THE UNHOLY THREE
(Tod Browning, 1925).
Lon Chaney plays a circus ventriloquist named Echo who hooks up with
a strongman (Victor McLaglen), and a midget (Harry Earles) to form a
team of jewel thieves. With the help of Echo's pickpocket girlfriend
(Mae Busch) they use a pet shop owned by an unsuspecting milquetoast
(Matt Moore) as a front for their crimes. But to Echo's chagrin, one
of the jobs results in murder, and his girlfriend seems to be falling
for the pet shop owner.
This was the fourth of Browning's eleven films with Chaney, and it
was a big hit for Metro. The freakish characters and bizarre plot were
undoubtedly a source of fascination at the time. The picture has retained
a degree of critical respectability, but I found myself fighting a yawn
through most of it. As usual, Chaney - intermittently amusing when his
character disguises himself as a kindly old lady - has a forceful presence.
Earles manages to be funny and startling at times as a midget who is
pretending to be a baby. There is one scene, in which the three are
interrogated by a police inspector, that achieves some good tension.
And Browning's use of shadow is a foretaste of later, better work to
come from him. But overall, the film is slow, dreary, poorly written,
uninventively shot, and just plain boring. The love interest between
Busch and the unappealing Moore is ludicrous. The actors (even Chaney
sometimes) mug horribly in an attempt to stir up some drama. But the
picture just sits there and doesn't move.
I suppose some of my reaction is due to the fact that the material
no longer seems shocking - imitators have done it to death. But even
on its own terms, The Unholy Three lacks the vitality needed
to give the lurid, totally unbelievable story a sense of interest. Browning
had been turning out cheap melodramas for a decade. This was his first
film to show the recent (slight) influence of German expressionism on
his work - but its main significance seems to be that it was a box office
success, allowing him bigger budgets and the development of a personal
style, a style that would improve a great deal in the late 1920s.
NEXT STOP, GREENWICH VILLAGE
(Paul Mazursky, 1976).
Aspiring actor Larry Lapinsky (Lenny Baker) leaves his Brooklyn home,
and domineering mother (Shelley Winters), to live in the off-beat, interesting
world of Greenwich Village in 1953.
Mazursky's autobiographical film is a finely observed portrait of youth
in its first stirrings of freedom. There's no linear narrative in the
usual sense - only a series of vignettes, often comic, but sometimes
touching or even tragic - about life on the fringes in 1950s New York,
and the oddball Bohemian characters and behavior in this special world.
Baker is very funny and appealing in his only major role (he died far
too young, of cancer, in '82), and he has great chemistry with Ellen
Greene, as his girlfriend Sarah, who gets an abortion but has to pretend
to Larry's mother that she's never slept with him. There is a great
deal of comic business involving Winters as the Jewish mom, who shows
up at Larry's apartment at the most inopportune times. There's no denying
that this pushy, hysterical type was already a cliché in '76,
but Winters is at the top of her form - very funny indeed. Christopher
Walken is impressive as a charismatic, arrogant artiste, and Antonio
Fargas charms as a gay Village denizen calling himself Bernstein.
The picture has been criticized for being shapeless, but I think that's
an element of its appeal. Mazursky shows us the milieu, and the romance
of an actor's lifestyle at that time - with the nostalgic glow of hindsight,
to be sure, but tempered by the kind of sharp, witty dialogue that lends
the characters three dimensions with only a few deft strokes. The frankness,
the bright alertness of the humor, is very refreshing. Beautifully timed,
with no dead space or unnecessary exposition, the scenes flow naturally
from one to the next with gentle humor and grace. Next Stop, Greenwich
Village is smart, fun entertainment, with a wise yet unjaundiced
view of life, and a sense for the better possibilities in our nature.
THE MURDERERS ARE AMONG US
(Wolfgang Staudte, 1946).
Among the ruins of fallen Berlin wanders Hans Mertens (Ernst Borchert),
a bitter alcoholic doctor. Susanna, a young survivor of a concentration
camp (Hildegard Knef) moves into his tenement, and her patience and
compassion begins to break through the doctor's defenses. But he is
haunted by something terrible in his past, something that blocks his
will to live - what could it be?
Made only a year after the end of World War II, the film is a remarkable
meditation on postwar guilt and the need for some kind of justice to
be done in regard to war crimes. Staudt uses the rubble of shattered
Berlin as a symbol of inner devastation and despair - the image of ruins,
starkly photographed against the night sky, recurs at key moments in
the story. Along with the subtly menacing music (Ernst Roters) the visual
style creates a mood of dark solemnity that is very effective.
Borchert wisely underplays his role, evoking a man of deep contradictions.
Knef, who went on to become a big star in Germany, looks a bit too healthy
and gorgeous to be just out of a concentration camp, but she's a very
intense performer, and she helps sustain the film's spooky sense of
dislocation. When a former German officer appears as a symbol of evil,
he is played by Arno Paulsen as a short, complacent, ordinary businessman
who feels no guilt at all - a very clever touch on the part of Staudte.
Although the inevitable flashback turns out to be somewhat less powerful
than the build-up would lead one to hope for - the sheer magnitude of
the Nazi crimes as we now know them tends to dwarf the movie's good
intentions in this respect - it's amazing how well the picture succeeds
in portraying the soul sickness that had to be dealt with in Germany
after defeat. In one great scene between the leads, the doctor quietly
laments that peace only exists as a way for us to catch our breath between
wars, after which people will once again "die in droves." With words
like that, and a determination to stare into the heart of our dilemma,
come what may, The Murderers Are Among Us lodges itself, powerfully
and indelibly, in the memory.
MOTHER (Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1926).
In 1905, a young man (Nikolai Batalov) joins a revolutionary group
that is planning a strike at the local factory. His father (Aleksandr
Chistyakov), a drunk who is abusive to his wife and son, is recruited
into a group of reactionary strike breakers. When the strike breakers
attack the strikers, the father is killed by one of the son's comrades
(in a long sequence that is a tour de force of editing style). The mother
(Vera Baranovskaya) then discovers a cache of weapons hidden under the
floorboards by her son. Naively believing assurances from the police
that they will be lenient, she betrays her son to them.
Adapted from the Maxim Gorky novel, Mother was an international
success, and remains one of the universally acknowledged masterpieces
of Soviet cinema. Its reputation is deserved. On every level - editing,
acting, photography, overall conception - this is superb filmmaking.
Pudovkin has an uncanny ability to highlight the human face in powerful
ways. The close-ups, and the framing of human figures within light that
is bordered by shadows, create an effect like painting in motion, or
like witnessing eternal archetypes of humanity taking shape on the screen.
The choice of Baranovskaya, an actress trained by Stanislavsky, in the
title role, was extremely fortunate. She knows how to use her deep,
haunting eyes, and how to be still - rather than trying to emote all
over the place, as was still too common in films of that era - to create
this character, this mother, as a living presence on screen. You just
can't take your eyes off her.
Montage was, of course, the principal technique of the Soviet silent
film. What isn't often enough said is that the Russians taught the rest
of the cinematic world, to a great degree, how to move faster. There
are almost no longeurs or dull stretches in Mother - the cutting
is so fast and dynamic, in sequences such as the attack on the strikers,
or the May Day march confronted by the military on horseback, that the
drama is primarily conveyed by the film's rhythm itself rather than
the plot. Even the film's quieter scenes involve dynamic editing, and
continue to stimulate the attention on different levels by using concrete
symbols and evocative motifs - such as the water dripping into a bucket
while the mother sits by her dead husband's bier. Moreover, Pudovkin
brought a more personal touch to a story than his colleague and rival
Eisenstein - always maintaining interest in the characters as individual
people, over and above their significance as types.
Outside of Griffith, there are few more poignant examples of world-historical
irony in cinema than the Soviet silent film - the revolutionary hopes
they expressed proved to be tragic illusions, but the works themselves
remain deeply influential, and rightly so. The stereotypes of Russian
class struggle are fortunately less prominent in Mother than
in a lot of other movies in the genre. Pudovkin focused on action and
style, letting character speak for itself through the fine acting, and
the result was one of the world's most beautiful and effective films.
(Preston Sturges, 1942).
John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a successful director of Hollywood
comedies, yearns to make a serious picture about the hardships of the
poor and downtrodden. To that end, he disguises himself as a hobo and
goes out in the world with only a dime in his pocket, riding the rails
in order to experience the life of society's poorest members firsthand.
Along the way, he meets up with an aspiring actress (Veronica Lake)
who falls for him and then insists that she accompany him on his adventures.
This is the most thoughtful and personal film by the comic genius Sturges,
and presents an interesting challenge to the viewer. For although the
picture amounts to a kind of argument for the supreme value of comedy
in film and in life, it also serves, paradoxically, as a chance for
the writer-director to make some serious observations about the very
social conditions which its title character is humorously chided for
attempting to portray. My previous viewings of Sullivan's Travels,
years ago, caused me to rate it relatively low in the Sturges canon
- I thought it somewhat preachy and facile in its conclusions. But watching
it again, I see it as a much more effective film than I remembered -
sensitive, brilliantly written, and daring in the way it hops between
comic and dramatic forms without losing a sense of where it's going.
McCrae, one of the most underrated Hollywood actors, is marvelous.
His naiveté is funny, but not overdone - the actor makes us believe
and care about his idealism even though we laugh at him. Veronica Lake
is bright and funny and sexy, and has great rapport with McCrae - she
was always better in comedies, I think, and this is arguably her best
work. The usual gang of Sturges loonies is featured here, too - William
Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Robert Greig - and as a bonus,
the divinely absurd Eric Blore. As if to illustrate a thesis on comedy,
the film features just about every aspect of the genre - from slapstick
(a sequence involving a huge van racing to catch up with a speeding
go-cart is a riot) to screwball to character-driven humor. But most
of all, it's a romantic comedy, with a milder tone than most of Sturges'
other films, and this difference may obscure the fact that the romance
is quite satisfying and well-integrated with the comedy.
About two-thirds of the way through, the film turns serious. Well,
the kind of seriousness that Sturges was willing to try, and the kind
that was possible at the time, had its limits, but there is a lot to
admire in how much the film manages to achieve within those limits.
A famous scene, for instance, involving the visit of a chain gang to
a black church in order to watch a movie (a rather transparent contrivance
for Sturges to make his big point about comedy) is set up with great
sensitivity - the black preacher telling the congregation not to betray,
by word or manner, any sense of difference between them and the convicts
(a very ironic admonition in a segregated time), followed by the congregation
singing "Go Down Moses" as we see the prisoners approach the church
and then file in to the pews.
By contrasting the brutality and despair of actual conditions with
the rather fanciful conception of poverty featured in the film's earlier
sections, Sullivan's Travels manages to make a serious statement
while pretending not to. There are few other studio productions of that
era that are as honest and humane in their message, or their feeling
for people, as this one. It used to be considered Preston Sturges' best
film. His more anarchic works are in greater favor now, but after seeing
this movie again, I'm no longer sure that the earlier opinion wasn't
©2002 Chris Dashiell