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.
Edward Dmytryk was fresh from the Hollywood Ten when he made The Sniper (1952), which I wrote about over at Movie Mezzanine. It’s an especially intense little noir, lingering as it does over the pained face of its title character, who’s played by Arthur Franz in what I swear is one of the 1950s’ most underrated performances. Rarely have I seen an actor capture psychosis so vividly, yet with surprising subtlety. The closest thing Franz has to a co-star is Adolphe Menjou—a leader of the Hollywood witchhunts, as a matter of fact—as police detective “Frank Kafka.” Yeah, it’s a surprisingly literate thriller!
Incidentally, in that piece I mention Dmytryk’s “bisected compositions,” and I’d like to briefly expand on that. I’m consistently impressed by the mise-en-scène in this movie, as Franz is pressed to one side of the frame and something about the world he loathes (stranger, coworker, dunk tank woman, smokestack painter, landlady) occupies the other. It’s such an economical use of screen space, such a visceral way of visualizing misanthropy, and thanks to Dmytryk’s bold use of lines and angles, it also results in some beautiful compositions. The Sniper is top-shelf noir in an pulpy, unassuming package.
I’m not really sure if I can handle how much I love The Scarlet Empress, which I wrote about over at Movie Mezzanine. I love how the film spits venom all over Russian royalty and has so much fun doing it. I love von Sternberg’s weird visual strategies; how the director coils Marlene Dietrich’s screen image around his fingers. And most of all I love Dietrich’s performance, composed of light and translucent fabric, with a face that calcifies from a virgin’s awe into power-mad maturity. The supporting players—sexy John Lodge, shrewish Louise Dresser, daffy Sam Jaffe—all get scenes to steal, but Marlene is the star (the fetish object) here. And my, does she light up Moscow’s night sky.
FYI: I’m now a writer at the brand new site Movie Mezzanine, and I’ve started an annals-of-film-history column there called “Looking Back.” The first movie under discussion? Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944), which deals sensitively with love and land and locating yourself in history. You can read about it here.
Had I more time, I would’ve delved into a few other aspects of the film. (It’s so rich and digressive; I’ll be revisiting it for years hence.) For example: Eric Portman’s performance as local authority Colpeper, which demonstrates much of the same ambiguous, low-key villainy that Portman brought to Powell and Pressburger’s 49th Parallel a few years earlier. He creates a fascinating character in Colpeper and seriously complicates the film’s relationship with England’s distant past.
Further points of interest: the film’s visual style, which makes special use of both the undulating landscape and the faces of its stars shot in mesmerizing close-up. And then the ending, in which a soldier from London gets to play some “Toccata and Fugue” on the organ of Canterbury Cathedral and feel music, religion, and war converge along his fingertips. It’s an unconventional climax, but a powerful one, which I suppose could double as a description of the whole film.