Archive for New-York Ghost

A Blog Possessed

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on March 7, 2008 by dcairns

A blast from the past. I was writing about this movie in an email to my friend, writer and defrocked saint B. Kite, and he suggested I should expand my comments into a “piece”, as I believe they’re called. The finished thing ran in celebrated e-zine The New-York Ghost, and I was inspired to begin this blog. I always intended to run the thing that started it all, and today being a slow news day, here it is!

(Contains spoilers. In fact, one might more accurately say, IS spoilers.)

brack in time 

POSSESSED, directed by Curtis Bernhardt, starring Joan Crawford, takes a long sultry look at the hot topic of what the movie medicos call “skizzo-phrenia”, an affliction prevalent among frustrated career women.

There’s a perhaps-unintended encapsulation of the experience of the mentally unorthodox right at the start as Joan C wanders, with a broken walk, the streets of LA, which are dotted with such things as BRACK SHOPS and another establishment decorated with a sign which reads METAL TAPES REPAIRED. We nodded at this skilled evocation of the world glimpsed through the eyes of the psychically confused.

Wandering into a diner (another sign: C





                                              BURGER    E), Joan is unable to order, her vocabulary being limited to the word “David”. As that doesn’t correspond to anything on the menu, an ambulance is called.


The prostrate diva is rushed, sirens blaring (an emergency mental breakdown?) into what I presume must be the Leon Theremin Memorial Hospital for Melodramatic Diseases(POV looking up at ceiling as she trundles in on a gurney).

She seems unresponsive to the question “How many fingers?” Even Joan senses that “David” is not the right answer here. Snap judgment from doc with pencil moustache: “Look like a coma to me.” So they wheel her to the PSYCHOPATHIC WARD.

Now kindly doctor Erskine Sanford (the huffing puffing editor from CITIZEN KANE) appears, combining the kindliness of Santa Claus with Freud’s magical ability to pull a spurious diagnosis from his ass at the drop of a pipette. “Almost complete nudism,” he pronounces, and we boggle briefly before realising that the word he used was actually “mutism”. He’s so Freudian he causes slips in others.

Pumping the recumbent drama queen full of “synthi-narcosis”, the good doctor soon has her narrating flashbacks, (a positive sign!) and we learn that Joan, a nurse, was fond of “swimming” with a studly young mathematician. This Don Juan of the slide rule is played, preposterously, by Van Heflin, who obviously saw the character as wide-headed. I can picture the personals ad: “Clinging nurse in early stages of psychosis seeks gangling, frog-eyed mathematician for breast stroke and music recitals.”

hyperbolic titling

Van plays Schumann on the piano, or rather he sits in front of it and moves his shoulders as if walking jauntily, while Joan gets dressed after her “swim”. Joan loves Van but he plays it cool, bragging about the new parabola he’s invented (can this be right?), stressing his free-and-easy approach to life and love, and throwing in the phrase “mathematically speaking” every now and then by way of characterisation.

This touching tryst is transacted in the lake house of wealthy industrialist Raymond Massey, who spends much of the film packing Van off to Canada, which shows what a sympathetic man he is. Joan is looking after Mrs Raymond Massey, who is bedridden, offscreen, and suffering from pathological jealousy. Soon she’s being fished from the lake, “much too late”, leaving widower Raymond free to woo Joan after he’s launched Van at the Canucks.

There’s some strife with Ray’s comely daughter, the film’s token female non-lunatic, who resents Joan, having had her ears poisoned by her nutty mom, but this is resolved. But. Joan starts to crack up, hearing scary electronic voices from the buzzer that used to summon her to Mrs Massey’s bedside and forming erroneous memories of murder.

scenery chewing

Van Heflin doesn’t help (when has Van Heflin ever helped?), continually popping back down over the border to irritate us, woo Raymond’s teenage daughter, and continue to deny that he loves Joan. Joan is unable to accept this – “No consideration of his point of view,” diagnoses the doctor, sternly, as we dip out of flashback for a moment. And here the films scores points, as we are genuinely unable to make up our minds about Van. True, he’s smug, oleaginous and intrusive, and fond of talking mathematically, but he’s pretty straightforward about what he’s after, and is the only character with a sense of humour.

Joan’s gradual loss of marbles is also evoked with some skill, and the scene where she pushes Massey’s daughter downstairs, followed by her realisation that she HASN’T pushed anyone downstairs, is an arresting turn of events. Movies back then did not usually lie to their audience in this way, presenting hallucination as fact before revealing the truth. It’s super.

Things come to a head as Joan bananas around the room, drawing the helpless camera after her in a psychotic ellipse, and then pulls a gun on Van. Perhaps unwisely, he sneers. He questions the sincerity of her desire to terminate him (a risky gambit considering that she’s Joan Crawford, for God’s sake, and he’s Van Heflin, for God’s sake) and opines that she has a minimal chance of hitting him (at point blank range?), “mathematically speaking.” Joan’s POV as he ambles into wide-headed close-up and grabs for the gun. Bang. He’s a horrible mathematician, he’s dead, and I bet his parabolas were all crooked.

Van the Man

A hopeful ending: concerned Raymond traces Joan to the Psychopathic Ward, where the doc reassures him that the patient will recover, though it will take months of terrible agony (this is, after all, Joan Crawford we’re speaking of). She will have to be tried for murder, but it is to be hoped that a jury may realise that she was in no way responsible for her actions (and besides, it was only Van Heflin). Raymond nips in to see his nutty wife and we drift off down the antiseptic Corridors of Reason. The End. A Warner Bros Picture.

exciting woman

Fever Dream Double-Features

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2008 by dcairns

New York City Ghost 

I’ve previously sung the praises of the New-York Ghost, a fine and free periodical to which I occasionally contribute my word sculptures. This week saw the annual film special explode all over us like John Cassavetes at the end of THE FURY, under the guest editorship of B. Kite, but cheeky gremlins prevented the appearance of this fine material by Christoph Hubert. I’ve never met the man, but Hubert is known to Mr. Kite as “The Austrian Cairns,” and fears have been expressed that if we should ever come face to face Space-Time would implode, or something. My doppelganger’s suppressed meisterwerk is here appended for your amazement and edification, and to encourage y’all to check out the Ghost.


Head of the Family

As befits the year, I’ve seen lots of great works from all corners of film history (most mindblowing masterwork almost unheard of – Niemandsland, from 1931, by Victor Trivas, who as The Head, a quickly ordered, and weakly dubbed, cheap DVD of his last film Die Nackte und der Satan proved, is overripe for rediscovery). But three times the movie experience was so outstanding it instantly conjured an out-of-mind conjunction with other films. These were my fever-dream double features of the year:


Cuban Story (Victor Pahlen, 1959) – also known as The Truth About Fidel Castro Revolution, a haphazard, poverty-row kind-of-documentary on the fall of Batista, kind of narrated by „firsthand witness” Errol Flynn (who was around to shoot an introduction, but obviously not to dub his alleged voice-over, which sounds slightly British – and radiates an intriguing sense of erosion of authenticity onto the entire enterprise). Screams for a double bill with its ideological and aesthetic opposite: Mikhail Kalatazov’s excessive Soy Cuba.

Darby O'Gill and the Little People

Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954) – especially after the Peter Jackson juggernaut it was nice to discover they once did make intriguing films about the little people, plus this is clearly the ultimate expression of Minnelli’s aesthetic credo, gaudy studio schizophrenia and all. What is most unexpected about it, though, is when it turns out good ol’ Luis Bunuel clearly just stole its nightmarish New York nightclub finale for his Simon of the Desert. Makes for instructive comparison.


Mondo Topless (Russ Meyer, 1966). First five minutes are a (literally, thanks to Mr. Auteur) screaming tour of San Francisco, jumping on any sexual pun possible. Then Russ gives us a crazed series of girl shaking booty with even more crazed voice-over (both by him and the subjects), plus shots of transistor radios to diegetically justify the music. A masterpiece already, then, not least because of Meyer’s montage mannerisms, which are always at least as inspired as anything by his contempo Godard. But (despite a few detours to Europe, thank you readily available archive material) as an exploration of San Francisco this is even better – as good as contemporary maverick filmmaker James Benning’s experimental studies of the American landscape, but more lively. And, I swear, it includes that shot of the bay and the bridge, so a pairing with Vertigo should make this the apex of obsessive double features. Better yet, make it a fever trauma triple feature and screen Mondo Topless once before and after the Hitchcock for more intense (in every sense) scrutiny, after all it’s only half as long.

— Christoph Huber

If C.H. doesn’t mind, I’d like to run with the Fever Dream Double Feature idea in future, and welcome submissions from Shadowplayers everywhere.


Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on January 19, 2008 by dcairns

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bang! i'm joan crawford!

The latest edition feature a lengthy piece by myself on the subject of POSSESSED, a demented 1940s “womens’ picture” starring Joan Crawford. I urge you to grab the Ghost’s coat-tails as it soars overhead like the parachuting revellers from DeMille’s MADAME SATAN and hitch a ride on its glorious phantom rumble-seat.

Here is an brief extraction to whet appetites:

Possessed (dir. Curtis Bernhardt, starring

Joan Crawford) takes a long sultry look at

the hot topic of what the movie medicos

call ‘skizzo-phrenia’, an affliction

prevalent among frustrated career women.

There’s a perhaps unintended

encapsulation of the experience of the

mentally unorthodox right at the start as

Joan C wanders, with a broken walk, the

streets of L.A., which are dotted with such

things as a BRACK SHOP and another

establishment decorated with a sign which


nodded at this skilled evocation of the

world glimpsed through the eyes of the

psychically confused.

Experience Joan in all her dementia through Cairns-tinted glasses by subscribing to The Ghost With The Most. You know it makes sense.