BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART TWO (1942-1944)

Bowery at Midnight (1942), directed by , is a surprisingly dour crime melodrama, with a dash of horror (no doubt mandated by ‘s casting). It borrows heavily from another Lugosi vehicle, Dark Eyes of London (1939), although the earlier movie was from an Edgar Wallace story. Bowery At Midnight is comparatively muddled. As in Dark Eyes, Lugosi again sort of plays dual roles, and does some actual acting. The explanation of why his professor character needs a second identity (he uses a soup kitchen as a front to recruit gang members) is nonsensical, however, as is his need to keep zombies in the basement (?!?) Despite its muddled narrative, this, along with Black Dragons, may be the strangest of the Monogram Nine. It has pacing issues, but Lugosi’s performance and the ending, which is still jolting even today, almost make up for the film’s numerous flaws. It has quite a cult reputation, which is perhaps why fans have a trio of options to purchase superior editions from Roan, Troma, or the Retromedia Blu-Ray edition.

Those who think Bela Lugosi reached the nadir of dignity working with may want to check him out with glued-on whiskers, hunched over, grunting like a monkey, and scratching his arm pit in 1943’s The Ape Man. It’s directed by William “One Shot” Beaudine who got his name because—you guessed it—he almost never did a second take. The plot rips off an earlier Monogram property, 1940’s The Ape (with ). That one at least had a decent central performance, despite its ludicrous plot. Ape Man, however, may be Lugosi’s most humiliating hour, with the actor looking more like an Amish preacher than an ape man, whining about his condition as he scrunches in a corner, needing spinal fluid. It’s poorly lit and, despite its obvious intent to be a parody, its dreadfully dull. It’s so bad that the white-bread heroes ( and Louise Curry) are actually a relief from the tedium. If they, and the film’s strained humor, are enough to interest you, it’s in the public domain, so there’s YouTube or some inexpensive DVD editions (none of which are remastered).

https://ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ss&ref=as_ss_li_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=366weirmovi-20&language=en_US&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B00004WG7M&asins=B00004WG7M&linkId=1e3fa9fafbfb0ae9c7039f6cf860bf64&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=trueGhosts on the Loose (1943, directed by Beaudine) is Lugosi’s second—and thankfully final—team-up with the Bowery Boys. As in The Ape Man, the film is poorly lit. Beaudine seems to have stuck the camera in the middle of room, yelled “action,” and left for lunch. The (very) minimal charm and energy of Spooks Run Wild is completely absent here, and Lugosi has nothing to do. He was lucky. Ava Gardner (of all people) embarrasses herself far more in this utterly dismal excrement. This is easily the worst of the lot, something even the most forgiving defenders of the Monogram Nine unanimously agree on. The Roan Group did what they could with the DVD.

https://ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ss&ref=as_ss_li_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=366weirmovi-20&language=en_US&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B016BSRZES&asins=B016BSRZES&linkId=389aa71f1758abefdccd93379500af72&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=trueBy contrast, Voodoo Man (1944, again directed by Beaudine) is a hoot, with a trio of horror stars in Lugosi, George Zucco, and . Girls are disappearing from Zucco’s gas station. Yes, you read that right. Carradine is the imbecile abductor working for Dr. Lugosi, whose wife has been a zombie for 22 years. His scientific skills having failed him, Lugosi becomes a Voodoo Man, abducting pretty girls in an effort to transfer their souls into his wife. Darn it, none of the girls have worked so far. Yes, its a ludicrous reworking of The Corpse Vanishes, only this time we have a horror writer (Todd Andrews) whose bride-to-be gets abducted. A clearly stoned Carradine beats a drum, Lugosi and Zucco sport wacky robes, and Andrews wonders if the shenanigans would make a good movie starring Bela Lugosi. Its tongue firmly in cheek, Voodoo Man sizzles in its ridiculousness. Lugosi is good here, leading a colorful cast who seem to be enjoying themselves. It’s contagious. We should be grateful to Olive Films for not subscribing to the film’s reputation as bad cinema, because they remaster it like it’s a neglected masterpiece. This is my personal favorite of the Nine.

https://ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ac&ref=tf_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=366weirmovi-20&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B075TQRV8Z&asins=B075TQRV8Z&linkId=7d8aed7e9440ac7b85069bd52a794a3d&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=true&price_color=333333&title_color=0066c0&bg_color=ffffffReturn of the Ape Man (1944, directed by ) is not a sequel to The Ape Man. According to the credits, it also stars Lugosi, Zucco, and Carradine, but Zucco became ill and was replaced by Frank Moran. Lugosi and Carradine thaw out a Neanderthal  man and want to give him a brain transplant. Lugosi intends to use a wino, but things do not go right, and Carradine is toast. The result is a murdering caveman who plays the piano. Oh, and he hates blow torches, too. Lugosi echoes the film in being goofy and entertaining as hell. Some, probably people who used to pull the wings off butterflies, cite this as the worst of the Nine. Ignore them. Olive films did. My advice: buy the Blu-Ray of this and Voodoo Man and throw one hell of a bad movie party.

BELA LUGOSI AND THE MONOGRAM NINE, PART ONE (1941-1942)

Professionally and personally, ’s best decade was the 1930s, but even that was a Grand Guignol roller coaster. Shortly after his star-making turn in ‘s Dracula (1931), Lugosi, known for throwing lavish parties for his Hungarian cronies, filed for bankruptcy. Paradoxically given his financial difficulties, he simultaneously became a prima donna, and was subsequently fired from Frankenstein (1931), which would have secured his inheritance the horror crown of the late . Instead, the role of Frankenstein’s Monster went to . Lugosi was denied a contract with Universal and forced to freelance during the heyday of the studio system. With that, and his personal life in shambles (wife #3 left him, and four years later he married wife #4 and abused her too until she left him as well), Lugosi zig-zagged between big budget productions and slumming in Poverty Row productions.

The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1934) was one of the first of those Z-Grade chillers. It was made for Monogram studios, directed by William Nigh, and produced by George Yohalem. It has a wretched reputation as embarrassingly racist, cheap pulp, with Lugosi as a Chinese villain with a Hungarian accent. Clocking in at barely an hour, it still manages to be poorly paced, with long stretches of dullness. It’s halfway over before Lugosi even dons the menacing Fu Manchu attitude and silk robe, torturing the hell out of the white heroes, including the obnoxious wisecracking . Although we desperately hope that Lugosi will get to slaughter Ford, it’s the 1930s, and we’re going to be disappointed. Still, Lugosi delivers in a hammily animated performance and Lotus Long, in a criminally small role, almost steals every scene she’s in. It’s been remastered for DVD by the esteemed Roan Group and released on Blu-ray by Retromedia. The Mysterious Mr. Wong reportedly made a good profit for the studio; enough for Monogram producer Sam Katzman to remember, and offer a nine-picture deal to a down-on-his luck Lugosi in 1941.

“The Monogram Nine,” as the series has come to be known, is the stuff of infamy. They are perhaps “topped” only by Lugosi’s later work with —although we could argue that the Monogram opuses are still better than Lugosi’s entire1950s output. Alas, as dreadful as they all are, none of the Nine approach the zany nadir of the Wood trilogy. Even bad movie lovers, coming to these movies for the first time, may be disappointed after sampling such delightful morsels as Glen or Glenda(1953). With one very slight exception, the direction in all of the Monogram Nine could be said to be on autopilot, with Lugosi merely being told to be Lugosi. But, nobody does Bela Lugosi better than Bela Lugosi. While he doesn’t rank among the world’s great actors, Lugosi had charisma aplenty, and that he delivers in spades, never condescending to the material (a crime of which Karloff could sometimes be guilty). That must count for something, because quite a few of these lesser Lugosis have been remastered and released on Blu-Ray.

http://ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ss&ref=as_ss_li_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=366weirmovi-20&language=en_US&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B01MS740XT&asins=B01MS740XT&linkId=2316bbc695e3b412e1c31dce016c947b&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=trueThe one well-directed exception is the first of the Monogram Nine: The Invisible Ghost (1941), directed by. Lewis has a cult following similar to that of ; he was stuck primarily with cheapie projects, and yet managed to instill  considerable craft into them. Lewis is best know for My Name is Julia Ross (1945), the noir Gun Crazy (1950), his cinematic swan song, Terror in a Texas Town (1958), and a pair of above average westerns. The Invisible Ghost features Lewis’ typical stylish direction: expressive lighting, tracking shots, unorthodox camera angles, etc. This easily makes it the best directed of the Monogram Nine, and it looks fabulous in Kino’s HD Blu-ray transfer. The script, however, is utterly pedestrian. There is no invisible ghost. Instead, there’s the believed-to-be-dead adulterous wife of Lugosi’s Dr. Kessler. Mrs. Kessler is in fact quite alive, appearing occasionally at the window to send Lugosi into a trance-like homicidal frenzy. Lewis milks extreme closeups of the murderous Lugosi to craft an aptly sinister milieu. Lugosi is in full Lugosi mode, but even he’s practically upstaged by the startling non-stereotypical, intelligent performance of African American actor Clarence Muse as the butler. If you can get past the astounding absurdity of its plot (and the annoying meddlesome heroes), the beauty of the Kino edition makes for a divertingly hokey hour.

Spooks Run Wild (1941, directed by Phil Rosen) features the East Side Kids vs. Lugosi as the “Monster Killer.” Only, he’s not. He’s just a stage magician and a red herring. The East Side Kids were also known as the Dead End Kids and the Bowery Bows. They were led primarily by Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall and were popular for about a decade. It’s hard to see why. Their schtick is embarrassingly obvious and frequently racist, with resident African American Sammy Morris as the butt of their jokes (i.e. he gets bug-eyed and spooked over his own shadow). Spooks Run Wild is a tiresome play on the old dark house genre with thunderstorms, skeletons in the closet, spooky candles, and tripping-over-shoelaces double takes. Lugosi, not having much to do, is a caricature here, and sleepwalks right through it. Worse, it’s dreadfully dull. The best thing that can be said about it is that it’s better than the follow-up (to be covered in part 2).

http://ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ss&ref=as_ss_li_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=366weirmovi-20&language=en_US&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B0002T7YXA&asins=B0002T7YXA&linkId=7117ed644ecb26bde4ce739ea3ac7b06&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=trueBlack Dragons (1942, directed by William Nigh) is Monogram’s contribution to the war effort ,and of course they do it in their typically cheap style. Lugosi is again in dual roles and gives a good, animated performance as a Nazi hypnotist killing off the Japanese spies who betrayed him. Nigh takes note, giving the horror icon plenty of sinister eye closeups. The story is paper-thin and it takes too long to get moving, but once it does, it moves at a good clip. Its cheapness is evident, using stock footage, which weirdly includes ‘s funeral. We almost forgive its too-many-flaws-to-count, as this is an utterly bizarre entry which goes for the jugular with a shock finale. As wartime propaganda, its heart is in the right (if idiosyncratic) place. Future Lone Ranger Clayton Moore has a small part. Go for the Roan Group release.

http://ws-na.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=US&source=ss&ref=as_ss_li_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=366weirmovi-20&language=en_US&marketplace=amazon&region=US&placement=B06XVYVH2X&asins=B06XVYVH2X&linkId=bd733c3bb824b310ddd7c1ec20c66250&show_border=false&link_opens_in_new_window=trueThe Corpse Vanishes (1942, directed by Wallace Fox) was featured on , which should be an indication that it’s dreadful and preposterous enough to actually be fun. Brides are dying at the altar after smelling an orchid. Could that be a clue? All their corpses were stolen by sinister types in a hearse. Could that be another clue? Not to fear, the resident Lois Lane-styled journalist (Luana Walters) is on the case, and she thinks that that leering mortuary guy’s got something to do with it. Lugosi’s got a sick bitchy wife at home—a countess (Elizabeth Russell, from Cat People)—and she needs virgin brides to make her feel better (hey, it’s 1942). Husband and wife both sleep in coffins, which is thankfully never explained, and have a trio of loyal, but inept henchmen: an old lady and her two sons (a dwarf and a hulking idiot). A thankless Lugosi beats on the boys, and he’s gonna get it back good. Lugosi again plays his stock mad doctor character and there’s nothing special about his performance. Although it’s shoddy, cheap cinematic junk food, it zips along outlandishly enough to make it the most enjoyably lighthearted of the Monogram Nine. It would make a great double feature with Lugosi’s Devil Bat (1940, made for PRC). As with the Mysterious Mr Wong, The Corpse Vanishes has been released by both Roan (DVD) and Retromedia (Blu-ray).

DENNIS POTTER’S SON OF MAN (1969)

Dennis Potter is a writer whose name is often spoken with awe; his early death (from pancreatic cancer) was a significant loss to television. Potter’s critically acclaimed “Wednesday Play” ran from 1964-1970 on the BBC, with his “Alice”((Included as an extra feature on BBC’s Alice in WonderlandDVD.)) (on the life of ), “Pennies from Heaven,” and “Singing Detective” all seen as cult masterpieces.

Yet, his most provocative hour was “Son of Man,” directed by Gareth Davies. When people today speak of controversial dramatizations of the life of Christ, very few remember this one, which may be the most radical dramatized portrayal of the Nazarene prophet to date: more so even than ‘s Gospel According to St. Matthew, ‘s Last Temptation of Christ, or ‘s The Passion of the Christ(which is only controversial in being pornographic). Unlike Scorsese’s film, Potter’s hidden gem((Unreleased on home video, although it can be found online—here is the “love your enemy” excerpt.))  ups the revolutionary ante, not because it veers from the Gospel text (it’s actually fairly orthodox in its narrative bullet points), but in how it is presented. Potter eschews any show of divinity. He doesn’t deny it, it’s merely not his concern. He focuses on Christ as a human and a prophet. As played by Colin Blakely, this desert Christ is visceral, beefy, dirty (eschewing that “cleanliness is next to godliness” verbiage), struggles with his faith, and is God-obsessed. That’s contrary to Christ’s usual stoic portrayals, and may partially be the reason for this film’s neglect. It’s easier to put a man who is emotionally detached on a pedestal. Once we see his ragged emotions, he, uncomfortably, becomes too much like us. The Christ of Potter/Blakely napalms that comfort zone with a portrayal that unnerved 1969 audiences. Airing it in the Easter season was salt added to the wound.

Another disconcerting mirror “Son of Man” holds up is its very clear contrasting of ethics and morality. The Ten Commandments are ten versions of “NO,” brought to you in the shape of patriarchal morality, which doesn’t have to be equated with love; hence, Christ improves on them with the ethics (morality + love) of the Beatitudes.

Author once mused that he had seen Christians, with tears in their eyes, bemoaning the loss of the Ten Commandments displayed in schools. When Vonnegut suggested posting the Beatitudes in their place, the reaction was: “Blessed are the poor? The meek shall inherit the earth? Blessed are the peacemakers? Oh, we can’t post that. People might take it wrong.” The Beatitudes are the centerpiece of Potter’s story, with Christ delivering them at the most inopportune moment; shortly after we see the corpse of a bloodied woman, brutally butchered by Roman Soldiers. “Love the man who would thrust his sword in your belly and torture you,” Christ ferociously shouts. It’s no wonder both his onscreen crowd and 1969 audiences were offended. Christ incites them, shouting over their vocal protestation: “Listen to me! Listen to me! God casts the same sun on the honest and dishonest. There is no division with God. The man who tortures you is a man as much as you are a man. If he hits you on the right cheek, offer him the left.” Christ gives no comfort: “and it will hurt twice as much,” he assures them, before ending, “you cannot love money and love God. You cannot hate your enemy and love God.” That’s quite the contrary of what we saw in much of religion in 1969, and what we see today, and it’s no wonder that the telefilm remains predominantly buried (as is the play).

From Potter’s rendition of the Beatitudes, the English school activist/nutcase Mary Whitehouse(( A self-appointed guardian of morality, Whitehouse’s other targets included “Dr. Who,” Dave Allen, , Chuck Berry, , Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, Potter again with 1986’s “Singing Detective,” and evenEvilDead—she helped construct Britain’s infamous “Video Nasties” list.)) smelled something that reeked of Communism, and sued to stop the airing of the play on the grounds of blasphemy, claiming that it was a conspiracy intent on removing the myth of God from the minds of men. She lost.

The film might be seen as an extended vision of Christ facing temptation in the desert, and a precursor of his warring with what he envisions to be divine intent at the Mount of Olives. “Is it me?” he asks repeatedly, screaming, desperate. His feet are raw, his beard unkempt. Half-naked, he recruits Peter (Brian Blessed) and Andrew (Gawn Grainger) with such compelling charisma that we completely understand why they drop their nets.

In his ivory tower, Pontius Pilate (Robert Hardy) is increasingly agitated by street talk of a messiah to come. After consulting the high priest Caiaphas (Bernard Hepton, typically excellent and surprisingly sympathetic in what is often a two-dimensional villain role), Pilate scoffs at the idea of a peace-loving redeemer: “Violence is what makes a man.” Caiaphas is not far removed from his Roman oppressor when questioning Judas (Edward Hardwick) about what the carpenter has said. He reacts to the Beatitudes with “How can we, the chosen of God, survive if we kiss the sword that will slay us? How can we defend the faith of the true God if we don’t hate his enemies?” Ever the fundamentalist, Caiaphas quotes the prophet Jeremiah to justify his hate. And here we see the interpretation of the gospel that provoked Whitehouse, just as bishop Oscar Romero claimed the the only gospel worth telling was a provocative one.

Potter’s Christ is complex, refusing to succumb to contemporary sophomoric Western labels of conservative/liberal. He would seem a paradox to those who prefer simplistic either/or platitudes; forgiving the adulteress while forbidding divorce as a rejection of love.

Although the role of Peter is disappointingly small, Blessed makes for a swaggering apostle. When Judas seeks to join the fold and asks Christ, “who is my neighbor that I am supposed to love?” Christ answers, “whoever is standing next to you, in the hem of your eye.” Potter’s Christ is an advocate of a social justice that cannot be denied, even by those who would lamely try to label it political. Potter’s Christ espouses a social justice of “faith without works is dead.”

In a vignette under a tree, “Son of Man” ventures into the possessed fanaticism of William Blake. “It’s good timber, this tree. I should be making chairs and tables with it.” Yet, God’s burning him too relentlessly for bourgeois living, and that god-damned tree will be driven into him, and he knows it: “Holy Father, you have hunted me down and opened the top of my head and I have heard you.”

“Should I show man a chair?,” Christ asks sarcastically, “Or should I show him your justice with this tree?” Potter’s Christ is a reluctant one, and he almost loses it as he addresses the tree itself: “You should have stayed a tree and I should have stayed a carpenter.”

The throwing out of the money changers from the temple is surprisingly low-key; a symbolist interpretation more akin to the religious canvases of Odilion Redon than the fiery-colored El Greco. Yet, Christ has transgressed against the money system, and he knows this, too. It’s his moth to the flame moment. As Caiaphas looks on, Christ inches further toward his own inevitable burning, calling those gathered “godless hypocrites” for superficially seeking a sign, and outrageously telling them to pay their taxes and “shut up.”

Hardy makes an enticing Pilate, alternately nasty and unnerved, yet evoking empathy. Still, it’s Blakey’s earthy, heartrending messiah who makes an impression; his spiritual and physical torments are indistinguishable, and there is no comfort from false sanctity. Jerking and moaning violently, he cries “why have you forsaken me?,” looking for clarity. We hope he receives it, that his “Is it me?” may become his “I am.” But that’s on us, because, despite claims made to the contrary, belief is an abstraction. With that cry, Christ is deserted for dead, and “that is that,” says the camera, pulling back. No resurrection, no Easter, no swelling Handel chorus. Just a Good Friday; or rather, the worst, in the least remembered passion of all—yet paradoxically the most memorable and harrowing.

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: SAFE IN HELL (1931) AND MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934)

William A. Wellman’s 1931 Safe in Hell is lesser-known film, and one of the best. It is viscerally directed and has a powerhouse performance from lead actress Dorothy Mackaill, who deserves to be better known on the basis of this performance alone.

Within minutes. we are in pre-code terrain with Gail (Mackaill) squeezed into a negligée and garter, smoking a fag, and receiving a call from her madame to go meet her trick, who turns out to be her sleazy ex-employer Piet (Ralf Harolde). Gail is a hooker with standards, and after she refuses to sleep with Piet, she conks him out with some prohibition gin and takes off, accidentally setting the hotel on fire.

Wanted for Piet’s murder, Gail goes on the lam. Her sailor boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook) smuggles her onto a ship and drops her off on a Caribbean island with no extradition laws.

Dorothy Mackaill in Safe in Hell (1931)Before Carl takes off on his maritime tour, he marries Gail and promises to send her monthly expenses, but mean island executioner Bruno (Morgan Wallace) intercepts the letter and takes the money.

Having faked his death, Piet shows up at the island and tries to rape Gail, who shoots him dead. Bruno offers to defend her in exchange for some nookie, but she’ll hang before breaking her wedding vows.

OK, it’s a tad melodramatic in the scripting and in some of the performances, but Mackaill’s feistiness and Wellman’s brisk direction override the films flaws, delivering a superior pre-code effort. Although it’s typical of early 1930s output in having little music and static vignettes, it moves quickly and preposterously, akin to late . Mackaill bounces off the walls and often gets physical, not hesitating to give one brute after another a slap to the face. Safe in Hellplays fast and furious with the Curse of Eve mindset. Gail refuses to be a receptacle for thugs; she’s the most ethical person in the film, and takes a hooker martyr’s sweaty halo. Lurid and emotionally charged, it’s not only pre-code, but ahead of its time and still relevant.

At the opposite end of the timeline—one of Hollywood’s last full-throttle orgies before the Production Code began rigorously enforcing moral censorship— Mitchell Liesen’s 1934 Murder at the Vanitieshas something for everyone. There’s Duke Ellington (who belongs on jazz’s Mount Rushmore) and his big band playing “Sweet Marijuana,” (so sweet, it almost inspired me to light up, and I hate pot); a nymph dick (private eye, that is); and interracial can-can dancing with scantily clad gamins and -like choreography. It’s a celebration of the end of prohibition, along with the eroticism of (unpunished) murder, with winks and fast-talking, wisecracking semi-pornographic dialogue.

Still from Murder at the Vanities (1934)It’s not as plot-oriented as Safe in Hell, and hell, I’m not even sure the plot is relevant whatsoever. It’s more of a musical comedy than a whodunit: you’ll guess whodunit within seconds, but you won’t give a hoot. It’s all about the wackiness of a lost time period. If you’re attached to anything approaching “realism” or “believability,” stay the hell away.  It’s my personal favorite pre-code film, although it’s by no means the best, one that I’ve revisited countless times. It makes me warm all over.

 

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

Among the most influential and potent of all director/actor collaborations is that of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. They made seven films together, beginning with 1930’s infamous The Blue Angel. (For this film, each scene was shot twice, once with the actors speaking in German, then in English. If you haven’t seen it, go for the German version. It’s grimier.)

Blonde Venus (1932) is the least discussed and revisited of their work together. Apart from an embarrassing, but expressionistic, musical number, it’s something of a train wreck. Von Sternberg can’t be blamed. Paramount forced the dreadful script on him, and the director rightfully disowned it. There’s little originality in the story, and what enthusiasm von Sternberg  finds is, predictably, in the lensing.

Of course, he gives considerable attention to his discovery (and off-screen mistress) Dietrich. She’s a German cabaret singer here (imagine that), and Venus is occasionally a fatigued rehash of elements from Blue Angel. Its worst error is in in deviating from Dietrich’s femme fatale persona, miscasting her here in an empathetic role as a sacrificial wife/mother who becomes a cabaret singer and beds a New York club owner (Cary Grant) to finance treatment for her ill husband (Herbert Marshall). Hubby finds out. Hubby blows his top. She runs. He chases. She falls into ruin, literally becomes a prostitute, and gives up custody of their child. It limps along melodramatically, with the fallen penitential woman reaping what she has sown. Dietrich is better suited to getting away with her sins.

Frank about sexual mores (there’s also a brief skinny-dipping scene) it’s definitely pre-code, but that can’t save this from static dullness. Dietrich is statuesque and has a picture-perfect son in Dickie Moore (he was briefly one of the Little Rascals). Dietrich was a limited actress, but one who shrewdly utilized her limitations (and smokey voice) to perfection. However, cast as a pre-June Cleaver housewife, she is out of her range and falls flat. She’s best when she is exotic. Among the musical numbers,  she steals everything but the camera in “Hot Voodoo.” In spite of the blatant racism (black-faced chorus girls), which which will have contemporary viewers squinting[1], it’s a startling sequence, with Dietrich glamming it up in a gorilla suit and blonde afro wig (hence the title Blonde Venus). There’s also the hackneyed Freudian symbology of the duality in the Venus figure (sinner/saint, mother/whore). As with all of von Sternberg, it’s worth watching for his blatant photographic obsession with Dietrich, and for what he can milk out of the sin/virtue script.

Despite its flaws, Blonde Venus was a box office hit that paved the way for their penultimate collaboration, The Scarlet Empress (1934), which proved to be both their masterpiece, and an epic box office flop. Yes, 1934 American audiences reacted to something original and unexpected the same way audiences do today: they stayed the hell away, unaccustomed to any spice in their diet.

To say that Josef von Sternberg  was one of the great visionaries of 1930s cinemas should be blatantly obvious to first year film school students everywhere. With the poor box office of Scarlet Empress  and the final collaboration with Dietrich, The Devil Is a Woman (1935), von Sternberg’s independence and his reign as a director to contend with were history. He did go on to make Crime and Punishment (1935 ; one of the few films that knew how to use Peter Lorre) and Shanghi Gesture (1941) but the failure of unfinished projects like I, Claudius (1937) and Jet Pilot (1957) overshadowed his post-Dietrich oeuvre. For an artist with such an ego—he never gave an inch of credit to anyone other than himself, and arrived on set as extravagantly costumed as the actors—such a fall from grace was inevitable.

Allegedly based (loosely) on the diaries of Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Empress is one of the most bizarre big budget studio productions of early cinema. By the director’s own assessment, it was a “relentless excursion into style.” Dietrich is more of a decorative nymph than a human being; but in that, von Sternberg was true to the spirit of the gossip about Catherine’s sexual appetites (legend has it that she died while engaging with a stallion. Actually, she died of a stroke in bed, but why bother with history when myth has so much more color?) How von Sternberg got all this past the Breen office (the recently-enacted production code was already accelerating) may be one of life’s eternal mysteries.

The Scarlet Empress is off and running into its own decadence when young Catherine, then known as Frederica (played by Dietrich’s daughter Maria Seber) is put to bed by Edward van Sloan (!) with heterodox bedtime stories to lull her to comfy sleep that—naturally, this being von Sternberg—are presented in a montage of naked nymphs being tortured.

That’s a segue into a film characterized entirely by exaggeration. The art direction includes doors so massive that it takes a small crowd to open them. Wooden sculptures of saints populate the court, but they’re made and photographed to look like gargoyle pedophiles in the guise of holy men, peering ominously around every corner (cue closeups of gnarled, wooden hands, twisted mouths, and hollow eyes leading to blackened souls). The set design is weirdly cluttered  with expressionistic decor: thrones of mammoth birds of prey, chairs in the form of threatening demons, an army of candle-holding gargoyles ascending a staircase, icons galore, a grotesque dinner table that any sane person would run from, crucifixes, and homoerotic martyred saints (impaled, of course).

As the adult Catherine, Dietrich is filmed through veils, adorned in sparkly jewels, rendered as a gossamer orgasm. When she inspects her troops, the Empress assesses them based solely on the size of their packages; even by contemporary  standards, it’s outlandishly blatant. Everything revolves around Dietrich (she’s frequently  filmed alone, and the rest of the cast are clearly there just to serve her). It’s doubtful that any other actress ever had an entire production— down to every minute detail, set design, camera angle, and lighting—created solely to support and revere her. It’s an exercise in obsession; so apparent that one can see why the inevitable breakup sent von Sternberg spiraling into a form of madness.[2].

One can empathize with that poor dumb stud John Lodge, delivering his lines through clenched teeth from under a mountain of fur. Even Dietrich seems in awe of the all-consuming outlandishness, which includes my candidate for weirdest cinematic wedding, to Sam Jaffe, looking a bit like with his frozen smile, wearing a Harpo Marx-like wig. (My only childhood memory of Scarlet Empress on TV was the wedding, which sacred the hell out of me). It’s an entire film of mise-en-scène. You won’t mind that it’s dramatically thin—which is not to say it’s lacking in either entertainment, or in peppery commentary that is certainly unfavorable to Russian history.

Occasionally, it delves into slapstick humor (e.g. what Catherine does to a straw), which makes it even weirder. Among all the court intrigue, the Empress finds power in amorous escapades (she even gets in drag and gives new meaning to roll in the hay). One of the climaxes has her knocked up by a palace guard (we think—he’s one of countless candidates) which, by gosh, by golly, regardless of the baby daddy, produces a potential heir to the throne. Of course, who are we kidding? In an ambiguously happy (?) ending, Dietrich sums it up in a smoky exhale: “There is no Emperor. There’s only an Empress.”

Scarlett Empress is a fantastically poetic pre-code for the books.

  1. Sans Trumptards of course—but then I’m referring to human audiences. []
  2. After the star and director’s relationship ended badly, he damned her in his autobiography as passionately as he had revered her on screen []

FANTOMAS: THE COMPLETE SAGA (1913)

Fantômas (1913) is ‘s first crime serial, and probably the best (a fourth serial, 1918’s Tin Minh, has survived and is purportedly on par with the three better known series, but has oddly never been restored or released on home video).

Based on the novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, Fantômas, which was released as five separate films (Shadow of the Guillotine, Juve vs. Fantômas, The Murderous Corpse, Fantômas vs. Fantômas, and The False Magistrate), sets the pattern for the Feuillade serials that followed. Despite its age (105 years old!) it is insanely entertaining and the most surreal of the director’s massive body of work. It was among the first films to utilize a sustained narrative plot, to be shot in actual locations (as opposed to being studios), and was one of the first mystery films. As played by Rene Navarre, Fantômas himself was arguably cinema’s first completely unsympathetic, purely evil protagonist with no redeeming qualities. It would take a strong lead to inspire us to root for such a character; with his menacing charisma, Navarre pulls it off in spades. He is probably the best of Feuillade’s genre leads, and collaborates superbly with the director; together they stylishly craft a milieu of intrigue and heightened suspense that revels in amorality. Fantômas was an epic influence on ‘s Dr. Mabuse (whose films we should cover someday). As this Houdini of thieves and assassins goes through his considerable resume of opponents and victims, plotting grand conspiracies, he does so with such suave aplomb that we find ourselves unapologetically rooting for the “Emperor of Crime.” Although marginally science fiction, Fantômas ventures into fantastic surrealism, presenting the arch-villain as a shape-shifting master of disguises (he has a secret identity too, making him a proto-super villain) who will present his victims with a blank card, only to have their name “appear” when…

Naturally, with a do-gooder on his trail—inspector Juve (Edmund Bréon)—we are guaranteed a cataclysmic battle of wits. We are not disappointed. Fantômas plots grand conspiracies, absurdly fantastic escapes, elaborate train robberies, jewel heists, grave robbing, wanton violence, indiscriminate murders (from one-time accomplices to a judge of the high courts, gruesomely dispatched), disappearances and reappearances (largely unexplained), and a bizarre, utterly weird “switcheroo” with a fellow villain who takes his place at the guillotine. Fantômas vs. Fantômas, the aptly titled fourth film, is set in a grand masked ball with no less than three versions of Fantômas —which means triple the mayhem—made all the more kinetically surreal through its outlandishly stylized tableaux.  In an effort to evade an assassin of the night, Juve even gets a queer scene like a 1913 version of Rambo, complete with spiked traps and poisonous snakes. None of it is “believable” for even a second, and you won’t care one damned bit. It’s easy to see why 1913 audiences made this the first genuine worldwide blockbuster smash hit.

Fantômas, always escalating his criminal oeuvre, is never given a motive. He has no Freudian backstory to explain his lack of conscience. He is simply an ambitious sociopath whose life’s goal is to taunt, seduce, craft chaos, sow discord, betrayal, maim, and murder, leaving a trial of broken victims and corpses.

Despite its innovations, being the first of his serials, it is indeed the most aesthetically archaic (the editing is extremely choppy). Yet it’s also strangely contemporary.  All of this adds to its otherworldliness. If you must limit yourself to a single Feuillade serial (although I don’t know why anyone would wish to), make it Fantomas.

It goes without saying that Kino outdid itself in this essential release that includes a documentary on Feuillade and two shorts: one with a disappointingly traditional religious theme, and the other venturing into mild territory (before Browning).

*originally published at 366 Weird Movies

“THE KING” (2017) AND “POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD” (2018)

Eugene Jarecki is an intelligent documentary filmmaker who earned his reputation with Why We Fight(2005), Reagan(2011) and The House I Live In(2012). His latest, The King, focuses on as a symbol of the profligate American dream: a xenophobic pop culture phenomenon that remains as potent a seed today in Trump’s ‘Murica as it was in 1956, perhaps even more so. The original title of Jarecki’s film was “Promised Land” and, unwisely, distributors forced a name change. Apparently it was misleading to an audience believing (and hoping) it to be a straightforward biography of the late rock star. The American box office resulted in a whimper (although it has done well overseas). That’s unfortunate, as it’s a compelling, insightful and necessary film. As a contemporary artist, Jarecki is a provocateur. Before we get into that, here’s an insight from a filmmaker who has the pulse of contemporary art, and its audience:

“I like art that challenges you and makes a lot of people angry because they don’t get it. Because they refuse to look at it properly. Rather than open their mind to the possibility of seeing something, they just resist. A lot of people think contemporary art makes them feel stupid. Because they are stupid. They’re right. If you have contempt about contemporary art, you are stupid. You can be the most uneducated person in the world and completely appreciate contemporary art, because you see the rebellion. You see that it’s trying to change things.”–

Damn right. This is ambitious, highly charged, demanding contemporary art as documentary filmmaking. While we might concede that it overreaches, isn’t that better than a spoon-fed, orthodox approach? Some critics have complained that its premise is simplistic and yet paradoxically complicated. One might argue that, given the subject, and ultimately it’s also overly simplistic to dismiss it as simplistic. A thesis simply wouldn’t do, and Jarecki’s aesthetics are grisly and lurid, akin to what Albert Goldman did so brilliantly in his infamous biography of Presley. Like Goldman, Jarecki parallels the Presley phenomenon with the decline of America; but in the era of Donald Trump, Jarecki’s drive ultimately proves even more visceral than that slice of Americana written by Goldman in 1981.

Jarecki gets behind the wheels of Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce and takes a cross-country tour from Tupelo, Mississippi (Presley’s birthplace and childhood home) and Memphis, Tennessee (home of Graceland) to Hollywood and Vegas (the dual cities that killed him— along with the Army, Presley’s first peddler that neutered him). Along the way, Jarecki picks up commentators such as James Carville, Emmylou Harris, D.J. Fontana (Presley’s drummer), Jerry Schilling (Presley’s best friend), (a certified Elvis fan and the film’s producer), Alec Baldwin, Mike Meyers (startlingly lucid), Ashton Kutcher (the most misplaced), and church folk. The last viewpoint is important, because they’re the very same evangelicals that sacrificed their ethics to vote for Trump (and other morally bankrupt characters, e.g. Roy Moore) to secure their white bread system. We can, of course, succumb to condescending platitudes that the low-informed are easy targets; but it was underestimating their numbers that secured Trump’s ‘Murica.

Yes, The King is devastatingly political. It damn well should be, because we can’t accept the (borrowed) excuse of  someone like the WWII-era Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, who feebly spin-doctored sitting on his hands with the justification of avoiding politics. Rather, he avoided an ethical backbone. Jarecki’s politicizing of American culture is justified because now, more than ever—in an age where some restaurants require a college degree and 3-4 years experience to get into management—we elected a blatantly misogynistic, racially pandering, trash TV host, with no previous governing experience, to the highest office in the land. We did so in adulation of his (inherited, not earned) money and pop celebrity status. When Jarecki paints a connection between the fat Elvis of casino excess dying on a toilet to the fat blowhard and pornstar-lubbin’ casino baron, in way over his head, retreating to the golf course, it’s done so with the subtlety of a Batman KAPOW!

The composer Gustav Mahler once said, “A symphony, like the world, should contain everything.” That is the inherent, authentic spirituality of Jarecki’s The King. Admittedly, by encompassing everything, it occasionally gets away from the filmmaker, but there is also a refreshingly idiosyncratic sprawling quality that renders it unforgettable.

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INGMAR BERGMAN’S FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982)

Fanny and Alexander (1982) was ‘s final cinematic work, although he did make a handful of TV movies afterwards, ending with the poignant Saraband (2003). After decades of desolation within an agnostic cosmos, Bergman keeps Fanny and Alexander in check. Although his obsessions are present, it is sort of an autobiographical release, which results in an immensely  enjoyable, epic[1]coda to one of the most consummate cinema oeuvres, and could even be recommended as a starting point to the Bergman novice.

As with most of Bergman’s films, Fanny and Alexander was received with a degree of controversy. Some criticized Bergman’s previous work as overly pessimistic. He also was frequently accused of pretentiousness, and as is often the case, that is a lazy standby label that reveals far more about the critic than the filmmaker. With Fanny and Alexander, Bergman was criticized for catering to populism (John Simon in National Review) and for oversimplification (Dave Kehr and Pauline Kael ). Yet, even the most critical reviews conceded Fanny and Alexander was Bergman at his most accomplished.

There is a pronounced fantasy element to this period family drama, so much so it is one of the few Bergman film covered by Richard Scheib at his genre site, Moria film reviews.

Fanny and Alexanderis set at the turn of the 20th century, and immediately establishes its theme of childhood imagination. I would be hard-pressed to name another Bergman film in which children are the primary protagonists. When Bergman takes the plunge, he does so without abandon. The ghostliness of childhood saturates the narrative, the assured pacing, and the artistic design. It opens with ten-year-old Alexander Ekdahl (Bertil Guve) preoccupied with miniature theatrical figurines and a caged rat. The scene is fittingly choreographed, in part, to Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in F Major (Schumann is possibly the apex of 19th century romantic innocence) and sets the leisurely pacing. Alexander calls out to his eight-year-old sister Fanny (Pernilla Alwin), who doesn’t answer—but like most children, Alexander is soon distracted.

Shortly before a dazzling, magically detailed Christmas feast with the Ekdhal clan, Alexander is caught up in a dreamlike state as he imagines an erotic statue suddenly motioning to him, followed by death dragging his scythe.

A Christmas play evokes Mozartian flutes, followed by the entry of uncles Gustav (an amorous Jarl Kulle with a flaming punchbowl) and Carl (Borje Ahlstedt, drunkenly farting on the stairs), and possibly the most beautiful pillow fight ever filmed.

Fanny and Alexander’s theatrical grandmother Helena (Gunn Walgren) is the matriarch of the Ekdhal clan, which is filled with irascible actors, rogues, illusionists, and a multitude of servants.   The theater life creates a community much like one would find in religion. Both Fanny and Alexander are introverted, but dazzled by the enchanted world gifted them by their theater manager father Oscar (Allan Edwall) and actress mother Emilie (Ewa Froling); but the second half of the film takes a darker turn when Oscar dies unexpectedly.  At his father’s funeral procession, led by the ultra-patristic and austere Calvinist Bishop Edvard Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo), a bitter and frightened Alexander, out of character, spews obscenities, foretelling the struggles ahead.

Emilie marries Edvard, and soon Fanny and Alexander are subjected to dogmatic abuses[2]. Emilie belatedly realizes that she has married a clerical beast. Oscar’s ghost rises (apparently conjured forth by Alexander) to intervene. With the aid of the Jewish eccentric Isak (Erland Josephson) and his warlock nephew Ismael (Stina Ekblad), Fanny and Alexander are smuggled out of their home. Their escape is like a fairy tale, with the children finding a new sanctuary within Isak’s surreal theatrical abode. Alexander’s ghostly visions serve as a segue into a chimerical coming of age parable, and the demonic bishop’s fiery comeuppance may be Bergman’s finest moment on celluloid.

While Fanny and Alexander is indisputably imperfect,  it is a sensuous epilogue that stands not only as essential Bergman, but essential cinema. A few weeks ago, I declared that once done with my latest round of dipping back into Bergman, I would be forced to shelve any further revisits. After my third summer with Fanny and Alexander, I can most assuredly say that I lied.

  1. The theatrical cut runs three hours. A 5-hour television version was simultaneously released, as Bergman was understandably reluctant to edit it down. The longer version, with stronger supernatural atmosphere, is preferable. []
  2. Bergman’s father was a severe Calvinist []

INGMAR BERGMAN’S AUTUMN SONATA (1978)

is a damned important filmmaker. As an artist and Catholic, I’ve experienced his body of work and without reserve, I rank him with the likes of , , and . Yet, I’m now in my fifties, and I’ve come to the point where I can relate to the conductor Leopold Stokowski, who—late in life—said he was done with the pessimism of composer Gustav Mahler. Likewise, I hope I’m never asked to watch a Bergman film again for the remainder of my life. Not that 366 Weird Movies asked me to; I did it to myself.

For Autumn Sonata, Bergman cast Casablanca actress Ingrid Bergman (no relation). It proved to be her last film before succumbing to cancer. She plays the famous pianist Charlotte Andergast who has abandoned her family to pursue her career. Charlotte accepts daughter Eva’s () invitation for a visit, despite not having seen her for years. Having recently lost her longtime lover, Charlotte wants to stay at her daughter’s Norway parsonage for emotional support. Married to the reserved clergyman Viktor (Halvar Björk), Eva’s world is a far cry from the celebrity and glamour of her mother’s life. The complexities of their relationship are incandescent, and this may well be the most well-acted film of Bergman’s oeuvre.

Ingrid’s casting was poignant on numerous levels. She had longed to make a film with her namesake. Both she and Ingmar had been in exile from Sweden (the director for tax evasion—he was later found innocent). Ingrid had been harshly criticized for abandoning her family to purse an affair with the married Roberto Rossellini and, after her films were widely picketed and banned, she fled Sweden. Ingrid was initially skeptical because the parallels between actress and role were so disconcerting. She overcame her trepidation, however, to deliver a tour-de-force swan song. Ullman is, in every way, Ingrid’s equal, and although this is ultimately an ethical and psychologically healthy chamber film, it is inherently Bergmanesque.

At first, the reunion seems to be a joyful one. Charlotte has barely settled in, however, when old tensions between mother and daughter arise. Eva, a writer, is also a pianist, but she is angst-ridden with an inferiority complex that she blames on her mother. Eva’s fear of playing Chopin to her hypercritical mother is validated. Even the musically illiterate can detect the difference between Eva’s subpar performance and Charlotte’s sublime interpretation. The brilliance of Bergman lies in divided sympathies. We can identify with Eva feeling patronized and shamed, but we also acknowledge Charlotte’s valid aesthetic criticisms.

A more painful source of contention is the surprise of Eva opening her home to her sister Helena (Lena Nyman). Suffering from a degenerative disease, Helena is a provocative reminder of Charlotte’s neglect and narcissism.

The scene in which Eva confronts Charlotte throughout the night is lengthy, riveting, and drenched in emotion. Charlotte’s propensity for bragging and her lack of humility, her inability to listen and perhaps even to fully love, is punctuated by Eva’s demand of silence, and, ultimately by her mediocrity. Yet, we also see Eva’s strength as a giving savior/saint to both her husband and sister—a role that Charlotte is utterly incapable of. Lesser filmmakers would have taken sides and painted the scene solely in hues of pathos, but Bergman is not so monochromatic: he uses humor, awe, and sensuality. Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nyqvist opt for intense extreme closeups, filmed in gorgeous oranges and browns. It’s called Autumn Sonata for a reason, and the engrossing music (Chopin, Bach, Beethoven) is of equal importance to the theatrical-like visuals.

Björk is, as usual, superb, but ultimately it’s not his film. We go through the wringer with Eva and Charlotte, and there is no sophomoric resolution, because reconciliation sure as hell isn’t microwaved. It’s sacramentally built; and Bergman leaves us with the hope, and the feeling, that it will be built. In that, I find Autumn Sonata to be as close to Catholicism as Bergman comes.

*ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT 366 WEIRD MOVIES

INGMAR BERGMAN’S CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972)

The iris of ‘s Cries and Whispers (1972) is a red deathbed of intense and frightening passion unequaled in the whole of cinema. As the filmmaker himself indicated, Cries and Whispers is a film predominantly told by color. I first encountered Cries and Whispers in the early 1980s and it lingered: an unforgettable, altering experience. The only thing I can compare it to is the first time I stood before one of Pablo Picasso’s rose period paintings of a maternal subject. It stirs you in a way that makes you feel simultaneously alive and small, and glad to be small before an authentic artist whose mastery is so expressively humane as to be hypnotic and humbling. As filtered through the abdominal lensing of Sven Nykvist, Cries and Whispers imparts a vision of infinite beauty.

This is a female world, taking place over a period of two days in the life of four women. Yes, it is also about the dying process and death, but accompanied by resurrection and endowment.

At her English manor, the 40-ish, matronly Agnes () is dying, and this is not a stylish, incandescent death. She is in unspeakable agony amidst her kitsch surroundings. Watching this film again recently, it gripped me personally, having spent two days with my father dying of the cancer that brutally and unmercifully took away his life; quickly, but not quickly enough. And that’s why Cries and Whispers is intimately affecting.

Surrounding Agnes are her sisters, Karin () and Maria (), along with her loyal peasant servant, Anna (Kari Sylvan), who maternally responds to Agnes’ needs. She cradles Agnes and attempts to comfort her. Yet, this is also a film about pain; like a late Edvard Munch painting of feverish icy dreams. As a motherly figure, Anna cannot ease Agnes’ suffering. Like Anna’s biological daughter, Agnes will die.

The sexual symbology is as vivid as those various shades of (red). Agnes, never knowing intimacy (white) is dying of ovarian cancer. Maria’s adulteries drove her husband to suicide. Karin performed a bloody self-mutilation in revenge against her husband. All this segues into the pain of distance, of touching and withdrawing from touch; neither Maria nor Karin can look upon Agnes as she gasps for life. Familial emotional distance parallels the impotence of religious comfort (black). The cleric, there to give extreme unction, utters a prayer that betrays his faithlessness and cluelessness, because before him is the Pieta to which he is blind. Agnes attempts repeatedly to vomit in a basin, but it is to no avail. She parallels the Corpus Christi, cradled by Anna’s Madonna: the sole beacon of faith and the sole embrace who draws her lifeless charge to dry breasts. Yet, Anna gifts a renewal from cancer of the womb.

Although faithless herself, Agnes receives absolution, and we hear her alive again in the startling finale. Her voice rises from her journal, and we see the sisters together again in a paradisaical setting: “I wanted to hold the moment fast, and thought, Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection.”

*originally published at 366 Weird Movies