Wuthering Heights

October 20, 2013

Revisiting my high school days, I watched Wuthering Heights (1939) and read Emily Brontë’s novel again – better than I remembered!  Well, not entirely:  This bit was no less fantastic then than now.

How she does stare! It’s odd what a savage feeling I have to anything that seems afraid of me! Had I been born where laws are less strict and tastes less dainty, I should treat myself to a slow vivisection of those two, as an evening’s amusement.’

What is this book?!  It is unlike any other I know, and I have read a lot of 19th century gothic romances.  Wuthering Heights trades in some features of the gothic – the supernatural, the barren and forbidding setting, weird, demonic characters – but compared to it, stories such as Melmoth the Wanderer and the like are child’s play.  The horror and the fright in Wuthering Heights is all born out of psychology, twisted and implacable.  More likely, the book has provided the template for a host of latter-day gothic horror stories set in windy inhospitable places filled with creepy dangerous people, and houses filled with sadistic perversity.

There is so much to this novel:  the role of women of course; the place of servants; sexual perversity bordering on necrophilia; and psychopathology.  For the surrealists, it was a touchstone of l’amour fou, although the film adaptation by the master, Luis Bunuel, The Abyss of Passion (not to be confused with the current telenovella of the same name!) misses the mark widely.

The story involves two households and two families on the moors of northern England.  Local color is given by the deep Yorkshire dialect of Joseph, the insufferably pious hypocrite and loyal house servant.  There are no towns nearby – the action is all local, except when the characters charge out of the novel’s frame to elope, or emigrate to America to gain a fortune, and reports of their doings filter back by letter or word of mouth.  The family trees get tangled, and it’s a good idea to have a clear one before you when you read the story since there is Catherine Earnshaw, and Cathy Linton, and Healthcliff (no other name, as in Cher, or Sting) and Mr. Heathcliff, his despised son, and so forth.  Heathcliff wreaks havoc on them all.

The demonic Heathcliff is adopted informally to the family by Mr. Earnshaw who finds him homeless on the streets of Liverpool during a business trip.  His act of generosity is the undoing of his descendants and community:  is there a moral here?  Heathcliff and Cathy develop an intense bond as children – is this unhealthy? – and Cathy’s brother is jealous of his prerogatives as the heir to the manor.  When kindly Mr. Earnshaw dies, Heathcliff is banished to the stables.

The book is filled with servants, telling as it does the tale of local country gentry.  In fact, the main characters are surrounded by people, but most of them are never seen.  Stableboys, field hands, servant girls, all toiling to produce the wealth that sustains the Earnshaws and the Lintons.  Heathcliff runs away to escape the humiliation heaped upon him as one without a lineage or property, and he returns rich:  where did he get his money?  Nobody knows.  He seeks vengeance on the landed proprietors that cast him out.  No wonder this book was popular with Marxists literary critics!

In the end, Heathcliff appears to be successful in his quest:  He lost Cathy to an early death, but he is assured of being  buried next to her, an essential arrangement for him.  In fact, he can barely restrain himself from embracing her corpse that he has ordered exhumed in one of the more bizarre episodes of the book.  He has driven Cathy’s brother to ruin, pushed her husband into an early grave, financially and emotionally emasculated his former tormentor, the son of his benefactor, and is on the way to thoroughly degrading the  son of Cathy’s brother, who should be the heir to the Heights, but doesn’t even realize he’s being cheated of his birthright.  Oh, and Heathcliff has a son, whom he despises, born of Cathy’s sister, who was idiotically attracted to his dark, handsome prospect, and was quick to realize she had practically married Satan.  She, at least, had the good sense to flee.

But Heathcliff is undone by love.  His own obsessive love for the dead Cathy haunts him to distraction.  And the genuine love and affection that springs up between Cathy and Hareton, despite his best efforts to turn them against one another, irritates him beyond endurance.  Cathy has inherited the stubbornness and defiance of her mother, and turns it, with love, against Heathcliff.  He just dies…

And then there is Nellie, the servant who narrates most of the book.  She is often in the position of doing something that she doesn’t think is quite right, and that she would not do for her own family, but which her subservient position compels her to do.  And then, sometimes she just concludes that it’s not worth the effort to try and oppose the wishes of her masters:  after all, they are the masters, and she just a servant, even though she knows she is right and they are wrong.  I wonder if she is, after all, the voice of Emily in the book.

Man, what an imagination that woman had!

The 1939 adaptation with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon is very fine in its Hollywood-romantic way, although it deals only with the first generation of pain in Wuthering Heights, ending with the death of Catherine Earnshaw.  Olivier is wonderful in embodying the dark attraction of the Heathcliff as well as his frenzied, obsessional love.  And his supercilious blank stares when he is playing cat and mouse with his gentry opponents is brilliant.

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Sacrifice of the Sun

September 9, 2013

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From the first part of Fritz Lang’s The Spiders (1919).  It’s an Indiana Jones kind of tale.

I find it incredible that I can watch moving figures captured almost 100 years ago.


Baby Face

June 12, 2013

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1933. Two versions:  before and after the cut for release.  Needless to say, watch the first one.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a working class urchin, Lily, grown up into a speakeasy prostitute, manged by her brutal dad.  He gets blown sky-high by his malfunctioning still, and after the funeral, Lily goes to see Cragg, one of the customers, but the only man who takes her seriously.  He’s a shoemaker who gets high on Nietzsche, and he fills her head with the idea of The Will to Power.  Her lack of drive disgusts him so he gives her  advice:  “Use men to get the things you want!”

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Lily takes the advice and makes it to New York, sleeping with men all the way to get what she needs and wants.  She does quite well for herself.  Near the peak, she gets a set of books from Cragg, back in Erie, NY.  One of them gets her attention.

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She takes her philosophy seriously, very seriously.  And she puts it into practice too!

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The high point of the film comes when Lily is interrupted with her latest sugar daddy, the president of the bank where she was working.  Her former lover, the vice president, and the prospective son-in-law of the president, can’t stand not having Lily anymore after she jilts him for the big guy.  He knows he’s been replaced, but he doesn’t know by whom.  Look at that dress, one of many outrageous getups she wears!

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He tells her to sit down, “I just like to look at you.”  And more, I bet.

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He runs in, throws Lily aside, barges in, sees the old man…

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…and plugs him.

Left behind in the main room, Lily calmly waits to see the outcome.  She hears the shots, then hears one final shot…

She goes to investigate.  She finds one man…but where’s the shooter?  The following sequence goes on for what seems like quite a while.  It’s silent, and very still.  She moves slowly through the rooms, looking, contemplating…

Pretty nice outfit for police work…but she hasn’t found him yet.  She moves on.

  

There he is…

Still silent, no words…nothing.  It’s eerie, and very powerful.

Slowly she opens the door wider to get a better look, while we just see her bare back, obscuring the view.  The sound gets louder here, as though the bathroom window is open and letting in traffic noise, but I don’t know if that’s intentional, or just a quirk of the old film material.

She shuts the door on the body…

…and we get a very, very long shot of her head, in profile, barely moving.

Finally, she calmly picks up the phone.  “There’s been an accident.  You’d better call the police.”


Lilith Eternal

March 5, 2013


First there was the novel, Nightmare Alley, now available in a new printing from the NYRB.  Then the film, with Helen Walker playing Lilith Ritter, the female psychiatrist with ice water in her veins.  She sucks the life out of Stanton Carlisle, played by Tyrone Power, and throws away his deflated husk of a body.  He descends back into the muck from which he came and finishes as a geek, biting the heads off chickens for a living. It’s a faithful adaptation of the book.
   
Then there was Lilith, the uptight dominatrix psychiatrist of the TV sitcom Cheers, played by Bebe Neuwirth.  She has to be channelling Helen Walker!
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After that, came the comic book adaptation of Nightmare Alley by Spain Rodriguez, published by Fantagraphics.
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Lilith has Bebe’s dark hair…


… and is up-front about her needs…  The toe nail painting is a nice noir reference to Scarlett Street, by Fritz Lang.

And finally, we have the nifty neo-noir, Side Effects, in which Catherine Zeta-Jones , as Victoria Seibert, is definitely channelling all of the above.


The Killers

December 16, 2012

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Nothing much to say about The Killers (1946), a Siodmak gem with Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster. This picture tells the whole story. He’s remarkable for his strong masculine appearance joined to an aura of total vulnerability and victimhood.

Kitty Collins looks nice even when she’s not being the fatal woman, or trying not to seem like one.

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Drainage Made Him Do It!

December 4, 2012

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Laid low by some sort of virus, Fritz Lang’s House on the River (1950) is just the sort of relatively light-weight confection I needed to keep boredom away.  A low-budget gem to be sure, this gothic-noir features a rich author, Steven Byrne, who is having a bit of writer’s block.  We learn that he has a not-too-healthy relationship with his co-dependent brother, who complains about the thousands of scrapes he’s helped his literary brother escape.  He even lives modestly as a bookkeeper so his brother can have the luxury due to an artiste, all on their joint inheritance.

Steven has a pretty wife and a wandering eye.  He is delightfully twisted, and always speaks with an upper crust calm and suavity, even when he is responding to his wife’s charges that he stays out at night, comes home drunk and smelling of cheap perfume.  “The smell of cheap perfume can be quite exciting, my dear…”  he replies.  Honest to a fault, that Steven.

The plot is set in motion by his desire for the fresh-faced young girl who is the housemaid.  She tells him that the servant’s quarters bath is not yet fixed, and he graciously allows her to use the upstairs one, his wife’s, who is away with friends.  The sound of the bath water sluicing down the pipe is too much for the imaginative Steven – he must have her.  (Pipes in those days were often mounted outside of the walls, as shown here.  The film takes place in the early 20th century.)

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His romantic advances are spurned, they struggle, he kills her, quite by accident of course.  He enlists his mush-brained brother to help him cover it up by dumping the body in the river.  His brother will do anything to avoid disgrace or discomfort for Steven’s wife, whom he secretly loves.

All seems to go well as they dump the body, but then a leaping fish breaks the calm of the night, terrifying Steven.  The image of the leaping fish will come back to haunt him, called up by the sparkles of light on the vanity mirror in his house.

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When Steven’s brother confronts him, the author admits that he feels he gained something from the murder; his writing is so much better now.  His brother tells him he must be very ill to think that way.  Steven (top image) replies, “Ill…?”  Well, it’s a thin line.  

His relationship with his pretty wife seems rather cool, but here, they are in quite a passionate clutch.  Of course, he’s just about to start strangling her.

That’s Fritz all over.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.)

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

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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.

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Rotwang kidnaps Maria and uses her in his deranged experiment…

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…which ends up being rather successful.

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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…

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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.

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click to animate and view in full

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

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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.
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Talk about a femme fatale!

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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

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With purifying flame comes the revelation of her true nature.

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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!

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