Archive for The Testament of Dr Mabuse

Devious

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2020 by dcairns

I got an email from my New York chum Jaime Christley about GW Pabst’s ABWEGE, streamed from Pordenone, and I liked it so much it put me off writing anything about the film myself, so I’m just publishing it here.

Frame-grabs are by Jaime and also Mark Fuller, who can get them to work even though I can’t, suddenly.

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I forgot I’d already seen ABWEGE but yes, it looked great. One of Pabst’s most haunting images is the junkie at the party – MORE haunting after she’s had her fix than before. Pabst can go toe to toe with anybody in depicting the gilded rot of the continental leisure class of that era, but even with his talent for vivid, packed images, he’s a lot more sly than he lets on. Plenty of “let the audience put 2 and 2 together.”

Maybe too much Gustav Diessl and his furrowed brow? Lang knew well enough in THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE that a little Diessl goes a long way. (Actually, looking at what I’ve seen him in – several Pabsts! – I tend to like him. I don’t know what makes him come across like a paperweight here….. might just be my mood.)

Jaime N. Christley

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DC again. Note: Diessl famously plays Jack the Ripper in PANDORA’S BOX, and Louise Brooks always claimed that Pabst cast him in that role because he was “her type.” Psychological manipulation being Pabst’s metier.

The only other thing I wanted to talk about in this louche and lustrous presentation was the dancing. First we get Lutz and Lola doing their celebrated Intrepid Crouch —

Then there’s Brigitte Helm doing a startling visualisation of what it means to literally melt in a man’s arms. Impossible to represent this in still images but worth trying anyway. Sorry, I don’t know who I’m stealing this frame-grab from:

Wait, yes I do, Donna Hill. Thanks!

Helm’s entire form becomes snakelike, bending seductively in places it shouldn’t be able to bend, like the serpentine woman in THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, then she takes it further and becomes a snake made of butter dancing in an oven. It is something to see.

The Sunday Intertitle: What an odd thing to say

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2017 by dcairns

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“I’m not doing this anymore! Running around at 200kmph! It’s modern cannibalism!”

A strange intertitle from the pen of a strange woman, Thea Von Harbou. Due to a job I’ve got on, I found myself watching both SPIONE and both parts of DR. MABUSE: DER SPIELER this week, which is quite a lot of espionage to consume at one sitting. But highly enjoyable, as most binges are.

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The above statement is made here, in the cosy flat of two disgruntled henchmen. I could imagine that being a great premise for a sitcom, except that Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter already nailed that concept. And who IS sending Ben and Gus those baffling orders for scampi &c? Surely it’s the doctor himself, who starts off flesh-and-blood in this film, becomes more of a psychic influence in TESTAMENT, and is a mere principle by the time of 1,000 EYES. By the time he seeps into Pinter he’s a Godot-like abstraction, probably not even a conscious presence…

Post-binge, I found I slightly preferred SPIONE, since by that point Lang’s insert shots have moved on to a new realm of gleaming fetishism, but MABUSE sets out the plan for so much later Lang, it’s like watching the birth of a monster. Horrible yet awe-inspiring. FANTOMAS and his many imitators may have set the pattern, but to the master-criminal scheme is added something fresh, via Norbert Jacques’ novel: while Fantomas worked mostly alone with the occasional foxy accomplice or hired-for-the-occasion goon squad, Mabuse is the leader of a criminal empire, or, as he later calls it, a state within a state. All the Hitler comparisons stem from that one adjustment.

It makes Mabuse both more like a real-world crime boss, and yet also more fantastical, since he seems able to accomplish anything. He has tentacles everywhere, like a naughty Hokusai octopus. One thing I was watching for was some good police interrogation scenes, but the recurring theme of MABUSE is that any time the police clap a perp in irons, Mabuse has the guy offed before he can squawk.

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Here’s a Mabuseian insert shot — not quite up to the standard of SPIONE, but very nice.

 

Ghost Writing

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2010 by dcairns

What to call Polanski’s latest? In America it’s THE GHOST WRITER, a rather pedantic and factual title with nothing evocative or provocative about it. Here in Britain it’s THE GHOST, a title it shares with Robert Harris’s novel, a title reflected in the film, where the nameless hack played by Ewan McGregor refers to himself as “your ghost.” So the shorter title should be the preferred choice, right? But it’s obvious from the film’s artful end credits that THE GHOST WRITER is the name it’s been produced under, and the tacked-on main title at the start betrays Polanski’s obvious intent to start the movie without any titles at all.

Whatever we decide to call it, it’s a very fine film. I’m not sure Polanski would see it as a political film, although the backdrop is politics and it takes a jaundiced view of certain very recognizable real-world figures. Certain qualities, like the savage joke of an ending, can be seen both as evidence of the director’s earnestness or his flippancy. Certainly the behaviour of the hero at the end, and the readiness of the antagonists’ response, do not promote a view of the film as fundamentally realistic, but a movie can enter the paranoid mindset of the genre thriller without abandoning political engagement… I’m just not sure.

None of which hampered my enjoyment of the film, especially the playing. McGregor is having a very good year, and Olivia Williams should rise to preeminence on the back of this. Pierce Brosnan has always been a funny guy, and he’s hugely enjoyable as the intellectually lazy former PM, avoiding any hint of impersonation (we have Michael Sheen if we need a precise copy) and insisting on his character’s reality within the film, rather than depending on Tony Blair’s outside it. None of which is intended as any disrespect to Sheen.

“Don’t grin,” says Williams to Brosnan’s image on TV, and I can imagine Polanski saying the same thing to McGregor, a likable thesp who has tended to fall back on his shiny teeth a bit too much. Actually, Brosnan on TV is the only wrong note: he’s slurring his words strangely, in what must be intended as his “statesman” voice, perhaps meant to sound like Albert Finney as Churchill in The Gathering Storm, but coming off more like Albert Finney in THE DRESSER. Weird.

The other weird notes I thought were quite good, really. When McGregor finds some old photos of Brosnan at university, the images are pathetically photoshopped and deeply ludicrous, but it seemed sort of apt that Tony Blair should have a past constricted via Stalinist revisionism, retouched photos of a retouched life, something from 1984. And it’s his world we’re living in, so the digital sky replacements, adding smudgy watercolour greys to every background, not quite convincingly, added something too. Blair/Brosnan has brought the English weather with him.

Of course this Blair is called Adam Lang, and the movie begins with a nice swipe from THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE, a single unmoving car among many mobile ones signifying the death of its occupant. But generally Polanski avoids Langian flourishes, maintaining the more relaxed, fluid and unshowy style he’s inhabited since THE PIANIST. His actors and slow trickle of conspiracy plot are more than enough to hold the attention.

Back to those actors: an amusing scene with Scotsmen McGregor and David Rintoul both pretending to be English. Irishman Brosnan plays Scottish, Tom Wilkinson plays American (as a sort of sinister Robert Osborne) and the only person who’s unconvincing is Kim Cattrall, playing English — despite the fact that she IS English. I quite like KC, but she does sometimes mismatch the pitch of her perf to what’s going on around her: BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES was another case where she was a notch or two more shrill than everyone else, which was a seriously bad idea in that movie. Keep your head down and hope nobody spots you, would be my advice.

Rintoul, who was in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, is further evidence of my theory that Polanski casts Brits he remembers from 60s/70s horror movies. This probably started with Jon Finch in MACBETH, and Finch’s VAMPIRE LOVERS co-star Barbara Jefford was in THE NINTH GATE. Not a coincidence, since she makes so few films. Add Peter Copley (OLIVER TWIST / FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED), Frank Finlay (THE PIANIST / TWISTED NERVE) and Roy Kinnear (PIRATES / TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA) and it starts to look like some kind of strange plan

Other welcome faces this time: Timothy Hutton, Jim Belushi and Eli Wallach. Wallach is a special joy. When viewing a very elderly actor, especially one as explosive as he, I generally have two slight fears: that the actor will overplay uncontrollably and embarrass us both, or that he’ll just kind of keel over in mid-sentence. Neither happens here. Result! Better yet, Wallach reminds us how exhilarating and intensely focused a performer he is.

Meanwhile, this is a very fine film, with interesting connections to CHINATOWN (Lang’s oriental servants, the drowning death of a witness…) and a measured control of pace that continually pays off in viewer fascination. My favourite little moment was probably when McGregor pauses midway through the intractable manuscript, looks out the window, and sees the Asian help loading beach debris from the porch into a wheelbarrow, while the wind blasts it out as soon as he turns his back. A perfect analog for the creative process on a bad day.