I showed my students a bit of the dream sequence from STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) as part of a class on expressionism — my ultimate aim being to break down the barriers between classic German expressionism — painted shadows — film noir — real shadows — and modern dramatic cinematic storytelling which seeks to MAKE THE SCENE LOOK AND SOUND AND FEEL a certain way, often the way the characters feel.

What popped out in viewing the sequence in isolation, along with Nicholas Musuraca’s jagged lighting, was the hammy expostulating of all the supporting characters. I mused/bullshitted that maybe, just maybe, this was all a deliberate choice by director Boris Ingster, who after all went on to produce The Man from UNCLE and so couldn’t, presumably, have been a complete fool. Dreams, I mused, are unconvincingly acted. But just as our bodies are paralysed during sleep, so are our rational-critical faculties, so we are forced to accept whatever nonsense we’re served, like kids in front of Saturday morning TV. It’s only on waking that we say, “That was bizarre.”

Orson Welles, who did much to popularize the striking graphic look that STRANGER throws out, was expert at this dream affect, both in the general atmosphere of THE TRIAL, and in moments of LADY FROM SHANGHAI — the way both Glenn Anders (on the cliff in Rio) and Rita Hayworth (in the mirror maze) stare, seemingly blindly, at Welles, catches something about the autistic performance style of the people we meet in dreams, whether strangers or alien simulacra of loved ones.

And when I re-viewed STRANGER in full as part of our weekend watch party, I was pleased to see that the acting in the surrounding scenes was more traditionally “good.” Peter Lorre was fantastically idiosyncratic and uncanny, but not cartoonish, and the leads, the more traditionally photogenic John McGuire and Margaret Tellichet, though a little bland and earnest, were every bit as convincing as the story needed them to be. The supporting players were reliable types like Elisha Cook, Charles Halton and Ethel Griffies (the ornithologist in THE BIRDS) and they manage to find a mid-ground in their acting style so that without seeming to change character completely in the dream, they can slot into its oneiric stiltedness and get with the program.

7 Responses to “Oneiromance”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Among the many innovations of Fellini’s “8 1/2” was his refusal to differentiate his heroes dreams from reality or his memories. the film begins in a dream, but it isn’t until Guido awakens that we know what we’ve been seeing. His getting up out of his car and flying through the air could indicate we’re watching a science-fiction film. Fellini mines this notion of “dream” as “Real” even more in “City of Women” whose opening I derived from an abandoned “8 1/2” finale with all the characters on a train. “City of Women” concerns Fellini’s frankly admitted inability to understand feminism — which for him becomes a kind of nightmare.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Most movie “dream sequences” are clerly marked as such and involve wish-fulfillment fantasies as in this doozy from “Yolanda and the Thief”

  3. Fellini’s undifferentiated dreams — you can identify them clearly enough after they’re over — have fed into mainstream horror movies which often use dreams to create cheap scares and pad out the story.

    The odd acting in Carnival of Souls contributes greatly to its dream quality. I recently watched Mark Borchardt’s Coven and it hits some of the same disorienting notes.

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Candace Hilligoss is GODDESS! Her lovely yet oddly shaped face was made for the movies. Alas she did few. “Too Hip For the House” The use of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” for this film’s plot marks it as an “Art Film” that’s also a B movie thriller.

  5. They were really thinking of Bergman and Cocteau as influences. And it also seems to look forward to Eraserhead in its dreaminess, particularly the stilted and awkward conversations.

  6. Simon Kane Says:

    Aw man, do you remember when the acting in Terry Gilliam films used to be one of the best things about them?

    The script in my dreams is always off, but the performances are entirely convincing. Now you mention it might be why I find so many dream sequences off. Might just be me. Dreams are very subjective and I don’t think I’ve ever had a nightmare. The quality of people’s dreams might go a long way to explaining people’s tastes.

  7. Reading the rather good book about the rather terrible Brothers Grimm film, I learned that Gilliam likes to work with a dramaturge, who does all the tiresome talking to actors stuff that Gilliam can’t be bothered with, allowing him to concentrate on his main stars. But the writer (Andrew Yule, I think?) observes that it was only when Gilliam finally deigned to give Lena Heady some direction that her performance improved. (He wanted Samantha Morton but Harvey said no).

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