Thursday, March 15, 2012

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead is an intense film.  It starts out bleak, turns horrific when the zombies attack, and becomes hopeless when man turns against humanity.  The formula might now be unoriginal but the power this 50 year old film retains is stronger than any horror film made since.  The fact is Night of the Living Dead is the most important horror film ever made.

Zombies attack; that is the basic plot for most undead survival horror pictures, but George Romero’s original 1968 film uses zombies more like a Hitchcock MacGuffin.  Barbara and her brother Johnny travel hours outside of Pittsburg to leave flowers in a cemetery.  Johnny jokes about her being afraid.  A man attacks.  Johnny fights him and Barbara runs away.  The man pursues and chases Barbara to an abandoned house in an isolated rural area.  This is the set up.  Ben arrives and takes refuge in the house.  By now Barbara is hysterical and incoherent and paralyzed.  Ben boards up the house as zombies group outside.  Down in the basement another group of survivors led by Mr. Cooper.  They don’t come to until they are certain danger is absent.  Cooper and Ben disagree with their course of action.  Cooper wants to barricade in the cellar.  Ben feels they stand a fighting chance upstairs where there is food and radio, and where they can observe their surroundings and maybe get away if need be.  The tension develops between who is right.

The first glimpse I ever had of Night of the Living Dead was in a horror tribute special hosted by Vincent Price in the 1980s.  It was called “Creepy Classics”.  Price provided campy commentary in between movie clips, and the first sequence shown was the cemetery scene.  I was scared by the film and did not see it complete for another 10 or so years.  I always thought Barbara was the star of the piece.  The last image I had of the film was her running into the lonely house—a shelter from the undead—and never imagined that the film could shift focus from the zombies to the horror that the human characters create.

The film sets up immediately an uneasy relationship to death: the cemetery sign has bullet holes shot into it, a foreshadowing of just how easy and dismissive death will become in this tale.  We also are uncertain of who Barbara and her brother are leaving flowers for.  Is it their father or grandfather?  We know through their conversation that the deceased is close to their mother who is too old to make the trip, but Johnny claims he cannot remember the person.  He surely could remember his own father.  That both show, in their own ways, such a distance from the dead man led me to believe it was a grandfather buried in the cemetery, especially when Johnny reminds his sister that his grandfather said he would be damned to hell for scaring Barbara in the very same cemetery when they were kids.  The set up is misleading, and must have been in 1968 when such a film was new and unbearably terrorizing—there is no way to expect that in the very first scene, led into with an impersonation of horror icon Vincent Price (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”) that a zombie will attack the defenseless people.

Night of the Living Dead began what was, up until 2005, a trilogy known as “Undead”.  George Romero wrote and directed a series of films about human behavior in the face of catastrophe.  Night seems less a satire than the following films.  It fact there are no laughs in the picture.  It’s pretty grim.  But one bit of commentary, which leads to a death we hate to witness, looks ahead to Dawn of the Dead.  As the human race outside the isolated house discovers how to kill the zombies, their behavior becomes very monotonous.  They roam the field killings zombies dead.  They become so robotic, hypnotized by their repetitive ritual that they never check if those they’re shooting are the undead or civilians.  I will say no more, but at the destitute mood at the end of the picture I thought to myself that with a little more care something more positive might have happened.

Back to my initial impressions as a kid—I was disappointed to see that Barbara is killed by the very man whose death made her catatonic.  The finale, which I will not spoil, now, after I don’t know how many viewings, is still chilling.  Forget any idea of the film being a metaphor for racism—it is chilling to think that if everybody in that house listened to Mr. Cooper and hid in the cellar, they would have gotten out alive...well, maybe.  That the most despicable and cowardly man in the cast turned out to be right all along, and to a lesser extent what happens to Duane, make us doubt everything we know about the world.

I will say after my latest viewing, I was still shrunken in my chair.  I don’t think I had moved for the final 15 minutes—I am still stunned by this picture; it was not safe to move.  I felt safer contorted in my seat.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero
Writers: John A. Russo & George A. Romero
Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, and Karl Hardman
In English
Runtime: 96 minutes

IMDB link:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

As a contemporary viewer familiar with war-time films of the forties, Shadow of a Doubt is a disturbing and relentlessly modern look at the corruption of small town American life. In an era when the movies all but had to portray only positive images of this country, Alfred Hitchcock was testing the limits of decency and morality as defined by Hollywood’s Production Code. Hitchcock takes the all-American family and introduces malice so true it consumes.

The horror is, of course, Uncle Charlie. He visits his sister and her family in Santa Rosa, California, and develops a strange relationship with his niece, Charlotte, affectionately referred to as Charlie in honor of her uncle. She soon suspects her Uncle Charlie of being the Merry Widow murderer and is plunged into turmoil over her family obligations and the vulgarity of his acts.

The director’s previous American films had had a distinctly English feel: gothic, elegant, mild-mannered, even Saboteur, the American remake of The 39 Steps. Hitchcock was keen on capturing the America he’d been seeing, and Thornton Wilder was hired to script the original story that was, by Hitchcock’s own admission, his first American film.

Hitchcock would often advise his actors on a technique he called negative acting, where an actor would be smiling at the beginning of a scene and then lose the smile after a dramatic blow, capturing the extremes of human emotion. He was working in archetypes, presenting clearly made movies to mainstream audiences. The structure of Shadow of a Doubt unfolds similarly. When we’re first introduced to the Newton family, it’s a kind of clich├ęd look at bucolic family life. Everybody is nice and genteel and pleasant to an almost cartoonish degree, or at least to a laughable one. This might appear dated when we, less as Americans and more as human begins, know that this isn’t the reality of daily life. But the light atmosphere Hitchcock cultivates in the film’s early scenes heightens the dark aspects of the story to follow, dark like the column of smoke snaking behind Uncle Charlie’s train.

Perhaps the most glaring detail of the film is the Young Charlie’s relationship with her uncle. Throughout, Hitchcock connects the two Charlies with similar visuals, setting up the recurring Hitchcockian theme of doubles. Young Charlie is always saying how alike they are... like twins! There is even a disturbing scene where Uncle Charlie gives to his niece a ring from one of his victims. While the thought is innocent enough I guess, the Uncle slips the ring onto her finger not unlike in a marriage ceremony. In the end, Young Charlie is forced into becoming like her Uncle because of her Uncle. I was always struck by Young Charlie’s line, “Don’t touch me, Uncle Charlie,” after she confronts him with her beliefs. This is the moment when Charlie has lost her innocence. She later threatens to kill her uncle if he doesn’t leave the family.

Originally it seems their relationship was to take an even edgier turn. In Hitchcock’s own story outline, dated May 11, 1942, he writes, “...her (Young Charlie) being attracted to him (Uncle Charlie) is going to possibly upset the humorous state of affairs between the Uncle and the family.” Is Hitchcock detailing their relationship as it exists in the finished film, or is this a direction the director would have liked to travel with his unconventional family drama? It reads to me like the latter, and while it is clear that Young Charlie has very confused feeling towards her Uncle, the family never is bothered by their friendship. Of course the extreme relations would never have been allowed to continue into a second draft of the screenplay back in 1942, but this idea gives us excellent insight into Hitchcock’s lifelong obsession with unusual sexual behavior.

(The outline for Shadow of a Doubt is published in Dan Auiler’s invaluable book, Hitchcock’s Notebooks, which gives a full understanding of Hitchcock’s working methods from conception to release. The book is a patchwork made up of materials covering Hitchcock’s entire career.)

The performances in the film are among the best in all of Hitchcock’s work. In a marked detour from his usual mother figures, Emma Newton (Young Charlie’s mother) is not just the sweet and doting martyr expected of the era. One gets the feeling she’s on the verge of a breakdown, and Patricia Collinge gives a complex and heartbreaking performance that perhaps went beyond the call of the script. Teresa Wright is perfect as Charlie. She expels the structure of the story exactly; acting naive by way of Shirley Temple in the beginning, then tortured and conflicted at the end. Though it is the showiest part, it should not be overlooked: Joseph Cotton as Uncle Charlie, for a 1940s movie killer, is unique. When I first saw the film and even now, I was surprised by how much Anthony Hopkins’ performance of Hannibal Lector mirrored Uncle Charlie, especially when Cotton gives the speech at the dinner table about “those silly wives.” His voice is emotionless and monotone, as if he’s slipping into his compulsion. It’s a remarkable portrayal not only for its time but now. It elicits a response from today’s audiences that maybe they were not expecting from such an old film.

An unsuccessful element of the picture is the recurring image of the dancers’ waltz. It is shown after moments of great tension, almost the euphoric release of a satiated killer. The image can be seen as Hitchcock’s visual attempt at Uncle Charlie’s unstable mind, but I’m afraid the technique is just bewildering. It is not a dated element of the film; I can’t see it working in the 1940s either, but we’ve seen the director use this technique in his silent days. It feels like the weak cousin of the famous shot in The Lodger of the fade-away glass ceiling. Since Hitchcock could not dramatize the footsteps from the floor above in sound, he simply showed us the suspected villain walking over the heads of the innocent family below. The similar theme in Shadow of a Doubt never works as the director intended, and in fact feels like a copout. Instead of showing us the emotional resolution to very intense scenes (the finale on the train, for example) this shot quickly fades up, accompanied by the tune of the Merry Widow’s Waltz.

The Waltz was infused into the dramatic score by frequent Hitchcock composer Dimitri Tiomkin. The score itself is melodramatic and evasive, and indeed Hitchcock’s scores were the typical European sound the Golden Age is remembered for. It is an unsettling sound for this picture, one that distracts too much from the action onscreen without support. It wasn’t until the director teamed with Bernard Herrmann in the mid-fifties that the Hitchcock film found its music. Herrmann’s music would take on narrative dimensions that would have served well a film like Shadow of a Doubt, but taken on its own Tiomkin’s score is very good. He himself is an underappreciated composer from the era, and his score for Hitchcock’s I Confess is actually very good.

Ultimately, Shadow of a Doubt remains one of Hitchcock’s best movies because it is a clear example of the director’s sense of the world. From out of the censored studio era, it’s refreshing that an artist could commit to celluloid a personal, cynical voice. Nothing, it seems, is as it should be in a Hitchcock film, and I’m not talking about genre. While his films are certainly nail biters, I believe the reason Hitchcock was so great was because he understood the human condition and its flaws. Psycho is not a horror film. It’s a complex study of trapped souls. Nor is Shadow of a Doubt simply a suspense film. It’s a story of morality and of people trapped within themselves, almost certainly a parallel of the repressed social conditions. To call Alfred Hitchcock’s films shallow is to ignore the complexity that is bubbling beneath the surface of his facades.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Thornton Wilder
Stars: Joseph Cotton, Teresa Wright, Patricia Collinge
In English
Runtime: 108 minutes

IMDB link:

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Great Dictator, The (1940)

The Great Dictator begins with a note telling us that any resemblance between Hynkel the Dictator and the Jewish Barber is purely coincidental. Is this supposed to be a joke, or is it Charlie Chaplin’s way of separating his comic persona from Adolf Hitler? Chaplin, a world recognized celebrity since the nineteen-teens, was arguably the most popular man in the world when Hitler took power in Germany in 1933. It is said the dictator crafted his mustache after Chapin’s Little Tramp to feed off of the comedian’s popularity. Was it also a coincidence that Chaplin retired his Tramp persona in 1936’s Modern Times?

Charlie Chaplin’s most daring film takes place in a fictionalized version of Germany called Tomainia. In a prologue set in 1918, years before Adenoid Hynkel takes power, a bewildered Jewish Barber is thrown into WWI and suffers a severe injury that keeps him in hospital until WWII. Chaplin plays the Barber and, of course, the dictator, giving credence to the fact that the opening note may be a lighthearted wink to the audience who, in 1940, would recognize Chaplin anywhere. But The Great Dictator is an unusual comedy, something more sinister for it satirizes one of the darkest memories of world history. The Barber escapes, eager to return to his beloved shop just as the Tomainian storm troopers begin severe persecution of the ghettos. The Barber meets Hannah, a Jewish girl, who assists in fending off the storm troopers. This is one of the many scenes that are laugh out funny but exist with an undercurrent of dread, panic, and sickness because the true events, 70 years later, fueled further by modern examples of bigotry, are no less painful. Perhaps because WWII exists so vividly in motion images the horrors will never fade.

The Great Dictator contrasts the experiences of Hynkel and the Barber during changing times; for the dictator, changes towards perfection; for the Barber, a disintegration of everything he understands.

The film’s most famous scenes give us a stark contrast to both of Chaplin’s characters, and stand as perhaps the greatest examples of Chaplin’s dedication to rehearsal and perfectionism—in short, to his craft. The first is the chilling, beautiful and bizarre dance Hynkel performs with a feather-light globe of the world. His Ministry of the Interior, Garbitsch, informs him that with their new plans Hynkel will become Emperor of the World, a thought that sends the ruthless dictator up the wall, literally. He dances to the music of Wagner, incidentally Hitler’s favorite composer. It is the opening to his Lohengrin, a light, airy but pretentious piece of music. Chaplin’s moves are narcissistic and bold, graceful but futile. In trying to juggle the world, cradle it, domineer it, Hynkel pops his globe and is left with a deflated, impotent piece of rubber. The Jewish Barber then shaves a man to Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5. Here Chaplin’s Barber is a cousin to his famous Tramp. The Barber lathers the man’s face, takes his blade, sharpens it, and with perfectly precise motions hits every note of Brahms’ innocent, frenetic music.

It is interesting that with all of Hynkel’s ambition, his contribution to the world ends with a deflated balloon—a waste for someone who, like Hitler, had the brilliance to muster the masses for a common goal. The simple Barber, with the mere shaving of a man, enriches the world with his craft. The choice of music, too, shows Chaplin as a Renaissance Man and as someone who, despite preferring silent films, was keen on using every element of sound to make his point: Hynkel is marked with heavy, pretentious music, the Barber with humane culture.

Chaplin’s craft belongs to an era of silent film comedy. In both sequences, silent except for the music, we can witness the skill and precision of Chaplin’s art. He was not improvisational as many might hope; someone who could simply step in front of a camera and command it. He rehearsed. The choreography, the timing to the music, is such that we know that music was prerecorded, and that Chaplin would go from beginning to end mastering every gesture, would perfect difficult tasks like spinning a ball on his fingertip, scaling a tabletop with grace, and memorizing not only the music, but the particular performance of the music so that his impact is striking. This is not something that can be achieved in post production. Like Fred Astaire, Chaplin is seen often in medium or long shot, and the camera simply stays on him and we see his performance with minimal cuts, and in the case of the shaving sequence, arguably more awe-inspiring, one continuous shot. Among other things it allows us to lament the loss of great talent when we view our contemporary movie comedians. Chaplin understood that moviemaking was not spontaneous but the result of dedication, obsession, and doing and doing again.

It is difficult to look at the realities of the Nazi’s activities, but Hitler himself, someone who was so serious and seemed to lack humility, is prone to satire. It is one of the purposes of art to critique the world, and the powerful who control it, and to create for the public a better world. Chaplin does all this, and that he managed to create his epic in 1940, in Hollywood, after a war and great depression, with political tensions high and politicians eager to prosecute anyone who would contradict their ideology, is a testament to his popularity and socio-political awareness. He often resembles Hitler perfectly, no more so than when wearing the double-cross trench coat, and his inflections and diction when speaking his Tomainian gibberish remind me of Hitler’s great speeches in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. That Chaplin is a great comedian only helps him further, but the scenes with the Jewish Barber in the Ghettos were not so funny. Yes they were, but I felt sick watching them. We know what went on there, what would happen if the Nazis arrested anyone for any reason, where they’d end up. I don’t think it was inappropriate for Chaplin to make this film. The subject should not be off limits. My great admiration from the director stems from the fact that his films are often sad. They’re filled with pathos and meaning and have relevance to our society. In The Great Dictator, there are numerous scenes of the people hiding in the Ghettos, afraid and angry. I could imagine the real life scenarios like this, and unlike in Chaplin’s film things would not turn out so well.

Much has been made of the film’s controversial ending. It was Chaplin’s Jewish Barber’s speech to the soldiers of Tomainia that got him a file at the FBI; the Barber, mistaken for Hinkel, is to make a speech about the recent invasion of Osterlich. While facing the podium, unlike Hinkel whose words were so brutish that they’d bend the microphones, the Barber pleads for peace, preaches against greed and intolerance, and offers all those listening an opportunity for change. This speech, some 6 minutes long, is a stark difference to the rest of the picture. I think it’s a great ending, something that caps Chaplin’s political satire and offers hope where in real life at that time there seemed very little.

I will say no more to add to these discussions. I’d rather examine the film’s beginning. I don’t think it works. It’s not funny and feels like a separate piece to the rest of the film. We see the Barber fighting in WWI, how he becomes injured. In fact this prologue serves the narrative later as here he befriends a soldier who will become prominent in Hinkel’s Tomainia, but the sequence feels more like a one-reeler Chaplin might have made early in his career. And indeed did make in the 1920s. The comedy is broad and general, the effects small and unprofessional, and it throws off the structure of the film. It also seems remarkably unprofessional, as if it was an afterthought thrown in after the rest of the picture was cut together. We don’t see Hinkel’s rise to power, and seeing the Barber’s, I feel, gets the film off to a slow start.

There is a reason Chaplin is considered the greatest screen comedian of the 20th Century. His films stood for something more than broad physical comedy. They have touching stories, and his images often contained gaiety and gravitas. With The Great Dictator, a boldly political work, he risked offending the dictators of the world when instead he could have made a film about Napoleon. At the time, many of Hitler’s “great” military accomplishments were still ahead of him, and the US had not officially entered the war, and Chaplin, sensing as much of the world probably did, what was about to happen, decided to do something about it.

Great Dictator, The (1940)
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Writer: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, and Jack Oakie
In English
Runtime: 124 minutes