Archive for Possessed

L is for Libertad Lamarque in La Loca

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2012 by dcairns

Delighted to bring you another installment of David Wingrove’s A-Z of Mexican Melodrama —

CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

L is for Libertad Lamarque in La Loca(The Madwoman)

In Hollywood in the late 40s, it was the fashion for soignée and glamorous leading ladies to go slowly but photogenically insane. Notable examples were Joan Crawford in Possessed, Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit and Gene Tierney in Whirlpool. The benefits to a star were obvious. She could indulge in the most florid overacting in the name of ‘realism’ and, all going well, be rewarded with a Best Actress nomination into the bargain. (Or even, if she were Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, the Oscar itself!) Clearly, it was a winning formula – and one that was all too ripe for export.

Once it hit Mexico, the Glamorous Star Loses Her Marbles movie got a makeover so torrid it made the gringo prototype look positively tame. La Loca (1951) stars the formidable Libertad Lamarque, an Argentine tango diva who had relocated to Mexico five years before. Driven partly by professional ambition – and partly by the undying enmity of Eva Perón (she had incurred the First Lady’s wrath on a film set in the 40s) – Libertad brought with her a brand of musical melodrama she had pioneered in her native land. One big problem haunts most, if not all, of her films. However overwrought and hysterical the plot and the acting may be, they still cannot match the sheer throbbing emotionalism of Libertad’s voice in song.

A touch of insanity, in that case, was just what the doctor ordered. If La Loca stands today as the ultimate Libertad Lamarque vehicle, that’s not because it’s better made than any of her other films. (Her pet director, Miguel Zacarías, seemed to point the camera at his star and take the rest of the day off.) Rather, it is one film where the operatically unhinged intensity of her performance is justified by a dramatic context. “Loca”, after all, was Libertad’s big hit solo in her first Mexican movie, Gran Casino. Watching the lady self-destruct so melodiously on camera, who would dare to argue with her diagnosis?

The movie opens with a documentary-style peek inside Mexico City’s municipal asylum. We cut, provocatively enough, from a violent schizophrenic throttling his cellmate to a judge passing the death sentence on some hapless offender. Next, from an epileptic in the throes of a fit to some beatniks contorting in a nightclub. (Epilepsy, of course, is a physical and not a mental condition – but at least we know early on that clinical accuracy will not be La Loca’s strong point.) Out on the streets, meanwhile, a disturbed Libertad is wandering with her pet parrot, Archibaldo, perched on her shoulder. She wears a Jazz Age gown that was the last word in chic, circa 1926.

Some idlers in the park hail her arrival, so she obligingly stops and sings her first solo. As a pretext for Libertad to sing, this is no more ludicrous than similar moments in her other movies – and her 20s wardrobe clashes eerily with the 50s ambience all around her. (In a later song-and-dance routine, she’s a dead ringer for Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot.) Sharp-eyed viewers may be reminded of Julieta Serrano, the deranged mother in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, sporting her 60s fashions in 80s Madrid. Fuel to my suspicion that most of the good ideas in most of Pedro Almodóvar’s films are, in fact, stolen.

No sooner has she finished her solo than the police arrest her for causing a public disturbance. She comes to the attention of a handsome young psychiatrist (Rubén Rojo) who identifies her – with a speed and efficiency that are truly remarkable – as a long-lost heiress from Buenos Aires. Disowned for marrying against her father’s will, she went mad in 1936 when her father and her husband both died – and her three-year-old daughter vanished, never to be seen again. Unwilling to commit her to the municipal asylum, the doctor reunites her with some rich but shady relatives, who just happen to live close by in Mexico City.

The family takes her in, but only so they can get their paws on her inheritance. The pater familias – her first cousin by marriage – wants to claim the money on her behalf and then shut her up in a private madhouse. (He’s a crooked psychiatrist, so he owns one.) It’s no surprise that he has a beautiful adopted niece (Alma Delia Fuentes) who feels a close bond with Libertad, and promptly falls in love with the young doctor. The family, meanwhile, wants to marry her off to their son – an oily pseudo-Parisian fop who has, we suspect, only a scant interest in women, but a great and consuming interest in vintage Scotch whisky. “If we win,” he says, “I can get drunk elegantly for the rest of my life.”

Naturally, it will take a few more plot-twists (not to mention some impassioned musical numbers) to bring mother and daughter to a final tear-stained clinch. The standout is a lavish soirée, thrown by the family to reintroduce Libertad to ‘high’ society. (“We have to invite some aristocrats,” the son quips. “That’s the only way her madness won’t show.”) For this one scene, la loca throws off her 20s garb and dons a sheer black evening dress with a shoulder-bow roughly the size of the Hindenburg. Led down the grand staircase by her daughter-who-doesn’t-know-it-yet, Libertad sings a heart-rending version of the Carlos Gardel classic “Volver”. This song, too, shows up in an Almodóvar film (alas, in a dubbed performance by the talent-free Penélope Cruz).

Like all the best melodramas from Mexico and beyond, La Loca has the courage of its own absurdity. Every detail of it is unbelievable and overblown, yet its power can move even hardened cynics to tears. It’s beyond even Almodóvar to copy that.

David Melville

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“I was blown up eating cheese.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2008 by dcairns

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Gary Cooper’s explanation of how he came to be injured is probably the line of dialogue that will stay with me longest from Frank Borzage’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS, which may just be a demonstration of how memorable dialogue is not really what the film’s for. It’s a beautifully absurd and anti-heroic line though.

The film, a WWI romance, to reduce it to the most basic level, begins with the strange miniature sequence cited earlier, which looks for all the world as if a one-legged man has gone to sleep in the middle of the miniature landscape from the flight sequence of Murnau’s FAUST.

Then we jump over to the miniature trucks, in one of which a man is bleeding to death as Gary Cooper snoozes. Arriving at a military hospital, Coop strolls sleepily off in search of assistance, but seems to get distracted by the sight of a nurse being sent home pregnant. This all set off a weird dissonance with me, since I was still worried about the injured men, still lying in their trucks awaiting attention while the hero is preoccupied with a knocked-up nurse.

Helen Hayes’ whose skeletal beauty always makes me see her as the little old lady who had a career renaissance in AIRPORT, and whom I encountered on the big screen when I was taken to see HERBIE RIDES AGAIN as a kid. It became increasingly necessary to thrust those images aside.

As in MOROCCO, Cooper is partnered with Adolphe Menjou, who here plays a comedy Italian army doctor who calls Cooper “Baby”, which is a trifle strange, but who can blame him? Cooper is a lumbering beauty, looking the way Colin Clive probably intended the Frankenstein monster to turn out, and there’s a sense that Menjou’s attempts to keep Cooper apart from his true love may be partly down to jealousy, a frustrated desire, not for Hayes, whom he’s wooing at the start, but for Cooper. It certainly seems like Hayes’ best friend Fergie (more inappropriate associations to contend with) is determined to keep the lovers apart for sapphic reasons of her own.

So, we’re in an Italian garden, and Cooper has just snatched Hayes away from Menjou (“Girls usually prefer him,” says Coop, implausibly) and it seems a bit cruel the way they just stare at him, waiting for him to get the message and piss off, and then they’re lying down together with beautiful snowflake-like crystals of light arranged in the background and then…

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Wait, did Gary Cooper just rape Helen Hayes? Sure seems like it. She’s protesting, and there’s a fade to black (which ALWAYS means penetration is occurring) and then she’s crying and he’s apologising. It seems he didn’t take her refusal seriously until he discovered she was a virgin. As if there was no other reason she could have had for refusing. I know he’s Gary Cooper, but that seems a bit conceited (no one likes a conceited rapist, Gary). But soon she’s fine and it seems this was one of those pre-code violations that nobody minds too much (see TARZAN).

Pre-code films are weird things. When you have the code, there are all sorts of values you can take for granted, and certain plot elements, like crime not paying, which can be predicted. Even the most bizarre moments, like the happy ending + miscarriage in CAUGHT, make complete sense when you factor in the peculiar rulebook movies were following. But in pre-code films, there’s not only greater license, there’s a moral free-for-all in which anything’s up for grabs and no normal standards can be assumed to apply. It’s a lot like what I imagine Amsterdam must be like.

Anyway, Coop and Hayes are now a couple, and then he goes to the front and cuts that near-fatal slice of cheese that lands him on the operating table of Dr. Menjou…

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Asides from the Murnau influence, fading slightly as the ’30s go on, the film shows the impact of Rouben Mamoulian’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, another Paramount production, when Cooper is transported by stretcher through a Milanese hospital, which appears to be a converted church or monastery or something. It’s a lot like going to Heaven. The Mamoulian connection is that the sequence is a prolonged P.O.V. shot, with characters talking to the lens as if it were Coop. I had thought that the subjective camera hospital admission shot dated from around 1946, with A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and POSSESSED vying for first place, but Borzage is there first by some considerable distance. It’s a magnificent coup de cinema, with elaborate forced perspective ceilings keeping up the tone of theatrical artifice.

The religious setting comes in handy for another incredible scene, a sort of unofficial wedding, with a priest mumbling the service over a recuperating Cooper and Nurse Hayes (“At least I’m in white,”) without telling them at first what he’s up to, and in defiance of the fact that he can’t legally marry them when, as enlisted soldier and nurse, they’re both basically the property of their country. The hushed quality of the scene, with the weird mumbling Italian and Hayes and Cooper going through an incantatory evocation of the ideal wedding they’d like to have (“No orange blossoms.” “I can smell them.” “No organ music.” “I can hear it plainly.” ) manages to be both holy and romantic, and I particularly love the sudden wide shot looking past the priest, which makes him look 50ft high.

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Deserting from the forces to be with his love, Cooper wanders ironically into the first real war scene, a chaotic montage that looks like Slavko Vorkapich got drunk and decided to blow up the sets from FRANKENSTEIN. Miniature planes arc through the air on invisible wheels, explosions shower sparks, and a pram filled with live chickens is overturned. Ain’t war hell? This Bunuelian poultry catastrophe is also accompanied by armies of crucifixes, part of the overall Christian slant here. In Borzage’s hands, the Hemingway novel becomes about a man coming to God through romantic love, which may well be the BIG THEME of F.B.’s whole career.

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Amazing moments are now piling up like rugby players. Hayes has confessed to a fear she might die in the rain, and Borzage, who believes in prophecy, cuts to a downpour as she is operated on. Her hand clutches the sheets and he cuts to Cooper’s hands rowing his  boat to get to her. Could be cheesy; isn’t.

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As Cooper finds Hayes, she’s lost the baby she was having, and is now mortally ill. Cooper crosses to a café, pausing to help a dog that wants to get into a covered pail (“There’s nothing there, dog,” — Borzage loves dogs) and prays. It’s an incredible scene. Everyone’s reading about the SURRENDER, and this is Cooper’s unconditional surrender to the Creator. He prays into the flower on the café table like it was a tiny petalled microphone (“You took the baby. That was alright. But don’t let her die.”) then, in an astonishing moment, eats the flower.

Cooper at Hayes bedside gets the full Wagner soundtrack, Tristan und Isolde at maximum volume, pausing for peace to be declared. Man, filmmakers back then just went for it with Wagner, didn’t they? I mean, Bunuel uses it rather slyly, but here and in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY it’s pouring out of the speakers without irony whatsoever.

This film may not entirely cohere, but that sort of works in its favour. Rather than being faithful Hemingway, which I gather it’s not, or a full-on religious tract, it’s much too mysterious to be a straight message movie. I believe the very expensive Borzage book, which is very good, suggests a reading of the work based on Mozart’s masonic opera The Magic Flute, which may be true, but I think I prefer the mystical confusion this film provokes to any precise allegorical interp.

Of course, you can get some lovely Christians, but it’s a way of seeing things I’ve never understood. Not only do I not believe in God, but the only God I can clearly envisage looks like Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural cartoon and acts like Dr. Mengele, so Borzage might seem like someone I would struggle to apprehend. But I quite like the struggle.

Borzage is a Christian from Mars! Not only is he shockingly devoid of prejudice and surprisingly open about sex (even for the pre-code era), he also appears not to care a fig for ecclesiastical convention — in both this film and MAN’S CASTLE, marriages are performed (having already been consummated) that are clearly designated as having no legal force or official recognition, but which we are obviously meant to accept as, if anything, all the more valid for that. It may form part of the answer to this mystery that Borz was a Freemason, though he had grown up under the influence of Catholicism and Mormonism, so his sense of spirituality was naturally both broad and rather quirky.

It’s an exciting adventure for me to delve into such a strange, alien sensibility, to explore the world of these films leaving my own prejudices at the opening credits, and collecting them at the end to find them slightly altered, hard to recognise.

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Bewitching

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2008 by dcairns

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Arch Oboler seems to have been an American radio demi-god, but having missed out on this cultural golden age, and having failed to take advantage of most of the good stuff available online, my experience of his work is going to come from films, at least initially. Oboler, as writer-producer-director, authored several movies, and was notable as a pioneer of 3-D (“A lion in your lap!”). It says something that he came from a medium devoid of any images at all (except the all-important ones in your head) and then felt he had to have images WITH DEPTH.

He’s also noteworthy for having a Beatles song written about him — Oboler Di, Oboler Da. But then, many Beatles songs commemorate great filmmakers: Straub/Huillet Fields Forever, I Am the Walsh, I Wanna Be Your Mann, Penny Lang, Polythene Pabst, Savoy Truffaut, Some Other Guy-Blaché, The Fuller on the (George Roy) Hill, The Long and Winding Roeg, and of course the concept album Sandrich Perry’s Losey Herz Kluge Brahm.

Having finally sorted myself out with a Napier University staff card, I am at last free to plunder their library, which contains many interesting off-air recordings snatched from the jaws of time. BEWITCHED looked interesting, although I didn’t know what it was, and it shared a tape with CARDINAL RICHELIEU, which I also didn’t know what it was. Turned out to be Roland V. Lee directing the Iron Duke himself, George Arliss. Save that one for another day.

BEWITCHED is a 1945 psycho-noir — unrelated to the cutesy TV series or its ghastly movie spin-off — starring Phyllis Thaxter, who had hitherto escaped under my radar but is now firmly on it. She’s in things I’ve seen, like NO MAN OF HER OWN, but what chance did she have in that, with a few minutes screen time dominated by Barbara Stanwyck? Here, in only her second movie, she’s terrific in what amounts to a dual part. Because Joan Ellis has TWO MINDS IN THE SAME BODY!!!

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This is essentially a Hollywood psycho-babble loony film, slotting neatly into the same genre as Curtis Bernhardt’s Joan Crawford vehicle POSSESSED, which I appreciated here. And isn’t it interesting that these somewhat campy melodramas, under the guise of educating us about psychiatric illness, use terms associated with sorcery and magic and religion in their titles? I bet there are more like that.

Oboler’s film, like Bernhardt’s, is emotive and seductive and evocative of psychological disturbance so long as it’s showing it in action, and then amusingly cheesy when it tries to explain it. Here we get amiably rubbish psychiatrist Edmund Gwenn as Dr (Henri?) Bergson, dispensing nonsense but nevertheless saving the day with a delightfully preposterous conclusion.

Oboler’s great! He begins with thrilling music (from the inventive Bronislau Kaper, whose stuff always stands out from the Hollywood norm) over a big clock, and we learn from Doc Bergson’s V.O. that a strange case is baffling him — but then an independant V.O. takes over, for this is going to be like a narrative relay race, with different storytelling approaches picked up and then discarded whenever Oboler gets the urge.

The God-V.O. dumps us into Phyllis’ past history, and we learn of her love affair with gruesome teen Hank Daniels, whom she will later gratify us by murdering. This stuff is all told with a degree of subjectivity, as we have access to Phyllis’s thoughts, and thus to the voice in her head. Evil Phyllis wants Good Phyllis to ditch this “boy” and get a “man”. Evil Phyllis is clearly horny.

Fleeing to New York via speedy montage (so much more comfortable than train), Phyllis falls into the hunky arms of attorney Stephen McNally (a real-life former attorney, which is a pretty nifty casting coup, especially for wartime — everybody in this movie is presumably 4F, but McNally is an A1 leading man), but this brings on another attack of the Evil Phyllis: when McNally takes Phyll in his arms, Evil Phyllis takes over and cops the kiss. So frustrating when that happens.

This part of the film is the smartest, since Phyllis’ problem seems not so much schizoid as schizophrenic: the nasty, critical voice in her head feels like a suppressed part of her own being, the part with sexual desires she can’t admit to. In fact, voice-in-the-head syndrome (as I’m now calling it, in defiance of all medical procedure) doesn’t necessarily signify schizophrenia or any kind of mental illness, although it can be annoying. Actress Zoe Wannamaker (daughter of actor-director Sam) has managed a very successful stage and screen career despite the irksome disembodied commentary running through her brain like ticker-tape: see here for more info if you have this problem.

Then there’s William Blake and Dickens and Freud and Ghandi, and all those hardcore Christians who think they’re having conversations with God, but whom I submit are actually conversing with discrete portions of the main-brain. Often the voices may convey thoughts censored by the overmind. Worth listening to, but not necessarily worth acting on. Most psychiatrists say that what the voices are on about is of no importance, the main thing is to smush them with drugs, but I tend to think there’s a significant difference between a voice saying “You suck,” (self-critical voices are something we all have, to a greater or lesser degree) and one saying “Kill your boyfriend.” If you acknowledge the voices as stemming from your own mind, you learn something about yourself you may not like, but which you can now tackle.

Phyllis gets this slightly wrong by stabbing her small-town boyfriend to death when he comes to take her back home, and now refuses to help lawyer-lover McNally help her mount a defense. Her reasoning is that if Good Phyllis goes to the chair, Evil Phyllis will perish also. The beast must die… etc.

Re-enter gentle Gwenn, who hypnotises Phyllis in front of the Governor (“Hocus-pocus!” he splutters) and separates out Good and Evil Phyllis into transparent astral projections. Say, this guy’s GOOD. Evil Phyllis looks a bit like Lil in FIRE WALK WITH ME, only without the Cindy Sherman trappings.

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“Lil had a sour face.”

“What d’you mean?”

“Her face… it had a sour expression on it.”

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Gwenn announces to the skeptical Gov that “the execution will take place as scheduled,” and sentences the phantasmal Phyllis to death. If only Multiple Personality Disorder were that easy. One problem being that experts don’t even agree if it exists — it seems to have been diagnosed almost exclusively in the United States, which is certainly suggestive of… something or other.

Based on this cracking film, which throws out interesting compositional or narrational or sound ideas in paractically every scene, I’m uber-intrigued to see Oboler’s other work — and hear it too. Next up from the library will be FIVE, his post-atomic survival yarn, and I’ve downloaded THE TWONKY, which had me whooping with glee within twenty seconds: more on that later.