Favorite Films: The Thing from Another World (1951)

The Scene That Scared Me Most as a Kid

My favorite science fiction film of the 1950s was The Thing from Another World, an RKO cheapie that was superbly written and, for me as a boy who grew up in that strange era, utterly frightening. The whole film takes place in a research camp in the remote arctic north of Alaska. An army officer (Captain Hendry) receives orders to investigate the landing of an unknown object weighing some 20,000 tons (18 million kilograms)—far above the weight of known aircraft of the period. Also, it could not be a giant meteor because it went up before ultimately landing.

He flies up to the research station and, the next day, scouts out the landing site, in which the entire craft with the exception of a protruding fin is under ice. Hendry’s men line up above the visible edges of the vessel to determine its shape (it is circular, of course) and test the fin for its composition (an unknown alloy of some sort). To study the vessel more carefully, Tobey employs thermite bombs to melt the ice around it. Unfortunately, it also blows up the space ship. In doing so, a large (8 feet or 2.5 meters) figure is thrown from the ship. Still encased in ice, the figure is flown back to the research station.

Tobey orders the windows of the supply room in which it is stored to be broken to keep the figure frozen in ice. One of the guards on a later shift puts an electric blanket over the space alien—for such it turns out to be. The ice melt, the creature awakens, and it immediately goes on the attack.

Flying Saucer Fin Sticking Up Through the Ice

The scientists at the station, led by the venerable Nobelist Dr. Carrington, immediately deduce that the priority must be to communicate with the “obviously” superior creature, even if it turns out to be suicidal in the end. Captain Hendry, on the other hand, is more concerned for the safety of the military and scientific staff. During the beast’s rampages, there is an almost total radio silence with the civilized world because of severe storms.

This 87-minute black and white film was produced in the same year that saw The Day the Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide, and it was more successful than either film. My only reaction to that is, to use an expression from the film, “Holy Cat!” By the way, the beast was played by James Arness in his first role.

The film was signed by Christian Nyby as director, though it clearly shows signs of having been heavily influenced by producer Howard Hawks.

 

Everyday Realism

César Aira, Argentinian Writer Par Excellence

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? Put on your tuxedo and cummerbund? Sit in bed lolling over a tray of sumptuous breakfast delicacies? Write the Great American Novel? No, no, no. What you do is stagger to the bathroom and empty your bladder. That before anything else—unless you want an untoward accident to put a damper on your day. I realize it would be boring to show these simple rituals in a movie, in which every minute costs a small fortune. But even in fiction, where words are cheap, there is no acknowledgment of a simple biological need.

None to speak of, anyway, until I saw the following line in César Aira’s Ema the Captive:

A sleepy soldier had come out onto the veranda of his house and stopped there, right on the edge, to pee, swaying dangerously.

Hallelujah! This line was in all probability written by a human, and not an android.

Another example of a simple reality not observed, especially in films, is that the hero always finds a parking place directly in front of his destination. In The Big Sleep, Bogart always finds the ideal parking space without even trying. I guess there weren’t that many people around in the 1940s.

Finally, with some rare exceptions, guns almost never misfire. If you look at Wikipedia’s entry on Firearm Malfunction, you will find twelve things that can happen to prevent your gun from shooting. In the real world, not everyone that has firearms is careful with them, or does everything needed to guarantee 100% functionality. Yet one rarely sees a misfire of any sort.

I guess most movies are fantasies, as our parents told us.

 

Favorite Films: Doctor Mabuse Der Spieler

Doctor Mabuse Putting On a New Disguise

I’m going out on a limb to recommend a 4+ hour 1922 German film about a master criminal. Dr Mabuse der Spieler (Dr Mabuse the Gambler) is the first—and best—of three films that Fritz Lang directed about a master criminal named Mabuse, who was not only a gambler, but a counterfeiter, psychoanalyst, illusionist, stock manipulator, hypnotist, murderer, and a master of disguise. The other two Mabuse films Lang directed were The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933) and The 1000 Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960).

The original film starred Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the master criminal, Bernhard Goetzke as State Prosecutor Norbert van Wenk, and Alfred Abel as Count Told.

The period from 1918 through 1924 was a brutal time for the newly founded Weimar Republic after the German loss of World War I. The Treaty of Versailles and the heavy reparations it forced on Germany ultimately led to Hitler and the Third Reich. But before that, it led to political turmoil and hyperinflation. Lang’s film  brought together many of these threads in a film which, however long, maintains a high level of excitement throughout. Much higher, I would add, than most American superhero epics of recent years.

Although he is fantastically wealthy from his crimes, Mabuse is more interested in accumulating power over people than cash. There is a strong element of egoism in his attempts to break people who oppose him or otherwise stand in his way. His main opponent is the State Prosecutor von Wenk, whom Mabuse first hypnotizes into losing at cards and then attempts to assassinate him by bombing his office and getting him by hynotic suggestion to drive an automobile over a cliff. It takes a while, but eventually von Wenk concludes that Mabuse is the man of a thousand faces who has been causing all these crimes.

One of Mabuse’s Hypnotic Suggestions Against von Wenk

I don’t know if I can convince any of you to get this film (which is released in two parts) and actually watch it, I will have to employ hypnotic suggestion to urge you in the process. So here goes: TSI NAN FU and MELIOR. You won’t know what I mean unless you see both parts of the film. So, Ha!

 

French Noir? Obscurité Française?

Still from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967)

It sounds a bit odd to talk about French noir literature and films, mainly because noir is a French word. Perhaps I should be talking about Obscurité Française. This afternoon, I watched a work of that master of French noir, Jean-Pierre Melville. His film Le Samouraï is a masterpiece, both in its spare visual style and its typical noir attributes. Alain Delon as Jef Costello, the hit man, is a pleasure to watch, as is François Périer, the police superintendent, who goes all out to arrest Jef based on his belief that his alibi would not hold up.

Melville has made other excellent noir films as well, including Bob le Flambeur (1956) and Le Doulos (1963). But Le Samouraï is his best by far.

In addition to noir films, the French are no strangers to noir fiction. Yesterday, I read Three to Kill (1976) by the late Jean-Patrick Manchette (1942-1995), who also wrote Fatale (1977) and Ivory Pearl (1996), the latter of which was unfinished. I am also interested in reading works by Boris Vian (1920-1959), author of I Spit On Your Graves (1946).

The United States has an embarrassment of riches in the genre, starting with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and continuing with David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson, Dorothy B. Hughes, Kenneth Fearing, W. R. Burnett, and a host of others. They are one of the joys of recent American literature which I have been taking advantage of during this long, hot summer.

 

La Politique des Auteurs

Cahiers du Cinema: The French Film Journal That Started It All

I find now that yesterday’s post took a lot for granted. One can’t just float a concept like the auteur theory and expect to be understood. When I first got into films at Dartmouth College, I was influenced by a French monthly called Cahiers du Cinema, and by the work of an American film critic writing for the Village Voice named Andrew Sarris, who tried to translate the French critics’ ideas into the American idiom. For Film Culture magazine (Winter 1962/1963), he wrote a long article entitled “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” I photocopied his article and kept it with me for years, until he turned it into a book in 1968 entitled The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.

The whole issue of the auteur theory is simple: If the cinema is an art form, then who is the artist in the cinema? Is it the producer? No, he’s mostly just a money man. Is it the film studio? Again, their major concern is money. Is it the writer, the actors, the director of photography, the editor? No times four. They just do what they’re told to do. The auteur theory elevated the director to the role of the artist. When the director is a studio hack, the result can be entertaining, but is rarely great. Yesterday, I wrote:

Why did I not go to the movies this year? Simply put, I remain an auteurist; and there were few films this year made by the directors whose work I follow. I am not interested in the films of William Seiter, Norman Panama, Archie Mayo, George Archainbaud, Alan Crosland, Alfred L. Werker, and any number of studio hacks who never signed their names to a great film. They were for the most part competent film makers whose work was light and entertaining; but I was after bigger game.

Now thye French considered Jerry Lewis to be an auteur, a true film artist. His films after he parted with Dean Martin are usually directed by him in a consistent and very competent way. You may not think that Jerry Lewis is a film artist, but he fits the idea the French have of the immature American male—like it or not.

Director Howard Hawks with Angie Dickinson on the Set of Rio Bravo (1958)

So who are the great film auteurs? There are almost as many lists as there are film critics. I remembered long discussions with my fellow film freaks in the late 1960s as to who was great and who wasn’t: I called the activity “trading bubble gum cards.”

Here is Andrew Sarris’s auteur pantheon:

  • Charles Chaplin
  • Robert Flaherty (he wouldn’t make my list)
  • John Ford
  • D. W. Griffith
  • Howard Hawks
  • Alfred Hitchcock
  • Buster Keaton (though he didn’t sign his name as director)
  • Fritz Lang
  • Ernst Lubitsch
  • F. W. Murnau
  • Max Ophüls
  • Jean Renoir
  • Josef von Sternberg
  • Orson Welles

A few of the names are predominantly European directors who also made several films in America (like Murnau, Ophüls, and Renoir).

Everything Changes

Try to Get Your Kids Interested in This!

This year for the first time in many years I have not attended the films at Cinecon. I did, however, go with Martine to the memorabilia dealers’ rooms. In the past, when my friend Norman Witty was alive, Martine enjoyed acting as his assistant; and she made a number of friendships with the other dealers. So while she chatted with her old friends and acquaintances, I found a comfortable chair and read a book. Also I devoted some time to thinking about what was happening to the dealers and members of Cinecon.

In short, they were getting older and passing on. I saw few people under the age of sixty at the dealers’ tables.

Why did I not go to the movies this year? Simply put, I remain an auteurist; and there were few films this year made by the directors whose work I follow. I am not interested in the films of William Seiter, Norman Panama, Archie Mayo, George Archainbaud, Alan Crosland, Alfred L. Werker, and any number of studio hacks who never signed their names to a great film. They were for the most part competent film makers whose work was light and entertaining; but I was after bigger game.

Then I thought,“Wait a sec! How many auteurists are around these days?” The answer is: damned few, and fewer every year. Instead people go to see superhero films intended for very young males, starring powerful guys and gals who like to wear their Underoos over their street clothes. Then there are the numerous independent productions, about the problems of young people who are altogether too full of themselves. What do I care about Hipster man with his man-bun and immaculately trimmed beard and all his digital toys?

Many of my posts have not been kind to the younger generation—mostly because the things they value are nothing to me, and the things I value, nothing to them. For how long will Cinecon be around to commemorate films of the 1920s and 1930s? I mean, people, we are talking about films that are not even in color!

After my generation leaves the scene, many whole worlds will disappear as if in a puff of cosmic dust.

 

The Old Man of the Mountain

Max and Dave Fleischer Were the Opposite of Disney

Walt Disney was good at what he tried to do, but he was not really for adults. At the same time that Disney was animating his Mickey Mouse cartoons, Max and Dave Fleischer presented a much more adult vision of life in their Betty Boop cartoons. These were done before the Hays Office descended on Hollywood with their black pall of censorship. Yesterday, I watched their “The Old Man of the Mountain” on YouTube. It is about a luscious young thing who goes up against the Old Man of the Mountain (sung by Cab Calloway and His Orchestra) and starts getting chased by him. At one point, he rips off her dress, though all we see of Betty is the lower edge of her frilly panties as she hides behind a tree. (Holy Miscegenation!)

Watch the cartoon for yourself:

In another Boop mcartoon, Betty attempts to perform a tooth extraction on Koko the Clown. By accident, she winds up infecting the whole town with Laughing Gas. The cartoon, entitled “Ha! Ha! Ha!” was banned in Britain because of its casualness about drugs. In another cartoon, “Betty Boop’s Big Boss,” Betty appears to endorse the mauling of secretaries as sexual provender by big fat bosses. You can see these cartoons for free any time by Googling their titles, as in “YouTube Ha! Ha! Ha! Betty Boop.”

I actually like Walt Disney’s work, but I think Betty Boop is pretty hot stuff. At one point in “The Old Man of the Mountain,” a cripple on crutches espies Betty’s curvaceous legs, gives them a thorough viewing, and then leaves without his crutches, which go off by themselves.