Life goes on, right here in Teaneck. In an area that used to be a soggy wetland, then became a debris repository for concrete fragments (from what, I don’t know) associated with the construction of the NJ Turnpike, there is now the Teaneck Creek Conservancy. I have highlighted the path of the creek.
This time of year, the White Suckers make their way upstream to spawn. We spy on them and snap pictures.
When I was a boy, late one night I watched the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. I was keen on iguanas then too, but of course, that’s not what the story is about. Watching it again a year ago, I couldn’t stay with it, but this scene is still a hoot.
The Russian Revolution, and the Italian Risorgimento: two different revolutions. One, cataclysmic; one, not so much. Transforming Russia from a backward agrarian society into a totalitarian industrial giant. Transforming the Italian peninsula from a motley of states into a unified “modern” nation. I indulged my abiding interest in Josef Stalin by watching The Inner Circle (1991) by Andrei Konchalovsky, and I’m prepping for a trip to the Piedmont region of Italy, where The Risorgimento originated, by watching Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) again, and re-reading the novel by Lampedusa on which it is based.
Konchalovsky, who was quite successful within the Soviet cinema world, relates that he offered a bottle of brandy to a projectionist if the man would tell him the opinions of the state censors for whom he was screening his latest film. The man revealed that he had lots of stories to tell about what Stalin used to say about films! He was the Kremlin projectionist for years: Konchalovsky was ready to listen, and The Inner Circle is the story of this Kremlin functionary.
The film has some odd things about it, including a score that seems to grow loud and sentimental at the worst moments, and the fact that all the dialog is in English spoken with Russian accents. Seems a bit hokey at times. The problem of subtitles and translation was handled more creatively in The Hunt for Red October, about the only good thing I recall from that film. Tom Hulce plays the projectionist, and he holds onto his pure country-bumpkin good-Ivan characterization a bit too long, but to anyone familiar with Russian history, he’s still believable.
There is a scene where the film breaks during a screening for Stalin, and the projectionist explains that the projector is a poor copy of an excellent German machine – the head of the Cinema Bureau, responsible for these things, is standing right there – and has an inferior spring part that caused the break. Stalin uses the incident to indulge his sadistic bent, lightly bandying with the bureau chief who is sweating profusely, while Beria – head of the secret police – notes sarcastically that someone wasn’t doing their duty. This is the sort of thing that can end with a bullet to the head administered some random dead of night. It’s a chilling set-piece of Stalin’s daily modus operandi. If you want a sense of the brutal moral degradation imposed on the Soviet citizenry by Stalin, apart from the mass murder itself, this is not a bad film to see.
Meanwhile, back in Sicily, The Prince is speaking dubbed Italian in Visconti’s adaptation of The Leopard. Panned at first, it is now highly rated: Martin Scorsese, not surprisingly, rates it among the greatest of all films. Why no surprise? Because Scorsese, as one critic noted, is no great sociologist, and naturally he is entranced by Visconti’s lush nostalgia for a period of elegance decayed.
Starting to read the novel again, I noted right away that the author’s tone is sharper, more harsh, than the elegiac sentiment of Visconti. The film is an aesthetic response to the politics of the Risorgimento. You can say that Visconti was a Marxist (he joined the Communist Party after WWII) but how much of one could he be having made this film? He loves those aristocrats, their clothes, their nobless oblige, and he loathes the upstart middle class. He was, of course, the scion of a hugely important Italian aristocratic clan. And in the end, the film is an adaptation, not a copy of the book – he chooses to emphasize the theme of the Prince dealing with his own mortality, as well as the end of his era, a more personal story. A fine film, a wee bit too long, and I think his talents were better suited for Senso.
The Leopard is often referred to as Italy’s “Gone With The Wind,” a comparison that is an insult to Visconti’s considerable talents and highly developed sensibility.
Netflix classified The Lineup (1958) as a film noir, which it most certainly is not, but it’s pretty dark nonetheless, and a crackerjack crime film that I thoroughly enjoyed. Great location shots in San Francisco, an excellent high-speed chase long before McQueen did Bullit, a full rogues gallery of outlaw characters, and some great dialog: just hold on through the pretty dull first thirty minutes of police procedural until Eli Wallach, as hit-man Dancer, makes his entrance, and enjoy the ride.
It’s called The Lineup, because it’s based on a TV show that ran in the early fifties under that name. The episode with an actual lineup is quite a small part of the story. The film is an expanded treatment of one story from the series, and it’s directed by Don Siegel. One of the posters for the film says, “Too hot for TV!”
Before the credits role, we are in the action as a porter rips off a passenger’s bag, and throws it into a cab which then races away. As they say, a chase ensues, and the cabbie, after running down a cop who dies later, is hit by a lucky shot. The luggage contains a statuette stuffed with high-grade heroin, part of a shipment run by a secretive outfit headed by The Man. The Man thinks things out thoroughly, and he foists junk on unwitting overseas tourists who work as his mules without their knowledge. Once they reach the States, the gang gathers up their souvenirs in whatever way they must.
Here, the police do their work methodically, checking in with the head of customs, whom the Lt. initially blames for the cop’s death. After all, why didn’t they catch that heroin in the statue? The customs man shows a map and calmly explains that there is just too much territory, too many ships for him to handle. Pretty routine stuff, but I like the guy on the left, although I could not find his name.
Our first glimpse of the bad guys, Robert Keith as Julian, and Eli Wallach as Dancer. Julian is Dancer’s handler, coaching him on ‘delivery’ verbal and ballistic. He wants Dancer to improve his grammar so as to be able to move more easily among his victims. Their first dialog is a discussion of the subjunctive. Dancer is incredulous that anyone would say, “If I were…,” rather than “If I was…” He’s not alone, but Julian is firm with him. After the fiasco with the cabbie, The Man brought them in to clean up things.
Julian knows that Dancer is a cold-blooded psychopath, filled with hate. he says as much to another gang member. Dancer later reveals that like everyone else, he had an old man once, except that he never knew him. Is Julian his father-figure, or is there a homo-erotic attachment here..?
Sandy is “their boy,” designated driver, except that he has a liking for drink. Julian slaps his bottle to the ground, and calls him “Dipso” from then on. But Sandy has a souped-up auto, and he can drive it, fast!
The one to see is a seaman on the boat who was given a hollowed out antique horse. They are told to find him in the steamroom in the Seaman’s Club. Two guys in a locker room…wearing hats. Dancer is convinced that this whole job is going to be a sticky one because the first shipment went awry, while Julian insists, no, it’s going to be an easy one. All done by 4:30pm.
Dancer undresses to go meet the man, and Julian offers to fold his clothes. He tells him “Go easy…,” but the contact figured out that he was being used as a mule, so he asks for a few grand to make it worth his trouble. Did they think he would believe that line about just carrying some art to a friend in the city for a favor? Big mistake for them, and for him too.
…while Dancer explains the facts of life to the upstart seaman. He does it silently, shall we say. Their driver asks if he really had to kill the guy, and Julian responds, “When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty.” Bob Dylan may have taken note.
Next up, a set of fancy cutlery with powder stowed in the ivory handles needs to be repossessed from a rich pillar of society. The butler is not comfortable with the story of an accidental mix up of shipments. Dancer tries to talk his way out using his newly acquired gift for upper-class gab, but is not successful…
Dancer does a fine job at trying, but not too hard, to pick up the woman. She has a sad story about hoping that her divorced husband would have the decency to meet them at the dock to see his little girl, but no dice. He’s lonely too… He’s pretty convincing. Good enough to get her to an accept an offer of a drive with his friends to her hotel so she doesn’t have to bother with all those packages.
Once in the room, when mom leaves for a moment, they go for the doll, not the kind you carry around all the time. The stuff isn’t there, and under threat of death for her mom, the kid reveals that she found the powder and used it to freshen up the doll’s face! “That’s the most expensive face powder you could have used, kid.”
But he’s not about to let the enraged Dancer finish the conversation by shooting the two females, although that’s what Dancer is set to do. Interesting logic here, and strangely compelling: The Man is going to be mightily upset at getting a short shipment, and will likely conclude that Dancer and Julian did a little business of their own on the side. That will not be good for the duo, who will be dead in short order, so Julian concludes that they must force the ladies to go with them, to meet The Man, so that he will see that their explanation, which would be hard to believe, don’t ya’ think, is for real. It’s their only chance.
So they all drive to the coast, to Sutro’s Maritime Museum, all that’s left of the legendary Sutro’s Baths, an early 20th century amusement center, and another great SF location. Julian waits in the car with the ladies while Dancer goes in to meet The Man. He is repelled by their weakness, and explains “that is why there are so few women in the crime world. You just don’t understand the criminal’s need for violence.” He’s very thoughtful…
…than are dreamed of in your philosophy. That’s what Svengali keeps telling people in this movie – I guess he liked Hamlet, and he does have strange powers.
Svengali (1931) was based on the very popular late 19th century novel, Trilby, by George du Maurier that went through several incarnations on the stage and film, including a recent production not yet released. The most famous is this one, with John Barrymore and Marian Marsh. Of course, Svengali has become a byword for an evil charismatic figure. His character in the novel was clearly a standard anti-semitic stereotype, and elements of that are still present in this film, although he is simply presented as an exotic and bizarre eastern-European, albeit with a Yiddish-sounding accent.
The film was made before The Code took force, so it contains a few spicy bits of dialog, as well as some daring views of Marsh. In the image below, Svengali is riding with Tribly, whom he has abducted, and he gently covers her bare leg: the scene gives the impression that he has sexually violated her as well as taken her away.
Trilby is an innocent cleaning girl who can’t sing a note, despite her marvelous “sounding board, and a roof of her mouth like the Pantheon.” Under Svengali’s spell, she sings like a diva, and becomes one: they are the toast of Europe, playing to packed houses everywhere.
Evil mad genius though he is, he falls in love with Tribly who cannot reciprocate: she still pines for little Billee, the Englander who courted her in Paris. Svengali asks her, what does he have that Svengali lacks, he with his silly paints?
He hypnotizes her into feeling love for him…
It works! She says she loves him!
But he’s no fool. He pushes her away…
Her voice is only her master’s voice talking to himself.
Tribly is pursued by Billee, which disrupts Svengali’s concerts. He cannot maintain his spell over her when Billee is present, so his fortunes fail, and he is reduced to playing cafes in French Morocco. Billee follows on, and Svengali confronts him. He knows he is beaten, and the end is near. When he dies in mid-concert, Tribly collapses onstage. Cradled in Billee’s arms, her last word is “Svengali!…” True love after all.
[The film is in English, but the sound was so poor, I used sub-titles.]
Michelangelo Antonioni’s film of 1960: one critic said of it that no film has subverted expectations and conventions so elegantly as this one. I guess that’s why it received boos at its first showing in Cannes, although it was later awarded a jury prize. I first saw it in college – I loved the images – but I wasn’t sure I understood what it was all about. Is it about anything? Of course, there’s Monica Vitti!!
In short, some rich parasites who lack social grace take a boat trip to a Mediterranean volcanic island. One of their party, Anna, goes missing: nobody seems overly concerned. They do the right thing and get the authorities, but, well, maybe she was just bored, and ran off somehow. The story centers on Sandro, Anna’s boyfriend, and Claudia, her best friend along for the ride. They have an affair. Seems pretty weird, doesn’t it? After all, Sandro and Anna were to be … married, weren’t they?
Before the boat trip, Sandro goes to get Anna. She takes him upstairs to make love. “Your friend is waiting,” he says. “Let her wait!” That’s Claudia through the window. The characters, and the audience, will do a lot of waiting in this film.
Monica Vitti’s presence dominates the film. She became a superstar after its release. Here, she waits, while her friends make love upstairs.
Anna is a mercurial type. She ends a pleasant dip in the sea by the boat when she claims to have seen a shark. Is there something between these two ladies?
They go ashore on a dramatic little island. Sandro and Anna argue. The stupid boat passengers pick among the rocks.
Time to leave, and no Anna. They all go searching. The scenery is awe-inspiring.
Still, guys like this are barely affected by the beauty around them. He just goes on making fun of his scatter-brained wife and everything else in the world. Not an endearing portrait of the denizens of la dolce vita. As a critic remarked, in Fellini’s film they at least seem to be having fun: these people are just bored by everything.
Claudia and Sandro are of this group, but outsiders in a way. We learn that he was an aspiring architect at one point, with ideas, and that as a boy he wanted to be a diplomat or a romantic, starving genius. Now, he’s just rich, with houses in Milan and Rome. Claudia remarks at one point that she had a “sensible” childhood, that is “without any money.” Sandro found his way into this circle of decayed noblemen and parasites through business, but we have no clue about Claudia. I guess being so beautiful might open a few doors, especially in a totally sexist society.
Claudia is genuinely distraught over Anna’s disappearance while Sandro seems to take it all very calmly. Moreover, he seems uncomfortably interested in Claudia… And she is not comfortable with her own attraction to him…
An encounter on the boat before they set off for the mainland to deal with the police and continue the search for Anna: Claudia doing her hair…
…Sandro coming aboard for his suitcase…
He makes his move…impulsive…”Yes, absurd…so what?” He has all the existentialist crap for excuses to her objections that it is just not right, not now…
He follows her onto a train to try and convince her to go away with him. She overhears a young provincial coming on like gangbusters to a pretty country girl, and she laughs at the crudeness of his attempts at seduction. She begs Sandro to leave her be, and he does. But they get together not long afterwards, continuing their desultory search for Anna.
Not much to value between men and women. Here, one of the boat passengers, now in a palace in Sicily, flirts with a young prince to make her husband jealous, a futile endeavor. The guy’s artwork, simply a device to get women, is utter junk.
Claudia is rather disgusted by the whole business…
We may wonder why a sensible and beautiful woman like Claudia hangs out with these creeps, but it’s 1960, and what was her upbringing..? She is a strong female character, but in a world hostile to women. In the most powerful, terrifying in a way, scenes of the film, she waits for Sandro while he makes inquiries in a hotel. Suddenly, she realizes that as a woman unescorted by a male, she is open game for anything with pants. They eye her like a whore strutting her stuff in a bordello.
Sandro has his own emotional issues. He wants to view a church interior, but the town is not set up for tourists. A local man informs him that “they got a few French here, but they just wanted to go to the beach,” and the locals told them they were not welcome. Presumably, they were not properly dressed. Nobody cares about architecture…
Except for one young man doing a sketch in the piazza… Hmm…not bad.
Not bad at all. Too bad it got ink knocked all over it… The young man confronts Sandro, but a friend intervenes. Such is the generosity and spiritual fullness of Sandro’s inner life.
The school lets out and a stream of young boys in black… some see it as the equivalent of the ink on the paper. Is that what ruined Sandro’s psychology? Or is that a better way, now ignored?
Who knows? Who cares? Should we care..? Well, the film is stunning to watch even if we don’t like the people much.
Poor Claudia. She’s tired, so she doesn’t go down to enjoy an evening of schmoozing with the glitterati at the hotel they pitch up in, but Sandro goes, and stays late. Claudia goes in search of him through the now-empty rooms, littered with party junk. He is engaged with a young woman (aspiring actress? prostitute? both?) on a couch. Claudia is shocked and disgusted. Should she be surprised?
She runs outside, and Sandro follows. He sits on a bench and weeps. The film ends with a depressing chord, and Claudia taking his hair in her hand in a gesture of comfort. This is what she is stuck with, I guess. Pretty sad for all of them.
Johnny Guitar (1954), Nicholas Ray. Joan Crawford… Man, what else can I say? This western is unlike any other I know. Martin Scorsese calls it an opera, and he’s right. That is the only way to make sense of it – the stagey-ness, the set-pieces, the slow paced emotional confrontations, the melodrama of killing, and the claustrophobic sense that there is no real world outside of what’s going on in the frame right in front of us. Most of the action takes place in one location in town – Three Unities anyone?
You can read many analyses of this film’s political ‘symbolism’ of lynch mobs representing the contemporary HUAC activities. Or the sexual role reversal – all the men are weaklings: the women do the heavy lifting. Or the lesbian barely-subtext: Vienna (Joan Crawford) as a powerful dominatrix, forcing men to cower, and engaging the adolescent love-hate of Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). Vienna wears tight pants, leather, men’s brightly colored shirts and scarves with jeans, and, at one point, confronts the town’s menfolk bent on hanging her while playing a piano wearing a wedding gown – Emma, repressed harpie wears only black and grey. Read about that elsewhere – I just want to count the men who die for this masculine femme fatale.
There’s Turkey, the young boy-outlaw who has a sort of crush on Vienna. He gets caught by a the posse of men in black, and is terrorized into implicating Vienna in a bank robbery he was part of. That’s cause to hang ’em both! The men promise him if he just talks, tells the truth, he won’t hang. He lies, and says Vienna was in on the heist, They take them both out to hang, but only Turkey dies, screaming protests at his betrayal. Ah, just a kid. What does he know? Johnny Guitar is in hiding and manages to cut the noose rope that’s around Vienna’s pretty neck: he couldn’t save them both, could he? It’s actually a pretty brutal portrayal of mob murder.
Then there’s Old Tom (John Carradine). When Vienna pays off her staff and tells them to scram before the posse comes for them too, he hides and stays. When he witnesses the mob trying to drag Vienna off to be lynched, he shoots and is shot. Dying in her arms, Vienna asks him, “Why, why Tom – why didn’t you go like I told you?” The men in black crowd around – “Look, everyone is looking at me now. It’s the first time I ever felt important.” Vienna has that effect on men.
Then there’s the Dancing Kid and his gang, of whom Turkey was one. Bart tries to make a deal with Emma to turn in the gang, and he kills one of mates when the guy won’t go along with the plan. After he plants a knife in the man’s back he says, “Some guys just won’t listen.” Johnny Guitar, an ex-gunman, kills Bart, the only man he kills in the film. He really is done with shooting – prefers to sing and play. That leaves The Dancing Kid, leader of the gang, and Vienna’s main squeeze before Johnny blew into town. Emma shoots him as he rushes to protect Vienna from Emma in the climactic scene. He dies, a bullet in his forehead, his arms raised, seeking transcendence as he calls out Vienna’s name.
And then there’s Emma herself, shot by Vienna, but she is a woman, albeit one of confused sexual identity.
Vienna’s scheme is to hold onto her property until the railroad comes through, and then sell out for piles of cash. She’s in good with the railroad management. Her saloon is burned down, but she still owns the land, so I guess she and Johnny will have a comfortable retirement.