Phantom Lady – Nebbish Engineer

January 11, 2014


Another installment in my highlighting of engineers as characters in cinema:

Phantom Lady (1944), directed by  Robert Siodmak, doesn’t seem to be available anywhere but Youtube, so there I watched it, fortunately, on a large screen.  The image above shows the phantom lady with the male lead, Alan Curtis as Scott Henderson.  He’s just been dumped by his rich wife, who was also carrying on with his best friend.

His wife is found murdered, and Scott is fingered for the crime.  He is remarkably passive about it all, but he is saved by his chipper secretary, “Kansas”, played by Ella Raines.  (I read her voice was dubbed – couldn’t she do Kansas?)  The scene where he throws in the towel after losing his appeal is pure Expressionism.
As noted, Kansas is of stronger stuff, and she tracks down everyone associated with the events of the fatal night, eventually finding the killer in a scene that surely inspired the finale of Jagged Edge many years later.  Would you mess with Kansas?  She has a remarkable clean, strong look to her.
6a00d83451cb7469e2017ee7c93390970d-800wi 002 Ella Raines 02
The reliable Elisha Cook, Jr. came down from his Sierra hideaway to do his bit in the film as a hop-head drummer with the hots for Kansas, all tarted up to gain his confidence.  Her legs incite his drumming to an orgasmic crescendo, but she keeps her cool.
Scott Henderson is a civil engineer, with dreams of building cities, dreams that excite the love and admiration of Kansas.  (He’s too dull to notice her crush on him.)  He wants playgrounds and sunlight everywhere.  There we have the civil engineer as hero motif, still with some life in it in the 1940s.

Scott’s nemesis and friend, played by Franchot Tone, is an artist, an artist a bit too preoccupied with the power of his hands to create…and destroy.  In a moment of candor, he derides the ambitions of his friend as paltry concerns with sewers and pipes, and whatnot.

Engineer as nebbish:  a far cry from the protagonist of transatlantic tunnel.

M for Metropolis!

December 3, 2012

Fritz Lang, who made that fabulous Ur-noir, M, made Metropolis (1927) as well, but until the last few years, it was never seen in its original form. The restored version, including lost footage retrieved from a full print found in Argentina, is available on Netflix, and it is glorious.  A sci-fi fairy tale with ominous Art Deco sets and art production, a full-on tale from the Germanic medieval Apocalyptic tradition, and an Expressionist masterpiece, it awakens in me a deep understanding of the older name for movies, motion pictures.  The images, each one, are fabulous, and they are given life through the technology of cinema.

Lang expressed distaste for his masterpiece later in his life.  He felt that it was politically naïve and simplistic.  His feelings may have had something to do with the fact that his collaborator on the work, his then-wife, Thea von Harbou, went on to embrace the Nazis, leading to their divorce soon after, and to his exile to Hollywood where he made several excellent film noirs, including Human Desire, Scarlett Street, The Big Heat.  It’s hard for me to watch this film and not think about the conflagration to come to Germany, and Europe, ten years later.

The melodramatic plot concerns Joh Fredersen, The Master of Metropolis, the city that he built on the backs of his workers.  The city is a brilliant aerial extravaganza: the workers live underground in dismal blocks of flats that look like the work of a dropout from the Bauhaus architecture school.  His magnificent brain produces the ideas and directives that keep the city humming, and his every word, utterance, and gesture is attended to with slavish awe by his subordinates.



The children of the rich frolic in pleasure domes at the top of the city towers that look like something out of Hieronymous Bosch, if he had gone to Hollywood.  Maria, a teacher from the worker’s world, brings some of her charges up on a field trip.  One wonders what were the guards who let her in thinking?  That begins the ruin of all of them.



Freder, The Master’s son, is transfixed by the sight of Maria, and decides he must go down to the depths of the worker’s city to find her. She is regarded as a spiritual leader by the workers, and restrains their violent tendencies, telling them that a Mediator will come, to join together the Head (The Master) and the The Hands (the Workers.) The allusions and similarities to New and Old Testament language and imagery are deliberate and consistent.

Freder is appalled by what he finds underground.  He witnesses an explosion at the main machine that kills many workers, and he has a vision of the infernal engine as a Moloch devouring the people. From then on, he refers to his father’s city as The Tower of Babel.


He goes in search of other knowledge, and comes upon a man killing himself with the effort of manning his post.  He is part of a crude feedback mechanism, and he must manually move the arms of the machine to point to the lights on the outer circle as they blink.  They change often, and he is worn out with keeping up, but if he does not, disaster will ensue:  He looks like a man crucified. Freder relieves him and takes his place and his worker’s clothes. He sends the man up to the city and to wait for him at a friend’s apartment, but the worker ends up spending his type at the city’s casino, a decadent fleshpot.  So much for the virtuous proles!


In another part of the city, in the only building that retains a pre-modern appearance, a tall, ancient mansion, lives Rotwang, the mad scientist- inventor.  It is obvious from his artificial hand that Dr. Strangelove owes something to this movie, as do so many others!

Rotwang's House


There’s a back story here:  Frederson’s wife, Hel, is dead, but it seems that both Master and Madman loved her.  The inventor maintains a shrine to her memory that Frederson  contemplates when he pays a visit to his main technological adviser and mentor. (These images are from restored footage, and they are grainy, and cropped differently.)


Rotwang reveals that he has been developing a mechanical man to reincarnate Hel, and Frederson is horrified, but intrigued.


Knowing that his workers are being roused to rebellion by Maria, he commands Rotwang to fashion her in the image of Maria, and send her among the workers to sow chaos and discord.  Instead of Maria’s message of peace and reconciliation, the mechanical-Maria will preach insurrection and violence.  Joh Frederson will have a perfect excuse for retaliating brutally and teaching the proles their proper place.


Rotwang kidnaps Maria and uses her in his deranged experiment…


…which ends up being rather successful.

m14_c_      m14a_c_

The transformed Maria is presented to Frederson, and he sets his awful plan in motion, not knowing that his son is in love with the real woman, and is living among the workers.  The guys on the top just don’t know what’s going down…


Freder sees his father with the false Maria and is stunned and horrified.  He swoons, and is put to bed, where he has an extended  vision along the lines of Revelation, ending with his cry, “Death come to the city!”  I have created an animated GIF of his vision, below, that you can click to activate.


click to animate and view in full

Meanwhile, the false Maria carries out her mission of evil among the workers.


Freder tries to unmask her as the impostor he knows she must be, but the workers turn on him as a member of the ruling class.

Talk about a femme fatale!


Roused by her calls to violence, the workers storm the engine rooms, and overcome the foreman, who occupies a rather difficult position in the class hierarchy.  He is a worker, but he is at the top of the class, a sort of craft-union type, and he knows the mob is wreaking destruction on itself!  He shuts the gates to hold off the mob, but The Master, with his own long game in play, orders him to raise them.  He obeys, the engines are smashed, the pumps stop, and the workers city begins to flood.




The workers do an infernal dance around the smoldering ruin of the main engine, but the foreman breaks the spell, demanding of them, “Where are your children?”  Indeed, they gave no thought to them as they went on their rampage, and the foreman makes clear to them their utter dependence on the machines that they have smashed.  Luddite he ain’t.




The real Maria comes to the rescue, herding the children left behind to the alarm station where she is ringing the bell.


Meanwhile, the false Maria declares, “Let’s watch the city go to the devil!!” an parties with the city élite.


Like Hugo’s novel Notre dame de Paris, the center of the city, even of the godless machine-metropolis, is the cathedral.  It symbolizes the mediating heart between head and hands.  And as in that novel, a climactic struggle between Good and Evil takes place on the roof as Freder fights with Rotwang.


Down in the square, the foreman leads the action, roping the false Maria to a stake for burning in the good old fashioned way.



With purifying flame comes the revelation of her true nature.


Finally, Freder emerges with Maria and his father, and mediates an uneasy reconciliation between the foreman, speaking for the masses, and his father.  Happy ending for ruler and ruled!


You say you want NOIR?

February 29, 2012

You can’t paint it much blacker than The Seventh Victim (1943) does.  A mentally disturbed woman falls in with a coven of Satan worshippers, but decides it’s not for her.  She goes to a shrink to try to work out her feelings, but they consider that a betrayal:  the club rules say “Death!”  So, they lock her in a room with a noose for a few weeks hoping that she will do the “right thing.”

Her sister leaves school to come looking for her, and gets into some scary situations.

The Satanists try to convince her another time:  Just drink the stuff!  You know you want to die.  You always said you did!

When words fail, a man in an alley with a knife might to the trick.

The scene above is pure German Expressionist noir, right out ‘M‘.  And other films come to mind:  Psycho is prefigured in a scene where the little sister is terrorized while showering; Rosemary’s Baby, and even Mullholland Drive come to mind.  Everyone is this film is doomed to death or unhappiness:  they are all emotionally drained, failures, physically or mentally ill.  The final sequence involves a conversation between the ex-Satanist and a dying victim of consumption, exchanging views on the relative merits of life and death.

It’s a low-budget B movie, and it shuffles along slowly at times, but all in all, utterly remarkable for its consistently negative tone.

That fabulous face…

October 10, 2010


The only exception I know is the case,
when I’m out on a quiet spree,
fighting vainly the old ennui
and I suddenly turn and see,
your fabulous face.

I Get a Kick Out of You – Cole Porter


An exhibit at The Neue Galerie, that is dedicated to German and Austrian early 20th century art and design branches out from the usual program to bring together the marvelous heads by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, 1736-1783.  A strange fellow – he went mad, it seems.  Certainly, these heads he created were not the stuff of court and bourgeois portraiture of his day.  Ahead of his time?

I have seen pictures and examples of his heads off and on over the years – it was a treat to see so many close up all at once.  The Wiener Werkstatte postcards were nice too.

M is for Murder

September 26, 2010

Fritz Lang, 1930, Peter Lorre…this film is so great, I don’t want to say much about it.

A serial killer of little girls is on the loose, the city is terrorized.  The criminal class wants to get back to the status quo ante.  A race to see who will get the killer – the cops or the crooks?  The cops aren’t stupid, and a lot of attention is paid to their methodical, painstaking, and tedious legwork to find him…and it pays off!  The crooks enlist the army of beggars to locate the man, and there are a lot of them in Weimar Berlin.  A final ‘trial’ that seems to put civilization and reason in the dock.

More Blue

September 20, 2010

From The Blue Dahlia, to The Blue Angel – it still packs quite a punch after eighty years! 

Lola Lola is in town, performing at The Blue Angel, and the schoolboys flock there at night.  Their uptight professor investigates, and tries to scare them away.  He imagines that Lola is the victim of a “white slavery” racket.  Marlene Dietrich’s vamping and singing have been parodied and spoofed, always as homage, I guess, and there’s no denying their power.  This was 1930 cinema!

The professor, “Teach” they call him at the club, comically tries to “defend” Lola, and she is touched and amused.  He is totally smitten.  The impressario makes him the guest of honor for the night.  Just what sort of honor is this, I wonder?, he seems to be thinking.  Complete fool that he is, he marries Lola Lola – who knows what she makes of it, a nice banquet, maybe? – and his reputation is sunk.  At the wedding party, he does an imitation of a crowing rooster – more on that later.


He joins the troupe to stay with Lola, and discovers a different form of white slavery, his own.


I wonder if there is a connection between this image of Lola and this one by Man Ray from a bit later.


Five years go by, and Teach has sunk very low.  He has become the clown figure he scorned as trash when he first burst into Lola Lola’s dressing room.  She has developed other interests like the strongman Mazeppa, who starts hanging around.  He’s a natty dresser.

The troupe leader scores a coup!  They will return to The Blue Angel for the first time in five years, and Teach will be featured!  The house will be filled for sure – everyone in town knows his story.  But he struggles against his ultimate humiliation, and refuses to go on.  Lola gives him a fatal look, and he obeys.


On stage with the magician doing his egg-from-the-nose routine, he must crow like a rooster.  He complies, but when he sees Lola cuddling offstage, he becomes totally unhinged.


Escaping from the club, he makes his way back to the classroom where it all began, and dies, clutching his old desk so hard that the watchman can’t pry his fingers loose.  Too late – he lost his respectable refuge long ago.

At several points in the film, people say to the professor, I can understand a lot, but to ruin yourself for a woman/a dame/a woman like that!  Lola Lola closes out with her signature song, “Falling in Love Again,” and laments, “what can I do, I’m just made that way, I can’t help it.”  It’s his song too.

Black and White

December 18, 2007


The drawing above is by the artist Heinrich Kley, an academic painter who turned satirist. I owe my rediscovery of him – I’ve seen some of his images before – to Richard Sala, who like me, enjoys his drawings and mentioned them in an interview. (He also intimates that his heroine Peculia is inspired by Louise Brooks.)

Kley’s drawings can be grotesque, bizarre, and hilarious. (Here is a site with a nice gallery: The Art of Heinrich Kley). The tension and sinuosity of his line – so typical of Art Nouveau – is fascinating. Click on this thumbnail to see a short animated tribute to him that I created from some of his drawings, a sequence that may have inspired some animators at Disney.


There’s no end to the wonders of black and white drawings, woodcuts, and engravings from this period, some of them a source of rich inspiration for comic artists today, as well as others of course. I find the work of Frans Masereel particularly arresting. Both he and the American Lynd Ward, created early forms of what some now call the “graphic novel.”