I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

“I have nothing to say.” Pierre Batcheff sulks in UN CHIEN ANDALOU.

Dorothy McGuire gives us the silent treatment in Robert Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE.

I was very intrigued by this piece by Glenn Kenny, pointing out links between UN CHIEN ANDALOU and Siodmak’s CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY (Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, shots of the moon), so it hit me with some force when I suddenly recognized the connection between the above movies, which should have been obvious to me years ago since I know them both well… Siodmak and Bunuel were indeed near-contemporaries, with the German filmmaker establishing his career in Paris just after Bunuel had left. I think they just missed each other in Hollywood as well. But the two striking connections are enough to make the case for a definite influence of the Spanish surrealist upon the German noir master.

22 Responses to “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”

  1. Well the final shot of CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, with the Tristan und Isolde, she’s looking at the stars in the sky, not the moon

  2. Well, OK, but it’s still pretty striking.

  3. Well but not as striking as the cloud slicing the moon, which is rhymed with Luis Bunuel himself cutting a woman’s eye. CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, the strangeness of the film anticipates Bunuel’s Mexican films which are in the floridly melodramatic tradition of Siodmak’s film though without the fancy narrative flashbacks. Gene Kelly’s character kind of anticipates the dandy title character of The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz and especially El which makes important use of classical music with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Bunuel liked some Hollywood movies so he might have seen it.

  4. Interesting that we were talking about Bunuel’s dislike of Borges: Borges was keen on Sternberg, and Bunuel takes a couple of swipes at JVS in his ghostwritten autobio (“as told to Jean-Claude Carriere”). Bunuel even “remade” The Devil is a Woman. And That Obscure Object of Desire DOES use a flashback structure.

    The mad villains of Phantom Lady and The Spiral Staircase have perhaps a Bunuelian kink, and both filmmakers can be said to have an interest in duality: an obsession in the case of Siodmak, expressed by Bunuel in his last film and in Belle de Jour, which is really a kind of Jekyll and Hyde story.

  5. The flashback structure comes from the Pierre Louys novel(La Femme et l Pantin/The Woman and the Puppet). Bunuel insisted on two women to play the role because he felt that the character was unrealistic and inconsistent and that the real center is Fernando Rey’s Pasqualito. Whereas Sternberg makes Marlene the centre and an incontrovertible indomitable enigma. Bunuel once listed UNDERWORLD as among his all time favourites so I’d say his Sternberg dislike is not entirely one dimensional.

    ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ also has a flashback structure. It’s just that unusual baroque manner which was Siodmak’s forte isn’t his thing(the reverse montage at the end of Tristana notwithstanding).

  6. Of course Bunuel’s inspired casting stroke only came about after he fired Maria Schneider. So the inspiration that the character should be played that way was a late development, but it totally works. And he doesn’t use one actress for the come-hither scenes and another for the scenes of repulsion, as one might expect, it’s just treated as if it weren’t happening. And he starts by alternating scenes and ends by changing actress midway through scenes, from shot to shot. And it’s quite hard to remain conscious of it!

    Siodmak’s twisted structures aren’t his only mode: probably the majority of his films are linear. But so many of his best ones deploy structural kinks, so it’s obviously something he was attracted to. Even the rather terrible studio-imposed ending of Uncle Harry, which reframes most of the movie as a dream, fits in with Siodmak’s tendency to double back on himself.

    Since it’s always best if these things come in threes, I’d love to find another visual moment in Siodmak with a strong Bunuelian precursor. (“Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.” – James Bond.)

    The giant eye close-ups in Spiral Staircase are pretty Bunuelian, but not quite conclusive.

  7. Ah, the perverse song sung by Carole Lombard in Swing High, Swing Low! I didn’t know Marlene had covered it.

  8. Carriere said that Bunuel and he discussed the problems of that character during the screenplay stage and Bunuel suggested two actresses as a notion, which he followed through when Maria Schneider was fired.

    THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN was Marlene Dietrich’s favourite of her films with V. S. and I agree. The screenplay of that film was written by John Dos Passos, a giant of High Modernism. Dos Passos and Faulkner were Bunuel’s favourite American writers(he said that Hemingway was only famous because of the cultural influence bought by America’s military might).

    A key point to note is that La Femme et le Pantin is a French novel about Spain and the two actresses playing Conchetta in the Bunuel is a Spanish and a French actress. Bunuel once said that it often irritated him that French people were ignorant about Spanish culture despite the geographical proximity. And of course Fernando Rey is himself dubbed by Michel Piccoli, so you have this very intricate reflections of the trans-sociocultural fragmentations. On one level this device is of course theatrical but Bunuel makes it into a formal poetic conceit.

  9. Marlene loved The Devil is a Woman above all the others because she thought she looked her best in it. And I agree.

    My favoirte moment in it when Marlene’s staring into a mirror fixing a spit-curl as Lionel Atwill standing behind her moans about how much he adores, to which Marlene responds

    “Just a minute and I’ll give you a kiss.”

  10. Yes, I heard she basically tried to maintain her TDIAW look for the rest of her life. Possibly a mistake, but hey, it was a great look.

    Sternberg’s film was deemed an insult to the Guardia Civil and the Spanish government demanded that Paramount burn it. It was unavailable for decades as a result, but survived OK, while various Sternberg movies that didn’t receive a burn order have in fact been lost.

    At the end, Marlene muses “I used to work in a cigarette factory…” Which is true of the actress. Sternberg filled his movies with veiled autobiography, and famously said “Miss Dietrich is me.” Perhaps with this final line in their last collaboration, he’s restoring her own identity?

  11. That was said in very much the tradition of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary c’est moi.”

  12. Christopher Says:

  13. “It’s what you call a paraphrase,” as the driver says in Sullivan’s Travels.

    I really like Chaney’s glide across the lake, but it’s closer to Cocteau than Bunuel.

    The most preposterous moment is Chaney trying to extinguish his burning coffin by hitting it with a plank. Even though there’s water all around him…

  14. > the perverse song sung by Carole
    > Lombard in Swing High, Swing Low!
    > I didn’t know Marlene had covered it

    It was written by Leo Robin (words) and Ralph Rainger (music), the pair behind “Thanks For The Memory.” Since Dietrich recorded it first, I suppose one should say it was Lombard who “covered” it — despite the fact that it was Lombard’s version that first made it into theaters.

  15. I guess you’re right at that. It certainly makes perfect sense for both movies. Wonder what the story was about it’s being cut–anyone know?

  16. Maybe Sternberg thought THIS was enough —

  17. Too much is NEVER enough!

  18. Thanks for posting the clip with Marlene’s ‘lost’ musical number. I don’t suppose there’s any hope of the actual footage surviving, somewhere in some mouldy Hollywood vault?

    The version of this story I long to see is the 1928 French silent by Jacques de Baroncelli (LA FEMME ET LE PANTIN) starring the utterly fabulous Conchita Montenegro. Apparently, both the Sternberg and the Bunuel ‘borrow’ a lot from it – but i can’t comment as I’ve never actually seen it.

  19. We’re lucky the movie itself survived!

    Quite hard to envisage any movie acting as a bridge between the Sternberg and Bunuel!

  20. […] Glenn Kenny’s lead, I’ve written before about the strange and abiding influence of Bunuel and Dali’s UN CHIEN ANDALOU on the work of […]

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