Archive for DW Griffith

Poe-faced

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2023 by dcairns
The Pale Blue Eye. Harry Melling as Edgar Allen [sic] Poe in The Pale Blue Eye. Cr. Scott Garfield/Netflix © 2022

The history of Edgar Allan Poe on screen is patchy, when one looks at adaptations of his work — there are lots of really good films, though it’s questionable how many of even the best ones really understand or capture the essence of the writer’s work.

The history of Poe on screen as a CHARACTER is much, much patchier still. I haven’t seen THE LOVES OF EDGAR ALLAN POE. Shepperd Strudwick, anyone? I do suspect that if Poe had had anyone like Linda Darnell in his life, literary history might be very different. He would have done less writing, let’s say.

Asides from the biopic, whose strictures Poe seems disinclined to conform to, there are those films that attempt to fold the author into his own work, or works inspired by it. This gets started early on with D.W. Griffith’s EDGAR ALLAN POE of 1909, which is mostly a garbled and romanticised version of aspects of Poe’s life, but shows him inspired to write The Raven by the arrival of an actual raven which sits upon a bust of Pallas and you know the rest. Poe decides to become a costumed crime-fighter who dresses up as a black, flying animal. (He doesn’t. But he should.)

Charles Brabin’s 1915 THE RAVEN juggles most of the same elements, but takes longer to do it.

1951’s THE MAN WITH A CLOAK, based on a story by locked-room obsessive John Dickson Carr, has Joseph Cotten as Poe, unnamed until the end, who turns up out of the blue to solve a murder. This goes way beyond the Griffith idea of speculating how life must have informed Poe’s work, and makes a stab out of creating a faux-Poe story that Poe can inhabit, making him the prototype of his own detective hero, C. Auguste Dupin. An amusing conceit, but the film, directed flatly by TV man Fletcher Markle (great name, though), is mostly a snooze, despite the presence of Cotten, Stanwyck, and the walking fontanelle Louis Calhern.

Poe had encouraged the idea that he had a detective’s mind, basing The Mystery of Marie Roget around a real case which he claimed to have solved, but when it turned out he was wrong, he rewrote the story. But most authors and screenwriters enlisting Poe as detective hero have preferred to see him as an unerring truth-magnet. Poe was also an alcoholic whose metabolism caused him to get very drunk very fast, but Carr (all of whose heroes are spectacularly skilled boozers) makes him a man who can soak up impossible quantities of liquor without any side-effects beyond melancholia and loquacity.

CASTLE OF BLOOD/DANZA MACABRA (1964) and its remake WEB OF THE SPIDER (1971) airdrop Poe into a haunted house mystery, which proves far more conducive terrain. Though the Dupin stories are exercises in logic, creating order out of a chaotic and sometimes terrifying world (especially Murders in the Rue Morgue), Poe’s stories are more usually MAD, with insanity or the paranormal gnawing at the very foundations of their reality.

I haven’t seen THE RAVEN from 2012, directed by James V FOR VENDETTA McTeigue, with John Cusack as Poe, joining forces with a Baltimore detective (Luke Evans) to stop a serial copycat killer who bases his murders on those in the author’s works. The idea is an amusing one, and one can see why one might need to pair the writer slash amateur sleuth with a professional — access to the official investigation, entertainingly contrasting modus operandi, conflict, etc.

But I HAVE seen THE PALE BLUE EYE, a new Netflix movie from director Scott Cooper (BLACK MASS, HOSTILES) which does almost exactly the same thing, only here Poe is a young cadet at West Point and the pro detective is a mature ex-cop employed by the Academy to investigate the death and mutilation of another cadet.

I hadn’t done my homework — if I’d know this was the BLACK MASS guy I doubt I’d have watched it. The films have a lot in common: the tone and pace are depressingly consistent., not much light or shade; the cinematography is moody; the direction is flat; Cooper does nice, atmospheric establishing shots with a slowly gliding camera, but then everything is just static headshots. At one point, a man who has been holding a rock, threatening to bash another man’s head in, drops the rock, and we only know it’s happened because of the sound effect. His hand is out of shot while the camera films his face. We can all, I’m sure, immediately see the dramatic potential of the suddenly empty hand in close-up, or the rock falling to the snowy ground, or even falling THROUGH a shot that’s focused on the fallen victim. If you’re just shooting coverage, not thinking dramatically-pictorially, the irony is you just cover faces and miss what else might be important.

The director, in other words, has not learned to SEE.

Christian Bayle as Augustus Landor, detective, is as dour as you might expect, but does bring some strangeness to his performance — based on this being a man from the nineteenth century, who needn’t be exactly like us. Harry Melling is a magnificent Poe, I think the first man to play the part who seems as neurasthenic, obsessional and weird as one imagines the author of The Fall of the House of Usher must have been (and not just because it’s a weird story, but because we have a lot biographical info). Again, though, this version of Poe has an astonishing head for drink, the very opposite of the real guy.

Cooper has filled the supporting roles with colourful thesps like Simon McBurney, Timothy Spall and Toby Jones, but they’re all playing stiff-necked military men so, although Spall pulls some extraordinary faces, their flamboyance is a touch constrained. Gillian Anderson has looked at what the main boys are doing and decided that she’s going to have some fun too.

Everything takes quite a long time to happen, and yet none of the characters has quite enough time to make themselves felt. Melling’s Poe has to fall in love with Anderson and Jones’ daughter, Lucy Boynton, but their few scenes together don’t make us feel it. He asks her out and there’s a fairly long negotiation about this which ends with the date and time of their next meeting undecided. It’s to be in a cemetery. Somehow, we next see them in a cemetery, but never learn which of them stood around in the snow for three days waiting for the other to show up (but I’d guess it was Poe). Then she collapses in a fit — that seems to be what confirms Poe’s love for her, which is somewhat credible for a guy like that, but the audience is left out in the cold — we don’t get to feel with or for him, and we don’t know the romance has blossomed until it’s suddenly life-or-death.

The trouble with literary detective stories is they’re usually not well enough written. And then they have to fit their silly stories into the author’s actual bio. At the climax of this one, Poe’s life is in danger, and I wondered if it shouldn’t have been Landor’s. Because a good part of the audience knows Poe didn’t die at West Point. But maybe that doesn’t matter, there are lots of stories where we know the hero isn’t going to die but we still feel suspense in life-or-death crises.

As whodunnits go, it’s not quite a fair play mystery. It breaks more than one of Ronald Knox’s 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction, and not one of the silly or dated ones like “Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable” or “No Chinaman must figure in the story.” Also, Knox forgets to include an eleventh commandment, which to me should go something like, “The reader/audience must be provided with the clues that could allow them to discern the killer’s means, motive and opportunity.” In other words, you can create a mystery where the crime seems to be impossible, but then you need to plant the clues that could allow the reader/viewer to guess the solution, but you hide them in plain sight (like Poe’s purloined letter) in hopes that nobody will figure it out. And you could write a mystery in which nobody seems to have any motive to do the victim in, but then you have to plant that motive, positioning it in such a way that the reader won’t spot it. Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d is a particularly nasty example of that.

Well, Cooper doesn’t do that in THE PALE BLUE EYE. There’s a key motive that hasn’t been stated or even implied. Some clues have been planted which eventually RELATE to that motive, but nobody could guess the motive, even if you cut away everything else and told them to assemble the puzzle from just this one minute of footage. He hasn’t done the mystery writer’s job.

Decent resemblance but couldn’t they part his hair on the correct side?

Also, the title doesn’t relate to anything in the film. OK, it’s a line from Poe. There’s a discussion about how Bayle’s Landor once got a confession out of someone by just looking at them. “The guilty party will interrogate himself.” But that never happens. Bayle gets information by asking questions and sometimes by asking questions while berating the subject with a knobbly stick or shillelagh. The Paddington hard stare is never attempted.

I can’t recommend this film. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Robert Duvall are in it, but they have nothing to do, they just deliver exposition. That’s kind of what everybody does, though some find funny ways to do it. When Michael Powell saw a film he disliked, he would storm out, saying of the director, “He didn’t teach me anything!” That’s how I feel about Cooper based on the two films I’ve now seen. He’s not bad enough to be interesting and he’s not good enough to be interesting. His work saps my enthusiasm.

The Sunday Intertitle: Lady and Goliath

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2022 by dcairns

1910 seems to be the year the intertitle starts to reign supreme. We get Griffith hitting the beginning of his long stride, the Edison FRANKENSTEIN, in which the intertitles tell you what’s about to happen (the first auto-spoiling movie), the first WIZARD OF OZ…

YouTube’s algorithms suck, so if you ask it for something simple like 1910 film” you get Buster Keaton and stuff, but in between the inappropriate offerings I found DAVID AND GOLIATH FROM THE HOLY SCRIPTURE, directed by “M. Andeani” and with stars from the Comedie Francaise, including Miss Berthe Bovy in drag as David, cuddling a pale blue sheep. The titles are in English and may have been added some time after production, for all I know.

The first shot of Goliath cracked me up, somehow. Is it because he’s green? The hand-tinting may have deteriorated a bit over the last 110 years, as who among us has not? But it gives the thing an animated postcard quality that’s endearing.

Little Berthe Versus the Un-Jolly Green Giant is only six and a half minutes long. You ought to watch it.

This one might have benefitted from some auto-spoiling titles, as scene one is a little hard to read — ambitiously, our director, Henri Andréani, introduces Miss David in the foreground, sheep in the midground (mostly pale blue but shading into green where they come too close to the green-hued leading lady — all that grass they’ve eaten, perhaps), and a couple of minor characters approaching in the far distance. Nice composition in depth. Then something or other materialises in the top of frame, David does something with his slingshot, and the weird flying pancake crashes to earth amid his flock, who don’t seem pleased. Only by replaying the sequence did I establish that the something is a giant hawk or eagle, stuffed and predatory, a close match to the inert brute from the hilarious RESCUED FROM AN EAGLE’S NEST (a great auto-spoiling title like A MAN ESCAPED, proving that spoilers needn’t spoil the drama).

I learned about D&G at school and have seen the film with Orson, but I don’t recall ever encountering the Star Trek-ish name Terebinths before. And the movie is disinclined to define the term.

The hand-tinting turns what seems to be a location into an uncanny-Valley-of-the-Terebinths stage set. I’m actually not sure if the hill horizon is a special effect. But enough of the hill is clearly real (people on it) and I doubt they’d construct something like that.

I never understood how the Philistines came to be known for their lack of aesthetic appreciation.

Enter Goliath. Sadly, the Comedie Francaise does not appear to have kept an actual giant on its books, so Goliath has to enter and stand in the foreground, though his Israelite escort are close enough to disprove any claim to a pituitary condition. A schoolteacher once tried to parse the Book of Genesis to us by saying that we don’t know exactly what the Bible meant by “days,” and so the creation of the world in seven days might still be true, even if it also took millions of years. This kind of thing might have a deleterious effect on education. But if we accept the premise, maybe a biblical giant can be anyone with a dramatic posture. I mean, we don’t know what the Bible means by “giant,” do we?

The single combat method of warfare, in which champions do battle, always seemed much more civilized than all-out war. No doubt today it would be televised and would be sickening, but think of the suffering, the resources, the nervous strain it would save. I can only assume the reason nations don’t agree to it is they can’t stand the idea of following rules. If your champion is defeated, why would you give in if you still have a standing army?

If you don’t have a really hulking Goliath, engaging a tiny David is probably your best plan, so the gender-blind casting makes sudden sense. Threats are exchanged, It’s very morally elevating stuff.

Monsieur Andreani is adhering to the one-scene-one-shot method that ruled cinema at the time, and so his battle royale is a little stiff. The lesson of the Bible story seems to be “Don’t bring a sword to a slingshot fight.” David could presumable have used a bow and arrow, a hand grenade or an Uzi — being a giant is actually a disadvantage when you’re fighting long range. You’re just a bigger target.

In this staging, the two opponents are only about six feet apart, mind you.

Fine overacting from the other Philistines when victory is won. A more suitable name for this tribe might be “Hysterics.”

Finally, a new shot — David enters triumphantly on horseback. A promotion, from shepherd(ess) to prince(ss). Fortunately all those skills are transferable. THE END — with a kind of trellis affair and a credit for Miss G. Jousset.

More fun –and shorter — than the Zecca-Nonguet LIFE AND PASSION OF CHRIST film.

The Sunday Intertitle: Jimmy Jazz

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2022 by dcairns

We’re back on ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE (1915). There are later versions too — I would like to see them. A 1920 version stars Bert Lytell, a specialist in reformed cracksmen (he also played the Lone Wolf and Boston Blackie — but I have only seen him as Lord Windermere, care of Lubitsch). Eugene Pallette supports him. A 1928 job stars William Haines and Lionel Barrymore: colour me intrigued. THE AFFAIRS OF JIMMY VALENTINE appeared in 1942 with a reconfigured plot in which JV seems like a supporting character (Roman Bohnen plays him!). Bernard “Mad” Vorhaus directed this so I’d love to see it. There are others: the character’s fragile claim on the world’s mental real estate seems to have finally decayed in 1985 when some kind of no-named teleplay was extruded.

Detective Doyle — played by the ersatz/anticipatory Robert Cummings (centre, scowling) — is on the case. This iteration of the Butcher of Strasbourg seems rather stagey, indulging in a bit of fist-into-palm overemphasis, but the good thing about this is we don’t need an intertitle to translate it. The universal language: belligerence!

I feel like I sort of know the O. Henry story, and Doyle is like Jimmy’s Javert. We’ll see if I’m right.

Maurice goes macro for a BIG CLUE CLOSEUP. An incriminating cufflink.

The ambitious ECU is followed by some equally daring punctuation:

Psychic linkage via montage, as Jimmy (Robert Warwick) notices his missing link and indulges in some dramatic gesticulation of his own, setting his untethered shirtsleeve a-flapping. The crosscutting is pretty intense, and it’s based around an IDEA, two characters thinking about the same thing. And Eisenstein is still in short pants. This is way more sophisticated, in my view, than Griffith’s imperilled virgin/roughriding rescuer schema, and it now seems incomprehensible that David Wark G has been elevated to the status of sole master of this era of filmmaking. All BIRTH OF A NATION has over this one is sheer bulk.

Doyle has immediately tracked Jimmy to his lair and Tourneur repeats a set-up from earlier (economical, and I suppose acceptable since we want to instantly recognise the setting) with the ‘tec’s breath visible in the cold air. I guess we’re shooting this in New York and/or New Jersey. Yes, IMDb specifies the Peerless Studio in Fort Lee and also locations at Sing Sing, and I think it’s likely this is an NYC alleyway, though it’s possible the Garden State sported a few handy slums back in the day.

The same condensation of time that allows Doyle to reach Jimmy’s in nothing flat has allowed Jimmy to exit, but he’s left another clue:

I’m sure David Bordwell would agree that one positive effect of genres is the way they push certain kinds of innovation. The musical incited all sorts of formal experiments, while thrillers have a notable impact on film narration, structure, use of POV.

I guess the significance of this clue is not so much Jimmy’s dainty taste in ashtrays, but the fact that his butt is still smoking. I have seen Robert Warwick near-nude in NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS and can attest that his butt is indeed smoking.

Proof that it’s 1915: the false Robert Cummings favours his chums in the audience with a thoughtful glance. It’s subtle, but it’s there. It’s not a full-fledged Keystone-type EXPLICATORY MIME, but it’s the kind of audience awareness I’d associate far more with barnstorming melodrama than with the legitimate theatre.

Cummings/Doyle rushes to the window and peers out, but apparently sees nothing. If this were a later, still more sophisticated film, I would expect Tourneur to grace us with a POV shot displaying the precise form of nothing Doyle witnesses. But apparently that’s asking too much in 1915. You know the kind of thing I mean: in FARGO, burying the loot in the snow, Steve Buscemi looks left: endless vista of blank snowscape; looks right: another, precisely mirroring vista of blank snowscape. This is jokily pedantic since we can see his surroundings already, but it is CORRECT FILM FORM nevertheless.

Cut to an unidentified young man receiving a coded message from a gum-chewing kid. The code is easily broken, I feel. But who is this fellow?

TUNE IN NEXT TIME to find out — and watch along (or ahead) via the YouTube: