Monday, October 29, 2007

Feet of Clay: The First Movie Monster?

When the movies began to tell stories they almost immediately migrated to the genre. The first movies beyond a couple of minutes long to actually tell a story, A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune 1902)and The Great Train Robbery (1903), belonged to what we would now call the Science Fiction film and The Western. Although The Great Train Robbery did not have the classic cowboys and indians setup, it did have outlaws on horses pursued by a posse with a shootout for a climax.

The first film mentioned, A Trip to the Moon, was directed by Georges Méliès, one of the pioneers of film, a stage magician who discovered through double exposure and stop-action photography how to make magic tricks work on the screen as well. Melies had also dabbled with elements of horror early on with such works as The House of the Devil (1896). It was only a couple of minutes long and really didn't tell any kind of a story to speak of except that Mephistopheles produces skeletons and goblins from a cauldron until someone appears with a cross and he disappears. Okie dokie.

As for the birth of true horror, that is to say, a feature film with a story, most film books will tell you that it is The Golem. Of course, I have discovered through years of film study that "History of the Movies" books are often poorly researched and repeat the same legends they've heard elsewhere without any verification. For instance, all the Oscars books I own (and I own quite a few) remark that Ben-Hur was the first remake to win Best Picture, despite the fact that as far back as 1935 the winning Mutiny on the Bounty had been made two times prior to the Oscar winning production and two other winners before 1959 were also remakes. And so it is with The Golem. Prior to 1915 Thomas Edison did Frankenstein in 1910. It wasn't good by any means but it was a full one-reeler with a story and horror elements. But Edison's Frankenstein did not capture the public's imagination and spawn a popular trilogy of movies. Also, to split hairs one could claim that Frankenstein is really science fiction although personally I've always placed mad scientists squarely in the horror genre even though I realize that the argument can clearly be made for Frankenstein belonging to science fiction.

With The Golem there are no such quibbles. The clay statue is brought to life not in a laboratory but through magic although once he is "alive" his travails follow Frankenstein's monster closely. The legend existed long before Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein although it was nearly thirty years after Frankenstein was published that the first narrative Golem story was published so it's possible they both took a little something from each other.

The story of the Golem character was first made into a film in 1915 with Paul Wegener as the title character. Most of this film has been lost with only a precious few stills and frames remaining. In it the original Golem statue, imbued with life in the sixteenth century by Rabbi Loew, is found by an antiques dealer who uses the Golem as a servant. But the Golem has eyes for his wife and when he can't have her, he gets a little mad. That's when he starts killing people. It was popular enough to have a sequel and a prequel, with the prequel, Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into Being) proving to be the most popular of all. Paul Wegener directed this time as well and unlike the first movie this one is not lost. A clip of it accompanied by the recent score done by acclaimed guitarist Gary Lucas can be seen here. It tells the creation story of the Golem, how he was given life by Rabbi Loew in the sixteenth century to protect Jews in Prague from persecution.

Despite the film's success no fourth movie was made and once the world was introduced to vampires (Nosferatu, Dracula) monsters (Frankenstein) and mummies there was no going back. Large clay statues brought to life by Rabbi's scrolls and incantations just didn't seem that scary. Although the Golem did return briefly, years later in 1966, in the delightfully ridiculous It (aka: Curse of the Golem) with Roddy McDowall. It's not available on video or dvd so you'll just have to get lucky and catch it on tv. But it is there. Turner Classic Movies ran it just last year, much to my delight. You really haven't seen unrequited love until you've seen Roddy McDowell order his Golem to tear down a bridge crossing the Thames to impress the woman he loves, to no avail.

And so as we celebrate all the ghouls and goblins, the vampires and monsters, the mummies and zombies and all the mad-slashers in between let's not forget that mindless statue with the feet of clay. Even Golems need love.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Shot for Shot: Was that really necessary?

During this month of October many sites and blogs, including this one, are discussing the many shocks and scares from the countless horror films through the decades. Horror films and shock thrillers deal with gore and violence as a matter of course. It's their bread and butter. Some choose to deal with suspense and suggestion instead (Cat People being a notable example) but most go for the jugular and give fans what they came for: blood, death and gore. But when is it gratuitous and when is it good for the story? Gratuitous is probably the wrong word to use because since the violence is often a part of the story it could be argued that nothing a horror film shows should be labeled gratuitous. With other films operating outside the classic definitions of the horror genre, it is not so clear cut. One classic example of filmmakers and censors deciding that a movie had gone too far was the original version of King Kong (1933).

After Kong rolls several of the expedition crew off the log bridge over the ravine to the depths below we are shown their lifeless bodies banging against rock and branches on the way down. End of scene. But in the uncut pre-release version three expedition members remain alive and battle all manner of giant insects and arachnids. Censors felt it was going too far. Of course, by today's standards that judgment is laughable but oddly censors sometimes make the right decision artistically without even knowing it. The problem is they are making it for the filmmaker who should be the one making the final decision, not the censor. In the case of King Kong it could go either way. Frankly there is so much going on in the first half of the movie concerning battles with Pterodactyls, Tyrannosaurus Rexes, and other manner of oversized beast and serpent that being spared this scene was probably a wise decision for pacing purposes alone. It's the one extended scene where none of the principal players are involved so doing without it probably made the film better.

With other films it's not so easily dismissed. There are many films in the horror genre that deal with brutal violence, torture and slayings from the Friday the 13th series through the current Saw and Hostel series. Here I will not deal with gore filled scenes but with one scene from a very different film that has great psychological impact on the viewer. It is the home intrusion scene from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

In Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer there is a scene of a home intrusion that is videotaped by the perpetrators. Because the scene is shown to us through the viewfinder of the video camera it takes on a verisimilitude that makes the action seem all too real for the viewer unlike the cinematically self-aware cleverness of Funny Games, which done eleven years later seems like a feature length accounting of this single scene. It should be noted however that nothing in the entire course of Funny Games even approaches the stomach-churning power of this one brief scene in Henry.

The viewer is shown the father, tied up and beaten on the couch and the mother in a chair being fondled and abused by Otis, Henry's sidekick. It is disturbing enough at this point but the scene goes in an unexpected direction when the couple's son comes home and stands confused for a moment while the mother screams for him to run. Henry drops the camera and runs to catch the boy who is brought over in front of the mother. The viewer is now watching the scene at a tilted angle as the video camera has been dropped to the ground and is resting on its side. The father is killed before the mother's eyes and then the son has his neck broken, also in front of the mother. As his lifeless body lies on the floor of their living room Otis begins to stick his hands down the mother's shirt. Before the scene is over the camera will reveal that Otis is at home now watching the videotape of their intrusion for his continued amusement.

It is not an exaggeration to confess that the first time I saw this scene I felt a little sick afterwards. It's a scene that is horrifying to behold. And I have another confession to make. I watched the scene again because I couldn't believe what I was seeing. When it was over the second time I felt even worse. In fact, the scene is so disturbing that it casts an enormous shadow over the rest of the film. After it has occurred you can't think of anything else but it. And ten or twenty years down the road of reminiscence, it's all you remember.

Which brings us to the question posed by the title of this piece: Was it necessary?

Before that scene and after it we are provided ample evidence of Henry's moral emptiness as he and Otis kill randomly and employ different methods each time. We know from Henry's conversations with Becky, Otis' sister, that he is a violent and remorseless man, who killed his own mother. So what does this scene add to the equation? On the surface, one would have to say absolutely nothing. It doesn't show Henry to be more of a killer than anything else or even less remorseful. But it is the way it is shot (through the video camera's viewfinder) and the subject matter (a family, the murder of a child) that separates it from the rest of the film and perhaps provides a clue as to its inclusion.

It has been suggested that this scene was meant to play off of the audience's own voyeuristic tendencies, a disturbing way to have us "identify" with the killers or to catch us in our own hypocrisy as we are repulsed and yet watch anyway. I myself, as noted before, watched it twice. But there is nothing in the rest of the film that suggests that director John McNaughton had the artistic or intellectual flair for this kind of exercise in a film so devoid of stylistic touches. The whole style of the film would appear to be an absence of style. It is clear that the director intends to show a straightforward account of a remorseless and brutal human being and not let theatrics get in the way.

On the DVD commentary McNaughton says he views this scene as the centerpiece of the film but offers no further insightful elaboration. My final guess is that he thought it would appear more realistic if shown through the lens of the camera and thus stay in line with the ideal of the film - to show raw unidealized violence. He was correct. But the question remains, was it necessary? Does the film need this scene? It's at this point in any analysis of a scene or film that I will provide my answer, my thoughts on the subject at hand. But here, I have no answer. Or perhaps I have too many. There are times when I believe without this scene the full horror of Henry would not be communicated to the audience, while at other times I know this is not true and that Henry is clearly drawn before the audience as a monster without the inclusion of this scene. It is at those times that I feel the director was simply being greedy, having a diabolical idea to haunt the audience and unwilling to part with it. To paraphrase an old aphorism, used in countless conversations and even in movies*, he was so delighted by the fact that he could do it that he never stopped to think if he should do it.

So what is it? Necessary illumination of Henry's character or cheap exploitation of realistic violence? If there was a pat answer the scene wouldn't be controversial. Controversies do not arise from agreement. And make no mistake, there is a disagreement at work, even within the movie itself. The scene stands out. It is separate from the rest of the film. It is difficult to watch. And in the end it tells us nothing more about Henry that we haven't gathered by all that surrounds it. So why is it in the movie? Why was it done? Why am I even writing about it? Well I may not know why it's in the movie but I do know why I'm writing about it. For that I'll cede the floor to mountaineer George Mallory who was asked in March 1923 why he was attempting to reach the summit of Mount Everest. His famous answer: "Because it's there."

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*Well at least in Jurassic Park as I recall...

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Unseen Images: Doctor X

Michael Curtiz directed Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, Charge of the Light Brigade, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Sea Wolf, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce and of course Casablanca. His style was suited to a more modern sensibility incorporating quick cuts, fluid non-static cameras and amazing interplay with light and shadow, often letting silhouettes (the most famous as Rick goes to his safe in Casablanca) tell the story. And yet for reasons that elude me he is not revered by cinephiles or auteurists and is barely known (if at all) to the mainstream moviegoer. One of the guidelines laid down for the auteurists by Andrew Sarris in his famous essay Notes on the Autuer Theory was in fact that it was preferable for the director to be working within the studio system. Since he was given whatever assignments came his way his style would be more easily discernible as he "rebelled" against his material. Curtiz worked with the studios. And he had style. Friends and family can attest to several occasions where a Curtiz movie unknown to me would be on Turner Classic Movies and yet it would seem instantly familiar. The first was The Kennel Murder Case, a Philo Vance mystery with William Powell made in 1933. As we came in half-way through and watched I was impressed by the quick cuts and rapid pacing. I remarked how modern it felt and how it seemed like the kind of touch Michael Curtiz brought to his movies. Sure enough, once it ended Robert Osborne came on and started talking about Curtiz. I wasn't surprised. Now I'd have to say if you can watch a movie unknown to you and guess the director within minutes that director is an auteur. But try getting a table at 21 using his name. Good luck.

Another example was the first time I saw Doctor X. I came into it late and, again, had no idea it was a Curtiz film but kept remarking how amazing the pacing was for a 1932 film. That combined with the fact that it is in color led me to state that it could run well even today. Again, when it ended I discovered it was a Curtiz production. His style was noted even back in the early forties by such critical luminaries as James Agee who was not enthralled by it. Agee felt the camera movement and fast pacing was too distracting to the story. As he said in his review of Casablanca, "Mr. Curtiz still has the twenties director's correct feeling that everything, including the camera, should move, but the camera should move for purposes other than those of a nautch-dancer." (What would Agee have thought of The Bourne Ultimatum?) He finally came around to Casablanca, but begrudgingly, stating, "It is obviously an improvement on one of the world's worst plays, but not such an improvement that that is obvious." And so it seems to me we have the case of a director using a style distinctly out of touch with the times surrounding him and thus, the disapproval. Today Curtiz' films do not seem too quickly paced to be distracting with too much camera movement reminding one of a nautch-dancer, and I'm not sure why Agee considered that a put down in the first place. Today his films are perfectly paced to hold the attention of the modern viewer while providing enough story and character study to satisfy the demands of the classic movie connoisseur.

For this Unseen Images I'm focusing on Doctor X because 1) It's October and 2) It's not a Curtiz film many people know about.


The plot involves a series of murders involving cannibalism and the investigation into them by Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill) of the title, who may be the killer himself. All the murders take place when it is a full moon so there is also much discussion of the effects of lunar rays. Investigating as well is a reporter, Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy) who takes to Xavier's daughter Joan, well-played by Fay Wray.

The plot is twisted and contorted at times and doesn't have the simplicity or straightforwardness of story to make it a classic along with Frankenstein, Dracula or the later Wolfman which may account for it's obscurity today. But it has a fantastic climax, with the Moonlight Killer, covered in synthetic skin looking as creepy today as it must have then (make-up done by Max Factor), ready to experiment on Fay Wray with the three scientists who could help chained to chairs, forced to watch. It's ridiculous of course to the end but one does not seek out a film like Doctor X in the hopes of finding Ibsen in the details. One seeks it out for a thrill, and a thrill is what it delivers.

At a time when most films had static cameras and moved at a lethargic pace due to the still present learning curve with sound, Doctor X is a snappy, energetic film with enough camera movement and quick cuts to satisfy even the most jaded modern viewers. The scenes are filled with a menacing atmosphere, all the more impressive because it was not done in black and white, where atmosphere for a horror film's a lot easier to produce. And it is yet another tribute to the greatness of Michael Curtiz, who continues to languish in the realms of neglected directors along with other notable neglectees as William Wellman and Allan Dwan. Much of it probably has to do with Casablanca. Sometimes when you do a movie that big it takes over everything else in your career. It's as if someone said to Curtiz, "I've got good news and bad news. The good news is you've been assigned to direct Casablanca, which will become one of the most beloved films of all time. The bad news is you've been assigned to direct Casablanca, which will become one of the most beloved films of all time. Sorry Mike."

Monday, October 1, 2007

Acting Up: Peter Lorre, An Appreciation

First things first: Peter Lorre was a great actor. The kind of great actor that rarely gives a "show-off" performance but is utterly reliable, solid and intriguing in everything he ever did. Some performers have ups and downs throughout their careers but Lorre is one the rare few of which it can honestly be said has never given anything less than a marvelous performance, no matter what the film, no matter what the character. He is the Rock of Gibralter among character actors: just give him the script and then worry about the other actors.

Peter Lorre was born László Loewenstein in Austria-Hungary in 1904. He began acting on stage as a young man in Vienna and ended up getting the lead in the failed Bertolt Brecht musical Happy Ending. It closed after only seven performances but did give us the great line, "Robbing a bank's no crime compared to owning one."

His big break came in 1931 when he was cast as the child killer Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang's masterpiece, M. It is a performance of remarkable ability and one that only the best actor available could have pulled off. He kills children, uncontrollably, and yet by the end we are sympathetic towards him. Much of that sympathy is due in large part to the script itself and the rationalizations that it provides for the central character of the killer. But it is how the actor delivers those lines that makes all the difference. A lesser actor could have delivered this same dialogue and made us cringe at his callous "justifications" for his crimes:

What do you know about it? Who are you anyway? Who are you? Criminals? Are you proud of yourselves? Proud of breaking safes or cheating at cards? Things you could just as well keep your fingers off. You wouldn't need to do all that if you'd learn a proper trade or if you'd work. If you weren't a bunch of lazy bastards. But I... I can't help myself! I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me, the fire, the voices, the torment!

But not Lorre. Maybe it's that pudgy baby face, maybe it's that voice, maybe it's those eyes but mainly it's that sense of fear and desperation that Lorre provides. Fear of himself and desperate to make it all stop. Lorre was not nominated for M in 1931. Richard Dix of Cimarron was. That oversight (and slight) alone brings the whole idea of the Best Actor Oscar into question.

In 1933 with the rise to power of Adoph Hitler Peter Lorre went to Paris and then, in 1934, Britain. He would get steady work in the movies starting with a great performance in Alfred Hitchcock's original, and much better, version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. He still had not fully learned English and learned and recited most of his lines phonetically. Later he would move to the United States and find great commercial success playing Mr. Moto in the series of the same name. They were quickies done by the studios (eight in three years between 1937 and 1939) but their success would keep Lorre's name in the public light and lead him to two of his greatest roles.

In 1941 Lorre became a naturalized citizen of the United States. That same year he would give another great supporting performance in another masterpiece, John Huston's The Maltese Falcon. He would later mirror this performance in another Humphrey Bogart film, Casablanca. In both films, his characters put on an air of sophistication and cool ease when inside they are wracked with fears and insecurities. His characters of Joel Cairo (The Maltese Falcon) and Ugarte (Casablanca) both arrive behaving as if they are in complete control yet both end up manic, frenzied and raging impotently against their own helplessness. No one could have pulled it off better than Lorre. Lorre was a genius at portraying panic and fear and these are two of his performances that complement each other perfectly. It's as if Cairo somehow evaded capture at the end of The Maltese Falcon, changed his name to Ugarte and made his way to Rick's All-American Cafe in Casablanca.

Lorre's looks kept him from ever getting the kind of leads other big stars got but his steady output of great supporting performances continued. In 1954 he played Conseil in Richard Fleischer's great adaptation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It was an important change in character for Lorre and showed he was capable of playing a character with no guile or deceptive nature. He is helpless throughout and comes off as a lovable foil to Kirk Douglas' Ned Landry. At the same time he easily portrays a genuine concern for his employer, Professor Pierre Aronnax played by Paul Lukas.

As Lorre's health declined due in no small part to a morphine habit he could not break and an increase in weight his roles became fewer and fewer. But by the early sixties he was working with Roger Corman and still had one great performance left in him. It came in 1962's Tales of Terror, a horror trilogy directed by Corman. Lorre is in the second story, The Black Cat, with Vincent Price who appears in all three. Lorre plays the role of a drunkard who kills his wife and her lover (Price) and bricks them up behind a wall in his basement. His scenes of drunkenness are played to the hilt, with his voice in a constantly modulating slur, his walk a hilarious stagger as his round body bobbles up and down the street. When the police come around asking questions that old Lorre is back, betraying a sense of panic behind a cool uncaring facade. It was one of the last chances the Academy would have to nominate this brilliant actor in a supporting role, and again they passed him up.

Peter Lorre died in 1964 of a stroke at the age of 59 but he has never been forgotten, even to those unlucky masses who don't know who he is. From Bugs Bunny to Ren & Stimpy to Year of the Cat and a million cultural references in between, his voice, his eyes and that diminuitive round body have made themselves known in one form or another to each successive generation. If imitation is the highest possible form of flattery, expect the flattery of Peter Lorre to continue for another hundred years. At least.