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
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
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
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
©2002 Chris Dashiell