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Monday, November 12, 2007

Top of the World, Part 2 (originally published 12/00)

One of the oldest narrative tricks in the book is to build a scene to its highest possible pitch of suspense and then break away to another part of the story, leaving the carefully built up scene dangling, unresolved. By the time you come back to the scene in question, the audience is consumed with anxiety to know what happened. This device is particularly effective if the audience must wait a period of days for the answer, which is why movie serials always ended each chapter that way. Nowadays the same trick is used by episodic television shows, especially for the last show of the season. Because it leaves you hanging in a most uncomfortable way, this type of narrative gimmick is commonly referred to as a "cliffhanger."

Since audiences have consistently proven themselves to be suckers for such cliffhangers, it is only natural that filmmakers have found success in bringing to the screen stories that involve people quite literally hanging from actual cliffs. As we saw last week, "Vertical Limit" is only the most recent in a long line of movies about mountain climbing. Here are a few more titles involving mountainside adventures to look for on home video.

"Blind Husbands" (1919). As an actor, Austrian-born Erich von Stroheim quickly established a reputation as an effective movie villain. His screen persona was that of the "man you love to hate." With this film he began his career as a director, kicking off one of the most celebrated and controversial bodies of work ever created in Hollywood. The story, written by von Stroheim, revolves around a surgeon and his wife, Dr. and Mrs. Armstrong, who are vacationing in the Dolemite mountains of Austria. The doctor hopes to indulge his hobby of mountain climbing, but in so doing he has neglected his wife, who is therefore all too open to unhealthy diversions. The diversion that presents itself takes the form of a preening, cocky young military officer, Lieutenant von Steuben, played by von Stroheim. He flirts with Mrs. Armstrong and nearly succeeds in seducing her. Having boasted of his mountain climbing prowess, he subsequently finds himself on a treacherous climb with Dr. Armstrong, who picks that moment to confront him about his dalliances with Mrs. Armstrong.

"The Eiger Sanction" (1975). Clint Eastwood built a successful career acting in films directed by such skillful pros as Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. Apparently he watched and learned, because he turned out to be a pretty fair director himself when given the chance. In this Eastwood-directed adaptation of a Trevanian novel, Eastwood plays a retired hit man who is blackmailed out of retirement to perform one last "sanction." His target is one of three men who will be climbing the forbidding Eiger peak, and the hit is to be performed during the climb itself.

"Fitzcarraldo" (1982). One of the strangest stories of man versus mountain must surely be this tale of obsession pushed beyond the brink of madness. Klaus Kinski portrays a man who is consumed by the idea of bringing opera to the backwaters of the South American jungle. Searching for a way to fund the construction of an opera house, he hits upon the idea of running a steamship up and down an isolated tributary of the Amazon to stimulate trade. The catch is that the river is so isolated that no steamship can reach it. Undaunted, he resolves to bring his steamship down a parallel river and hire the local natives to haul the 300 ton ship up over a mountain and down to the other side to the river in question using nothing more than an elaborate block and tackle system. But the kicker is that director Werner Herzog chose to use no models or special effects photography. He actually hired Peruvian natives to haul a real steamship over a real mountain, thus proving his own obsession to be the equal of his character's.

There is method, however, in Herzog's madness. Modern special effects technology has maximized the potential for staggering visuals in mountain climbing films, but the best of these films have always been those that balanced spectacle with drama. Filmmakers should never lose sight of the fact that their movies are about the climbers, not the mountains. If a film can capture the resilience of the human spirit, it's all downhill from there.

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