Bewitching

vlcsnap-428761

Arch Oboler seems to have been an American radio demi-god, but having missed out on this cultural golden age, and having failed to take advantage of most of the good stuff available online, my experience of his work is going to come from films, at least initially. Oboler, as writer-producer-director, authored several movies, and was notable as a pioneer of 3-D (“A lion in your lap!”). It says something that he came from a medium devoid of any images at all (except the all-important ones in your head) and then felt he had to have images WITH DEPTH.

He’s also noteworthy for having a Beatles song written about him — Oboler Di, Oboler Da. But then, many Beatles songs commemorate great filmmakers: Straub/Huillet Fields Forever, I Am the Walsh, I Wanna Be Your Mann, Penny Lang, Polythene Pabst, Savoy Truffaut, Some Other Guy-Blaché, The Fuller on the (George Roy) Hill, The Long and Winding Roeg, and of course the concept album Sandrich Perry’s Losey Herz Kluge Brahm.

Having finally sorted myself out with a Napier University staff card, I am at last free to plunder their library, which contains many interesting off-air recordings snatched from the jaws of time. BEWITCHED looked interesting, although I didn’t know what it was, and it shared a tape with CARDINAL RICHELIEU, which I also didn’t know what it was. Turned out to be Roland V. Lee directing the Iron Duke himself, George Arliss. Save that one for another day.

BEWITCHED is a 1945 psycho-noir — unrelated to the cutesy TV series or its ghastly movie spin-off — starring Phyllis Thaxter, who had hitherto escaped under my radar but is now firmly on it. She’s in things I’ve seen, like NO MAN OF HER OWN, but what chance did she have in that, with a few minutes screen time dominated by Barbara Stanwyck? Here, in only her second movie, she’s terrific in what amounts to a dual part. Because Joan Ellis has TWO MINDS IN THE SAME BODY!!!

vlcsnap-431444

This is essentially a Hollywood psycho-babble loony film, slotting neatly into the same genre as Curtis Bernhardt’s Joan Crawford vehicle POSSESSED, which I appreciated here. And isn’t it interesting that these somewhat campy melodramas, under the guise of educating us about psychiatric illness, use terms associated with sorcery and magic and religion in their titles? I bet there are more like that.

Oboler’s film, like Bernhardt’s, is emotive and seductive and evocative of psychological disturbance so long as it’s showing it in action, and then amusingly cheesy when it tries to explain it. Here we get amiably rubbish psychiatrist Edmund Gwenn as Dr (Henri?) Bergson, dispensing nonsense but nevertheless saving the day with a delightfully preposterous conclusion.

Oboler’s great! He begins with thrilling music (from the inventive Bronislau Kaper, whose stuff always stands out from the Hollywood norm) over a big clock, and we learn from Doc Bergson’s V.O. that a strange case is baffling him — but then an independant V.O. takes over, for this is going to be like a narrative relay race, with different storytelling approaches picked up and then discarded whenever Oboler gets the urge.

The God-V.O. dumps us into Phyllis’ past history, and we learn of her love affair with gruesome teen Hank Daniels, whom she will later gratify us by murdering. This stuff is all told with a degree of subjectivity, as we have access to Phyllis’s thoughts, and thus to the voice in her head. Evil Phyllis wants Good Phyllis to ditch this “boy” and get a “man”. Evil Phyllis is clearly horny.

Fleeing to New York via speedy montage (so much more comfortable than train), Phyllis falls into the hunky arms of attorney Stephen McNally (a real-life former attorney, which is a pretty nifty casting coup, especially for wartime — everybody in this movie is presumably 4F, but McNally is an A1 leading man), but this brings on another attack of the Evil Phyllis: when McNally takes Phyll in his arms, Evil Phyllis takes over and cops the kiss. So frustrating when that happens.

This part of the film is the smartest, since Phyllis’ problem seems not so much schizoid as schizophrenic: the nasty, critical voice in her head feels like a suppressed part of her own being, the part with sexual desires she can’t admit to. In fact, voice-in-the-head syndrome (as I’m now calling it, in defiance of all medical procedure) doesn’t necessarily signify schizophrenia or any kind of mental illness, although it can be annoying. Actress Zoe Wannamaker (daughter of actor-director Sam) has managed a very successful stage and screen career despite the irksome disembodied commentary running through her brain like ticker-tape: see here for more info if you have this problem.

Then there’s William Blake and Dickens and Freud and Ghandi, and all those hardcore Christians who think they’re having conversations with God, but whom I submit are actually conversing with discrete portions of the main-brain. Often the voices may convey thoughts censored by the overmind. Worth listening to, but not necessarily worth acting on. Most psychiatrists say that what the voices are on about is of no importance, the main thing is to smush them with drugs, but I tend to think there’s a significant difference between a voice saying “You suck,” (self-critical voices are something we all have, to a greater or lesser degree) and one saying “Kill your boyfriend.” If you acknowledge the voices as stemming from your own mind, you learn something about yourself you may not like, but which you can now tackle.

Phyllis gets this slightly wrong by stabbing her small-town boyfriend to death when he comes to take her back home, and now refuses to help lawyer-lover McNally help her mount a defense. Her reasoning is that if Good Phyllis goes to the chair, Evil Phyllis will perish also. The beast must die… etc.

Re-enter gentle Gwenn, who hypnotises Phyllis in front of the Governor (“Hocus-pocus!” he splutters) and separates out Good and Evil Phyllis into transparent astral projections. Say, this guy’s GOOD. Evil Phyllis looks a bit like Lil in FIRE WALK WITH ME, only without the Cindy Sherman trappings.

vlcsnap-429361

“Lil had a sour face.”

“What d’you mean?”

“Her face… it had a sour expression on it.”

sour

Gwenn announces to the skeptical Gov that “the execution will take place as scheduled,” and sentences the phantasmal Phyllis to death. If only Multiple Personality Disorder were that easy. One problem being that experts don’t even agree if it exists — it seems to have been diagnosed almost exclusively in the United States, which is certainly suggestive of… something or other.

Based on this cracking film, which throws out interesting compositional or narrational or sound ideas in paractically every scene, I’m uber-intrigued to see Oboler’s other work — and hear it too. Next up from the library will be FIVE, his post-atomic survival yarn, and I’ve downloaded THE TWONKY, which had me whooping with glee within twenty seconds: more on that later.

Advertisements

14 Responses to “Bewitching”

  1. I was just about to mention The Twonky. A genuine curiosity. Obler’s cinematic output is small but invariably fascinating.

  2. You’re in for a real treat if you’ve not heard Oboler’s work on Lights Out!. It’s wonderful stuff, ranging from cheesy and overblown to truly terrifying; there’s absolutely nothing better for, say, a long car ride on a dark autumn night.

    I love that the voice calls Phyllis “little fool.” Given what I’ve seen in movies over the years, I think that could be ranked as a tell: if someone calls you a little fool, they’re probably just in your head.

  3. I’ve now downloaded some Lights Out! GREAT intro. The Giant Chicken Heart was somehow not as awesome as I’d imagined it, but I’m definitely going to try more. And I got his postnuclear parable Five from Napier’s library too.

  4. Does this mean I’m in my cat’s head?

  5. The Giant Chicken Heart… Comedian Bill Cosby did a skit back in the Sixties on this very subject, I heard it as a kid and never forgot it, I can still hear it in my head after all these years.

  6. Wow. So is this radio play SO famous over there he could take it as read that everybody would get the reference? I dodn’t realise Oboler’s work had quite that level of cultural penetration.

    We get a strange distorted view os US culture over here. We never got Jack Benny’s radio show, though I’ve now heard a fair bit of it. We never really got I Love Lucy but somehow we came to know about it. Nowadays we get virtually everything, it seems, except your daytime soaps. Which is a shame: our own daytime TV is antiques and property market stuff and makeovers… the idea of a soap would strike our current TV execs as hopelessly ambitious for that slot, it seems.

  7. The skit involves him reminiscing about how the radio show scared the bejesus out of him as a kid. He actually re-enacted the voice of the intro intoning “Lights….OUT”, and I also recall him doing the THU-THUMP of the chicken-heart heartbeat. We heard it on one of the many comedy albums Cosby released in the Sixties. I think Cosby had a hand in making it more famous than it otherwise would be.

    Re. Bewitched: I meant to record this off of TCM a while back, and forgot until it was too late, so I had only a portion, maybe the second half. I need to see it from the beginning, and yes, some do feel that it qualifies as a noir of sorts. There is something about Thaxter that I find attractive, in a wholesome schoolmarm kind of way, and I like the idea of her being evil, it’s so unlike her in presentation. She had a part as bad guy Robert Preston’s love interest in RKO’s Blood on the Moon, wonderfully shot by cameraman Nicholas Musuraca, and was loose cannon Robert Ryan’s girl in Zinneman’s Act of Violence, one of the darkest of noirs.

    I noticed The Twonky stars Hans Conried, who was also featured prominently in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, something I’m sure you’d love if you haven’t already seen it, very bizarre, very fantastic, as befits something adapted from Dr. Suess. Conried was also the host of a half-hour show from the Sixties called Fractured Flickers, which featured clips from silent films dubbed with inane and hilarious dialogue. He was one of the more memorable comedic faces during the Fifties and Sixties, did a ton of work for TV back then.

  8. Jack Benny is my favorite comedy program, hands down. Frequently brilliant, never less than fun even at its weakest. Benny’s pretty easy to get either online or via collections; his TV show was also a lot of fun, though it didn’t last that long. It lacked the presence of Benny’s wife, Mary Livingstone, who was a joy to listen to.

    And the Cosby chicken heart routine is worth seeking out; the denoument involves one of the funniest ideas, and deliveries, that I’ve ever heard. I think the answer to your question is yes, the program really was that well known; however, it wouldn’t _have_ to have been–Cosby’s routine stands on its own without prior knowledge.

  9. Cool. Bewitched is certainly noir or noir-related, just as Possessed is. Psychological noir.

    I really like Act of Violence, and I don’t understand people who say Zinnemann is boring. Sometimes probably he is, but he can also make bold and interesting choices.

    Conried is awesome in Dr T, where he really gets to let loose. The Twonky represses his ebullience, oddly enough (but it’s well worth a blog post soon). “He’s such a convincing heterosexual,” Fiona remarked, fondly. He has a line in Dr. T that may be her favourite of all time: “Why are you standing there with that null and void expression?”

    Yes, what I’ve heard of Jack Benny is indeed brilliant. My friend Lawrie saw him life. Very impressed by the looseness and improvisational feel, he returned for a second night, and found the show exactly the same. That made him even more impressed.

  10. I really like Act of Violence. Ryan is pretty scary in the beginning, it’s almost like watching a horror film the way he shuffles about in the shadows. And then of course by the end of the film our sympathy’s been totally shifted over to him, once we know the full extent of his experience in the concentration camp. I’ve read where Mary Astor wandered off to the set of another film, whereupon some actress remarked something to the effect that she looked like a tramp, or a hooker, or a floozie, which in fact was what she was dressed to be. And that one actor, Barry Kroeger, who excelled in playing oily characters, in both this film and Peggy Cummins’ mentor in Gun Crazy ( God I love Peggy Cummins, she looked magnificent in that cowgirl outfit).

  11. Oboler’s film is based on one of his radio plays, “Alter Ego” which aired on Lights Out in 1936 and subsequently on other programs. He revived it on his 1939-40 Arch Oboler’s Plays series under the title “Another World” and it’s possible to download an mp3 of this version from this page:

    http://www.archive.org/details/ArchObolerCollection-OTRKIBM

  12. Peggy rocks. Possibly Wales’ greatest contribution to noir. Robert Ryan is as implacable as The Terminator. That moment when we just hear him laughing on the telephone…!

    Thanks for the Oboler tip, I’m going to be downloading him a fair bit, will report back.

  13. […] cult output also includes the slick psycho-noir BEWITCHED, which I wrote of here, post-atomic survival drama FIVE, and THE TWONKY, a bizarro comic fantasy about an alien visitor […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: