Archive for Blind Alley

Occurrence

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2011 by dcairns

Untitled from David Cairns on Vimeo.

To be honest, I’m not so much surprised that Ambrose Bierce’s work has inspired so many filmmakers, as I am surprised that it hasn’t inspired more. I guess the fact that he eschewed long form storytelling (as a matter of principle, to hear him tell it) is a factor, but so for the most part did Poe and Lovecraft, who are much more frequently filmed. I can’t account for that.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was most famously adapted by Robert Enrico, and the resulting short became, somehow or other, an episode of The Twilight Zone, exposing it to a much wider audience that Enrico’s other two Bierce films, CHICKAMAUGA and THE MOCKINGBIRD. But for my money, Charles Vidor’s version, entitled THE BRIDGE, is much much better.

It’s available on the extraordinary box set UNSEEN CINEMA, which you should all immediately buy.

The bit that really grabs me, in a film full of fascinating visual ideas, is the superimposition of the drumsticks beating the skin over the hero’s chest. Two images united to create more than one idea and emotion — by showing the drum and the man at the same time, anticipation is heightened, but the beating of the drum comes to stand for the racing of the man’s heartbeat, evoking something a silent film can’t make you hear, or feel. That’s CLEVER.

Some imaginative trope of that kind was surely required when Tony Scott filmed ONE OF THE MISSING, another of Bierce’s Civil War horror stories, but although he pulls off some good angles and generates a fair bit of suspense (you can see this short on the CINEMA 16 collection) he never gets near evoking the striking passage in Bierce’s tale where the soldier, trapped by rubble with his fallen rifle pointing straight at his head, primed and ready to fire, imagines the sensation of the bullet passing slowly through his brain…

Vidor really displays moments of similar zest in GILDA (the giant dice in the opening shot) and I guess in COVER GIRL, also LADIES IN RETIREMENT and BLIND ALLEY. When the project roused his enthusiasm, he was quite an expressionist.

Further reading: The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce

Of course, Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionaryis wickedly funny, but less known than either his supernatural tales and his war stories are his grotesque, jet-black tall tales, which are quite incredibly sick and extremely amusing.

Further further reading: more from me at Limerwrecks here, here and here. What rhymes with TINGLER?

Further viewing: Unseen Cinema – Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941 An amazing treasure trove of obscure fragments of wonderment.

Psychobabble vs. Psycho Rabble

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , on February 16, 2011 by dcairns

The paralyzed pinkies of Chester Morris clutch at psychoanalytic salvation!

A 1939 proto-noir from Charles (GILDA) Vidor. A home invasion melodrama in the tradition of THE DESPERATE HOURS, but it’s also an early psychoanalysis movie, with a spectacular line in dollarbook Freud and a couple dream/flashbacks that must’ve been hugely influential.

Ralph Bellamy: he looks like that guy in the movies, what’s his name? And Chester Morris, he looks like near-sighted football.

Shrink Ralph Bellamy is entertaining a few guests for the weekend, when his house is taken over by escaped jailbird Chester Morris and his gang (including perennial stooge Marc Lawrence and moll Ann Dvorak). They’re all awaiting the arrival of a getaway boat to take them across the lake (one supposes to Canada), which never comes, for reasons never actually explained.

But never mind the boat, what excites and startles is the dollarbook Freud, laid on thick and stupid with a trowel by pipe-puffing Ralph. See, Chester is a neurotic case, with hysterically paralysed fingers on his left hand (just the pinkie works) and a tormenting dream that recurs every night. After one of his pals is gunned down, Ralph decides to turn the power of analysis against his foe: “I’m going to take apart his mind and show him the pieces,” figuring to cure the guy and thus rob him of his psychopathic power of murderousness.

And it works! Forced to confront his suppressed childhood trauma, Chester regains digital dexterity, but his trigger finger now lacks its previous itchiness, resulting in his becoming a sitting duck when the cops show up. Not sure how this squares with the Hippocratic oath.

But never mind the malpractice, check out Vidor’s expressionist elan — first, the dream, in which Chet gets wet, pursued by rainstorms and forced to shelter ‘neath a leaky umbrella which sprouts imprisoning bars. And all in negative!

Then, the flashback which shows the dream’s true meaning — after turning stoolie and leading the cops to arrest his louse of a dad, young Chester ducks under a bar table. Dad, riddled with bullets, collapses over it, and leaks blood onto his cowering son through a crack in the tabletop, as the cops surround the table, their legs forming a circle of “bars”.

It’s all a goofy melodrama, with distinctly B-list stars (I like Ralph, though, and Chester is appealingly limited, one of those familiar faces which accumulates a certain audience affection just by dangling in front of the camera on so many occasions), but entertaining as heck. Ralph’s explanation of the subconscious should replace Freud’s — he sketches an outline of a head, and divides it into two levels, strongly implying that this is the actual physical structure of the brain. Further, he introduces the idea of the “censor band”, a previously unknown concept, which seems to work like a kind of gastric band for the mind, constricting the circulation of naughty thoughts and thus preventing the contamination of the spotless conscious mind with all those dirty unconscious feelings.

It’s a really lovely idea, this “censor band”, a term with no foundation in analysis that I’m aware of: Hollywood attempts to map the human mind, using as its model… Hollywood!

Film noir is a great American tradition, a triumph of western civilisation, a small high in the history of artistic achievement. I can’t expect each of you to run out and find the lost ending of DOUBLE INDEMNITY or the lost beginning of SUNSET BLVD, but you can do your bit for film history by clicking here and donating to help preserve Cy Endfield’s THE SOUND OF FURY ~

On behalf of the Film Preservation Blogathon, operating out of here and here.