William Cameron Menzies is out of his mind
…in a nice way, of course.
It’s easy to see why, in the face of all the evidence, people always assumed INVADERS FROM MARS was shot in 3D. Menzies’ particular way with deep focus and forced-perspective sets, coupled with extreme angles and discombobulating editing, make his films seem like 3D extravaganzas even when they’re not. Or rather, like 3D extravaganzas viewed under the influence of certain psychoactive mushrooms.
(WCM did make a proper 3D film, the Scottish-set monsterpiece THE MAZE, whose plot synopsis, were I to attempt writing one, would surely melt your minds and cause them to flow down the backs of your necks. So I won’t do it, OK?)
ADDRESS UNKNOWN is a striking bit of wartime agit-prop, with an epistolary narrative that seems designed to defeat dramatization. But Menzies, unperturbed, just spews deep, off-kilter compositions all over the screen and makes us like it. Every minute or so there’s another “WOW” moment, and sometimes they follow directly on top of each other until you feel like tiny bombs are detonating in your frontal lobes.
Against all this, Paul Lukas and Peter Van Eyck both do pretty well at holding the eye where it belongs, when our natural response is often to go skittering off around the edges of the frame, looking for rational angles. Lukas, a really terrific actor, is especially fine, humanizing a monstrous character without asking for sympathy. His is a bad guy activated by weakness rather than malice, but weakness is next door to wickedness in the dyslexic dictionary of vice.
I’m thinking that I’ve overestimated Sam Wood as director, because his terrific IVY, produced and designed by Menzies, bears all the visual hallmarks of this film, and none of Wood’s other work (apart from those Menzies designed). Still, Wood did have good taste in scripts, and maybe more interest in performance than WCM.
This piece might have been longer, but as I was taking my time with it, David Bordwell posted an awesome essay/history/appreciation of The Great Man. I’m thrilled to be a footnote in it, referencing my review of IVY. I’d urge you all to read it, and of course bookmark DB’s astounding blog if you somehow haven’t already.