Archive for Vertigo

V is for Vertigo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2014 by dcairns

David Melville returns with another installment in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama. The title this time may be familiar, but the film perhaps is not…

 CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

V is for Vértigo

What happens in life is what has to happen. Each must follow his own destiny.

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No, in case you were wondering, this is not a Mexican version of the 1958 Hitchcock classic. (Interestingly, a 1956 Argentine film called Más allá del olvido/Beyond Oblivion is said to be a near blueprint.) Vértigo, shot in 1945, is a literary costume drama by the Spanish exile Antonio Momplet – who, on the basis of this film alone, could lay claim to being Latin America’s answer to William Wyler. Like such Wyler films as Jezebel (1938), The Little Foxes (1941) or The Heiress (1949), this is a tale of high-octane suffering in exquisite (if claustrophobic) period settings. Its dazzling use of decor and deep focus reveals, rather than hides, the depths of human depravity on show.

Its star is María Félix in one of her subtlest and most sympathetic roles. Cast for a change as a more-or-less normal woman and not a tempestuous, man-eating virago. Of course, in any film that involves María, ‘normal’ is strictly a relative term. Her character Mercedes is a pious and eminently respectable widow, owner of a small hacienda in the depths of rural Mexico, sometime in the late 19th century. For the first 15 minutes or so, Maria goes to the amazing lengths of looking plain – wearing dull, dowdy gowns, next to no makeup and (ay, caramba!) glasses. Before too many scenes elapse, her whiny daughter (Lilia Michel) comes home from five years at school in the big city. Thoughtfully, she brings her mamá a full Parisian wardrobe in the back of her small wagon.

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If only that were all she brought…Vértigo would be a very dull film indeed. The girl also brings her fiancé (Emilio Tuero) a sexy rotter who’s closer in age to her mother. When the lovebirds arrive at the hacienda, Michel steals up behind Félix and puts her hands over her mother’s eyes as a ‘surprise’. The first thing mother sees, as the hands slip away, is Tuero’s face. Moustachioed and rapier-thin, like a sort of latino Basil Rathbone. Felix – who, remember, has spent all of 15 minutes trying to look dowdy and repressed – is fired instantly with a fatal passion. Tuero feels the same and the stage is soon set for a deadly love triangle. One of those where nothing, not even murder, will keep the guilty lovers apart.

As always in a Mexican film of this era, the Hollywood parallels are clear yet confusing. Vértigo looks like a Wyler movie and is based on a ‘classic’ literary source. (The story is by Pierre Benoît, a French author best known for the oft-filmed L’Atlantide.) Yet its plot might have been purloined from Hollywood’s hottest property of the 40s, the pulp novelist James M Cain. The rivalry of mother and daughter for a sexy but disreputable man is straight out of Mildred Pierce (1945), which won Joan Crawford an Oscar that same year. The man’s opportunistic killing of the daughter – the axis on which the plot turns – is in the Cain tradition of criminal lovers, from Double Indemnity (1944) to The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). One might best describe Vértigo as a ‘costume noir’.

Death, of course, comes later on in the story. Before that, we have to witness María’s grand entrance at the party she throws to welcome her daughter back home. The festivities are in full swing when, suddenly, the mariachi band stops in mid-note and the guests rise, in a body, to their feet (like the obedient and well-trained extras that they are). Félix enters slowly in a clinging white silk gown, garlanded with swirls of silk roses. That unconvincing grey streak has been washed (mercifully) out of her hair; a choker of pearls gleams and dazzles at her throat. The guests gape in awe (mirroring the audience) and the local priest asks in hushed reverence: “Is that you? Or has a star come down to earth?”

It is not simply that María Félix is one of a very few stars who can live up to dialogue like this. What’s astonishing here is the way Félix – who was nothing if not a clothes-horse – walks in this gown as if she were ill at ease and unaccustomed to such finery. Sniping at María’s limitations as an actress is a favourite game among critics – yet María Félix tells us more with a gown, and the way she wears it, than Meryl Streep can with any of her dozen foreign accents. Once the party is over and she has retired to bed, she gazes out through fluttering white curtains at the silent moonlit courtyard. There she sees her daughter and her fiancé locked in an embrace. Here, her vast dark liquid eyes tell us all we need to know.

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For years (so the script tells us) this woman has been “living without life and crying without tears”. A few weeks pass and her soon-to-be son-in-law seduces her as she reads by a stream. (Momplet cuts to a cascading waterfall, as a stand-in for the carnal act.) In the next scene, her gown has altered from the pale virginal lace of her early outfits, to a tightly voluptuous black bodice and a skirt with lurid zebra stripes. She wears it, this time, like a full-on femme fatale. Tuero urges her to forget her daughter and run away with him, but Félix – remembering her duties as a mother – tells him he must marry the girl as planned, go abroad and never see her (Félix) again. She cannot suspect, of course, that the man she loves might stoop to murder.

Not so much murder, perhaps, as ‘deliberate accidental death’. The night before the wedding, it starts to rain heavily – a series of exquisite random shots that evoke the Joris Ivens ‘film poem’ Regen/Rain (1929). Just in case we miss the point, daughter sits down at the piano and strums out Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude. The water rises menacingly, under a rickety bridge that we know is about to collapse. (We know because minor characters have been telling us, every five minutes or so, since the film began.) The villainous Tuero feigns illness and does not protest too loudly when his adoring bride-to-be insists on riding in her horse-drawn buggy, across the bridge, to fetch the doctor. Cue a bravura montage of Félix looking worried, Tuero looking anguished and the hapless but frankly irritating young girl hurtling to her doom.

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In the next scene, the girl is sprawled Ophelia-like, surrounded with flowers, at her funeral in the family chapel. Félix, who is still unaware of her lover’s role in the death, does not understand why the other mourners avoid her. Tuero flees after a wholly unconvincing attack of guilt but…‘it ain’t over till it’s over’ as the song goes, and nothing in a María Félix movie is ever over until the star says so. These lovers are doomed to meet again and let’s just say it won’t be pretty. Love, as we know, is a fleeting and unreliable emotion. Revenge is a passion that lasts for life.

David Melville

Mondo Kane #1: Xanadu

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2013 by dcairns

Join me as I watch my Blu-ray of CITIZEN KANE. All frame grabs, for technical reasons, come from the standard DVD. By the end of this journey, the movie will, I confidently predict without the least touch of hoop-la, be ready to knock VERTIGO out of the top slot once more. I always liked the idea of KANE being the unassailable No. 1. It meant we didn’t have to think about “What’s the Greatest Movie Ever Made?” and could concentrate on more interesting questions…

***

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RKO logo, as normal, but then followed by — dead silence. Welles’ signature on the movie, an unheard-of, near-Stroheimian conceit. And a main title that fills the whole screen, in stark b&w outlined lettering. The strategy is already clear: make choices that are different, but not inferior to, from the Hollywood norm. Where the conventional approach is faulty it can be improved upon, and when the subject matter suggests an unusual but appropriate way of doing things, that can be adopted, but elsewhere, where there’s no particular reason to depart from the default approach — depart anyway. Not too far. Just enough.

Then, music! Bernard Herrmann’s sonorous chromatics, in which the whole opening sequence will stew, with only one spoken word and no sound effects (Herrmann is happy to “Mickey-Mouse” the shattering snowglobe with a blunt stab of orchestra, and provides a similar sound effect for an extinguished light).

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I find myself squinting at Gregg Toland’s first image. Note how the NO TRESPASSING sign (a similar sans-serif font to the opening title card) is composed with nose-room on the left of frame. Toland could have centred the sign perfectly within the frame — instead, he frames it in perspective — as if he’d lined up the shot flat on, with equal space on both sides of the sign, then leaped through space to observe it at a diagonal (as we do at the end of the News on the March newsreel). What I’m saying is, there’s equal space both sides of the sign, but it looks like there’s less on the right because that side’s further away. I’m intrigued by this petty detail.

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Lap dissolves and floating upwards and then dissolving in towards the painted Xanadu… Kane has monkeys! Clearly he was a very happy, contented man.

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Playfully, one shot takes the reflection of Xanadu as its subject, rather than moving in on the castle itself. If you manage to see the version of OTHELLO with opening titles spoken by Welles, you’ll see a similar shot of a tower reflected in a Venetian canal, a single window illuminated. Images recur in Welles in the most dreamlike way, and it’s even more dreamlike when you watch a film like OTHELLO and it’s different from the last time you saw it, not because you’ve changed, but because it’s literally a different edit…

Like the eyes in Ozu’s closeups, the lit window in Xanadu is usually positioned to occupy the same part of the frame as we dissolve closer, even when it’s a reflection in a lake.

Xanadu’s golf course appears to be spherical, as if Kane arranged for the construction of a private planetoid (kind of thing he might do). One pictures him putting away on it like the Little Prince. A kind of big grassy snowglobe…

We reach the window, that mysterious source of light which has led us like a will-o’-the-wisp in search of the promise of STORY. And the light is at once snuffed out. And Welles dissolves 180 degrees through space so we’re looking at the same window in the same composition but from the other side. This kind of match-dissolve was very rare up until this point — it’s still uncommon enough to be a good idea if it can be done with taste. I would suggest that Coppola’s dissolve from puncture wounds in Sadie Frost’s neck to the eyes of a wolf was not a distinguished use of the technique. An earlier usage which might conceivably have influenced KANE is HE WHO GETS SLAPPED. Victor Sjostrom had an interest in this device throughout his career, devising a sinister variation in UNDER THE RED ROBE (1937), his last film as director, where he melts from an empty noose to a glowering Raymond Massey, framed so that the cord briefly encircles his throat…

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Now the first snow-dissolve, giving the effect at first of a snowstorm breaking out within Kane’s bedroom. But that’s absurd. Then a tiny log cabin, which later we’ll surmise symbolises Kane’s childhood home. So he was born in a model and died in a matte painting. There’s upward mobility for you. Optical effects supremo Vernon L Walker created the zoom out which lets us pass through the glass ball as if by osmosis, only to find it’s still snowing OUTSIDE. Our initial misconception about weather conditions in the CF Kane bedroom turns out to be correct. This was apparently an artifact of sorts — Walker roughly superimposed snow over a shot to give Welles an idea of how it would look — Welles LOVED the idea of snow continuing to fall outside the globe, even though as Walker observed, it made no sense. Hell, BECAUSE it made no sense. It’s at this precise point that the opening of KANE becomes an experimental film: the big-budget remake of HEARTS OF AGE.

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The reverse angle gives us giant lips with tiny snowflakes drifting past, suggesting the view of a very small lodger inside the snowglobe, also establishing the idea of Kane as a fee-fi-fo-fum titan, bestriding the world like the RKO radio mast.

These angles haven’t actually set up where the snowglobe is in the room or who’s holding it, even if we’ve glimpsed the prone figure on the bed in that window shot, so the next few brief shots where the glass ball rolls from Kane’s cold dead hand allow us to play catch-up and figure out the geography — and then the snowglobe apparently explodes into a million fragments and globules of water (Water! So THAT’S how they get the snow to float!) before reconstituting itself miraculously for shots in which a nurse enters the room, reflected in the glass sphere.

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Very VERY grainy shot where Welles has run crazy with the optical printer while Vernon L Walker hangs onto his coat-tails screaming at him to stop, in God’s name stop. In a strange way the speed of the cutting and the fact that we immediately cut to a much wider view of the same thing somehow makes it OK.

Note that the shot following the sphere-reflection is the first in the movie where the wide-angle lens is allowed to distort space into a funhouse grotesque. It’s as if all the subsequent photographic choices are cued by that snowglobe reflection. Or as if the rest of the film were happening from the snowglobe’s point of view, which is a reading I may try to make stick.

Then there’s a brief fade-out, then the window is illuminated to silhouette Kane’s sheeted body, suggesting perhaps sunrise over the Kane estate. There’s also a dark horizontal smudge over Kane’s body, apparently a piece of tape stuck on during optical printing to mask it out. Because the movie is now too bright and high-res we can see it rather vividly on Blu-ray (but it looks just fine in the frame-grab below). See also the animated shadow on the wall in the swimming pool scene of CAT PEOPLE.

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What must 1941 audiences have made of this weird onslaught of imagery? It has to be the most experimental, abstract sequence in any Hollywood movie not featuring Olsen & Johnson, and it lacks the conventional excuses — musical exuberance, comedy, pop psychological surrealism, horror — which commercial cinema uses to render the avant garde safe. Welles was obviously intending to throw the audience off-balance, but also hoping that they’d then forget about this sequence as the film went on rather than allow it to keep nagging at them. I guess at a basic level he also wanted to plant a clue to Rosebud’s identity but surround it with so much opaque mystery that nobody would realize it.

But in fact, if it weren’t for the surreal snow drifting where it has no right to be, the sequence would be perfectly lucid and realistic, for all that it’s filmed with unconventional shots. Overlaying the snow pushes us beyond the bounds of sanity, and gives us bedroom as dreamscape and Kane as titan and forces the audience to essentially pretend they hadn’t just seen what they saw.

Welles, never entirely satisfied with what he shot, would continue sculpting his material in post-production, but never did he change its overall effect as completely as he does here.

Next week: News! On! The! March!

Thanks to Randy for the Blu-ray and thoughts.

Candlelight

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , on April 29, 2013 by dcairns

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Fiona always had a problem with BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE — she loves Kim and Jimmy and Jack and Elsa and everybody else — she certainly loves Pyewacket — loves the artificial/real New York construct and the Christmastime setting — loves James Wong Howe’s lustrous lighting and the daring use of colour (including that green glow that follows Kim into VERTIGO)… she just had a problem with the whole “giving up witchcraft” thing.

This time round, persuaded by the film’s persistence that being human is somehow preferable, Fiona went with it, more or less. Giving up superhuman powers in exchange for being able to weep, blush and drown still doesn’t seem a very good deal, but on closer examination the movie may not be about female disempowerment at all. Flowing as it does from the enchanted pen of John Van Druten, it may be more about being a social outsider and finally finding a place in the mainstream — in fact, it may well be about being gay during a particularly oppressive period, and yearning for a situation where one can love openly.

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It seems to me that Jack Lemmon’s Nicky is coded gay, and that Lemmon is playing him that way, though Fiona isn’t convinced — hard to tell with Lemmon, who’s always light, never macho, but never particularly sexual one way or the other. It’s just not a significant part of his instrument. He carries no whiff of ambiguity normally, but here I think he’s aiming for a more pixie-like persona than usual. But maybe that’s because he’s playing a warlock.

Of course, whatever the film’s hidden or overt meanings, it’s also the climax of Richard Quine’s career as a visual stylist. There are a lot of beautiful things in his other films, but the concentration of style and glamour here reaches something like critical mass.

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