A Private Venus

May 25, 2014

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Melville House Publishing calls Giorgio Scerbanenco the “godfather of Italian noir,” in its blurb for A Private Venus, first published in 1966.  Well, could be – how would I know?  It’s part of The Milano Quartet, a look at the black, dirty underside of that city that seems to have a lot of  noir in its cultural history (Manzoni, Stendhal) if you stretch the term a bit.  And Duca Lamberti certainly is a classic noir male [anti]hero:

Then he took his Lisa Ussaro and drove her home.  At the front door, they even shook hands, they might as well have said, “Thanks for the company.”  He went back to the Cavour feeling completely nauseated with everything, starting with himself, but not with her.

And he doesn’t think to highly of the human species.  He’s babysitting his sisters infant:

“…at one she drinks two hundred grams of milk with her eyes closed, almost without waking up, has a pee at the same time, and then she’s out like a light until tomorrow morning at six or seven.  I’ve always thought that kind of vegetable life is the most civilized.  I think civilization ends, at least for the human race, as soon as brain activity starts.”

Surely he understands that non-humans don’t have civilization, but his crackling cynicism sure is entertaining!

Duca is a doctor who has been barred from practicing, and spent time in prison, for a misstep early in his career when he empathized too much with a very sick old patient.  His father was a policeman who was relegated to a desk job after his arm was mangled in an assassination attempt down south, where he was battling the Mafia.  He wanted, “my son, the doctor,” but the son is a bit too much like the father, and shares his tendency to move outside the rules.  That gets him in dangerous trouble.  But he’s quite good at the crime gig, after all:

But Signor A had not appeared.  They called him Signor A rather than Signor X, because the man wasn’t an unknown quantity:  he was something specific, the chief pimp.  Duca didn’t know his name or physical appearance, but he knew he existed.  It’s like when you say the fattest man in Milan:  you’ve never seen him, you don’t know if he’s a chemist or a restaurant owner, if he’s fair-haired or dark, but you know he exists, it’s just a matter of finding him and weighing him, and then you’ll immediately recognize him because he’s the one who weighs more than anyone else in Milan.

Very logical and systematic:  he gets results.  Faster than his friends, the police.

The plot is a bit haphazard at times, but the suspense propels it forward, and Duca’s character.  You want to know if he will destroy himself or not.  There’s an emotionally damaged young man he’s hired to wean off of drink, a job tossed to him by the police chief who is an old friend; the kid’s engineer-martinet father, a plot element that’s a bit of a red herring;  a couple of young women with an awful lot of nerve and a bit too much intellectual curiosity; and some very creepy types running an European sex-traffic operation.  The title isn’t mentioned in the text, but the racket uses a photo-album to allow customers to pick out the girls they want delivered:  Everyone gets his private Venus, I guess.

The Mafia is a major presence in the book, but only as background, and as the unseen masters of the sex-ring.  Like the book Takedown, and the Italian films,  Mafioso and Gomorrah, its take on the mob is totally unsentimental and unromantic:  they are a bunch of brutal, murderous, gangsters, a cancer on the body of society.  It’s hard for me to imagine an Italian claiming, as people have for The Godfather, that the mob, even in fiction, is somehow a critical representation of capitalism…


More things in heaven and earth…

December 15, 2013

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?

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He hypnotizes her into feeling love for him…

It works!  She says she loves him!

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But he’s no fool.  He pushes her away…

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Her voice is only her master’s voice talking to himself.

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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.]


Realm of the Cool and Maybe Noir…

November 19, 2013

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Kris Kool (1970), by Caza (buy it here), a bit of Peter Max, Alphaville, Barbarella, and a whole lot of other stuff, including of all people, Jean Dominique Ingres!

 

Here he encounters a Flower Woman for the first time…
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And here he learns the secrets of their life cycle, of which he, for an all too brief idyll, will be a part…
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I have to think his style, the languid eroticism, the fluid line, owes something to Tiepolo:  I saw this drawing at the Morgan a few weeks ago.
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Of course, there’s this too.  I, The Jury, a Mike Hammer film/novel.  Kris Kool is a lot nicer guy than Mike, though.

That’s Peggie  Castle about to get plugged. Her legs are featured in 99 River Street to good effect.  How would I know about this stuff without the Film Noir Foundation?
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Shack Out on 101

November 2, 2013

Are you a traitor?

Thanks to the savage guy, I have another cinema oddity to savor and comment on – Shack Out on 101 from 1955.  Everyone who comments on this film, including me, agrees that it is bizarre.  And strangely entertaining, despite the incredible stuff it contains.  Most call it a red-scare noir, but I don’t quite see the noir aspects of it, except in a very watered-down state.  I can say, however, I know of nothing else like it!

Nearly the entire action takes place in a run down diner on Highway 101 – once again I find myself thinking of the classical dramatic unities!  Anything on the beach of southern California gives me a nostalgic tug, but there are precious few outside shots in this film:  just a few scenes on the beach, including the opening which is much talked about.

We see a woman in a bathing suit lying in the sun at the surf’s edge; then we see Slob (Lee Marvin), talking into a cellphone…oops, that’s a shell-phone!  No, he’s just listening to the sea in a shell, with the coastal bluffs as a backdrop.

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Then he swoops onto the woman and kisses her as she violently resists him.  It’s all in “fun,” they know each other, and he’s just giving her a major hard time and tease.  He runs off laughing as she fumes.  When he reaches the porch of the shack where they live and work slinging hash, he takes her underwear off the clothes line and grinds it into the dirt.  This will occasion much talk indoors about how he is now obligated to buy her, Kotty, a new petticoat, the meanie!

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Slob’s faux assault on Kotty prefigures some brutally real violence between them later on, but for now, the movie moves on between comedy, farce, and absurd Cold War espionage.  Slob is part of a spy network, passing on secrets gleaned from fellow travelers at the nuclear research lab up the road.  His boss, George (Keenan Wynn) is not part of the ring.  Nor is George’s friend Eddie, a traumatized WWII vet who can’t get over his experience on D-Day.  The two of them actually have some pretty affecting straight talk about what that’s all about.  Through it all, some mighty strange stuff plays out on stage at the beanery.

George and Slob get into comparing their physiques during a work-out.

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Marvin is all over the place in this film, really hamming it up at times.  Here he reveals to George that what he really desires is a “nice, big neck.”

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They go on to comparing their legs, and ask an impartial judgment. Didn’t that sort of thing start a long war in the old days?

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Kotty knows better than to pick a winner, and besides, nobody has better legs than she does.  That’s that!

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George is determined to get Eddie to beat his fears of blood, violence, adventure, and even killing of fish (!) that the war left him with.  He’s planning a snorkeling adventure in Mexico which they act out in front of everyone present.  Yes, they do look like aliens…

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Meanwhile, Kotty has a romance going on with the professor from the nuke lab.  At first, it seems that he is in with the spies, but of course, that’s a cover.  He tenderly supports Kotty’s ambitions to take a civil service exam so that she can get a desk job in the government doing something important.  Boy, have ideas changed!

Being sort of noir, there’s a mirror, a double-identity.  And that hand! All the passion of Venus is there!

Cut from the love scene to Slob and his courier in the kitchen.  Right after the kiss, the guy shoves a fish at Slob’s mouth.

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Here’s where it get’s pretty weird.  We are definitely into homo-erotic territory here – look at the grins on their faces as they agree to start up their favorite game…

Nothing these guys enjoy more than a little dance with a rag while they take turns pummeling each other.

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About this time, Kotty realizes that something is going on around here. These “truck drivers,” always teasing and coming on to her, have awfully soft hand for working slobs.

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Eventually, she has a confrontation with Slob when he realizes his cover is blown.   Now the violence is for real.  First he threatens her repeatedly with a nasty knife, but she’s tough – she doesn’t blink. Then – incredible! – he throttles her and smashes her head out of the window.  Then he starts garroting her with some underwear!  After all the kooky stuff in this film, this scene is genuinely shocking.

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Of course, the good guys win in the end.  You knew that already, right?


Lady Audley’s Secret and the PRB

October 23, 2013

Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) by Elizabeth Braddon, is a pot-boiler that was fantastically popular among the Victorians.  (Thanks to that savage reading guy for pointing me to yet another good read.)  The book falls within the genre of “sensation novels,” dealing with explosive forbidden topics, e.g. incest (see A. S. Bayatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia, or its great film adaptation, Angels and Insects, for a modern take on this.), madness, murder, adultery, and the like.  I’m not giving much away by saying that Lady Audley’s secret involves madness and murder, sort of…

There’s nothing too surprising or shocking in the plot for a modern reader, except perhaps how anti-climactic the unmasking of Lady Audley turns out to be:  After she is confronted with her crimes, the novel carries on with a lengthy dénouement involving yet more not-too-surprising plot twists.  It was all by way of good fun, nevertheless!

It’s interesting to compare the novel to Wuthering Heights published about fifteen years before:  that could be seen as a sensation novel of a sort, if you accept the Heathcliff-Catherine incest Freudian interpretation.  All the tempestuousness of Lady Audley would barely muss the hair of the demonic and haunted inhabitants of Wuthering Heights!

Lady Audley is a nice example of the Pre-Raphaelite femme fatale.  Here is a passage from the novel that makes that explicit:

If Mr. Holman Hunt could have peeped into the pretty boudoir, I think the picture would have been photographed upon his brain to be reproduced by-and-by upon a bishop’s half-length for the glorification of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood [PRB].  My lady in that half-recumbent attitude, with her elbow resting on one knee, and her perfect chin supported by her hand, the rich folds of drapery falling away in long undulating lines from the exquisite outline of her figure, and the luminous, rose-colored firelight enveloping her in a soft haze, only broken by the golden glitter of her yellow hair—beautiful in herself, but made bewilderingly beautiful by the gorgeous surroundings which adorn the shrine of her loveliness. Drinking-cups of gold and ivory, chiseled by Benvenuto Cellini; cabinets of buhl and porcelain, bearing the cipher of Austrian Marie-Antoinette, amid devices of rosebuds and true-lovers’ knots, birds and butterflies, cupidons and shepherdesses, goddesses, courtiers, cottagers, and milkmaids; statuettes of Parian marble and biscuit china; gilded baskets of hothouse flowers; fantastical caskets of Indian filigree-work; fragile tea-cups of turquoise china, adorned by medallion miniatures of Louis the Great and Louis the Well-beloved, Louise de la Valliere, Athenais de Montespan, and Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier: cabinet pictures and gilded mirrors, shimmering satin and diaphanous lace; all that gold can buy or art devise had been gathered together for the beautification of this quiet chamber in which my lady sat listening to the mourning of the shrill March wind, and the flapping of the ivy leaves against the casements, and looking into the red chasms in the burning coals.

Note the reference to PRB photo-realism, and the emphasis on how female allure is enhanced by the material abundance of the interior.  This is materialist kitsch-decadence at its finest, or worst, depending on your taste and morals.

Lady A feels cursed by her physical beauty because it gave her the means to work her will upon the world, giving rein to the “taint of madness” in her blood, inherited from her mother.  But she makes good use of it, turning it into a powerful witchcraft with which she bedazzles and ensnares her male (always rich, or so she thinks!) prey.  She has a horror of ordinary, pedestrian life, without the richness of ornament to confirm and reflect her splendid female charms.  Exiled to a posh maison de santé (bourgeois euphemism for madhouse) at the end, she shrivels up and dies without an audience with energy for her to feed upon.

Just a note on the authoress – she seems to have been a sympathizer with the South in the Civil War.  So much of the British elite was – that’s where they got their cheap cotton to keep their mills humming.

Let us hope that when Northern Yankeedom has decimated and been decimated, blustering Jonathan may fling himself upon his Southern brother’s breast, forgiving and forgiven.

 Keeping the UK from intervening to help the South was a major diplomatic initiative of the Lincoln administration.

Here’s a gallery of PRB images of women, including a few by William Holman Hunt.


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.


Fritz Goes West

October 19, 2013

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1940, and in color, Fritz Lang takes on The Western, in The Return of Frank James.  What do you get when the master of M and Metropolis goes west?  A pretty good show, with Henry Fonda being particularly fine.

Lang plays it straight with the genre – how could he do otherwise then?  But at times, he seems to be slipping in some playful self-referential material.  Frank James is the brother of Jesse James, the famous outlaw gunned down by the Ford brothers, supposedly in a cowardly manner in return for their pardons.  When Frank hears they are off the hook for the killing, he vows to get them.

Frank concocts a bit of theater to make it easier to spring a trap on the Fords.  He checks into a fancy hotel and spreads the story by way of his young sidekick that Frank James was actually shot dead in a gunfight in Mexico.  Nobody knows their faces, so the ruse is quite successful.  It attracts the interest of a young, ambitious female reporter, Eleanor, played by Gene Tierney in her first starring role, who is completely taken by the tale.  In the shot below, Clem acts out his “eye witness” account of Frank’s “heroic” death for the benefit of Eleanor and Frank.  He seems to be spoofing the western genre itself as he does so.

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Seems that the Fords are making hay out of their killing of Jesse, reenacting it in another bit of theater.  Frank goes in to take a look at the show, Earlier in the film, there is a bit of dialog in which Frank relates another theatrical experience of his, seeing a great performance by an actor named Booth.   Frank sits in a box  above the stage, but he doesn’t kill anyone at the show, unlike John Wilkes.  When Ford recognizes him from the stage, and hurls a lamp at him, Frank, like John Wilkes Booth, leaps from his box onto the stage, but he doesn’t break his arm…

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Eventually, Frank turns himself in to prevent his farmhand “darky,” innocent of any crime, from being hanged for taking part in one of Frank’s robberies.  The subsequent trial is filled with Civil War politics that results in Frank’s acquittal.  I wonder what Fritz made of it all.

Say, what was the name of that theater, Mrs. Lincoln..?