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INTOLERANCE (Griffith, 1916), Masters of Cinema Blu Ray

Speaking of Cinema-As-Puzzle (see: yesterday's post about Don't Look Now), probably the grand-daddy of them all, whether by accident or by design, is a film that is as we speak nuzzling up towards its centenniary: David Wark Griffith's Intolerance.

Made in 1916, this behemoth film was ostensibly constructed as an answer to cries of "Racist sumbitch!" which were hurled in Griffith's direction upon the release of his previous work from 1915 .  .  .  the dazzlingly constructed but narratively infuriating Birth of a Nation.

Designed to reveal Griffith as a man whose heart was not only sympathetic to the plight of the oppressed, but a man who was so perturbed by the injustices that men wreak on their brothers and sisters that he was a downright activist of fully blossomed authenticity, a man who reserved his greatest cinematic effort for a groaning, aching plea for empathy, humanism, and respect for one another. Intolerance is by far his most massive undertaking. It might in fact be the most massive undertaking in the history of cinema.

More likely an act of penitence rather than an indication of the measure of the humanist purity within Griffith's heart--there was essentially no way for Grif to undo the obvious appearance of deep sincerity and tremendous nostalgia with which he rendered his tales of the prewar South and the KKK--Intolerance grew to the size that it did not because of the size of the regret or heartache for Birth, but because of the contemporary trends in epic filmmaking surrounding him.  

As for the size of the regret or heartache for being regarded as a Klan sympathizer in Birth, Griffith famously sat down to film an introduction to the re-release version of Birth in the early 1930's with no less a leading light of the day than the legendary Walter Huston (who played Abraham Lincoln for Griffith in this era). In this intro, Grif re-emphasized the spirit of the sympathy he maintained for for the KKK, at least back during the immediate postbellum south. "The Klan was needed, back then," he said, nodding his head in self-affirmation, weaving tales of carpetbaggers and abusive occupiers from the north.

Of course, D. W. himself was a southerner--his father was a Colonel in the Confederacy; he war born roughly ten years after the close of the war, and grew up listening to grownups spin tales of the great conflagration. The war, and his family's side in the war, his very roots as a southerner--all of this was a part of his DNA.

As for the sincerity of his feelings regarding the right of all--regardless of race, creed or color--to pursue the right of liberty and happiness free from persecution, one can only speculate. We can say that after Intolerance, the plight of the oppressed and the misunderstood remained a theme in his work .  .  .  most notably Broken Blossoms (the extremely grim tale of the love affair of a tormented waif under the heel of her abusive father, with an ethnic Chinese merchant) and The Struggle, the dazzlingly brave (and equally grim) early sound era film about a regular, workaday contemporary man's struggle with alcoholism.

*       *       * 

Intolerance began as much smaller, far more intimate tale (versus the end result) about the struggles of a mother (played by the atomically bubbly Mae Marsh) and her husband (played by the tragic Robert Harron) versus the organized forces of moral puritanism. Called The Boy and The Dear One respectively, the couple are forced out of their meager but cheerful small town after a corporate magnate who runs a factory orders a 10% pay cut on his workers in order to finance his resentful, longings-filled sister who, unable to find love and cohabitation, goes all the way in the other direction of total puritanism and starts a crusader organization of "busybodies." Rather than accept the pay cut, the workers strike--a massacre on the  strikers by armed breakers sees the Dear One and the Boy fleeing to the city to find their fortunes. There they find love, crime, pregnancy, disaster and total agony, and lucky redemption in the end.

If one were to strip away the three highly ornate, costumed, set-construction-heavy historical stories intercut with the Mother And The Law tale, and leave the latter contemporary narrative unified and standing in sequence on its own .  .  .  one would be left with a rather trite contemporary reflection of its times, full of interesting camera work and locations, without question cut with a rhythm for the ages, particularly in the final thrilling conclusion of the narrative .  .  .  but in the end we would have nothing even closely resembling the awesome acclaim heaped on what this simple modern tale eventually turned into.

Griffith had been keeping a close eye on the goings on in the grandly operatic Italian cinema of the mid-teens. At this time, the Italians were at the forefront of the development of the plastic and subjective arts that comprise the substance of cinema: set construction and costume, camera movement, massive recruitment of extras, inventive camera placement, special effects including pyrotechnics and miniatures, and the introduction of grand spectacle and high operatic, historical and biblical themes into the cinema.

Obvious examples of this are Cabiria (Pastrone, 1914, and a film which should have been reassembled, restored, and rereleased by now), The Last Days of Pompeii (1913, Caserini), Quo Vadis? (Guazzoni, 1912) and others. We can only speculate about the majority of these titles and whether or not Griffith encountered them, but it is known that he did see the dazzling Cabiria--itself a longtime favorite of mine, a film screaming out for restoration and redistribution on home video, a far more pressing cinematic emergency than rereleasing the same old Chaneys, Langs, and Murnaus.

Filled with slow and elegant camera moves, incredible special effects, and outrageously grand sets (Moloch's temple, the exteriors and the interiors, remain among the four or five most incredible full scale plastic, non-superimposition sets in the history of film; this goes for originality, execution, and scale) Cabiria is a film that we know directly affected Griffith tremendously. We know it inspired him to reorganize the entire project from the ground up. The Mother & The Law was re-imagined as simply one element placed against a who series of historical dramas, interwoven like basket bamboo weaves to form a far grander whole.

It requires very little brainpower to spot the elements of Cabiria in Intolerance: in the temple festival ceremony and dance in the Babylonian episode, which incidentally contains a tracking shot for the ages, one that stumped viewers and cinematographers as to its method .  .  .  the rolling elevator, pushed by what we must consider to be early incarnations of the camera "grip", pushing the descending elevator forward until they reach a predetermined marker which sets the camera right in the midst of the exotic dance of religious celebration.  

Intolerance is a perfect example of the sum of the parts being far greater than the whole. If one isolated any of the individual threads--the hyper melodramatic French Huguenot episode (classic Griffith overwrought intertitle cards), the Jesus Christ Jerusalem episode, the Babylon episode, and the Mother and the Law sequence--one would be left with a bunch of isolated costume dramas, heavily moralizing and editorialized, with one contemporary drama with extremely exciting cutting, ditto on the moralizing and editorialization.

But in the intertwining of these four stories, and framing them with the mystical element of timeless wondering when man's inhumaity to man will cease, exemplified by the image of Lilian Gish rocking the crade of time, Griffith turned the entire film into something sublime, almost hinting at the religious and the sacred and the eternal.

There are few who can grasp how radical the concept was of splitting up four narratives and fracturing them into each other with very little hand holding was--it throws people even today, not understanding the purpose--to develop a larger thesis, to build up a metaphor, to cultivate a third eye in the viewer, to affect the heart of the viewer by packing the world entire right there in a three hour film. It is as revolutionary as Eisenstein's rapid montage, busting little moments of action into quick splits of vantage point and action; Griffith breaks the entire world down into a sequence of rapid montage: Eisensteins moments evolved out of Griffith's centuries (of course Grif evolved the groundwork for in-the-moment rapid montage especially in Way Down East, as Lilian Gish runs out into the icy wilderness and faints onto an ice floe), where time becomes compressed, and the filmmaker extracts that which is essential for the creation in the viewers mind's eye something extra, something ethereal.

Intolerance is a film that affects me like no other--although it perhaps doesn't mean to, it haunts me. The now aged images, portraying what was already then ancient history (the longshot of the crucifixion strikes me as actual footage!), the then-contemporary images, revealing a long gone world of wrought iron, cobble stones and fired brick, they carry with them a hint of the supernatural, as if there are mysteries to be revealed, secrets to be uncovered if one sifts around within the substance of the film.

It strikes me as if some oracle were successfully wrought by the assembly; it's a feeling I rarely if ever get or have gotten by any other film. There is a feeling of oracle that one gets from the sacred books of the world--the Bible, the Koran, Tao Te Ching, and Hindu scripture: because of it's containing so much of the hard and immutable DNA of the film, because of his superhistorical and almost supernatural aspirations, Intolerance strikes me in almost precisely the same way .  .  .  mysteries to be extracted with each reopening.

I urge anyone and everyone remotely interested in the film to go out and purchase the MoC edition of the Brownlow restoration of the film.

Preston Clive/Schreck

3/10/2015*** 

 

 

 


Preston Clive mar 10 15, 23:32
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Nosferatu; General Blogging Update 3/19/2015

I've made a general decision to migrate the sum total of all my blogging, audio commentary included, over to this Olanola platform for the time being--it's essentially the same blogging framework as Wordpress, and as I have access to marketing and promotion tools here via the management and inner connections to our network of sites, there's no reason not to simplify and streamline.

As one of my favorite commentators David Kalat released a commentary on Nosferatu just as I was in preparation of my own back in 2013, I simply backed off and allowed his to shine; I don't want to be compared to David ;@}

Now that a year plus has gone by since the release of the German BD (and the Kino disc; I've acquired the MoC) and I've refired the ol' synapses, I'm going to resurrect the audio commentary component of my blog, but at a slower pace than I did previously .  .  .  they are a lot of work. I write them, time them, record and engineer them, compress them to mp3, get them hosted with a share link, and create a blog post to link them. It's a lot of work that makes my long blog entries of the current day look like a Sunday nap in late May.

I love doing them, and nothing would be more retarded than complaining about something I took upon myself--but if there's anything that makes me cringe, it's announcing something as forthcoming, and then not following through.

But since I've already begun the planning stage of organization and note taking, I should have the Nosferatu commentary up within the next (approximately) ten to fourteen days. I'll attach the commentary audio mp3 link right here to the announce when ready.

I'm actually flirting with a massive undertaking, doing a full commentary for Die Nibelungen; if I relent I'll likely do Destiny/Der Mude Tod instead.

*           *           *

In our expansion of the blogging platform, I'm getting them to dump some irrelevant content and bring in some new stuff including some flagship bloggers with an existing audience.

This aside, we're looking to open the rolls to two or three new voices--new bloggers that we'll actively promote. It can be on cinema of any stripe, it could be on engineering, it could be on anything--as long as you have a quality about you. If you've flirted with launching something, and you think you can carry it at least weekly and hold an audience, hit me up anywhere you'd like.

I'm working directly with a web magnate estimated by Fortune to have $650 mil, and we'll promote those couple of voices that rise to the challenge to grow a following for them.

As for the traffic from you guys it's been beyond expectations, so thank you all--especially since I had disappeared for so long, nearly two years. I'm such a retard at times it amazes me an audience sticks with me. Thanks all.

Preston Clive AKA HerrSchreck

3/19/2015***

 


Preston Clive mar 19 15, 22:19
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Critical Restoration Releases: The Slow Drip . . .

Versus the manic pace that the world of silent cinema once presented to the collector via the endless number of releases in the period running roughly 2000-2009--I want to point out that I am specifically talking about the realm of home video on digital disc--the present market is very slender indeed.

For example, back in these years, we had a large number of companies releasing silent films on DVD at a relatively regular clip: Kino International (pre Lorber days) and Image Entertainment were without question the market leaders. Adventurous titles like Warning Shadows (Robeson 1925), Waxworks (Leni 1924) The Love of Jeanne Ney (Pabst 1927, and one of his best films and my personal favorite by him, even beyond the Brooks films), The Golem (Wegener, 1920), Caligari and Orlac (Weine), A Fool There Was (Powell, 1915, and one very grim picture), Cabiria (Pastrone 1914), Asphalt (May, 1928), A Cottage On Dartmoor (Asquith 1928),  the Stillers, the Sjostroms, the Fairbanks titles, the Griffith titles, the Stroheims, Eisensteins, Valentinos, Langs, Murnaus, and many other one-offs (Gay themed films, odd one-off's like ALIBI, the Jacques Tourneurs) constitute titles that Kino released during the heyday of the DVD age.

Image Entertainment which also included Milestone Films back in those days released their own fabulous litany of titles: the Joe May Indian Tomb two parter, the first DVD of Dr Mabuse der Spieler, the three Eisenstein silents, plus their own releases of some of the Fairbanks classics as well as classic German titles like Nosferatu, Caligari--many of which Kino had released but Image released with David Shepard's Film Preservation Associates, their own one-off's like Lang's Destiny, Chaney's Universal classic Hunchback and Phantom, plus double packages like Shadows/Outside the Law, Nomads of the North/The Shock, along with the DeMille silents, a couple of key Carl Dreyer silents such as The Parson's Widow and Leaves From Satan's Book (both roughly 1920), Louise Brooks double The Show Off/The Plastic Age, The Lost World, the Dziga Vertovs, the Pudovkins (The End of St Petersberg being one of my favorite silents ever), the Dovzhenkos (Earth, Arsenal ditto) .  .  .  and I haven't even moved over to Milestone or Flicker Alley yet.

What has happened?

Well, for one thing, the Eclectic Video Store has perished as a retail species in the life of our big cities. I can't speak to small cities because I don't live in one. But I can only assume that the situation is the same elsewhere as it is here: the street level physical video store is virtually nonexistent.

For one reason or another, the world has changed: art product is rarely if ever purchased from stores any longer. Whether this is because the present generation doesn't perceive artworks or pieces of entertainment to be viable products to be paid for any longer, or they simply have no interest in visiting physical stores for the instant gratification of grabbing a product and taking it immediately home to watch it--or perhaps the online retailer can always beat the price of the brick and mortar retailer .  .  .  or perhaps lastly, the world of online file sharing/torrenting/p2p/general piracy has sucked the viability right out of the concept of storefront retailing of video and audio entertainment. People do not merely wish to pay less--they don't wish to pay at all.

Book stores will be kept for a separate conversation.

An example of the rare and the sublime. (Image courtesy Potemkine)

The tempo mentioned above was a positively manic one. For every title mentioned above, there are probably five to ten not mentioned. I haven't mentioned any Masters of Cinema, any Danish Film Institute, British Film Institute, Transit Films, Divisa Red, or any of the often rather interesting albeit poorly transferred/awful source element products put out by bottom of the barrel distributor Alpha .  .  .  who nonetheless put out some interesting titles--without which we would have no idea what (for example) Roland West's The Bat (1925) would look like. 

Don't get me wrong--titles do come out. As evinced by yesterday's article focusing on E.A. DuPont's Variete (1925), in all of it's bad-score glory. Not long before this we had a revisiting of classic titles from Lang and Murnau from Masters of Cinema and Kino/FWMS, plus the fabulous restoration of Caligari which made it to Blu Ray recently.

But more critically--and more relevant to this article-- is the set put together by French label Potemkine which gathers up the titles of now only-somewhat-obscure French Impressionist master Jean Epstein into a full Coffret Set. Epstein is a man I've been championing relentlessly for almost a decade now. Occasionally by Criterion's Eclipse label we will get some silent Japanese titles by Naruse or Ozu. Or even Carl Dreyer's Master of the House on the main CC label.

And of course, we have Masters of Cinema seeing to it that the classics, when scanned in hi-def by the primary rights holders, will be put out for distribution in their region with wonderful presentations and extras. 

But in the overall, we must admit, the world has changed in a way that makes the tempo of restorations-to-HD scan-to-disc (dvd or BD) extremely slow versus what it once was. The industry has ratcheted back to a virtual creaking crawl. The days of Rupert Murdoch's Fox releasing gigantic boxes appreciating John Ford from the silent era and forward, or Frank Borzage and FW Murnau at Fox, are long gone and likely to not be seen again. Sad for us.

Things often do go in waves, but it is rare to see an industry--once dead-- resurrect itself. The changes that take root in the psyche of a generation often get nailed down for long term posterity.

Will we see video stores start opening up again with tons of DVD's and Blu Ray's up for retail on shelves again? Will all the fabulous titles waiting to be put out on home video after well known restorations--or simple screenings of very good prints--are confirmed as being in existence, will these start suddenly coming out again in a second golden age? Will the Lupu Picks, the Arthur von Gerlach's, the Wegeners, the Karl Grunes, the Lamprechts, the Jutzis, and so many more .  .  .  will these find their way out to the light of day in digital format?

We may as well ask--will we see a day when popular music returns to the qualitative levels of the immortals of yore, ie acts on the level of the Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix, Cream, The Temptations, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, David Bowie, Velvet Underground, Dylan, Aretha, the Doors, King Crimson, the Fifth Dimension, Johnny Cash, Zeppelin, all the jazz greats of yore like Miles Davis, Mingus, Archie Shepp, Coltrane, Dolphy, Sinatra, etc.

Just think that there was a period where all of these acts were out and about and performing all at the same time. And tickets were five to ten bucks, if even that.

It's a rapidly morphing world, my friends. 

Ciao until next time.


Preston Clive mar 6 15, 23:08
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The Conversation (Coppola, 1974); A Nasty One From the Heart

When considering the astonishing run of acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola's work in the 1970's, most minds tune in to those films that have become touchstones of popular culture: The Godfather Parts I & II, and Apocalypse Now. Neither film requires much introduction here.

Some, but not all fans of these three legendary films and this director are aware of a quietly strange little film that Coppola made, squeezed between the first two Godfathers, made on a relative shoestring budget and presented with very little glitz or arty fanfare. Nonetheless, the film is an atomic sock in the gut for filmgoers, and this quiet little film did indeed win Coppola the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and it is not only Coppola's personal favorite in his canon but is Gene Hackman's favorite role.  .  .  beloved even over his blistering turn as Popeye Doyle in William Friedkin's preceding The French Connection.

This film had a great little ball of synchronicity and providence surrounding it, helping it along. The tale of a surveillance expert/professional wiretapper named Harry Caul, the film is based on a scenario written by Coppola in the late 1960's .  .  .   but he never had the bread to make the film until the smash hit of The Godfather made him a bankable man whose work was suddenly seen in a new light by studio heads. The film came out for general release in April of 1974 .  .  .  just a month after the Watergate Seven were formally charged in court for the break in and wiretapping of Democratic National Headquarters--coincidentally using the precise same methods of technology for the bugging / surveillance that is illustrated in Coppola's film.

The film then profited hugely at the time, then, from its lucky confluence with the entire length and breadth of the Watergate scandal and final resignation of President Richard Nixon afterwards. The myth persists in the minds of the general public to this day that the film was designed to capitalize specifically on the scandal and spin off a film from simple current events.

The Conversation is nothing of the sort; written years before, it is a stinging, quiet film about the disease of work infecting the guts of a repressed man, a man with little to no outlet to valve out the stresses of the day, the months, the years. In particular it's a story about how much louder silence can scream versus a cacophony of noise, how life often becomes more complex as you peel back its layers, rather than simpler. The quieter grows the world, the louder grows the mind. Self examination and an attempt to purge one's demons can lead only to madness, for certain doomed souls .  .  .  certain cyclic, head-trapped, over-restrained souls that are tormented.

A brief encapsulation: Gene Hackman's Harry Caul (likely his most atypical role) is assigned a task of surveilling a young couple; we begin in media res amidst the surveillance operation in San Francisco's Union Square where we slowly, bit by bit, see how Harry has effectively boxed in the couple in (unbeknownst to them) from all four sides fore and aft, left and right, and even from above via a high power unidirectional mic on a sniper's mount.

With this scene we begin hearing snippets of conversation that repeat themselves henceforth through out the film (as Harry reviews them over and over again in his lab and in his head), slowly gaining clarity as the film unfolds in the same way that we catch snippets of visuals in Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now: we, through the eyes of a protagonist, are presented with an almost impenetrable data string which repeats and repeats and repeats until at last the mystery of the senses is unraveled at the conclusion. 

Clearly the couple have traveled here to avoid detection; we hear, through the little snippets of conversation (which are rendered on the audio track with bits of noise and analog interference as though we are listening in with the surveillance agents on their highly sensitive equipment) the clear fact that the two are afraid. Afraid of someone. We sense danger, we sense paranoia, we see that the couple are constantly observing those pedestrians and park-goers that are around them, suspicious of being followed. 

Part of the film runs on the thrill of peeking into the (especially back when it was made) genuinely rarefied world of high tech wiretappers and agents. The gadgets, the operations, the techniques--most people love the romance of spying and are fascinated with authentic looks at the highly protected and carefully hidden world in which they orbit. This is a cinematic obsession with espionage which runs riot across the screens yet today--it was extremely rare to see such an authentic portrayal of this professional strata rendered on the public movie screens for all to see. It was so unique back then it felt like a true, privileged peek into that world.

Harry Caul is a guy who never gets involved with his work--he reads as a highly repressed, blankly overloaded slate, carefully watching every word, catching every revealing syllable before one accidentally stumbles irrevocably from his lips towards an errant reveal.  .  . he is a man who knows how easy it is to listen in to somebody else if you would really like to. Aware what he could be subject to at any moment from a bout of counter-surveillance, he never reveals a thing about himself to anybody at any time .  .  . and this includes his innocent would-be girlfriend (played by an incredibly young Teri Garr).

This is a stinging film that burns the eyes like noxious aerosol accidentally thrown over by an errant wind. Studded with an incredible cast--some of whom, like Robert Duvall, and the astonishing John Cazale had already appeared in the first Godfather (not to mention an almost teenaged looking but still somehow menacing Harrison Ford, pre-Apocalypse)--the film is nonetheless not as much about blazing performances as it is a well constructed, poisonous whole universe of of self-imposed, but somehow unavoidable isolation.

Unavoidable because the habits and the job are too deeply ingrained for Caul for the tendency to be reversed--especially in a world filled with cohorts who are likewise infected with constant deception. Everyone is deceiving someone else in this film: Ford's Stett is deceiving Caul, Cazale's Stanley is deceiving his boss Harry; the young couple is deceiving the Director; Caul is deceiving his young girlfriend; Elizabeth Macrae's blond fling Meredith is deceiving Caul; Stett wound up deceiving the director; Alan Garfield's Bernie Moran is deceiving Caul with his little pen gadget--everybody is filled with lies, and the truth, often times the most obvious thing in the world, is missed because warped minds are expecting to be thrown out into the distant weeds by professional liars and clever agents.

When the simple truth sits unnoticed for so long, owing to the mind having to outfox layer after layer of false realities deliberately piled one on top of the other, over and over again by opponents and by routine, the human loss becomes irrevocable in certain cases of great skill blended with stunted emotional development. This film tells that quietly blistering story in razor-sharp spades.  

Schreck/Clive

3/31/2015**


Preston Clive mar 31 15, 22:15
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T-Men & Raw Deal (Mann/Alton, 1947): A Cry Into The Void

Let's pretend for a minute that the dazzling duo of Eagle Lion titles Raw Deal and T-Men was considered lost, and only now had been rediscovered over the past say eighteen months. Let's also pretend that the reputations of Mann and Alton, based on the strength of the canon of both men independent of one another and in tandem, sat at the lofty heights that they always have been. Painting With Light by Alton, The Black Book, He Walked By Night, plus all of the raves about T-Men and Raw Deal from the past before the films were lost let's say in a nitrate fire in some small Los Angeles or midwest vault. Not to mention Mann's El Cid and Fall of the Roman Empire and all the rest.

Now let's say the films were only now just rediscovered by the current hodepodge of  filmfan generations--cineastes young and old. Imagine the dumbfounded reactions; imagine the stunned audiences as the newly recovered films went on tour through the arthouse circuit. The reviews by a bowled over Kehr, Hoberman, Silver, Ursini, Muller. 

Do you have any doubt that the blogosphere would be alight with reviews by dazzled eyeballs, that hi-caliber film reviewers in the NYTimes, the Village Voice, the Chicago Sun-Times, the LA Times, all the film journals in France and the rest of Europe as the film went overseas (where cinephiles have an insatiable hunger for authentic American noir from the late 1940's). .  . that all of these would create overlapping buzzes about the film that ultimately would join and exponentially expand the sense of impact, turning these two titles and their rediscovery by the modern generation into a cinematic global event of the first order?

Do you think there would be any question that the films would be scanned carefully in 2-4K and encoded for BD release? That there would be a drumbeat of anticipation at very least along the lines of the itchy palms aching to put their hands on the recent Caligari, Variete or any number of titles recently restored and eagerly awaited on BD?

Do you think that there would be something of a scramble for rights acquisition on these little Edward Small productions for home video release? Wouldn't the scramble be something of a rush to be the one to excitedly secure the rights to reproduce for home video consumption these phantasmagorical masterpieces of film noir, and to be the one to facilitate recovered history put straight into the hands of the public for posterity?

 

Maybe the reaction would not be precisely as above, but it sure would be a "thing" in the world of cinephilia. These two films take the foundational elements of early Wilder, Lang, Ulmer and a few others in the early Forties, they take the highly stylized exaggerated snappy patter of--for example--Raymond Chandler in his novels and in his script for Double Indemnity .  .  .   and create a visual equivalent. There's no question that the discovery of these two low budget miracles of careful and highly controlled filmmaking would constitute an event of significant import; the foundational story of Noir would have to be modified, if not quite rewritten. 

*           *           *

Is the significance of this film any less simply because the films have been (thankfully) available to us for continuous viewing since they were made? Should we be any less dazzled, should we allow ourselves to go dull over two examples of low budget B filmmaking that are as lofty as is humanly possible?

Who extracted more from a small cast of second string actors, a few thousand bucks, a camera, high contrast film stock and a few lights to pick out key elements here and there in the darkness? How many other filmmaker-cinematographer combos could so profoundly dwarf with a few stretched dollars the efforts of top tier A list studio filmmakers working with the privilege of lavish crews, sets, top casts and multimillion dollar budgets?

How many other tiny teams of impoverished B film artists could earn so much stunned, almost embarrassed awe from those colleagues way up above of them on the studio ladder of prestige?

Mann and Alton during the brief interludes of their collaboration were a rare--very rare--combo indeed .  .  .  so good they could almost be seen as low budget outsiders who were unquestionably superior to their colleagues in the tippity top of the studio crop: an awe and respect that was profound indeed.  

Yes: situations like these were very rare indeed. The are plenty of filmmaker/director-camerman combos who work within the constraints of the B budget that earn the respect of their colleagues in A level Hollywood .  .  .  but this is an affection filled, slightly condescending regard for rough-edged low budget genre work that rises above the rest of the mass of B drek yet almost never raises an authentic aesthetic challenge to the skills of top tier studio filmmakers and crew-craftsmen .  .  .  at least not during the Golden Age of the studio years ending with the 1970's. The films of Edgar Ulmer or Morris Engel are examples.

T-Men and Raw Deal probably need no heavy introduction to the kind of readership that floats through this blog. There are a good number of you, and I know where most of you come from--the vast majority of you know the kind of super-rare filmmaking resident in these two gems. Filled with authenticity of their age from location shooting in seedy urban spots amplified by John Alton's high contrast, fine art camerawork, spilling with tough guy masculinity on both the good and bad guy sides (and T-Men is a famous blurring of the line between good and bad guy, cop and villain, as two undercover Treasury Agents--the T-Men of the title--pose as low level gangsters to penetrate the underworld .  .  .  and perhaps get into their roles a little bit too deeply, getting a sympathetic character killed via their needless machinations on the side) these films represent the very top level of accomplishment in the Noir/crime drama medium, as well as a clear apotheosis of mid-century B&W cinematography--probably cinematography period, in any age.

These films ratchet up the process of psychological mise en scene to the level of high Dutch chiaroscuro blended with Gothic art, a rare cinematic delicacy available nowhere else beyond the bounds of TMen, Raw Deal, The Black Book, and He Walked By Night (on which Mann was an uncredited cleaner-upper for Werker). Nowhere else will you find this level of exaggerated, hyperreality distilled to such crystaline excellence. 

These films have been screaming out for proper treatment on home video for well over ten years. Even the VCI two disc set for T-Men and Raw Deal only just met the bare minimum requirements in terms of image presentation. These two films are cornerstone entries in mid century American filmmaking .  .  .  on any level. The fact that they sit ignored by the Blu Ray age is a crime, a sin, of the highest magnitude. They deserve fresh transfer in 4K resolution from the finest fine grains (or, heaven forfend, a camera neg) sitting out there, with uncompressed mono soundtrack. They deserve, at last, contextual extras, documentaries bringing these two men to life again, filling in the blanks and the background of the making and distribution of these two films.

Anthony Mann received his middling due in the Criterion Collection with The Furies with Walter Huston and Barbara Stanwyk presented kinda ho hum. Eh, meh. Most tuned-in cineastes regard this film as a second string player to the great work Mann did with Alton .  .  . and these two films are without doubt the tip of the towering pinnacle.

Since we've all had the opportunity to bathe in the lush, pitch black paranoia of The Black Book via the Sony On Demand DVD encoded off of telecine from a fabulous print, as well as the Werker on a nice MGM DVD, it's at last time that somebody, somewhere, somehow rescue these two incredibly important works of the cinematic art and place them into the high historical context and state of presentation that is long over due------------P L E A S E! 

I groan into the heavens.

Clive/Schreck

3/24/2015*** 

(All images Eagle Lion Films 1947-1948) 

 


Preston Clive mar 24 15, 23:23
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Coming Soon (FOR REAL): Nosferatu, (Murnau, 1921)

When approaching any project, this whether medium you are working in is film, music, writing, painting, whatever, there is one basic thing that you begin with, and there is one essential thing that you end with.

You begin with your vision for the project--that is, what you would like the end product to look like. This is motored by the energy of inspiration, ratcheted up or down via the level of motivation the material actually injects into your artistic heart and soul.

And you end with the output product itself, what the energies and labor on yours and-- in the case of the cooperative arts-- your collaborators' parts ultimately and finally produced.

An extremely inspired artist often begins with an interior sensation, an inner disposition of emotion, of atmosphere, of statement, of excitement, something sublime .  .  .  that he dreams of getting across to his audience. A feeling that the material stimulates in his inner life, which is rarefied in the world, that he wishes to inject direct into the hearts of his audience. Depending on his sensibility, certain situations or juxtapositions excite him because of the way they make him feel. Certain combinations set off interior responses that are very precious .  .  .  the reasons that these sensations are set off, and why they are very precious are part of the essential mystery of life. Who knows why bare twisted branches against a grey sky and falling leaves on a damp foggy day in November were very precious and pleasurable to the French and Russian Impressionists of the Twenties and Thirties. 

Who knows why some people endlessly gravitate towards trouble in their lives and grow very uncomfortable when life is on a regular, positive keel? Who knows why certain depressive people gravitate to a certain type of sadness, and crash and burn and drink and grow erratically aggrieved during moments that typically trigger supreme happiness in most others? Who knows what emotions are in the first place, the function that they serve, and why they modulate so profoundly from person to person? All in the end are chemical reactions in the brain, set off to certain combinations of stimuli; why one person should experience one chemical reaction to a certain stimuli while another experiences secretions of an entirely opposite nature--this is the essential mystery of life. It's the kind of thing that challenges the marketing departments of large corporations around the world, and will continue to do so for time immemorial .  .  .  and large scale purveyors of product for sale would like the responses to stimuli and thus the buying habits of the general public to be simple, neat and predictable. Politicians wouldn't mind that sort of streamlining either. . it would make elections a hell of a lot more simple.

I single out the depth and the strength of the impressions of a person's inner life because the difference between the intentions for the inner life of an artwork, versus the end result, can be extraordinary. One can enter into a project with great excitement for the idea of injecting this or that Stuff of Life into the minds of the viewer, and complete the project completely crushed for the difficulty of transmitting this essential substance of the life process. Some things get across easier than others--often times a narrative element that once was easy here, is almost impossible there.

*           *           *

One of the most difficult things to transmit from the inner gates of the human soul over the life of a complete artwork are those things we find "chilling." Not "BOO!" scary, not gory, not shocking .  .  . but eerie .  .  .  creepy .  .  .  frightening down at the true level of the ancient and the human and the supernatural as pertains to the mass of human substance throughout time. One might set down into a work of art, souped up with ambition and energy, feeling--because the creative individual is so familiar with those flashes of ancient shadows that flicker in and out of the soul down through the ages, has sifted between his mental fingers that decayed remnant of human civilization that sits off to its side and haunts it through every age--that he can master these elements on the medium of his art. .  .  seeking to render the feeling behind flashes of the Long Dead sensed on dirt roads of an old town at night, of not being alone on deserted staircases, in forests, in abandoned amusement parks in dark winter night.

Most horror films are fun. They're fun in the same way that the Fun House and Coney Island or Rye Playland are fun. Most people enjoy being scared--scared in a way that reminds of the innocence of childhood, irrational fear of those things we don't understand--then we grow up and no longer feel those fears of Under The Bed, or Down In The Dark Cellar. Fun in the way that a rollercoaster is fun for an adult: your body tells you you're going to die during the loop, but your mind overrides the sensation and knows all will be well, and the excitement translates as rarified exhilaration.

*           *           *

On the other hand, there is a fear that is eternal in that it stretches through the sum of an individual's life: there are some fears that remain in the hypothalamus no matter how rational or old one becomes. They're also eternal in that they remain frightening to humans in 2015 just as they were in 15 BC. No amount of sophistication and advancement in human learning can completely erase these things--the human soul is apparently neverendingly capable of being chilled when confronted with certain combinations of stimuli that evoke a sense of the shadows of the supernatural and the ancient, when a sense of the past seems to push unnaturally into the present, and this past image is warped with something subtly unnatural, subtly warped or deformed or decayed .  .  .  something unseen but strongly sensed. The hairs on the back of the neck go right up.

This is the stuff that--because so much of it must be felt rather than directly seen--is enormously difficult to translate into an artwork.

F. W. Murnau had been working in the medium of the cinema for little more than two years when he shot and assembled Nosferatu; he had virtually no precedent for this kind of genuinely supernatural material shot in a largely naturalistic style, shunning the manipulation of exaggerated sets and choosing to shoot outdoors in nature. Yet somehow this eternal freight of the unseen supernatural soaks through the frames of this film.

The conception and the execution--clearly Murnau, Galeen, and Grau (and Fritz Wagner, the highly skilled cameraman) came to this material all on the same page .  .  .  and we miraculously (I say this confidently owing to the vast acclaim for this film) get out of this film to this day what the makers in large part likely intended to put into it. There is virtually no disconnect between intention and output--no diminution from concept to execution.

That, my dears, is a rare miracle, to this day. 

Clive/Schreck

3/27/2015***

 

 

 

 


Preston Clive mar 27 15, 22:06
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FW Murnau: Twice As Bright, Half As Long

A rare peek at the lighter side of the man. (IMG: Fox films)

Cinema to me will always be embodied by the DNA of the output of two men:

James Whale in the sound era, and F.W. Murnau in the silent era.

This isn't necessarily because I claim historical supremacy of these two particular men above all other directors (though for the latter I do). Rather, it's because--in my head--these were the two men who laid down the first cinematic images apprehended by my prepubescent mind: these were the first directors whose films set off a serious reaction, a chase, a pursuit, a longing, an obsession.

I can't emphasize how important library books were to a young child's mind back then in the mid-1970s when a was a kid forming an identity by responding to those things that he found he had a natural magnetic pull to. Back then there was no home theater: no VHS, no DVD, no BD .  .  .  no not even cable television. Youtube for silents and old horror itches needing a scratch? 

Forget about it.

If you wanted to see a movie, you had to wait half a year, a year. Sometimes more. I recall The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919, Weine) coming on a grand total of once, on PBS throughout the entirety of my boyhood.

And I was very thorough--my mother subscribed to the TV Guide throughout my entire youth, and as soon as it came in our mailbox, I would run immediately over to the living room couch and flip instantly to the movie section. Ordered by day of the week, it would instantly tell me what movies would be on television the upcoming week--what days and what times. I never missed a week because the subscription never was interrupted. Caligari came on once, and there probably wasn't a single time that I opened that TV guide from the age of roughly 9 or 10 forward, that I didn't hungrily peel page off of page through that section hoping to see the words Cabinet and Caligari in the same title.

I saw it once--and nearly blasted up through the ceiling up into the third floor of the house, through that ceiling and up through that roof to go sailing across the north Bronx, leaving behind me a rocket contrail of ecstasy.

While these movies actually came on, you pinched yourself. Heaven. Couldn't believe it. Major event. God forbid your brother or parents wanted to watch something else. We had a big black and white TV down in our first floor play room so if I got squeezed out, I had another TV to default to.

Which is why books at the public library were so important. They helped you--a kid in fourth grade without no job couldn't pick up Famous Monsters of Filmland--remember what these films looked like in the first place. There was a large coffee table sized book on the horror film that my local Bronx library had back in those days which outlined the history of the horror film from the beginning of the silent era up to that point in time, meaning it probably cut off in the late sixties. I remember gazing even at films from the fifties and early sixties that I never got to see until many years later: young Michael Landon in I Was A Teenaged Werewolf, plus Carnival of Souls, and many others.

But it was the films from the silent era and the initial run of Universal sound-era classics from the early to mid 1930's which exerted the biggest pull on me. Those faded images of Paul Wegener's Golem, the terrifyingly eerie persona of Max Schreck's Count Orlok standing in his "salt warehouse" doorway with his fingers extended into impossibly long claws in faded scratchy black and white; the impossibly warped phantasms of Caligari, rendered in strange Expressionist sets my young mind failed to completely comprehend but loved; the grim, solemn seriousness of Karloff's face in the first Frankenstein, the terrifyingly somber mountebanks played by Chaney--these all carried a stern, stoical, sinister quality that was somehow different from anything and everything else on the earth. These weren't just movies, to my young mind--they carried the aroma of something extra that wasn't injected in other movies. Something frightening, something unfriendly, something demonic. Something that was very very different from my family and I; that dark, forbidding atmosphere exerted a pull on me. I would take the book out from the library, then have to return it. Each week searching the new issue of the TV guide, mostly only getting lucky with Son of Frankenstein, King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, Son of Kong, and Japanese Monster Week on the 4:30 movie on ABC TV after school. Godzilla for days.

But as too much time would go by without ever getting to see any of the movies I just mentioned from the silent and early sound era with Chaney, Karloff, etc, the distance I felt from those images that haunted my mind would need to be closed again, and I would go and take the book out once again so I could stare at those loaded images all over again, and give the whole era of the 20's and 30's a refresh in my young brain. The difficulty of finally getting to see these films only added to their ominous quality in my impressionable head; the more time went on without finally getting to tick a title off the Sacred List, the more important the list became, and the greater the import of the titles. Somebody was trying to keep something from me about these films--maybe they were truly evil! Maybe they were Just That Scary!

*         *         *

As for James Whale, we can leave him for another column--but FW Murnau for me has personally been a cornerstone of what constitutes the cinema, for years. This quiet, reserved German from the earth of Westphalia, this solidly middle class Plumpe, this determined obsessive, this in a certain sense stereotypically Teutonic hard worker, seeker of impact, chaser of dreams, this private homosexual, this sailor and admirer of Crux the Southern Cross, this tragic loss at far too young an age, this epitome of all the cinema strived to be back during the age of his professional output and during the present age--this single man was this and so much more, all during the briefest of cinematic careers .  .  .  a career which, when measuring impact against number of years as craftsman, may be the most concentrated in the whole of the cinema.

As a youth, young Murnau (a name he took from a period spent with an artists colony around Murnau am Staffelsee in the southernmost region of Bavaria) gravitated instantly to the world of acting and the stage; during his schooling he attracted the attention--during an acting performance-- of the legendary Max Reinhardt of the critically acclaimed and aesthetically vital Deutsches Theater in Berlin, were he mixed with future collaborators like Alexander Granach (a close friend), Lothar Muthel (ditto) Conrad Veidt. For an insight into Murnau's character we listen to the memoirs of Granach--who played Knock for Murnau in the director's legendary Nosferatu--who remembers the tall, handsome Murnau defending the short, squat Granach from the antisemitic attacks of their cohorts and especially those of a (Jewish, no less) professor, called Held. He also recalls episodes of the two of them slithering into private theater boxes and laying on their bellies to peer down and watch and listen to the great Reinhardt give his private lessons in the theater, which he insisted remain private and unattended by general classes.

This phase of his life was, like many others, interrupted by the coming of WW1. During the Great War Murnau served as an officer on the Russian side of the war, maintaining a life of strict regimentation and order in the miserable surroundings of the trenches. He passed the time writing letters to his close friend and probably romantic companion, Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele, as well as the young man's family--particularly after suffering the loss of young Hans early on during the war.

During the latter phase of his war service he enrolled in the air corps, and served on the European/French front near Verdun, where his meticulously maintained (some say obsessively labored over) plane went down numerous times (between 7 and 9 crashes/unplanned landings by some counts), until he finally took his plane down in fog one fateful last unplanned time into neutral Swiss territory--this ended the war for him.

It was during his internship in Switzerland, riding out the rest of the war on the Swiss side of the border, Murnau re-involved himself with the world of the stage while interned at Andernatt. During this period a production of a renowned Swiss national drama was being put together, and solicitations for production were put out. As internees were allowed to submit, Murnau assembled his own version of the drama, and won first prize and even won himself a modicum of national acclaim in Switzerland when the play was mounted in Berne.

*         *         *

As the war ended and Murnau returned to Berlin, he set himself to the business of the burgeoning world of the cinema. From the war experience, the green eyed young suburbaner had become hardened, learning loss, witnessing endless death, facing his own mortality over and over again on a fantastically industrial scale. He had come home with a highly educated, deeply learned mind set free to a degree by the tutelage of Reinhardt, abstracted by the experience of flight, darkened by death and crashes .  .  .  and yet, rather than succumbing to indulgence or an overwrought disposition, these grimmer elements of humanity were absorbed by an already hyperactive mind obsessed with the world of dreams, flights of fantasy, aches and pains for a lost loved one. One can only wonder--reading the endless ciphers of personal heartbreak in Murnau's films, whether or not he knew real love beyond the loss of the ideal of Hans Degele.

For such an incredibly hyperactive and emotional--and yet severely reserved, occasionally icy but always decent--individual, his monstrous amount of devotion to the new world of the Berlin cinema seems as much a result of his severe work ethic as it does his probably requirement for an outlet for all of that churning, deeply responsive interior life. Without the outlet of the cinema, it's likely that Murnau would have had to do battle with temptation towards some form of indulgence.

*         *         *

Flights in physical space and flights of fancy; the lawless world of dreams, where the hard rules of reality are battered by the escaping mind; smooth movements in space and time; the expressive quality of nature, architecture, weather for narrative punctuation, speaking for character and speaking for a situational mood; clashes between the sensibilities between good and evil, between commerce and the dreamer, between the uncorrupted innocent and the functioning-in-the-world pragmatist, between the city and the country, between civilization and between the instinctual, between man and woman, natural and supernatural, truth and little white lies, between religious hypocrisy and human decency without a congregation, between great fun with the devil and deprivation with the angels, between parent and child: all these elements are very rich in the world of F. W. Murnau. All of these things can be picked speculatively out of his life like an apple picker sifting through a tree for ripened granny smiths. 

The war, his sexual proclivity versus his family's bourgeois inclinations, the tragedy of Degele's untimely death, the repression of an overly severe and perhaps personally unforgiving disposition--all of these things are there in Murnau's life to speculate about, to pick apart if one is so inclined.

But there is little profit there: the joy is in the beholding of the end product of this assembly line of elements that overtook Murnau's mind, and which Murnau's mind overtook when he was making a film--the expressive joy of the artist achieving, venting in code, pointing someone else's fictional finger at this or that personal torment .  .  .  director as worker of puppets, of grand theatrics, of playing god in a universe created all on his own.

The fascinating thing about Murnau, as much as we might be inclined to consider him (and rightly so) an auteur, is that he wrote very very little of his canon: this was left to men and women like Carl Mayer, Thea von Harbou, Galeen, Hauptmann, and others.

But what makes Murnau's film so essentially Murnau is the power of the images, as well as their assembly; and what makes their images and their assembly so powerful is exactly what makes the cinema as a medium so powerful when the cinema does what it does best: tell a story in pictures.

A script is a script indeed--but a silent film scenario generally does not exert quite the power of the proceedings of the final product as does a sound film script. Poorly spoken lines and bad acting can sink a sound film. Poorly spoken lines are not noticed in a silent film, which blimps towards the heavens when a man like Murnau is at the helm because of the power of its images to absorb the viewer, to trigger unspecific poetry quietly in the mind of the viewer--unspecific poetry that is different every time the same viewer beholds the same film. This unlike sound film, which can be-- subconsciously or on purpose--memorized by the viewer, and repeats precisely at each time.

Murnau took the silent film--with other directors, undoubtedly--away from the proscenium, away from the tens and teens concept of a filmed play where the blank camera lens was merely a General Eye of Generic Audience Member. Murnau turned the cinema into a world that viewers simply couldn't believe then, and still marvel incredulously at today: the world of legitimate dreams .  .   . good dreams, bad dreams, phantasms of the everyday, iconic dream images of country, of urban jungle, of supernatural castle. Murnau was the first to consistently bring into the image that thing that the human mind adds to its surroundings-- the glistening sheen of our desires, our love for a mate, our dark and damp and chilly terrors, the dark shadows of our sins, the idealized longings for fame, for home.

Why does the town we live in or were raised in as a child hold such a special quality? Why do we relive in our minds the place and time of good memories? Because what our mind has done to those affairs: Murnau was the first man to consistently take this mysterious human freight of the mind, of life, and put it up onscreen consistently, film after film after film.

Murnau could find the humanity in a script handed to him, find the netherworld side of the mind in a certain tension or conflict, and stamp it with his visual vocabulary--a foundational point in the development of film grammar.

How extraordinary that a man could walk out of WW1 and walk right into Berlin and start making films and in two years, by 1921, start rattling off masterpiece after masterpiece, soaring cinematic towers, one after the other. Walk out of Berlin by 1925 and enter the alien world of Hollywood and make masterwork after masterwork, and leave your stamp on the greatest filmmakers that country would ever produce. Exit that country at the end of the decade and pick up the tatters of a disbanded collboration with Robert Flaherty, and make one of the most unusual, most original, and most heartbreaking (and also, for Murnau, atypical) films ever made.

And exit the making of that final film and enter at last into the netherworld, the ethereal world that haunted all of his films... the intangible and the eternal, where his name and his films will forever reside. He's been my favorite director since I--at last, long after my childhood spent laboring over library books and TV Guides, looking for his most famous film Nosferatu, which I craved manically--had the chance to explore the rest of his canon, little by little during the VHS age, during the 1980's.

They say that the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long--that's surely FW Murnau.

Here's to you, sir.

Preston Clive/HSchreck

3/11/2015***


Preston Clive mar 11 15, 23:34
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Nosferatu &. Destiny/Der Mude Tod (Murnau/Lang, 1921): Lest We Forget . . . .

The whole idea of a Silent Film Smackdown or kickboxing match to pronounce a "winner" in the end is an act bordering on a level of absurdity so profound its virtually without equal.

At the same time the idea of bunching these two supernatural films together just set upon me five minutes ago (approximately 12:45pm EST in NYC, 3/30/2015... we still have a little bit of time left before the planet blows up in a great fiery orgy of apocalypse because when a supermoon gets funky with a solar eclipse on the vernal equinox and god knows what-all else, being toasted down to a shivering microscopic cinder is the only possible outcome .  .  .  if you don't believe me then listen to Mystic Momma: she knows everything). I found the idea of a comparative appreciation unbearably alluring so I'm diving in without prep to close out this second calendar week of my resurrected blog.

Two foundational films from two foundational directors in Germany: Nosferatu by Murnau, and Der Mude Tod (aka Destiny) by Lang. Both made in 1921. Both the first undisputed masterpieces by either director. Both gloomy and dreary and filled with the inky charcoal of chiaroscuro. Both soaked with a cold damp wind of grey death. Both tone-setters for the way that Weimar Cinema would be perceived up to this very day. 

Both films are underpinned by awesome performances by singularly grim looking male actors portraying incarnations of death personified in worn, almost shabby costumes that have a perfectly weathered appearance, matching their heavily weathered faces.

Both films imbue the viewer with a hope that--as the narratives wend their ponderously gloomy way toward resolution--the forces of darkness can be defeated with a cipher of human innocence and genuine selflessness. And both crush that hope in conclusion with a rare power of precious, dismal poetry.

Both films harness the power of shadow in one of the earliest examples of sets bathed in shadow, soaked in broad swathes of inky darkness--aside from Evgeni Bauer, these are some of the first films to concretize the yet unspoken maxim of the great cameraman John Alton: it's not what you light, it's what you don't light.

Both films obsess over the rarest esoterica of the supernatural, a subject that was extremely rare in the cinema and would remain so for at least another ten years until the advent of the sound era in Universal Studios and the youthful risk-taking of Carl Laemmle Jr. From the birth of the full length five reeler in the teens and forward, most tales of the supernatural turned out to have rational explanations in the end: scheming relatives trying to scare an inheritor away from a fortune, a cop dressing up as a supernatural creature to scare the competition away, and on and on.

*           *           *

Not only did the two of these films concern themselves with the supernatural, they obsessed for obscurest esoterica of the supernatural. .  .  secret ciphers and glyphs of forgotten hidden societies, mysterious roots and bulbs that were believed to give off healing powers under the glow of a seasonal moon. .  .   the whirling of Muslim dervishes to celebrate the Sufist concept of God (in the much larger Earth of the early 20th Century, how many Europeans knew much about Islam beyond the Arabian Nights?), Paracelsian esoterica, the vampiric myths of eastern Europe and the legends about the foggy, hard-to-reach crumbling castles high on little-traveled passes .  .  .  ideas that in their actual form are as obscure today as they were back then almost a hundred years ago.

Through books like The Demoniac/Haunted Screen by Lotte Eisner, or From Caligari To Hitler by Siggy Kracauer, it's easy to fall into the ridiculous trap of thinking that the German screen of post-war Weimer was filled with little else but doom, gloom, death and the supernatural--but it's not true.

Like the films of Douglas Fairbanks or Llloyd or Chaplin here in the USA from the same period, these are simply the films that, because of their budget, skilled craftsmen, unusual quality and thus broad exhibition, gained great popularity with the public and thus were 1) duped and exhibited voluminously whereby 2) copies wound up surviving here and there and thus made it to the modern era in a far greater percentile versus the ordinary Westerns, adventure films, romances, serials, comedies by transitory flavor-of-the-moment actors and actresses, and newsreels that came out with far far far greater frequency. Eighty percent of the films from the silent era at very least have been lost. The number is probably greater.

Even the studio planet of UFA, known for its Pommerian universe of artifice and grand scale, was a factory grinding out typical studio fare. UFA was no more the studio of super-expensive giant sized productions any more than Universal in the 1920's was a studio that put out nothing but Stroheim and Lon Chaney million dollar super jewels. Universal Hollywood in those days was essentially a B studio--cranking out low budget westerns, serials, comedies, romances, and all the other drek that comes in between. They put out a super jewel feature complete with glossy printed magazine size programs, sheet music sold to the public, etc once a year. Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback, The Man Who Laughs, the Stroeheims, you'll notice that you will almost never find a year where a Universal film with towering, mindbendingly expensive sets is released alongside another of equal budget but of completely different pedigree and subject and art direction. The studio finances just couldn't handle it.

As far as UFA was concerned, it was the stretch from 24-27 where they attempted to ratchet up the studio superproductions to simultaneity (Faust/Nibelungen/Metropolis) that saw the studio stumble right into financial trouble and right into Alfred Hugenberg's mitts.

The point is this: even in the hallowed halls of the old UFA in the first half of the twenties, just pre and post acquisition of Decla Bioskop, the vast majority of cinematic fare in Germany was the same boring fluff made for as little as possible that plagues any era of film. At least when it comes to the connoisseur, with a taste for something different and somewhat more substantial.

How miraculous are both of these films--how so are both of these men. What different temperaments, yet how similar are both of these breakthroughs for both of them. Nosferatu's influence over the years has been endless, although upon its initial release its success was staggered by the Stoker family suit. Der Mude Tod--we know it floored Luis Bunuel; we know it bowled Hitchcock over and remained his favorite film. We know--speaking of the American swashbuckler-- Douglas Fairbanks freaked for the Lang film and bought its rights so he could cruelly shove it in a closet and first copy, then release a flying carpet sequence lifted straight out of the Oriental sequence first, before the appearance of Der Mude Tod in the states. Uncool.

It's very easy in this age of all manner of films everywhere, our senses dulled by porn and CGI and terrorism and apps and all manner of strange information available at the click of a mouse, to miss the impact of Nosferatu and Der Mude Tod

In a field of endless homogeneity and unspectacular, average, mindless prattle as far as the eyes can see--an occasional decent mind here and there, okay, it's true--suddenly two men walk in out of nowhere with completely overwhelming talent and brains, and demonstrate at the same time the strangest taste and aesthetic inclinations. People stop, stunned, staring at the screen, jaws agape. 

How is it that this happens? Just a few times every century? Men arrive almost as if they landed from Saturn, with minds concerned with subject matter that baffle ordinary folks .  .  .  strange men who scare people .  .  .and nonetheless awe the chilled common man to the marrow with the hitherto unseen level of talent that hurls all that originality flowing naturally through their veins direct into the beholding viewer as if by injection?

Almost above all other films from the era--there are others of course--savor these films. Never allow yourself to become numb to their meaning and what they say about the young, barely experienced men who made them and dazzled the planet .  .  .  still to this day. Generation after generation.

Schreck/Clive

3/20/2015***

    

 

 


Preston Clive mar 20 15, 23:09
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Unfortunate things do happen from time to time, and this is no doubt one of them. Due to a disagreement and fractured agreements, my association with Olanola is, at least for now, discontinued. To those bloggers who were going to sign up with me, I sincerely and heartily apologize for any inconvenience. I will make it right with you if I haven't already (you know who you are).

Those who regularly read me here: thanks in high volume! This blog will continue elsewhere--probably back on Wordpress at Schreckbabble. For those new followers the URL is: 

https://schreckbabble.wordpress.com/

I'm just renewing my RE licenses and finishing up some neccessary classes, and will have NOSFERATU up very soon! Thanks to you all and see you in the usual places.

 

Clive-Schreck


Preston Clive apr 16 15, 21:03
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The Slums of New York AKA Sin's Pay Day (1932): Somewhat "Caught."

Soul of the Slums (1931) Since no poster from Sin's Payday exists,

I'll provide one for a similar Like Production. 

Well- I didn't hit my ambitious goal of getting Nosferatu's commentary up this weekend owing to a good reason .  .  . a house I had put up for sale (I still have a hand in RE) for a good number of months finally found a buyer. It was quite a journey, as I took the property assignment way over in the west Bronx in Morris Heights (the area of my birth) because the owner of the property is a wealthy psychiatrist on Roosevelt Island with a large network of wealthy friends .  .  . so, ya gotta get your foot in the door with the rich if you want in that bizzz.

Anyhow the process was a bit depressing as offer after offer after offer (after offer, I had five total offers including this successful one) fell through as each potential buyer was unable to get a loan from the bank to mortgage their purchase of the place. A depressing scenario for sure .  .  

Anyhow, this depressing backdrop of the have-nots is a good enough place for me to begin my essay on a bitchin' little film that I watched at 5am this morning after finally crashing yesterday evening at 7:30pm: The Slums of New York, which is also known by the title Sin's Pay Day.

This is a--drumroll--Ralph Like Production, made in the Pre-Code year of 1932 in Los Angeles (despite the promising whiff of gritty location shooting on the streets of New York. No dice).

The film stars Forrest Stanley, who was a relatively well-known face from back in the silent and early sound era; cineastes who take in at least the better known cream of the better known films from the silent era, especially those that carry a whiff of German Expressionism .  .  . these will recognize him as "Charles Wilder" from Paul Leni's dazzling The Cat and The Canary for Universal in the banner year of 1927. Those who've seen this film and remember at least some of it will easily remember Stanley's part, as it is he who was responsible for the going's on that scared the living crap outa Laura LaPlante's character--he was the one putting silly plastic fangs and bug eye's and humping around through cellars with hair and fake nails pasted to his hands to look like claws. Lovely little Charlie Wilder, the old protege.

In Slums of New York, Stanley plays James Markey, criminal defense attorney making beaucoup bucks in the Big Apple during the Great Depression and Prohibition. The extremely short film, which--at least as it has come down to us today--runs under one hour, opens at Markey's estate, introducing us to each character and making short work of efficently distinguishing them all from one another.

Splishing and splashing around a pool in what looks like a posh suburb of New York--could be Long Island, could be around the Jersey Hills across the bridge, could be up in Westchester a la Scarsdale or Bronxville--Markey's guests are having a blast while consciously ruminating for a brief moment that it must not be an awful lot of fun being poor. We are shortly introduced to Markey's wife, played by then very-well-known Dorothy Revier, a vamp of the silent era who reached her peak opposite Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s The Iron Mask.

We catch Markey in his office taking a massive payment from the underworld to get off known mob boss "Louis Joe" played by venerable character actor Harry Semels (the guy could play anything, from stooge to terrifying gangster). An underling of Joe hands Markey five grand, then a huge amount of money to defend the incarcerated Joe in court, as he is on trial for his life for a murder that everybody with any sense knows he obviously committed. 

In other words--in terms of criminal defense lawyers, Markey was the Barry Slotnick, the Bruce Cutler of his day. As he discusses the case and takes the payment from a stooge of Louie Joe, we catch Markey's wife listening in as she was about to fetch Markey, unaware he was occupied with business in his office, and couldn't help hearing the conversation about "If anyone can get the boss off, it's you Markey," on the approach.

A backstory is instantly revealed, that is almost a dry run for the first half of Caught by Max Ophuls. Iris Markey, a woman of conscience, doesn't mind living in surroundings of luxury, but her inner voice can't stand the idea that she is living on the money of gangsters and their incessant murders. She asks her husband not to defend Louie Joe, and to walk away from the case .  .  . start over, work clean, let's give it a new go with our consciences clean.

*           *           *

With a title like Sin's Payday, it's no mystery where the plot goes from there. Markey keeps the case, but his pretty and decent-hearted old lady walks away from him--striking out on her own to go work for a (wait for it, Caught fans) medical clinic run by a doctor doing it for the heart and soul of the job and not the money. And--minor detail--the doctor was competing with Markey for the affections of Iris before she married Markey. 

The copy of the film that I watched was from a private telecine off of a badly contrast-blown 16mm print which was discovered back when the film was apparently still considered lost. Since then Alpha has released the film in DVD, with their usual take it or leave it this is all we got ethos .  .  .  which, from three to five bucks a pop is very difficult to argue with. There's even an upload of this (obviously public domain) film now on YouTube, which has either been contrast adjusted or is a completely different print entirely.

What the film also reminds of a bit, in rendering a man who plays heavy and deep with the underworld, loses love, and hits the skids (though this is not the end of things for Markey.. no spoilers here) is the Cagney character in Raoul Walsh's sublime The Roaring Twenties. Once Markey loses his wife, Markey loses himself in alcoholism, and begins to completely disintegrate into the skids, eventually winding up a bum with no place to stay. As one would expect, since his wife is working in a clinic for the downtrodden and the hungry in Manhattan's grotty East Side, their paths are going to cross. 

What makes the film so interesting is that--although you think you have a sense where the film is going to wind up in the end--and in that sense you would only be somewhat right--it doesn't play out quite the way you think it would. What I will single out for particular note is the fact that while Markey is down at his worst state of disintegration, at his lowest point, about to faint from malnourishment and tottering as though he were drunk (he is not), who comes to his rescue but the astonishing little (VERY little) Mickey Rooney .  .  .  then still billed as Mickey McGuire from his short comedies. 

I assure you of the following: from the moment that tiny little Rooney (an eleven year old who looks like he's seven) walks on the screen with his explosively charismatic personality, all the way through to his character's absolutely unbelievable exeunt, you will be glued to the screen and completely astonished. The kid walks away with the movie as the obviously most naturally-gifted actor among the cast, his Brooklyn and vaudeville roots completely filling every set that he walks into with an air of shabby NYC yesteryear.

The film commits a cardinal sin of narrative enterprise with Rooney's character, and majorly head-trips the audience for it. Nonetheless, this device takes what might have been a predictable and formulaic ending and pumps it full of hydrochloric acid.

Like most Z budget films from the era, and especially those from Like's various production companies, certain crew and or cast repeat themselves. In this case it's the ever-reliable-in-a-pinch cameraman Jules Cronjager, a German who began working in Hollywood in the mid-Teens, and worked up to the 1930's, working constantly as an ol reliable in any genre: westerns, crime dramas, horror, mystery, the man did it all and could do it with a buck and five minutes studio time. He is also the uncle of Edward Cronjager, who also got his start during the silent era, but rose to A studio level work during the sound era and a much more "respectable" career than his older uncle Jules, who was already 60 years old at the time of Slums of New York and would die just two years later (sadly, Edward didn't even make to 62 years of age; he died in 1960, aged 56).

In addition we have George Seitz (not related to cameraman John, though they knew each other and shared projects) at the directorial helm; Seitz directed Revier in The Tigress (1927), as well as the little known supernatural thriller Thirteenth Chair (1937)... but for Ralph Like he directed my favorite of these rough and tumble little B's that Like produced, The Docks of San Francisco from the same year of this film Slums of New York (1932).

This is a worthy little time capsule of the era, and a rather entertaining way to spend a little bit less than 60 minutes. Perhaps formulaic in the big picture, the film remains unpredictable in its little twists and turns .  .  . the strange little aspects that keep these films ever-charming, ever entertaining, ever surprising, and ever differentiated from the A list fare that we are accustomed to seeking out from the long lost days of Hollywood Yesteryear. It's a great little unfiltered, edge-rough look into those long vanished days of incredible poverty and crime, of jive talk of the have-nots, of murderers, tremendous monetary depression, and Prohibition graft and gangsterism cramming any hope of good news off of the front pages of the newspapers. It's far from a masterpiece, but if it was it probably would skim off much of the slanted roughness that allows so much of the above elements in and make these films such a delicacy, all these many years later. 

Clive/Schreck

3/30/15***

 


Preston Clive mar 30 15, 23:21
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Last comments

Owen Stone
I'm sad to see you go, because I enjoyed the art and having those really classic movies that you su…
Owen Stone NOTICE: THIS PAGE IS PARKED FOR THE DURATION
serdar202
I recently rewatched the Schmidlin restoration of Touch of Evil, Mr. Clive knows why, then I listen…
serdar202 The Conversation (Coppola, 1974); A Nasty One From the Heart
Owen Stone
I always like to check out the artworks for these classic movies.
Owen Stone The Conversation (Coppola, 1974); A Nasty One From the Heart
Owen Stone
Do you find these movies in public domain or how do you get access to these old classics?
Owen Stone Coming Soon (FOR REAL): Nosferatu, (Murnau, 1921)
Owen Stone
I still come back to read these blogs daily, just to get a glimpse of these awesome artworks.
Owen Stone The Shabby, Greasy Joys of the Ralph M. Like Production
Owen Stone
This is a cool looking movie.
Owen Stone T-Men & Raw Deal (Mann/Alton, 1947): A Cry Into The Void
Owen Stone
Preston Clive
serdar202
I guess I must watch Operation Daybreak now ;)
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Owen Stone
The artwork in these pieces are really amazing. The cover photo just reeks of communism tension, it…
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