Archive for The Dark Mirror

The Big Box Set

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2017 by dcairns

Thrilled to be a part — or several parts — of Arrow Academy’s Four Film Noir Classics box set. I have provided video essays on Fritz Lang for SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR (House of Lang), and Joseph H Lewis for THE BIG COMBO (Wagonwheel Joe), both in collaboration with editor Timo Langer. Those were huge fun and should serve as helpful intros to the filmmakers work while hopefully providing interest and entertainment even to those who are very familiar with their oeuvres. For the hardback booklet (can a hardback be a booklet?) I wrote a piece on Robert Siodmak and THE DARK MIRROR, which puts me alongside pieces by Tony Rayns, Michael Brooke and Andrew Spicer, which is pretty good company to be in. I feel like a fraud!

This means the only film in the set I didn’t get to talk about is Abraham Polonsky’s FORCE OF EVIL. Awww, why not? I love that film!

Momo the crazy Tonkinese did nose this set onto the floor, but the incident wasn’t captured on camera. You’ll have to take his continuing enthusiasm for my work on faith.

The set is available now ~ here.

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CINE DORADO: O is for La Otra

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2013 by dcairns

David Wingrove returns with another installment in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama. One correction — the first theremin in movies featured in Miklos Rosza’s score for THE LOST WEEKEND, in 1945.

 CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

O is for La otra (The Other One)

A life that could have been but was not.

A fate that chose the most twisted and tortuous paths.

– Dolores del Río in La otra (1946)

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Watching the credits to La otra, you could be forgiven for expecting a sci-fi movie. The camera drifts in outer space, planets aglow in varying shapes and sizes, while a theremin wails frantically on the soundtrack. (The use of this instrument in La otra may well be a movie first.) We might be at a low-budget, black-and-white preview of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! Yet this film, as we shall see, takes place on a planet infinitely stranger and more glamorous than Mars…

In the opening scene, a crowd gathers to mourn a dead millionaire. His widow – her face hidden by a black veil – steps daintily out of a hearse. A mousy woman with glasses pushes through the crowd and fights her way to the widow’s side. As the ladies stand shoulder to (padded) shoulder by the open grave, the inconsolable wife turns to the intruder and hisses: “Couldn’t you find something better to wear?”

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The first big hit for its director Roberto Gavaldón, and an acting tour de force for its star Dolores del Río, La otra (1946) is the Mexican melodrama that defines the entire genre. It is also one of the grandest and most flamboyant ‘women’s pictures’ of the 40s. The lovely Dolores plays not one but both those ladies at the graveside – who are, in fact, twin sisters. The wealthy Magdalena is vain, frivolous, grasping, cruel, selfish and generally vile. Her impoverished sibling, María, is pure, virtuous and hard working. Yet her life is poisoned by jealousy and hatred of the sister who has everything she does not.

Such casting was par for the course in the 40s, when no movie diva of any stature was content to play just one role in a film. In 1944, audiences in Mexico had thrilled to María Félix as blonde and dark femmes fatales in Amok and – from that other film industry north of the border – Maria Montez as good and evil twins in Cobra Woman. In the same year as La otra, Hollywood made ‘twin’ movies with Bette Davis (A Stolen Life) and Olivia de Havilland (The Dark Mirror). Davis – in a final bizarre twist – would remake the plot of La otra in her 1964 vehicle Dead Ringer.

Yet while the twin sisters in Hollywood films embody polar opposites of Good and Evil, the siblings in La otra are both corrupt and vicious to varying degrees. After the funeral, the two repair to the wealthy sister’s mansion, a fantasia of white caryatids and chessboard marble floors. Taking pity for once on her sister, Magdalena flings open her closets (a scene that foreshadows Written on the Wind) and throws a few unwanted designer gowns in her direction. “No, not that one!” she says, having second thoughts. “I’ve promised that one to the maid.”

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While callous Magdalena is fretting over her mourning outfits, poor frumpy María sits at the dressing table and wraps herself, for comfort, in one of her sister’s priceless fur stoles. The butler comes in to announce tea and sees her reflection in the giant mirror. He assumes, naturally, that she is the lady of the house. A strange light flickers, momentarily, in María’s eyes. We know, at that moment, that a dangerous (and probably lethal) plot is about to be hatched.

Leaving the mansion, María overhears the staff gossiping about the 5 million pesos her sister stands to inherit. Out in the street, it’s Christmas Eve and the whole of Mexico City is lottery-mad. The jackpot, of course, is 5 million pesos! This sum passes her on the sides of buses, flashes at her from neon signs. It even hangs over the bar where she goes with her detective boyfriend (played by Argentine tango singer Agustín Irusta). When she rails against her poverty, he says in horror: “I don’t recognise you when you talk like that. It’s as if you’d become another woman!”

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In the film’s bravura set piece, María telephones Magdalena and announces she is going to commit suicide. Mildly annoyed by such histrionics, Magdalena summons her chauffeur and drives to the squalid garret where her sister lives. She climbs the stair in the courtyard, as firecrackers explode around her and children sing hymns in a candlelit procession. At the top of the stairs, María is waiting with a gun. She points it at Magdalena – but we do not see or hear the shot. Instead, a child smashes the head of a piñata hanging in the courtyard; it bursts open, with a deafening bang.

Upstairs, Magdalena is slumped in a rocking chair. Dead. In a scene too graphic and visceral for a Hollywood film, María strips naked in silhouette. She then begins, slowly, to peel off the dead woman’s silk stockings. Finally, dressed in her sister’s clothes, she walks down the stairs to the waiting limousine. (She almost forgets to take off her glasses – but she leaves them on the table, with a suicide note, in the nick of time.) She gets into the car and drives off towards her new life.

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Not that she ever has much fun. Soon, she has to witness the late husband’s will. Unable to forge Magdalena’s signature, she burns her right hand with a hot poker so she can sign with her left. We watch the poker as it heats up slowly on an open fire; we get a close-up of del Río’s exquisite face as it contorts in agony. A few scenes later, a sleazy moustachioed gigolo (Victor Junco) shows up and demands her gratitude – sexual and financial – for helping her to poison her husband. Poor María has no choice but to give in. As she was clearly too respectable to sleep with her boyfriend, we wonder if this new man will notice she’s a virgin…

But even Mexican movies, at their most florid, have to draw a veil over some things. A triumph for Gavaldón’s operatic mise en scène – all multiplying mirrors and ominous shadows – La otra is the equal of any classic Hollywood melodrama of the 40s. The performance(s) of Dolores del Río can rank with the best of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck. Mind you, I’m still not sure why they needed those planets. La otra is in a dimension all of its own.

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David Melville

What are friends for?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2010 by dcairns

I really, really liked THE SOCIAL NETWORK, but I don’t know how much I have to say about it. Well, here goes.

First thing to strike is the rapid pace of dialogue, which is refreshing — I’ve been wallowing in pre-codes so it was nice to not feel I was being spoken to like a three-year-old. Also, the digital photography of Jeff Cronenweth is really beautiful, and particularly when doing what digital does best — showing night scenes without enhanced lighting.

(Is this going to be a checklist?)

Yay, John Getz! Stathis Borans himself (centre frame). In a cast as predominantly youthful as this, it’s good to have at least one face that isn’t inhumanly smooth, and craggy old Borans is a welcome sight. I don’t know why this guy didn’t make it bigger, he was good in THE FLY and BLOOD SIMPLE and then in THE FLY II, of all things, he was outstanding. And then he dropped off my radar completely. Here he’s that rarity, a sympathetic lawyer.

Whatever anybody says, I liked all the characters — there was something appealing about everybody, maybe because they were all so flawed and didn’t know it. Like Clouzot, I tend to find monstrously flawed characters more appealing than plain nice ones. And there aren’t many filmmakers around today who do nice well. Anyway, ZOMBIELAND’s Jesse Eisenberg and DR PARNASSUS’s Andrew Garfield are great, as is the satanic Justin Timberlake, the nastiest character, but one I still liked because he’s fun.

My viewing chums, Fiona and Marvelous Mary did regret the somewhat marginal roles played by the film’s female characters, but admitted that in a story of killer nerds, this was perhaps inevitable. Rooney Mara is very good in her pivotal role as the muse of Facebook, and I expect to see more of her, but it is a shamelessly boysie yarn.

Armie Hammer, a name which amuses me, plays twins, and Fiona immediately sussed that Fincher was more the kind of guy to use fancy digital footwork to achieve the effect than to indulge in a nationwide talent search for identical twins who can act and row boats. It turns out the technique used was precisely that which Olivia DeHavilland incorrectly believed was used to twin her in THE DARK MIRROR: Hammer played the scene with another, similarly-built actor Josh Spence, and then his head, sporting a different hairstyle, was filmed and inserted atop Spence’s body. At last, the technology exists to make DeHavilland’s mad dream a reality — somebody please call her up and tell her!

Fincher’s style is mostly crisp, fast-cut but with occasional longer and more fluid shots to break the pace — and then there’s a wildly indulgent trip to the Henley Regatta, where he breaks out a whole bunch of preposterous high-tech tricks. And the scene comes at the perfect point to offer relief from the rapidfire patter and jargon of the surrounding action.

I’m coining, and copyrighting, a neologism for filmmakers who want to be the new Kubrick — “kubris”. Fincher is definitely kubristic, with a mania for detail which advertises itself in every frame, but taken on his own merits he’s still an impressive package, with the special effects wizardry, loving detail-work, and enthusiasm for performance. Also, I think I’ve figured out that I’m going to instinctively know which Fincher films to go see — I had bad feelings about ALIEN 3, PANIC ROOM and BENJAMIN BORING BASTARD, and I was right, at least as far as whether I would enjoy them or not. Although it’s really only the last one that I regret shelling out shekels on.

For some reason, knowing screenwriter Aaron Sorkin largely by reputation (The West Wing etc), I hadn’t expected to be impressed by his work, but this witty take on “What shall it profit a man…” is superbly constructed and disposes of the acreage of exposition lightly and clearly. And I’m very curious how they cleared it with the legal department: a scurrilous tale from very recent history, dealing with a bunch of millionaires and billionaires who have already proved themselves litigious…

In spite of the technological subject and execution, I’d sell this film as a tragedy told in a very funny style, a pleasing combo with the added advantage of being really, really ridiculously good-looking. Dave Kehr finds the ending devastating, which just shows that one man’s devastating is another’s cute & well-rounded. But whatever your reaction, I think you’ll probably be glad you saw this one.