Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Uninvited (1944) at The Criterion Collection

Just in time for Halloween, the Criterion Collection has done us all an enormous favor by releasing one of the screen's great ghost stories, Lewis Allen's remarkable The Uninvited, starring Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Gail Russell, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Donald Crisp. It's a supreme example of how black-and-white conjures danger, romance and the supernatural. The film is an object of veneration for its fans, which include Martin Scorsese and Guillermo del Toro. But for a long while it's also been condemned to a shadow world of bad copies made from questionable sources. Criterion has, as always, come up with a version that's worthy of the way it must have looked in 1944.

The author of the source novel for The Uninvited, Dorothy Macardle, was a most interesting person, born in Ireland to a rich Catholic family and growing up to teach English in a predominantly Protestant college until her Irish republican activities got her fired in 1923. Thereafter she did some time in prison during the Civil War, where she wrote some of her first ghost stories. Eamon de Valera was her friend and mentor, although they had a rough patch when Macardle objected to part of the 1937 Irish constitution pertaining to women. Macardle's fervent anti-Nazism led her to move to London during the war to work with refugees and with the BBC to help the war effort. When The Uninvited was released, according to the Irish Times, "among those who went to see it at the Savoy in Dublin was de Valera himself who, however, was not amused by the twist in the story"--one that doesn't exactly support a traditional view of pious womanhood. "Typical Dorothy," de Valera remarked. Macardle also wrote a famed history called The Irish Republic.

Meanwhile, rejoice at just how good The Uninvited is looking. Here's an excerpt from the Siren's essay.

The character of Stella is twenty; Russell was nineteen and looks younger. It was her first starring role, and she brings febrile intensity to it, moving from flirtatious humor to an orphan’s yearning for her mother to the desperation of a possessed woman. In real life, Russell wasn’t able to pull back. By all accounts an introverted and jittery person ill-suited to the Hollywood racket, she is said to have started drinking on the set of this movie in an attempt to calm herself between takes. Her very next film found her playing none other than Cornelia Otis Skinner, in the 1944 screen adaptation of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, the autobiographical best seller that Skinner had cowritten with a college chum of hers a couple of years earlier—also directed by Allen, and another hit. For a short while in the 1940s, Russell’s ethereal style gained her roles in films like Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (1948). But by 1956, when she appeared in Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men from Now, alcoholism had coarsened her wondrous looks, and her career was nearly over. She died in 1961, of drinking-related causes, age thirty-six. The Uninvited, then, also offers a glimpse of Russell at her hopeful start, photographed in a way that justifies the fan magazines’ compari­sons to Hedy Lamarr.

Indeed, Allen’s most indispensable ally on The Uninvited was the great cinematographer Charles Lang Jr., whose work on the film was nominated for an Oscar. Windward House has no electricity; whether that’s because of its remote location or its having stood empty for years is never explained. In the event, this gives Lang an excuse for some of the eeriest lighting of the 1940s. Flashlights pierce the gloom, candles and oil lamps flicker, and the sea casts patterns of light on the ceiling.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Get Thee to MOMA's To Save and Project Festival

It’s that time of year again, when the Museum of Modern Art in New York offers a unique opportunity to see rare old movies, restored to their former luster and projected on film, the way the Goddess and Eastman Kodak intended.

Yes, it’s To Save and Project, what MOMA calls “an annual festival of newly preserved and restored films from archives, studios, distributors, and independent filmmakers around the world, from October 9 through November 12.” You may glance at the calendar and notice the Siren is a wee bit fashionably late, but don’t let that deter you. There are screenings left for many of the most choice selections.

First and foremost, for all those who worked so hard on the second For the Love of Film blogathon, there is Try and Get Me! (aka The Sound of Fury), newly restored and ready to shine. The Siren has a screener for this one which she is stubbornly refusing to watch, because she wants to see it in the shiny new version for which we bloggers and readers and donors raised all that lolly. Instead, the Siren plans to attend on Nov. 2, when Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation will be presenting this noir along with Crashout (co-written by the blacklisted Cy Endfield, Try and Get Me’s director, and also so far unseen by the Siren) and Alias Nick Beal. (If you want to read up on Try and Get Me!, check out blogathon partner Marilyn Ferdinand’s take.) The screenings start at 2 pm; anyone in the New York City area who can make it definitely should.

Here are some other entries that the Siren finds of particular interest, and hopes her patient readers will, as well.

First up, this Saturday at 7 pm, is the deliriously insane I Am Suzanne!, directed by Rowland V. Lee in 1933. The Siren has a son who is turning seven this weekend and has expressed a desire for Mommy’s presence at his festivities, so she won’t be at MOMA, but if you can make this one, you absolutely should. William McKinley on Twitter described this as “The Red Shoes with puppets,” which is surprisingly accurate; the Siren would call it “Coppelia plus guns,” but feel free to take your pick. Both Will and I, as well as Lou Lumenick, urge you to see for yourself. The title role is filled by gorgeous Lilian Harvey, who had a thrillingly varied career but whose Stateside stardom never took off. Judging by this, the camera was, if not Harvey’s lover, then a very good friend. She’s a pensive, delicate presence with a killer body that the movie gives you ample time to ogle. That’s partly because puppeteer Gene Raymond (whose callowness is just right here) is making a marionette based not on her face, but her figure. There’s also Leslie Banks (about to do The Man Who Knew Too Much for Hitchcock the very next year) stealing everything but the dressing-room door in a very Boris Lermontov role. It soon becomes clear, though, that Banks’ character is much more about padding his pockets than art. What makes the movie so deliciously oddball, apart from little touches like an anthropomorphic dancing snowman, is the way I Am Suzanne! melds childish glee and way-out-there perversion. Watch Harvey’s expression when she’s in the hospital with Raymond adjusting her traction, and maybe you’ll see what the Siren means.  

Stark Love (1927) is a Karl Brown silent screening this Sunday, Oct. 20, at 5:30 pm; the Siren has been unable to see it so far, although she plans to at a later date. Richard Brody, the Siren’s friendly sometime Twitter-debater and a man of highly discerning tastes, was hugely impressed with this unusual silent, filmed in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina with nonprofessionals in the cast. Another silent-film aficionado wrote the Siren saying it’s “astonishing and beautiful,” so clearly this is a must for all the fans of the era. The film also gets a brief, delightful mention in John McElwee’s Showmen, Sell It Hot!. (The Siren plans to write up this book later, but the spoiler version is, just buy it, it’s wonderful.) In his discussion of Jesse James (1939), shot partly near Pineville, Missouri, John writes:

Pineville residents since may have forgotten Ty Power and Henry Fonda, but what fun to have had a major feature shot in your backyard, even if it’s one folks way back thrilled to. The closest my locality came was Thunder Road, several counties away, but it seemed like home, and a silent called Stark Love, directed by Griffith disciple Karl Brown and shot amidst North Carolina hills in 1927. I attended a screening at Appalachian State University in the early 1990s, where many in the audience yelled out  names of locals they recognized upon that flickering, voiceless screen. Good thing Stark Love was run mute, for any mood accompaniment would surely have been drowned by who’s who-ing from the audience along the lines of, “There’s Great-Grandma!”

Hitler’s Reign of Terror and I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany pretty much had the field of explicit anti-Nazi filmmaking to themselves when they were released. On Saturday, Oct. 26 at 7 pm, both films will be introduced by Prof. Thomas Doherty of Brandeis University, who discusses them extensively in Hitler and Hollywood: 1933-1939.

Hitler’s Reign was made by Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., who didn’t think much of his gilded relations (“dull, uninteresting, hopelessly mediocre people,” was his unfilial summary). Still, once Vanderbilt opted for the life of an intrepid filmmaker-cum-journalist, Doherty says that background came in handy in two ways. Vanderbilt could afford Bell & Howell’s expensive, handheld 35-mm Eyemo camera (although getting real financing and distribution proved hard). And he could use his celebrated name to gain access to people like Pope Pius XI and the Hohenzollerns of Germany who would ordinarily avoid grubby reporter types. In 1933 came the biggest “get” of all, an interview with Adolf Hitler in which Vanderbilt had the courage to ask point-blank about the Jews.

Watching Hitler’s Reign now, there’s a sense that Vanderbilt’s aristocratic background may have been part of what gave him the nerve to ambush-interview a dictator. It’s a terrible loss that there were no cameras turning on the moment, but this film does contain a re-enactment of the encounter, and it still gives a shudder. Vanderbilt himself is a soigne chap with an East Coast lockjaw accent, and he sits in his chair with the air of a man who expects to be listened to. He wasn’t, though; his film played well in a few places, but what few bookings Hitler’s Reign could get were often shut down by state and local censors even though it was (just barely) pre-Code.

Nor were critics especially kind, laudable message or no laudable message. The film is in fact a jarring collection of on-the-scene footage (some of which Vanderbilt claimed to have smuggled out of Germany by strapping the reels to the underside of his car) and obvious re-enactments by actors whom one hopes never quit their day jobs. But the street moments that Vanderbilt captured are chilling, and as an early example of polemical documentary, it absolutely should not be missed. The version that the Siren saw is clearly one that was revised at a later date. Dave Kehr has the scoop on how we have a copy of this movie; the Siren hopes Doherty can shed further light on the revisions, only lightly discussed in the book.

Screening as a highly appropriate double feature with Hitler’s Reign is I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany, an independent feature released in 1936 (with a PCA seal, to the annoyance of Nazi consul Georg Gyssling). Isobel Lillian Steele was a Canadian-born, naturalized American citizen who had lived in Germany since 1931, writing daintily apolitical magazine features and enjoying the last gasps of Weimar nightlife. According to Doherty, Steele got caught up in a liaison with one Baron Ulrich von Sosnosky, a Polish military officer and ladykiller-about-town. Steele later said she had no idea (she would say that, wouldn’t she?) that Sosnosky was enjoying the favors of two beautiful secretaries in Germany’s military bureaucracy, much less that those ladies were passing documents to the Baron. When the situation was uncovered, Steele was caught up in the arrests, and sent to prison for several months. She was eventually released through the intervention of Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, the “lion of the Senate,” and Sosnosky’s neck was eventually saved by an exchange of spies (though his later fate is a mystery; Wikipedia, for what it's worth, lists no fewer than four possible ends for the Baron). The two secretaries met a horrible fate.

It’s a thrilling, ultimately tragic story with a strong undercurrent of heedless sex, and the Siren wishes she could tell you it makes for a movie with those qualities. It doesn’t, only partly because it insists, rather implausibly, that Isobel is a simple American girl who went to the wrong parties. More importantly, Kehr is right when he calls I Was a Captive “rhetorically crude and stylistically nonexistent.” (Although there are a few rather haunting shots inside the prison, possibly illustrating Ivan G. Shreve’s Blind Squirrel Theory of Cinema.) And yet the film is undeniably mesmerizing, with its portrait of Germany on the brink, the occasional bits of interpolated documentary footage (including the 1933 book-burning shown in Hitler’s Reign), narration that refers bluntly to concentration camps, and characters such as a brownshirt suitor, tired of persecuting Jews and Communists and looking forward to his promotion--to informer.

Watch out for Steele's “out of character” appearance at the start, wearing an impeccably chic ensemble and toying with what’s either a pom-pom trimming or a powder puff, although on a DVD screener at first it suggested a poodle scalp. Steele says, with a flat delivery that’s pretty characteristic of the whole movie, “The prison scenes depressed me. Hollywood has a way of making things realistic.” That line will probably get a laugh at MOMA, but in a strange way she’s right. The movie may think it’s about an innocent abroad whose heart was always in the right place. But what this movie actually shows is a woman who didn’t want to know about what was swirling around her, until the knock came at her own door. In that sense, Steele was indeed very American.

The movies are also screening Monday, Oct. 28 at 3 pm.

On Wednesday, Oct. 23, at 7 pm, we have Death of a Salesman, the 1951 version directed by Lazslo Benedek and starring Fredric March. The Siren plans to be there, but she can’t tell you a thing about this one. That’s because it’s been hard to see for decades. MOMA says this version has been fully restored. Bone up on your Fredric March fandom by checking out director Guy Maddin’s essay on the Criterion edition of I Married a Witch.

The only Nov. 2 noir offering that the Siren has previewed is the long-unavailable Alias Nick Beal, and it’s a pip, a retelling of the Faust legend with Thomas Mitchell’s well-meaning district attorney standing in for Goethe’s scholar, and Ray Milland as Nick Beal--probably a play on Beelzebub, though few screen demons are handsome as this one. The Siren has long been an admirer of Milland, and this is one of his best. Milland is not simply seductive--something he could accomplish by standing in good light and breathing--he’s genuinely frightening, slowly revealing the vicious amorality under his smooth-talking exterior. Mitchell is excellent at keeping his character’s cluelessness plausible; he’s insisting the devil doesn’t come to life far past the point when everyone else has caught on. With George Macready, on the side of the angels for once; and Audrey Totter, playing her pop-eyed, high-strung sex appeal for all it’s worth as Satan’s reluctant handmaiden. She has a late-movie scene that must be one of the best she ever did; no description of any kind, believe me, it will be obvious when it happens. Directed by John Farrow, with fog-shrouded cinematography by Lionel Lindon, Alias Nick Beal will be screening in a fresh archival print. It’s also showing Thursday, Nov. 7 at 4 pm.

Try and Get Me!, in addition to the Nov. 2 screening, also plays Wednesday, Nov. 6 at 4 pm.

The final movie the Siren wants to squeeze in: Caravan, a romance with Charles Boyer and Loretta Young and a screenplay co-written by Samson Raphaelson. The Siren has seen this one mocked from time to time for casting Boyer as a gypsy etc. That doesn’t much matter to her when Kehr calls Caravan a “genuinely great movie,” an endorsement that should make everyone pull out the calendars. Friday, Nov. 8 at 4:30 pm; and Sunday, Nov. 10 at 1 pm.

Please, take a look at the schedule and figure out what else you want to see; the Siren hasn’t come close to listing it all. This is a rich festival, and MOMA deserves every bit of support we can give.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Buster Keaton's Birthday, at The Baffler

Buster Keaton was born 118 years ago today. Earlier this year, the Siren was asked by The Baffler to write about the 14-disc Kino Blu-Ray set of Keaton's films. The Baffler is an excellent magazine of arts and criticism, published three times a year out of Cambridge, Mass., and the Siren is proud to be appearing in its pages. You can subscribe here. As of today, Keaton's birthday, the Siren's complete essay is online and can be read at The Baffler's website. What follows is an excerpt.

Spending so much time with Buster, getting reacquainted with his genius and spirit, has been an extraordinary thing. The Siren admits now that when she says she loves Buster Keaton, she doesn't really mean it metaphorically.

The most iconic Keaton stance, according to Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns, shows Buster in thought: body tilted straight forward about forty-five degrees, one hand acting as a visor while he scopes out what’s ahead. True indeed, but there’s another essential posture, the head-scratch, also deployed when data must be assessed and decisions made.

That gesture reaches apotheosis in Seven Chances (1925), which has Buster as a financial hotshot whose firm’s in hot water. He discovers that if he marries by 7 p.m. that very day, he’ll inherit $7 million that will keep him out of prison. (Wall Street denizens who fear prison also appear in The Saphead. This plot point has dated more than anything else in the set.) Buster’s overhelpful friend has put an ad in the paper, resulting in hundreds of women in improvised veils showing up at the chapel. When Buster leaves in a panic, they gallop after him, their flying veils making them look uncannily like extras from DeMille’s silent version of The Ten Commandments. This vengeful Biblical horde chases Buster down a hill, where he dislodges some rocks, and then some more.

And so, faced with an army of would-be brides charging at him from one direction and a quarry’s worth of giant rocks rolling downhill from another, Buster stops for a moment, and his hand starts scratching his scalp. This sort of lady-or-the-boulder choice cannot be made on the fly.