Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Night of the Demon (1957)

a.k.a. Curse of the Demon
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Charles Bennett, Hal E. Chester
Starring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis

Black & White, 95 minutes

Grade: A

In the past, I've been a tad bit harsh on the films of Jacques Tourneur. You'll often find that many under-appreciated directors will garner a certain following of critics and movie buffs that do nothing but rant and rave about how good the filmmaker was, and how influential his films are. This is certainly the case with Tourneur, and so, when I watch one of his films, I am often disappointed. It's not really Tourneur's fault, it's mine for having such high expectations. Through the years I've read how his work with producer Val Lewton, which resulted in films like Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, was so groundbreaking and scary. Those films weren't groundbreaking or scary, they were simply solid films that did a lot with a little, and rose above the usual B movie aesthetics. I've also read, many times, about how Out of the Past was the greatest noir film. This is not the case. Once again, Out of the Past is a tightly constructed movie that happens to incorporate every noir trademark there is. To call it the greatest of all noir would be to diminish the impact of Otto Preminger's Laura and Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, which would be a grave mistake. So, feeling that I owed Tourneur something, at least another shot, I picked up Night of the Demon, a lesser known (in America anyway) horror film he made in 1957. And wouldn't you know it, I absolutely loved it.

Opening on images of Stonehenge, with a voice over narration that speaks of ancient runes and the power to summon the demons of hell, the film sucks the viewer in immediately. The mood is set, and Clifton Parker's eerie score begins to kick into high gear. A few moments later, Tourneur throws the viewer inside the car of a sweaty, panic-stricken professor named Harrington. He's fleeing someone, or something, but what, we don't know. He pulls up to a mansion in the country, vacates the car, and rushes to ring the doorbell. Inside, he speaks with a man named Karswell, and the two proceed with a very cryptic conversation. Harrington is now begging Karswell to stop what he has created, to call it off. Karswell assures Harrington that he will do what he can, and that everything will work itself out. Harrington, breathing a sigh of relief, exits the house, heading for his automobile, when out of the forest comes a puff of smoke, then a light. "It's in the trees! It's coming!" Harrington shouts at the top of his lungs, and then we see what has terrified him so: a giant, fire-breathing beast. It approaches Harrington, and then tears him to bits. Enter Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), American psychiatrist, resident skeptic, and expert myth debunker. He's halfway across the Atlantic in an airplane, on a mission to visit Professor Harrington, and to assist in an investigation on Karswell and his devil cult. Holden's plane touches down, and he gets the bad news about Harrington. Unable to let things go, Holden-joining forces with Harringon's niece, Joanna (Peggy Cummins)-continues with the inquiry into Karswell. This has Karswell feeling a bit perturbed, so he does what any good Warlock/Sorcerer/Dr. Strange would do, he puts a curse on Holden, predicting that he will die, just like Harrington did, in three days time. Being the nonbeliever that he is, Holden pays no attention to Karswell's mumblings, but then things start to get creepy, and it looks like Karswell's prediction may come true. But then an unlikely source of help comes in the form of Karswell's own mother. Is it too late? Is Holden's time at an end? Can they stop the hellish demon? You'll be quite surprised at the result when Tourneur brings the tension to a head on board a train car in the film's masterful finale.

The great thing about Tourneur is that when he shows up to play ball, he is a master of atmosphere and suspense. This is evident all throughout Night of the Demon, most notably in a startling seance sequence that practically lays the foundation for a similar scene in Poltergeist. The medium calls forth spirits from the dead, including Harrington, speaking in their voices, warning Holden of the dangers that lie ahead. Spooky stuff. Tourneur and his cinematographer Ted Scaife revel in chiaroscuro lighting that hides the real threats in the shadows, causing the audience to lean a little closer, to look a little harder at way may be lurking just out of view. The one exception is the monster, which is nothing short of ridiculous. At times, it reminded of Godzilla riding a tricycle, but truth be told, the monster isn't around all that much, and what there is of him was added to the picture despite Tourneur's protests. He knew it was better to tell than to show, and if he had had his way, the film would be a flat out masterpiece. In the end, though, Tourneur does come out on top. His talent is never in doubt, and the film holds up very well today.

Helping Tourneur tremendously, the cast never approaches cheesiness. The material could easily slip into the realm of the silly and the fantastic, but they keep straight faces, holding the audience in check. Peggy Cummins is solid as Joanna, a character that is equally worrisome and aggressive. Tourneur was never a director who let his female characters fall into the background or sit on the sidelines. His women were strong and maternal, and Cummins falls right in line. Niall MacGinnis has a ball with Karnswell, a demanding character, because he has to be able to frighten others while managing to retain his wit and charm. Obviously based on Aleister Crowley, Karnswell is the type of guy who can control the weather at will, summon power from Satan, and still do basic magic tricks for the local kids at a Halloween party. Through all of this craziness, Andrews is the audience's rock as Holden. One of the great, underrated actors of his generation, Andrews had a range that was incredible. He would leave an impression no matter what, whether he was doing minor work in films like The Ox-Bow Incident and Ball of Fire, or whether he was part of the main objective, the way he was in Laura and The Best Years of Our Lives. He's not well remembered today, mostly because he did a lot of B movies, like this one, but I've never seen him be anything less than superb. Here he has the task of showing us a man who is nearly infallible in his beliefs, but, slowly, he has to show us the gears of doubt and realization turning in his head. He succeeds. Holden is a man who has faith in the "touchable," and the "seeable," but the science that he has so resolutely fallen back on in the past is withering away, and without it, he is lost. It's a blast to watch Andrews squirm around, desperately searching for something to latch onto, something to rescue him from his nightmare.

You, however, won't want to be rescued from the spell that this film casts. Night of the Demon is a breathtaking, fast moving piece of work that really gets under your skin. It's a minor film in America's cinematic history, but it was a huge success in Britain, where it was funded and filmed. Stateside, it was truncated and released as Curse of the Demon, but the DVD restores both the American and British prints, proving, once again, how stupid Hollywood can be. This is one of those very rare films that can please modern horror fans as well as those who love the classics of yore. Tourneur, unlike Holden, was a true believer. After viewing this film, you will be too.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Edward E. Paramore, Jr.
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther

Black & White, 88 minutes

Grade: B+

One hundred years ago today, Barbara Stanwyck was born. She was an odd beauty, with a slightly owl like face and disproportionate nose, but one look at her and you were entranced. Her performances were graceful, commanding, sexual, and natural. Stanwyck didn't announce her presence the way Joan Crawford or Bette Davis would, she never shouted for attention, she would simply invite the viewer in with her good looks, and keep them there with her talent. Some of her films (Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity) are well remembered today, but most of them have gotten lost in the shuffle. One such film is Frank Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen. For Capra, the film was nothing more than an attempt to earn an Oscar, for Stanwyck, it would be the major turning point in her career, pushing her towards better roles in bigger films.

When we think of Capra today, we're immediately reminded of the populist Americana that infused such classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It's a Wonderful Life, but in the early '30's, Capra was desperately trying to prove himself as a major player. His films were fairly successful, and he was the one reliably consistent filmmaker that Columbia Pictures could lay claim to. His frustration at not receiving any nominations for American Madness spurred Capra to make, in Columbia head Harry Cohn's words, "arty junk," the kind of films that usually win awards. To achieve his goal, Capra chose a tragic romance set in an exotic location, and as his actress and proxy for the audience, he chose Stanwyck. It was their third film together, and probably their best, but it was atypical for both of them. There is a good deal of sensitivity present here, a dreamy, melodramatic overcast that lends the film a haunting quality that sticks in your mind.

Stanwyck plays Megan Davis, a New England gal, newly arrived in Shanghai to marry an American born doctor/missionary, who has devoted his work to saving orphans that are left behind in the midst of civil war. Megan and her husband-to-be go on a last minute rescue mission to get six abandoned children to safety, putting their wedding on hold. The streets of Shanghai are full of violence as riots tear the city apart. The crowd separates Megan and her lover, and eventually she gets knocked cold by a blow to the head in an attempt to find safe ground. When she awakes, she is in a train car, a Chinese woman looks over her, and a mysterious man stands in the shadows. He is General Yen (Nils Asther), an infamous Chinese warlord, known for his savagery and unwillingness to compromise. Taken to Yen's palace hideaway, and held against her will, Megan adamantly refuses Yen's romantic advances. But at night she dreams of Yen coming to her rescue and taking her into his arms. She sees his brutality, evident in the firing squad that executes prisoners in the courtyard outside her bedroom window, yet she also sees an intelligent individual that believes in the traditions and history of his homeland. As far as politics and religion are concerned, they have no common meeting ground, but they are both opinionated, passionate people, unafraid to express how they feel about given situations. When one of his servants betrays Yen, Megan begs him to reconsider the execution, to be merciful one time in his life. Yen gives in to Megan's wishes, and places the servant's life in Megan's hands, making the servant her responsibility. Asked why he does so, Yen replies, "I'm going to convert a missionary," and in a way, he does. The servant continues to leak information on Yen, information that brings about his downfall. His soldiers leave him, his followers flee, he is alone, broken, a vague shadow of his former self. Megan, realizing her mistake, tries to console Yen, apologizing for the damage that she has caused. For Yen, however, it is too late, his love and admiration for the American woman has made him blind to the customs that he has followed for so long. He has no honor left, and in his mind, there is only one way to resolve the situation.

The portrayal of a love between an Asian man and an American woman was considered pretty risqué back in 1933, and the commercial failure of the film is proof of the matter, but while the film may seem tame today, it should be commended for it's attempt to shatter such a taboo topic. Capra is respectful of the material and it's setting, as he would be four years later with Lost Horizon, and he is sure to point out how ridiculous and unfair it can be for the people of one nation to try and force it's beliefs and customs on the people of another. It's easy to think of Yen as the bad guy, because in essence he does kidnap Megan, but it is she that is the real villain of the story. Her ignorance and naiveté ruin Yen. She doesn't mean to do so, but that doesn't change the fact that their lives alter for the worse because of it. Capra was a faithful subscriber to the belief of "The American Dream," but what made him unique, what made him special, was the fact that he was smart enough to realize that dream, at times, could impose on the dreams of others, belittling their aspirations in the process.

While Capra does a good job in what is rather unexplored territory for him (images of terror of bloodshed were not usually his forte), it is Stanwyck that keeps the viewer in tune with the film. She is at her most seductive here, and her performance goes through almost every emotional response imaginable. She is strong yet vulnerable, caring yet firm, faithful to her lover yet undeniably intrigued by Yen. Her character makes bad decisions that lead to fatal results, but we forgive her, as does Yen. Her beauty is staggering, almost suffocating, and Joseph Walker's cinematography makes the most of it. Shooting through hazy filters, Walker creates a very serene, almost surreal atmosphere that is both intoxicating and inviting. His camera loves Stanwyck, and she owns every frame that she's in. Nils Asther, born in Denmark and raised in Sweden, is surprisingly convincing as Yen. It's a difficult character, just as difficult as Stanwyck's, and he is able to convey all the complexities and unconventional characteristics in such an odd romantic leading role. Stanwyck often has the ability to overshadow even the greatest of actors ( look at Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve), but Asther is up to task. He is another good actor that is all but forgotten today.

Even though it wouldn't garner Capra the Oscar he was looking for (a year later he would make Oscar history with the better, but completely different It Happened One Night), The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a good film. It's not particularly great, but it is mature and memorable, and it's worth watching for Stanwyck. The film has it's followers (German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder paid homage with one of his greatest achievements, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) , some of which have called it Capra's greatest work. Obviously, I disagree. There are few films greater than It's a Wonderful Life, and this is not one of them. But if you can find it (it's not on DVD), watch it. There aren't many treasures in cinema that can rival the presence of Barbara Stanwyck. Happy Birthday, Barbara, you were one of a kind. On July 16, 1907, God must have been smiling when you came into the world. One hundred years later, film lovers everywhere still smile at the joy you bring them. Thank you.

Monday, July 9, 2007

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Written & Directed by: John Cassavetes
Starring: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk

Color, 155 minutes

Grade: A+

John Cassavetes. Anyone who loves cinema, whether they've seen his films or not, knows the name. His reputation has established him, quite rightly, as the father of independent cinema in America. As an actor he was notorious for hating directors and taking roles simply for the money. As a writer/director, he is famous for the way that he pushed actors, audiences, and himself to new heights. While watching one of his films you become immediately aware that you have never seen anything quite like it, and that you are in the hands of a man who lived and breathed cinema. Personally, I've always considered myself a modest fan of his work; I liked Shadows, I saw the talent and unique spirit in Faces even though I felt the film was more than a bit dated, and I was won over by the low key, character driven narrative in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Now I've just seen 1974's A Woman Under the Influence, and it's finally become apparent to me just how much of a genius this man was, for it is this film that encapsulates everything that Cassavetes stood for as a filmmaker. One of the greatest films of the 1970's, A Woman Under the Influence is a masterpiece of personal filmmaking.

The story focuses on Nick and Mabel Longhetti, played by Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes' wife and most frequent collaborator), a married couple living in Los Angeles. Nick is a construction supervisor; Mabel stays at home to care for their three children. As the film opens, we see Nick and his coworkers leaving work. They stop to get a quick beer before heading home, but while sitting there, a phone call comes through telling them they have to work a double shift. Nick gets on the telephone and begins shouting. "I have an unbreakable date," he says forcefully, "with my wife." Nick continues to shout over the receiver for a few more minutes before hanging up. His coworkers applaud his performance and thank him for telling off the boss. They all finish their drinks, and get back on the road to start another long shift. At home, Mabel is unaware that Nick will be late coming home. She's getting the children ready for a stay with their grandmother (Lady Rowlands, Gena's mother). The children rush out the door, piling, one by one, into grandma's car. Mabel, frantically hopping around on one foot, packs the kids' things into the trunk, yelling at everyone to hurry up and be careful. Once everything is ready to go, Mabel lectures and scolds her mother for a good three minutes about keeping the kids safe. "I don't want you to be chickenshit and not calling me," Mabel shouts at her mother. That's normally not a very effective way to get a message across to someone who carried you in her womb for nine months, but grandma quietly nods in agreement. Mabel kisses the kids and waves them off, then rushes back into the house to prepare for an evening with her husband. Nick, however, is nervous about calling Mabel, afraid of what she'll do when she hears the bad news. A coworker comforts Nick, but then makes the mistake of calling Mabel crazy. "Mabel's not crazy," Nick says unconvincingly, "she's unusual." Taking a few moments to muster up the courage, Nick proceeds with the phone call. To his surprise, Mabel isn't upset, she doesn't scream, she doesn't argue, she just tells Nick that everything is alright. The phone conversation ends, Nick goes to work, and Mabel heads out for a night on the town.

In a bar, Mabel meets a man named Garson Cross (affectionately played by O.G. Dunn). He buys her a drink, and the two go back to her place. She's visibly drunk and she begins to fight him off, but Cassavetes effectively cuts quickly to the next morning, with Mabel lying in bed, and Cross wandering around the house. "Nick," she screams while rushing into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. Cross, bewildered, follows her and yells at her through the door. She rushes out of the bathroom and speaks to Cross as if nothing unusual has taken place, in fact, she refers to him as Nick. The real Nick, however, is on his way home, and he's brought along his coworkers for a late dinner/early breakfast. The workers pile through the door of the Longhetti house, and the audience notices that there is no sign of Garson Cross. Did he leave on his own? Did Mabel kick him out? Does this sort of thing happen quite often? Is Mabel even aware of it? Cassavetes keeps us in the dark, he doesn't spoon feed us. He keeps the attention on Mabel's interaction with Nick's coworkers. She introduces herself to them, slowly shaking each hand. She knows some of these men, she remembers them. Others tell her that they've met in the past, one even says he had dinner there only two weeks ago. "I remember your wife," Mabel says, "but I don't remember you." Nick's coworkers know that Mabel is a little kooky and they try to be respectful, but it becomes increasingly difficult for them not to laugh. Nick does his best to take it in stride, but at times he blows his top. During the meal, Mabel begins to ask some of the men if they want to dance. Each man refuses while throwing a glance at Nick. Mabel does her best to persuade them, to no avail. She gets in their faces, even complimenting one of the men on his handsome face. Nick, finally having enough, shouts at her. "Get your ass down," he screams at her, and the table begins to clear out. The men say thank you to both Mabel and Nick, and then leave.

This spaghetti scene takes place very early, but it is essential to the film's success. The scene is a microcosm of this couple's entire relationship. Mabel is a friendly person who tries to be nice and welcoming of everyone, but she becomes too much to handle. Calling her crazy wouldn't be accurate, she's just too frenetic, she gets lost in her own head. She says weird things, but she doesn't mean any harm. She mumbles to herself, but it's almost as if too many thoughts are running through her mind at one time and when she reaches out to latch onto to one of them, she finds it impossible to process. Nick obviously loves her, and understands her. Cassavetes proves this to us by cutting back and forth from her exasperated expressions to his reassuring nods and winks. Unfortunately, Nick, like anyone, has his breaking point, and when breached, he explodes. He tolerates as much as he can, but he's always beat out by his own temper. In this one, seemingly simple scene, Cassavetes manages to give us the entire history of this relationship.

After the spaghetti breakfast, the film pushes on rather quickly. Nick takes his mother (Katherine Cassavetes, John's mom) to the doctor, Mabel waits for her children at the bus stop, shouting at people to tell her the time of day. She brings the children home, and has a party for them, inviting a few local kids to come and play. Mr. Jensen (Mario Gallo) brings the kids over, and after witnessing Mabel's unusual personality, decides to take his children home. Unfortunately for him, Mabel has sent the children to find some costumes and play dress up. Jensen is in the process of getting his children dressed when Nick returns, his mother in tow. Nick, seeing his daughter running around naked, becomes angry and rushes upstairs to find Mabel. She's there, of course, but so is Mr. Jensesn, struggling with his children. Nick blows his lid, slaps Mabel, and gets into a fight with Jensen. With Jensen and his children gone, Nick nurses his bloody lip, and calls the doctor to come over and try to figure out what's going on with Mabel. She's uncannily calm, though, acting normal, and then the doctor shows up, sending her into a fit. Nick tries to keep her calm, but his mother throws fuel onto the fire. Yelling at the doctor to give Mabel a shot, Nick's mother is certainly not helping matters. Nick does his best, but he gives in to his mother, and after Mabel finally has her meltdown, disintegrating into tears, the doctor gives her an injection and informs her that she will be committed to an institution.

This first half is so incredibly wrenching that we wonder if there is any hope in this story at all. Cassavetes will never give us an easy way out, but he's not a pessimist. We see Nick struggle to be a good father, but he seems to forget that his children are still children. At the beach, he shouts at them, almost forcing them to play and have a good time. In the bed of a truck, he opens a six-pack and lets the children pass a can around. The audience gets the feeling that maybe it's Nick that should have been committed, not Mabel. She may have had a few screws loose, but she never put anyone in danger, she never hurt a soul. Eventually, six months later, Mabel does return home, noticeably changed by her treatment. She tells stories of shock therapy, but her family refuses to listen. She's home, that's all that matters. Nick, however, is not content. He wants the old Mabel. He wants the way she used to sputter at people, the way she would flick her thumb. He wants to listen to her broken, unintelligible sentences; he wants to see her hop around energetically, yelling at everyone to "have fun." He misses these things, and he realizes he was wrong to send her away. He loved her the way she was, warts and all, and after a heartbreaking climax, Cassavetes finds a way to leave his audience on a high note. In a film full of shouting, Cassavetes leads his characters, and audience, to a quiet, reflective place that puts everything into perspective.

Cassavetes' films always featured a high caliber of acting, and this one is no exception. Rowland's, even today, is unable to give a bad performance, but her work here is a landmark. Cassavetes gives her the role of a lifetime, and she nails it. She's a force of nature, and Mabel's breakdown is one of the most compelling scenes that I've ever witnessed. But with all the heaps of praise that have been thrown at Rowlands for her performance, Falk often gets the short end of the stick. Always a consummate professional, Falk has a special way of keeping audiences glued to their seats. Whether he was playing Columbo, doing great character work like he does here, or even playing an angelic version of himself in Wim Wenders' masterful Wings of Desire, Falk is always at the top of his game. In many ways, he has the harder role here. It's easy for audiences to hate his character, and he knows this, so he makes sure we see the understanding in his face, the love in his eyes. Nick is an asshole, sure, but he's not a horrible person. Because of his anger, the film is often seen as a kind of feminist parable, but it is inaccurate to try to peg it as such. Pretend that the title of the film is A Man Under Pressure, and the film takes on an entirely different meaning.

The fact is that Nick and Mabel are right for each other. As individuals, they are impossible, but together, they complete each other. Each one makes up for the others flaws, and they are able to function. They love their children, and they love each other. It may not be a perfect situation, but somehow it works. In Nick's care, the children get drunk, but when Mabel is around, the parents work as a unit, and they are able to keep each other in check. It doesn't take a genius to raise a child, nor does it necessarily take what we consider to be "sane" individuals, it takes love and understanding. Once you have that, the rest, no matter how unlikely, seems to fall into place. Cassavetes knew this and one wonders how much of this material comes from his own life. It's not out of convenience that he cast his mother and mother-in-law, it's not an accident that Nick and Mabel have three children (Cassavetes and Rowland did also). Cassavetes, contrary to popular belief, was not that improvisational, his words, his characters, and his actions were all very deliberate. Maybe he was a man under the influence of the powers of cinema, and maybe it took Rowlands to understand him. They had a love that was as unbreakable as Nick and Mabel's, and it boiled over into their work. This is their crowning achievement.