A Fever Dream Double Feature.
Following in the mighty footsteps of Christoph Hubert, whose Fever Dream pairings were published hereabouts recently, I present for your delectation and sweaty perusal another brain-bending duo of movies that go together all wrong. I have selected two films, and I call them Film One and Film Two.
(Note the flag attached to David Wayne’s lamp to keep his face in shadow.)
Film One is “M”. Not the celebrated Fritz Lang-Thea Von Harbou 1931 classic, but the generally denigrated Joseph Losey remake from twenty years later. As films maudit go, the don’t come much mauditer than this. While Losey is much admired, mainly for his British films of the ’60s (the blacklist having driven him from Hollywood), his U.S. work is a mixed bunch, much of it rarely screened. The excellent noir THE PROWLER (many noirs tackle the theme of “wrong values,” but none so starkly as this) rubs shoulders with the curio that is THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR, a jejeune anti-war parable that passes the time acceptably just by being very very odd. In this company, the M remake is just one more mis-step in Losey’s shaky Hollywood career arc, but fortunately it’s a bit closer to the intensity of PROWLER than the fey loopiness of GREEN HAIR.
The perennially prissy David Wayne essays the Lorre role, doing well with the hysteria but entirely missing Lorre’s uncanny, bug-eyed froth. The script pads out the predestined devil with some unconvincing dollar book Freud cod psychology.
Losey scores a little better with his cops and crooks — one detective is a virtual fascist, with less respect for the rule of law than the “punks and tinhorns” he yearns to subject to the rubber hose treatment. Luther Adler plays an alcoholic mob lawyer (called Langley in presumed homage, though old Fritz didn’t appreciate the gesture, turning up to single-handedly picket the premiere). This figure’s presence helps set up the kangaroo court more plausibly, but he’s an annoying character wrapped around an annoying performance (dialogue scribe Waldo Salt may have to shoulder some blame here. Salt, later blacklisted himself, made a glorious comeback as writer of MIDNIGHT COWBOY in the ’70s, but his work here is mostly on a Dick Tracy level, with a few corny left-wing pretensions). The rogues’ gallery gets livelier around the intense, ferret-eyed Martin Gabel (also director of one movie, the terrific THE LOST MOMENT, a labyrinth of sinuous camera moves with a centenarian Agnes Moorehead at its heart) and his henchmen: Raymond Burr, more hench than man, doing a gravelly voice like Putney Swope; Glenn Anders, not as soapy as in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (“Just doing a little taaaaarrrget practice,”) but sort of CHUNKIER; and Norman Lloyd, always always always a reliably sneaky face to fill out a frame.
But this “M” has its greatest success in the use of locations. Losey makes fine use of Bunker Hill and outstanding use of the Bradbury Building. Best known now as the site of BLADE RUNNER’s climax, this striking construction came to its architect in a dream, and Losey captures both the sharpness and the illogic of nightmare in the clamorous conflict he stages there. Each angle provides a bizarre and startling new perspective to affront the eyes and make giddy the mind.
And Losey’s eerie mannequin warehouse is better than Kubrick’s eerie mannequin warehouse in KILLER’S KISS. In moments like this one can feel that Lang’s cautionary horror tale has found a new home in the city of angels.
Film Two is DR. CALIGARI, another U.S. remake of a German classic, this one directed by Stephen Sayadian, (A.K.A. Rinse Dream / François Délia / Sidney Falco / F.X. Pope / Ladi von Jansky) maker of the cult sci-fi porno CAFE FLESH, which I’d previously seen and failed to admire.
This struck me as much better! Sayadian, whose speciality is production design, crafts a low-budget expressionist world and stages a sort of Cartoon Network VIDEODROME ballet in it. Everything is over-stylised to the point of panic-attack claustrophobia, the movements are choreographed and the blocking avoids standard continuity and settles for a snappy succession of ruthlessly composed tableaux, shuffled like smutty playing cards in the hands of a stoned dealer. Imagery tends to the nauseating (weeping sores) and peculiar (a wall with a giant mouth) rather than the sexy, but most effective porn is totally boring as art anyway. Sayadian is probably more interested in arousing the pineal gland or something weird like that.
See this thing! It’ll make you feel weird, which you ought to enjoy if you like reading this stuff. In addition to the purely visual pleasures (and the retro fun of the ’80s synth-score), Sayadian makes the best use of porno-style acting I’ve ever seen, creating an expressionistically oneiric B-movie vibe out of his performers’ limitations, reminiscent in its delirium of Ed Wood’s avant-garde trash aesthetic.
Madeleine Reynal, with clipped Mittel-European delivery, essays the role of Caligari’s grand-daughter, following in her “grrandvasser’s vootschteps,” as the late Kenneth Mars might put it, while Laura Albert brings agreeably mannered body language, and an agreeably mannered body, to the role of science project Mrs. Van Outen. Albert slices through the film, nipples primed to at any instant pierce some unsuspecting fellow thespian and pump them full of silicone. It’s not surprising to learn that when she’s not playing characters with “names” like “Bambi” and “Strip Joint Girl” and “Whipped Cream Girl” (in the TV show Dream On — some may remember this) L.A. is a stunt artist: she has a robust physicality to her and in a way this whole performance — nay, this whole film — is a death-defying piece of stunt art.
If you see Losey’s “M”, I hope it’s the same copy I have — a glitchy AVI file of a fuzzy DVD of a chewed-up VHS of a ropey telecine of a speckly print — because you get the surreal impression that the ’50s remake is older than the ’30s original.
If you see DR. CALIGARI… say hi.
I’m quite staggeringly indebted to Shadowplayer Brandon for providing these movies, after I mentioned having never seen the J-Lo “M”. I should mention right now that I am in no way averse to FREE STUFF. If you stay alert you may catch me dropping the occasional hint, such as “I’ve never seen this film,” which you may all take as your cue to offer me complimentary bootlegs. I promise I won’t mind.