Archive for He Who Gets Slapped

The Sunday Intertitle: Ich

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on February 5, 2017 by dcairns

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“What power is at work here?” asks the government man, and Fritz Lang cuts to his chief villain, Rudolph Klein-Rogge, who says, simply “I” — even though he’s in another room in another building in another part of town and can’t be conversing with the spymaster who doesn’t know he exists…

The idea of words connecting to images to bridge scenes is a big Fritz Lang trope, and he used it again, after SPIONE, the example quoted above, in M and THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE. And then he took it to Hollywood and did it a bit in FURY at MGM. And then he phased it out, as if he felt it were somehow un-American, until his return to Germany to make THE INDIAN TOMB and THE THOUSAND EYES OF DR MABUSE, and it came back in full force: a line at the end of one scene will be picked up by an image at the start of the next. A bit of film language that had lain dormant in Lang’s dark heart for decades, and suddenly burst into life again under the lights of Babelsberg.

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MGM seems like a peculiar home for Lang anyway, and indeed “that marriage did not last,” as Donald Sutherland would say, though in fairness none of Lang’s studio relationships lasted for more than a few films. His journey back to Germany may have been prompted by the fact that nobody in Hollywood would talk to him anymore, I don’t know.

But the weird thing is, there’s a beautiful example of this device in my favourite movie, Victor Sjostrom’s HE WHO GETS SLAPPED — see here. And this was the very first MGM release. It was meant to be.

The Sunday Intertitle: Chaplin and Comic Suspense

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on January 17, 2016 by dcairns

Weird online copy of Chaplin’s THE IMMIGRANT with subtitles in place of intertitles. The thing is, most of Chaplin is out of copyright — ALL American films made before 1920 are public domain — but the good restorations are all copyright the people who made them. If you have this on DVD, watch that instead.

Synopsis: economic migrant Charlie comes to America in search of a better standard of living. Damn him! How dare he?

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Though the first half of this nakedly two-part movie has some strong stuff, especially Charlie looking twice at the Stature of Liberty, the second section, kicking in at the ten-minute mark, builds to a striking crescendo of comic terror, all based around wannabe Scotsman Eric Campbell’s murderous head waiter. Comedy and fear really go together well, but I don’t see much today that really exploits anxiety on behalf of a sympathetic character in order to get shriller laughs. For instance, just enjoyed the first episode of the lumberingly-titled but fleet-footed Ash Vs Evil Dead, and it’s alternately suspenseful and hilarious, but there’s almost a firewall between the laughs and scares, and character sympathy was never a big part of the first three movies. I’ll definitely be watching more, though, and Ash’s new buddies are likable so who knows?

I vividly remember watching THE IMMIGRANT with my mum, who gets very excited during suspenseful bits (her mother was even more fun to view with — scenes of high tension would cause her arms and legs to rise in the air as if on strings. My dream as filmmaker is to make a packed house of five hundred people all do this at once). Chaplin, struggling into the story by his usual method of rehearsing and filming until things found the right form, devised a clear menace, plausibly put his hero in its path, and then let him squirm. “Comedy is a man in trouble,” as the saying goes. It’s not certain if his companion, Edna Purviance, is also in danger, or if she will merely be a witness to his punitive drubbing, but either way her presence amplifies the menace.

Freud announced, with typical fatuity but unusual accuracy, that Chaplin was “a very simple case” — compelled to relive the humiliation of poverty in his art. Like the traumatic slap endlessly replayed in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, Chaplin’s career was a reenactment of his childhood. No wonder the role of the Tramp came to oppress him.

As if on cue

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2014 by dcairns

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I confess to mixed feelings about Lewis Milestone’s film of Clifford Odets’ script of THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN. The orientalism and exoticism (exoticism, remember, is racism’s sexy sister) and yellowface makeups are both seductive and repulsive, and the narrative at times decidedly silly. Rather than playing Odets’ flamboyant dialogue “hard and fast,” as the author preferred, the actors (Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carrol and Akim Tamiroff among others) have a tendency to linger on it, as if they can’t believe they’ve been handed such classy material. Delivered at speed, as in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, an Odets line *can* sound as if the actor’s just thought of it, the impossible cracked street-poetry tumbling out in a mixture of verbal genius and a kind of fervid desperation to find le mot juste before another millisecond goes by. Hanging about tends to expose just how preciously contrived it is.

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Still, there’s a whole hell of a lot to admire. The Paramount high gloss look, with Travis Banton costumes, gorgeous three-point lighting, elaborate sets and a pulse-pounding score by Werner Janssen combine with Milestone’s atmospheric angles and moves to create a work that’s never less than compelling. It’s a bit like Sternberg with the swooning eroticism blended with a more two-fisted romanticism. The ending is pretty ridiculous, and I find myself agreeing for the first time with Graham Greene, a great film critic but one whose opinions I habitually clash with. He though the ending was silly too — but it’s beautifully staged.

A really interesting moment was point out in the comments section earlier by David Boxwell — a match dissolve between a round doorknob and a gleaming cueball on a pool table. It seems a moment of self-conscious bravura motivated by nothing other than the smooth whiteness of the two objects. But it’s actually a fascinating, odd piece of prefiguring.

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The doorknob is attached to a door through which Gary Cooper has just exited, and the dissolve takes us to a pool hall where Madeleine Carroll is part of a group laying plans antithetical to Coop’s. So arguably the crossfade suggests an imminent connection between the two.

But it’s paid off in grand style later. Carroll seduces and betrays Cooper, rather against her judgement, and doesn’t expect to see him again. When he turns up wounded in the magnificently grotty hotel, he swears he’ll kill Carroll “in half” if he ever sees her again — whereupon Dudley Digges with wax eyelids opens the door to the parlour and reveals the guilty blonde herself, playing pool. She drops the cueball, which rolls up to Coop’s feet. So the connection of door — cueball — Coop & Carroll — is a sort of engram, or compound symbol, carefully planted to prefigure this meeting.

The rare use of match dissolves made me wonder if Milestone had seen and admired my own favourite movie, Victor Sjostrom’s  HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, an early twenties Lon Chaney clown tragedy containing numerous such effects. The match dissolve from a ring of chickens to a circus ring in THE RED PONY made me suspect this even more strongly. When I saw THE NIGHT OF NIGHTS, a fairly undistinguished 1939 Broadway weepie (Milestone’s creative energies were clearly more occupied with OF MICE AND MEN that year), I became fairly convinced I was right —

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Clown-slapping. The slappee is Pat O’Brien, the slapper is Roland Culver.

No wonder I’m so keen on Milestone! We have the same favourite movie.

The play with objects and space relates to another Milestone trick, where he cuts to an object which seems to be part of the scene we’ve just watched, only to reveal that we’ve actually moved somewhere else. A kind of deliberate surprise/confusion generally excluded from the classical Hollywood rulebook at this time, where establishing shots were the order of the day, and obvious scene transitions were insisted upon. In THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, the young Martha speaks of fetching candles, we cut to them being lit, only to realise that the candelabra is in the hands of Dame Judith Anderson, downstairs. In OF MICE AND MEN, a tasty-looking dinner is consumed by the ranch-hands, but when we cut to a pie being sliced a sudden feminine hand reveals that we’re now in the home of the rancher himself. And in HALLS OF MONTEZUMA this occasional device becomes a recurring trope, dazzlingly deployed to transition into flashback. Each major character has a sequence showing his life before the war. Milestone will have a character drop something. A closeup shows it land on the floor. But when the character picks it up, we discover, within that same closeup, that we’re now elsewhere and elsewhen.

And this never fails to startle us! Clever fellow, that Milestone.