Serial Murder, and Me

February 23, 2015

Another Odd Couple

I don’t watch TV, an admission that usually meets with startled surprise from people I meet.  “You mean, you don’t have a TV?!”  I do have a TV, or what passes for one these days, i.e., a large flat-screen on which I watch Netflix mostly, generally on DVDs, but sometimes streaming.  I also admit to watching old Hawaii Five-0 shows while I exercise.  But television shows, TV series, no.

I have tried to watch a few series that have a lot of buzz around them:  I made it through three episodes of “Breaking Bad,” tried, Treme, and a few others. I just don’t like the form – it makes me think of The Sims.  Create a world, people it with characters, disturb it, watch what happens…  I prefer to have the sense of watching a story.  Something with a beginning, a middle, and an end, a dramatic arc.  So, I tried True Detective, and I like it!  It’s only eight episodes long (half the length of The Prisoner!)  Maybe the fact that it’s written by a novelist helps.  The whole point to a regular series is just to keep you watching, to keep the show going…for years, if you can.

I rather like Rust Cohle, and his worldview.  I’m down with his philosophy of mind, his dismissal of the fantasy of personhood.  Maybe he’s a David Hume fan too?  For some reason, his cogitations get him down, instead of bringing him joy.  Perhaps he needs to read Fontenelle:

“All this immense space which holds our sun and our planets will be merely a small piece of the universe? As many spaces as there are fixed stars? This confounds me — troubles me — terrifies me.”

“And as for me,” I answered, “this puts me at my ease.”

There are two sex-scenes in the first three episodes (as far as I’ve gotten to-date) that set me thinking.  The first shows Marty getting it on with his hottie from the DA’s office.  She’s naked, he’s not.  The second shows him doing the same with his wife; she’s naked, he’s not.  How come women get naked but not men, I asked my wife?  “Sexism,” she replied.  Not acceptable to show naked men on TV.  (I avoid the word “nude,” which I associate with art history.)  “Not that I want to see those guys with their clothes off, anyway,” she said.  Point taken.  But it emphasizes that it’s a man’s world we are seeing on the screen.

And what is the point of these scenes?  The first was to deepen Marty’s character: it was supposed to be a bit of a shock after hearing him go on about family values so much to anyone within hearing, and there was only a brief hint earlier of his philandering.  The second..?  My wife again:  “It was supposed to show that he was a tortured soul.”  To me, he just seems like a guy with a lot of deeply held and self-serving ideas.  But then, I’m partial to the philosopher of the pair who questions all…  And I guess the fact that his deeply held ideas aren’t helping him so much is part of the drama after all.

Overall, a higher order of television than I’m used to!


L’Innocente

September 21, 2014

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The other day, I watched L’Innocente, Visconti’s film of 1971 based on a story by D’Annunzio.  It was his last film, and certainly not up to the level of Senso.  A narcissistic, decadent, fin de siecle rich guy, Giancarlo Giannini, likes to have affairs, despite being married to a woman who is nearly goddess-like in her voluptuousness, i.e., Laura Antonelli.  (She, by the way, turns in a fine performance here:  not what I expected from the Queen of Italian soft-core sex farces of the 1970s.)

When his wife, oppressed by her desperate situation, takes a lover, he suddenly rediscovers her attractions.  Her lover dies on an African expedition, but she is pregnant with his child.  Her husband, now infatuated with her, demands that she have an abortion, and she refuses, ostensibly on religious grounds (He’s an atheist and freethinker.) but really because she wants the child of her dead lover, whom she mourns secretly.

Possessed by old fashioned jealousy and self-absorption – “I’m a man sick with melancholy, and I enjoy my sickness,” he says – the husband murders the baby.  He thinks that his wife has been seduced into loving him again by his vigorous and slightly kinky erotic ministrations to her, and that she will accept the death of the baby, and move on, with him.  He is wrong – she sees through him and realizes that he killed the baby, and she reveals her measureless hatred of him, confessing that she only pretended to love him again to protect her baby whom she loves as she did his father.

He confesses all to his former mistress, an icy countess (Jennifer O’Neal) and says he is ready to take up with her again. She, despite her relative lack of conventional morals, and her rather cavalier way of dealing with his infanticide, says she’s no longer interested.  She calls him a monster, in a nice way, of course.

Having nothing to live for now – only mere existence stands before him – our existential ‘hero’ shoots himself in the heart while the countess looks on. He wanted her to see how he stands by his principles.  Ho hum…

The costumes are fantastic, and the stifling perfume of the period’s opulence, for this particular class of beings, is, of course – after all, this is Visconti – overpowering in its presentation.  But the story is rather mechanical, and for me, D’Annunzio’s stories are simply a bit ridiculous.

Since I spend so much time looking at old art, I sometimes see things in films…

  

I guess Visconti knew Italian painting as well as I do.  The painting of Jupiter taking on the form of a cloud in order to possess Io (at top, by Correggio) must have been in his mind when he filmed the scene of Giannini carefully and deliberately arousing his wife while making clear his complete (so he thought) dominance of her (below).

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Senso e Senso

July 5, 2014

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After watching Visconti’s film, Senso (1954), I just had to read the original story (1882) by Camillo Boito. (It seems there is only one translation.)  Boito was a major figure in the development of  modern architectural restoration practice, as well as the designer of several buildings, and his brother was a major figure in opera, being Verdi’s librettist for twenty years.  From Wikipedia we learn that

The word “senso” is Italian for “sense,” “feeling,” or “sentiment.” The title refers to the delight Livia experiences while reflecting on her affair with a handsome lieutenant. The novella is typical of Scapigliatura literature…

“Scapigliatura” is Italian for “unkempt” or “disheveled,” and it was a major literary movement, heavily influenced by German Romanticism, Poe, Baudelaire, and the French Decadents.  In Boito’s stories that I have read so far, the macabre and grotesque, mixed with madly passionate attachments seems the norm.

Senso, however, is the tale of a cold, thoroughly narcissistic young woman who starts a torrid love affair shortly after her marriage to a boring older gentleman.  She is Venetian, and that city, as well as much of northern Italy, is under the rule of the Austrian Empire.  The story takes place near the end of the Risorgimento (Resurgence), that was the Italian movement to expel the foreign rulers and unite as one modern nation.  The politics of the era, however,  are hardly relevant to the story, although they are central to Visconti’s adaptation of it.

In fact, nothing is very relevant to Countess Livia, except for her own self-regard, and the longing and admiration she inspires in others.  When she is jilted by her lover, what really stings is:

That blonde minx brazenly boasts of being more beautiful than me, and (this was the supreme insult that really rankled) he himself proclaims her more beautiful!

In the film, Alida Valli portrays a mature woman, but Boito’s character is barely past twenty, already thoroughly corrupt.  She revels in the cowardice, dishonesty, and selfishness of her lover, who is an Austrian officer – it seems to increase his erotic charge:

Perfect virtue would have seemed dull and worthless compared with his vices. To me, his infidelity, dishonesty, wantonness and lack of restraint constituted a mysterious but powerful strength to which I was happy, and proud, to enslave myself. The more depraved his heart appeared, the more wonderfully handsome his body.

She does have reservations once in a while:  his unwillingness to get his uniform wet to save a boy who has fallen into a canal strikes her as a bit much.

The story is told through the device of Livia re-reading her diary years after the affair has ended, before she intends to burn it.  Although now middle-aged, she still thrills to the story as when she was young, and the sensuality is quite graphic.  Here she recounts finding her lover lodging with a local prostitute, leading to the last straw in their relationship.  I love the bit about tickling her armpit.

I could already feel the arms of my lover – the man for whom I would unhesitatingly have given everything I owned, including my life – crushing me to his broad chest. I could feel his teeth biting into my skin, and I was overwhelmed in anticipation with ineffable bliss. I felt weak with relief, and had to sit down on a chair in the hall. Hearing and seeing as if in a deep dream, I had lost all sense of reality. But someone nearby was laughing and laughing: it was a woman’s laughter, shrill, coarse and boisterous, and it gradually roused me. I listened, rising from my seat, and, holding my breath, approached a door that stood wide open, through which I could see into a huge, brightly lit room. I was standing in shadow, out of sight.  Oh, why did God not strike me blind at that moment? There was a table with the remains of a meal on it. Beyond the table was a big green sofa: there lay Remigio, playfully tickling a girl’s armpit. She was hooting and shrieking with laughter, wriggling and writhing…

Remigio didn’t know he had met his match for amorality.  He avoided combat by bribing some doctors to give him a medical deferment using money given him by Livia.  (In the film, the money was intended to support the Risorgimento troops, making her an adulterer and a traitor.)  The Countess has a letter from Remegio in which he thanks her for the cash, and details to her his current pleasant arrangements, hoping to see her soon of course.  She shows the letter to the local Austrian commander, telling him she wishes to be a “loyal citizen”.  No, she’s not German, but her family was always on good terms with the rulers, and in fact, her husband is rather wary of the Italian nationalists.

The commander reads the letter and understands the situation instantly:  a jilted lover wishes to revenge herself by having the man shot for desertion.  “Despicable!” he tells her, but she replies, “Do your duty!”  He does, and Remigio is arrested:  Livia receives an invitation to the execution, which, of course, she attends:

What happened next, I do not know.  Something was read out, I think. Then there was a deafening noise and I saw the dark young man [one of the doctors] fall to the ground, and in the same instant I noticed that Remigio was stripped to the waist, and I was blinded by those arms, shoulders, neck, and limbs that I had so loved. Into my mind flashed a picture of my lover, full of ardour and joy, when he held me for the first time in his steely embrace, in Venice at the Sirena. I was startled by a second burst of sound. On his chest that still quivered, whiter than marble, a blonde woman had thrown herself, and was spattered with spurting blood. At the sight of that shameless hussy all my anger and resentment returned to me, and with them came dignity and strength. I had acted within my rights, and I turned to leave, serene in the self-respect that came from having fulfilled a difficult duty.

There’s a fatal woman for you!  But in Visconti’s telling, she is driven mad by her passion, and in the end, wanders the streets of occupied Verona shouting the name of her lover.

Visconti’s Senso is a luxuriant depiction of the society, mostly its upper crust, a world that is changing fast and so to crumble – a favorite topic of his by his own admission.  Farley Granger plays the lover, now called Franz, and seems appropriately vulgar and creepy under his beautiful uniform.  Here he meets Livia, and admires the view…of the opera stage.

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Here, Visconti cleverly represents the past, the present, and the decay of the ruling class society he depicts in the film.

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Things move pretty quickly, Franz and Livia become lovers, despite Livia’s misgivings.  Her cinema incarnation is tortured by her concerns about her reputation and propriety (unlike her literary version), but she always gives into passion.

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Long vista shots, often involving doors within doors, are a frequent image in the film.  In the one below, Livia is nearly lost in the palatial architecture, trapped in rooms within rooms, deceits within deceits…

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A tense moment when she fears Franz will be discovered in his hiding place in the granary:

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The shots of Venice are gloomy and magnificent!

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Even the countryside provides no spiritual solace for Countess Livia.

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Visconti was legendary for his preoccupation with ‘realism’ as he thought of it.  The decor is lush, each object reinforcing the evocation of the time and place.  Yet, the entire film has a very “stagey” appearance, deliberately so:  we are clued-in to this because it all begins at an opera performance!  Even the military operations, unromantic and confusing, like the opening scenes in The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, look like faithful reproductions of artists’ drawings and paintings of the events, works which Visconti studied carefully.

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The costumes and sets are magnificent – veils are a frequent element in their erotic encounters.  Visconti related how as a child, his mother always wore them, lifting them to kiss him goodnight in his bedroom.  (Visconti and Granger were both gay men in the 1950s, long before it was ‘acceptable’, though Visconti was open about it.  I suppose you could write an entire analysis of the film from that angle.)

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The stunning beauty, Marcella Mariani, only 18 or 19 years old, plays the prostitute who drives Livia around the bend.  (Nice armpits!)  She had won the Miss Italy pageant, and was breaking into acting, but died in a plane crash after the film was completed.

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The lovers in happy times, and at the end of it all.

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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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Let us count the dead men: Johnny Guitar

October 26, 2013


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.


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.


An American Zola

January 16, 2013

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Theodore Dreiser was a Naturalist in the tradition of Emile Zola, but with a twist.  Maybe it was American puritanism, that Calvinist strain, or perhaps some other element of his personality, but man, could he lay on the doom.  Having just finished An American Tragedy, all 900+ pages of it, I feel as if I was run over by a steamroller.  And I’ve been feeling that way since page 100!

Clyde Griffiths (George Eastman in the Stevens’ film adaptation) has had a stunted youth, the child of impoverished street preachers who include him, even as a very young boy, in their curbside music and proselytizing.  Clyde doesn’t feel comfortable with this life from an early age – he always is restless and wanting something different.  Eventually, he breaks away, becoming a bellhop, and he enjoys the taste of the highlife that the job, and the tips that come with it, brings.  During a wild night out with some friends in he is a passenger in a car that runs over and kills a little girl:  he has to skip town, severing his relations with his family yet more deeply.

Eventually, he connects with his very rich uncle, who, feeling guilty about the way his evangelist brother was shafted in the matter of the family inheritance, decides to give the kid a chance in his factory, working from the bottom up.  He tells his family that there is no need to admit him to their provincial circle of the social élite, but Clyde besides being handsome and possessed of charming ‘soft’ manners, bears a striking resemblance to his cousin, the heir apparent at the factory.  It just wouldn’t do to shun him completely:  his face would give the story away and cause talk.  He is granted limited access to the Griffiths family.

Eventually, he breaks the rules and forms a romance with a factory girl:  she is pretty, and Clyde is subject to powerful sexual urges.  He also becomes a regular in the young-smart set of the Griffiths circle, and a powerful flirtation, then a romantic infatuation develops between him and a beautiful girl in that set.  He keeps his multiple romantic relations a secret, dooming him when the factory girl becomes pregnant.  At his wit’s end, his dream of marriage into society, wealth, ease, material opulence threatened, he plots her murder.  She is drowned, mostly through his actions, but there is, to the end, a little shred of ambiguity regarding his intent at the very last fatal moment of he life.

He is immediately caught, despite his ‘careful’ planning, tried, and convicted.  He dies in the chair.  It is all incredibly slow, detailed, crushing in its inevitability.  The characters in this tale are all presented as sympathetically as could be, while the author, from an Olympian perspective, dissects them coolly and dispassionately.  It was written and takes place in the 1920s, so some things are not discussed so freely as today, but more so than they were not long before.  Clyde’s visit to a brothel while working as a bellhop:

Prepared as Clyde was to dislike all this, so steeped had he been in the moods and maxims antipathetic to anything of its kind, still so innately sensual and romantic was his own disposition and so starved where sex was concerned, that instead of being sickened, he was quite fascinated. The very fleshly sumptuousness of most of these figures, dull and unromantic as might be the brains that directed them, interested him for the time being. After all, here was beauty of a gross, fleshly character, revealed and purchasable

And later:

 His was a disposition easily and often intensely inflamed by the chemistry of sex and the formula of beauty. He could not easily withstand the appeal, let alone the call, of sex. And by the actions and approaches of each in turn he was surely tempted at times, especially in these warm and languorous summer days, with no place to go and no single intimate to commune with. From time to time he could not resist drawing near to these very girls who were most bent on tempting him, although in the face of their looks and nudges, not very successfully concealed at times, he maintained an aloofness and an assumed indifference which was quite remarkable for him.

Everyone is ruled by their nature, formed by genetics and the social petri dishes in which they were cultured.  The unconscious, and sex, lurks unacknowledged, but powerful.  Not just Clyde, but the lawyer who sends him to the chair, the jurors, his defense, the doctors who refuse to give his girlfriend an abortion – they are all locked into the suffocating confines of the social machine.  Here’s Mason, the district attorney, determined to see him fry for his crime, and to make a political coup for himself in the process:

Mason was a short, broad-chested, broad-backed and vigorous individual physically, but in his late youth had been so unfortunate as to have an otherwise pleasant and even arresting face marred by a broken nose, which gave to him a most unprepossessing, almost sinister, look. Yet he was far from sinister. Rather, romantic and emotional. His boyhood had been one of poverty and neglect, causing him in his later and somewhat more successful years to look on those with whom life had dealt more kindly as too favorably treated. The son of a poor farmer’s widow, he had seen his mother put to such straits to make ends meet that by the time he reached the age of twelve he had surrendered nearly all of the pleasures of youth in order to assist her. And then, at fourteen, while skating, he had fallen and broken his nose in such a way as to forever disfigure his face. Thereafter, feeling himself handicapped in the youthful sorting contests which gave to other boys the female companions he most craved, he had grown exceedingly sensitive to the fact of his facial handicap. And this had eventually resulted in what the Freudians are accustomed to describe as a psychic sex scar.

In his dreaminess, he has something in common with Clyde, but he was deformed, and now he has that “sex scar.”  And there is the town, the jurors, the face of stolid morality, the herd mentality of the Christian rubes, which Clyde’s defense attorney scorns, but treats gingerly by necessity, as he questions Clyde on the stand:

He was a college graduate, and in his youth because of his looks, his means, and his local social position (his father had been a judge as well as a national senator from here), he had seen so much of what might be called near-city life that all those gaucheries as well as sex-inhibitions and sex-longings which still so greatly troubled and motivated and even marked a man like Mason had long since been covered with an easy manner and social understanding which made him fairly capable of grasping any reasonable moral or social complication which life was prepared to offer.

“Oh, I can’t say not entirely afterwards. I cared for her some — a good deal, I guess — but still not as much as I had. I felt more sorry for her than anything else, I suppose.”

“And now, let’s see — that was between December first last say, and last April or May — or wasn’t it?”  “About that time, I think — yes, sir.”

“Well, during that time — December first to April or May first you were intimate with her, weren’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Even though you weren’t caring for her so much.”

“Why — yes, sir,” replied Clyde, hesitating slightly, while the rurals jerked and craned at this introduction of the sex crime.

“And yet at nights, and in spite of the fact that she was alone over there in her little room — as faithful to you, as you yourself have testified, as any one could be — you went off to dances, parties, dinners, and automobile rides, while she sat there.”

“Oh, but I wasn’t off all the time.”

Clyde done wrong, but what were his chances in life?  Society stinks.  Capital punishment is brutal and inhuman.  Public officials are self-serving and venal.  (Mason is honest, but one of his staff plants evidence to further incriminate Clyde.  He needn’t have bothered, but he does anyway.)  The social élite are shallow, smug, and uncaring.  Society is a machine to grind you down, and it starts on page one and goes on, and on, and on…It’s a pretty damn impressive literary feat, if you can stand it!  Dreiser can create a stem winding dramatic courtroom oration as well as he can reproduce the  baby talk of a society princess teasing her beau.

When I began the book, I was struck by how unsympathetically Clyde was portrayed (or at least, without sympathy) compared to the film.  As I read on, however, I came to feel that George Stevens had done a remarkable job of adapting the book and bringing forward to the 1950s, both as a narrative, and in its approach to the audience.  One of the principal differences that I did find a little bit too much to accept in the film, is that Angela Vickers (Liz Taylor) visits Clyde just before his execution, after being kept completely out of view and out of the testimony of the trial.  She still loves him.

In the book, she sends him a brief anonymous, typewritten note that makes clear that she is emotionally distant from him now, although she recognizes how in love they were, and she will not forget him.  It is  in keeping with the ruthless presentation of class relations that is part of the book – she will get on with her social role in the world – and it is the final, crushing blow to Clyde.  As I noted in my post on the film, it is a social melodrama, and such uncompromising realism would have been out of place.


White Hot

December 1, 2012

White Heat (1949), a gangster film starring James Cagney, gave us the ‘iconic’ finale of Jarrett shouting to his dead mother, “Made it Ma! Top of the world!” from inside a refinery about to explode.  Va va va voom! and he’s gone in a glowing plume of flame. Jarrett is a homicidal maniac prone to crippling headaches, and he has a too-strong attachment to his murderous demon of a mom. A volatile combination.

The plot of the film is pretty dull, involving Fallon (Edmund O’Brien) as an undercover cop who gets close to Jarrett in prison to try to learn the identity of the currency fence who launders Jarrett’s loot. Fallon is too cool, too efficient, and dull, but Cagney and his co-star Virginia Mayo as his wife, Verne, keep the movie crackling. According to Wikipedia, it was said that she “looked like a pin-up painting come to life,” and she plays it for all it’s worth in this flick.

The film has many scenes that are classic sequences, including the mess hall bit when Cody passes word along the tables that he wants to hear how his mother is doing on the outside.  When word is returned that she is dead, he goes wild, flailing away at the guards who try to restrain him until he is carried out horizontally, bawling like a little boy.

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Earlier, while hiding out from the cops in a drive-in movie theater, Verne, Ma, and Cody share the front seat of their sedan, with Ma in the middle in more ways than one.  The kisses that Cody gives his wife and the ones he gives his mother aren’t all that different. He seems to have more feeling for Ma, and not much heat when it comes to his luscious wife.

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Cody hatches a plan to ‘confess’ to a lesser crime in another state, and do a short stretch in stir to get the heat off him for a massive and bloody heist he has just committed.  This gives Verne some ideas about making the separation permanent.

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As these thoughts move through Verne’s head, the WWII movie reels on, and we get a  prefiguration of Cody’s destiny.  Could that torpedo have other significance as well?

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While Jarrett’s away, Verne and Big Ed get to spend more time together.  Big Ed has a lot of moxie, but his plans to get Cody bumped off in jail don’t pan out.  Instead, Cody breaks out and is headed back to the gang, with some scores to settle.  Verne is all for fleeing, but Big Ed wants to stand and face down Cody.  To keep Verne around, and who wouldn’t want to keep her?, he threatens to tell Cody how his ma died, shot, in the back, by Verne.  Yep, they’ll face Cody together…

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Well, things don’t go so well for Big Ed, and Verne and Cody are back together.  Maybe there is some chemistry between them after all?

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Fallon rigs Cody’s car with a tracking device, a primitive GPS setup, to foil his last heist.  I always enjoy the use of maps in these old movies, shown here as the cops demonstrate their newfangled toys for following Jarrett’s car remotely.

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Fallon is still undercover with the gang, right up to the end when he’s found out after the heist goes bad.  Cody wants to use him as a hostage to get out, but Fallon tells him the obvious, it won’t work.  With the gang armed, dangerous, but surrounded, Verne shows up to try to make a deal with the cops, claiming that she can coax Jarrett to give up.  No deal – her charms fall flat on the copper.

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The last gang member tries to give up, but Cody shoots him down in cold blood.  No deals for anyone!

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Those tanks are ready to blow!

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