Three Great Asylum Films: 3. Bedlam (1946)

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Later this month I’m screening two films at a former asylum in Peckham (CLICK HERE TO BUY TICKETS). While the location was never a mental institution (rather a sanctuary for retired publicans), I wanted to count down my top films set in asylums in the traditional sense. First up was The Snake Pit. Last time it was the turn of The Hour-Glass Sanatorium. My final film is the last that Val Lewton produced in his golden period at RKO,  Bedlam 

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Val Lewton produced only fourteen films in his lifetime before dying of a heart attack at 46. However, his influence has been considerable: everyone who produces frights from suggestion rather than revelation owes him a debt of gratitude, including John Carpenter, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese (who paid his debts with a worthwhile documentary on his films, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows). His most fruitful period was with RKO, a studio seemingly permanently on the brink of collapse, and no more so than when he started producing there in the 1940s. Following a string of expensive flops (Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons among them), the studio was looking for B material that would pull above its weight. Lewton ably satisfied this brief, producing eight more films for the studio, mostly to strong box office. Bedlam was his last at RKO, by now working with an established team of regulars. Boris Karloff had starred in two previous Lewton films and director Mark Robson had been working with Lewton since his first, Cat People. Having begun Robert Wise’s fantastic directorial career (Robson and Wise had both edited Citizen Kane), he again promoted a previously unknown staff editor at RKO to direct. Robson went on to produce a series of high budget exploitation films (including Earthquake).

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The plot of Bedlam is relatively simple. Nell (Anna Lee) is the protege of Lord Mortimer (Billy House), a dyspeptic and petulant aristocrat. When Master George Sims kills one of his inmates at Bethlehem Hospital, he unwittingly ruins Mortimer’s masque, which was to be written by the prisoner. Charged with repaying the dead man’s debt, the wicked Sims casts his inmates in the masque. Nell’s sympathy is drawn by the cruelty on display and begins to investigate the brutal conditions in the asylum with the help of a Quaker, Hannay (Richard Fraser). But when Nell becomes too much of a nuisance, Sims conspires to have her committed…

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Lewton is often rightly praised for his use of unexpected source material. Having adapted short stories (both those one would expect from a horror master – The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson – and the surprisingly literary – Mademoiselle Fifi from Guy de Maupassant’s writings), Bedlam marked the second time that the germ of Lewton’s idea originated in a painting. Though the connection was far looser in Isle of the Dead (based upon Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same name), there is a pervasive spirit of Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress series in Bedlam. Besides the overt visual references (including the fades between scenes interspersed with Hogarth’s caricatures), the dialogue in the film has more than a hint of the meaningless badinage of Restoration comedy. Sporting repartee, especially between Karloff’s Sims and Anna Lee’s Nell, is the order of the day. Brushing off Hannay who points out that her heart is not of stone, she replies, ‘My heart is of flint sir. It may strike sparks but they’re not hot enough to burn.’

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Yet though the film is surprisingly committed to the Restoration setting, it also has strong links to the contemporaneous environment. As we have seen with The Snake Pit, the 1940s signalled a change in outlook in what had previously been a neglected area of interest by the general public. With so many men returning shell shocked, the importance of the mental health complex came into sharp focus. 1946 became a flash point for this debate. When John Ford made Let There Be Light that year (available legally in full from Archive.org, an inspiration for P.T. Anderson’s The Master), it was suppressed by the  authorities who had commissioned it for its depiction of the 20% of those wounded whose scars were mental. While this film didn’t see full release until 1981, another crusader was bringing fully to light conditions in state hospitals. ‘Concentration camps masquerading as hospitals’ was how Life magazine writer Albert Q. Maisel described the conditions within two state veterans’ hospitals in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The photographs and testimony in the piece (which you can read in full in Google Books’ fantastic Life archive) were the start of a shift in mental healthcare in America. The photos themselves have a harrowing link not only to the past atrocities of the Holocaust, but had a disturbing echo of Abu Ghraib to my eyes. While Bedlam conveniently delimits its discourse by setting itself safely in the past, the parallel is too clear to ignore. Lewton’s films almost all had a social commentary element, though less overt and awards-courting than a film like The Snake Pit. Whether showing Irena of Cat People‘s as foreign outcast or Curse of the Cat People‘s probing of the inner life of the child (the film was highly praised by the psychological authorities for its realism and sensitivity), these elements give the film resonance that outstrips any deficiencies of production quality.

Life Magazine, May 6 1946, p104

Life Magazine, May 6 1946, p104

 The film’s conclusion, ripped straight from the pages of Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado‘, is the only moment that could fit within a conventional horror scenario. Otherwise, the film’s tone is one of psychological disturbance, rather than the implied, lingering horror that Lewton’s name is most closely associated with. Instead, what is troubling is open to the viewer, though locked within the gates of Bethlehem Hospital. One of the film’s key set pieces sees Sims introduce Nell to his twisted ‘menagerie’. ‘Ours is a human world, there’s is a bestial world, without reason, without soul. They’re animals.’ With Sadean glee, Sims parades his zoo, with Nell’s sympathy being drawn by their animalistic conditions. ‘Some are dogs: these I beat. Some are pigs: those I let wallow in their own filth. Some are tigers: these I cage. Some, like this one, are doves.’ 

The film has a brilliant sense of the gothic, with Karloff playing a variation on the mad scientist figure he’d made his own over the preceding decades. Earlier in the film he devises a masque to entertain grandees at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Years before Goldfinger, an innocent inmate is made to recite his lines covered in thick gilt, until he is suffocated by the pores (apparently a myth).

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Balancing Sims’ cruelty is Nell’s philanthropy. While the film is largely an outsider’s view of mental illness, the viewpoint is compassionate and crusading. Nell herself would be much better suited to the Victorian period, but Anna Lee’s portrayal has some useful shading, beginning as the protege of the bloated aristocrat Lord Mortimer and ending as the presumed wife of the Quaker Hannay. Across these two moral points her path is set, and Lee’s portrayal carries much of the material, from pantomime repartee to distraught imprisoned innocent. Like Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit, Nell is able to sop up huge amounts of sympathy from the audience, making the film an emotional experience, as well as a visual and cerebral one.

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The film’s hopeful ending crawl

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Three Great Asylum Films: 2. The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (1973)

Later this month I’m screening two films at a former asylum in Peckham (CLICK HERE TO BUY TICKETS). While the location was never a mental institution (rather a sanctuary for retired publicans), I wanted to count down my top films set in asylums in the traditional sense. First up was The Snake Pit. Today I’m talking about The Hour-Glass Sanatorium from 1973, directed by Wojciech Has…

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium

A bird flies with subaquatic langour outside a window. The view is from a railway car, but its passengers make the bird seem frenetic in comparison. Locked in a seemingly endless slumber, one of their number is roused by a milky-eyed conductor. They are nearing their destination, the hour-glass sanatorium. Adapted from Bruno Schulz’s short story collection Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (and some of his other writings), the title is a reference to the hourglass motif that serves as a memento mori in Polish newspaper obituaries. While death stalks through the film, the main body seems to be a stemming of the tide against it, a parade of chaotic and ecstatic memory.

The Hour Glass Sanatorium

Józef, the film’s protagonist, has booked a recuperating stay at the asylum, but the place is deserted and his father (supposedly dead) is occupying his room. The sanatorium is never explicitly described as an asylum per se, but the scheme of the film is a kind of surrealistic explosion of Freudian regression. ‘Here we reactivate time past with all its possibilities, including the possibility of recovery,’ says the institute’s director. In different rooms, Józef finds objective correlatives to recollections from his life, expressed in heightened, often joyous fashion. Time is not linear here, but vertical, with all his life’s experiences – and those of his father – stacked on top of each other. Moving around the space gives him access to these different periods and the intersections between the different time zones are almost always charmingly unexpected (hiding under what begins as a dining room table, Józef steps out from under it into a medieval bird fair). Like Slaughterhouse-Five‘s Tralfamadorians, it is not consequential if someone is dead: Józef need only go to another room in the building to find his father alive and well. 

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium

Each room has the quality of a diorama. The set design is exquisite in each, the camera gradually circulating around the spaces and finding unexpected means to frame them. The characters seem to be activated by the presence of Józef, a point that is made literal when he encounters a series of wax automata. Unlike 8 1/2, which puts the whole of life on spin cycle, there is a pleasant lapsing linearity between some scenes in The Hour-Glass Sanatorium. Like that film’s Guido Anselmi, Józef is reduced to an adolescent’s position: tormented and tantalised by a series of women from the past, at once devastatingly sensuous and present,  yet infinitely out of reach.  

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium

It’s not just the recollection of Józef we are invited into. Has stated that he was keen to highlight the vanished generations of Jews (including Bruno Schulz himself). The strong Jewish element of the film did not sit well in Poland. At the time a strong ‘anti-Zionist’ movement was rising up, ultimately resulting in the deportation of 14,000 Jews between 1968 and 1971. The parallel between Józef and Jakub (his father) and Has and Schulz as representatives of pre- and post-lapsarian Jewish Poland is clear. Having begun with a trainload of diaspora, with an unsettlingly death-like conductor looking on, the finale of the film heavily references the ghettos, flight into exile and living in hiding. Like the ending of both Alice books, the precipitating violence of the conclusion lets us know that the dream will soon be over: we will be booted from the fantasy with a bump. Sadly, Poland itself was still possessed by this recurring nightmare. 


Great Fiddler-esque scene

The film benefits from the warm, slightly degraded quality of the celluloid. There are very few scenes shot with natural light. Bathing in woozy medicine-bottle greens or crepuscular half light, the edges of the frame seem deliciously smudged, as in a dream. It lends proceedings a painterly, delicate quality reminiscent of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (indeed, a Napoleonic leitmotif is noticeable in many of the film’s costumes).  

The Hour-Glass Sanatorium

Józef in the film’s conclusion having become the death-conductor himself

What could feel like an undisciplined mess is redeemed by its relentless inventiveness. In part it’s strange that the film is based on short fiction, where brevity and the elliptical often reign. There’s a hearty maximalism to the film that makes it a delight across the duration, much like the best work of Terry Gilliam. There’s a lovely little metaphor for the richness of the confection on offer in the film’s early parts: Józef has travelled to the sanatorium without eating and is caught removing a slice of gateaux from a dessert trolley in an otherwise ransacked canteen. Like Alice’s embiggening and shrinking foods, it is the permanently denied child’s treat that leads the characters down the rabbit hole. It’s a rich, potentially overcooked treat, but then, aren’t all films set among the ‘eccentric’?

Tenniel Alice

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Three Great Asylum Films: 1. The Snake Pit (1948)

Later this month I’m screening two films at a former asylum in Peckham (CLICK HERE TO BUY TICKETS). While the location was never a mental institution (rather a sanctuary for retired publicans), I wanted to count down my top films set in asylums in the traditional sense. First up is 1948’s The Snake Pit, directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Olivia de Havilland… 

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A woman sits on a park bench, questioned by an offscreen interlocutor. She answers him hesitantly, uncertain of the answers to basic questions (where do you live? Do you know where you are?). The camera pulls back. Her fellow speaker does not exist. So begins the tale of Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland). Ms Cunningham has been committed to a state mental hospital for unspecified reasons. We follow her during her treatment, learning the sources of her trauma, her interactions with the other inmates and with her doctors and carers. de Havilland’s tour through the various methods available to psychiatry at the time (hydrotherapy, occupational therapy, electro-shock and ‘talking cure’) allows us to see her in many different shades of self-possession, with the risk of hanging the majority of the film on her performance. de Havilland brings a subtlety and variety to a role that could have proved monotonous. Her haunting depiction of a woman on the edge earned her an Academy Award nomination.

The Snake Pit (1948)

One wonders how distressing the film would have been with the director’s first choice for the film, Gene Tierney. Tierney, who only half a decade later was institutionalised herself, played many roles with an intensity that goes beyond manic, almost vibrating with the difficulty of withholding herself. While it was pregnancy and not her mounting mental unease that excluded Tierney from participating, Olivia de Havilland had her own status as ‘difficult woman’ to contend with. During the 1940s, she fought a bitter battle to break the lock that the studios had over stars’ contracts. While her close friend Bette Davis had failed to break Warner Bros control over her in the 1930s, de Havilland succeeded (giving her name to the reformed California law), though she was essentially blacklisted by all studios for two years following her win.

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This struggle directly affected de Havilland taking up her role in The Snake Pit. The studios now had a looser grip over stars and Olivia had greater agency over the scripts she could accept. The film was considered highly pioneering at the time for its frank depiction not only of the mental institution but for the underlying misogynistic conditions that result in a diagnosis as ‘hysterical’. Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (which I wrote about here) feels largely of a piece with the film, both in terms of production design and unflinching (if heightened) realism. That the British censor felt it necessary to add a disclaimer explaining that all the players were actors and that British institution bore little resemblance to those depicted is testament to its power to unnerve. The cast and crew attended many institutions in their research, de Havilland being especially diligent in understand the conditions her character faced.

The Snake Pit (1948) 1

Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis, wearing similar outfits in The Snake Pit and Now, Voyager (though Davis’s is a stylish reconfiguration of one she wore in her earlier spinster mode)

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If one wants to compare the average level of discourse at the time about mental illness and its institutions, we can look to Now, Voyager from 1942. We see it star Bette Davis quickly blossom from petulant nerve case to charming debutant under the supervision of Claude Rains’ psychiatrist. The actual psychiatry is cosy and paternal, with Rains slowly peeling back the layers of her trauma and offering her koan-like slices of Walt Whitman poetry. Like Spellbound (released 1945), the psychiatric relationship is a palimpsest for the romantic relationship. The Snake Pit itself is not free from this dynamic, with Virginia’s defender substituting the role of her mostly absent fiancé. When she is delivered to his arms in the final scene, it is a jolt that we remember the life to which she has been attempting to return. While it’s unfair to expect as crushingly realistic a portrayal as A Woman Under the Influence in the 1940s, one must look to the general voyage (Virginia overcoming her personal difficulties) rather than its ultimate destination (being reunited with her fiancé) if the viewer is to look at this film kindly.

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The father of The Snake Pit‘s view of psychiatry looks on benevolently on Doctor Kik’s treatment

Like Spellbound, The Snake Pit takes on a highly literal Freudian view of psychiatry. The mind is a puzzle and once the right pieces and recollections are present, complete recovery can be expected. The symbolism is often heavy handed, as when Virginia becomes distraught during her board review by one of her interviewers waggling his cigar too vigorously in her face.

The Snake Pit (1948)

The excavation of childhood episodes is similarly overly neat and clear, with a failure of maternal love and alienation of affection from her father the root cause of her later issues with men. Again, it seems harsh to criticise given the wider context of psychiatry at the time, which was still often dismissed as a pseudo-science or quackery.

The Snake Pit (1948)

One of the less reputable wards in the institution, filmed strikingly similarly to the tragic end of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress

Where the film undoubtedly excels is in the cinematography. Anatole Litvak’s camera makes excellent use of crane shots and pans, but also captures de Havilland’s troubled features with a noirish dreaminess. There’s also many scenes that recall earlier depictions of madness, whether that be the last frame of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress or Bosch’s Garden of Earthly DelightsThe latter provides one of the most enduring and disturbing images of this powerful and moving film, and explains the film’s title.

‘It was strange. There I was amongst all those people, and at the same time, looking at them from some place far away. The whole place seemed to me like a deep hole and the people in it like strange animals, like snakes and I’d been thrown into it. Yes, as though I were in the snake pit.’

The Snake Pit (1948)

A Boschian nightmare in reveal of the central metaphor of The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit (1948)

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August 12, 2013 · 4:13 pm

Zero Dark Thirty and the danger of equivocation

Zero Dark Thirty Jessica Chastain

Zero Dark Thirty was never in contention to be a quiet release, coming so quickly after the events which it depicts: the talking points are only just cooling from the oven – torture, imperialism, the murder of Bin Laden – ready for any ideologue to hoist their own colour upon. Doubtless many of those who use the film as talking point fodder, as always, will have likely not gone to the trouble of watching it. The film’s chief merit is its technical proficiency, its arresting, seductive neutrality, yielding to any pre-conceived notion one might bring to it about the morality of torture.
Yet the idea that the film is loosely supportive of torture need look no further than the film’s final shot. Jessica Chastain’s Maya sits in a military plane that has been chartered for her personal use. A destination other than the one she has been pursuing so doggedly for twelve years is unimaginable for her. Instead we get a midshot of blank tears rolling down her face. If the film supports torture, it shows its worth only in relation to a goal that seems ultimately relatively futile. It’s surprising how uncomplicatedly some critics (notably Sight & Sound‘s Guy Westwell) have approached Maya’s confidence as legitimised in the film. ‘I believe I was spared so I could finish the job,’ she justifies with blood-curdling Manifest Destiny. ‘Once you’re on their list,’ says a colleague, warning her of the perpetual threat to her life, ‘You’re never off it. No one should know that better than you.’ This last comment is particularly damning: either as an indication of her dark knowledge of the unbuckling resistance of detainees under torture, or as a reference to her own unswerving dedication in getting her man, the organisation is more than aware that Maya has stared into the abyss long enough for it to stare back at her.


Much of the discussion of the film’s support of torture focuses on the sympathy offered to Maya: despite her complicity in brutal acts of torture, she has the morality and sensitivity her enemies do not have, that the weight of war hangs heavily on her. In fact, the greater reality is Maya’s total blankness: one of the surprises of the film is that after two and a half hours in her company, we know little about her motivations. She has merely been consumed, recruited before her moral compass was set and placed into a position of power amongst amoral superiors. The blindness involved in this morally hermetic environment is clear when the key piece of evidence is proffered by a sycophantic junior colleague. Not only is Maya able to accept the plaudits from this woman who (troublingly) idolises her, but she also misses the cue that the ‘white noise’ of information gained via torture has obscured a piece of evidence that could have brought her relentless hunt to an end years before.

The procedural final quarter of the infiltration of the compound makes the mission seem like neither Semper Fi cheerleading nor baby-eating, bloodthirsty cowardice. Bullets drop and bodies fall but it’s manages to be simultaneously utterly banal and gripping. It’s a fitting end to a film that has the temerity to present a situation with some degree of the murky flavour of life.

Also it manages to be credible with a CIA made up of Special Agent Bert Macklin, Mark ‘Puffy Chair’ Duplass and John Fucking Barrowman.

Barrowman’s Jeremy, moments before he waterboarded the spaniel.

Maybe Bigelow is able to make you swallow agendas you never thought possible.

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Sweet Smell of Success (1957): Trapped Film Series No. 7

Sweet Smell of Success 1

‘The man in jail is always for freedom.’
‘Except if you’ll excuse me J.J. I’m not in jail.’
‘You’re in jail Sidney. You’re a prisoner of your fears, your own greed and ambitions. You’re in jail.’

While the key features of noir as genre, aesthetic and attitude have been exhaustively defined (anyone unfamiliar with Paul Schrader’s ‘Notes on Film Noir’ is hereby encouraged to break off and attend to it immediately), the pervasiveness of the noir mode is surely due to its very elasticity, its evasion of any absolute rules one cares to throw down. Those looking for an example of noir’s ‘I know it when I see it’ breadth of definition need look no further than Sweet Smell of Success. The film is full of elements likely to exclude it from being the noir classic it undoubtedly is: it was made at the very edge of the supposed golden era of noir, largely unconcerned with criminality and stars a major heartthrob star rather than the weather-beaten character actors so commonly in the noir limelight (apparently, location shooting in New York was frequently stalled by the hordes of teenage Tony Curtis fans). Yet, every frame and line of dialogue drips with noir, chiefly its attitude of cursed, enclosing fatalism.

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Fate’s victim is Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent. ‘All publicity men are liars…’ opines one of his increasingly disgruntled clients, ‘but you are a personal liar.’ For Falco, cynicism is vocational and avocation, and he reckons himself a master of the ‘glib and oily art, to speak and purpose not’. Yet our time with him ominously begins as his clients start to get wise to his machinations and double-dealing, doors closing on his face and chances dwindling to none. Desperately needing to regain favour in the court of brutal gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), Falco agrees to destroy the partnership between Hunsecker’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), a promising jazz guitarist. How Falco is to destroy the young man, and exactly why Hunsecker wants to have him destroyed, proves to be a hauntingly dark tale that starts jet black and fades only darker.

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MacKendrick was one of the Ealing family of directors, a creator of cheery fare with a sting in the tail like Whiskey Galore! and The Ladykillers. With the financial dissolution of the studio, he sought work in Hollywood. After his first project with the highly successful Hecht-Hill-Lancaster productions fell through, he subbed to direct the bleak drama written by former Hollywood Reporter writer Ernest Lehman. Mackendrick steeped himself in the New York skyline, placing silhouettes of the Broadway cityscape around his room in preparation. The use of location exteriors is highly effective: the skyscrapers loom over the scurrying acts of men, making the city seem more like a prison colony than the place where the streets are paved with gold.

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New York as a trapped room

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This shot is one of the film’s last and the street sign seems like an ironic comment on Falco’s eventual fate

Although Sweet Smell of Success was the production company’s first flop, the years have only made the story of bitter backstabbing and trampling ambition all the more worthwhile. The film’s origins are however marked by a specific historical context. The columnist Walter Winchell, upon whom J.J. Hunsecker was based, was a huge cultural figure and draws in all the power and paranoia of the 1950s in America. For decades, he had been the most influential gossip columnist, to the extent he could be said to have created the form. Syndicated to 2,000 papers nationwide and read daily by 50 million people, by the late 1950s his crown was falling, nibbled by younger columnists. ‘Nothing recedes like success’, as one of his own most famous bon mots put it, but before Winchell retired from journalism he was the scourge of many leftists, and rumoured leftists.

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The film is not written from a naive perspective in this regard. Clifford Odets, the film’s co-writer, was one of many called to question by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and backsliding, double-dealing and paranoia of the period runs through the film like a dagger through a heart, as you’ll see in this scene.

Sweetening the pill with democracy and peace whilst encouraging a near-fascistic denoucement of subversive elements, J.J. prepares for his TV show, practicing his rhetoric by stop watch. It’s a chilling scene, the first time we have a hint of the dark desires driving J.J. Tellingly, the scene goes down behind the curtains, playing closely to the film’s leitmotif of clean façades and the dirty dealing behind them. Lancaster’s slightly wooden, overlarge quality is put to good use in the film: he is only ever paying lip service to his true desires and Lancaster’s actorly style succeeds.

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While Odets’ portrait of Hunsecker is deeply rooted to the time, the dialogue has a Shakespearean allusiveness that transcends any particular moment. Despite being a gutter tale of a ‘dirty town’, there is a cracked poetics in almost every line: ‘The greedy murmur of little men’, the ‘theology of making a fast buck’, ‘a cookie full of arsenic’. Two men bound by mutual hate and disgusted with the parasitic reliance of the other, Falco and Hunsecker are electric duellers of dialogue. The charismatic combination begins to unsettle the film at times, as the structuring relationship between Steve and Susan seems thin and sketched in comparison. The two seem insipid and unaware rather than untainted and evincing ‘integrity, acute, like indigestion.’ Yet it’s not enough to dim the film’s appeal: scabrous as the day it was struck, there’s nothing sweet about it, but the smell is still gloriously rank.

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This is the seventh of my notes about my now finished series of films at The Woodmill Studios in Bermondsey. To see the entire line up and get all the details go here.

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Cute Animals in Film 2012: The Year in Review

So it’s come to this again. Another year has passed and I’m still inexplicably taking screengrabs of cute animals in high cinema. I haven’t been as broad in my viewing as in years past. A big chunk of my watching was Dirk Bogarde, whom I wrote my master’s dissertation about. There was no shortage of cute animals in his films though, as you’ll see. The man himself was quite a dog lover. The picture directly above is of the man himself in his pad with his hound, mildly terrifying an interviewer on the eve of the release of Victim in 1961. Enjoy this selection and here’s to many more in 2013! (See last year’s selection of the cutest animals in film). If there was ever any doubt, I’ve concluded the donkey is art cinema’s animal of choice (perhaps tipping their hat to the ‘saint of cinema’). Pulp cinema loves a dog, as you’ll see.

Bogarde in Conversation

Despair 2

Despair (Fassbinder/1978)
Doctor in the House

Doctor in the House (Thomas/1954)

Elgar 2 Elgar 3 Elgar 4 Elgar

4 stills from the beautiful Elgar (Russell/1962)

Forbidden1 Forbidden2 Forbidden3

3 stills from Forbidden (King/1949), which follows British cinema’s abiding interest in the meddlesome scamp of a dog interfering in murder…

Partners in Crime?

…as here in the educational short Partners in Crime (1949)…

Man's best friend and man, in clinch

Man’s best friend and man, in clinch

…and here in Obsession (Dmytryk/1949) saving our hero from a dip in an acid bath

My Brother's Wedding 2 My Brother's Wedding

Dog washing in a bathtub in My Brother’s Wedding (Burnett/1983)

My Little Chickadee 2 My Little Chickadee

This goat stands in for Mae West against W.C. Fields advances in My Little Chickadee (Cline/1940)

Of Gods and Men donkeys

Donkeys=high cinema proven again in Of Gods and Men (Beauvois/2010)

Passe Ton Bac D'abord

A mournful pup towards the end of Passe Ton Bac D’abord (Pialat/1979)

Pett and Pott 2 Pett and Pott 3 Pett and Pott 4 Pett and PottGoing at it like cats and dogs in the short film Pett and Pott (Cavalcanti/1934)

Serpico 1 Serpico 2 Serpico 3 Serpico 6

Pacino and a hilariously incongrous range of pets for an undercover agent in Serpico (Lumet/1973)

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One of the last survivors of Bruce Dern’s madness in Silent Running (Trumbull/1972)

Sleeping Tiger

Bogarde teases this pup in The Sleeping Tiger (Losey/1954)

The Blue Lamp

This dog tries to lodge a police complain in The Blue Lamp (Dearden/1949)

The Entertainer

Everyone loves a monkey in The Entertainer (Richardson/1960)

The Hole The Hole2

This little yapper raises the alarm in The Hole (Dante/2009)

The Killing

You can tell this is early Kubrick because he’s still got the heart to include a puppy in The Killing (Kubrick/1956)

The Letter

These pups react to Bette Davis’s shoot out in the opening scene of The Letter (Wyler/1940)…

The October Man

John Mills gets some puppy love in The October Man (Ward Barker/1947)Train of Events

Penguins offer a spot of variety in Train of Events (Cole, Crichton, Dearden/1949)Yield to the Night

Diana Dors finds comfort on death row with a kitty in Yield to the Night (Lee Thompson/1956)

Youth in Revolt

 Youth in Revolt (Arteta/2009)

There are two notable absences of cinematic animals that I would have loved to have included. I watched Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers and Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths  back to back at the London Film Festival and both have a central dog character (and both left me feeling greatness had been squandered but that’s another story for another time).

Best animal of my viewing of 2012 was The Awful Truth. An hilarious screwball comedy with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne from 1937. In most of the films I’ve selected here, the animals play an incidental, or at best a prop-like position. Mr Smith (played by one Skippy the dog) is a full character in this film, and is the focus of many brilliant set pieces. This is Mr Smith’s portfolio.

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Mr Smith is forced to choose in court between Grant and Dunne as their surrogate child. vlcsnap-2012-09-12-23h24m00s243 vlcsnap-2012-09-12-23h26m38s37 vlcsnap-2012-09-12-23h28m45s17 vlcsnap-2012-09-12-23h27m00s253 vlcsnap-2012-09-12-23h26m43s83 vlcsnap-2012-09-12-23h29m00s167 vlcsnap-2012-09-12-23h29m36s24

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January 1, 2013 · 5:54 am

Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957): Trapped Film Series No. 6

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This is the sixth of my notes about my ongoing series of films at The Woodmill Studios in Bermondsey. To see the entire line up and get all the details go here.

Woman in a Dressing Gown was recently re-released to cinema’s, apparently now ripe for rediscovery. Why had it lapsed into any obscurity? Perhaps its outlier status in its director’s career: J. Lee Thompson, known mostly for war films – Ice Cold in Alex, The Guns of the Navarone – hardly seems the natural choice for a domestic drama about a housewife’s claustrophobia and a husband’s infidelity. Or it might have been a problem of timing: too early for the British New Wave (and starring actors from an older, stagier tradition), it blurs the absolute lines of genre, personnel and period to be featured in the endless roll calls of gilt-edged British Classics.

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Then again, it might have been the focus of the story: modern claimants for the film’s greatness have emphasised the rareness of its attentions to the struggle of an ordinary, unglamorous woman. The British New Wave, while offering earthier stories tended to focus on a rudderless but attractive younger man, rather than the quotidian issues of a woman. Amy is the titular woman, a dedicated but ineffectual housewife. She tends unswervingly to the needs of her son, Brian, and her husband, Jim (or Jimbo as she never fails to call him). However, Jim is conducting an affair with Georgie (Sylvia Sims), but she craves a more open happiness, with both agonised about how they he make a break with Amy.Woman in a Dressing Gown 2

The empathetic attention given to Amy raises the disappointment of a spoiled haircut to life and death proportions. While the thorough and unflinching depiction of her undiagnosed depression is the film’s most remarkable feature, it is with its breadth of sympathies that it becomes of enduring worth. Thomas Elsaesser pinpointed melodrama’s key perspective as that of the victim; the best melodramas are those that create a panorama of victimhood, to show the emotional binds that entrap all of the characters. Where Jim and Georgie could have been show selfishly inflicting pain for the sake of their own pleasure, we can both understand and empathise with their frailty, their desire to carve out happiness. They both have reasons to seek happiness in each other, are wounded in the illegitimacy of how it is claimed. Ted Willis, the film’s writer, described the film as exposing ‘good honest fumbling people caught up in tiny tragedies.’  ‘It ought to be possible to be happy without harming anyone,’ as Georgie says, yet the power of the film is to show the inextricable difficulty of this desire.

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Woman in a Dressing Gown had been mounted in 1956 as a television play. Perhaps seeking to differentiate his cinematic product, J. Lee Thompson adds many extreme stylistic touches. We have Amy’s loud, upbeat music: the whole first half of the film seems to bathe in its manic volume and cloying ubiquity. It’s a powerful analogue for the false emotional affect of the home. There’s a ‘just out of reach’ quality to its simultaneously latent and ubiquity: ‘Tchiakovsky, so sad it could make you cry,’ says Amy, for once confronting the displacement activity of the loud music. ‘Can’t you switch that off?’ Jim unfeelingly replies.

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Camera angles peer out from cupboards and in recesses of the flat, making the walls seem very close. Clashing with the British New Wave’s drive for grit, the sets are highly artificial, with the scattered location shoots clashing with the mainly studio shots. It would be a mistake to look at this production decision as a demerit. As the film progresses, the idea of façade comes to have greater potency, and the surroundings add a great deal to this. Despite the realism of the scenario, the settings are rendered melodramatically overdetermined. Thompson’s camera is forever eavesdropping: rising over wall partitions, framing lovers as though we are taking advantage of their intimacy.

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After the uncomfortable perspectives and rhumbas in the domestic unit, the lover’s nest is idyllic: shot in close ups and clear medium shots, the sound of rain supplants the dialogue. The unselfconscious Britishness oozes out of every scene in Woman in a Dressing Gown. The lover’s assignation is conducted on a Sunday, and naturally there is a roast dinner. No romance before the gravy is finished. Although the film was marketed at the time as a success du scandale (the original poster boasted ‘Why not a movie about illicit love? It’s real, it happens and it’s a great picture.’), it is the total lack of salaciousness and sexiness that makes the film all the more poignant. Quayle himself is perfect to play a sympathetic love rat: known for playing dutiful officer types, he brings a sexual reticence to the role. His equivalent in Brief Encounter, Trevor Howard, is infinitely more dashing. Quayle provides an assurance of deeper emotions than lust behind their affair: we find it hard to believe in Amy’s accusation to Georgie that ‘You don’t love him, you just want to sleep with him.’ She is aggravated precisely for the opposite reason: because both women are irresistibly attracted to his frailty. Amy now realises the bitter reward for her kindness: infidelity. It is a relief that the film doesn’t blunt these complexities behind a coyly elliptical approach. Everyone is open about what is happening, except where repression is realistic. Have Georgie and Jim consummated their affair?  The film makes the point moot: they have betrayed deeper intimacies than the physical.

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If we can sympathise with Amy through her victimhood, it is when she reveals her true knowledge of Jim that we begin to respect and empathise with her. Through the film’s first two thirds, we see Amy’s fatal flaw as her inability to engage with the experience around her, to paper over the flaws in her fantasy of domestic bliss. Yet when Jim and Georgie confront her with the affair, she offers us unutterably poignant proof that she is aware of Jim’s faults – both minor and major – but unlike Jim himself, has learned to accept them as common human frailty.

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‘What does a woman like you want with a man like him? He’s not handsome or clever. He won’t make any fortunes. He’ll be old in ten years… Do you know that he snores? Do you know that he loses his temper if his paper is creased? He can’t stand the sunshine, has to sit in the shade; gets rheumatism every winter. That he smothers the food you’ve cooked him in sauce, whatever it is, whole dollops of the stuff. You know a thousand things about him; I know a million. That’s what being married means. To know a man inside out and still love him.’

The evisceration of his character at this point shows us how much we have been inculcated into Jim’s rather than Amy’s point of view. The way that these subconscious details about Jim have accumulated, that we have watched him reach for the sauce (and Amy lovingly and ungrudgingly lay them out for him), now hits with a rare force. It’s one of the saddest moments I know in cinema, almost to the extent that the ending is obscured by it. Having reached this epiphany, the couple’s eventual reconciliation seems to make only structural sense. Georgie is right to leave Jim: all that is said by Amy is true, and we can understand her loss of Jim’s love as an important piece of self-knowledge. But without mutual compassion surely the husband and wife relationship is doomed? Jim remains a victim: he knows his fault – ‘You see the same person every day, you don’t see them at all’ – but what assurance do we have, beyond narrative closure and the presumption of happiness that goes with it, that he will be able to help Amy?

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