Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - June 2002
I Walked With a Zombie
Tribulation 99
1900
Haxan
Little Fugitive

Dumbing Down the Road
(feelin' bad)

The Importance of
Being Earnest (2002)
Spider-Man

Too Close for Comfort
La Ciénaga
Lantana

 

 

THE MERRY WIDOW
(Erich von Stroheim, 1925).

At the height of his powers, and in the midst of a bitter struggle with Metro over his previous picture, Greed, Stroheim took considerable liberties with the Franz Lehar operetta, turning it into another of his characteristic portraits of upper class decadence.

Sally O'Hara (Mae Murray), a vivacious American showgirl, visits the central European kingdom of Monteblanco with her acting troupe, and becomes the object of a romantic rivalry between the lecherous Crown Prince (Roy D'Arcy) and his cousin, the dashing lady's man Prince Danilo (John Gilbert). The latter, used to getting his way, is only looking for another conquest - but when Sally falls for him, he discovers, to his surprise, that he is in love as well. Royal custom, however, forbids marriage to a commoner, and waiting in the wings is a crippled millionaire (Tully Marshall) who also has his eyes on Sally.

The romantic fantasy of the story is pure fluff, but it gives Stroheim an opportunity to display aristocratic spectacle with both fascination and contempt. His pacing and visual style are almost flawless. The sense of space within and without the magnificent sets, the handling of crowd scenes with their glittering costumes and processions, the selection of just the right way to frame a shot - all combine to suffuse the film with a bittersweet feeling, a poetry of richness and twilight, even while it goes beyond most movies of the time in sexual frankness and the depiction of the cruel and bizarre aspects of human character.

The director's struggles with his temperamental leading lady are now legendary. I'm afraid my sympathies are with Stroheim, for the simple reason that Mae Murray can't act. She strikes poses; she purses her pretty lips; but she fails to convince me that crowned potentates would ever fall at her feet. Hers is a weak presence, but luckily, Stroheim managed to tone down her mannerisms, so she doesn't ruin the picture. She is also fortunate to be paired with Gilbert (on the brink of superstardom that year), who can act, and is at his most natural and charming here, at least in the context of silent performance, which almost always erred on the side of excess.

The director continually displays little stylistic flourishes that set the movie apart. A duel scene in the morning mist is more beautiful that one has a right to expect (Oliver Marsh was the DP, with help from William Daniels). In a striking sequence late in the picture, a man is looking at a woman whom he only wants for her money. Suddenly everything is dark except for the woman's jewelry, which glows. This use of objects for symbolic effect, and the experimenting with technique in order to portray subjective states (improving on the ideas of his idol Griffith), are distinctive aspects of Stroheim's genius.

The Merry Widow was the final film in Stroheim's hated MGM contract. It was not tampered with, and it was a huge box office success - making over eight times its production cost. (The studio cut the director out of the profits, in order to recoup the losses from Greed.) It seems strange that the only major hit of Stroheim's career is one of his least seen films. Although I much prefer The Wedding March ('28), which explores similar themes more powerfully (and has a better lead actress in Fay Wray) - The Merry Widow is an interesting and often impressive example of the great director's work.

SABOTAGE (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936).

One of Hitchcock's recurring motifs concerns a woman who suspects a loved one of being a monster. Here the woman, played by Sylvia Sidney, has married a foreigner named Verloc (Oscar Homolka) who showed kindness to her and her young brother (Desmond Tester) when they were down on their luck. They live in London, above a cheap cinema that they run together. What she doesn't know is that Verloc is in the pay of sinister foreign powers. His first act of sabotage for them, an electrical blackout, was ineffectual, and his masters are now pressuring him to carry out a more extreme act - a bombing at Victoria Station.

In the director's famous interviews with Truffaut, he expressed dissatisfaction with this film, for reasons that are somewhat understandable on commercial, and even artistic grounds. But I think he was far too severe on himself. Sabotage is remarkably well done, with a fluid, self-assured style and atmosphere, and a darkly serious tone, that places it among the most profound and moving works of his career.

Among several brilliant sequences are the opening, in which Verloc's return from sabotaging the power plant is set against the rough comedy of the theater patrons demanding their money back from his wife during the outage, the meeting between Verloc and his spy contact at an aquarium (the eerie sight of huge fish in illuminated tanks as background to the scene's queasy sense of guilt), and the long, unbearably suspenseful journey of the young brother across London, unaware that he's carrying a time bomb.

Loosely based on Conrad's The Secret Agent, Sabotage is much more than the sum of its inventive, often shocking, techniques. There is something at stake here - the consequences of Verloc's actions include grief, rage, and betrayal - and this sense of gravity creates a more intense involvement in the drama than in Hitchcock's more popular (and admittedly wonderful) entertainments, such as the previous year's The 39 Steps. Rarely in his films does he achieve the pathos, the irony, indeed the tragedy, that he attains in a late scene where Sylvia Sidney sits in the theater in total shock, watching the Walt Disney cartoon Who Killed Cock Robin? It's a moment of immense sadness, combined with a sort of gruesome, heartwrenching comedy, that stays in the memory forever, and also provides a glimpse of Hitchcock's own insight into how movies can powerfully affect the feelings and experience of an audience.

Homolka has a brooding, melancholy presence that makes him a figure of sympathy as well as horror. Sidney, with her smile that always seems tinged with some secret pain, was the perfect choice to play the unfortunate wife. Notwithstanding the usual love interest of the detective (John Loder) investigating the husband (an inauthentic element that seems to show up in quite a few Hitchcock films), and a somewhat labored ending, Sabotage is perhaps the finest achievement of the director's early British period, with a haunting sense of evil that springs not so much from malice as from dull, ordinary heartlessness.

THE GREEN WALL
(Armando Robles Godoy, 1970).

Mario (Julio Alemán), a young Peruvian who has become disenchanted with urban life, takes advantage of a government program encouraging people to settle in the rainforest, and sets off with his bride (Sandra Riva) to make a home in the jungle. Their lives are far from easy - bureaucratic ineptitude and corruption stand in the way of their ownership of the land, and their little boy becomes increasingly withdrawn in the lonely, rugged environment.

Peru's tiny motion picture industry had never produced much in the way of narrative film until Robles Godoy came out with this, his first feature - it gained attention at a film festival in Chicago and subsequent praise at home and abroad. The style, using the extended flashbacks and choppy, enigmatic cutting that were so in vogue during the late 60s, has not worn well with time. The picture has some worthy things to say - about the indifference of the state towards individual welfare, the fragility of family, the primal need for community, among others - but the director thinks he needs to be flashy and self-consciously artistic, which doesn't really aid the story or its themes.

On the positive side, Alemán - an accomplished Mexican actor - is appealing and believable in the main role. The photography, by the director's brother Mario, is luscious. And the film's last third breaks through the artifice and becomes moving and poignant, especially in a mournful, silent journey by boat that is beautifully sad. In the end, The Green Wall attains a simplicity of feeling and expression, which makes it worth seeing despite the tentative and sometimes naive quality of its approach.

THE AWFUL TRUTH (Leo McCarey, 1937).

Happily married couple Jerry and Lucy (Cary Grant and Irene Dunne) get divorced after a spat caused by Jerry's unwarranted jealousy. Lucy takes up with a rancher from Oklahoma (Ralph Bellamy) but Jerry is on hand to sabotage the relationship in amusing ways. He, in turn, gets engaged to a society girl, but Lucy puts a stop to that by pretending to be his low-class alcoholic sister. There's never any doubt that what they really want is to get back together - the comedy lies in how many ridiculous twists and turns they will take in trying to avoid the inevitable.

The divorce comedy was a staple in Hollywood film by the time Columbia hired McCarey to re-adapt the 1922 Howard Richman stage comedy of the same name (there had been two earlier film versions, one of them silent). In this genre, husbands and wives went at each other with all the wit they could muster, and audiences enjoyed watching the sparks fly in the knowledge that bliss would eventually be restored.

Too mild to be considered a true "screwball," The Awful Truth is nevertheless one of the most beloved comedies of the era. I think this is largely due to the skill of the veteran McCarey in inspiring relaxed, amusing performances from the actors. They don't need to try to be funny - they seem happy just being themselves and letting the lines come out as if they were thinking them up on the spot. Grant has an almost dry, deadpan style here - even his body language is funny. Dunne, who too often comes off as smug in other movies, is having so much fun in this one that she's willing to look ridiculous, and that makes all the difference. The best scenes involve Bellamy, an excellent fool, with Dunne defensive about her new beau's limitations, and Grant skewering him without mercy. McCarey, one of the original comic geniuses of American film, is never above a simple gag. Grant hiding behind a door and tickling Dunne while she's trying to talk to Bellamy, the rancher's passionate love speech interrupted by her sudden inappropriate giggles - it gets me every time.

In the classic structure, after the wife's suitor is scared away, the husband's comeuppance must follow. This latter part, with Dunne putting on a fake Southern accent and reprising a ludicrous dance number from an earlier sequence, drags a bit, and is not as funny as the first part. Well, nothing's perfect. But the picture ends with a bedroom scene that comes close.

The Awful Truth is a film about the fun of sparring love partners - a film of smiles and laughter, not anarchic howling Marx Brothers laughter, but the laughter of pleasure and wit and happiness. The idea is that marriage is inherently funny, yet still worthwhile. No wonder it was a hit. It was also nominated for five Oscars, winning one for McCarey's direction.

THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET
(John Sayles, 1984).

The "brother" is a mute black extraterrestrial, played by Joe Morton, whose spaceship crashes on Ellis Island. He ends up in Harlem, helped by various kindly, eccentric residents, gets a crush on a lounge singer, traces a heroin deal to its source (a white businessman, who gets to see the deadly consequences of what he's done), and makes a living fixing video game machines, apparently through telekinetic power. It turns out that he's an escaped slave, and two white aliens (hilariously played by Sayles and David Straithairn) are on his trail.

Shot in four weeks on a tiny budget, The Brother has a rare feeling for humanity, looking with a bemused eye at the way people talk and act, and sustaining a gently satirical, compassionate tone that won me over completely. As usual with Sayles, much of the beauty is in the writing - the dialogue between the denizens of a Harlem bar (Bill Cobbs, Leonard Jackson, Steve James, et. al.) is reminiscent, in tone and timing, of good Off-Broadway theater, and the verbal humor is smart and observant.

The subject, of course, is race. Through a parody of E.T. and other outer space alien movies, Sayles can comment on the absurdity of race and the obscenity of white supremacy without getting lost in didacticism or indignant political allegory. Through the eyes of a man from another world, the conditions under which people live are seen for what they are, and the numerous ways folks manage to survive are viewed with the kind of loving regard that comes with imagined distance.

Morton carries the picture with his gaze of perpetual openness and innocence. It's beautifully modulated work - funny and sad and even a little scary. The supporting players project easy-going charm. Earning the biggest laughs are Straithairn and Sayles, as the ultimate exaggerated versions of uptight white people.

The film is not meant to be an accurate portrait of black life - it's a subtle, comic riff on race in America and the idea of black people as outsiders in their own country. Not everything works either - The Brother sometimes has the slapdash quality of something that was written in a week, which it was. But what I love about this film is its genuine feeling for people. Love is not just a word, but a real action in the midst of our mistakes and failings and stupid behavior - love springing out of all those simple human qualities that too often we don't see or appreciate. The Brother From Another Planet makes a statement against cruelty, just by showing us as limited people, who are lovable precisely because of our limits. The film, and the feeling it communicates, is like an antidote to the poison of ideas based on race, or perhaps like a spirited daydream of the way it could be for all us if we were true to ourselves. Its wisdom and gentleness were sorely needed in 1984, when the film was made. And they're still needed now.


©2002 Chris Dashiell
CineScene