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Friday, 27 May 2011

Madhouse (1974)

Director: Jim Clark
Stars: Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry

Given that today would have been Vincent Price's one hundredth birthday, a Vincentennial as it were, I felt it appropriate to celebrate his life and career by watching a Price picture that I hadn't seen before. It took some searching but I located this one, a co-production between Amicus in the UK and AIP in the States. It's far from his best film but it has much to offer, not least the trio of legends in leading roles: Price, Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry. A couple more back them up, as Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff make surprise guest appearances, given that they'd both been dead for years: Rathbone died in 1967 and Karloff in 1969. They appear through the magic of cinema, rather like Bela Lugosi did in Plan 9 from Outer Space, but at least Ed Wood used new footage to the screen, Rathbone and Karloff reappear in clips from older AIP films. Five of those are reused here, a quick fact that helps to underline how recycled much of Madhouse is.

The plot is highly recycled. It was originally sourced from a novel called Devilday by Angus Hall, but apparently it bears little resemblance to it. It bears more of a resemblance to one of Vincent Price's previous films, Theater of Blood, made only the previous year and which lies much closer to the peak of his output. The only real difference is the attempt to build suspense by hiding the villain until the end of the film. Theater of Blood featured Price as a stage actor called Edward Lionheart who, after years of bad reviews, fakes his own death and returns to murder his critics. Madhouse features Price as Paul Toombes, a film actor, who is driven mad by the murder of his wife to be, even though he may have done the deed himself. A dozen years later, he travels to London to rekindle his career on television by appearing once more as his famous character, Dr Death, who promptly begins a killing spree in real life as Toombes arrives.

You might expect the dozen year gap between the first murder and the rest of the story to be spent in the madhouse of the title and you'd be right. However that skips by in a single scene and that's it for that. I did wonder, as the suspense built, if the title had a better meaning, that perhaps Toombes was in the madhouse all along and everything we see unfolds only in the mind of a lunatic, but I was giving the film too much credit. It doesn't. It's played straight as a hybrid of horror and suspense, that sort of pre-slasher movie that relishes in its cool death scenes but keeps a sense of mystery about the why of it all. The mystery element worked well here, at least in that clues kept getting dropped for me to fail to identify until the killer was unmasked. Frankly I preferred Theater of Blood and The Abominable Dr Phibes, both of which ignored the mystery element completely and concentrated on style and ingenuity.
Madhouse does have some style but it takes a while to appear, most of it not arriving until the finalé. Strangely, it doesn't have much to do with Price, instead tying to a supporting character played by Adrienne Corri, perhaps best known as Mrs Alexander, the housewife victim in the Singin' in the Rain scene in A Clockwork Orange. During the introductory scene, she's venomous Faye Carstairs, an actress who had appeared in one of Toombes's films and who is not happy in the slightest as he announces his engagement to Ellen Mason at a New Year showing of his fifth Dr Death movie. Twelve years later in London, she's Mrs Herbert Flay, wife to Peter Cushing's character. Life hasn't treated her well: she's now a bleached white and mostly bald lunatic in a wig who skulks around the cellar at night with her babies, all spiders. While most of the cast get routine characters, hers allows many possibilities and she certainly runs with them.

In comparison, her husband is one of those routine characters. Just as Price plays a character rather like we imagine Price himself, a cultured and polite man who merely happens to make outrageous horror movies, Cushing's role doesn't surprise either. He's also cultured and polite and has a gorgeous house on the banks of the Thames. He's also a horror actor, though at the outset he's a writer, as acting hadn't played out for him at that point. Robert Quarry is at least a little more sleazy, starting out as a man who makes adult films for art houses, and who has the distinct bad taste to point out after Toombes announces his engagement to Ellen Mason that she had once been one of his stars. Later in London he's a producer for Rainbow Television, out of the adult business but still sleazy. Quarry fans might be interested to find that he gets to dress up for a costumed ball as his most famous role, Count Yorga. Blink and you'll miss it though.

While all three of these legends do capable work, none of them really able to do otherwise, it's the women who prove most watchable. Adrienne Corri gets to run wild with her role, often with spiders crawling over her body. Clean cut Natasha Pyne, fresh from seven seasons of the classic TV sitcom Father Dear Father, plus the less successful big screen adaptation, is a sheer delight as a PR lady for Rainbow who looks after Toombes. It's not a great role, but she shines in it as a capable professional woman who happens to be gorgeous to boot. Ironically for someone not known for horror movies, she debuted on film in a Hammer picture, a swashbuckler called The Devil-Ship Pirates, with Christopher Lee but not Peter Cushing. Linda Hayden, on the other hand, is known mostly for her horror movies, having built up to this one with notable roles in Taste the Blood of Dracula and The Blood on Satan's Claw. She's very prominent as the first London victim.
The screenplay is the biggest problem, though I don't know how much budget constraints might have contributed. It's so far removed from the source novel that Angus Hall can't attract praise or criticism. Those responsible are Ken Levison and Greg Morrison, neither of whom had a heck of a lot of experience. Levison was a script editor for television whose prior screen work was restricted to a three year period that ended in 1966, eight years before this film was made. He apparently came out of retirement to write this, only to promptly retire again. Morrison never did anything else on screen. It's not that their work is bad here, it's just that it's derivative in many ways and could have been so much better. To give credit where credit's due, there are some really clever touches, such as a mirror scene in Flay's house that suggests multiple personalities, but it isn't followed up on. That's a common complaint here.

For most of the film, the plot is capable but unimaginative. Towards the end of the film, it gets really slack, relying on some outrageous conveniences that pile up unashamedly for an entire sequence. It begins with Toombes escaping from certain death without any explanation, only to stumble out of the room into a TV interview with him, mere seconds off cue, even though he and we had totally forgotten it was scheduled. Michael Parkinson cameos as himself, though the brief scene suggests that he doesn't actually interview people, he just shows extended snippets from their movies instead. The only realistic plot element during this part of the story is an OJ Simpson glove sequence, decades before that particular murder ever happened. Fortunately the inanity ends and we get a satisfactory triptych of finales: a flamboyant one, an explanatory one and a gloriously outrageous one, outrageous in all the right ways.

Don't watch this for quality, watch it for the people involved, especially Adrienne Corri, who may never have done more magnetic work, however wasted her part was. She showed an aptitude for the genre here that was never capitalised on. A steady working actress throughout the fifties and sixties, both in film and on television, she made few horror movies. Her first may have been Corridors of Blood in 1958, with both Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, unless you count 1954's Devil Girl from Mars, and she'd make odd forays over the years, but she demonstrates here that she had everything needed to be a memorable horror lead, not a scream queen but a lead. She made three further films, none of them horror, and a host of TV episodes before retiring from the screen in 1992. That's a shame. Vincent Price, the real lead here, had more horror movies to go, of course, but none for AIP. This was his last picture for them after a long and memorable run.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Kitten with a Whip (1964)

Director: Douglas Heyes
Stars: Ann-Margret and John Forsythe

There simply isn't anything a movie can do to live up to a title like Kitten with a Whip, unless it actually starred Kitten Natividad and was directed by Russ Meyer. This one came from Universal in 1964 so no, it's not particularly exotic, being shot in black and white to boot. However it does star Ann-Margret as hell raising Jody Dvorak, who begins the film in a nightgown being chased by armed men with dogs. We don't know she's hell raising to begin with, as we're not given context to work from, but we're happy when she finds an apparently empty house and cuddles up in bed with a teddy bear. We still have sympathy when up and coming politician David Stratton comes home and discovers her. Jody has wild hair and in the light we see that the nightgown is torn. She even shows Stratton the long scratches on her back and runs through a wild yarn to explain it all. Only her wild attitude gives us pause to think there's something else behind her story.

We find out the details when Stratton goes to lunch the next day, because it's plastered all over the news. Apparently she broke out of juvenile hall, after stabbing the matron and attempting to burn the place down. Here's where we discover how dumb Stratton is and how much trouble he's got himself into. He didn't call the cops. He bought her clothes from a store, pretending they're for his wife. He gives her some money to start over. He's even about to tell a colleague about what happened until he sees her on the TV. Given that he's a politician played by John Forsythe, you might expect him to be a little brighter than this but no, he's a kind hearted fool. Jody knows exactly how to deal with him. He threatens he'll call the cops but she stops him in seconds. If he goes through with it, she'll cry rape. 'I'll get my claws into you,' she tells him, and promptly does, literally ripping his shirt and scratching his chest to make a point.
Now we know what we're looking at: a suspense thriller that's ahead of its time in a number of ways. I was expecting some sort of gang story, perhaps with Ann-Margret as a female Brando, but this is nothing like that. As it unfolds we see two possible directions. It could be a hostage drama, merely one that has a cute and bubbly female villain using blackmail as a weapon rather than a tough guy with a gun. It could also be a psychological piece, where Jody isn't just trouble but mentally unbalanced, maybe schizophrenic, what the matron calls 'an unpredictable girl'. What we get is something of both but more too, an attempt to look at the modern generation in a new way. Whether it succeeds or not is open to question but it certainly has an intriguing try in an unconventional setting. Much of this side of the picture arrives when Jody invites friends over to Stratton's place: Buck, Ron and Midge, who are as different from each other as they from Jody.

Jody is a damage case, half victim, half villain, and turning from one to the other on a dime. Ann-Margret is magnetic to watch, though she can't remotely pass for 17. She was 23 at the time and looked great but she had a maturity to her that both helped and hindered here. We don't buy her age but we buy her streetwise act, as much as she sometimes tries too hard. Midge is the hanger on, only part of the group because she has wheels. Actress Diane Sayer isn't bad looking but Ron plays with her and Buck abuses her. She lets it happen because it means that she belongs, but she's still scared. Buck is the thug, though a polite one. He's quick to violence and isn't afraid of following through. Skip Ward reminds of a young Lee Marvin. That leaves Ron, who is bizarrely some sort of amateur philosopher, a guru full of advice for everyone. He's fascinating to watch, proclaiming that he feels no pain, attempting to put mind over matter, controlling everything.
The ride that these characters take David Stratton on is a strange one, completely different from all my expectations. There's a lot here from The Desperate Hours, but while John Forsythe looks nothing like his older self here and more like a less iconic Humphrey Bogart, he has the Fredric March role not the Bogart one. There's some Touch of Evil too, in the cross border setting, jazz music and sleazy, unpredictable atmosphere. I wasn't surprised to find that some of the music was lifted from Henry Mancini's score for that film, though I was surprised to find that the motel scene in Tijuana towards the end of the picture was shot on the Bates Motel set from Psycho. I can't place the other film I felt here, perhaps because it's less about the details and more about the longing. While Jody is a tortured character, I felt there was a longing for normality in a kind of Myrna Loy, perfect wife type way. How much was sincere is open to question.

Kitten with a Whip is ranked among 'The Hundred Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made' in The Official Razzie Movie Guide, and it was lampooned by the folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000. I vaguely remember reading about it back in the eighties and getting the impression that it was a camp teen drama, which it patently isn't. While I don't believe the film succeeds in everything it attempts, and in some instances it doesn't come close, it does at least succeed in standing on its own. It has elements taken from other films, but it brings them together in a new framework. I'm sure that this is going to become a guilty pleasure, which makes me regret leaving it on my DVR so long. I'm most fascinated to find out whether a couple more viewings will make me drop the 'guilty' part of that. I'd like to track down the source novel too, written by Wade Miller. What I don't want to find is the purported remake, with Lindsay Lohan in the Ann-Margret role.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

The Big Timer (1932)

Director: Eddie Buzzell
Stars: Ben Lyon and Constance Cummings

Cooky Bradford thinks he's a fighter. He's mostly there for the genuine boxers to spar with and his real job is dishing out hamburgers behind the counter of a lunch wagon. He's personable and boastful and a little dense, but he has all the right lines. 'I'll murder him!' is his catchphrase, consistently delivered as a throwaway thing. Pop Baldwin, who runs the local gym, thinks he's a palooka, but Pop's daughter Honey thinks he's going to make it big. Of course she's head over heels in love with him, so that really doesn't count; but before we know it, Pop gets hit by a car, she takes over the place and he's the only fighter who stays in her camp. Honey may be blinded by love but she isn't stupid. She teaches him a few tricks, puts him in the ring and he does good, but that prompts them to try to break into the New York fight racket and that doesn't work out too well. After all, he has a dame for a manager.

There's a common thread running through this film about this sort of society perception, but not only as regards women. It's a precode picture, an era which was known for its preponderence of strong female lead characters and Honey Baldwin fits on the saintly side of that. She's a strong woman, one who is willing to play in a man's world, and it's plain that she's an important part of whatever success Cooky is ever going to have. His corner man, Catfish, memorably tells her that, 'he needs you like Gandhi needs his safety pin,' which is underlined when he unbelievably fails to remember his own birthday. Many scenes grow out of a disbelief that Cooky could have a dame for a manager, but the sexism isn't one sided here. At a job agency, a lady tells Honey that being a cook is no sort of job for a man. Class comes in for a few jibes too, the guests at a boxing event for charity complaining that the host lets the fighters stay to eat with them.

Really it's not a boxing movie, as much as there's some of the standard progression. Sure, Cooky lives the hard life, finally gets his break and moves on up, only to let it go to his head and cause him to start making all the wrong decisions. In fact, as much as Ben Lyon is an endearing lead, full of boyish charm and contradiction, that charm wears thin. When Thelma Todd arrives in the picture as Kay Mitchell, the society girl who hosts those charity events, pretty obviously because she has a thing about slumming with the rough and tumble guys who win, we find ourselves not caring about Cooky any more. We can root for him as an outsider, but when our sympathy goes our interest goes with it. On the other hand, the lovely Constance Cummings as Honey isn't just a strong female lead but a cute and devoted lady too. No, she's not believable as the boxing equivalent of Ida Lupino, the sole woman in a man's business, but she's decent nonetheless.

Cummings was a capable lead, though she never found herself at home in Hollywood. Samuel Goldwyn discovered her on Broadway but she had a tough time finding the right films. Though her 35 pictures ran from 1931 to 1963, over half of them were released in her first four years in the business. When she made The Big Timer she had six movies behind her, half of which saw her credited above Boris Karloff, one released after his huge break in Frankenstein. None were major pictures though and there would be no big hits to come either, at least until she moved to England and appeared in comedies like Blithe Spirit and The Battle of the Sexes. This is what makes her a discovery, a face you find while filling in gaps in the filmographies of others. Worthy pictures to seek out include Frank Capra's American Madness, the Warren William precode The Mind Reader and the highly underrated Washington Merry-Go-Round with Lee Tracy.

The problem with this film is that there isn't enough substance to her part to make her more than just the best thing abut it. In fact it misses all the many opportunities it has just as surely as if it was written by Cooky Bradford rather than Robert Riskin, who had two years to wait before making his name on and winning a well deserved Oscar for It Happened One Night. He'd already worked for Frank Capra, adapting The Miracle Woman well, but that working relationship would go on to much better things, like Lady for a Day, Mr Deeds Goes to Town and Meet John Doe. In a strong filmography this is one of his lower points. If he had been serious about the sexist and classist hints he kept dropping, he should have made the film about Honey Baldwin not Cooky Bradford. While she's the glue both to the film's story and to Cooky's, this should have been an influential proto-feminist opportunity for her to stamp her authority over the plot and his career.

I don't know what Riskin had aimed at, but it doesn't feel like he'd aimed at anything. It's a love story, though not a particularly heartfelt one and we rarely feel that there's any real substance to it. The surprise party scene is about as tender as it gets and that just allows Cummings a shot at dignified heartbreak. It's a boxing picture but there's not much time spent in the ring; what there is fails the authenticity test, not least because it's sped up for effect. Mostly it's a simple drama of human nature, with a couple starting low, moving up in the world, falling apart and eventually finding a way to begin again. Mathematically it may be textbook, but emotionally it leaves us dry. Cummings does what she can with the material and Lyon is decent. Thelma Todd doesn't get enough to do and the best known other name, Nat Pendleton, doesn't arrive until the end in an uncredited bit part. Given they're the only reason to watch, that doesn't leave much.

This is the Night (1932)

Director: Frank Tuttle
Stars: Lily Damita, Charlie Ruggles, Roland Young, Cary Grant and Thelma Todd

Every actor has to make their debut on screen somewhere and Archibald Leach made his here, also debuting his new stage name of Cary Grant. Playing an Olympic Javelin thrower, Stephen Mathewson, he's as confident as if he'd had a dozen hits behind him already. He's not quite the Cary Grant he would become: more like a statue of the work in progress, suitably chiselled but not quite right yet. He's young, of course, and heavily made up, but most obviously he's so full of energy that he almost bursts out off the screen, so much so that it isn't much of a stretch to believe that Grant, a trained acrobat, could have been an Olympic athlete himself. However this is a precode and his character only exists to befuddle his wife's attempts to be with her lover, a lover played by Roland Young, the most gloriously understated actor in classic Hollywood. That means that Grant would have dominated the film physically even if he'd played it subtle.

Stephen Mathewson isn't stupid. It doesn't take long for him to see through the comedy of errors that constitutes the initial storyline, which fails to unfold in a remotely believable manner. Claire, his wife, is having an affair with Gerald Gray, and they plan to travel to Venice together on the train. Unfortunately for them, their friend Bunny West gives the tickets to Stephen by mistake. Forced into a clumsy fabrication to cover it all up, Bunny invents a wife for Gerald, which position Gerald promptly has to audition for. A hungry French actress calling herself Chou-Chou lands the part and all the inevitable hijinx ensue. In fact, 'inevitable' is a good word to use, because the dialogue is consistently cheesy, full of puns, obvious situation comedy and occasional forays into song, as if it was based on a vaudeville performance instead of a play. It's certainly stagebound, even outdoors in Venice, but it feels much more like a collection of routines than a story.

There are laughs to be had, even some strong ones on occasion, and I giggled through much of it, but it isn't remotely a subtle piece. The closest it ever reaches is Stephen's understanding of the reality of the situation without letting on, while the rest of it is painted in very broad strokes indeed. What this means is that the main reason it all works isn't because of the story or even the dialogue, but because of the people who bring it to life. The cast is magical, mostly because they know how blatant the whole thing is and play along with its idiocies while staying joyously dry and serious. Lesser actors would have broken it horribly, but here Paramount were especially blessed with the double act of Roland Young and Charlie Ruggles, who fit the roles they're given, of Gerald Gray and Bunny West respectively, so well that the material doesn't matter. I found myself laughing at every cliché. Sober, they're hilarious. Drunk, they're even better.
That's pretty much it for the male side of the cast, which is completed by Irving Bacon, one of the most prolific bit part character actors in Hollywood history, who racked up almost 500 credits like this one. He's Gray's manservant and he gets a running gag that involves him continually but accidentally stripping off Claire's dress. Let's hear it one more time for the precodes! Claire is played by Thelma Todd, who is sufficiently bitchy for us to wonder how she managed to land one man, let alone two, platinum blonde hair notwithstanding. She does a fine job in the part but the script means that she's inherently not the female lead that we spend most of our time watching. She's the chase, Chou-Chou is the catch. Chou-Chou is also played by the delightful Lili Damita, who is remembered more for who she married than who she played on film, but nonetheless lit up a number of films with her presence. She's even better here than she was in The Match King.

Credited as Lily Damita here, she went by many names and many spellings, as befits an exotic and continental wild beauty. Off screen she was known as Dynamita or Tiger Lil and she was an able foil to notorious hellraising second husband Errol Flynn, her first husband being legendary director Michael Curtiz and her third a dairy rancher from Iowa. She demonstrates her fluency in multiple languages as Chou-Chou, but mostly demonstrates a smouldering presence that draws the men to her like moths to a flame. She's magnetic, impossible to ignore, and Thelma Todd's more conventional beauty can't compete, just as Claire can't compete with Chou-Chou. Damita didn't make many films, 34 in 16 years, over half of which were made in Europe: in Germany, the UK or her native France. Her highest rated picture is the French language version of Ernst Lubitsch's One Hour with You, with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald.
Nothing I've commented on thus far is remotely surprising. It's perhaps more ludicrous than we might expect as well as being more admirably enacted by the stellar cast, but that's nothing to shock us. Yet the film does have one real surprise that manifests itself even as the credits begin: it has a very notable sense of style that is far from the norm in this sort of romantic comedy. The credits unfold over an orchestra and when the story begins, the camera sweeps with panache as if this was Roland West adapting The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The angles are imaginative and it's all choreographed around the music, including the sound effects, making the feel somewhat like an ambitious production number, merely without any singing or dancing. We're outside so the film is tinted dark blue, which adds to the effect. That continues throughout the film, with indoors being standard black and white but outdoors being a lush dark blue.

There are points where this feel ventures even more into production number territory, such as the train boarding scene, but the feel is more important than any actual singing. When voices are added, the effect is cheesy and occasionally badly timed, but when they remain absent and we just watch choreography, it's fascinating. I don't know who was responsible, but interesting names in the crew surely contributed. Victor Milner, a nine times Oscar nominee and a winner for 1934's Cleopatra, was the cinematographer. Lucien Ballard, later renowned as Sam Peckinpah's cinematographer, was one of his assistant camera operators. More intriguingly Jean Negulesco was the technical director, very early in a notable career. I wonder if the expressionistic look of these scenes came from him, his talents as a painter and his experience as a stage decorator. Whoever was responsible, they elevated the picture beyond expectations.

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Blue Angel (1930)

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Star: Emil Jannings

Sound arrived in Hollywood early, Al Jolson telling us that we ain't heard nothin' yet as far back as 1927, but it took a little longer in the rest of the world where silent films continued to be produced even past the mid thirties. In Germany, which mastered much of the visual style that would later define classic Hollywood, Fritz Lang did truly amazing things with sound in his 1931 masterpiece, M, but the first major German sound film came a year earlier, with Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel. It stars Emil Jannings, an important stage actor who made his way to film as early as 1914 and featured heavily in F W Murnau's films of the twenties, including Faust, The Last Laugh and Tartuffe. With other major roles in films like Varieté, Waxworks and Othello behind him, it could hardly have been surprising when he was awarded the very first Oscar in 1929, ahead of the ceremony, as Best Actor for The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command.

Yet Jannings is little known today, not least because he went back to his native Germany when Hollywood converted to sound and his thick accent killed his career there, only to actively make Nazi propaganda pictures for Josef Goebbels, but that's not the only reason that when people seek out The Blue Angel, they're not coming for Emil Jannings. His co-star, whose name didn't appear above the credits, gave perhaps her most iconic and memorable role here, though she would go on to give many more over the decades to come. She's Marlene Dietrich, as cabaret singer Lola Lola, and they're still spoofing that performance today. After this film, for which she shot both English and German versions, she would be whisked away to Hollywood to appear opposite Gary Cooper in Morocco. The rest is history. However good Jannings is as portly college professor Dr Immanuel Rath, and he is very good indeed, she's the main reason people watch today.

To highlight how important she is here, we see her first, albeit in the form of a poster, but then we're whisked away to Dr Rath's classroom for some subtle humour as he attempts to teach a student to pronounce the word 'the'. He also discovers that many of his class sneak off at night to visit the Blue Angel, a club where women sing and dance in scanty attire, and where naughty postcards are readily available of the popular talent. Naturally Dr Rath takes it upon himself to investigate and complain to Lola Lola that she's corrupting his students. Dietrich is younger here than I've ever seen her, a little plumper too and certainly higher pitched with her initial singing voice. She's more than a match for him though, as won't come as a surprise to anyone, even before they've seen how much of a fuddy duddy bachelor Rath is. He doesn't stand a chance and she steals the film from under Jannings with wicked smiles, careful poses and exotic charm.
He isn't the same again, now as unsure of his carefully cloistered world as Lola is sure of her wild one. When he goes back the next night to return the pair of knickers his students had sneaked into his pocket and apologise for his unseemly conduct, she plays with him with a sly grin. He's putty in her hands. How Jannings kept such a straight face I have no idea. How I han't realised how hilarious this film is I have no idea. I always thought it was a musical drama. There's plenty of drama while we laugh and smile though, Rath even sending Lola into stunned silence when he springs to life to defend her in her dressing room. This film began slowly in a college classroom ruled by a staid professor who looks older than Jannings's 46 years and we wonder what we're about to watch. How can this story reconcile with what we expect from Dietrich? Yet the next we realise, it springs into life so effectively that we hardly keep up for grinning in admiration.

There's a lot of technique in play here. Being such a fan of M, I couldn't help but notice the use of sound, which is often used in similar ways, though not so integrally to the plot. There is music and there are songs, not just as entertainment, but to set the scene and underline the tone. At the Blue Angel, the raucous music often starts and stops with the opening and closing of doors. The place is a triumph of set decoration, unlike any club I've seen on film, with textures that are palpable. The atmosphere seeps off the screen, not just the debauched nature of the place but the lackadaisical way they change the sets on the tiny stage and cycle through performers. The troupe is a travelling one but they begin and end at the Blue Angel and they fit there as if they never left. The troupe's manager and conjurer looks like the Penguin and there's an awesomely sad clown who wanders around as if sleepwalking. He's always in frame, joyously doing nothing.
Of course Dietrich has much to do with that atmosphere. She's the focal point of the show, but she adds so many little touches that make it feel like she'd been doing this forever. She pauses between verses to chug down a glass of beer and rearranges her knickers in the doorway. She's as textured as the place that hosts her. It's the real beginning of the Marlene Dietrich we'd watch over the decades: the woman of two contrasting halves, the delightful lady and the whore who could outdrink and outswear any of us. She's a joy to watch, even when she isn't singing Falling in Love Again, but by the end of the film Jannings amazingly steals the picture back from her, as Rath descends into the grotesque, far enough to truly shock us. In the end, the story really is about him: the difference between the Rath we see at the beginning and the Rath we see at the end is the result of a traumatic story that fills us with as much sadness as joy.

Jannings was the star, but he was a star already. Dietrich was nobody when she was cast, taking the role given to Brigitte Helm, of Metropolis fame, when that actress ceased to be available; but she left it a star and she never looked back. In historical context, she created a template for the liberated professional woman that must have been a major influence on the depiction of women in the precode era of Hollywood and beyond, not only in the power that woman can have but the way in which she chooses to wield it. She's the catalyst for Dr Rath's fall in the story, Rath seeing her as an ideal woman but discovering that fantasy doesn't translate to reality. She's the reason why the film was often heavily recut too, many censors unable to deal with Lola's raw sensuality. The Nazis banned it as soon as they took power but Hitler viewed it often in his private cinema. There's much to read into that, not only that Rath could be a metaphor for interwar Germany.

Heinrich Mann wrote the source novel and the Nazis banned everything with his name on it, yet it wasn't a deliberate attack on them. Originally published in 1905 as Professor Unrat, it was an attack on the bourgeoise German education system of the time, exposing the double standards of its lead character. In German, the word 'rat' means 'advice', but Rath's students satirise him as 'Prof Unrat', or 'Prof Garbage'. This adaptation removes some of the moral depth of the novel but focuses it as what director Joseph von Sternberg called 'the downfall of an enamoured man.' The more you think about it, the more it really does focus simply on the changes one man brings on himself through a succession of reactions. Marlene Dietrich is a delightful distraction, a really important one, but in the end that's all she is. This may have launched her international career in a massive way but the picture remains as the credits suggest: an Emil Jannings film.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Dead Ringer (1964)

Director: Paul Henreid
Stars: Bette Davis, Karl Malden and Peter Lawford

If there's anything better than a film starring Bette Davis, it surely has to be a film starring Bette Davis and Bette Davis. This one has her playing twins, as she had done in A Stolen Life in 1946, but this was 1964 and times had changed. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was only a couple of years earlier and this was advertised as 'for Baby Jane people'. To emphasise the tone of the piece, it begins at a funeral, that of Frank DeLorca, a key figure to both of the characters Bette Davis plays. He was a rich colonel from an important family. Edith Phillips was a WAC he met in wartime who fell in love with him. Margaret DeLorca is her sister, who stole him away from her on the pretext of being pregnant with his child. Edith hasn't forgotten, though it's been ten years since they've seen each other. Time has treated them very differently. Maggie is rich and flaunts her wealth to her sister, who runs a cocktail lounge called Edie's Bar but is a soft touch.

The technical work done to enable Bette Davis to play opposite herself is pretty solid, only a hint of texture now and again betraying the trickery. What Davis does with the roles is fascinating, as she overdoes both parts initially, deliberately so as both are twisted characters, hurling polite barbs at each other from behind fake faces. It's when Edie storms out that the subtleties begin. It's when she discovers from Maggie's chauffeur on the way home that the DeLorcas never had a child that the story follows suit, especially once her landlord gives her a month's notice as she's three months behind on the rent for the bar. So this soft touch gets serious. She gets her sister to her room above her bar, she shoots her dead and she takes on her life. They are twins after all. Swapping clothes and hairstyles is easy. The rest is just picking up the necessary details without anyone noticing. If anyone could make it work, it would be Bette Davis, right?

Well, it isn't quite that simple. While Edie has kept up with her sister's public life in the papers, there are secrets that have never been printed, down to an affair that the press wasn't privy to. There are people she hasn't met, background she doesn't know, habits she wasn't aware of. Her sister led a privileged life, in a mansion with many rooms and many servants, none of which she knows. Edie smokes but Maggie doesn't. There's even Duke, the family dog who hated Maggie but gets on with Edie fine. Naturally we expect to spend the rest of the film waiting for it all to fall horribly apart, though we have at least a modicum of sympathy for Edie. We don't approve of her actions, of course, but we do want to see her redeem herself by coming clean. What Bette Davis brings to this role though that lesser actresses couldn't have done is that the longer Edie plays Maggie, the more Maggie subsumes her and the more she loses that sympathy.
While we watch Bette Davis dominate throughout, as is hardly surprising for a film that stars her in not just one but two leading roles, there's a notable supporting cast to back her up and they are surprisingly prominent as the story runs on. Most obviously there's Karl Malden, as a down to earth cop called Sgt Jim Hobbson, one who saw Edie earn her first buck and wanted to marry her, even though she may not have fully realised it. He doesn't see the details as quickly as the other major name, Peter Lawford, who is Maggie's bit on the side, perhaps because he doesn't want to. The interest both these characters have in the sisters keeps the story dynamic and fascinating, not to mention full of cruel irony with at least one twist that I didn't see coming. Malden has the bigger part and he works it well. Lawford has less to do but he does it capably, surely bringing plenty of less savoury Rat Pack realism to bear on his character's sleaziness.

I was happy to see Estelle Winwood as Dona Anna, Frank's highly religious mother. She's superb but she has been in every part I've seen her play. I came in at the very end of her career, as the aged nurse to Elsa Lanchester in Neil Simon's Murder By Death, and every odd picture I find here and there adds to my appreciation of her talent. While Winwood is subtle here, Jean Hagen is an enthusiastic society friend of Maggie's called Dede Marshall who breezes into her mansion as if she owned the place and everyone in it and breezes back out again. This was Hagen's last role, after a short but memorable set of nineteen films in the fifteen years since Adam's Rib in 1949. By coincidence, Winwood only made nineteen films too but it took her three times as long, her screen career running from 1931 to 1976. Hagen was a versatile talent, who left behind pictures as varied as The Asphalt Jungle, Singin' in the Rain and The Shaggy Dog. She's a brief riot here.
One face I didn't know that stood out as worthy of note is that of Cyril Delevanti, who acquits himself well as Henry, the DeLorca's butler. It turns out that I've seen him a lot, in uncredited bit parts in old Universal horrors as well as much later pictures like Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Soylent Green, but here is where I'm likely to picture him whenever I see him again. It's certainly a good cast but there's another actor to mention who serves a surprising role: Paul Henreid, who had served as a capable leading man to Bette Davis on more than one occasion but especially in one of her greatest pictures, 1942's Now, Voyager. Here he doesn't appear on screen because he's the film's director, something he took to after speaking out against McCarthyism, something which got him promptly blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Unable to act, he directed B movies and TV episodes. This was his most prominent film as a director.

It's a surprising piece in a number of ways. Based on a short story by Rian James, it was adapted into a script as early as 1944 but was shelved by Warner Brothers. It saw life first in Spanish as a 1946 Mexican film called La Otra, the story's original title, with Dolores del Rio playing the lead twins in the same year that Davis played twins in A Stolen Life. Whatever the reason Warners left it untouched for so long, Davis wanted the parts when Dead Ringer was put together a couple of decades later and she turned down roles in other films to get them, including 4 for Texas with two more prominent Rat Pack members, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Whatever its history, it feels like it was advertised, a dark sixties thriller made in the wake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I'm sure it would have played very differently in the mid forties, the era of film noir. Given the clever twists, I'm intrigued as to how La Otra treated the same material that far back.

The Rich Are Always with Us (1932)

Director: Alfred E Green
Star: Ruth Chatterton

This short melodrama couldn't advertise its intended audience more vehemently than it does at the outset. We're introduced to the lead character of Caroline Grannard through brief scenes of gossip, beginning as she's born Caroline Van Dyke, the richest baby in the world. Twenty years later she gets engaged to Greg Gannard but ten more finds their marriage so on the rocks that nobody could possibly believe it, even though she's dining with the leading man, George Brent, as novelist and war correspondent Julian Tierney. This unashamed melodrama introduces Ruth Chatterton, our star, in soft focus and we're surprised she doesn't stay that way. Chatterton was a capable actress but it didn't take long for me here to start missing my favourite foil for George Brent, Kay Francis. These are scenes that Francis would play with sly humour but Chatterton flounders in overacted melodrama. Fortunately she's much better when the lines improve.

There's also fortunately a third name in play here. As the characters make eyes at each other and we start falling asleep with boredom, Bette Davis walks in to save the day, as she so often did as a supporting actress for Warner Brothers in the early thirties. Her character, bizarrely named Malbro as if in homage to her forthcoming decades as a chain smoker, has the only life to show thus far, as a pouty little piece who wants Tierney but can't get him. Davis hated many of her early roles, and many of them were indeed pretty dire, but she often shone far brighter than such characters were worth, especially in precodes like this. In case you're not paying attention, the Production Code didn't tend to look kindly on plots that saw the other woman trying to steal the other man from the married heroine, while the heroine's husband is misbehaving on the side with a younger lady, Allison Adair. Not much of this film could have survived to 1935.
Chatterton shows her talent in the dignified scenes, which are surprisingly commonplace in such an outrageous melodrama as this. Adair doesn't just manoeuvre Caroline's husband into getting caught with her, she does so at a fundraiser the obstacle to her designs is hosting. She's kept her own virtue intact thus far, politely refusing each and every one of Tierney's advances, but her husband isn't following suit. She's the richest woman in the world, who we would expect today to launch into drama and histrionics to be broadcast to one and all from the front page of the tabloids, but not here. Here in 1932 she shows how much of a lady she is by putting her uncomfortable reality on hold for a while until she's done entertaining her guests. She doesn't hold back from the necessary action but she obviously cares about her servants and she treats her philandering husband well as he leaves. What a girl!

Unfortunately the melodrama continues and gets more and more ridiculous as time goes by. When Caroline shows up at Tierney's apartment, I couldn't tell if Brent was laughing because his character was supposed to or just because he'd read the script. At least his butler is played by Hattie McDaniel's brother Sam, who isn't credited but is worthy nonetheless. He gets a telling scene when Caroline rings from Paris, France, to let Tierney know she's divorced, as he's utterly stunned that something like that could happen. We've gone from that to cheap video calls from mobile phones in less than eighty years. I find movies often rook me between the eyes with their unsubtle reminders of how quickly technology progresses. Of course that's not the point here but it's what I got out of it. I'm well aware that watching thirties melodrama like this without finding more important things to focus on can cause the brain to rot.

Based on a novel of the same name by Ethel Pettit, released a year earlier, this really has little to recommend it. Nowadays it would be a soap opera rather than a movie, that's how outrageous it gets. I won't reveal the film's ending, not just because I don't like spoilers but because somehow I doubt you'd believe me. On the whole I do much prefer the endings of precodes to the code era pictures that followed them because they didn't tend to cop out. Precodes often end brutally, in murder or suicide or catastrophe, and one of those applies here, but they were usually deserved. This one feels wrong because it's as convoluted a setup for another happier ending as anything that classic Hollywood churned out in the latter part of the decade. Needless to say, I'm not a fan of the script, but that's not surprising. This was emphatically a movie for women, who could lust after George Brent, admire Ruth Chatterton and enjoy the rising star of Bette Davis.
There are some ironies in play. This was Chatterton's first picture for Warner Brothers, who had pinched her from Paramount, and she married her co-star less than six months after this movie's release, a mere day after divorcing Ralph Forbes. The couple would make four pictures all told in only a year, the others being The Crash, Lilly Turner and Female, her next three films. Yet her star quickly waned and only six further movies later she retired from the screen, never to return. Meanwhile, Bette Davis was on the opposite career path, winning her first Oscar in 1936 and a second in 1939, only a year after Chatterton's retirement. She made no less than eleven films with Brent, this being the second after the previous month's So Big! She would later describe him as her favourite leading man. He served in that role for the first two of her five consecutive Oscar nominations from 1939 to 1943, including her win for Jezebel.

The writing was really on the wall here. However dignified Chatterton appears in Caroline's finer moments, she proves unable to act her way out of the melodramatic material. Davis manages that with aplomb as she steals the show as Malbro, the pest of Park Avenue, even though she's really a thoroughly supporting character whose only real value is in a single redemption scene. Brent is hardly stretched as Tierney and while he doesn't quite phone in his performance, he could certainly do this sort of thing in his sleep and may well have done this time out. John Miljan could be a delicious screen villain but he's a non-entity as Greg Grannard, Caroline's waste of space of a husband. Adrienne Dore gets a few moments of bitchy vindictiveness as Allison Adair, the woman who steals him away, but again, she's such a pathetic character that we really don't care. Even if you're a fan of one of the cast members, this one is going to be an ordeal.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Heavy Times (2010)

Directors: Ryan McKenna and Benjamin Mark
Stars: Jay Brunner, Brian D Evans, Adam Lauver, Keaton Farmer and Jeff Koen

The trailer for Heavy Times is about as blatant a trailer as I've ever seen. What it suggests the film will be is comedian Jeff Koen (I use the description as provided) abusing three professional victims for the entire length of a feature. He stamps his authority over it so emphatically that the rest of the cast appear to be nothing more than background art. I couldn't help but assume the film would be a ninety minute adaptation of a particularly unsubtle stand up routine, though the synopsis did promise an insightful ride for the lead characters through an 'outrageous series of events none of them were prepared for'. Fortunately the actual film transcends the trailer and comes pretty close to living up to the synopsis, partly because Rick, Koen's character, doesn't appear for twenty minutes, thus giving writer/directors Ryan McKenna and Benjamin Mark some time to develop character and direction before he coats their picture in bodily fluids.

The three main characters are Dan, Mark and Hugh, believable young losers who seem to have made a career out of underachievement. Hugh is a PE teacher with the unfortunate surname of Siemen who is stuck making primary school kids do jumping jacks. Mark is so bad at being a car salesman that he can only sell to himself. Dan is an unenthusiastic human sign. Of the three actors only Brian D Evans, who plays Dan, has any prior credits, but all of them are surprisingly capable at bringing life to the subtle material they're given to work with. They're hardly dynamic but they're not supposed to be and while I appreciated them from the get go, it was Hugh's epic fail in a rap battle at a party that totally sold them for me. This is the most enjoyable faceoff I've seen on film by far, even if it's there primarily to help underline these three friends as socially inept, however much they try. Hollywood would turn them into cartoons; here they're real.
And so to Rick O'Leary. He's Dan's brother-in-law, who overwhelms the film like a tsunami when Mark and Hugh inadvisedly tag along with Dan to see his sister Megan's new house. If Dean Wormer had met Rick he'd have appointed Bluto to the board. He's a bloated, obnoxious, truly inappropriate stereotype. He calls himself 'real', but he calls himself Uncle Rick too, even though Dan is his brother-in-law. Dan calls him an 'annoying douchebag' even before we meet him and we, along with Mark and Hugh, soon realise why. He's as outrageous as you can imagine a stand up comic without a hint of restraint to be. It takes less than two minutes for him to insult them through an extended and graphic imagined description of their testicles and we promptly follow these three friends way out of their comfort zone. We understand how uncomfortable they are because we're just as uncomfortable watching him and he isn't even talking to us.

The story exists because they're too socially inept to deal with Uncle Rick. They aren't equipped with the skills needed to escape someone like him. Dan retreats into himself, resigned to his inability to make a difference. Hugh acquiesces to avoid conflict. Mark makes mild protests but buckles under the slightest pressure. At this point this film belongs utterly to Jeff Koen, just as the story belongs utterly to the character he portrays. I should be fair and mention that he's very good indeed at what he does, it's just that what he does is the last thing you'd want anyone to do anywhere near your vicinity. Finally I've found a male equivalent to Helena Bonham Carter's role in Fight Club, a female character who makes me cringe even thinking back to watching that movie, not because of how she was played but because she's the epitome of everything I don't want to see in a woman. Rick is the male equivalent and of course, that's entirely the point.
'Any idea what sort of journey you're going to have?' he asks the trio, as he kidnaps them in their own vehicle and sets out for Montreal to rip it up on their dime. They don't have a clue and neither do we, but we soon find out. Obviously the journey is what the film is about and it goes to some strange places indeed. It's roughly structured in three thirds: the first grounds in reality by providing the very down to earth trio of leads; the second launches Rick into the mix; and the third adds Gunther, Mark's old college roommate, who is at once the same and the opposite of Rick. He's just as inappropriate, but he's inappropriate in a very polite, sedate and inoffensive way. He's a riot, Keaton Farmer shining in the role like Johnny Depp as a tripping Jim Morrison. Gunther and Rick together are more than a riot. The funniest I found Koen was Rick's scene with Gunther which is a surreal but important one for all the characters.

Casting a professional comedian in a prominent role in a picture suggests that it's supposed to be a comedy. Certainly reviewers have generally compared it to The Hangover, which I haven't seen. Yet it doesn't work for me that way as while there's much humour, there are few jokes and Koen's act goes beyond what many might find funny. It was an effort not to stop watching when he showed up. I laughed more at each deadpan dose of insanity from Gunther than Koen's entire part. Yet it worked for me as a drama, his crudeness included. The journey this everyday trio of nobodies take isn't to Montreal, but into and outside themselves. They learn a little more both about who they are and about the world at large; because they are our surrogates, we get to experience some of that journey for ourselves too. This story delights in dragging us along with the lead trio into places none of us want to go but we leave smiling nonetheless.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Wise Blood (1979)

Director: John Huston
Stars: Brad Dourif, Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton, Dan Shor, Amy Wright, Mary Nell Santacroce, William Hickey and John Huston
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
Here's another of many films that I discovered through the joyous Moviedrome series hosted on BBC2 back in the day by filmmaker Alex Cox. It's a strange puppy, as hinted at by the deliberate misspelling of John Huston's name as an actor and as a director. It's a meditation on the strange ways Americans have played with religion, taken from the novel by Flannery O'Connor and aptly illustrated by the signs that accompany the opening credits which stretch kitsch to the level of a phone being stuck next to a tombstone reading 'Jesus called'. Huston, born to the industry as the son of Hollywood star Walter Huston, who he would later direct to an Oscar in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, stamped his authority with his very first film, The Maltese Falcon. As the years went by, he made a number of pictures that don't seem to hold any pretense at commercial viability but remain powerful nonetheless. This is the epitome of them and that's a good thing.

I haven't seen it for decades but it's stayed with me. Part of it is Brad Dourif's palpable intensity, which drips off the screen even more here than it did in his Oscar nominated role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest four years earlier. Watching afresh it seems almost unbelievable that he doesn't burst out of his skin, there's so much pent up energy radiating from the man. He's Hazel Motes, a man who returns home from service in the army, presumably in Korea, to find his house empty and so dilapidated that it may stay upright only through the power of art. A new interstate has caused most folks to move, including his, so he catches a train to Taulkinham, where, as he repeats to people he meets, 'I'm gonna do some things I ain't never done before.' What this boils down to are things we ain't never seen before, or at least I hadn't, the southern gothic flavour of Flannery O'Connor's source material being as exotic to this young Englishman as Fu Manchu.

O'Connor is an important figure in American literature, even though she only wrote two novels, along with shorter material and non fiction. Born in Savannah, Georgia, one of only three cities I've visited in the US that felt old to me, she wrote predominantly in a southern gothic style that fit easily alongside that of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, more prolific writers whose works were frequently filmed. The southern gothic genre uses macabre or grotesque imagery to comment on life in the American south and Wise Blood is a glorious example of this. All the main characters are fascinating extrapolations from real Southern values and beliefs, grotesque and vehement but also quintessentially human. A lifelong Roman Catholic, O'Connor also examined religious beliefs, especially Protestant heresies, by torturing her characters with their concepts. Hazel's bizarre approach to Christianity stems from Jansenism, condemned as heresy in 1655.

Like most in the American south, Hazel Motes was born to religion, his grandfather being a fire and brimstone preacher. A skewed view of belief leads him to reject it utterly, becoming a nihilist. If belief is always flawed and sin is always punished, the only road to salvation is to believe in nothing. Motes finds a purpose in Taulkinham opposing a blind preacher by founding the Church of Truth without Christ. In this church the blind don't see, the lame don't walk and the dead stay that way. It all seems natural, even a cabby believing that he's a preacher, not just from his hat but from the mere look on his face. Motes has more faith in American engineering than he does in God and his car becomes his home and his church, to live in and to preach from. Of course nobody listens, except a manic young man named Enoch Emery who latches on to him because his inherited wise blood tells him that he's a man to follow.
Exploring the wild beliefs of the American south wouldn't seem to be an obvious subject to bring in movie audiences in 1979 but the casting choices are so perfect that it becomes magnetic. I'm still trying to figure out all the religious connotations, even after reading up on O'Connor's novel, but Wise Blood was a unique ride when I first saw it and it played the same way once I found it again. Brad Dourif is one of the great character actors of our day, however bad some of the films he finds himself in manage to get; but however many great roles he plays, Hazel Motes is always how I see him in my mind's eye, preaching insanity with utter conviction and railing against the world in the process. He latches onto Asa Hawks like a mollusc, hurling challenges at him. 'What the hell kind of a preacher are you not to see if you can save my soul?' he demands. It's hardly surprising Emery latches onto him in turn, because he radiates purpose and intent.

Emery is played by Dan Shor in his debut on film. He'd go onto TRON, Black Moon Rising and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, where he was memorable as Billy the Kid. For a fresh face to film, he acquits himself admirably in powerful company, bouncing around with more energy than one man should have and enhancing the wild unpredictability of the story. This was still early in Brad Dourif's career too, but he'd already racked up an Oscar nomination. He got plenty of opportunity to use the sort of acting chops that suggests, given that his foil in this film, Asa Hawks, is played by Harry Dean Stanton, hardly a new kid on the block and one of the greatest character actors that American cinema has ever seen. He's a superb choice to play a huckster preacher who pretends to have blinded himself with lye so as to gain sympathy and respect from the God fearing folks he fleeces. While Motes opposes him in every way, he ends up outdoing him as an ascetic.

The leading lady, if she can be called such a thing here, is Hawks's daughter, Sabbath Lily, who is as fake as he is, appearing pure and virginal but being really wild in every way. In keeping with the prominent character actors cast thus far, she's played by Amy Wright who deserves to be known as far more than just Rip Torn's wife. Her power as an actress and her unconventional choices of roles over the decades ensure that she's remembered by everyone who sees her, whether most of the public has a clue who she is or not. Rounding out the principal cast, if Hazel's car can't be seen as such (it's featured prominently and manages to stay heroically alive against all odds), is Ned Beatty, in fine form as Hoover Shoates, a slimy street preacher who sees the potential for profit in Hazel's message and so hires his double to preach next to him and rake in the cash that Motes doesn't want. Needless to say that leads to a memorable showdown as the story runs on.
Beatty's entrance is surreal. He stands watching Motes preach his anti-gospel from the bonnet of his car, then as everyone walks way ambles over and amiably invites them back. He introduces himself with a fake name and proclaims Motes a prophet in The Holy Church of Jesus Christ without Christ. Then he takes over for his own gain while Motes is dumbstruck. This is only one of many touches of genius in this picture, which are often the tiniest things. The graveyard on Motes's family property has a grave for Jerusha Ashfield Motes, 'gone to become an angle'. A museum that furnishes a key prop is always empty, except for a guard who's always asleep. 'There used to be a fire escape there,' a landlord tells Hazel, out of the blue. 'Don't know what happened to it.' His car peters out at one point most of the way up a hill, right opposite a sign that tells him once again that Jesus saves. There are many signs here, not always obvious ones, and Hazel's car leads to a few.

It's interesting to note that the only characters in the film who have any worth are mechanics, who are always right even if Hazel never believes them. All the rest of the cast are grotesques, as befits the southern gothic genre. Defending her use of such characters, Flannery O'Connor once said that 'anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.' The deep south has a flavour of its own, a mythology which is quintessentially American, but which in southern gothic stories is viewed through a distorted mirror. This film is full of shanty towns, folk religion and backwoods accents. It's populated by larcenous car dealers, street hawkers and fire and brimstone preachers. It's riddled with progress and change but nothing ever seems to end up different. Sabbath Lily trusts advice columnists in newspapers, Enoch believes in a fake gorilla.

Given that fundamentalist Christianity has spread from southern Baptists to a more prominent stage in modern American life, especially in politics, it's hard not to draw comparisons. Motes, in his way, is the epitome of the fringes of the American right that circle around the Tea Party. He riles himself up over nothing more than someone else giving something to someone, even if it's Jesus. Nobody owes nothing to nobody in his view, and he'll rant and rave to get his point over to a world that doesn't want to listen. He doesn't care that they don't, because he doesn't believe in anything. He's not an athiest who doesn't believe, he's a believer who doesn't believe that there's anything to believe in. In comparison Enoch Emery believes in everything; and the other characters, Shoates and both the Hawks, only believe in what they can get and they use belief to get it. Everything is religious, even if it has nothing to do with religion. Sound familiar?

It's hard to nail down precisely why this film has stayed with me for so many years. Certainly all the people involved have done magnificent work elsewhere, not least John Huston who had almost four decades of note behind him. His unconventional career as a cinematic rebel fits the material well, as do those of the actors he cast. Dourif, Stanton and Wright have played normal, everyday people, but they really don't do it often. More usually they play bizarre characters like the ones they flesh out here. So why does this film seem so memorable? Perhaps it's because it's the archetype of the southern gothic to me, oozing with texture and flavour and exotica. More famous examples, like A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or To Kill a Mockingbird seem to me more focused dramas with more focused points. Only The Night of the Hunter seems to have the sheer depth of Wise Blood, both of which have so many different ways to be read.