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Lust, Duels, and Matadors

Pedro Almodóvar’s Matador (1986) is a film about erotic obsession. It’s about the lusts that lead men and women to fuck, and to murder. But since it’s Almodóvar, you know it’s done with a fairly light touch – a self-consciousness about just how campy and ridiculous this whole affair really is – even as he spreads on the color and sensuality like so much molasses. Matador is a well-crafted Hitchcockian thriller about Ángel, played by a young Antonio Banderas, who is neurotically consumed with mother-instilled Catholic guilt. One night, he attempts to rape his neighbor Eva, who is also the girlfriend of Diego, a retired bullfighter who’s been giving Ángel lessons.

After confessing it to the police, he also assumes the guilt for four unsolved murders – of which two were committed by Diego, and the other two by Ángel’s lawyer María. This creates a roundelay of desire and suspicion worthy of the Master of Suspense, as the two killers smell blood and draw gradually nearer to one another. And just like the finest tales in Hitchcock’s repertoire, it’s all totally preposterous – which couldn’t matter less, because this is Almodóvar, so it’s not about logic. It’s about María’s sinful allure and Diego’s unquenchable thirsts; it’s about melodrama and madness and orgasms at the brink of death.

Diego and María’s dance of death leads to a climax (pun intended) that’s about as extravagantly, disturbingly erotic as anything this side of In the Realm of the Senses (1976). The rest of the characters burst in and gaze, shocked, at the remnants of their two-person orgy. They may have died, but they get the romance and tradition of bullfighting, a pair of beautifully entangled corpses, and the satisfaction of finally fulfilling their passions. It’s excessive, it’s perverse, but that’s Almodóvar for you. His film’s endings are often hard to categorize, a mix of happy and sad, troubling and comforting. Matador follows the same enigmatic, convention-defying pattern in its own weirdly sexy way.

Hitchcock isn’t Matador‘s only inspiration. Almodóvar is a highly allusive filmmaker, and midway into Matador, María sneaks into a movie theater, with Diego in hot pursuit. The theater, naturally, is playing the steamy climax of David O. Selznick and King Vidor’s feverishly epic western Duel in the Sun (1946). Just like Matador, Duel in the Sun ends with its two obsessive, doomed lovers – Pearl (Selznick paramour Jennifer Jones) and Lewt (Gregory Peck) orgiastically destroying one another. It’s a bloody end for a saga of family, betrayal, and industrialization – but one that’s just as ridiculous as any scene in Matador, even if the film never admits it.

Duel in the Sun begins with the hanging of Pearl’s father (Herbert Marshall) for the murder of his wife and her lover. She’s sent off to live with distant relatives – the McCanles family, who live on a vast ranch called Spanish Bit. There’s the ornery, paraplegic Senator (Lionel Barrymore), his more sympathetic wife (Lillian Gish), and their two sons, the lusty Lewt and the more civilized Jesse (Joseph Cotten). As you can tell, this is a giant, expensive, all-star affair – even Walter Huston steps in for a tiny role as an itinerant, fire-and-brimstone preacher who lectures Pearl about her sinful nature: “Under that heathen blanket, there’s a full-blossomed woman built by the devil to drive men crazy!”

By men, of course, he means Lewt, who has a sinful nature of his own. This is an unusual character for Peck, who would go on to fight anti-Semitism shortly thereafter in Elia Kazan’s message movie Gentleman’s Agreement (1947); here, he’s a gun-toting rapist fixated on owning Pearl (and her sexuality) to the extent that he kills her kind-hearted fiancé in cold blood. However, the Senator’s racism makes Lewt refuse to marry her; Pearl, you see, is part-Native American. (As a result, the very white Jones’s skin is crudely slathered in brown makeup, just like Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil.) Through all of her trials, Jesse tries to help her, but he gives up once he believes that she’s actually interested in Lewt. So Pearl grows more and more attached to Lewt… and draws nearer to her own death.

This is not a racially or sexually progressive movie, at all. Its protagonist is essentially martyred from the start just because of her skin color and her mother’s affair, and she’s blamed for every bit of persecution she receives – whether by the Senator, the preacher, or the brothers she alternately loves. It’s none too surprising, either, since Duel in the Sun was basically intended as Selznick’s follow-up to his super-popular but similarly regressive magnum opus Gone with the Wind (1939). While it doesn’t match the earlier film’s romantic heights or historical scope (despite having three times as many uncredited co-directors), it still has plenty to recommend it – especially if you’re a junkie for torrid melodrama like Almodóvar clearly is.

Duel in the Sun‘s delights are more cultish and weird than its southern predecessor, especially as the film approaches its sun-burnt, homicidal finale, which borders on the surreal. The film’s oneiric qualities are aided by the dazzling Technicolor cinematography, shot by the team of Lee Garmes, Ray Rennahan, and Harold Rosson, which make the desert look distinctly unreal. Regardless of Selznick’s intentions, Duel in the Sun is definitely closer to Johnny Guitar than How the West Was Won – and it’s to the film’s credit. Jones isn’t exactly an acting dynamo, but thankfully she’s surrounded by a cast of legends, and Peck makes one hell of a sleazy, unapologetic villain.

Finally, Duel in the Sun is unabashedly erotic, as Jones’s heaving bosom is just as vital to the film’s success as any given line of dialogue. Much of the movie, especially the conflict between Jesse and the Senator, seems geared to make you think this is a movie about nationhood, the death of the west, and the taming of the land. But that’s an afterthought in relation to the film’s real and true subject matter, which is the kinky, violent, death-tinged relationship between Lewt and Pearl. As much as I wish that Jesse could’ve been the main character (ohh, Joseph Cotten…), it just wasn’t to be.

No, Duel in the Sun‘s heart belongs with Lewt, his phallic guns, and his frequent, contentious trysts with Pearl. Their behavior together makes Rhett and Scarlett look like a model of chastity – as well as a model of respectful consent and female self-determination. Gender equity and healthy sexuality are tossed out the window, and the same goes for any conception of subtlety or restraint – Selznick really wanted to paint the landscape with his character’s outsize emotions. So you can see why Pedro Almodóvar (or Martin Scorsese, for that matter) loves this movie. It’s ambitious, audacious, opulent, unhesitatingly melodramatic, and it charts the inevitable path from erotic obsession to stylized death.

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Americana Satanica

William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) is a perfect movie for the tail end of the Great Depression. It’s about Jabez Stone (James Craig), an unlucky New Hampshire farmer, who strikes a Faustian bargain in order to stave off foreclosure. The movie is set in 1840, but the dilemma was just as familiar a century later. With its message of family values and collective action, it’s just as topical and vaguely socialist as Frank Capra classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. But it’s also a smart blend of fantasy and horror, featuring still-impressive special effects and a diabolical, Oscar-nominated Walter Huston in the first of the title roles.

The other title role – the non-diabolical one – is played by Edward Arnold, who’s better-known for playing Wall Street fat cats (and sometimes fascists) in the afore-mentioned Capra political dramas. Webster initially acts as a folksy mentor figure for Jabez, but as his lucre expands, he casts aside Webster’s lessons and his mother’s piety, embracing the besotted “good life” with his new maid Belle, who comes from “over the mountain.” But when time comes to literally give the devil, aka Mr. Scratch, his due, Webster is back with all his orating power to reclaim Jabez’s soul.

Superficially, The Devil and Daniel Webster is a well-crafted assemblage of cornball Americana. The film’s dialogue is obsessed with national identity, rugged individualism, and the values of the common man. It equates bourgeois luxury, like the mansion that Jabez moves into, with selfishness, foreignness, and, well, Satan. Belle, after all, is played with seductive decadence by Simone Simon, the femme fatale of Renoir’s La Bête Humaine, flourishing that sexy French accent as she tempts Jabez away from his wife and son. And Jabez’s Bible-thumping mother is Jane Darwell, who represented “the people” as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

So when it’s plugged into the film’s early American framework, this casting is practically allegorical. Darwell is gratitude and hard work; Simone is excess and dirty fun. So the film was extremely timely, as much of an American national myth as anything John Ford was making at the time (The Grapes of Wrath included). But it was also stylistically advanced enough that it hasn’t lost any of its demonic charm. The film’s lighting and focus are manipulated to produce some very eerie visual effects.

The Devil and Daniel Webster shares its composer (Bernard Herrmann), editor (Robert Wise), and studio (RKO) with Citizen Kane, and it shows. Kane‘s richly stylized opening sequence makes Xanadu feel like a haunted house; similarly, the collision of Herrmann’s echoing score with Dieterle’s fantastic visions makes the devil’s presence surprisingly believable. But Huston’s cackling, maniacal performance sure doesn’t hurt.

Huston just steals the show with his unabashedly evil performance. (The same goes for Simon, to some extent.) During a frenzied dance, he fiddles wildly; when Ma Stone approaches during a conference with Jabez, he dashes off with bountiful energy. (Keep in mind that Huston was in his mid-fifties at the time.) He gnaws on carrots like a hellbound Bugs Bunny, and eagerly shares in some rum while debating with Daniel Webster. Huston’s Mr. Scratch isn’t grim or power-obsessed. Even when he loses the case, he doesn’t let it get him down. He heads out, steals Ma Stone’s pie, and turns his soul-searching gaze on the audience itself.

Mr. Scratch is the world’s most experienced salesman. He’s the kind of guy you could imagine selling your soul to; he makes being damned look like a damn good time. Even when Craig’s brooding and indecision get a little repetitive, when Arnold’s laid-back speechifying get a little too self-righteous, Huston is there to give the film momentum. If he got fed up and cartwheeled off-screen, it would hardly be surprising.

And now, as a final treat, here’s a none-too-subtle visual joke I noticed. Since this was 1941, they couldn’t show sexual intercourse onscreen. But through the magic of editing, they could imply so much more. In one scene, Jabez Stone embraces his wife…

Then we fade to black, and cut to:

Jabez “plowing the fields.” I think you can infer what that means. And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I make my exit.

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My Favorite Movies: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Jumping off from Friday’s post for the Icebox Movies John Huston blogathon, I’d like to talk about gold and the havoc it can wreak in a man’s soul. Yes, it’s Huston’s masterpiece The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) starring Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt (of Magnificent Ambersons fame), and Huston’s father Walter. I’m going to keep discussing the themes that pervaded Huston’s work, but today I’ll be narrowing myself down pretty tightly to Sierra Madre because, well, I have a lot to say about this movie. It’s probably my favorite of Huston’s (though The Maltese Falcon is a close second); it’s just a gritty, intense piece of genius. (And yes, this post is going under the long-dormant banner of “My Favorite Movies”; you can read all previous MFM posts here.) The plot is simple and familiar: three down-and-out gringos in Mexico City decide to give gold prospecting a shot. They set up camp, evade banditos and a nosy Texan, and make a going concern of it… but then Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) starts fearing that his comrades are plotting against him.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is based on a novel by the enigmatic author B. Traven, who was probably an anarchist from Germany. These origins alone should suggest that this is not your average 1940s Warner Bros. production. It’s offbeat, misanthropic, violent, and falls in a curious nether region of genre – it’s neither a western nor a film noir, but has traces of both. Huston’s Mexico isn’t like, say, John Ford’s Wild West, which was still America, and still retained the same cultural norms and values as the fully civilized east. In Mexico, the three prospectors are foreigners and must fend for themselves without a civic community to depend on. When Dobbs repeatedly approaches a well-dressed tourist (John Huston) and begs for money on the basis of being “a fellow American,” the tourist grows weary and insists that he’ll have to make do on his own from then on. Mexico is a place where relationships must be born anew, regardless of shared nationality.

Mexico, for the purposes of the film, is a wilderness.1 When Dobbs and Curtin (Holt) are scammed out of their pay by Pat McCormick (Barton Maclane), they don’t turn to the government; they beat the shit out of him themselves, and then take what they’re owed. The film’s premise is that three men develop a small community out of a mutual interest. But this community only functions at all because of all their safeguards and compromises. When they’re figuring out who should guard the gold, Howard (the elder Huston), the old man, declares himself “the most trustworthy” – not because he’s honest, but because he couldn’t possibly get away without the two younger men catching him. Compare this to the deals made between Peachy and Dravot in The Man Who Would Be King. Whether in central Asia or Mexico, there’s no higher power to enforce the terms of their compacts. Once an individual stops following the self-instituted rules of the group, everything – be it a bizarrely mystical monarchy or a prospecting operation – quickly falls apart.

In this case, what triggers the group’s collapse is Dobbs’ pathological paranoia. Although it only explicitly manifests itself about halfway through, we get subtle hints about his unstable, immature personality early in the film. He’s eager to gloat about whatever he can, be it a winning lottery ticket or killing more banditos than either of his compatriots. Howard quietly takes not of these little displays, and they give way directly into Dobbs’ all-encompassing mistrust as the film progresses. It’s most obvious when he first sees gold: with lust in his eyes, he says, “It don’t glitter. I thought it would glitter?” It’s only a matter of time before he grows so protective that he’ll resort to murder. His interactions with Cody, the intrusive Texan, reveal this steady decline; while Curtin and Howard sit and listen to Cody, Dobbs circles around him, babbling about how they want him to leave. As Dobbs slowly cracks up, the audience’s identification with him bleeds away, and as the role of protagonist shifts from him to Curtin, Dobbs becomes at once something darker and greater.

Bogart’s performance really is incredible, especially because of how radically different Dobbs is from iconic characters like Rick Blaine or Philip Marlowe. Those men were self-assured, discreet, and experienced; Dobbs is a greenhorn2 who needs to prove himself in terms of skill and intelligence. And although he exhibits his tragic flaws from the start – just look at his treatment of Pat McCormick as anticipating his ultimate breakdown – he’s still easy to like, since he’s just a poverty-stricken everyguy who just wants to eat. But for all Bogart’s finesse and fluidity, it’s Walter Huston who drives the movie. When he first appears in the Oso Negro (which is basically a homeless shelter), he’s like a feisty leprechaun talking about a rainbow he’s got stashed away. He’s fast-talking but sincere, with an edge of diabolical charm left over from The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). He could be a former con man, or a street preacher gone apostate.

He overflows with charisma, energy, wisdom, and the sardonic humor that fills so many of his son’s films. He’s also weirdly self-aware, sometimes overacting in a calculated way, as if Howard is intentionally giving a performance – just look at his famously manic jig for an example. And toward the end of the film, while he’s being cared for by a Mexican woman, Howard glances up at the camera for a moment. It’s an unexpected nod to the fourth wall, perhaps signaling the character’s overarching comprehension of how the universe works.3 Howard knows about greed, fate, and the absurdity of life. In the end, as he tells Curtin, it’s best just to laugh at the cosmic joke that’s been played on them. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre abounds with noir-like fatalism, but this reaction – laughing at the caprices of God or destiny or whoever – is unusual, and the sheer abandon with which Howard laughs makes the ending even more disturbingly bleak.

Still, this laughter is a mark of wisdom in John Huston’s Mexico. At least it’s preferable to the futile rebellion of Roslyn at the end of The Misfits, or the alcoholic silence that clouds the end of Fat City. It’s comparable, though, to the plucky resignation of Caspar Gutman when he realizes the falcon is a fake, or that of Doc Riedenschneider in The Asphalt Jungle as he’s quietly recaptured. In John Huston’s films, you can’t win. But you might as well join in the fun that fate’s having at your expense. After partaking in a long, hearty laugh, Curtin and Howard decide to make their own futures, independent of their past suffering and loss. Howard has a cozy position as witch doctor; Curtin’s off to Cody’s widow in Dallas. In Huston’s films, the past is an anchor that keeps you from moving ahead. The Misfits‘ Pilot and his dead wife or Fat City‘s Billy with his lost dreams of greatness are just two examples. Sure, Sam Spade could’ve dwelt on his partner’s death, but he knew it would be of no consequence. Curtin and Howard don’t brood on their failure; they just walk away. In Huston’s films, that’s the best you can do.

As a final note, let me comment on the intriguing relationship between man and nature in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This is one of Huston’s great obsessions; he was, after all, an avid outdoorsman. After Dobbs thinks he’s killed Curtin, we get this great moment where he’s searching for Curtin’s body, and it’s not there. He concludes that a tiger must’ve dragged it away, and then remarks with awe, “Done as if by order!” In this film, it’s always uncertain whether nature is working in tandem with the men, against them, or just randomly. The dust storm that consumes the gold would imply an antagonistic relationship, but it also recalls the conversation when the men are leaving the Sierra Madre itself. “You talk about that mountain as if she was a real woman,” says Curtin, and Howard replies, “She’s been a lot better to me than any woman I ever knew.”

I love this exchange, because it lays out the connection between these men and their environment in humanized and gendered terms. The men thank the mountain for its bounty, but, as Howard admits, “we wounded this mountain,” just so they could mine its resources. The mountain clearly has no ability to consent in the matter, yet they show gratitude. When you consider that Sierra Madre means “mother range,” a darkly oedipal reading of the scene emerges. In a film with no women, the process of extracting the gold itself is a displacement of the prospectors’ sex drives. In Fat City, the manager Ruben complains that his boxers waste their energy through, among other pursuits, marriage; similarly, Howard warns his associates, “if I were you boys, I wouldn’t talk or even think about women,” when metaphorically, that’s just what they’ve been doing the entire time. Thus, Dobbs’ excessive lust for gold is on some level a redirection of other excessive lusts. It’s an elided sexual dysfunction that’s just perfect for the Production Code era.

In adapting Traven’s novel, Huston loaded up the image of the gold prospector – a Horatio Alger get-rich-quick myth of the American west – with distinctly modern perversions, confusions, and absurdities. He told a story of three men who must make their own laws and mores, even if it means collectively killing an intruder,4 and are locked together in mutual dependence until they can trade in the gold. It’s also a story about self-definition. After Cody is shot by banditos, the men rush over and Howard says, “I wonder who he is?” This question can be applied to all the characters in Huston’s films. And tragically, Dobbs identifies himself only in relation to the treasure he so desperately desires. With its small but powerful cast, its immersion in the “uncivilized” strangeness of Mexico, and its revelations of how thoroughly gold can change a man, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of my favorite movies.

1 Huston’s use of Mexico clearly influenced Sam Peckinpah films like The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1975). In the latter film, the money-hungry protagonist even uses the pseudonym “Fred C. Dobbs.”

2 Just look at the scene where Dobbs wastes plenty of water on what is actually fool’s gold.

3 And, for that matter, a Shadow-like knowledge of what evil lurks in the hearts of men.

4 Their attempt to simultaneously shoot Cody is just a microcosmic example of capital punishment – murder by the state.

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