Greetings films lovers!
Allow me to introduce myself–my name is Dave Fiore–I’m a copywriter, part-time history/lit professor and self-publisher of oddball prose poems. I also, once upon a time, was a rather prolific culture blogger (mostly on the subject of comic books). Unfortunately, I’ve had a hard time sustaining my enthusiasm for online writing during the past few years. So you never know–this blog might have even fewer hours to live than were allotted to the protagonist of the bizarre gem I’ll be discussing today. However, the film-blogs I’ve been reading lately (see the blogroll) are so brilliant that I can’t resist making another attempt to join in the fun!
We’ll see how it goes. At the very least, I do solemnly resolve to maintain an accurate log of the movies I watch. Maybe that’ll help me to stay focused!
For the moment, let’s focus on William Dieterle, shall we?
Andrew Sarris’ relegation of this director to the “miscellany” limbo of his auteur guidebook–an extraordinarily effective preemptive strike against the possibility of Dieterle-cultism–still hurts, but one day this guy is gonna get his due. How the director of Portrait of Jennie, Love Letters, Devil and Daniel Webster, The Accused, Dark City, Rope of Sand, Jewel Robbery, The Last Flight, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Paid in Full, September Affair and Another Dawn ever got tarred with the “studio hack” brush, I’ll never know…
Yes, he spent the mid-to-late-thirties at the helm of Warner Brothers’ “prestige biopic” unit (although, even there, he managed to slip one insanely brilliant critique of the genre into the mix–Juarez).
From where I sit, the auteur theory ought to have saved Dieterle–not buried him! His oeuvre doesn’t present any of the obstacles to interpretation that his onetime studio-mate Michael Curtiz’s does. Dieterle isn’t just a “brilliant technician.” His films–even, to some extent, the prosaic biopics!–lend themselves very naturally to an organic interpretation. Basically, Dieterle is Borzage + leftist engagement.
Now, even Borzage isn’t nearly as “apolitical” as is generally supposed (as things like Bad Girl, Stranded, the “anti-Nazi trilogy” and even the astonishing Moonrise ought to prove), but Dieterle is Hollywood’s preeminent example of the romanticist as social critic. His fellow travelers in the empyrean realm (Borzage, Vidor, Capra, even, for one film, Henry Hathaway) could sometimes (or often) collapse into soft-focus sophistry, but Dieterle rarely falls into this trap. In his work, intense emotions feed–rather than obviate–the necessity for social critique.He’s the German-Surrealist-Bunuel-in-Los Angeles. Or, perhaps more to the point, he’s the Emerson (of “Experience”) of the movies–as conscious of the delicious chasm between subjectivities as he is of the need to posit a (politically galvanizing) bridge across the river “I.”
And that double vision is evident from the very beginning of his Hollywood career.
Nowhere is this more clear than in Six Hours To Live (you know a movie has visibility problems when there’s only ONE review of it on the IMDB). I just downloaded it in avi form–and man am I glad that I did!
The narrative is pure Dieterle–the story of a committed politician (Warner Baxter) who is murdered for standing in the way of world trade talks that are clearly being conducted in the interests of rapacious capitalists. In the film’s opening Mr. Smith-style filibuster, Baxter delivers an amazingly prescient critique of “globalization,” claiming: “Gentlemen (in an eminently reasonable tone), I have nothing but the highest respect for your countries–as countries–my quarrel is with YOU (the voice grows harsher), who claim to represent the people of those nations, but who in fact represent only your own GREED.”
Meanwhile, Valerie von Sturm (played by the interesting Miriam Jordan), the daughter of Baxter’s Swiss host (Halliwell Hobbes) is falling in love with this crusader, via the radio (see the above image). Her longtime suitor (John Boles) reads the whole story from her attentive posture (Boles very rarely shows this kind of perspicacity in films–in fact, he virtually personified patriarchal indifference to feminine emotion in thirties “weepers”).
Very soon, the climate of fear engendered by a barrage of assassination threats pushes her to declare her feelings for Baxter–whom she asks (in a nice reversal of the era’s gender script) to abandon his career for the sake of their future happiness as a couple. Boles warns her that Baxter would never shirk his responsibilities that way–but that Dieterle lighting and intimate close-quarters framing can work wonders–and Baxter DOES in fact sit down to compose a resignation letter. Unfortunately, as he does this, a man with a garrote gradually edges his way out of the shadows of the room–a beautifully eerie sequence. The eager lover puts down the pen with a smile. The murderous hands tense up.
Baxter’s cowardly associate knocks on the bedroom door, reminding him that he is needed at the conference. When this weasel receives no answer, he barges in, discovering that his superior has been killed. He summons the other men in the house, including a chagrined police commissioner (who had been enlisted to protect Baxter), homeowner Hobbes and a weirdo scientist friend of the host’s who has been making cryptic statements about a strange contraption his mute hulk of an assistant (Dewey Robinson!) totes around the mansion. Together, these men conspire to keep the truth from Valerie–especially after the scientist demonstrates that his invention can resurrect rabbits (only for six hours–and only once!)
Naturally, they repeat the procedure on Baxter, in the hopes that he will be able to help them to capture his murderer. So the stage is set for a sweaty D.O.A.-style thriller! However, Dieterle throws us a major curve by steering away from the murder mystery (genre conventions lead us to suspect the weakling political aide, or the Hulk, or John Boles)–resolutely withholding the payoff of vengeance. Instead, the narrative dwells upon the tragedy not of the death, but of the resurrection!
Had the film ended with Baxter’s murder, he would have left Valerie with the kind of testament of immortal love (the note declaring his willingness to throw away his career for the sake of his wife-to-be) that has written finis to many a movie character’s engagement with the gross physical realm. Upon coming to, however, Baxter realizes that he cannot cheat his beloved of the opportunity to enjoy earthly love with someone else. He tears up the note (when asked what he’s destroying, he responds: “my heart”), and emerges from the room resolved to convince her that he could never have left his chosen profession for her arms. This has the effect of foregrounding the protagonist’s duty to the world, rather than to the private “community of two” that had loomed so tantalizingly before his eyes during the moments before his untimely death.
Where we expect Baxter to use his six hours of vitality to punish his enemy (who turns out to be just a nondescript member of the convention board), he instead dedicates himself to easing Valerie’s imminent pain, comforting an old woman (Beryl Mercer) who had confronted him outside of the conference hall with tearful pleas not to contribute to the instigation of another war like the one (World War One) that had killed her son, and helping a prostitute (Irene Ware) whom he had previously ignored to get out of the life (while sharing a nicely intimate dance with her at a wild Sternbergian club). Then he heads to the conference and torpedoes the nefarious trade talks–topping it off by looming over the killer (whom he never turns over to the police–in a kind of foreshadowing of the fate of Chris Cross in Scarlet Street) just long enough to shake the man’s sanity.
Then he heads back to the villa, where he seems to convince Valerie that her future happiness lies with the Boles character, although the heavenly mise en scene communicates the sense that she and Baxter will be reunited in the afterlife (or, at least, in Baxter’s dying mind)
Then, the rabbit hops back into the film, delighting the pair until he/she slumps over–casting a melancholy spell upon the proceedings and reminding Baxter that he had better cut their conversation short, before he follows suit into rigor mortis.
She returns to the house, and he expires, with a dream of romantic fulfillment in his heart –and secure in the knowledge that he has done everything in his power to make the waking, intersubjective world a better place.
That’s Dieterle in a nutshell–magically providing Lucinde-style romance without losing sight of the empirical world!
I urge you to check it out!
And to check back here every once in a while–I’ll need your help in order to keep my nose on the blogstone!
good afternoon friends!