Archive for February, 2009

The blogging opportunities haven’t really been presenting themselves this week, sadly.

On the bright side–I do have a line on one of the pre-“Jennifer Jones” Isley performances, so perhaps the delay in launching my star persona analysis project can be construed as fortuitous.

But I thought I would take this opportunity to direct your attention to this stuff that I wrote on Watchmen (the comic), a while back. I’d say that I stand by about 70% of it (especially the idea of altruism-as-aphrodisiac in the coffee-serving scene–my personal favourite–will it make it onto the screen?)

I have pretty low expectations for the movie , but will, of course, be going to see it as soon as it hits Montreal. Luckily, Frank Miler’s The Spirit has already secured a lock on “worst comic book adaptation ever filmed,” so Snyder has averted that danger by default.

good afternoon friends!


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very busy lately, unfortunately–but will check in soon with a post on Warner Brothers’ amazing companion piece to They Won’t Forget in the 1937 anti-lynching sweepstakes– Michael Curtiz’s Mountain Justice (starring the very very unjustly neglected Josephine Hutchinson), which I saw over the weekend.

For now–just wanted to mention that I actually watched the entire Oscar ceremony last night, for the first time in my life (I attended a party devoted to the event). I had absolutely no rooting interest, but was glad to see Kate Winslet win (even though I haven’t seen The Reader; she should have won a long time ago–for Jude) and liked Penn’s speech (although I haven’t seen Milk yet)… but oh that Sophia Loren appearance was painful… I don’t usually make snarky comments about plastic surgery, but that job pushed me to brink of apoplexy. At the very least–I’ll be Oscarred for life… Why the hell did she do that to us?

good afternoon friends!


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Short post today

More in the nature of a public resolution, actually.

To wit–I want to explore the star persona (as pseudoteurial node of meaning) of Jennifer Jones (nee Phylis Flora Isley).

Best way to do that, of course, is to revisit all of her films–so that’s what I’ll do (probably not one after another, although that would certainly be intense!)

I wonder if I’m alone in liking every item in the oeuvre (and in believing–at least in anticipation–that there’s something really worth discussing in each of them)?

One of the motivating factors for my project is this (excellent) Dan Callahan post, which (apart from his dislike for Portrait of Jennie–which the Siren addresses in the comments section), I think, articulates the consensus opinion on Jones (and Selznick). A consensus that I don’t entirely concur with, obviously.

But the primary source of inspiration is the lingering impact of my last encounter with Gone To Earth, which I love more with every neuro-trackback!

We’ll see how it turns out.

I leave you, for now, with a link to a dubiously dubbed clip from one of my favourite items in the oeuvre–Ruby Gentry (directed by King Vidor).

good afternoon friends!


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They can’t all be winners.

Michael Powell’s (screenwriter Emeric Pressburger is not co-billed in triplicate on this one) 49th Parallel certainly has its moments–unfortunately, some of them aren’t GOOD moments.

In conception, this thing is truly ingenious: a dark picaresque tale that moves the (Nazi) highwaymen to center stage, beset by all manner of complacent Canadians (most of whom come to Rick Blaine-style epiphanies through their encounters with Fascism in the flesh–a development that the filmmakers hoped to inspire in the minds of American audiences… the film was made and released prior to the events at Pearl Harbor in December 1941).

It’s beautifully shot–and definitely treats the Canadian landscape well (although, as many have complained, it doesn’t exactly convey the most nuanced portrait of the country).


Don’t get me wrong–sure I’ve lived in Montreal, Quebec, Canada almost my entire life, but I have absolutely no investment in Canadian (or any other) national identity, and I don’t judge films set in my country on their mimetic fidelity (if I did, I’d be no better than Leslie Halliwell–whose whining about Hollywood’s Britain never ceases to annoy me)

Besides, how can you stay mad at a film that begins with this earnest message?

dominionYou just can’t.

But you can’t ignore its follies either!

To me, one of the most interesting things about the film, in general, is the way it thwarts expectations by stocking its renegade U-Boat crew with recognizably British actors, none of whom affect an accent. This is a stroke of genius that reveals the German nationalist project (and ALL ethnic nationalism) for the vicious delusion that it is. You really don’t understand how insane the Nazi dream was until you hear Eric Portman haranguing an audience of Hutterites with the same voice (albeit in a higher decibel) that he will later use to describe the wonders of the Kentish countryside in A Canterbury Tale.

That’s the kind of propaganda (which makes war on the very idea of ethnic distinctions) that I can get behind.

Unfortunately, the whole enterprise (as I’ve described it) is jeopardized by ONE wacko performance:

Do I look French (Canadian) in this outfit?

Do I look French (Canadian) in this outfit?

Pourquoi, Larry?


Again–this performance (spectacle) might have been fine (well no, let’s face it, it could never have been fine–but at least it might have been a little less out of place), in a movie in which the Germans are all played by Sig Rumann (or even by Joseph Tura in his Teutonic mode). But Olivier’s courreur-de-bois just doesn’t make sense in the grand unaccented scheme that I’ve attributed to the director.

This might be your cue to remind me that Powell probably didn’t even think about this stuff in 1941 (or maybe he did–I think I’m gonna have to read his autobiography soon!)

Anyway, I suppose you can’t really blame Olivier (and you know–I actually love his equally wacko take on a Russian engineer in The Demi-Paradise, because it actually suits that film’s fish-out-of-water narrative)–someone obviously gave him a thumbs up on this “acting choice”–but I do wish they had considered this feeble masquerade’s effect upon the delicate cultural critique proffered by the rest of 49th Parallel. (in some ways, Raymond Massey’s ultra-colloquial–and actually Canadian sounding–turn at the end of the film also dilutes the critique, but not nearly to the same extent)

Still, there’s a lot to like here. The city scenes, in which the German trio (fresh from executing their wayward comrade Vogel) sell their field glasses for diner fare, are very fresh and involving. And all of the Hutterite stuff plays beautifully, I think.

Anton Walbrook contributes a dry run for his extraordinary monologue from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp:


Glynis Johns is lovable (as always) in a very early part:


And Niall MacGinnis walks off with the film’s top acting honours by somehow putting flesh on the liberal democrat’s wet dream–the fascist who listens to reason. (And who–in the most jarring moment of the drama–is later executed for baking bread)


On the other hand, while I’m a big fan of both Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey, and can appreciate the gusto with which they munch their scenes, I can’t exactly claim that I was moved by anything in their respective sectors of the journey.


Does anyone else see Howard’s transformation as a dry-run for Vincent Price’s extraordinary antics in His Kind of Woman? As he marched boldly into danger, I kept saying to myself–“Mark Cardigan.”

good afternoon friends!


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Gone to Earth represents the confluence of three of the most important elements in my mental universe: Powell & Pressburger, Jennifer Jones, and (proto-)animal rights (linked–as in the novella I’m launching tonight!–to a critiique of patriarchy). So don’t expect anything resembling objectivity from me on this one (or at any time, really–I hate prescriptive criticism, and I don’t practice it!)

But I suppose we can start by praising something that even the film’s detractors (and they are legion) agree upon–the cinematography by Christopher Challis. I think the above image speaks for itself, no?

If not–how ’bout this one?


I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that does a better job of conveying the frankly mystical connection that human beings have to the landscape of their chosen home (Melville called it the “all-feeling”), WITHOUT sentimentalizing it. Those woods are lovely, dark and deep–and so are the characters who inhabit the area, and the narrative.

The film may travel under the guise of a mid-Victorian melodrama, but its guts are deeply existentialist. For me, the key to reading Gone to Earth is the double-character of Hazel (JJ)/Foxy. There’s no question that Hazel’s extraordinary flight across the hunting grounds is intended to recall the scene of Eliza and her baby on the ice floes (in Uncle Tom’s Cabin)–but it’s the differences that matter.

Hazel castigates Squire (squire!) Reddin (Farrar) for “having blood on him,” but she and her surrogate child aren’t blameless either–on several occasions, we see Foxy invading the chicken coop, and Hazel herself bites into a drumstick, early in the narrative. These two are implicated in an economy of horrific violence, just like everyone else in our world. Not for a moment is the protagonist presented as “defenseless,” in classic melodramatic terms. Jennifer Jones is pretty much incapable of playing a weak human being anyway–and her oeuvre, as a whole, constitutes one of the most sweeping feminist critiques of the 20th century. In almost every one of her films, her natural authority and vivacity (Foxy’s “woof”) are warped by patriarchal discourse. Her protean spirit is NEVER broken, but is always in danger of being channeled in an unproductive direction. Often, the best the world has to offer her is an escape hatch–as here, when all of her hopes go down the drain, at the film’s startling conclusion. It’s as if the filmmakers are saying that, because Hazel refused to dive into the foxhole of a prescribed gender role, she and her fox have no place to go but into a black hole in the narrative (and in the culture). That’s an extraordinarily damning statement–and one that’s pretty hard to disagree with.

And yet–it’s a beautiful world, and there are many good things in it–worth desiring. “Keep yourself to yourself”–that’s what Hazel’s mother recommended–and it sounds like good advice, but it’s not a sound philosophy. Powell and Pressburger are NOT ascetics. They treated that life option with a great deal of dignity in Black Narcissus (in the figure of the holy man–who successfully ignores the landscape–but at what cost?), but in Gone to Earth the closest analogue is Reddin’s evil-minded servant (a cousin of Wuthering Heights‘ Joseph):


Renunciation is explicitly renounced by the narrative–and I think Edward (Cyril Cusack), is absolutely correct when he takes the blame for setting the narrative’s tragic chain of events into motion by offering Hazel a marriage without sex. Yes, she calls him “her soul”–and what she really means is that she trusts him to take care of her real soul–Foxy… but, again, at what cost? Foxy’s cute little fox house (like the minister’s own cottage–complete with colonized mother), is clearly a prison of sorts. And it’s to Edward’s credit that he comes to understand his role as jailer–after a violent fit causes this knowledge to bubble up into his conscious mind…

But how about David Farrar’s stock “evil squire” Reddin?


Well you know, I’d say if you had invested in that stock, you’d have lost all of your money by the end of the film. Reddin is, in fact, the site of the film’s most ingenious (and even subtly hopeful) subterfuge. The character’s inconsistent behaviour reminds us that patriarchy imposes roles upon MEN too. He’s a violent sleezeball, there’s no question about that–but once he and Hazel consummate their strange passion (and here I want to disagree–despite the undeniable surface similarities, introduced in order to pull us into the skewed gender paradigm of Harlequin style romance–with critics who claim that this relationship depends upon Gone With the Wind-style “women want to be raped” foundations… Jennifer Jones is not Vivian Leigh–and she is NEVER cowed/overpowered by Farrar in this film… she does respond to his clearly focused desire–I fervently believe that every human being wants to be desired–but when she finally embraces him, it’s on her own terms), he exhibits none of the qualities of his melodramatic genus–when the pair are alone

Unfortunately, for all concerned, he reverts to type when society, in the form of Edward, invades the sanctum:


In one split second–and this atmospheric jump cut is the key to the film’s critique of the genre it ostensibly participates in–the Squire appears to remember that he is supposed to be the villain of the piece, and, as Shelley (in The Masque of Anarchy) would put it, adopts the mask of Castlereagh:


“…One by one, and two by two

He tossed them human [and Foxy] hearts to chew”

The film presents social existence as a terrible fox hunt through a lush countryside–in which our roles are preordained by economic and gender imperatives. This is perhaps most shockingly dramatized by Hazel’s refusal to give up the role of prey to the hounds, when the Squire (outfitted in the gestapo outfit of the huntsman) makes a sincere last ditch attempt to pull Foxy out of her arms, to safety… And yet, the very fact that we observe moments of ontological tenderness between these overdetermined stock characters seems to suggest that this tragedy (and the one we are currently living together) might have (and, for us, might still?) ended differently…

Yesterday night, I gave this an A/A+… but I think I’ve talked myself into the full A+!


good afternoon friends!


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I’ve really been Powell and Pressburging my luck lately–revisiting some old favourites and filling in the gaps. Absolutely no disappointments so far. Quite the reverse, actually. I’m more fascinated by these guys than ever before!

Case in point–The Small Back Room (1949).

How’d I ever miss this one?

(I know how–it just wasn’t available in North America until Criterion released a beautiful DVD last year)

I just watched the film yesterday, and I already can’t imagine life without it–which is not to say that I’ve figured out where it fits in the P & P canon.

Just some impressionistic rambling then…

Byron and Farrar–astonishingly good (and about as far from their Black Narcissus characterizations as you can get):


Apparently, the film repulsed British cinemagoers in 1949, prompting director Powell to suspect that he had done TOO GOOD a job of exposing (in extreme close up) the guts of a less-than-perfect-but-intense relationship between a man and a woman… Speaking as a once(and probably future) co-dependent individual, I have to admit that the couple’s scenes were hard to watch, but also magnificently compelling and true. And the fact that the narrative’s “happy ending” presents the triumph of the antithesis of what the self-help books would call “healthy love” can’t have helped!


Oh yes–love is neurosis and shared delusions.

And when one person pulls out of the tale-spin (say, by removing her picture from the frame), the other one is often doomed to self-scrutiny…


Which usually isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Thank goodness the bombs are still ticking! (they help to drown out the clocks…)

One of the most amazing things about the movie (which I certainly consider a film noir, even if many wouldn’t) is the way it brings the essentially pre-adult aspects of Hawksian “professionalism” into sharp focus (yes, we’re venturing into Leslie Fiedler territory here).

The contrast between the beautifully noir compositions of the scenes from Sammy and Susan’s private life (in their flat, at the local pub, at the Hickory Club, inside Sammy’s brain), and the brilliantly even lighting of the (physically) dangerous scenes on location is hard to miss. Only the thrill of doing his job keeps Sammy off the sulk (and the ever-present threat of the bottle). People (especially Susan) are forever speculating about this guy’s psychological age (with the numbers ranging from six to ten)–but is it really “grown up” to run off and play in the sunshine (even if the game involves the possibility of dying)? I’m not saying that it isn’t important to do a thing well–especially when what you do can help to save lives–but I don’t think it’s MORE important (as in Hawks) than figuring out where you stand with the people who are closest to you (as Byron/Susan asks: “Why am I the only person you can get tough [I think she means petulant] with?” … that’s not a question that would come up in a Hawks film–Susan’s job in the HH universe would be to learn to appreciate the superior importance of his calling)

From the little I’ve read about the film, people seem to be quite annoyed with the expressionistic presentation of Sammy’s struggle with the bottle and the clocks.


It seems “heavy-handed”? Of course it does–it’s the phantasmagoria of a self-pitying brat. I find it extraordinarily appropriate. The next time I watch Only Angels Have Wings, I’ll keep this waking nightmare sequence in mind. It might help me to understand the behaviour of the characters in that movie–although not, of course, in the way the director would like us to.

And then again–some of Sammy’s “childishness” really bears interesting fruit. Most notably his comment, when refusing to get up and participate in the main social activity promoted by the Hickory Club, that: “Men and women are all the same when they dance.” On the one hand, it’s a Ramones-style “I don’t want to grow up” moment–but it’s also a remarkably pithy summary of the fear that neuro-biology is painting us into a corner (of life’s dance-floor)… Perhaps there’s no difference between the sides of the coin that I’m attempting to mint here–but my own (almost certainly neurotic) sense of Sammy’s meaning here is that he’s grasping for a romantic relationship that is absolutely shorn of all cultural prescriptions.

Of course–in that end–they fail miserably.

However, at least they get to live with this awesome cat.


Oh–before I hit “publish”–I feel compelled to mention one of the greatest soliloquy set-pieces in P & P’s oeuvre… In the tradition of Anton Walbrook’s narrative of his journey from Nazi Germany to his beloved (and now deceased) wife’s homeland, Renee Asherson tore my heart out with her short-hand notes from an experiment gone awry.


I love that woman (although I must admit, when she first appeared on the screen, I thought she was Glynis Johns–whom I also love…)

Good afternoon friends!


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Fifty…okay, fifty-two

I like the way Wendymoon presented her interesting top 50 at Movie Viewing Girl (divided up into idiosyncratic categories), and I’m going to steal her format here! It’s a wonderful way to declare your judgments and your biases (and man have I got biases!) at the same time!

Disclaimer: if questioned on this matter tomorrow, I might very well come up with a completely different set of films. I’m etching these babies in cyberspace, not in stone.

But now–to the 50 (that’s 52 in Canadian)

Frank Capra:

The Bitter Tea of General Yen

The Miracle Woman

It’s A Wonderful Life

David Lynch:

Mulholland Dr.

Inland Empire

Lost Highway

William Dieterle:

Portrait of Jennie

Love Letters

The Devil and Daniel Webster

Frank Borzage:

Little Man, What Now?


Strange Cargo

Powell & Pressburger:

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The Red Shoes

Black Narcissus

Douglas Sirk:

All That Heaven Allows

Imitation of Life

Written on the Wind

Early Hepburn:

Alice Adams

Stage Door


Preston Sturges:

Christmas in July

Sullivan’s Travels

Martin Scorsese:

After Hours

New York, New York

Val Lewton Productions:

The Seventh Victim

The Curse of the Cat People

Alfred Hitchcock:


Shadow of a Doubt

Nicholas Ray:

They Live By Night

Party Girl

Noir All-sorts

Murder, My Sweet

Out of the Past

Vincente Minnelli:

Meet Me in St. Louis

Some Came Running

Warner Brothers:

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang

Three on a Match

King Vidor:

The Wedding Night

Ruby Gentry

Luis Buñuel:

Abismos de Pasion

Fritz Lang:

Scarlet Street

Marcel Carne:

Le jour se leve

Jean Arthur:

Easy Living

Carl Theodore Dreyer:


Ingmar Bergman:


Leos Carax:

Pola X

Relatively Recent Releases:

Joe Vs the Volcano

Groundhog Day

Punch-Drunk Love

Lost in Translation


Starship Troopers

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This Alternative Film Guide piece on Mark Vieira’s new book on Hollywood’s first “Boy Wonder” (Hollywood Dreams Made Real: Irving Thalberg and the Rise of MGM) intrigues me, but not for the reasons you might think.

I’m sure it’s a fine book, and I have no doubt that I’ll be checking it out–but, at the moment, I’m more interested in the metacritical issues that its publication raises.

To put it succinctly–enough with the Thalberg already!

Please don’t take that the wrong way. I’m not objecting to the lionization of the Lion on (Pauline) Kaelian grounds. I love MGM’s early sound catalogue (and it does seem to me that Thalberg’s rep depends upon the films he oversaw during the 1930s, doesn’t it? That’s what the hagiographers focus on. And I want to stress that point because, paradoxically, the studio’s really innovative period came during the late 1920s–with Sjöström and Vidor). I am eager to concede that they made some fantastic films–and (again, unlike Kael) I love Norma Shearer.

However, I must confess that I am baffled by the widespread fixation upon Thalberg. I just don’t see any warrant for it.

Is it F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fault? I mean, The Last Tycoon IS awesome. But if you make up a list of the great Hollywood films made between 1929 and 1937, how many Thalberg films would be there? Tastes vary of course, but what MGM films provide an experience to match All Quiet on the Western Front, Waterloo Bridge, Dracula, Frankenstein, Back Street, The Old Dark House, Counsellor At Law, Imitation of Life, Little Man What Now?, The Black Cat, The Bride of Frankenstein, My Man Godfrey, Remember Last Night?, Show Boat (Universal); The Miracle Woman, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Man’s Castle, It Happened One Night, Twentieth Century, Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment (Columbia); The Smiling Lieutenant, Animal Crackers, Morocco, Blonde Venus, Trouble in Paradise, Love Me Tonight, Duck Soup, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil is a Woman, Peter Ibbetson, Desire (Paramount); The Last Flight, Blonde Crazy, Jewel Robbery, One Way Passage, Five Star Final, I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Baby Face, Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Petrified Forest, Stranded, Living on Velvet, They Won’t Forget (Warner Brothers); Little Women, Dangerous Corner, Alice Adams, Swing Time, Stage Door (RKO); Bad Girl, Six Hours to Live (Fox); Cynara, Dodsworth, These Three (Goldwyn); Our Daily Bread (Vidor) etc ad infinitum?

Again, I’m sure there’s lots of room for disagreement here… and I do think that MGM releases like Daybreak (a Jacques Feyder film from 1931 that everyone ought to see!), Possessed (1931), Freaks, Red Dust, Queen Christina, Mad Love, A Night at The Opera, Libeled Lady and Fury belong on a list with the above items (along with movies produced by Thalberg’s in-house rival David O. Selznick–who somehow always comes in for a beating in Thalberg-love-ins, and the article that prompted this post is no exception!–like Dinner At Eight, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities)… but there’s no way anyone can convince me that MGM’s films were appreciably BETTER than what the other studios were putting out.

The only difference is that they made money, during the “depths of the Depression.”

Is that any reason for us to get excited about the guy?

Apparently, yes.

And perhaps that’s valid–much of this scholarship, after all, is grappling with the question of Hollywood’s steadying influence upon the country during an insane period in its history. And MGM certainly can take the lion’s share of the credit for that.

But if you wanna talk aesthetics and politics–film for film, MGM lags FAR behind Universal during the early-to-mid-1930s. No?

So wherefore Thalberg?

I get that this was a guy whom intellectuals (i.e. writers) could (and can) take seriously–even though he was primarily responsible for the system that obliterated the screenwriter’s autonomy in Hollywood. And I get that his life story appeals (in a creepy way) to people of all political persuasions who cherish the idea that integrity and success can (or, at least, at one time, could) go hand in hand in America. And Fitzgerald’s investigation of the damage that really living the Horatio Alger dream can do to a potentially sensitive mind is truly unparalleled.

But wouldn’t it be even more fruitful to study the career of a mogul who leaped into the key role at his studio (the same one that gave Thalberg his start–and by virtue of the same nepotistic good fortune) at the dawn of the sound era, determined to present America with prestigious films that proceeded from an almost uniformly, and, ultimately, suicidally counter-hegemonic position (on the economic, cultural and psychological levels)?

Wouldn’t it be great to see some books about Carl Laemmle Jr.?

All I know about this guy is what I read from the movies.

Oh sure, there’s some stuff about him in Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System–a bizarre mixture of insight and maddening conventionalism that is at its weakest when it tries (and it wisely doesn’t try very often) to analyze the films (as texts) themselves.

And I guess I should read this book–although it looks like more of the same, in terms of its misplaced emphasis upon Junior’s faemmle ties, rather than what he did with his six years as a production head.

There’s a lot of stuff out there on Universal’s horror unit too–but, in my experience, none of these works (including Kevin Brownlow’s documentary–which is good as far as it goes, but, like the filmmaker himself, has DECIDED limitations) ever takes the, to me, logical step of connecting these films up with the amazing things that Milestone, Borzage, Stahl, Wyler and even non-horror James Whale were doing at the studio during the same period.

Come on–let’s have a book on the Lost Tycoon!

bon weekend les amis!


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Lewtonian Leanings?

I figured out how to add a poll!

It’s down there at the bottom of the sidebar.

Building off of yesterday’s post, I was just curious to know how people see Lewton’s RKO series, now that 9 of the 11 are readily available (the two non-horror entries are still AWOL–although I am expecting to view ’em both very soon in avi form).

I’ve already declared my love for The Seventh Victim, which is tops in my book–but here’s the way I’d rank the nine films included in the wonderful 2005 boxed set from Warner Home Video:

1. The Seventh Victim

2. The Curse of the Cat People

3. I Walked With a Zombie

4. Cat People

5. Isle of the Dead

6. The Leopard Man

7. The Ghost Ship

8. The Body Snatcher

9. Bedlam

I’m sure I’ll wind up blogging about most of these eventually. I guess it’s pretty clear that I prefer the earlier, completely under-the-radar films–although even the last two Karloffs (which, as Scorsese points out, move toward a more traditional emphasis upon plotting–and away from the pure atmospherics and intuitive narrative development of projects like Seventh Victim and Curse of the Cat People–both of which are members of my all-time film pantheon, with Zombie, Cat People and Isle of the Dead not far off the pace) are to be cherished.

I’d love to see your Top Nine lists too!

Good afternoon friends!


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Val Lewton (and director Mark Robson)’s The Seventh Victim is a deeply divisive film. Extravagantly praised by some (although, to tell ya the truth, I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate this gently nihilistic slice of quotidian terror), it is just as often treated as a weak link in the Lewton series (generally by critics who deplore its choppy, bordering-on-incoherent narrative).

I want to tip my cap to Ed Howard for articulating his sense of the film’s “disjunctive” storytelling style–its strategy of narrative-progression-through-digression. He’s quite right. It’s a relay race through subjectivities (to the finish line of Lewton’s oft-quoted summation of the film: “Death is good”) that plays like an ultra-compressed precursor of my all-time favourite film, David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (which I read “super-oneirically”–in what remains my favourite on-line discussion–against the grain of the generally-accepted psychological–dream/reality–interpretation of the film, ably presented by Charles Reece).

Like Mulholland Dr., The Seventh Victim begins deep within the consciousness of a naive, curious and ultimately very forceful young woman. Kim Hunter’s Mary Gibson is really a unique presence (although she shares a number of traits with Teresa Wright’s Charlie Newton in Shadow of a Doubt–the ONLY female character in Hitchcock’s oeuvre who succeeds in “hijacking” the narrative–i.e. overpowering the director’s famed voyeuristic eye… amazingly–both of these movies premiered during the same week in August 1943!), a genuinely feminist agent (rather than the ultimately reactionary–because they reinforce male supremacy–“strong women” that Howard Hawks specialized in giving us). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the counter scene, in which she tells genial proto-patriarch Hugh Beaumont (who patronizingly asks her to drink her milk), “I don’t like to be ordered to do anything.” It’s an amazing moment–on a number of levels. Right on the surface, you just don’t SEE women in films from this period reacting to paternalistic “kindness” in this way. If a woman does assert her rights, it’s because the man has blatantly invited her ire (and often not even then). But on a more metatextual level, I like to read the milk as a rejection of the entire gothic noir tradition of female victimization represented by 1941’s Suspicion (whose most vivid scene features Joan Fontaine dutifully quaffing a glass of the white stuff that she suspects has been poisoned).


Time and again (and the fact that the whole movie only lasts 71 minutes always shocks me, because it literally contains multitudes), the story shows us Mary disarming and taking control of situations that genre and cultural expectations lead us to expect will overwhelm her——her bemused farewell to the clock as she leaves the sinister private school; her complete mastery–to the point that she actually orders him to his death–of Lou Lubin’s Irving August–introduced as a “wise guy” who seems likely to take her for a ride, but who exits as a soft-spoken and really quite tragic martyr to Mary’s strength (a fact that she recognizes and incorporates into her self-image, without allowing this knowledge to undermine her essential stance vis-a-vis the world); her deflection of Beaumont’s smugly proprietary maneuvers; her brazen invasion of the perfume works–worming information out of the always-wonderful Isabel Jewell; and her ability to go toe-to-toe with–and even coax some pretty decent behaviour out of–Tom Conway’s reborn Louis Judd (Simone Simon needed to become a monstrous panther before she could deal with him in Cat People.)

Mary Gibson is a complete hero. She is sensitive–and yet, she is not fazed by dire events. She makes mistakes and takes note of them. She completes investigatory tasks–and knows when to delegate them to others. And yet–she is in no way the complete film…

Because The Seventh Victim knows how to delegate as well.

Again, like Mulholland Dr., Lewton’s (and I do think it’s fair to call this Lewton’s film, rather than Robson’s, because the producer is completely responsible for its structure) story stretches across (at least) three separate subjectivities. Proponents of the Wizard of Oz-in-reverse interpretation of the Lynch film ignore the fact that Betty, Diane AND Adam all have a go at carrying the narrative. In The Seventh Victim, the key players are Mary, Jason (the Poet) and (Mary’s sister) Jacqueline (played by the enigmatic Jean Brooks).

the-foot-of-danteseventhvictim(She looks a lot like Hope Davis, doesn’t she?)

I’ve read criticisms on the IMDB from viewers who were annoyed that the film does not seem to know whose story is being told–and that’s a valid criticism if you’re proceeding upon psychological realist assumptions–however, I would submit that no one ought to watch this movie through that lens. To wit–The Seventh Victim tells Lewton’s story… and tells it perfectly. I’m not talking about concealed biography here (although many of the film’s contemporary champions do exactly that)–I’m talking about a magnificently talented auteur dipping into a very rich stream of consciousness(es), baiting his narrative hook for a “live one” that is running (against the current) toward death (which, don’t forget, is “good”) at the appropriate speed. And he eventually finds her, in Jean Brooks’ refugee from Satanism.

But not before traveling through the middle term of Jason Hoag, the once-productive poet who has fallen upon hard times, but whose existential and creative spirit is revived by contact with Mary. As this figure takes the subjective baton from the woman he loves, and begins his investigation of Jacqueline’s disappearance, we observe the ways in which even a defective–or, let’s face it, delusional–imagination can preserve (prevent?) a mind from tumbling into the abyss (is that good?). Some viewers seem to resent this poet–and when people criticize the film’s dialog, they usually cite his lines. After all, this is a guy who says things like: “I was hoping that this [Mary’s visit to his apartment] was your advent into my world–and instead it’s goodbye.”


I guess that kinda stuff could bother people, but I love it. Jason’s dialog seems to exist in order to prove Mrs. Romari right–i.e. that poetry and clowning are in fact the same thing. I couldn’t agree more. Jason exists in a kind of charmed (charmed enough, anyway) limbo between Mary’s vigorous curiosity and Jacqueline’s clear-eyed ennui.

And while he’s bumbling about through the satanic/literary underworld (which encompasses former dead-man–from Cat People–Louis Judd), the film surveys a plethora of damaged people, each of whom has negotiated his or her own separate peace with the existential facts of life and death. In a sense, everyone we meet is a “missing person” (which explains the incredibly poetic pan–accompanied by mournful backstories–across the faces of Mary’s fellow-yearners at the Missing Persons Bureau). But what the camera (unlike Mary) is seeking, is not reconciliation, but renunciation.

And Lewton (through Nicholas Musuraca’s extraordinary cinematography–essential to the effectiveness of this entire series) hits paydirt (with pre-dug six-foot trench eyes) with Jacqueline Gibson. And once we obtain a firm lock on her–after her blip of an introduction during Mary’s part of the film–we stick with her pretty much to The (and her) End. And the most important thing about Jacqueline’s escape from the softly horrible world that Lewton gives us is that she chooses it. Like Mary, Jacqueline refuses to imbibe from the (here literally poisoned) fount of arbitrary authority, although she does weaken when her beloved Frances Fallon (echoes of The Miracle Woman‘s Florence Fallon–who saves David Manners from killing himself? probably not) begs her to cut the scene short.


But Jacqueline ain’t goin’ out like that–and her friend realizes at the last moment that she isn’t meant to. What follows, after the Satanists dismiss the film’s third and most lucid reflector from their lair, has always read, to me, as a psychodrama (designed to clarify Jacqueline’s understanding of the world she–and, Lewton implies, WE–cannot help but deplore), rather than as an actual assassination attempt. Her harrowing journey home, beset by mute knife wielders and noisy, insensitive clowns, sets the final seal upon this woman’s premeditated decision to kill herself.

Jacqueline doesn’t need those devil-worshipers to speed her on her way. And she’s not afraid of them–only of the deeply fearful attitude toward life that these lost souls embody. In fact, the film is at its most perceptive when it points out that Satanism–just like any other religion, including the cults of Art or Romantic Love–is simply one of many possible buffers against the existential truth that guides Jacqueline’s ultimate behaviour. (And how amazing is it that Lewton charges Conway’s sleazy Louis Judd with the task of rebuking the Satanists for failing to live up to the injunction–contained within the Lord’s Prayer–to forgive those who trespass against us? You could argue that he’s telling us to dismiss this moralistic speech as pure bosh–OR, you could take it seriously, as I do, as yet another echo, from an unexpected source, of my favourite Emersonian dictum, from “Experience”–i.e. as long as we’re here, and despite the fact that we really have no escape from the void of solipsism–“Let us treat the men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are. “)

Earlier in the film, Beaumont tells Mary/Kim Hunter that Jacqueline’s sense of human dignity depends upon a person’s ability to take sole responsibility for putting an end to the affair, at the time of his/her choosing. Coupled with our brief glimpse of what’s behind the door of room number 7, and the symbolic meaning of Brooks’ nightwalk, this information lays the groundwork for one of the most bracing scenes in the Lewtonian canon (and, indeed, in the history of cinema), in which the outward bound Jacqueline and the stricken, going-out-on-the-town Mimi (Elizabeth Russell) cross paths on their respective sprints toward death. The moment somehow gathers everything that has come before it into a glitteringly multi-perspectival dramatization of existence at the frayed edges of the dream of intersubjectivity (or, if you’re more of an opti-mystic type, the intersubjective dream!)

good afternoon friends!


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