Whirlpool (1949)

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Despite being ludicrously absurd, it’s impossible not to get whisked away by the swirling cauldron of psychological drama found in Whirlpool. Otto Preminger adds yet another perplexing noir to his filmography and it seems reasonable that Whirlpool along with The Fallen Angel (1945) and Angel Face (1953) deserve more recognition though, it’s true his debut, Laura (1944) will forever be the benchmark.

But these three films share such fascinating themes beyond beautiful photography and quality staging. They find roots in some odd bits of quack chicanery like fortune tellers and astrologers while interesting themselves in psychologically unstable women and male confidence men who like nothing more than taking advantage of others.

Whereas Laura (1944) works exquisitely because the title character casts a spell on everyone else, Whirlpool functions in part because our protagonist falls under another man’s spell. But it takes something else, something in her past that he can prey on and exploit.

You see, in the opening moments of the film we find out something about Gene Tierney’s character. She’s a kleptomaniac which in itself is a fairly startling albeit intriguing revelation. And we don’t see it occur just the aftermath that follows. But here is a dilemma already. Her husband (Richard Conte) is a renowned psychoanalyst. How would it look if his wife was found shoplifting from a reputable establishment? The house detective catches her. The manager is looking to bring in the police. The wheels of justice are turning and scandal looks all but inevitable.

Then, in walks David Korvo (Jose Ferrer) a man with a certain magnetism that still makes him a tad unsettling. In fact, it’s pretty easy to assume he has ulterior motives. Because he so easily smooths things out for Mrs. Sutton so she is, to a certain extent, indebted to him. Something like that can quickly turn into a splendid opportunity for blackmail. Except the check comes and he rips it up so from thenceforward it’s a little more difficult to discern his intentions and it proves to be a wonderfully enigmatic performance from Ferrer start to finish.

It’s true. He is a charlatan. He’s preoccupied with astrology and then hypnotism which he uses on his new “patient” supposedly for her own good. But he’s had other women who have called on his services before. In fact, one of them has now sought help from Mrs. Sutton’s husband. Because Korvo had made her life miserable coaxing her to withdraw her daughter’s inheritance and leeching her happiness. Soon Theresa Randolph is found dead with Ann at the scene of the crime — the prime suspect.

By this time, you almost forget that Charles Bickford is in the film because the bewitched Tierney and stolid-faced Ferrer steal the show. But it is Lt. Colton (Bickford) who must get to the bottom of this whole twisted affair. He and Dr. Sutton are quick to write off the poor woman with a closeted kleptomania hidden under the cloak of a respectable suburban housewife. However, after hitting the beat, they know it stinks to high heaven but there’s no proof.

What can be said of Ben Hecht’s script is the very fact that it relies on unbelievable occurrences in both its beginning and ending. But in this very reality, there’s a certain continuity where the psychologically dubious extrapolations become the new normal. That in itself is unsettling.

It’s notable that when he has multiple figures Preminger never seems content to be stagnant, instead constantly utilizing close-ups and see-sawing camera movements that readily change the dynamics of scenes. The climactic moments proving a prime example.

The power struggle dictates itself in other ways too, namely in the physical staging of characters. Ferrer hanging over Tierney as he begins to hypnotize her. Bickford questioning Ferrer who himself looks so vulnerable lying in his hospital bed. But even that composition in itself is at times a put on as we soon find out. However, it’s phenomenal that the very projections up on the screen are indicative of what is going on with the film’s main point of conflict. This quality we can safely assume can be attributed to Preminger himself. He has an intuitive understanding of cinematic space and how to utilize it to his greatest advantage.

3.5/5 Stars

Pursued (1947)

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A film like the Searchers (1956) or even The Bravados (1958) frames the western as a tale of vengeance, where a vendetta is carried out from start to finish, only to get twisted up along the way across moral lines. Pursued is a psychological western that takes up the story from the opposite end of the barrel, as its name implies, though the way it goes about it isn’t altogether straightforward. Such stories very rarely are.

Jeb (Robert Mitchum) is hiding out in a cave as his love Thor (played by Teresa Wright) rides to him. We don’t know their history, why he is there, or who is coming after him. All we know through obvious inference is that all these things must be true.

It’s screenwriter Niven Busch’s ploy to draw us into our story and then he fades into a flashback that carries most of the picture’s weight. As many stories channeling Freudian theories must begin, this one is conceived in childhood.

A young boy remembers glimpses of a horrible event. Bullets flying. A body of a woman crawling towards him as he hides under a bed. And this woman (Judith Anderson) would become his adopted mother as her two own kids become rather like his siblings. Thor and Jeb get on well enough but from their boyhood, there has always been an unresolved conflict between Jeb and Adam. The animosity stems from the fact Adam will always see the other as not a true part of his family and Jeb lives with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, understandable or not.

For the sake of their mother and their sister, they begrudgingly tolerate each other and that’s the extent of it. When the Spanish-American War erupts one of them must go and so they decide it in the most arbitrary way possible. With a coin flip. Jeb loses and goes off to be a war hero.

When the family finally reunites and gathers around to sing “Danny Boy” to the tune of Londonderry Aire, there is a sensitivity we feel unaccustomed to, since the rest of the story is brusque and distant nearly scene after scene.

While in its opening moments it began as a story of hospitality and family, Pursued really starts falling apart and allows its core themes to exert their full presence. It’s in these moments where we begin to see hints of a story playing out not unlike a crazed version of the prodigal son.

On another coin flip, Jeb loses out on his piece of the ranch and after having it out with Adam turns to his buddy (Alan Hale Sr.) at a gambling house. He is brought on as part of the operation. Meanwhile, the jealous older brother character begrudges the fact his mother will give Jeb an equal inheritance so he is looking to avenge this personal affront. It doesn’t end peaceably.

At his ensuing trial, Jeb’s life is on the line but even though he gets away scot-free, his relations with his surrogate family will never be the same. And it’s only made worse with every subsequent moment including a town dance where Thor’s latest beau (Harry Carey Jr.) is egged on to confront Jeb.

Dean Jagger makes a nuisance of himself hanging over the entire picture menacingly, but it does feel like his talents are generally wasted. Because when everyone else is gone, the most traumatized parties are Mitchum, Wright, and Anderson.

However, this noir western is a genre-bender blessed by the beautiful black and white imagery of James Wong Howe matched with the direction of that old Warner Bros. vet Raoul Walsh. Whether it’s the distant silhouette of Robert Mitchum illuminated in the doorway at night or the sheer magnitude of the cliffs and crags as they frame insignificant riders galloping by on their horses, the images are undeniably evocative.

There’s nothing all that surprising or thematically interesting about the film’s content initially. Still, this is not a full denunciation of the picture outright. Because the way it plays out does become marginally more intriguing as Mitchum comes under attack and finds himself becoming more abhorred by the minute.

I must admit it’s hard to buy sweet, innocent Teresa Wright could be vindictive at all. However, what the two stars breed is the most detached married life known to man. It’s a tribute to both of them. But they can’t stay that way forever.

What does remain is the fact Mitchum has been hounded his whole life by some unnameable specter hanging over him, and the picture has been hemming and hawing for a final showdown all along. It finally comes, though the ones who take a stand are not who we might expect.

The psychology puzzle of it all is up for debate — how memories come flooding back at just the right moment or how people can love someone and them turn around and hate them and then love them again almost on a dime.

But this does not completely neutralize Pursued which still deserves a reputation as a brooding and atmospheric take on the West. It’s not as mentally stimulating as might have been warranted but with the cast of Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright, even ill-fit as they may seem, this oater still comes as a fairly easy recommendation.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Spellbound (1945)

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The Fault… is Not in Our Stars, But in Ourselves… — William Shakespeare

It’s so easy to adore Ingrid Bergman and it’s no different in Spellbound. Yes, she starts off as an austere psychiatrist purely interested and invested in scientific thought and practices in psychoanalysis. However, by the film’s conclusion, she evokes the passionate vitality that made her so beloved in pictures such as Casablanca (1942) and Notorious (1946).

The eminent Gregory Peck was still in the dawn of his career and while not your typical Hitchcockian hero, he is Gregory Peck a handsome actor with tremendous presence and a quiet dignity that made him an acting favorite for years to come, shortly to gain the reputation of an undisputed superstar. Put two such icons together and it’s honestly very difficult not to be won over, especially in a Hitchcock picture.

In fact, I’m predisposed to empathize with both of them from the very beginning and to thoroughly enjoy this picture even if it’s hardly the best of Hitchcock or the respective stars. But the story about the female psychiatrist Constance who falls in love with her colleague and subsequent patient one Dr. Edwards does have its share of enjoyments without question, aside from the names above the title.

As with any solid Hitchcock movie, there’s psychological duress and the man is implicated in a murder that he must run away from even if it’s proved he is innocent. So Spellbound is no question a romance and a bit of a mystery wrapped up neatly in a psychological thriller.

Michael Checkov the famed Russian stage performer (and nephew of Anton Chekhov) plays Dr. Brulov, Constance’s old mentor — a charming sort of gentleman who is impertinent but oh so sweet to his friends  — exhibiting the most jovial of personalities.

Even today, there still is a certain logic to psychodynamic therapy as there is to cognitive behavioral therapy that seems believable depending on how it is utilized and who is practicing it. Thus, though there are jumps Spellbound makes that are a little bit preposterous or a little too easy to resolve — like the perfect correlation between dreams and reality — there’s still kernels of truth in this film and it must be lauded for tackling the ideas of Freud in ways that were fairly groundbreaking for their day.

It also boasts the famed dream sequences inspired and partially orchestrated by the acclaimed surrealist artist Salvador Dali. His imprint is undeniable on the images that Peck recounts, reminiscent of the Persistence of Time and other similar works. Even Hitchcock would continue to address these topics with an arguably more Hitchcockian dream sequence in Vertigo and some similar analysis at the end of Psycho to assess Norman Bates.

Of course, Hitchcock films are at their best when the plot is working in spite of dialogue. Though the script is composed by Ben Hecht who has a long list of wonderful accomplishments, there’s also the influence of the overbearing hand of David O. Selznick on the picture meaning it relies perhaps too much on verbal explanation instead of Hitchcock’s own timeless setpieces or visual approach to cinema. Still, he does manage a few perspective shots that are particularly interesting providing us the frame of reference of several of his characters in key moments.

There’s also the benefit of Miklos Rozsa’s particularly elegant score which nevertheless is less a Hitchcock score as Bernard Hermann would famously compose later. In some respects, it suffocates the drama though it does include the cutting edge use of the Theremin, this marking one of its earliest appearances in a film score.

But ultimately, Spellbound does have a delightful false ending, as things slowly spiral down into despair only to find their new conclusion as all the puzzle pieces of Peck’s character begin to fit together. His exoneration is followed by the ousting of the real perpetrator, another quintessential Hitchcock villain.

The summation seems to be that though humanity might be wrought with shortcomings, many of them buried so deep inside, love does have an uncommon power to heal old wounds. The fault might be in ourselves but that need not be the resolution of the story.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Rebecca (1940)

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“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” ~ Joanne Fontaine in Rebecca 

In normal circumstances, voice-over introductions rarely resonate but for some reason, the ethereal tones of Joan Fontaine opening Rebecca leave a lasting impact and that’s after well nigh 80 years.

This was Alfred Hitchcock’s first film in Hollywood and it truly is a stunning debut but if you take a step back and see who was working behind the scenes, it soon because fairly plain that this was as much of a David O. Selznick film as it was a Hitchcock one, if not more so. Because Selznick had Hitch under contract and he was following up the grandeur of Gone with the Wind (1939) with another costume drama positioned to be a smash hit.

Though Rebecca was slightly less ornate and preoccupied with its more gothic sensibilities, Daphne du Maurier’s novel was nevertheless ripe for a Selznick treatment with a sturdily constructed story and quality production values all across. And of course, you have the acting talent which while not necessarily head and shoulders above all of Hitch’s previous works was nevertheless top of the line.

First, of course, is Laurence Olivier providing a great deal of import to the part of one of our protagonists, George Fortescue Maximilian De Winter, the tortured man of breeding whose life is stricken with past tragedies. But equally crucial is Joan Fontaine’s role as the unnamed woman who subsequently becomes the second Mrs. De Winter after a whirlwind courtship in Monte Carlo. She began as the meek lady in waiting for a boorish socialite Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper only to fall in love with the older man.

Fontaine inhabits the role with a breathless wide-eyed timidity that’s immediately attractive and makes her the object of our sympathies. She always gives off the appearance of a frazzled little deer in the headlights like she doesn’t quite know what to say or what to do in the presence of others whom she deems more important than herself.

It’s that very quality that drew me to Fontaine from the outset the first time I saw Rebecca and no doubt a similar quality that draws Maxim de Winter to her character. There’s an undeniable innocence there full of an angelic beauty that exerts itself each time she interacts with others, eyes wide with mouth agape. That in itself is an immaculate illusion given Fontaine’s own life full of estrangement. Here she is faultless and demure.

And that comes into focus even more clearly because Maxim can often be an unfeeling man, swarmed with past demons though he might be. Put them together and he’s certainly the dominant figure. The same goes for their arrival at his stately home Manderley. The current Mrs. De Winters is totally overwhelmed by this grand estate and the staff that frequent its halls.

The shining example is the apparition of a housekeeper Ms. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and it’s a career-defining role for a character actress who always could be imperious and a little unscrupulous. But she was never as harrowing as the fiercely loyal woman who starts playing mind games with her new employer.

You also have the incomparable George Sanders playing his English gentleman with biting wit and a touch of blackmail. He becomes pivotal to the story for the very sake that he speaks up on the deceased Rebecca’s behalf as much as Mrs. Danvers does. They adored this woman that Maxim loathed so deeply by the end of their relationship. And it’s in this chafing that the ultimate conflict is uncovered — the type of conflict that threatens to rip Maxim away from his new love and splatter his reputation in the courtroom drama that ensues.

Much like Laura (1944) in her eponymous film, Rebecca lingers over the entire narrative and haunts its frames from start to finish. Yet in the latter work of Otto Preminger, the lady actually makes an appearance on screen incarnated by the entrancing Gene Tierney.

Here Rebecca is a specter who never tries to show herself. There is no physical semblance of her, only signs and references of her being — most memorably the scripted letter “R.” Because, truthfully, she doesn’t need to show her face. She almost wields more power without being seen. It’s that rather unnerving feeling of impending dread that’s hanging over the audience as much as it does Mrs. De Winter.

In the end, Hitchcock didn’t exactly get the murder that he would have liked but in any case, it does not fully take away from the impact of Rebecca. Instead of being a film of overt actions it starts to work on our psyches as a sterling psychological exercise matched by its deliciously dark atmosphere. The mental distress is heightened by the eerie interiors marked by layers of shadow and the shrouded impressionistic seaside that envelops the De Winter compound. Fittingly, Manderley is razed to the ground once and for all.

Ironically enough, though the production is very much on the Hollywood scale, it’s probably the most “British” film that Hitchcock ever made in America based on not only the subject matter but the majority of the acting talent because on top of Olivier and Sanders you have such esteemed character actors as C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Bruce, Melville Cooper, and Leo G. Carroll (a Hitchcock favorite).

Still, he was blessed with the best talent he had at his disposal since the infancy of his career, in part because of his move across the Atlantic. Joan Harrison who would become one of the most prominent and only female producers in Hollywood turned in work on the script along with Robert E. Sherwood with the score being composed by Hollywood icon Franz Waxman. Even if the players at work are not necessarily evocative of the many trademarks we usually attribute to the director, that hardly makes Rebecca any less of a delight.

Furthermore, there is something inherently honest about the lead portrayals throughout the film. Not necessarily because they’re realistic but they are full of fear and hatred and emotion and you see it in the words and on the faces of the characters. This is hardly a playful film. It’s not trying to subvert drama with humor or dry tonal reversals. But it’s candid in its despair as much as in its joy.

For all their intrigues and complexities in technical feats, storytelling, and psychology, sincerity is not always something you look for in a Hitchcock picture. Here it works. Casting this devasting love story up against the backdrop of gothic horror makes it all the more affecting. The marriage of the talents of David O Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock turns out to be a surprisingly bountiful proposition. Even if it wasn’t made to last.

5/5 Stars

Get Out (2017)

Teaser_poster_for_2017_film_Get_Out.pngGet Out seems like a simple enough premise. Ridiculously simple even. We’ve seen it millions of times in rom-coms or other fare. It’s the fateful day when the significant other is being taken to meet the parents. Whether they pass this test will have irreversible repercussions on the entire probability of the relationship’s success. Maybe that’s a tad over the top but anyways you get the idea as Rose (Allison Williams) drives her boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) to meet her parents.

But if anything Get Out is the Anti-Guess Whose’s Coming to Dinner and I say that for a number of reasons. That picture was groundbreaking in its day because Stanley Kramer made an issue-driven film about an interracial couple coming to meet the parents in the age of Loving v. Virginia  (1967) still being on the recent record books. Miscegenation was still outlawed in numerous states across the country. Granted, it was set in California, that open-minded oasis in the West, but that doesn’t mean parents weren’t still skeptical about the union. It’s easy to be a champion of racial equality and quite another to have your daughter marry a man of a different race. At least in 1967. Now it shouldn’t be an issue at all. We are an enlightened people, after all, informed by a 21st-century worldview…

Yet Get Out works because it shows the flip side of the coin. You have that same forward thinking, liberal idealism that’s reflected on the surface for all to see. It’s a bit of the Hepburn and Tracy characters from the earlier picture that we see in these parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener).

Except here they’re not who they seem to be and their enlightened qualities only mask the ugliness that is hiding inside of them. Perhaps they are more nefarious and wily than the outright bigots because they hide their prejudice proclivities so well. Their racism is systematic and acceptable in the framework of modern society.

It’s nodded at and laughed off at cocktail parties because they are the folks who would have voted for Obama for a third term and their favorite golfer, of course, is Tiger Woods. He plays their civilized game and before his downfall, he played it well. As such, they can accept them without much hesitation because it’s these men who have seemingly conformed to their way of life.

A few other obvious cinematic touchstones to appreciate Get Out are The Shining (1980) because there’s an inscrutable nature to the horror that’s  underlined by dread more than fear in the accepted sense. It makes for an unsettling final act that lingers for a long time. Meanwhile, the entire conspiracy that’s going on under the surface brings to mind Rosemary’s Baby (1968), simultaneously unnerving and darkly comic to its final moments much like Get Out.

This is by no means a pop out at you horror movie which I admittedly don’t hold much taste for. Jordan Peele’s effort is far more than that. Slowly crawling under your skin insidiously looking at some unnamed problems of our society in the domain of race and it does it in such a way that’s perturbing and ultimately brings up some powerful questions on the front of a social commentary.

This is a movie that upends expectations starting out as one thing which we assume will be offered in the package of a horror picture and it morphs into something far more interesting that has the compelling power to stay with audiences long after the momentary shock value might dissipate in a typical film with few lofty aspirations.

If nothing else, it confirms that there is still so much progress that needs to be made in our nation and Peele positions himself as far more than a comedian but a fascinating creative mind behind the camera. Get Out is a shining reaffirmation that creatively potent and timely films are still being made today. It is not meant for everyone but there’s no question it has something new to offer.

4/5 Stars

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemarys_baby_posterFrom the haunting opening notes of a lullaby to the otherworldly aerial shot floating over New York, Rosemary’s Baby is undeniably a stunning Hollywood debut for Roman Polanski.

What follows is a tale weighed down by impending doom and paranoia. But although the tone is very much suited for Polanski, it’s perhaps even more surprising how faithful his adaptation is to the original source material. Most of the dialogue if not all of it is pulled from the pages of Ira Levin’s work and the Polish auteur even went so far as getting the wallpaper and interiors as close to the novel’s imagery as he could. But that hardly illuminates us to why the film is so beguiling–at least not completely.

In an effort to try and describe the look of the film, the best thing that I can come up with is inscrutably surreal. Some of it is undoubtedly due to the lighting. Partially it’s how the camera moves fluidly through the cinematic space which is mostly comprised of interiors. But nevertheless, it’s absolutely mesmerizing to look at and it pulls you in like the wreckage of a car crash. As much as you don’t want to, your eyes remain transfixed.

Mia Farrow, with her figure gaunt and her hair short, becomes the perfect embodiment of this young wife. The progression she goes through is important. Because she starts out young, bright-eyed and cute. Still, as time progresses she evolves into her iconic image, shadows under her eyes, ruddy and covered in beads of sweat. Her state is no better signified than the moments when she walks through oncoming traffic in a complete psychological daze.

John Cassavetes brings his brand of comical wryness to the role of the husband and struggling actor. But face value gives way to more sinister underpinnings. Old pros like Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, and Ralph Bellamy are given critical parts to play as an overly hospitable old crone and her husband and the aged doctor who are all privy to this deep-seated conspiracy.

You’ll find out soon enough what that means if you watch the film. However, for me what kept coming back to me is that this is, in essence, a subversion of the Christ child narrative with a new “Mother Mary” figure.  And hidden behind this psychological horror show is something, oddly enough, darkly comic. It’s summed up by the scene in the doctor’s office waiting room where Rosemary begins to leaf through Time Magazine. The headline reads bluntly, “Is God Dead?” As a relapsed Catholic surrounded by people who scoff at religion, the world is seemingly devoid of such things. Even the film itself features more profane moments, greater sensuality, and darker themes than any film of the early 60s. Thus, that magazine headline is not too far from the truth

It’s a question that many would have undoubtedly answered in the affirmative in 1968 too, a year fraught with rebellion, unrest, assassinations, and conflict. Polanski himself would even lose his beloved wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Mansion family. Mia Farrow was served divorce papers by Frank Sinatra on set. It surely was a dark time and yet while Rosemary’s Baby is disillusioning, there’s also an absurdity running through it.

However, the bottom line is that it maintains its frightening aspects because so much is left ambiguous. We don’t see the baby. We never fully understand what’s afoot. And we don’t even know what will happen to Rosemary in the end. What choice will she make? What path will she choose? Is this all a cruel nightmare or will she wake up? Can anyone rescue her from her torment? There are no clear-cut conclusions only further and further digressions to be made.  There’s something fascinatingly disturbing about that. It ceases to grow old.

4.5/5 Stars

The Snake Pit (1948)

Snakepit1948_62862nThere is a lineage of psychological dramas most notably including the likes of Shock Corridor and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. But one of their primary predecessors was The Snake Pit which is a haunting, inscrutable and thought-provoking film in its own right.

But rather than trying to sum it up with words, it’s necessary to look deeper at what makes this such a potent film and it begins most obviously with Olivia De Havilland. She undoubtedly gives the best performance of her career — in so many ways drifting so effortlessly across the emotional spectrum. She’s either sane or “crazy” with fits of paranoia and inner turmoil, voices sounding off in her head and the like. But the most beautiful things are the moments when all the drama derives from the look on her face, a furrowed brow or a panic-stricken reaction we cannot fully understand.

That’s why it takes us the entire film to comprehend what is actually happening and it’s wonderful that we enter her story while she is in a sanitarium. Why and how she got there we don’t know right away, so as an audience there’s a similar sense of disorientation. Several reliable points of reference exist early on. Those being the genial Dr. Kik (Leo Genn)and Virginia’s concerned husband Robert (Mark Stevens) who visits her during every possible hour.

The film does intermittently feel disjointed but that hardly seems due to faulty storytelling and more a convention of Virginia’s narrative. It all comes to us in incoherent bits. In reality, months have passed but her memory is poor, causing her to lose track of the days. She drifts in and out of different wards and soon forgets the people and places that have been there all along. Furthermore, her progress waxes and wanes, with special visits from her husband and the faint chance of being released. Then in her darkest moments come electroshock therapy and even a straight jacket confining her in the depths of the sanitarium.

Anatole Litvak would hardly be considered an auteur but he still finds a way to heighten the tension with whip pans and nightmarish imagery when necessary. A pounding score adds yet another layer of anxiety reverberating with a vengeance, most memorably to simulate the jolts of electroshock therapy. But the greatest compliment that I have for his film is that it knows when to simply sit back and watch, like many of the great Classical Hollywood films. It lets its story, actors, and script all work and, in this case, they develop something with lasting depth.

Earlier I alluded to  The Snake Pit being part of a lineage including Shock Corridor and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It contains similarly shocking revelations about the reality behind sanitarium walls except they feel more realistic than the former film. Furthermore, De Havilland is surrounded by a wide array of odd bodies and patients with all sorts of psychoses rather like Randle McMurphy. But although there are some antagonistic people, her problems stem partially from the system around her and mostly from the pain buried deep within her own past.

It’s Dr. Kik who is able to dredge up the truth hidden inside of her over time. His calming, reassuring voice balanced with his psychoanalytic practices are able to work on Virginia’s psyche systematically. But in the same instance, it’s easy for her to get lost among the masses. Nurses do their jobs, doctors pass verdicts but they’re woefully understaffed and overworked.

The film’s resolution is actually hidden within its title. Because like the madmen of old, Virginia was thrown into a snake pit of her own that, far from driving her crazy, revealed to her that she must, in fact, be sane — at least compared to many of those around her. It’s up to the viewer to decide, aside from the happy denouement, if this is a troubling conclusion that the film comes to or not.

However, it’s paramount to note The Snake Pit’s conclusion on personal trauma and mental illness, based on childhood experiences. A lot of Virginia’s struggles came out of guilt and dysfunctional relationships with her parents. Yes, this is the punchline of the movie, but I only say this to point out how frightening or more precisely, how universal that revelation make this movie. Virginia’s parents weren’t altogether bad people and the reality is that all of us will face personal tragedy. We will have our share of guilty consciences too.

It’s how we cope with those things that matter most because it’s going to happen. We can hide it but we can’t escape it. All of us are broken in one way or another — even if we don’t want to admit it. That’s part of what The Snake Pit begins to bring to light.

4/5 Stars

Review: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Teresa_Wright_and_Joseph_Cotten_in_Shadow_of_a_Doubt_trailerIt is well documented that Shadow of a Doubt was Hitchcock’s personal favorite of his own films. That’s quite a telling statement when you do a quick scroll through some of the titles up for contention. Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Notorious, even The Birds. And yet the famed “Master of Suspense” chose the often glossed over Shadow of a Doubt.  If we take a slightly closer look it makes a great deal of sense as the film follows through with one of Hitch’s most prominent credos, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

That’s, in fact, a great deal of what Shadow of a Doubt is. It’s the cringe-inducing anticipation for what is bound to happen. The inevitable that is plain as day, except not everyone sees it so clearly. But that’s enough ambiguity.

The story opens in a depressed urban city with Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten) laid out pensively on his bed. Dollar bills are scattered haphazardly across his floor. Soon he learns two men want to talk with him, and he’s not about to get acquainted so he gives them the slip and heads to the one decent place he can think of. Santa Rosa, California, the peaceful abode of his older sister Emma and her family.

What we learn over time is that Charlie is known at large as the “Merry Widow Murderer,” because he has strangled three such women and taken their valuables. Hitchcock playfully alludes to the fact by opening his film with the “Merry Widow Waltz” and it will pop up throughout the entire story if you’re paying attention.

shadow-of-a-doubt-trainHis train comes barreling towards town with smoke spewing ominously. For now, his oblivious family is just happy to see his face, especially his oldest niece and namesake Charlie (Teresa Wright) who is ecstatic to have something to shake the family out of their funk of normalcy. At this point, there is little to be uneasy about, because Uncle Charlie is not about to do anything rash, but there are a few moments where he gets uneasy. Covering up a paper headline and doing his best to avoid two men taking photos for a national survey. Charlie doesn’t think much of it at first, and it feels just like old times with uncle giving gifts and receiving the royal treatment.

Except the ring he presents to Charlie is plundered jewelry with a mysterious pair of initials engraved on it. Of course, the men interviewing the Newton household are actually trailing Uncle Charlie, and Detective Graham fills Charlie in while also becoming fond of her. But it’s not the kind of news she’s willing to accept. How can she? It’s a late night visit to the local library that finally confirms all her deepest fears. Soon, the telltale signs become more apparent to the audacious girl, and Charlie simultaneously notices the changes in her as well.

This is where the film becomes fidget-inducing because it’s out in the open. Uncle Charlie knows that she knows, and still he remains in their home, in quiet little Santa Rosa, as if nothing has changed. For most of the family, nothing has, but Charlie’s demeanor is completely different. She just wants her uncle gone, away from her family, and then there’s the impending threat that her own life might be in danger. In truth, Uncle Charlie doesn’t want her around, even though it looks like he might get off scotch free.  His mind is already so twisted — so far gone — that he coolly attempts to get rid of Charlie, right under the very noses of their family.

It turns into a psychological mind game between uncle and niece, Charlie vs. Charlie. There’s no detective to save her now because he’s already left town and there’s no other direction to turn. She finally does succeed in getting dear uncle to leave town, and it looks like the living suburban nightmare is coming to a close. Then, in a final instant on the outbound train, Hitchcock’s lets off a BANG! The film’s culmination arrives and is just as quickly passed over. It’s done just like that, but it’s not really what was important. All that nerve-wracking build-up — the meat and potatoes of the drama was what was paramount.

Thus, Hitchcock delivers us a shocking nightmare of a film. It’s not anything like Psycho, existing in a far more mundane world. But Shadow of the Doubt brazenly suggests that murder can reach us even in our homes, even in the places that feel the safest. Hitch exhibits his wicked sense of humor with two characters who love to talk murder in Mr. Newton (Henry Travers) and the next door neighbor Herb (Hume Cronyn). They obsess over crime fiction and discussing ways to get away with murder. Little do they know that the man in their midst is trying to do just that.

Teresa Wright is certainly one of my favorite actresses and her role as Charlie is one of her bests highlighting her cordial charm, while also revealing her adeptness in the role of a tortured heroine. We want her to succeed more than anything, and as an audience, we worry for her well-being the entire film. Meanwhile, Joseph Cotten generally plays laconic types, but still, they usually have more goodness than baseness in their souls. Uncle Charlie is a fine role for him because he’s so sweetly cunning and at the same time sadistically twisted.

Shadow of a Doubt pic 3Unfortunately, the role of Detective Saunders feels rather shallow, but that’s hardly something to get stuck on. If that were the case, we could easily point to Charlie’s parents who seem way too old. But they are perfectly average, ordinary folks, as played by Henry Travers and Patricia Collinge. The script work of the preeminent Thorton Wilder (Our Town) and the on-location shooting in the Everytown of  Santa Rosa lend a universality to this thriller’s impending dread.

Dimitri Tiomkin heightens the film with his usually stirring, pulse-pounding approach to scoring. Hitchcock’s camera, while in black and white, is nevertheless noticeably dynamic. He always emphasizes the necessary focal points, and extreme close-ups and high angles only accentuate the drama. His use of the stairwells in the house is absolutely marvelous, implying both distance and foreboding in numerous shots. For every shot that Cotten looks menacing, there is an equal number highlighting the pure innocence of Wright. It’s the perfect juxtaposition of character, in a film that is really only your typical see-sawing struggle of good versus evil. Except it takes place in our own backyards.

5/5 Stars

peter breck in shock corridor

Shock Corridor (1963)

shockcorridor1“This long corridor is the magic highway to the Pulitzer Prize” – Johnny Barrett

Being a jack of all trades, producer, director, screenwriter extraordinaire Sam Fuller also had a stint as a journalist. Therein lies his obvious stake in Shock Corridor, a film that looks frightening on paper, and is even more eye-opening in execution. True, this is not an altogether realistic film, but that’s what makes it such a stirring portrayal. It dives into the darkened recesses of a sanitarium showing us things we don’t want to believe. They probably weren’t all true, but there’s still that shred of doubt. We’ve seen enough One Flew of the Cuckoo’s Nest and read enough horror stories to know better. Fuller plays off that fear which intrigues us as much as it alarms.

Investigative journalist Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) can see it now. If he infiltrates a mental institution he can dig up the truth on a murder case that occurred behind closed doors and was quickly hushed up. Such a piece of detective work could earn him the Pulitzer Prize easily, and the tantalizing prospect is too good to resist. His girlfriend played by Constance Towers pleads with him to back out, because she wants no part of the plan.

But he teams up with his editor Swannee and Psychiatrist Dr. Fong to cook up a backstory the people in charge will buy. Barrett gets coached in how to act and respond to every question. It’s a potential long shot, but just like that, they buy his sordid story of obsession with his sister thanks to a performance by Cathy. He’s in.

shockcorridor3Behind the pearly gates, there are brawls galore and noisy neighbors riddled with all sorts of neurosis, quirks, and ticks. There are the good cop and bad cop who help care for the patients and keep them at bay. Johnny even begins to have hallucinations of his girlfriend drifting through his dreams. He gets introduced to hydrotherapy, dance therapy, and even faces a traumatizing experience at the hands of women in the female ward.

All the while, he is sniffing around for any information on the man named Sloan who was killed with a knife by a man in white pants. He makes his rounds questioning three different witnesses and amid their idiosyncrasies, they give him bits and pieces of fact. However, their own mental capabilities are clouded by traumatic war experiences, racist ramblings, and fear of impending nuclear war.

shockcorridor2The boisterous, tumultuous chaos of the ward does almost become maddening, even to the viewer. Johnny has a few angry outbursts of his own as the strain of the facility gets to him more and more every day. Electric shock therapy among the other treatments leaves him mixed-up, confused, and overtly paranoid. He’s hardly the man we met in that office so many days ago and even if he got the scoop he was looking for, at what cost? Shock Corridor has a thunderously disconcerting ending worthy of a Fuller production.

From casting Philip Ahn as a knowledgeable psychiatrist to the absurdity of an African-American obsessed with the KKK and Pro-White sentiment, Fuller once again does a lot on the racial front. He manages to represents Asians in a positive light and the character of Wilkes points to the still inherently twisted nature of southern white supremacists, even after the advent of such legislation as Brown v. Board.  Thus, once more he gives us a sensationalized story with a surprising amount of depth to it. No doubt he had a soft spot for journalism since that’s what he made his living off of at one time. But Shock Corridor implies that there is such a thing as crossing the line. It’s the utter extreme, but it’s cautionary nonetheless.

3.5/5 Stars

Ex Machina (2015)

Ex-machina-uk-posterThe film industry needs films like Ex Machina. They’re smaller productions, but that usually means they’re more audacious and oftentimes far more interesting. First time director and veteran screenwriter Alex Garland delivers up a story that takes place in an isolated, ultra-modern getaway that’s a helicopter ride away from civilization. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) gets dropped into this little piece of paradise thinking he’s won a huge honor, and in truth, he has hit the jackpot. He makes his way to this isolated locale and comes face to face with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the mastermind behind his little company. We don’t quite understand why Caleb was called in or what the following hours will look like exactly.

Nathan quickly clears up any ambiguity with one pointed question: “So do you know what the Turing Test is?”That begins the jumping off point for the entire narrative which is compartmentalized into different sessions of observations. It’s Caleb’s job to interview the one and only Ava (Alicia Vikander) over the course of a couple days to decipher whether or not she can pass the Turing Test. Yes, Ava is a highly intelligent A.I., but just how intelligent we’ll find out over the course of the story.

This is most of the film, but there are a lot of oddities that plant themselves in back of our minds. Who is Kyoko the maid? Is Nathan to be trusted? After all, Ava induces powercuts so she can talk with Caleb in confidence. Because she knows we act differently when unobserved — when all the eyes aren’t watching us.

Ava is strikingly metallic, mechanical, and still somehow incredibly lifelike. Nathan has developed her in such a way that she has attraction down to a science. She somehow exudes a robotic sexuality.  The trick is finding the perfect algorithm for action that is not automatic. Getting the precise equilibrium of nature vs. nurture.

The mind games delve ever deeper as Caleb tries to maintain a balance between his intellect and his own insecurities. Ava asks to question him, and the tables are quickly turned. Caleb is manipulated constantly and he himself manipulates. But he realizes too late that he served one function, only to be quickly discarded.

Ex Machina is fascinating as it spirals deeper and deeper into an abyss of deception and disorientation. It exists in that terrifying realm of the not so distant future, and while we are not there yet, it feels like we may be on the cusp of such a world. It brings up questions of man’s desire to be God and the dichotomy that arises between the creators and the created. The history of computer science arguably extends all the way back to Alan Turing, and it certainly has opened grand avenues of exploration. But with such power, including Artificial Intelligence, Search Engine Optimization, and the like, we are opened up to a far more perilous world. A world, where if we’re not careful we can lose all grasp of reality and all confidence in our fellow man.

4/5 Star