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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Genre Stew (originally published 7/03)

Originality has long been regarded as one of the cardinal virtues of storytelling in general and moviemaking in particular. There comes a time, however, when the ends of certain types of storytelling are best served by a carefully measured dose of predictability. For example, if a filmmaker's primary purpose is to entertain with bigger and better action and thrills, it's convenient to be able to dispose of characterization quickly. As long as everybody agrees that the good guy wears the white hat, the filmmaker can establish the leading man's virtue the minute he walks onscreen, leaving that much more time for chases and shootouts.

The agreement about white hats as a shortcut to characterization, when combined with a whole set of other, similar conventions, constitutes a genre. Studios are particularly fond of genre pictures - detective stories, gangster films, westerns, horror films, and the like - because they tend to have a built-in, pre-sold audience. Naturally, the plot similarities imposed by genre conventions represent a challenge to the ingenuity of filmmakers when it comes to keeping their genre pictures fresh and interesting. One of the more radical ways of attacking that problem is to combine the conventions of two different genres. That's the approach taken by the producers of "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," which is part pirate movie and part ghost story.

If you're intrigued by this kind of genre cross-pollination, there are plenty of earlier examples available on video. Be aware, however, that the blending of genres is a wild and woolly business that most often veers off into the world of midnight movie cult films, where budgets are small and irony runs deep. With that caveat, set your tongue in your cheek and follow me to the back corner of the video store.

"Murder at the Vanities" (1934). This depression-era frolic seeks to merge a musical stage revue ("Earl Carroll's Vanities") with a murder mystery. The murders and subsequent sleuthing take place backstage while the show goes on out front. Prohibition had just been repealed, and marijuana had not yet been criminalized, so the songs in the show include "Cocktails for Two," celebrating the newly restored privilege of drinking openly, and "Marijuana," celebrating the joys of cannabis. It makes you wonder how anyone found time to do homicidal mischief backstage.

"Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter" (1966). The title pretty much says it all. Throw together a horror icon and a western icon and stir well. The main character is actually the original mad doctor's granddaughter, who has relocated to the New World to carry on granddad's experiments. It so happens that Jesse has a big, dumb sidekick who is a perfect subject for a brain transplant, especially since he hardly ever uses the one he has. This picture ran on a double bill with another western/horror combo, "Billy the Kid vs. Dracula" (1966).

"The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula" (1974). By the mid-1970s, England's Hammer Studios had tried just about every variation possible in their long-running Dracula series. Here they tried cross-pollinating with the martial arts genre that was so popular at the time. It sounds like a strange combination, I know, but the result was actually not half bad. This film is also known as "The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires."

"Alphaville" (1965). Remember how "Blade Runner" (1982) combined the hardboiled private eye genre with science fiction? This film by French New Wave bad boy Jean-Luc Godard did much the same thing two decades earlier. But Godard didn't stop there. "Alphaville" is a kind of genre stew, incorporating cultural elements ranging from ancient mythology to comic strips. Lemmy Caution, a detective in the Philip Marlowe mold functioning as a secret agent, infiltrates the totalitarian society of the planet Alphaville, driving there in his Ford Galaxie. It's great fun, but only if you're ready to sit back, stop asking questions, and just let Godard have his way with you.

"Pennies From Heaven" (1981). This adaptation of Dennis Potter's British television series combines the flashy dance numbers of Depression-era movie musicals with a bleakly realistic portrayal of the social conditions from which those musicals provided an escape. The stylistic gear-shifting of this strange little film may give you whiplash, but it's worth the ride.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Many Faces of Hyde, Part 2 (originally published 7/03)

Very few stories, if any at all, have maintained a more consistent hold on the imagination of filmmakers than Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." By the end of the silent film era, there were already nearly a dozen different movie versions on the shelf, dating back to 1908. Nor did the coming of talkies by any means stem the tide. Since then, dozens more movie adaptations of Stevenson's classic have been added to the tally, so that by now it is an act of considerable hubris to go to the well yet again. Anyone who wishes to attempt a new screen version of this well-worn chestnut had better have some sort of new angle to offer.

Often, this is accomplished by means of a variation on the story that takes the basic theme and transmutes it into another context altogether. That's the approach followed in the current release of "The Hulk," which offers us a truly fearsome Hyde figure in the form of a green-skinned monster. Last week we looked at some other broad variations on the Jekyll-Hyde theme. If you like your adaptations to follow the original material a bit more closely, however, there are plenty of screen versions that remain faithful to Stevenson's own story. Here are a few to look for on home video.

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1920). Here is a rare opportunity to see John Barrymore at the height of his powers, predating the descent into gin-soaked self-parody that marred much of his later film work. Granted, his Hyde is played pretty broadly, but would you really want to see an underplayed Hyde? Those who are familiar with the story will note that the screenwriter has departed from the text to create an entirely new character, that of the dance hall girl with whom the licentious Hyde keeps company. Hyde's cruel mistreatment of this unfortunate woman becomes a significant plot element. It isn't hard to see why this change was necessary. Stevenson, after all, had set his story up as a mystery, revealing the true connection between Dr. Jekyll and the mysterious Mr. Hyde only at the end. By 1920, however, the secret of Dr. Jekyll was already common knowledge, even to people who had never read the book. Any attempt to build a version of the narrative around the mystery angle would simply look foolish.

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1932). With the release of both "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" by Universal in 1931, horror movies had suddenly become trendy. Paramount's bid for a piece of the pie was this first talkie version of the Stevenson classic, starring Frederic March. Since there was no going back to Stevenson's mystery angle, the subplot involving Hyde's cockney girlfriend was lifted from the Barrymore film, and even amplified. The director was the imaginative and innovative Rouben Mamoulian, whose camera trickery using special filters over the lens made March's transformation into Hyde a genuinely creepy spectacle. March won an Academy Award for his performance in the dual roles of Jekyll and Hyde.

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1941). This MGM version stars Spencer Tracy in the title roles. This is easily the most polished and glitzy version, typical of the expensive, high-gloss look of MGM in this period. Ingrid Bergman plays Hyde's lower-class consort, who has by now become more of a fixture in the story than most of Stevenson's own characters. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll" (1960). The British Hammer studio had been busily remaking the horror classics of the 1930s and 1940s for three years before they got around to dusting off Dr. Jekyll. The twist here is that the good Dr. Jekyll is a rather rough looking old buzzard, while the evil Hyde is young and attractive. This variation clearly echoes Oscar Wilde's story of Dorian Gray and his portrait, which, come to think of it, does dovetail nicely with the story of Jekyll and Hyde.

With so many adaptations of this familiar tale already in existence, you can clearly see the challenge faced by those who would add to the stockpile. Strangely, part of me wants filmmakers to continue making new screen versions of the story and part of me wishes that they would stop. It's a mystery.

The Many Faces of Hyde (originally published 7/03)

Ever since humankind became self-aware, it seems that we have been fascinated with the duality of our own psyche. Given the undeniable fact that we are capable of reaching astonishing heights of nobility and altruism, it is remarkable that we are simultaneously capable of plumbing the depths of depravity. Even more amazing is the fact that this incredible range of personal attributes can be found within a single individual.

The best known work of literature that explores this duality of the human spirit is, of course, "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson. It has been adapted for the screen literally dozens of times, ranging from versions that follow the original story closely to those that transmute the basic theme into very different settings. The most recent of the latter type is "The Hulk," in which the Hyde character takes the form of an unstoppable green-skinned goliath born of anger, which is traditionally regarded as one of the seven deadly sins. For a sampling of how earlier films have explored variations on the Jekyll and Hyde theme, look for these titles on home video.

"Before I Hang" (1940). Boris Karloff stars as Dr. John Garth, who has been convicted of what was then called a "mercy killing." Today, in the age of Kevorkian, we'd say "assisted suicide." While awaiting execution, he is permitted to continue his research on a youth serum. He tries the formula on himself (as a condemned man, after all, he has nothing to lose) and discovers that it works. There is, however, one unfortunate side effect. The younger version of the gentle Dr. Garth is a homicidal maniac.

"Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde" (1976). Director William Crain attempts to repeat the success of his earlier film, "Blacula" (1972), by giving us an African-American version of Dr. Jekyll. Former NFL running back Bernie Casey stars as Dr. Pride, a black physician practicing in a free clinic in Watts. When an experiment backfires, he is converted into a raging killer. Ironically, his "Hyde" personality is white-faced. This film is also known as "The Watts Monster."

"Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1953). One surefire variation on a horrific story, of course, is to turn it into a comedy. During the late 1940s and 1950s, that territory was pretty thoroughly staked out by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, who encountered virtually every one of the Universal Pictures stable of monster characters. Dr. Jekyll is portrayed here by Boris Karloff.

"Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype" (1980). Here's another comic twist on the Jekyll and Hyde story. It was written and directed by Charles Griffith, who used to write for B-movie king Roger Corman. His credits include the scripts for Corman's black comedy classics "Bucket of Blood" (1959) and "The Little Shop of Horrors" (1960). Oliver Reed stars as a singularly unattractive podiatrist who decides to end it all. His suicide potion, however, turns him into a dashingly handsome fellow instead of taking his life. Unfortunately, his good-looking alter ego turns out to be up to no good.

"The Nutty Professor" (1963). The definitive Jekyll and Hyde comedy may well be this Jerry Lewis classic. Lewis plays the mousey and awkward Professor Julius Kelp. As in "Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype," his formula transforms him into a handsome alter ego, who goes by the name "Buddy Love." This Hyde personality is not a murderer, however. He's just a creep - an attractive, charismatic creep. Inevitably, there are those who have seen Buddy Love as a particularly mean-spirited portrayal of Dean Martin, Lewis's estranged partner. Others suggest that Lewis didn't need to look any farther than the mirror to find Buddy Love.

Actually, however, the suggestion that the inspiration for such an unsavory character must himself be a reprobate misses the whole point of the Jekyll and Hyde theme, whether in Stevenson's original version or in any of its many variations. The point is that each of us, if we are honest with ourselves, can find the loathsome Hyde lurking in the mirror, patiently waiting for his opportunity to taint the better angels of our nature with degradation and shame. It's both a perfect formula for drama and a universal affliction. No wonder, then, that dramatists return to it again and again.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Plutocrats (originally published 4/03)

One of the prime entertainment functions served by movies is that of wish fulfillment. By going to the movies, we can experience second-hand what it would be like to be a secret agent, or a corporate power broker, or a rock star.

In particular, audiences seem to enjoy films about wealthy families. I'm not talking about families that are moderately well off, mind you. These are stories about modern day rivals of King Midas himself; opulent tales that allow the viewer to experience vicariously how the other half lives. The recently released "What a Girl Wants," for example, places a young woman of modest means in the midst of a fabulously wealthy English family, where she must reacquaint herself with her long-lost father. For a sampling of how earlier films have treated the subject of the lifestyles of the filthy rich, look for these titles on home video.

"Giant" (1956). Nobody wrote big, sprawling sagas about big, important, wealthy families quite like Edna Ferber. "Giant," adapted for the screen by producer-director George Stevens, tells the story of the Benedict family of Texas. Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) is a cattle baron, presiding over a Texas-huge estate known as Reata. We pick up the story as he meets and marries Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), daughter of a prominent family back East. He brings her home to Reata, where we follow their ups and downs as a family through several decades. The film features the final performance of James Dean, who plays Bick's nemesis, Jett Rink. (If you're rich enough, you're allowed to have silly names.) Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958). Tennessee Williams's celebrated play was toned down a bit for the screen, but the high-powered cast makes up for the bowdlerization. Burl Ives, in the role of a lifetime, plays Big Daddy Pollitt, the dying patriarch of a 28,000-acre estate on the Mississippi delta. Paul Newman is his impotent son, Brick, and Elizabeth Taylor is Brick's sexually frustrated wife, Maggie "the Cat." (Did I mention that rich characters are allowed to have silly names?) This family is a walking catalog of neuroses, pushing the dysfunctional envelope to its limit. Williams, having bigger fish to fry than verisimilitude, didn't hesitate to paint them with broad strokes, but these actors are more than up to the challenge of playing such bigger than life roles.

"The Big Country" (1958). Director William Wyler's big-budget western stars Gregory Peck as James McKay, a Baltimore tenderfoot who has come out west to marry Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker), whom he met at a finishing school in New England. McKay soon finds himself in the middle of a range war between the wealthy Terrill family and the scruffy but proud Hannassey family. Burl Ives, who played the Pollitt patriarch in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" the same year, here portrays the head of the downtrodden Hannasseys.

"The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942). If your film directing debut had been the legendary "Citizen Kane" (1941), what would you do for an encore? Orson Welles, confronted with exactly that problem, chose to follow his astonishing debut with an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel about the outrageously wealthy Amberson family, as conspicuous in their magnificence, in Tarkington's words, "as a brass band at a funeral." Set around the turn of the century, the film is unapologetically nostalgic in tone. The directorial flashiness of "Citizen Kane" is all but gone, allowing the considerable acting talents of Welles's Mercury Theater troupe to take center stage. Joseph Cotten stars as Eugene Morgan, who is in love with Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) but lost her years ago to a more socially prominent suitor. Tim Holt plays George Amberson Minafer, Isabel's outrageously spoiled son, who bitterly resents Eugene's continuing interest in his mother. Agnes Moorehead gives one of her finest performances as George's spinster aunt, Fanny Minafer, whose lifelong unrequited love for Eugene has left her an emotional basket case. Welles disavowed the film after the studio extensively recut it, but the remaining footage is still an entertaining, moving showcase for some of the Mercury players' best work.

Naturally, seeing these films won't actually make you wealthy. In fact, the rental or purchase price will nudge you just slightly in the other direction. But, having been exposed to some of Hollywood's best work, you will certainly be richer in spirit.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The Whole Truth and Nothing But (originally published 4/03)

Despite the familiar propaganda about a picture being worth a thousand words, the literary arts still have a few tricks up their sleeve that pictorial arts like the movies are hard pressed to emulate. Take the past tense, for example. Movies are stuck permanently in the present tense. The only way they can even suggest an earlier time frame is through a carefully bracketed segment called a "flashback."

Similarly, one of the neatest tricks that words can do, and one of the hardest for movies to mimic, is the subjunctive mood. Movies, after all, can only show what is. But the essence of the subjunctive is not what is, but what is not. I can easily talk or write about what I would do if I were wealthy, for example, but how can a filmmaker show a character's wealth while simultaneously asserting that the wealth doesn't really exist?

Now, knowing that past tense is difficult to convey in a movie, and that conditions contrary to fact are trickier still, just imagine how hard it must be to combine the two. In other words, how would you show a flashback illustrating a story told by an unreliable narrator? That's the problem confronted by the makers of "Basic," in which an investigator must sift through conflicting reports of a military incident to arrive at the truth.

To me, the most fascinating aspects of a film that seeks to portray unreliable testimony must surely be the implications of the false flashbacks, which, after all, fly right in the face of such reassuring truisms as "the camera never lies" and "seeing is believing." As you might have expected of such a rich and provocative premise, "Basic" is by no means the first film to have used extensive flashbacks as a way of challenging the audience to sort through multiple conflicting accounts of the same events. In fact, this same quirky combination of past and present, truth and falsehood, has been tackled by some of world cinema's most imaginative talents. Two classic films in particular come to mind, both of which are widely available on video.

"Rashomon" (1951). Japanese cinema master Akira Kurosawa takes an apparently simple story and complicates it by filtering it through the perceptions of four different witnesses. All that is known for certain is that a nobleman and his wife were passing through the forest, where they were set upon by a bandit, who subdued and bound the nobleman and raped the woman. The nobleman ends up dead, but whether by suicide or murder remains unclear. We hear - and see, in flashback - the story four times, as told by the bandit, by the nobleman's wife, by a woodcutter who witnessed the crime, and by the dead nobleman himself, speaking through a medium. In the bandit's version, he seduces the woman, wins her affection, and vanquishes her husband on her behalf in a fair fight. In the woman's version, she is raped by the bandit, then scorned by her husband. The husband, through the medium, testifies that his wife responded enthusiastically to the bandit's amorous advances. But when the woman asked the bandit to kill her bound husband for her, according to the dead man, the bandit repulsed her in disgust and released the husband, who, consumed by shame, promptly committed suicide. The woodcutter tells a much more sordid tale, in which the woman provokes the two men into fighting over her. Kurosawa leaves it to us to decide who, if anyone, is telling the truth.

"Last Year at Marienbad" (1961). French "new wave" director Alain Resnais and avant-garde novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet combined their unorthodox talents to produce this intriguing film. It consists entirely of the interactions of three characters who may or may not have met before; one thinks they have, another insists they haven't. Resnais and Robbe-Grillet are resolutely noncommittal, presenting fantasy, supposition, and falsehood equally straightforwardly, with none of the usual cues that filmmakers use to separate "reality" from "unreality." Watching it is a maddening experience, but also fascinating. Like "Rashomon," it deliberately undermines the comforting objectivity of the camera eye until we are brought face to face with the age-old question of Pontius Pilate: "What is truth?" Wrestling with that thorny conundrum is never comfortable, to be sure, but always edifying.

The Later Lang (originally published 3/03)

The history of the cinema includes a number of lost treasures. Some are films that have disappeared without a trace, known to whole generations only as rumors of greatness, like Lon Chaney Sr.'s famous turn as a vampire in "London After Midnight" (1927). Even more tantalizing, however, are those films that do still exist, but in drastically truncated form, like German filmmaker Fritz Lang's seminal science fiction masterpiece, "Metropolis" (1927). It is known to have premiered in Germany at a length of 153 minutes, but by the time it reached the United States, it had been shortened by some 40 minutes. Since that time, this truncated version has been all that remains extant.

A number of attempts at restoring "Metropolis" have been undertaken through the years, including the well-intentioned but misguided attempt to set it to a pop music score by Giorgio Moroder some years ago, but all have been frustrated by the sheer bulk of missing footage. Recently, however, the F.W. Murnau Foundation undertook the task of creating a best available restoration of the film, using script materials to fill in missing plot information with explanatory titles. It still isn't Lang's "Metropolis," but it's the best approximation we're ever likely to have. Best of all, in selected venues it can be seen on film, in 35mm, although a video version is also available from

Fortunately, Lang's later films, particularly the ones he made after fleeing Hitler's Germany to work in the United States, can be seen in their entirety. For a sampling of what this cinematic maestro created after "Metropolis," look for these titles on home video.

"Fury" (1936). Spencer Tracy stars as a man who is falsely arrested on a kidnapping charge. As the circumstantial evidence mounts against him, he finds himself facing a lynch mob. When they can't get at him any other way, the mob resorts to burning down the jailhouse where he is imprisoned. But although he is presumed dead, he has in fact escaped. Consumed by a desire for vengeance, he allows the authorities to go on believing that he is dead so that he can engineer the trial of the mob's ringleaders for his murder. He gets his revenge, but ultimately he must confront the ugly truth that he has become what the mob itself was: an unreasoning slave to blind hatred.

"Rancho Notorious" (1952). It might seem odd for a German filmmaker to make an American Western (he made three of them), but he regarded it as perfectly natural. Back in Germany he had made two films based on the myth of the Nibelungs, the same myth on which Richard Wagner based his "Ring Cycle" of operas. The stories of the Western frontier, Lang said, are the American counterpart of such European mythology. The story of "Rancho Notorious" involves Marlene Dietrich as the proprietor of a hideaway for outlaws. In return for a percentage of their loot, she provides them with a place to lay low. Arthur Kennedy plays a cowboy who is searching for the murderers of his fiancee. He infiltrates the hideout and seduces Dietrich's character, using her to get the information he's after. Lang subverts the standard movie "code of the West" by presenting the outlaw roost as a stable, functioning society and the cowboy as an intruder who uses deceit and trickery.

"Scarlet Street" (1945). Edward G. Robinson plays a mousey little bank clerk, saddled with a shrewish wife, who escapes his miserable life by painting a little on the side. Joan Bennett plays the attractive young woman who reawakens his long abandoned dream of knowing true love. Unfortunately, we know what he doesn't - that she's only stringing him along because he's allowed her to believe that he is a wealthy and important artist whose paintings sell for thousands of dollars. He embezzles money from the bank to set her up in a studio apartment, where she regularly entertains her slimy boyfriend, played almost too well by Dan Duryea. And when Robinson's character finds them together, the descent into the pit begins in earnest.

Someday, perhaps, some or all of the missing footage from "Metropolis" may be discovered, opening the door to even better restorations. Until that time, we will have to be content with the complete Lang works that we do have, including the rich legacy of his American productions.