Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - October 2002
Demons in the Garden
American Madness
Ben-Hur (1925)
Destiny (1997)

Sanjuro

With Fate Conspire
Les Destinées Sentimentales
Murderous Maids

Flicks - September 2002
Pépé Le Moko
Sylvia Scarlett
The Southerner (1945)
The Fleischer Studios
Billy Liar

 

 

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.

SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS
(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 right.


©2002 Chris Dashiell
CineScene