal out of its scope. Nasir’s indifference is a virtue only as far as there’s the threat of political and religious violence about him. The marginalization of the political is part of the film’s emotive substructure and not some independent artistic choice outside of its desire to follow Nasir’s life. One collapses without the other. Finally, it seems plain as day to me that Nasir has a message and one it wishes to convey ardently. It isn’t an ambiguous film by any measure, and there are no dozen ways of reading it. It isn’t any less message-oriented than many liberal-minded mainstream pictures, and to acknowledge that doesn’t take anything away from the film’s accomplishment.

[Spoiler alert]

Which brings me to the film’s ending. As Nasir walks home at night, reciting the letter to his wife on the voiceover, a Hindu mob confronts and kills him. Where arthouse filmmaking would typically omit this graphic event, presenting vignettes of its aftermath alone, Arun chooses to depict the violence. The camera unhinges from the tripod, frenetically following the men pouncing on Nasir. The shaky camera abstracts the lynching such that that the mass of men is reduced to an indistinct blob of low-def colours, with a face or a snatch of dialogue emerging from time to time to pin down the meaning of the event.

It is a bold choice that finds a novel (and morally defensible) midpoint between the iniquity of representing such violence and potential perversion (not to mention the aesthetic staleness) involved in artfully eliding the event. But I do wonder whether it isn’t a superfluous ending that could’ve been done away with altogether. I understand that it’s intended to inscribe homicidal violence within the everyday experience of the poor Indian Muslim. But I also think that it topples the affair by suggesting that the travails of Indian Muslims could only make sense within the optic of murderous communal violence. In other words, the low-key struggles born of structural problems—lack of state support, the dearth of economic opportunities, the obligation to ply one’s trade under neutral names, the pressure to move to the Gulf, the intersectional violence on women and the disabled—that are the focus of the most part of the film risk being relativized by what is evidently a coup de théâtre. It reduces the admirable qualities of the film to the setup for a dramatic punchline.

Jerry Lewis’s romantic comedy Three on a Couch (1966) works off a rather outrageous premise. Chris (Lewis) is an artist who has won a year-long residency in France. He wants to marry his girlfriend Liz (Janet Leigh) and move with her to Paris. But Liz, a psychoanalyst, can’t leave her practice because she’s not making progress with three of her patients who depend on her. Each of these three girls—of a uniformly doll-like beauty, differentiated by accents and hairstyles—has turned into a man-hater following a heartbreak. Liz is helpless and Chris is becoming increasingly morose. Chris’ best friend, the obstetrician Ben (James Best), gives him an idea: seduce the three girls so they can be cured of their misandry and Liz can leave for Paris. Playing three different men with characteristics tailored to each girl, Chris goes about making them fall for him.

As the title indicates, psychoanalysis here is euphemism for sexual intercourse. When Liz penetrates the minds of her patients, her office is lit in saturated, psychedelic colours, like some seedy den of sin conceived by Frank Tashlin. One of the girls, a sportive type, keeps moving her legs, through which the camera moves at one point. Psychoanalysis being a substitute for sex, the three girls are in an unstated romantic relation with Liz. The comedy therefore derives from one man’s attempt to win back his girlfriend from the seductions of other women by seducing away these women. Underpinning the humour is the rather retrograde notion that lesbians simply need a good dick to be cured.

Well, that’s the text. But there’s something else going on underneath, against the flow, reversing the text even. We are told that Chris was once Liz’s patient. During the credits, we see him enter her office with the appearance of a hermit, but we don’t exactly know what his problem was. Given how Liz exclusively works with issues of sexuality, we might suppose Chris too is tormented on that front. In the first scene, Chris goes to the French consulate to claim his residency and reward. He is an artist—one of Hollywood’s euphemisms for a gay man. Posing for the photo-op, he kisses the French diplomat, who tells him that it wasn’t necessary. “For $10000, you’re lucky it wasn’t on the lips”, says Chris.

When we first see Ben, he’s trying to convince Liz to go with Chris to Paris. “Any girl that won’t have babies is anti-business” is the reason this obstetrician gives. Shortly after, he arrives at a bar to talk to Chris. The whole scene plays out like the first meeting of two lovers who have long separated. This conversation, as all of Ben’s scenes in the film, is loaded with innuendo that suggest that his relation to Chris, “his best friend”, is more than platonic. He lays out the plan to Chris: “If I were a girl who hated men and wanted someone to talk me out of it, I wouldn’t go to another girl, I’d go to Cary Grant”. “Man is the cause, man is the cure”, he says, prompting Chris to play the “bohemian” lover to the three girls. Chris likes the idea, but demurs. Ben reminds him of their college days. “You seem awfully happy about this”, notes Chris, to which Ben replies, “Well, it’s good for my business”.

As the plan is afoot, Ben visits Chris in his apartment. The exchange between them strips away all context, accommodating any supposition:

Ben: “What are you so sad about?

Chris: “What am I looking so sad about? Suppose Elizabeth finds out.

Ben: “How is she gonna find out?

Chris: “That’s what I’m worried about.

Ben: “In a city as big as L.A.? It’ll never happen.”

Chris: “In a city as big as L.A. That’s when it does happen.”

Just then, Liz rings the bell. Chris opens fumblingly, and Ben prepares to leave the apartment right away for no reason. The couple sits on the couch as Liz starts recounting how her patients are showing signs of cure, not knowing that Chris is behind all this. Now, Jerry Lewis’ sequencing tends to be rather austere, not particularly marked by camera movements. During conversation scenes, he avoids shot/reverse shot constructions, instead drawing the viewer into the space through axial cuts from medium two-shots to tighter solo shots. But here, he allows himself a flourish. The camera arcs from behind the sofa where the couple are sitting and goes at the diametrically opposite point, reversing the actors’ on-screen positions. The reversal is equally thematic, for Chris is as much a pawn in Ben’s plan as Liz is in his.

Notwithstanding the tacked-on happy ending, one against-the-grain reading of the plot illustrates its symmetry: Chris thinks he’s winning back Liz by seducing the girls, but it might well be Ben who’s trying to win back Chris by urging him to carry out this hopeless plan. So we can’t always say who’s controlling whom; at several points, the three characters move in a way that swaps their positions in the frame.

Ben’s romance is barely veiled. In a ballroom scene, as Chris necks Liz during a slow dance, Lewis cuts to Ben’s reaction, a wholly uncomfortable insert held for too long. Ben forces an awkward, pained smile. As the couple dances, Ben gets up from the seat to encourage Chris to continue dancing, as though he needed that encouragement. In a later scene, Ben and Chris leave a party hall into a private room. Lewis makes an ambiguous cut to Liz discussing with her secretary about how pretty something looks; “a natural romance”, adds the secretary. (The entire party scene—constructed around a Kafkaesque elevator that’s always there but never accessible—is small masterpiece of screen comedy, dialled-up with uncharacteristically tight, claustrophobic compositions that cry for a release.)

In his extraordinary Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992), which played this week at the Filmmuseum München retrospective online, Mark Rappaport picks out moments from Hudson’s films that surreptitiously relay information about the actor’s homosexuality, revelations often mitigated by a safely heterosexual plot context. The filmmaker extracts these lines and gestures out of their context to build his case that Hudson’s homosexuality was there to see for anyone who cared to pay close attention. This hacking of the texts, this decontextualization, frustrating from an academic point of view, is very much the point of the film, which forges a young admirer’s private fantasy in the vein of Hollywood Babylon from public documents. Rappaport’s explosive work throws light on the complex workings of the Hollywood movie, where several extra-textual narratives intermingle to pin down an ever-slippery network of meanings.

Someone watching Three on a Couch with no knowledge of the actors’ private lives may similarly suppose that Jerry Lewis and James Best were queer, and that this detail was being sublimated in a story about heterosexual supremacy. The scenes between them have a touch of camp, but Lewis’ performance and characterization are especially striking.

A Lewis operation is generally room-wrecking, his physicality dominating every other element of the aesthetic. Here, on the other hand, he is largely withdrawn. He doesn’t begin with the Lewis persona right away. He starts off, in fact, as a rather obnoxious figure, throwing tantrums and blackmailing Liz when she refuses to go with him to Paris. In his scenes with Liz, he is often photographed from the back, not unlike how Cary Grant is filmed in Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), the lack of our access to his facial reactions making him seem even more sinister. There are no reverse shots, and his inward-looking body language clearly spells a repressed character.

What’s Ben’s seduction plan for Chris if not an opportunity for him to perform heterosexual romances with women without ever personally investing in it, just like what Rock Hudson and other queer stars of Hollywood always did in their movies? It even offers Chris a chance to cross-dress as a character named Heather. Sexually speaking, the Jerry Lewis persona oscillates between a childish pre- or asexuality and blustering ultra-masculinity. Here, Ben’s plan decomposes Chris’ relatively complex personality into three simple archetypes: Ringo the alpha man of the west, Warren the sportive urban male and Rutherford the gay mamma’s boy. Once this decomposition is in place, all three archetypes are subjected to the Jerry treatment; in a montage of funny courting scenes (chopped up into single gags so as to put Jerry back into his comfort zone), we see how each of these men fails in the sole characteristic he is supposed to uphold.

So I suspect Three on a Couch is to Lewis what Punch-Drunk Love (2002) is to Adam Sandler: a deconstruction, a look at what likes on the other side of his screen persona, defined equally by arrested development. But the more fundamental question of whether it’s legitimate for heterosexual actors like Lewis and Best to play gay characters playing heterosexual characters is a Gordian knot I can’t yet undo.

This kind of in-joking—whether imposed or willed—is not uncommon in the work of queer actors like Grant, Hudson and Montgomery Clift. And unlike, say, Indian male movie stars, who operate in a firmly heterosexual framework that can only allow their drag roles and performed queerness to be read as jokes, Lewis and Best are working in Hollywood of 1966, whose historical and cultural context won’t let viewers brush aside the significations of these ‘crossovers’. Which is to say, Three on a Couch may have been a cultural relic even in its time, like all Jerry Lewis films.

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Warner Brothers was arguably the most interesting film production house of the 1930s, certainly at least from a political and social point of view. Like other studios, it knew how to harness the Depression-era audience’s desire to escape the doom and gloom around them by offering cheerful backstage musicals. But Warner also proved itself willing and capable of registering the harsh reality that this audience lived in. The studio’s tendency to both profit from the general resentment and to assuage it with uplifting messages of hope and courage may have its roots in the political leanings of its chief Jack Warner, a heavyweight supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt who is said to have gotten his wartime directives straight from the White House.

Heroes for Sale (1933) was produced by First National Pictures, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers’ that mostly handled the studio’s second-tier products. There were few stars in these films and the budgets were relatively low, which allowed them to be bold in their choice of plot and setting. While in a Warner Bros. picture, tragic stories would regularly be attenuated with a tacked-on happy ending, the First National films didn’t need to sugarcoat their bitter vision. Heroes for Sale was made just after Roosevelt swore in as the 32nd president of the United States. As though symptomatic of this particular time, the film embodies both a discontentment with the preceding Hoover administration and a hope for the new one, the duality manifesting as an incongruity between plot and character.

Injured in combat during the war, Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) returns home to discover that the military accolades he deserves have been given to his army peer Roger (Gordon Westcott). Not wishing to rock the boat, Tom takes up a modest clerical job at the bank run by Roger’s father, only to be crippled by, and sacked for, a morphine addiction he acquired at a German POW hospital. After rehabilitation, Tom starts a family and successfully runs a laundry in Chicago, but finds himself unwittingly caught up in a riot following a wave of automation and job loss. Returning from an imprisonment of five years, he learns he is on a list of suspected communists, and is forced to wander the country as a drifter without a home, a family or a job.

The script, by Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner (an opium addict himself), has a stark anti-establishment bent. Throughout the film, we witness authority being abused to crush the little man that Tom represents: a commander who sends his soldiers on an impossible mission, a banker who misappropriates people’s money, businessmen who sack their employees without second thought, police who fire at protestors, law that accords disproportional punishment to white- and blue-collar crimes, enforcers chasing vagabonds from their camps. Heroes for Sale is punctuated by images drawn from real events of the preceding years, such as urban breadlines, the veterans’ march to Washington and the ensuing firing. At the end, Tom tells Roger, both hobos on the run now: “You started way up high and I started pretty low. And we end up here in the rain, together.”

While the grim analysis above remains faithful to the reality of the Great Depression, the reaction to it suggested by Heroes for Sale is one of stoic acceptance. All through his ordeals, Tom refuses revolts against his lot, nor does he switch over to the wrong side of the law. As a result, the account of his constant exile from society—army, rehabilitation centre, prison, endless wandering as a vagrant—scans like a modern-day Book of Job, where Christian forbearance, charity and an unquestioning faith in powers that be are presented as the noblest possible response to relentless suffering. This answer is justified by the failure of the anti-automation riot Tom tries to prevent, as well as by the presence of the inventor Max (Robert Barrat), a caricatural communist who is simply a disgruntled capitalist at heart.

This call for patience is wholly in line with the studio’s support for the new regime and the promises of the New Deal. In fact, the film devolves into an unveiled propaganda for Roosevelt towards the end. “It takes more than one sock in the jaw to lick 120 million people”, says Tom to Roger, explicitly referring to the new president’s inaugural address. The economy, and with it the morale of the nation, will rise again is the message. After one hour of attacking one American institution after another, here’s a turnabout, an unfounded appeal for trust. Trust in institutions, especially the banking establishments that had lost public legitimacy after the stock market collapse, was what the Warner brothers would have liked too; their existence depended on it: Goldman Sachs was on advisory board of the studio and had co-financed its purchase of First National Pictures.

Director William A. Wellman’s style is notoriously hard to pin down; his personal vision of the world, even more so. There is little formal or thematic consistency across his body of work, except perhaps a certain taste for gritty realism expressed in particular details of action, gesture and setting. Any line of moral, political or philosophical thought one can discern in one film will invariably be contradicted in another. As critic David Phelps puts it, “the films have no metaphysics but physics.” As a result, critical consensus on his work still remains unresolved, his status as a major American filmmaker open to question. Manny Farber was a great admirer of the textures in his films, asserting that “when Wellman finishes with a service station or the wooden stairs in front of an ancient saloon, there’s no reason for any movie realist to handle the subject again.” In contrast, Andrew Sarris declared that, with Wellman, “objectivity is the last refuge for mediocrity.

Be that as it may, Wellman brings a lean muscularity to Heroes for Sale, which possesses a novelistic sprawl without ever turning laboured or precious. The film hurtles from one genre, one setting to another, making vast leaps in time that are all the more striking in that they are executed with straight cuts without transitions. Wellman’s characteristic camera movements expand and contract spaces with considerable effectiveness. He tracks across the laundry floor twice to show the wrecking impact of automation on the employees. Wellman steers clear of sentimentalism despite the thoroughly melodramatic construction of the scenario. A comparison with his collaboration with David O. Selznick, a high-strung sentimentalist, a few months before in The Conquerors (1932) reveals on how light-footed Heroes for Sale actually is.

There’s something about Wellman’s style that makes it free of value judgments about what is being depicted. To be sure, scenes can provoke the desired emotion in the viewer, but only in so far as the script needs it. Many episodes in Wellman’s work seem to unfold in the passive voice, displacing interest from the characters on to the action they are embedded in. The riot sequence in Heroes for Sale is a good example. The strikers wreck the laundry and hurl stones at the police, who fire back. The camera pushes through the fighting mass to pick up Tom’s wife, who has come to look for him. A barely perceptible blow to her jaw knocks her down dead. Since the previous shot shows both the rioters and the police wielding batons, we are not sure who is delivered the blow. Wellman’s staging and editing of the action takes no sides, shifting the emphasis from assigning responsibility to describing results. A riot took place, blows were exchanged, a woman was killed.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

“Somi wears a broad smile. She’s in her late twenties—or early thirties, she doesn’t know—and pregnant with her second child. “I think it’s a girl”, she tells her husband Sukhram, five years her junior. Somi cooks, washes their clothes and takes care of their first child, while Sukhram is about the house doing nondescript work. They have a pet parrot and raise poultry in their plot of land. It might be the picture of a modest but ordinary family, except for the fact that both Somi and Sukhram are renegades from the Naxal movement who surrendered to the Indian state, got an amnesty, and were resettled under the country’s rehabilitation policy for ex-Naxals. Their “second-life”, in a colony in rural Maharashtra comprising of refugees like themselves, is the subject of a compelling new documentary titled A Rifle and a Bag, which screened online at the Visions du Réel film festival last week.

In long, fixed shots, the opening passage of the film gives us a sense of the couple’s everyday reality: scenes from domestic life, Somi’s visit to the pregnancy clinic, the couple’s conversation about their to-be-born second child. These images of quotidian life are, however, soon punctured as we learn about Somi’s past as a Naxal commander, the deadly reprisals the couple have risked in their surrender, their lingering feeling of deracination. Somi’s role as a wife and a mother is in stark contrast with her older role as a Naxal higher-up. But Somi makes no remark about this conventional distribution of labour, content instead to secure a future for her children.

A large part of A Rifle and a Bag presents the couple’s interaction with the Indian state and civil society on a day-to-day basis as part of their rehabilitation. Somi runs from pillar to post to unsuccessfully obtain a caste certificate for Sukhram, who can’t safely go back home to Chhatisgarh to get one. Without this certificate, they can’t admit their son into a school. The film develops around the central irony that Somi and Sukhram, of a tribal origin, have to identify themselves in terms the Indian state understands. The state and the civil society, though, aren’t malevolent forces. In fact, the officers, teachers and doctors whom we only hear interacting with Somi could hardly be more understanding and sympathetic. It’s the system they help function, faceless just like them, that holds Somi and Sukhram like a vice.”

 

[Full review at Silverscreen]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

One of Paramount Pictures’ most prestigious assets was director Josef von Sternberg, a Viennese émigré most known for his seven-film collaboration with iconic actress Marlene Dietrich, who had moved to the States following the success of their first film together, The Blue Angel (1930). The sixth entry in the cycle, The Scarlet Empress, is a loose biography of Catherine the Great of Russia. The arrival of the talkies in the late 1920s had given fresh impetus to studios to remake their silent epics in sound. The year before had seen Garbo play Christina of Sweden in the commercial hit Queen Christina (1933) and Paramount themselves had released Cleopatra (1934), starring Claudette Colbert, a month before to considerable success. But nothing, not even Sternberg’s earlier films with Dietrich, anticipates the stylistic aggression of The Scarlet Empress, a box-office bomb.

Sternberg’s film follows a fairly linear trajectory. Ordained to be married to the Grand Duke Peter of Russia (Sam Jaffe), Catherine (Dietrich) travels from her hometown in Prussia to Russia, accompanied by the handsome Count Alexei (John Lodge). Catherine falls in love with the count, who has described Peter to her in lofty terms. Having reached Russia, Catherine is subject to a series of rude awakenings: Peter is a sinister idiot who devises torture toys, his aunt the current Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) is a cold, cruel ruler who only wants Catherine to produce a male heir to her throne and Alexei appears to be a perennial skirt-chaser. Hardened by her betrayal, Catherine shields herself from the world, weaponizing her sexuality and waiting for the right moment to seize power.

It’s a rather intimate, psychoanalytical retelling of Catherine’s story that casts her private romantic problems as the motor of History. It locates the dissolution of her humanity in a wrenching scene in which she discovers that Alexei is also the illicit lover of Elizabeth. Later in the film, after taking over Elizabeth’s private chamber, Catherine restages this primal scene as a form of therapy, this time forcing Alexei into her old role in order to make him recognize the harm he’s done. Catherine’s ascension is conditioned by her private disappointments—the dissolution of her Prussian identity, her unhappy marriage, her heartbreak with Alexei and the her being reduced to an heir-producing machine. “We women are too much creatures of the heart”, remarks Elizabeth, lamenting the burden of the crown. It’s Catherine’s predicament too, one which she turns to her advantage.

Nothing in the synopsis above obliges Scarlet Empress to be the film that it is. In the hands of another equally-capable director, this might have been a sober, moving tragedy about thrust-upon greatness. But Sternberg was a sophisticated stylist and he conceives the film in an idiosyncratic form that derives from gothic, baroque and expressionistic tendencies in western art and architecture. Every detail of the film—sets, costume, lighting, dialogue, acting, music—is distorted to a grotesque degree having little to do with reality, leave alone history. Sternberg’s genre-bending treatment of the narrative applies horror movie tropes to a historical psychodrama, resulting in a very campy, very exotic aesthetic comparable to what Sergei Eisenstein would devise years later for his Ivan the Terrible films.

Sternberg’s primary means of breaking away from realism is through a ‘encumbered’ mise en scène, a deep physical space saturated with decorative objects all pointing to the unfathomable cruelty of the Russian royalty: a decadent palace housing gargoyle like sculptures, thrones attached to busts of withered old men clutching their faces in grief, clocks and toys depicting sexual deviancy and human torture, expansive clothes that seem like medieval torture instruments themselves, a skeleton leaning over a dining table, tableware and even food that spell out anguish and pain. (It is a curious irony that the contemporary face of evil, seizing power in Germany as Sternberg’s film was being made, glorified an aesthetic that was the polar opposite of the one pictured here.) The human characters are thus lost in layers and layers of clothing and décor, trapped in an ethos of terror they have little agency over. Catherine is doomed, physically and morally, to the same fate as her predecessors.

Nothing is left to accident in Sternberg’s film. Every visual, every gesture and every word planned in advance — Catherine playing with a suspended rope, falling on a haystack and tucking straws into her mouth for Alexei to remove, Alexei bowing his head in sorrow after Catherine asks him to perform an elaborate ritual, Catherine wrapping the tip of Peter’s threatening sword with a piece of her dress, a high official humiliatingly dropping a diamond in a priest’s plate — everything carrying specific meaning. Working with cinematographer Bert Glennon for the fifth time, Sternberg develops a rather complex lighting pattern that favours certain image planes over others (a similar scheme will be developed in India later by Guru Dutt and V. K. Murthy). This produces a film of great visual allure as well as ambiguity.

The chief source of ambiguity, though, stems from Sternberg’s bold mixing of tones. The Scarlet Empress is both a tragedy about Catherine’s sealed fate as well as risqué comedy about her sexual conquests. The challenge the film poses is that it never clearly distinguishes these two elements of the film. The duality of innocence and evil is introduced in the film’s first scene, in which a young, bedridden Catherine clutches her doll as her governor reads her tales of notorious Russian tyrants. The calamity facing Catherine registers clearly all through the narrative, reaching its peak in a gorgeously expressive wedding scene in which the bride Catherine’s halting breath threatens to blow out the candle she holds before her veil. Cutting to a soaring choral score, Sternberg films Catherine and Alexei in increasingly tight closeups, freezing them in their despair and helplessness via a characteristic top lighting.

On the other hand, the film suspends us in an attitude of uneasy humour about Catherine’s destiny. This strategy primarily manifests in the figure of Marlene Dietrich, an icon of screen irony. The viewer never once believes in the innocence of Christina even back in Prussia as a young maiden. Dietrich plays up the plain country girl stereotype, feigning wide-eyed naïveté and real love. Starting from this, The Scarlet Empress effects a progressive ‘defeminization’ of Catherine, her billowing white frock slowly giving way to military furs and finally to a dazzling white uniform with coat and trousers. Catherine’s rise to power thus coincides with a merging of the character with the Dietrich persona. The actor conveys Catherine’s sexual maturity with tremendous humour and wit. The joke on paper (that Catherine the Great slept with the whole Russian army) is taken through all its variations by Dietrich’s actorly intelligence, her manner of introducing wholly gratuitous but suggestive sentence breaks (“And your duties… Dmitri?”) and her typical way of sizing up men around her.

All of this excess somehow passed through the newly introduced Motion Picture Production Code. Part of it has to do with the film’s way of having its royal cake and eating it. A biographical picture situated in a different time and country (Russia, no less) perhaps gave the film immunity from the censors. The sadism, cruelty and debauchery could always be defended by appeal to a dubious historical accuracy. Whatever the case, it’s a wonder that Sternberg managed to go as far as he did, especially at a point where the country was reeling from the aftermath of the Great Depression. Film history is all the richer for it.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

A projectionist at a Universal theatre sets up his machine and projects a film. On screen, a bevy of beauties are seen walking down the stairs. The stairs turn into a ramp, the ladies slip and fall into an abyss. They end up in a bustling section of the netherworld where an army of devils is forging weapons and canning men and women into barrels. Amidst the commotion, a taxi appears out of which a seemingly endless number of animals step out. They drag two men behind them with a rope. The men have a fight with the tiny driver of the taxi, who hands them a bill several metres long. The two men burn down the taxi with a magic breath. Wanting to see this bit of action once again, they call out to the projectionist off screen and have him rewind the last portion. Somewhere between all this is a title card that reads “any resemblance between HELLZAPOPPIN’ and a motion picture is purely coincidental”.

If the description above makes no logical sense, it is intended so. One of the challenges that Hellzapoppin’ (1941), among the most unclassifiable films in the history of Hollywood, sets for itself is to disrupt conventional logic of film narratives and frustrate our expectations of them. Produced by Universal Studios and directed by H. C. Potter, Hellzapoppin’ was adapted from a highly successful Broadway revue of the same name that premiered in 1938. The brains behind the revue, the comic duo of John “Ole” Olsen and Harold “Chic” Johnson, are also the “protagonists” of the film. They drag the viewer through a potpourri of one-liners, terrible puns, running jokes, action stunts, visual gags, song-and-dance numbers and meta-cinematic games connected by little other than their presence. Their sole weapon is interruption, their only guiding principle, incoherence.

But Hellzapoppin’ does have a ‘story’ (“because every picture’s gotta have one”). After the frenzy of the first few minutes, Olsen and Johnson are revealed to be actors trying to make a film (“a picture about a picture about Hellzapoppin’”). In this film within the film, they are supposed to play guests at a party hosted by heiress Kitty (Jane Frazee). The affluent Woody (Lewis Howard) is in love with Kitty, but Kitty loves the playwright Jeff (Robert Paige), who doesn’t want to upset his friend Woody by returning her love. Olsen and Johnson, playing themselves, device a plot to first hook up Kitty and Jeff, and then to separate them. Orbiting around these figures is an undercover Russian prince (Mischa Auer), a love-hungry young woman pursuing the aristocrat (Martha Raye) and a free agent of no defined purpose (Hugh Herbert) who outbids Olsen and Johnson in their charades.

It wouldn’t be a hyperbole to state that there’s nothing quite like Hellzapoppin’ in classical Hollywood. The film doesn’t particularly obey the conventions of a genre and appears to lie outside of established moviemaking traditions. Its parentage in cinema is therefore hard to establish. If it has a certain affinity to the anarchic spirit of the Marx brothers, especially Chico, its sense of play and gratuitous action have strong echoes of the Dadaist cinema of Europe, such as the work of René Clair and Man Ray. In its tendency to make up the narrative as it goes along, it also recalls the Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse, where a story or an image passed from the hands of one artist to another, the result bearing the signature of everyone and no one at once.

A more instructive comparison would perhaps be the world of Looney Tunes, the cartoon series produced by Warner Brothers where we find a similar kind of meta-humour at work. These cartoons, especially ones featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, have an elastic narrative universe that accommodates every kind of absurd plot development and prepares the viewer to accept these bizarre turns of events as they are. Like them, Hellzapoppin’ constantly calls attention to its own artifice, as Olsen and Johnson slip in and out of the film (and the film within the film) to directly address members outside the story. They ask the cameraman to stop lingering on bathing beauties. They prompt the projectionist to adjust the misaligned frame weighing down on them. At one point, they instruct one particular member of the audience to go home.

It is also important to note that, before their eastward move to Broadway, Olsen and Johnson were renowned figures of the vaudeville circuit in the American Midwest. In the early 1930s, vaudeville, as a popular form of entertainment, was fighting a losing battle against Hollywood’s talking pictures, which poached both its audience and its talents. Chaining together unrelated variety acts was part of its tradition, but the competition with talkies appears to have obliged vaudeville to distinguish itself even more, not unlike the way cinema was forced to turn more spectacular when television posed a threat in the early 1950s. As a result, Olsen and Johnson’s act turned, per one report, “wilder and zanier”.

This change translated, in the Broadway avatar of Hellzapoppin’, into a gleeful transgression of the theatrical space. Accounts of the revue talk about the ways its action overflowed from the stage into the audience’s space. During the show, it’s said, that a man walked the aisles selling tickets for a competing Broadway musical, another interloper threw rubber snakes at the audience, while a lady ran up and down the hall calling out the name of a certain Oscar. This violation of the audience’s distance from the spectacle—domesticated later by the performances and ‘happenings’ of the 1960s art scene—makes the film’s regular breaking of the fourth wall seem tame in comparison.

Contemporary American reviewers of Hellzapoppin’ the film, for one, seem to have thought so. Writing for Time, James Agee wrote that the film “loses the frenetic quality it achieved on the stage” and that “Olsen & Johnson’s ability to exude a kind of ectoplasm which engulfs a theatre audience and makes it participate in the show is necessarily cut off when the show is confined to the screen.” The notice in New York Times called the comic duo “noisy, boorish and often downright sadistic”. Unburdened by comparisons to the Broadway version, the film appears to have better fared in Europe. The French critic André Bazin, for instance, likened the film’s operation to “the penetration of a neutron into a stable molecule” and stated that its gags “push the metaphysical limits of laughter”.

Even with eighty years of hindsight, we may perhaps not be able to improve on these reactions. For, despite all its chaos and confusion, Hellzapoppin’ conceals no great mystery. It is a film that wears all its enchantments on its sleeve. There’s a plainness and innocence in the way it rejoices in playing with the possibilities of the medium. Early on, Olsen and Johnson walk through the backlot from one set to another. Every time they enter a new space, the shot changes and so do their costumes, thanks to the magic of a straight cut. Footage is quickened, reversed or slowed down. Double exposures are used for amusing special effects. Off-screen space becomes integrated into the shots. And in the film’s crowning passage, familiar to many thanks to a viral clip on the internet, a group of black performers break into an astounding Lindy Hop dance number, jaw-dropping in its physicality and athleticism. It’s as pure as spectacles get.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Cecil B. DeMille’s This Day and Age (1933) tells the tale of a group of youngsters taking on the corrupt system that has a stranglehold on their town. Steve (Richard Cromwell) witnesses the murder of his friend, the Jewish tailor Herman (Harry Green), by the local mafia boss Garrett (Charles Bickford). But his testimony is repudiated in court and Garrett walks scot free. Steve and his friends decide to carry out their own investigation and bring Garrett to justice. The film was made at a time when detective novels, especially involving teenage sleuths like the Hardy boys, enjoyed great fandom. While not a detective story in itself, DeMille’s film draws from the popularity of the genre, circumscribing the fact-finding efforts of its young leads within a larger political framework.

As its title indicates, This Day and Age purports to recount the story of its time. It begins appropriately with images of modern technology—aircrafts, zeppelins, motorboats and skyscrapers. But the film views modernity primarily in the possibilities of the younger generation and its power to wash away old structures and bring new moral life to society. As part of a “boys’ day programme”, Steve and two of his friends are appointed as the town attorney, judge and police commissioner for a brief time. They witness first-hand how the “system” fails to protect the innocent: judges trot out rules from books to defend Garrett’s acquittal, the defence lawyer grills Steve until he gives into doubt, and all proof of the murder is discredited. The boys realize they simply can’t win within this system, designed only to sustain itself, and must construct their own, based on their sense of truth and justice: they kidnap Garrett and convict him in a kangaroo court.

DeMille’s paean to youth has touches of what Nicholas Ray would undertake in the next couple of decades. The film’s first real shot is that of students walking into their high school union meeting. We will see their marching feet in closeup thrice in the film. The night they kidnap Garrett, they take over the town’s streets, and DeMille portrays this as the way forward for the nation. The film’s glorification of youngsters as a power in politics has an unnerving parallel with the rise of the Hitler Youth organization in Germany. The National Socialists had come to power a few months ago, and the Hitler Youth saw a twentyfold increase in its membership the year the film was made. This Day and Age capitalizes on this hopefulness about the younger generation pervading the air.

On the other hand, unlike in Nicholas Ray’s pictures, the film smoothens out all the rough edges around intergenerational relations. For one, the parents in DeMille’s film aren’t failed figures imprisoned by social norms. They are sympathetic and supportive of their children’s undertaking. Steve tells his parents that he’s going to get Garrett, and his father simply wishes him luck. DeMille’s paternalistic view of the teenagers finds them stuck between two ages, between the fragility of childhood and the moral urgency of adult life. When one of the boys is shot, he crawls into a foetal position and says, “I want my mother”, before collapsing. This sorry image is dissolved over a shot of Garrett’s cabaret girls dancing to a jazzed-up version of “Rock-a-bye Baby”. This desire for generational rapprochement reaches a peak in the film’s final scene, where the boys’ demands for justice are harmonized and blessed by the old boys of the system.

This Day and Age is an excellent case study to demonstrate that Hollywood films aren’t as much expressions of a coherent set of political beliefs as fruits of numerous contradictions created by conflicting production demands. On one hand, the film evidently draws inspiration from the socialist spirit of the times. The damage wrought by the Great Depression had brought popularity to social movements and trade unions around the country. The socialist writer Upton Sinclair would contest in the Californian gubernatorial elections as the Democratic Party candidate the following year. It’s telling that DeMille and Paramount Pictures, who aren’t generally known for films about everyday people, came together on a project defending the little man. The film, in fact, begins with a student union meeting to discuss unemployment.

On the other hand, a rather strong conservative streak is to be traced in the film’s conception of good and evil. The good, represented by youth, free enterprise and the common businessman who refuses to submit to the tyranny of unions, is brought into a provisional opposition with evil, symbolized by the mafia, politicians (who may be immigrants) and the government. The teenagers’ fight against Garrett is repeatedly cast as a truly American act, the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” serving as a recurring motif. The mafioso Garrett, in contrast, is someone who threatens small businesses and perverts the young, his cabaret corrupting innocent children’s rhymes for lurid entertainment.

Some of the ideological contradictions of the film originate from the figure of DeMille himself, a notorious conservative. The filmmaker was partly Jewish, but also one of the most virulent anti-communists in Hollywood. He reconciles his Jewish identity with his Americanism in the character of the tailor Herman. A fierce independent wary of unions, Herman is glad to cook different foods for his friends, and that includes ham for an Irish boy. “The stomach is the last thing to get patriotic about”, he remarks. DeMille had visited the USSR in 1931, an experience he described in positive terms. The strategic superimpositions and dissolves he employs in the film—the boy detectives crawling at Herman’s house searching for clues dissolved with Garrett’s cabaret girls crawling to the tune of “Three Blind Mice”, shot of a rat dissolved with Garrett’s face—themselves show an influence of Soviet montage techniques.

The film’s ideological confusions acquire tremendous power once Garrett is abducted by the boys. At the end of a robust kidnapping scene involving boot polish and adhesive tapes, Garrett finds himself hunched over like a primate, his hands stuck to his knees. He is carried to a mock courtroom in an amphitheatre populated by the youngsters of the town, armed with ropes, guns and torches. He is strung up and the planks under his feet are removed one by one, and he soon hangs free over a pit of rats. The boys press for a confession, lowering him progressively until only the rope his seen and his screams heard. It’s a scene drenched in sadism—intercut with another disturbing scene of sexual menace—but also righteous anger of the teenagers.

DeMille, a master of Biblical spectacles, amps up the uneasiness in the subsequent scene. Having confessed to Herman’s murder, Garrett is now propped up on a stick like a pagan offering and taken on a procession to the court—a sequence that has an echo in the garish “golden calf” episode of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). The boys march in militaristic unison, waving banners and belting out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. A shot of Garrett on the stake, haggard and resigned, introduces a rather queasy note in this celebratory theatre of revolution. The mob action is supported by the police and receives official sanction in the courthouse, where Garrett’s confession, though obtained under duress, is used to incriminate him. Couching a crusade for justice within a fascist form, This Day and Age is a work alive with the tensions of the era as well as the dynamics of Hollywood film production.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Produced by the short-lived Parklane pictures and distributed by United Artists, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) follows the exploits of low-level private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker). After picking up a distressed woman (Cloris Leachman) on a highway, Hammer finds himself embroiled in a mystery too big for him to even understand, leave alone solve. A group of men with sketchy motivations, looking for “the box”, try to kill him, while every woman he comes across falls heads over heels for him. The more Hammer tries to get to the bottom of things, the farther they seem, and the more he risks losing. Ultimately, the film poses this question: how far will the detective go in his violence, misogyny, cynicism and pig-headedness before he realizes that he is only a tragic hero, doomed to failure?

Kiss Me Deadly was adapted by A. I. Bezzerides from Mickey Spillane’s detective novel of the same name. Bezzerides, a novelist himself, strips down concrete references from the source material. The object of everybody’s search becomes a box containing a nondescript “whatsit” instead of a drug consignment. The mafia makes way for a nameless, faceless “them” who pull all the strings. Such abstraction lends the film to different readings. Thanks to a reference, however, to the Manhattan Project and the radioactive quality of the box’s contents, the film is traditionally taken to be a commentary on the anxiety about nuclear age. Hammer’s developing paranoia comes to fruition when a femme fatale Lily (Gaby Rodgers) who double-crossed him ends up opening the box on a whim.

In a peculiar fashion, the film proceeds on two fronts at the same time. While the plot marches forward steadily, Aldrich and Bezzerides devote their attention elsewhere. Instead of accompanying Hammer in his search for truth, they reverse the gaze, looking rather at Hammer’s seedy operation, his obstinacy and his escalating paranoia, desperation and violence. Two or three things seem to be happening in parallel in every scene of the film. A debriefing sequence doubles as a game of seduction. A dinner with family becomes a confessional about a killing. Hammer goes to confront the story’s antagonist at the latter’s mansion, only to get into a long romantic exchange with the villain’s excessively forward sister. Full of stubs and false tracks, the plot appears to go nowhere, yet plot is the least of the film’s concerns.

It becomes clear as the film advances that Aldrich and Bezzerides are aiming less for a realistic detective story with allegorical underpinning than a myth with a very physical presence. The legend of Pandora’s Box particularly looms over the ending, but the whole film itself unfolds like a dream. The dialogue veers on the poetic and the actors’ line reading is weirdly protracted with pregnant pauses. Hammer’s dodgy cop friend Pat (Wesley Addy) speaks in an affectless, extra-terrestrial tone, his mechanic pal Nick (Nick Dennis) amps up the Mediterranean stereotype, Lily orders Hammer to kiss her in an incantatory repetition, while her boss, the doctor Soberin (Albert Dekker) makes pensive declarations full of mythological references.

The cumulative effect of these eccentric lines and dialogue delivery is the impression that what Hammer is navigating through is a nightmare of dilated time, a mechanical world of cold images programmed to perform specific functions. The surreal texture of the film’s soundscape is likely the reason British artist repurposed it for his recent experimental film, The Whalebone Box (2019), also about a mythical box with supreme powers. The movie’s oneiric quality is pitted against a heightened presence of the real Los Angeles. Several locations from the city feature in the film, most notably the uphill funicular known as the Angels Flight. In his epic study of the representation of Los Angeles in film, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), filmmaker and academic Thom Anderson deems Kiss Me Deadly “close to definitive as a portrait of the city in the mid-fifties.”

Accentuating the sense of the story’s oppressiveness is Aldrich’s muscular approach to direction. The story takes place in summer and, even when we aren’t sure where it’s headed, we feel the sultriness of the air. The film’s harsh, directional lighting scheme flashes the actors like headlights on a highway, as the camera lingers on their sweaty faces and jagged features. Doors are knocked down with more force than is usual in detective movies, the punches land harder. Hammer dispatches one henchman down a large flight of stairs. He’ll later jam the fingers of an elderly coroner in a drawer.

Like his peer Samuel Fuller, Aldrich employs a shot division that focuses largely on actors’ feet. The film’s first shot is that of a woman’s running feet. A while later, we see the same feet rise off the ground as the woman is tortured. As the film progresses, the image of feet accrues a frightening aura, belonging invariably to men sporting dark suits and heavy, leather shoes. This disembodied, faceless menace—sophisticated, emotionless and sure in its movement—becomes almost a metaphysical threat. We don’t know who these feet belong to, but we understand that its trace runs deep.

Matching the labyrinthine machinery of the plot is an equally complex cinematography. Shot by Hungarian emigré Ernest Laszlo, Kiss Me Deadly employs a camera choreography that rivals those of Orson Welles and Max Ophüls, as do the low-angle, deep space compositions. A three-minute scene of Hammer questioning a contact at a boxing gym is filmed in a single shot. It includes a conversation about a champion boxer in the ring without even a glimpse of the ring. Another three-minute shot, dominated by horizontal camera movements, finds Hammer grilling a soprano in a cramped hotel room. Aldrich varies his sequence construction from scene to scene, and the film remains as unpredictable on the visual level as on its narrative level.

The single most accomplished element of the film, though, is its multi-layered sound design that imparts complementary values to everything we see. This principle is evident from the credits sequence onwards, in which Nat King Cole’s I’d Rather Have the Blues is overlaid with the sound of heavy breathing of the girl in Hammer’s car—we know something is off right away. Throughout, Aldrich mixes in ambient noise—the buzz of the boxing gym, the sound of the sea, street traffic—in a way that expands the world we see on screen. At times, he superposes contradictory sound elements running against the grain of the image. So you have chamber music playing as a voice threatens Hammer on the phone. Or Schubert’s Eighth Symphony over the detective’s interrogation of a witness. In one stylized action sequence, Hammer’s escape is scored simultaneously to a piece of generic music, the sound of the ocean and sports commentary.

A B-movie with no stars or studio backing, Kiss Me Deadly has gathered a reputation among filmmakers and cinephiles over the years as a crime movie classic. The amoral, machine-like operation of Hammer finds an echo in the vigilante of John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), itself inspiring Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (2009). Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) pays tribute to Aldrich’s film in its suitcase with glowing contents. But the first to consider Aldrich as a serious artist—and this film a masterpiece—were the young critics at the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. Charles Bitsch, who became a filmmaker himself, called it one of the most significant films of the decade and Aldrich, “the first filmmaker of the atomic age”.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

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