Archive for November, 2021

Pay no attention to that Mabuse behind the curtain

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on November 30, 2021 by dcairns

I half-jokingly pondered the other day if Professor Baum, the Mabuse substitute in THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE, was named after L. Frank Baum, but, you know, the more I think about it…

Oz gets everywhere. Mabuse appears as a big floating head at one point in DER SPIELER — of course the Victor Fleming MGM film hadn’t been made yet (it’s only six years in the future, but feels like a whole other eon of filmmaking) — but the Baum book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, existed, and when Dorothy and her friends visit the wizard in that, he appears differently to each of them. Shades of RASHOMON. But Dorothy sees him as a giant head.

Baum is surrounded by heads in his study — African masks and actual deformed skulls, some of unusual size.

And of course, there’s a man behind the curtain. That’s what Baum is, effectively. The petty human disguising himself as a big head. Oh, but Baum is also a partial anagram of Mabuse. Probably that’s it. He’s an Alucardian alias. But any good character name ought to have at least two possible rationales behind it.

Still, interested to hear if any Mabuseians out there in the dark can see any more possible connections, apart from the flying monkeys of course.

Page Seventeen III: At World’s End

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2021 by dcairns

The lift was not working so I had to walk down all the stairs to the studio. They had Conversation after Midnight on Stage A, and on Stage B they were shooting the night-club sequence for Black and White Blues. Outside in the yard they were trying some extra scenes for Peep and Judy Show, the Inigo Ransom comedy which was long over schedule time. I met the continuity girl from the new studio and I asked her whether she had seen anything of Robertson lately. She was tired and said no she had not and asked me how I was getting on with the cutting of The Waning Moon. She was interested in it because she had been the floor secretary for the production.

“Let her go,” said Port to Tunner, whose face showed concern. “She’s worn out. The heat gets her down.”

But Porter was not only making his own films now, he was training new directors to work under him. The motion-picture audience and my mother’s middle were growing proportionately. My infancy, the infancy of Edison’s Kinetoscope, and Porter’s callow moving-picture shows, are intertwined.

As editor of IMP films, Jack Cohn provided an invaluable service to the economy-minded Laemmle. IMP directors were led to believe they were shooting one-reel films and hence were encouraged to be niggardly with film stock and production time. Through chicanery by the executives, the movies were actually released as two-reelers.

‘But how did you discover by means of our watches?’ asked Clinton.

“I tell you nothing. You can work it out for yourself.” Thunderpeck loved to lecture me. “You know the cost of these new anti-gravity units; it’s phenomenal. Only a very rich man could afford one. There are few of them in production as yet; they go only to heart cases. A ten-stone man can wear one of these units and adjust it so that he weighs only two stone. It saves the heart pump a lot of work. So we know our friend was rich and suffered from heart trouble. Right. Where do such people often live? On the coast, by the sea, for the good of their health. So he died walking along the front–people do, you know. An offshore breeze carried him out to us.”

In the Middle Ages there was a curious belief that everything in the air or on the earth had its double in the sea. So when a previously undiscovered fish was found washed up on the coast of Norway and described as having a close-shaven head and an ungracious face, it was straightaway called a monk-fish. Its shoulders were said to be covered with what appeared to be a monk’s hood with feathering fins for arms, and a long tail at the end of its body. The King of Poland took a particular interest in this odd fish, and asked for it to be sent to him to see.

Seven passages from the page seventeens of seven books from around here. The last-quoted is the only book I have left from my childhood, its sentimental value somewhat tarnished by the discovery that it’s substantially plagiarised from Borges’ own monster dictionary.

The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor by Cameron McCabe; The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles; Moving Pictures by Budd Schulberg; King Cohn by Bob Thomas; The Warder of the Door by Robert Eustace & L.T. Meade, from The Black Veil & Other Tales of Supernatural Sleuths edited by Mark Valentine; Earthworks by Brian W. Aldiss; A Dictionary of Monsters and Mysterious Beasts by Carey Miller.

The Sunday Intertitle: Booby hatch/trap

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2021 by dcairns

Since we’re making a video essay about Joe May’s THE INDIAN TOMB (1921), we’re naturally also digging into Fritz Lang again, since he co-wrote it with Thea Von Harbou. Lang is more distinguished than May, a genius rather than a sometimes-astute craftsman and businessman with moments of wizardry. Also, there is far more Lang available to see than there is of May’s long oeuvre.

Some of this research was already done — you can buy my video essays accompanying CLOAK AND DAGGER, WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, DER MUDE TOD and SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR.

So, we rewatched SPIONE and THE TESTAMENT OF DR, MABUSE and THE 1,000 EYES of same, and Lang’s own remake of the TOMB, which he liked to trash-talk later as “Indienschnulze” (India-tearjerker) and as DER TIGER VON DEXTROPUR (The Corn-sugar Tiger) and DAS KINDISCHE GRABMAL (the Childish Tomb). Thanks to Ulrich Ruedel for the nicknames and translations.

TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE stands out among the films we watched — I had always sort of doubted Lang’s word when he said he’d put Nazi slogans in the mouths of criminals, but it depends how good the translations are. On the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray you can hear Professor Baum (L. Frank?) speak of a thousand-year empire of crime. If you assume that Lang, in some way, saw the writing on the wall with his one good eye, or with some other, better eye, then the film’s ending is really remarkable:

Baum is reduced to gibbering insanity, as Mabuse had been, when his empire crumbles. The asylum attendant closes the door to lock him into the padded cell. And he closes it on us, too. Everything goes black and we hear the lock click with finality over a massive ENDE.

Assume it’s not modern mankind Lang intended to incarcerate in the loony bin (but it could be). Assume he senses on some unconscious level that he’ll soon be leaving the country. Assume it’s Germany that’s being shut up with the raving maniac, left behind.

Lang thrillers sometimes sag a bit in the middle — I think SPIONE does — but they kick in and become frenzied at the end. SPIONE has an equally great, abrupt ending, one which seems like a good Hitlerian prophecy (suicide by pistol, before a theatre audience, yet).

The brutal abruption of these endings is made possible partly because of the lack of end credits. What I’d somehow not noticed before is that Lang doesn’t have any opening credits either: just the production company (unavoidable), EIN FRITZ LANG FILM (with the F and I of FRITZ, the L of LANG and the M of FILM shaded to make a second FILM of shadow) and the title. Even Thea doesn’t get her name up there.

Other random thoughts —

There’s a Fritz Lang cinematic universe: Inspector Lohman from M comes back in TESTAMENT, tying the one-shot in with the series. And I’d like to think that Professor Baum’s collection of African masks (which mark him as a Lang stand-in, looking at Fritz’s own decor) made their way across the Atlantic to decorate Mark Lamphere’s home in SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR. Lanphere, a neurotic quasi-wife-murdering architect obsessed with predestination, is CERTAINLY a Fritz surrogate.

In SPIONE, a bad guy crashes his speeding jalopy into the revolving doors of the Atlantic Hotel — coincidentally or otherwise the name of the hotel in Murnau & Mayer’s THE LAST LAUGH, which has, memorably, the same doors. Possibly some acerbic commentary at work there. Murnau was transatlantic by that time.

The POV crashes, of car and train, are pretty incredible. Lang also blows up a factory, for real — I guess he was in competition with Harry Piel, the king of demolition and an ardent Nazi (most of his negatives were bombed out of existence, which is a shame for film history but seems somewhat fair).

The greatest intertitle in German cinema

Haghi, the Klein-Rogge mastercriminal here, is pretty close to being Mabuse under another name: he’s a master of disguise in charge of a criminal empire with an impressive desk. But the great thing about Mabuse is his dispersion through society. In the first double-film, DER SPIELER, he operates through disguises and proxies, but is still a corporeal spider at the centre of his criminous web. By the time TESTAMENT, he’s lost his mind, but is still scribbling crazy plans, which have seized the mind of his asylum superintendent, Baum. When Mabuse dies, his spirit appears by double-exposure and possesses Baum. Lang later felt this was an artistic mistake, for some reason — usually a good sign that he’s on to something. Lang’s inspirations are sublime, his afterthoughts often erratic.

In THOUSAND EYES, Mabuse is merely an idea. Anybody can become a Mabuse, simply by thinking about it too much. The fake Mabuse, appropriately enough, is a medium. Having dispensed with flesh and blood, the good doctor is unkillable. We’re stuck with him.

Or is it?