I’ve wrapped up my tenure writing “Looking Back” for Movie Mezzanine with pieces on three very different movies—a silent Swedish romance, a ’60s drama, and a ’30s comedy—that nonetheless have one big thing in common: all three are about patriarchs who try to escape from the real world into artificial worlds of their own creation.
- In The Outlaw and His Wife, for example, reformed thief Ejvind is hunted to the ends of the earth by the Icelandic authorities. As a result, he retreats the mountains and starts a new life with his wife and daughter. When the law catches up with him, he retreats even farther, carving whatever measure of privacy he can out of the wilderness.
- The Swimmer’s Ned Merrill builds up an elaborate fantasy of middle-class stasis in his head, imagining himself loved by his wife, daughters, and neighbors. Ejvind may die, but he’s lucky compared to Ned—at least he still has his wife’s very real love to sustain him! Ned, meanwhile, stumbles deeper and deeper into a morass of personal tragedy, eternally alone.
- Finally, there’s W.C. Fields in It’s a Gift, who girds himself through all manner of domestic torment with dreams of owning an orange grove. Unlike the other two men in question, Fields’ Harold Bissonette actually gets his happy ending, albeit through a hilariously unlikely turn of events.
Though made across half a century, all three of these movies deal with men in positions of responsibility who are besieged by social, financial, and emotional pressures. And for all three men, the only real solution is to break away, whether mentally or physically (or both). Sometimes, these movies admit, our problems can’t be worked out; sometimes, we just have to look away.
John Larch in The Phenix City Story | Brian Keith in 5 Against the House
Modern Gothic vehemence… a chilling documentary exactness and an exciting shot-scattering belligerence.
That’s Manny Farber in his essay “Underground Movies,” describing some tendencies found within Phil Karlson’s filmography. I think I’ll add abrasiveness and angularity to his pool of nouns as well. Each one of them is immediately apparent in The Phenix City Story (1955), which may be Karlson’s magnum opus and which is also the subject of my most recent column over at Movie Mezzanine. I’m especially fond of that “modern Gothic vehemence”: Karlson’s movies are forceful, like a boxer’s glove coming toward your face in 3D, the full power of a heavyweight artist behind them. (They’re kin to the films of Samuel Fuller, whose own novel The Dark Page was actually filmed by Karlson as the 1952 newspaper noir Scandal Sheet.)
Alleyways in Phenix City and 5 Against the House’s Reno
In addition to The Phenix City Story, I recently watched Karlson’s 5 Against the House (also 1955) which is thankfully much milder. No child murders or bloody mass beatings here; just four college buddies goofing around, two of whom served together in the Korean War, and one of whom was psychologically damaged by the experience. As a prank, the friends plot a brilliant heist on a Reno casino, intending to return the money later—but Brick (Brian Keith) is slipping into psychosis due to his post-traumatic stress, and he has other plans. 5 Against the House starts out as a lightweight comedy of Eisenhower-era male bonding, which makes its descent into mental illness and very real noir danger that much more gripping. Brick’s a reluctant villain, and his friends are reluctant heroes; no one thinks they’re in a crime thriller. The normal turns into the abnormal so quickly that you hardly notice at first.
Richard Kiley in The Phenix City Story | 5 Against the House’s parking garage climax
This, I think, speaks to one of Karlson’s greatest directorial strengths: he seems to coax brutality out of the everyday. His are blue-collar movies; sloppy, smudged, fashioning a world you can imagine living in before he blows it all to hell. John Payne’s ex-prizefighter in 99 River Street (1953), for example, has real relationships that he needs to balance with the bitterness seething inside him. The residents of Phenix City have homes and families they don’t want to endanger. Maybe this is the “chilling documentary exactness” Farber spoke of. His movies reek of tabloid sensationalism, but that never keeps them from being uncomfortably plausible. They’re like a full-page spread of crime scene photos snapped right in your own backyard.
Wanda, the first and only film by Barbara Loden, is—as Bérénice Reynaud put it in her essential essay “For Wanda”—a “small, forgotten masterpiece.” I wrote about it over at Movie Mezzanine. (You can also read more about it by critics like Richard Brody and Tony Paley.) In Wanda, Loden pins down a certain type of woman, as well as the desolate real-world spaces she lives in, and the very real kinds of sadness she experiences. The film’s so obviously drawn straight from life that you could nearly mistake it for someone’s especially depressing home movies, with the fuzziness of its 16mm images and soundtrack (the latter totally devoid of non-diegetic music) doing nothing to dispel this impression. As too with life, so much of Wanda is connective tissue. Our “heroine” walks, bed–hops, idles around Scranton, and eventually has her heart broken for the umpteenth time. I’d hesitate to call any of it beautiful, but it is powerful: a movie you can’t shake, and whose like may never really come again.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) is a mouthful of a title, but it sets just the right expectations for Lev Kuleshov’s satirical adventure, which I wrote about over at Movie Mezzanine. It’s exactly the kind of zany fantasy travelogue that the title suggests, dropping an idiot westerner (Mr. West) and his faithful cowboy pal Jeddy into the silly, slapstick-heavy city of Moscow. There, West is terrorized and subjected to a series of elaborate con games by the sinister Zhban (played by Kuleshov’s peer Vsevolod Pudovkin) and his team of back alley grotesques. It’s all very, very funny and right on target when it comes to skewering American myopia. If only all Soviet propaganda were this much fun!
John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) is a sci-fi movie with elements of horror, surrealism, realism, and pitch-black comedy. I wrote about it over at Movie Mezzanine. It’s a powerful film, due in part to that internal clash of tone and style. The story of “Tony Wilson” is a tragedy, an Orpheus-and-Eurydice tale of the doomed Tony gazing backward from beyond death. But the employees of the film’s incomprehensibly powerful company treat it like a mild bureaucratic snafu and speak of it with Kafkaesque good humor. They may never behave explicitly evil, feigning bedside manners even at the grisly end, but then that makes Seconds even more horrifying to watch. It reminds me of movies like The Game and Society: good, bad, up, down, every normative standard is turned on its head. The materialistic values that Arthur/Tony has lived by as long as he can remember? Meaningless now. He’s cut adrift, forced to wander these huge, intimidating residential and industrial spaces that could be anywhere but feel like nowhere. And as James Wong Howe’s disorienting photography makes perfectly clear, this isn’t just one man’s nightmare. It’s 1960s America’s.
Lois Weber gets next to no attention outside of film history classes, so I decided to write about her movie Hypocrites (1915) over at Movie Mezzanine. Made in that fuzzy period before what we know as “narrative filmmaking” had totally solidified, it’s a weird sight for 21st century eyes: wonky structure, unabashed sermonizing, and more interest in social critique than storytelling. Also of note is the double-exposed nude woman onscreen for about half the film’s running time. This particular silent landmark may not have aged too well, but it still holds some historical appeal for the curious moviegoer.