Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Blue Angel (1930)

The Blue Angel was the first of the Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich films but it stands apart from the others. It was made in Germany at Ufa Studios (with both German and English language versions being shot in Germany) and it was on the strength of its success that von Sternberg and Dietrich ended up at Paramount.

Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) teaches at the local gymnasium (the German equivalent of a high school). He is a pompous and faintly ridiculous figure but he has an orderly respectable life which suits him. He is alarmed to discover that his pupils have been sneaking into the notorious Blue Angel night-club, to watch the rather lascivious performances of the famous Lola Lola (Dietrich). The Professor sets off for the Blue Angel to put a stop to this, and there he encounters Lola Lola herself. She flirts with him outrageously, having decided that he’s rather sweet.

Rath becomes obsessed by Lola Lola, with ultimately disastrous consequences.

Emil Jannings was a huge star in Germany at the time and the movie was intended as a star vehicle for him. Marlene Dietrich had been making films for several years but was still unknown even in Germany. The Blue Angel would change all that. After this film she was a certified international star and Paramount was soon waving cheque books in front of her.

Jannings was a fine actor but was still fairly locked into the silent era style of acting. That doesn’t really matter since this is a Josef von Sternberg movie and Jannings’ performance simply gives it more of the stylised feel that was von Sternberg’s trademark. Dietrich was clearly much more comfortable with the sound film medium, and that’s an advantage as well. Her more relaxed, ironic performance offers the right contrast.

There are elements of melodrama here but to a large extent the story plays out as farce, and it actually is very funny at times.

The conventional way to approach The Blue Angel is to see Lola Lola as a femme fatale who lures poor Professor Rath to his doom. That conventional view can be defended but what makes it such an interesting film is that all the evidence in favour of the conventional view is open to quite different interpretations.

When you watch the film carefully however that conventional view doesn’t quite stand up. When they first meet Lola Lola does have some fun at his expense but it seems to be good-natured flirtatious fun. When she goes up the spiral staircase in her dressing room, undresses and then tosses her panties down at him you could see that as the first stage in her plan to degrade him. In fact it’s much more likely that in her world this is a perfectly normal thing to do - she is used to dealing with men who take such things in their stride because that’s how her world works. She can’t be expected to understand that poor Rath has probably never seen a pair of ladies’ panties before, much less had a pair dropped on him. She’s simply being herself.

When she tells him that she thinks he’s sweet, I think we can take that at face value. She flirts with him, but she’s not teasing him in a cruel way. She not only sleeps with him but gives the impression that she enjoyed it. She doesn’t mock him. She behaves the way you’d expect a woman to behave if she’s just spent the night with a man she’s fond of. She’s playful and affectionate. She really does feel a weird (even possibly perverse) attraction to him, but the attraction seems to be there.

When he proposes to her she bursts out laughing but then she realises that he actually means it and she accepts. I think it’s important to note that she in no way manipulates him into marriage and she has nothing to gain from the marriage. She’s not trying to gain respectability - she is from first to last indifferent to respectability. She doesn’t marry him for his money because he doesn’t have any.

The wedding night scene gives the impression that she not only intends to have normal marital sexual relations with him but that she’s looking forward to it. There is not the slightest suggestion that she feels any distaste for the idea of sleeping with him.

The notorious scene in which he puts her stockings on for her can be read as a sign of the degradation to which his obsession has reduced him, but Lola Lola does not really mock him. She accepts the act of physical intimacy the way one would expect a wife to accept such an act from her husband, and again there’s nothing to suggest that she is denying him other acts of intimacy.

She does of course end by destroying him, but I don’t think she ever had the slightest intention of doing so. What destroys the Professor is that he has tried to move from one world to another, to move from the world of order and respectability to the world of carefree fun and pleasure and he is simply not equipped to survive in that world. That’s not Lola Lola’s fault. It was a tragic error of judgment on Rath’s part, and if he’d been more worldly he could have had the best of both worlds - he could have secretly married Lola Lola or set her up as his mistress. But he’s not capable of doing that. It is he who insists on publicly marrying her and publicly proclaiming her as his wife. And when he starts to fall apart it’s because he cannot adapt to her world. Lola Lola has offered him what she has to give and it’s not her fault that it fails to make him happy. And remember, she never asked him to marry her and she was obviously happy to sleep with him without being married to him. She did not entice him into marriage by holding out the promise of sex to him.

I think it’s almost certain that Lola Lola has much more affection for Rath than von Sternberg does. It’s clear that von Sternberg sees him as a pompous authority figure who deserves to be taken down. It’s also just possible that much of the complexity of Lola Lola’s character comes from Dietrich’s extraordinarily sensitive performance.

If von Sternberg had wanted us to see Lola Lola as a cruel wanton destroyer of men you have to ask yourself why he passed up countless opportunities to indicate that Lola Lola despises Rath. In fact in scene after scene we see her treating him with kindness and love, and even being protective towards him. She actually appears to love him. Until the very end, when Rath’s self-destructiveness has reached epic proportions, there’s no clear indication that she has stopped loving him. Perhaps she has affairs, but for Lola Lola giving her body is not the same as giving her heart. And again one has to ask, if Lola Lola has been betraying Rath why does von Sternberg not include anything to indicate specifically that this is so?

Perhaps the best clue to the relationship is the line from her famous song from the movie (known in English of course as Falling In Love Again) - “Men swarm around me like moths to a flame/and if their wings get burnt, I can't be blamed.” Professor Rath should never have tried to leave his own world, but he freely chose to do so.

I think that seeing Lola Lola as a woman who destroys a man accidentally rather than deliberately makes the film a lot more interesting. And it makes her a much more fascinating and complex character. What makes it even more interesting is that while Lola Lola may not be a scheming femme fatale she is certainly a woman who lives uncompromisingly for pleasure. Adding another layer of complexity to the movie is that we’re not necessarily meant to condemn her for this, in fact we may be meant to admire her for it. My take on Lola Lola is that she’s a woman who wants to give love as well as receive it and that Rath is the first man who has actually wanted more from her than sex.

A lot of people will insist on seeing this movie as having some political message related to the rise of the Nazis. There’s really not the slightest reason to think that von Sternberg had any such intentions.

This movie has plenty of von Sternberg visual style (including some very definite Expressionist touches). An interesting point is that von Sternberg based Lola Lola’s kinky fetishistic look on the kinky fetishistic paintings of the Belgian Symbolist painter Félicien Rops.

The Eureka release includes both the German and English versions. It’s important to note that the English version is not a dubbed version. The entire film was shot twice, once in German and once in English. There are some differences between the two versions. It’s almost universally acknowledged that the German version is the superior version. The English version is slightly toned down. One of the many reasons for preferring the German version is that the German words to Falling In Love Again are Lola Lola telling us exactly what sort of woman she is, and this is completely lost in the English lyrics. The German lyrics to the song explain the whole movie.

The Blue Angel is a bona fide masterpiece that lives up to its reputation. Very highly recommended.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Pandora's Box (1929)

Louise Brooks is of course a cinema legend, and that legend rests entirely on the two films she made in Germany in 1929. She made more than a dozen movies in Hollywood during the 20s, and that part of her career amounts to nothing. The eight later movies she made amount to nothing. But her performances in the two German films directed by G.W. Pabst, Pandora's Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) and Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer Verlorenen) have led to her being hailed as one of the greats.

Lulu, the heroine of Pandora's Box, is the mistress of Dr Ludwig Schön (Fritz Kortner). Schön is planning to marry a very respectable very suitable girl, Charlotte Marie Adelaide von Zarnikow. But giving up Lulu is going to be tricky. He doesn’t really want to give her up and she doesn’t want to let him go. There’s a strange old man who keeps hanging around Lulu, a rather sinister but as yet unexplained figure.

There are complications with Schön’s son and with Lulu’s best friend who appears to have a lesbian infatuation with Lulu.

The situation gets very messy and ends with a man dead of a gunshot wound, and with Lulu on trial for her life. But Lulu’s story is far from over.

It is difficult not to compare Pandora's Box to The Blue Angel. Apart from the names of the lead characters (Lulu in Pandora's Box and Lola Lola in The Blue Angel) there are many striking similarities. Both deal with women who ignore the social and sexual conventions of their time. Both have show business backgrounds. Both deal with men destroyed by a dangerous woman. Both deal with the immense power of female sexuality. The two films he made with Brooks were the peak of Pabst’s career while the seven films he made with Marlene Dietrich were the peak of von Sternberg’s career. Both directors slept with their respective leading ladies, so both actresses could claim to be both muse and lover to their directors. Both films are entirely dependent on the performances of their respective leading ladies. Both actresses were, in their private lives, sexual outlaws. And both Louise Brooks and Marlene Dietrich became stylistic icons as a result of these two films.

There are significant differences. Pabst was a believer in realism, von Sternberg believed in style, style and nothing but style. Pandora's Box plays as melodrama laced with tragedy. The Blue Angel is comedy laced with melodrama.

For such a legendary star Louise Brooks had a catastrophic film career. She also had what could be described as a colourful if frequently catastrophic life. She started as a dancer, broke into films, destroyed her own film career (by being totally unwilling to play by the rules and also as a result of her prodigious sexual appetites), she spent a lengthy period working as a call girl before being rediscovered and finding success as a writer (her book Lulu in Hollywood was a bestseller).

Writing about Pandora’s Box presents some challenges. The movie was not a success when it was released and it was soon forgotten. And within a few years of its release Louise Brooks was entirely forgotten. Both the movie and its star were rediscovered in the late 1950s. When obscure and forgotten movies or stars get rediscovered people tend to get rather carried away. It’s not very exciting to rediscover a forgotten film and find that it is in fact a fairly good film, but not a masterpiece. People want to believe that they have rediscovered a lost masterpiece. And when an obscure actress is suddenly rediscovered people don’t want to believe that she was a reasonably good actress, they want to believe that she was one of the all-time greats who had been unfairly forgotten.

And that’s the problem with Pandora’s Box. It’s a good movie and it’s an interesting one but it isn’t a masterpiece. Pabst was a stodgy director and the pacing is also lethargic. Lulu is a manipulative woman who isn’t clever enough to be a successful manipulator. She does foolish things and gets herself into big trouble and from then on it’s all downhill for her. Her life becomes a series of endless disasters. But she just doesn’t have quite enough psychological complexity to make her story compelling, and from the halfway point she’s really just an appalled spectator watching her life go down the drain. The losers with whom she surrounds herself drag her down but we don’t get a real sense of tragedy because Lulu just drifts helplessly. The ending is silly and melodramatic.

Brooks gives a very competent rather naturalistic performance but the idea that is sometimes promoted that she single-handedly revolutionised film acting just doesn’t stand up.

Had Brooks declined the role Pabst’s second choice would have been Marlene Dietrich. The conventional view is that it’s fortunate for the world of cinema that Dietrich was not chosen. I do not agree. Dietrich was a far better actress with a much greater emotional range and might have made far more of the role.

The main interest of the film, and perhaps the real reason that people get carried away with it, is that the story of Lulu strikingly parallels the story of its star. A brief period of shining brightly, then disaster, followed by escalating self-inflicted further disasters and a descent into degradation and prostitution. And neither Lulu nor Brooks ever seemed to understand what went wrong. It’s easy, and tempting, to romanticise both Lulu and Brooks and to try to make them tragic figures brought down by a hostile world which cannot understand their refusal to avoid self-destruction. The fact that both Lulu and Brooks were driven by an overwhelming desire for sexual freedom naturally ensured that both film and star would become legendary figures in the 1960s and 1970s, seen as bold precursors of the Sexual Revolution.

There is no question that Louise Brooks, more than any other woman, captured the look of the Jazz Age. She had the face that suited the fashionable bob hairstyle, she had the body to wear the fashions of the era and she certainly had sexual allure, at a time when her kind of overt sexual allure was becoming a very big thing. It’s worth seeing Pandora's Box just to see Brooks at her most iconic. When you see this movie you’ll understand why the Louise Brooks look was a sensation. But while it’s an interesting movie it’s not a masterpiece. Worth a look.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

A Woman’s Secret (1949)

A Woman’s Secret, released by RKO in 1949, was Nicholas Ray’s second film as a director. It’s been released in the Warner Archive series with Film Noir boldly blazoned on the disc cover. Whether it actually qualifies as a film noir is something we’ll get to in due course.

The movie opens with a shooting. Singing star Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame) finishes a radio spot and goes home where Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara) is waiting for her. Susan announces that she’s quitting her singing career. The two women quarrel. Susan runs upstairs in tears. Marian follows her into her room. A shot is heard. The housekeeper races upstairs to find that Susan has been shot. The police arrive and Marian tells them that she shot Susan.

Susan isn’t dead but the doctors say her survival is going to be touch and go.

The backstory slowly unfolds in a series of flashbacks. Marian had been a fine singer, headed for stardom, when she contracted a throat infection which ended her career. Shortly afterwards Marian and her accompanist (and apparently her fiancé in a very vague and informal way) Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas) discover starving (literally starving) would-be singer Susan Caldwell. Susan has a sensational voice and clearly has the potential to be the big star that Marian never became.

Susan becomes a very big star indeed, with Marian and Luke managing her career. Marian in particular acts as her mentor.

Which gives Marian a plausible motive for trying to kill her - if Susan quit singing Marian would lose her meal ticket.

It seems an open-and-shut case but Luke refuses to believe that Marian shot Susan. The detective in charge of the case, Inspector Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) has to admit that he’s not entirely happy with Marian’s confession. But if Marian didn’t shoot Susan who did?

The first thing that needs to be cleared up about this movie is that its claims to being film noir are very thin indeed. It does star Gloria Grahame who was certainly a bona fide film noir icon but that is not enough to qualify this as a film noir. It’s a mystery melodrama. Not that there’s anything wrong with mystery melodramas.

Gloria Grahame is of course superb. She always was. She’s so good (and at times so adorable) that you have to feel sorry for Maureen O’Hara. She’s very good but she’s inevitably overshadowed by Miss Grahame. Everybody in the cast is overshadowed by Gloria Grahame. She plays Susan as not quite a bad girl, but one who is impulsive and unpredictable and at times manipulative. Susan is just trouble, even though she’s not really aware of it at times. Mostly she’s young and immature and has no idea what she’s doing and she gets away with it because she’s beautiful and talented.

Melvyn Douglas is OK. Jay C. Flippen (one of those wonderful old character actors) and as Inspector Fowler and Mary Philips as his would-be amateur detective wife are fun.

I have to put on record the fact that I have mixed feelings about Nicholas Ray as a director. I like They Live By Night (which is more romantic melodrama than film noir) and Born To Be Bad and I love In a Lonely Place but Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause leave me cold and I thought Party Girl was embarrassingly bad. For me Nicholas Ray is a director who started promisingly but whose career went off the rails a bit. It’s undeniable however that he was very good at melodrama.

Herman J. Mankiewicz (yes, the guy who wrote Citizen Kane) wrote the screenplay and it has some problems. The solution to the mystery is blindingly obvious right from the start, even with some feeble attempts at misdirection. The script is, quite frankly, a bit of a mess.

The movie has other major problems. It gives the impression that either Nicholas Ray wasn’t sure what kind of movie he was making or maybe that studio interference caused the movie to be wildly inconsistent in tone. Maybe Ray just lost control. It starts as a slightly noirish melodrama but then it becomes almost a screwball comedy for a while before uneasily reverting to being a mystery.

The Warner Archive release offers a very good transfer without any extras.

A Woman’s Secret is a movie that seems to have been thrown together without any real thought as to what it was supposed to be. It just doesn’t quite work on any level. It actually might have worked better as an out-and-out comedy. Only worth seeing for Gloria Grahame’s extremely interesting and rather complex performance. For that it’s worth a rental.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Time Is My Enemy (1954)

Time Is My Enemy is a British crime B-picture included in Kino Lorber’s British Noir II boxed set. It was released by Vandyke Pictures in 1954.

The movie opens with the robbery of a jewellery store in which the jeweller is shot. Inspector Wayne (Duncan Lamont) is certain it’s the work of a gang he’s been after for quite a while. All he needs is some evidence.

Inspector Wayne’s publisher friend John Everton (Patrick Barr) and his wife Barbara Everton (Renée Asherton) are about to get unwittingly mixed up in this sordid crime.

Barbara Everton had been married before but her husband Martin was killed in a bomb blast during the war. Nobody, least of all Barbara, regretted his death. Martin Radley was definitely a wrong ’un. Now she and John are happily married with a son and they face a bright future. At least they face a bright future unless something really awful were to happen - something like Martin Radley turning out to be alive after all.

The only thing that could make such a ghastly situation worse would be if Martin Radley now happened to be a desperate jewel thief (who calls himself Harry Bond among other aliases) who has just shot a man, a man who might well die. And if he decided that his only chance of survival was to blackmail Barbara.

Barbara doesn’t know what to do and as is the case with so many movie protagonists just about everything she does do turns out to be poorly thought out and likely to make a bad situation worse.

Don Chaffey was a competent director who went on to have a successful career in television in Britain, Australia and the United States. His feature films included the disappointing slightly noirish sleaze thriller The Flesh Is Weak.

Screenwriter Allan MacKinnon had a not overly distinguished career (which included the reasonably effective railway spy thriller Sleeping Car to Trieste) before his premature death a year after this film was released. His screenplay for Time Is My Enemy is a bit contrived but it’s quite clever.

The big attraction here is Dennis Price as Martin. Price was a wonderful actor who could be charming or amusing or sinister or even downright vicious as the occasion demanded. In this case he’s a nasty piece of work indeed. He’s an out-and-out cad and Dennis Price makes a fine cad.

Renée Asherton as Barbara, Duncan Lamont as the policeman who gets emotionally entangled and Patrick Barr as the well-meaning husband all provide solid support but the movie belongs to Dennis Price.

Is it film noir? Thematically I think it does have some legitimate claims to being noir - we have a protagonist drawn into a nightmare world by a combination of bad luck and bad judgment. It’s also one of those noir films (and there were quite a few) in which a male character acts as the equivalent of a femme fatale.

Time Is My Enemy
gets a good transfer from Kino Lorber. The transfer is fullframe which is quite correct and it’s in black-and-white.

The Kino Lorber British Noir II set also includes the disappointing The Interrupted Journey and the very good Cosh Boy and The Vicious Circle as well as Time Lock which I’ve not yet watched.

Time Is My Enemy is a decent little not-quite-noir but noirish B-movie and it’s recommended for Dennis Price’s performance.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Camille (1921)

The 1921 Metro Pictures silent version of Camille starring Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino has been overshadowed by the 1936 Greta Garbo version. While Garbo’s Camille is unquestionably one of the greatest romance movies ever made the 1921 version is in many ways a much more extraordinary movie. It is a bizarre masterpiece, but it is a masterpiece.

Camille is of course based on the immensely popular 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias) by Alexandre Dumas fils.

Marguerite Gautier (Nazimova) is the most celebrated courtesan in Paris. Young Armand Duval (Valentino) falls in love with her and wants to marry her. His father, a man of wealth and high social position, is horrified. Marguerite is, after all, a prostitute.

And Marguerite is very ill. She has consumption and it is highly likely she will not live.

It’s not a complicated plot but it’s more than sufficient to make this one of the great love stories.

Alla Nazimova was, for a brief moment, a very very big Hollywood star indeed. In the early 1920s she took complete control of her own career (and she had the star power to do so) and began producing her own movies. And, according to some accounts, she was in practice the director as well. She then made a couple of movies which were spectacular flops but which later came to be recognised as masterpieces of a very strange and fascinating kind. The most notorious of these movies was her unbelievably outrageous 1922 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s already outrageous play Salomé. Her career as a star was over by the mid-20s.

Whether Nazimova was a great actress or a terrible actress is an irrelevant question. Nazimova was Nazimova. She invented her own style. Pete Townshend once said that Keith Moon was the world’s greatest Keith Moon-style drummer. You could just as accurately say that Nazimova was the greatest Nazimova-style actress of all time. Whether you like her style or not it certainly attracts attention. Camille is a Nazimova movie. It has her fingerprints all over it.

As extraordinary as Nazimova was you could argue that the real star of this movie is art director and costume designer Natacha Rambova. The look of Camille is entirely Rambova’s work and it’s one of the most visually stunning movies ever made. If you think you love art deco all I can say is that you haven’t seen art deco until you’ve seen Natacha Rambova’s interpretation of art deco.Even in an age of extraordinary women Rambova was something special. She was a true visionary. The word genius is overused but she was a genius. She later became a distinguished Egyptologist.

She is of course more famous for having later married Valentino. Scandalous rumours about the couple and about Rambova’s alleged bisexuality abounded, most of which are almost certainly untrue. What is true is that there was nothing ordinary about either Rambova or Valentino.

Which brings us back to Nazimova, whose personal life was (you guessed it) also scandalous and flamboyant. She almost certainly was bisexual. And in the case of Nazimova her sexuality really is relevant to an appreciation of her as an actress. Exotic ambiguous flamboyant sexuality was an integral part of her style.

As for Valentino, he was in my view a remarkably underrated actor. He was first and foremost a star but given the right material the man could act.

The 1921 version of Camille is included as an extra with the Warner Home Video release of the 1936 Garbo version which makes the disc an absolute must-buy. The transfer of the 1921 version, given the fact that we’re lucky the film has survived at all, is pretty good. Which matters because this movie is such a spectacular visual experience.

The 1921 Camille has enormous historical significance. Nazimova, Natacha Rambova and Valentino are crucial figures in Hollywood (and indeed cinematic) history. If you love movies you have to sample their work. And in its own delightfully strange and idiosyncratic way it’s a great movie and a very entertaining one. It’s very very melodramatic and it’s a three-hankie weepie but it’s very highly recommended.