Archive for Walter Slezak

Occupational Hazards

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2012 by dcairns

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Frank Borzage’s TILL WE MEET AGAIN is one of his many good ones — it’s a bit undercast, though, with Ray Milland compelled to suppress his naughtiness and Barbara Britton as a novice nun showing no hint of any naughtiness at all (but when you see her in I SHOT JESSE JAMES you see she had considerable reserves of that desirable quality).

Milland plays an American airman (with very occasional nods to a vaguely stateside accent) shot down, rescued by the resistance, and entrusted with secret intelligence gathered by the underground. After a last-minute disruption in their plans, Britton finds herself entrusted with escorting Milland to safety. The movie could have been a forerunner of HEAVEN KNOWS, MR ALLISON, except that somebody obviously felt that any hint of desire between (married) man and (married to Christ) nun would be unacceptable. The most the movie can admit to is that Milland’s reminiscences about his home life open Britton’s eyes to an understanding of male-female relations that had been denied to her. Under the surface, of course, Borzage hints at simmering romantic longing, never stated, and that gives the film its edge.

Scripted by Lenore Coffee, the movie generates just enough suspense in its cross-country situations, and just enough unresolved sexual tension, to maintain interest, but the real attraction is the wondrously unreal studio landscapes and the lighting and camera movies Borzage presides over with ace DoP Theodor Sparkuhl (AKA “Mr. Sparkle”).

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It’s wartime propaganda, of course — Konstantin Shayne is a witty Nazi villain, and Walter Slezak plays a craven French mayor acting as his accomplice, who must of course reveal a scrap of decency lurking somewhere about his corpulent form. Like most Borzage, it’s also informed by religious feeling, but this side of it isn’t propagandistic — rather, it’s felt by the filmmaker and expressed honestly. Sexuality was always a part of Borzage’s religious feelings, and he allows himself the tiniest hint that perhaps Britton’s character would have liked to experience this, and would have actually grown closer to God by doing so — and that she has become more human and divine just from recognizing this. A key scene occurs when she nurses a delirious, injured Milland, who mistakes her for his wife. The scene fades to black discretely, the editor’s favourite mode of plausible deniability — we’re not told where she passes the night. But we could look at CHINA DOLL, a middling late Borzage which reprises many of his favourite tropes, and gain a more distinct idea of what MIGHT have happened…

Also —

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Britton is looking for Milland.

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A puff of cigarette smoke seems to betray his position.

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But — ack! — it’s not him.

The Sunday Intertitle: Exterminating Angel

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2011 by dcairns

Strange, isn’t it, how little-seen the early work of Michael Curtiz is? Or perhaps not so much strange as symptomatic — the desire of the auteur movement to see filmmakers justify their seriousness by exploring recurring themes tends to exclude Curtiz, whose reputation is that of a guy mainly interested in shiny floors. There’s the sadism, which turns up frequently in the Errol Flynn movies and also in his on-set behaviour, but sadism and shiny floors are apparently not enough to build an auteur reputation.

Of course, CASABLANCA is revered, as are a number of other MC movies, including his pre-code work almost en masse. But much of that is credited to “the genius of the system” and the kind of film buffs who most often praise CASABLANCA are those who don’t care so much about directors. The fact that the film was shot without a clear ending in mind is used to suggest that great films just happen as freakish accidents. I don’t want to insult the movie gods by suggesting they don’t play a key role, but the skills of a director like Curtiz count for something too.

You will never in a million years guess who this is. Scroll to bottom of page to find out.

To embrace Curtiz as artist, you need to accept his concentration on the visual surface as his work as neither strength nor weakness, but simply fact: it’s the kind of filmmaker he was.

A ragged angel arrives to kick some ass.

And so to SODOM AND GOMORRAH, made in 1922 in Germany when Mike Curtiz was Mihaly Kertesz, even though he was born Mano Kertesz Kaminer. It’s a historically very revealing work, and still quite enjoyable.

Since Curtiz’s Hollywood biblical spectacular NOAH’S ARK has just enjoyed an American DVD release, it’s interesting to compare it with the earlier silent epic. Like ARK, and DeMille’s first version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, it folds its Old Testament folderol into a contemporary narrative designed to show the continuing relevance of the yarn. You need a mega-budget for this, as such continuing relevance may not be obvious unless you have a fortune to throw at it.

A single boudoir scene of S&G contains enough sheer beauty to supply the town of Bedford for a year.

In S&G, we meet a sleazy oligarch, Georg Reimers, fresh from wiping out his competitors on the stock exchange, who throws a colossal orgiastic party (it’s pretty mild, really) to celebrate his engagement. His son arrives, with friendly priest Victor Varconi in tow, and immediately falls for dad’s betrothed (the interesting Lucy Doraine, real-life wife of Curtiz), who’s just provoked a suicide attempt by her former lover, a sculptor who’s been working on a statue of her entitled “Sodom” (secretly, I believe she may have been justified in calling it off on this basis alone).

As the events reach an anti-climax, the femme fatale takes a nap and has a dream in which she provokes one man to murder the other, is sentenced to hang, and then has another dream within the dream in which she’s in ancient Sodom. The dramatis personae of the modern movie are recast as biblical, or at least epic movie, personalities, with the priest as the destructive angel come to demolish the sinning cities (as in Robert Aldrich’s SODOM AND GOMORRAH, the second city of the title never actually shows up). Doraine finds herself playing, with Lynchian ease, both Lot’s wife and the Queen of Syria.

It’s what I call an epic!

Apart from its seemingly influential narrative structure (I mean the embedded bible tale, not the loopy dream-within-a-dream bit) S&G looks forward to later German mega-productions like METROPOLIS, and even stuff like RAN where no direct influence is likely — check out the final destruction of the city, above.

Did this movie influence DeMille’s TEN COMMANDMENTS, released the following year? Or was the idea of bible tales with modern bookends something in the air? At any rate, it’s useful to see a film like S&G, which fills in some blanks in film history, as well as being a peculiar and impressive piece of work in its own right.

Now, the answer to the mystery posed above —

Who’d have thought the slender, puppyish youth in S&G could be Walter Slezak?