Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks October 2006
Quentin Durward (1955)
Méliès the Magician
Wisconsin Death Trip
Early Summer
Le Beau Serge

Lucid Dreaming
The Science of Sleep
Old Joy

Mutual Appreciation
plus: This Film Is
Not Yet Rated



THE BLUE BIRD (Maurice Tourneur, 1918).

Maurice Maeterlinck's 1908 fairy play has been filmed at least six times. This was the second (Gaumont produced one in 1910) and the first one of feature length. Since the silent film had to do without the sprightly effect of Maeterlinck's dialogue, the contrived nature of the symbolism tends to come off as rather heavy-handed. In brief, the plot concerns two poor children, a boy and a girl (Robin Macdougall and Tula Belle) who are visited in their sleep by a fairy (Lillian Cook) on Christmas night. She gives the boy a magic hat that allows him to see the souls inhabiting all things. They all go on a journey to find the blue bird of happiness, accompanied by a dog, a cat, and the spirits of Milk, Light, Fire, Bread, and Sugar.

The whole thing is a rather complicated allegory about the human soul, and without prior knowledge of the play the film is actually a bit hard to follow. However, Tourneur had a knack for depicting fantasy (as in the Pickford vehicle Poor Little Rich Girl the previous year). Here he uses actors in costumes to portray the animals and spirits, some creative set design, and various visual effects, including backwards-motion, to create a feeling of magic.

It seems to me that the movies have come closest to the fantasy worlds of children when they employed the simplest and most naive methods. The costumes and scenery in The Blue Bird have more charm, and evoke more of a feeling of wonder, than any computer graphics could do, precisely because they strike a balance between stage illusion and our awareness of it.

The child actors are fine most of the time, although the story requires them to be astonished so often that it becomes tiresome. The negative has deteriorated here and there--thankfully the Eastman House has preserved most of this little gem, and Kino has given it to us on DVD. When all is said and done, it doesn't really capture the Maeterlinck play, but in itself it represents a
certain kind of moviemaking that we'll never see again--a relic from cinema's age of innocence.

RAW DEAL (Anthony Mann, 1948).

Dennis O'Keefe plays a career criminal named Joe Sullivan, in prison after taking the rap for his boss, Rick (Raymond Burr), who then helps Joe's girlfriend (Claire Trevor) break him out of jail. But it's a set-up: Rick wants Joe killed while escaping, so he won't have to pay him the fifty thousand he owes him. Joe avoids the trap, but he decides to go to his case worker (Marsha Hunt), with whom he's secretly in love, for help in getting out of the country. When she insists he turn himself in, Joe and Pat kidnap her, and the three of them go on the run from Rick and the police.

The film's fatalistic mood more than compensates for the implausible story. Working at a Poverty Row studio called Reliance, Mann was cutting his teeth on crime dramas, and his work here is taut and compelling. The high contrast black and white photography (John Alton) couldn't be better, with a lot of low angle shots, and some beautiful scenes of fog, along with other signature "film noir" techniques.

O'Keefe was not a handsome leading-man type, and this actually works in the film's favor--he's a taciturn antihero haunted by his own bad luck, and it seems wholly credible that he would fall for the unattainable "good" girl instead of sticking with his loyal moll, played with self-lacerating intensity by the great Trevor. Burr is oily and repellent as the sadistic villain, and John Ireland is also on hand as a sneering wise guy hit man. Throw in an exciting climax with a shoot-out in the middle of a fire, and you have a thoroughly enjoyable crime picture--one of the best from the fertile postwar period.

EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Georges Franju, 1960).

A prominent surgeon (Pierre Brasseur), haunted with guilt over the car accident that disfigured his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob), has his lover and assistant (Alida Valli) lure unsuspecting women to his mansion, where he removes their faces and attempts to graft them onto his daughter.

This horror film has a special style and tone that sets it apart. Franju is not very interested in fright effects or sudden shock. Rather, the mood is creepy, unsettling in a way that gets under your skin. Brasseur's doctor is determined and officious, not so much menacing as someone who is just doing what he feels he has to. The scenes with Scob, who wears a mask sculpted into an ethereal, haunted expression, convey the sense of a completely isolated, hermetic form of personal madness. Whenever Valli's character goes out in search of a new victim, we hear a jaunty little music-hall theme (Maurice Jarre wrote the score) that is more sinister than any of the usual dramatic horror music might be. And the great veteran DP and visual effects man Eugen Schüfftan performs wonders with the nighttime scenes.

The movie has some stretches that border on tedium. Franju's treatment is at times so drily clinical that he creates a distancing effect, which works against the thrust of the film. The scenes with the police seem a bit "off" (and surely their use of a girl shoplifter as bait is absurdly risky and inept). But when the picture is working, it's unforgettable, a vision of evil as a kind of self-centered indifference to suffering, as opposed to conscious malevolence. The unexpectedly poignant, poetic ending is a visual stunner.

CRANE WORLD (Pablo Trapero, 1999).

Rulo (Luis Margani), a middle-aged Buenos Aires construction worker, lives in a tiny apartment and often falls asleep in front of the TV. Although he's overweight and a heavy smoker, he's a generally cheerful and resourceful guy, and even takes the risk of asking a local sandwich-shop owner (Adriana Aizemberg) on a date. He also helps support his mother and his twenty-something son, who parties a lot, sleeps late, and doesn't have a clue what we wants to do with his life. Rulo looks forward to his training on the huge crane at his construction site, but when he fails a health test, he ends up having to seek employment a thousand miles south, in Patagonia.

Trapero's slice-of-life approach pays careful attention to the little details of working class life. The day-by-day struggles, with occasional breaks of humble recreation, are the story here. The film's naturalism admits of no dramatic crescendos. For instance, when Rulo, who saw brief fame in his youth as a musician in a band with a hit single, finally lets his son borrow his precious bass guitar for a gig with dire warnings not to lose it, you can bet that nothing will come of it.

Crane World is remarkable for its focus on work as a central part of people's lives. It is also, I must say, refreshing to see an unglamorous, ordinary central character--a pot-bellied chain-smoker in a hard hat (and Margani's performance is utterly convincing). The writer-director's gentle respect for his subject is expressed in a style of open-ended observation. We do understand, eventually, without an explanatory word, that Argentina has become a place of vanishing opportunity. The film is shot in black-and-white with mostly non-professional actors, on authentic locations, and it conveys a sense both of hard-working determination and diminished hopes.

TUMBLEWEEDS (King Baggot, 1925).

When the Cherokee Strip is opened to settlement by the government, cattle ranchers like Don Carver (William S. Hart) are faced with the end of their way of life. As people stream in to prepare for the Oklahoma land rush, Carver meets and falls in love with a beautiful homesteader (Barbara Bedford), but her brother is a "sooner," someone who plans to sneak in to grab land prior to the rush, and he's teamed up with a villain who has his eye on the girl and plans to frame Don in order to get him out of the way before the gun sounds for the rush.

The pleasure of the western, for most of its history, lay in the reiteration of familiar stories and themes, or at most in the trying out of variations within the tried-and-true. Tumbleweeds follows a classic pattern: the noble hero, tough as nails but shy with women, aiding the defenseless and standing up for decency. He has a goofy sidekick, here played by Lucien Littlefield, who is practically a blueprint for Walter Brennan, Gabby Hayes, and every other sidekick that would follow. The comedy is broad (and not that funny) but at least not painful. There's riding, drinking, fighting, and outlaws. The only thing missing are Indians, although there's a brief scene where Don is helped out by a couple of chieftans (he's their best friend, of course).

Hart was the greatest of the early screen cowboys, dedicated to an accurate depiction of the West, and a performer of staid dignity, in contrast to the antics of other cowboy stars such as his chief rival Tom Mix. This was his last movie--his popularity was declining, and he decided to go out on top. The veteran Baggot (who'd been in the movie business on both sides of the camera since the days of the Trust) moves the story along briskly. The land rush sequence, with hundreds of horses, wagons and riders tearing across the plain and Hart racing past them on his horse, is a splendid feat. The romance is less credible--the 60-year old Hart needed plenty of help with make-up and lighting to seem like a fit match for the gorgeous Bedford, four decades his junior (some things in Hollywood never change). But it's an excellent western overall, and it's rightly considered one of Hart's best films.

©2006 Chris Dashiell