Limelight (1952)

limelight 1The glamour of limelight, from which age must pass as youth centers 

A story of a ballerina and a clown… 

In Limelight it quickly becomes evident that Charles Chaplin was well aware of his own legend and how couldn’t he be? For years he had been held in the highest regards, loved by the masses worldwide as one of Hollywood’s founding royalty. He was at the center of the universe and the limelight was burning brightly around him.

I’ve recently been reacquainting myself with Chaplin’s early works most notably those that paired him with the indelible Edna Purviance as well as the gargantuan behemoth of a bully Eric Campbell. But Limelight is a major flashforward in his career, really at the end of it all. By now Chaplin is in his twilight years.

In fact, Limelight is one of his last prominent roles and the feature where he audaciously placed everything in the public eye–a picture that is unequivocally autobiographical in nature, accented with Chaplin’s own romantic dealings and tumultuous history from his entire career up to that point. And yes, he faced scandal in his later years, not simply for his past indiscretions but also more overtly for his political affiliations which unquestionably must have made him an easy target during the supercharged age of McCarthyism.

Still, in a simple heartfelt narrative once more, for one last time, Charlie Chaplin captured his audience. The title card reads much like his old silents would have in setting the scene. It’s 1914, back in the days when he was probably just making it big in real life. However, as Calvero, Chaplin is a washed-up comedian prone to alcoholism with a career that has suffered dearly. But in a moment of action, he saves an aspiring dancer (Claire Bloom) from a self-attempted suicide and from then on becomes a sort of guardian angel for the girl.

Calvero heeds the doctor and allows the girl to stay in his flat, away from the trauma and although it receives the ire of their landlady, he calls Thereza his wife in order not to cause a local stir. It’s one half human drama, other half stage production because while he looks to lift her spirits in any manner possible, he daydreams of his past forays in comedy. He was the man who could pull off a whole gag with a pretense of performing fleas and he had wall to wall crowds.

limelight 2But now no one’s there. The seats are empty, the aisles quiet, and he sits with a dazed look in his flat the only recourse but to go back to bed. It’s as if the poster on the wall reading Calvero – Tramp Comedian is paying a bit of homage to his own legend but also the very reality of his waning, or at the very least, scandalized stardom. It adds insult to injury.

Still, in real life and on celluloid he put up the front of respectability for people. Although he went through 5 wives and now has a young woman living in his home less than half his age, he believes that after all his years of experience, “a platonic friendship can be sustained on the highest moral plane” as he puts it.

And it’s true Calvero is perfectly civil. This isn’t some passionate romance though he does try and call Terry to action in other ways. Chaplin composed his scripts of many great lines, monologues and sonnets where he himself gets to deliver beautiful rhetoric and impassioned rallying cries of truth to anyone who is listening. In this case, it’s the girl who sits despairingly in her bed but it’s for everyone else too. It’s like he took the stalwart speech from The Great Dictator and economized it into smaller bite sized pieces (That’s the problem with the world. We all despise ourselves, There’s something just as inevitable as death. Life! Life! Life!).

But there is something rather tragically demoralizing about watching crowds walk out on Chaplin even if it’s his fictional alter ego because you get the sense that his once faithful viewing public undoubtedly did the same thing–driven by the tides of the times and their own fickle ways.

But even as his fictional self fades, he watches Thereza ascend to the top of the dancing world as a prima ballerina and she looks to take her beloved Calvero along with her. There’s a necessity in life to never subsist, never cease fighting that she learns from him and takes to heart. So the second half is the role reversal. He began as her good samaritan and now in her bounty, she looks to take care of him going so far as professing her love for him and her desire to get married.

limelight 3It’s important to know that he writes off such an assertion as nonsense and one can question whether this is Chaplin’s chance at revisionist history or more so an affirmation of his life’s actual trajectory–working through his current reality that the world questions (IE. Marrying a woman much younger than himself in Oona O’Neil who he nevertheless dearly loved).

It’s ingenious really because there’s positively no way not to empathize with him, no matter our position and as he always was a premier master at, Chaplin once more tugs at our heartstrings in a very personal way–pathos overflowing from his performance one last time. He casts himself as the great sacrificial martyr and stepping down from his post as one of the luminaries of the cinema, his legacy burning brightly in his wake.

It’s also easy to suspect the tragedy of the Blue Angel or the madness of The Red Shoes displayed for all to see on the center stage will reveal itself in due time but Chaplin allows himself go out on his own terms since he’s a master of his own fate, in the film at least.

He’s reflected on his life and deemed it as about as good as it can be. That’s enough. Whether it’s his earlier marital troubles, his current marriage, the criticisms of the public, or even a real or fabricated feud between himself and Buster Keaton if there ever was such a thing. It is all laid to rest. It’s like old times even as the new age begins.

4/5 Stars

 

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)

thespywhocame1Adapted from the John le Carré novel, this is a black & white spy thriller that personifies cold war paranoia in ways that Bond never could. Richard Burton is an operative working in Berlin before being demoted to a librarian job. It looks like our narrative is heading in a direction hardly fit for a spy film. Its intentions are not so obvious at first, and it keeps its audience working for the rest of the film.

Alec becomes fond of his colleague Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) who is a young member of the British communist party, but he’s also prone to drink and outbursts of anger. He’s become the perfect target for defecting, and the enemy reaches out to him just as would be expected. They send him to the Netherlands promising payment for the disclosure of British secrets. In these moments there is a great deal of dialogue that feels somewhat trying. It ends up being a slow burn for Burton and the viewer as new layers and wrinkles are added to this whole espionage affair. Only does it get interesting when the girl winds up back in the equation. All of the sudden, the stakes are a lot different, a lot more hangs in the balance, and a lot of new twists present themselves.

As an audience, we are thrown into the tension of the moment, and we become utterly befuddled by all that is going on around us. It’s as if when we finally prick up our ears in anticipation we no longer know all the ins and outs of what’s going on. Where do the allegiances lie?  Who is “good?” Who is “bad?” Or is everyone just a muddied shade of gray?

Perhaps the most disconcerting revelation is only alluded to and remains more prominent in the original novel. Here we have a storyline where the sadistic German ultimately survives and the Jewish agent is destroyed. It’s a cruel bit of irony that hardly needs to be explained, but the implications are decidedly troubling. With such an observation we cannot help but recall the pogrom-filled past of European history — most devastatingly the Holocaust a mere 15 or 20 years before.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a dour, misanthropic picture of the Cold War era. A narrative perfectly matched for Burton’s pair of somber eyes, cynicism, and brooding. He’s a man who speaks of Peter Pan and God in the same breath — they are both fairy tales. His role as a spy is never glorious, instead besmirched by conspiracy and lies. When you put it that way it’s not very appealing at all, and it shouldn’t be. Director Martin Ritt, unfortunately, is a greatly under-appreciated director and his films are often tinged with moral and political undertones that follow troubled characters.

Notably, this film felt like a precursor to The Three Days of the Condor, except this time it’s about the British organization Control that pulls the wool over the eyes of the enemy. The conspiracy runs so deep it’s almost difficult to even comprehend it.  Maintaining its tone, the story ends much like it began, very bleak indeed. This is a film that deserves your time and demands your full attention.

4/5 Stars

“What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?” ~ Richard Burton as Alec Leamus