Nightmare Alley²

How do you feel about celebrating the holidays in a morass of darkness? That’s what I did today when I saw the 2021 remake of Nightmare Alley, directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, and Rooney Mara.

If there are any predictions possible from seeing a single film, I would have to say that we are entering a period of gloomy decadence. All the scenes take place either in heavy rain, a blizzard, and—just for a change—a modicum of dusty and hazy sunshine. Standing out from the dark edges are glittering reds, blues, greens, and browns.

Although the 2021 version followed the original 1947 film directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Tyrone Power as Stanton Carlisle, the del Toro film is ever more shady, especially with Cate Blanchett as the psychoanalyst Lilith Ritter. She not only robs Carlisle of his ill-gotten gains, but shoots his ear off with a 22 caliber pistol. Blanchett bids fair to become the neo-noir equivalent of such noir queens as Audrey Totter and Gloria Grahame.

Both film versions are worth seeing. In fact, I would also recommend reading the William Lindsay Gresham 1946 novel upon which they were based.

One side note: There is something unspeakably grimy and evil about the whole carny world as it is presented in books and films. If you are drawn in, you might also want to check out Robert Edmond Alter’s Carny Kill (1966). You might also want to dip into his Swamp Sister (1961). Neo-noir doesn’t get any better than this.

Favorite Films: Europa 51

Of the greatest filmmakers, the one I know the least about is Roberto Rossellini. Today, I had a chance to view his Europa 51 (1952) and found it to be a masterpiece. For some reason, the great postwar Italian films (dubbed Neorealism) have, for some reason, faded from view. Included were films by Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Giuseppe De Santis, and Roberto Rossellini.

The films I have seen by Rossellini dealt with the fragility of life in Italy as part of the aftermath of the Second World War. And, when you think of it, the problems for Italy really began in the early 1920s with the rise of Fascism and Benito Mussolini. By 1945, it was an exhausted nation.

In Europa 51, the Girards have a sullen twelve-year-old son who, to get attention, falls down a flight of stairs during a party. He seems to be recovering, but suddenly dies from a blood clot. The mother, Irene (Ingrid Bergman) suddenly finds her life at home as totally unfulfilling. With urging from a communist relative, she begins to try to help the miserable slum dwellers of Rome, one of whom is played by Giulietta Masina of La Strada fame.

As her marriage begins to fall apart, she gets committed to a mental institution. Abandoned by her upper middle class family, she is revered by the poor families she has helped.

Whereas in the United States, the postwar period saw growth and prosperity, much of Europe lay in ruins. Beginning with Rome, Open City (1945), Rossellini concentrated on the devastation with some films like Paisan (1946), Germany, Year Zero (1948), and Stromboli (1950). I think these films need to be seen, especially as we have developed a whole basket of myths surrounding World War Two and “The Greatest Generation” and other such rot.

If you were to read Tony Judt’s prizewinning history, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, you would find that he begins with the horrors of the immediate postwar years in Europe. I was born in 1945, and I remember my mother sending packages to our relatives in Hungary, which were under a Stalinist Communist dictator in the early 1950s. When I visited Budapest in 1945, I saw a city that still had the bullet holes of not only the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, but the Nazi siege of the city at the end of the war.

Like Father, Like Son

The illustration above is of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Promenade, painted in 1870, and on display at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. I have always been partial to Renoir’s paintings, particularly when they have these luminous portraits of women. In the painting, the man’s face is in shadow; he is reduced to a polite gesture of leading his lady on. The young woman, on the other hand, lights up the canvas.

What I find truly amazing is that much of the same sensibility was passed on to his son, Jean, who became one of the great motion picture directors. There are times when the viewer feels that the father could have directed the same scene in the same way.

Above is a still from A Day in the Country (1946), which is set in the same period and shows us a picnic in the woods—with the same feeling of the radiance of the female character. Some of the same feeling is in his earlier The Rules of the Game (1939), which is set in the present day. The men in the film all fly around the Marquise de la Chesnaye (played by Nora Gregor) like moths circling a flame.

Of course, Jean Renoir was very conscious of his father’s work, appearing in several of the paintings. He also wrote a beautiful biography of him called Renoir, My Father, which is available in a New York Review edition and is well worth reading.

Samurai Swordplay

A few days ago, I promised to list my favorite Japanese samurai films. Here I present the annotated list in alphabetical order by eight directors, with my favorite samurai film for each director:

  • Hideo Gosha: Goyokin (1969) See also his early Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) and Sword of the Beast (1965).
  • Kazuo Ikehiro: Trail of Traps (1967). My favorite of the Kyoshiro Nemuri films starring Raizo Ichikawa.
  • Hiroshi Inagaki: Samurai Trilogy, comprising Musashi Miyamoto (1954), The Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955), and Duel on Ganryu Island (1956).
  • Masaki Kobayashi: Harakiri (1962) starring the great Tatsuya Nakadai.
  • Akira Kurosawa: The Seven Samurai (1954), just one of over a dozen great chambara epics usually starring Toshiro Mifune.
  • Kenji Misumi: Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (1972). Weird and entertaining.
  • Kihachi Okamoto: Sword of Doom (1965), another great Nakadai role.
  • Kimiyoshi Yasuda: Zatoichi’s Fire Festival (1970), one of a score of films starring Shintaro Katsu as a blind samurai warrior. Very funny.

After the 1970s, the studio system that supported the great Japanese films of the postwar period collapsed because the studios made more money selling their studio space in a real estate bubble than they ever did making movies. There’s a lesson to be learned there.

The Mad Eyes of Oliver Haddo

It’s always interesting to see a famous film director acting in a movie made by others. I am thinking of John Huston in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Erich Von Stroheim in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), Victor Sjöström in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1959), and Paul Wegener in Rex Ingram’s The Magician (1926).

Who’s Paul Wegener, you ask? He directed (and acted in) The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920), which was a surprisingly good film considering its early production date.

Here’s Paul Wegener as the Golem, a monster created by a rabbi to protect the Jewish residents of Prague from oppression. He actually directed two other films about the Golem going back to 1915, but those films have been lost.

In The Magician, Wegener plays the magician Oliver Haddo, who is obsessed in hypnotizing Margaret Dauncey (played by Alice Terry, Rex Ingram’s wife) and creating life by killing her and taking the blood directly from her heart. Fortunately, her fiancé and guardian arrive at Haddo’s mad doctor’s castle and put the kibosh on him.

Rex Ingram made a number of classic silent films. The most famous is The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), which catapulted Rudolph Valentino to stardom. After sparring with studio bosses, he repaired to Southern France with his wife Alice Terry and made a number of beautiful films such as Mare Nostrum and The Magician, both filmed in 1926.

He is not to be confused with the black actor known by the same name.

Ronin

It is without a doubt one of the most incredible shots in the history of the cinema. And yet it was the work of a director, Hideo Gosha, on his first motion picture, Three Outlaw Samurai (1964). Picture to yourself a peasant who with two of his friends kidnapped the daughter of a corrupt local magistrate as part of a protest against his cruel administration. Instead of keeping his promises, this magistrate sends thugs to kill him. As he lies bleeding with his back slashed by a sword, we cut to a closeup up the peasant, dying, looking with wide-eyed wonder at a lone wildflower growing in front of his face.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Japanese cinema was at its height, one of the most fascinating in the world. The best of their films were in a genre known as jidaigeki, historical pictures set mostly during the Tokugawa Shogunate between 1603 and 1868. Starring most prominently were samurai, particularly masterless or outlaw samurai called ronin. Other films in the genre portrayed gangsters (yakuza), merchants, even peasants.

I had seen Three Outlaw Samurai at least twice before, but this time the film’s pessimism struck home. Aiding the peasants in their protest are three ronin who, one by one, come together. They are unable, however, to help the peasants win. After the three who kidnapped the magistrate’s daughter are killed, the other peasants in the surrounding villages are afraid to present their protest to a wondering clan chief who is due to visit in a few days. It is because of this visit that the magistrate hires waves of goons to attack not only the protestors, but previous goons who are asking for too much money.

The bloodshed is considerable. The three ronin kill at least a hundred of the magistrate’s men, who in turn kill large numbers of peasants. At the end, the three ronin decide to travel together in a direction selected by chance.

Ever since I first fell in love with movies as a student at Dartmouth, I have loved the fast action of chambara (“sword fight”) films. But, like the best Westerns, these “Easterns” can attain the status of high art. In a future post, I will list my favorite samurai films.

CGI: Hollywood

just When I wrote about seeing the new version of Dune yesterday, I refrained about commenting how dismayed I was by all the CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) that haunted all the action scenes. During the CGI scenes, the action becomes more vague; and the sound is pumped up to fill in the gaps. The 1984 version had some primitive CGI, but the action scenes were more honest: There was real action, and not fuzzy animation.

My dislike of CGI is one reason I avoid superhero films, in which CGI is more dominant. I prefer when the actors are humans that move like humans.

It seems that the CGI specialists are in the ascendant in Hollywood at the moment. That won’t bother all the middle school fans who love that sort of thing, but it keeps me from films that appeal to that mind(less)set.

In the end, I wonder if the computer has—overall—had a baneful effect on the film industry.

Return to Arrakis

This afternoon, I went to the movies to see the new Dune: Part One directed by Denis Villeneuve. I went expecting not to like it, but ended up liking it a lot—but not quite so much as David Lynch’s magnificent 1984 Dune, as fragmentary as it was. What threw me off were all the stills of Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides. I kept saying to myself, “Why, he looks like a whiny little bitch!” In the actual film, he was quite good, at least as good if not better than the wooden Kyle MacLachlan in the David Lynch film.

Where the 1984 Dune came across as fragmentary, Villeneuve’s version plugged many of the gaps, such as the death of Duncan Idaho and the role played by Liet-Kynes, who seems to have changed both gender and race in the new film. (No matter, Sharon Duncan-Brewster was not only stunning: She could act!)

Frank Herbert’s original book is probably the closest the science fiction genre will ever come to a true epic. And as such, it is pretty much unfilmable. The new film does not tell the whole story: It stops just as Paul Atreides and Jessica are accepted by the Fremen, but does not show how Paul and the Fremen defeat the brutal Harkonnens and the whole empire. That was the weakest part of Lynch’s masterpiece, and I suspect that it would take a bit of doing to make it as interesting as Part One.

Whichever version you choose to see, I highly recommend you read the novel first. It is incredibly dense, but it manages to carry you along. To be confronted by the likes of the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, CHOAM, and Tleilaxu Face Dancers without having encountered them in the novel might be a bit much for most viewers. I’ve read the novel three times in the last half century, and I love it—despite its many flaws. As I said, it is probably the closest to an epic that you will ever see in the sci-fi genre.

Good Bad But Not Ugly

José Ferrer, Sting, and Sian Phillips in David Lynch’s Dune (1984)

There are movies which one likes but almost no one considers to be really good. Yet one watches them hungrily every time they appear on television. In that category for me are the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, both parts of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, and—last but not least—David Lynch’s Dune.

I have read Frank Herbert’s novel Dune several times, and all the sequels at least once, even the over-long God Emperor of Dune. I love the mythology that Herbert created and could hardly wait for it to be turned into film, though I knew the story was so vast that it was virtually unfilmable.

Arch-Villain Sting as Feyd Rautha in an Expansive Mood

I could easily enumerate the flaws of David Lynch’s film version as well as anyone: Kyle MacLachlan was his usual wooden self. The story was too big to be filmed. There was too much dreamy interior monologue about the sleeper awakening. Some characters, like Chani (Sean Young), Duncan Idaho (Richard Jordan), Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart), and the Shadout Mapes (Linda Hunt) were wasted. And so on ad infinitum.

But the first hour of the film is outstanding, featuring some of the most outrageous steampunk set designs. The villains, the Harkonnens, are truly horrible, especially the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. It’s only when Paul and his Bene Gesserit mother are among the Fremen natives of Planet Arrakis that things get a tad sketchy.

I still love the film, having seen it about a dozen times.

Later this month, another version, covering only the first half of the novel, is to be released. I will review it after I’ve seen it.

Where Did Noir Come From?

Scene from Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo (1955)

Over the last couple of years, I have watched dozens of film noir productions. The genre predominated in the 1940s and 1950s, but never really went away. Why was it such a big thing? Following is one interesting answer from Ryan Reft writing for LA television station KCET’s website:

Yet to live in the 1940s, to watch Europe fall to fascism, realize the depth and horror of the Holocaust, witness the birth of the atomic age, and fear the outbreak of nuclear war and global destruction invoked no small amount of anxiety. Domestically, rapid urbanization, social dislocation, protests for civil rights by African Americans and others that challenged the status quo, and changing gender roles, added, perhaps even superseded, worries about the international situation.

Perhaps the sense of dissociation created by the Depression, World War Two, and the uneasiness of the Atomic Age was the beginning of the major divisions that haunt the United States in the 21st Century.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950)

Noir signaled numerous changes in American society. Reft continues:

Unsurprisingly, popular culture reflected these anxieties. Beginning arguably with the “Maltese Falcon” in 1941 and extending into the late 1950s, film noir depicted a nation in which the American dream was treated as a “bitter irony”, marriage as “absolutely horrific”, the police and politicians were “bleak, amoral and ugly”, and morality little more than situational; “anyone in the right or wrong circumstances, was capable of almost anything” ….

I know I am deeply affected by the edginess of these films, and I feel they explain in some large sense how we got where we are today, which is a darker, more urban world bereft of the old rural sunshine. Compare the Will Rogers films from the 1930s with the noir films of ten years later. It seems as if the fabric of society has been torn.