Passage to Marseille (1944)
Starts in war-time England, flashes back to a ship en route to free France, and then within that flashback flashes back to the Devil’s Island prison colony, which flashback-within-a-flashback itself dissolves into a flashback to yet an earlier period on Devil’s Island. It was at this point, watching the movie on TV as a kid one weekend afternoon, that I started feeling giddy. Sadly it doesn’t keep going backward but laboriously returns layer by layer to the narrative present where something finally happens.
The Thief (1952)
Ray Milland, on the run after having stolen atomic secrets for the Communists, struggles with his conscience while waiting in a shabby Upper West Side apartment for an all-important phone call. To heighten the claustrophobic isolation of his hiding-out–and his betrayal–ambient sounds are used throughout the movie but not one word of dialogue is heard.
Lady in the Lake (1947)
As the publicity for its French release put it, “ROBERT MONTGOMERY and YOU” star in this murder mystery shot entirely from the detective’s viewpoint so that you never see his face but only–as the Times reviewer reported–“a hand reaching toward a door knob, or lighting a cigarette or lifting a glass, or a door moving toward you as though it might come right out of the screen.” The same technique was used later that year for the opening of Dark Passage, in which a wrongly convicted Humphrey Bogart escapes from San Quentin and with the help of a friendly plastic surgeon alters his face beyond recognition into that of Humphrey Bogart.
B.S. Latrodectus Mactans Productions/Infernatron Animation Concepts, Canada. Cosgrove Watt, P. A. Heaven, Everard Maynell, Pam Heath; partial animation; 35 mm.; 65 minutes; black and white; sound. The figure of Death (Heath) presides over the front entrance of a carnival sideshow whose spectators watch performers undergo unspeakable degradations so grotesquely compelling that the spectators’ eyes become larger and larger until the spectators themselves are transformed into gigantic eyeballs in chairs, while on the other side of the sideshow tent the figure of Life (Heaven) uses a megaphone to invite fairgoers to an exhibition in which, if the fairgoers consent to undergo unspeakable degradations, they can witness ordinary persons gradually turn into gigantic eyeballs. INTERLACE TELENT FEATURE CARTRIDGE #357-65-65
The Cage describes the adventures of a “mad” artist. In a symbolic or real self-mutilation, he takes out his own eye,
which immediately escapes from his studio and into an open field and then meanders through San Francisco. His blinding is accompanied by complete schizophrenia. He alternates with his double throughout the film.
His girlfriend, who is also his model, frightened by his mad groping around his studio for the lost eye, gets a doctor. The girl, the doctor, and one of the two protagonists then chase around the city after the eye. Throughout the film the perspective alternates between that of the pursuers and that of the eye itself. The eye’s vision is filmed through an anamorphically distorted lens.
The strategy of the doctor is to catch the eye and destroy it. To save the eye, the double has to thwart the doctor's attacks with darts and rifles. Eventually the eye is recovered, and the schizophrenic becomes the original young man. His first act as a reunited man is to knock out the doctor who otherwise would have ruined his recovery, and presumably, taken the girl.
In a deliberately parodic ending, the artist and girl walk off hand in hand. He embraces her in a field, and she flies out of his arms into a tree.
Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000, P. Adams Sitney
still from The Cage
In one of the Marx Brothers’ films a man, thinking he is about to take a woman in his arms, ends up with a cow which moos. And through a combination of circumstances too long to relate, at that moment that same moo assumes an intellectual dignity equal to a woman’s cry.
We soon learn more about Jacqueline’s disappearance and the satanic cult she has become involved with in Greenwich Village, but these mysteries tend to get sidetracked by small discrepancies of plot and motivation, and by erratic strands of dialogue. Tom Conway, the real-life alcoholic who plays Dr. Judd, at one point irrelevantly remarks to a receptionist that he doesn’t treat alcoholics: “Dipsomania can be rather sordid.” We hear nothing further of dipsomania or the receptionist’s problem (her father drinks), but this odd exchange contributes to our sense throughout the film that people are saying anything that comes into their heads, and that the apparent mysteries of the plot are perhaps only a smokescreen for other, ill-defined ones. We gradually get the feeling that the ground under our feet is unstable.
Why is taxidermy necessarily a ghoulish hobby? Are stuffed birds in a motel’s back parlor dead giveaways of an aberrant mind? First, a passing motorist, then a wily detective, takes one glance at seven stuffed heads and becomes either queasy or intrigued by the psychological significance (“What kind of a warped personality is this?”). The great suspicion is that the haunted house, California Gothic, is going to scare people. Having picked such a Casper-the-Ghost, turretted antique, a cliché before Charles Addams stamped it to death, his choice isn’t justified by anything more daring, unexpected, against the grain than the Abbott-Costello rudimentary Eeeeek. Forget the faky mother-mummy down in the wine cellar, a-rocking with one hand on each knee, a stock old-lady wig on a stock skull (the viewer is supposed to faint), the most contrived scene is the head-floating-backward of a stabbed detective falling downstairs. Hitchcock and his devoted auteurists have sewed and sold this time-expanded scene a dozen times.
Taking this “classic” apart, scene by scene, is pointless because the horror elements have dried up (with the exception of the shower scene) like a mummy’s skull in the cellar. The most striking material is the humdrum day-in-the-life-of a real estate receptionist: Godardlike, anonymous rooms, bare, uncomfortable. Except for the World War II armor-plated brassiere, the opening of a girl having only her lunch hour to be in bed with hardware swain is raunchy, elegant. The scenes later are even better: packing the bags (there’s something wonderful about the drabness) and the folks from her office, off to lunch, passing in front of the embezzler’s car: the little smile and wave, and then, nearly out of the camera’s range, the doubletake.
The movie is really about a strangely unhealthy tactility. All physical matter seems to be coated: buildings are encased in grids and glass, rooms are lined with marble and drapes, girls are sculpted by body stockings, metallic or velour-like materials. A subtle pornography seems to be the point, but it is obtained by the camera slithering like an eel over statuesque women from ankle across thigh around hips to shoulder and down again. Repeatedly the camera moves back to beds, but not for the purposes of exposing flesh or physical contact. What are shown are vast expanses of wrinkled satin, deep dark shadows, glistening silvery highlights. The bodies are dead, under sedation, drugged, or being moved in slow-motion stylistic embraces. Thus, there’s a kind of decadent tremor within the image as though an unseen lecherous hand were palming, sliding over not quite human humans. It’s a great movie for being transfixed on small mountains which slowly become recognizable as an orange shoulder or a hip with a silvery mini-skirt.
Probably his most influential scene was hardly noticed when Breathless appeared in 1959. While audiences were attracted to a likable, agile hood, American bitch, and the hippity-hop pace of a 1930s gangster film, the key scene was a flat, uninflected interview at Orly airport with a just-arrived celebrity author. The whole movie seemed to sit down and This Thing took place: a ducklike amateur, fiercely inadequate to the big questions, slowly and methodically trades questions and answers with the guest expert. His new movies, ten years later, rest almost entirely on this one-to-one simplicity.
This flat scene, appearing at points where other films blast out in plot-solving action, has been subtly cooling off, abstracting itself, with the words becoming like little trolley-car pictures passing back and forth across a flattened, neuterized scene. This monotony idea, which is repeated in so many crucial areas, in sculpture (Bollinger), painting (Noalnd), dance (Rainer), or underground film (Warhol), has practically washed his film away from all of its eclectic old movie moorings.
RAY: Ah, there’s good news today, friends.
BOB: Good news for you, folks, bad news for us.
RAY: We’ve done it again, and our loss is your gain.
BOB: You see, in anticipation of the Easter season, we laid in a large supply of chocolate rabbits.
RAY: These were the best chocolate rabbits money could buy. Each one was genuine chocolate, all chocolate.
BOB: Each one had a purple ribbon tied around his or her neck.
RAY: Each one was edible, real edible.
BOB: But, through the carelessness of one of our alert uniformed attendants, these chocolate rabbits were stored next to the steampipes in our overstocked surplus warehouse.
RAY: So, we are now able to offer, at a ridiculously low price, exactly twenty gross of genuine, laughably edible, all-chocolate wobblies.
Bob & Ray
As Alan walked out of Petland petless and looked down at the curb, he thought of the ideal animal to confide in. He went back and asked, “Do you have any rats?”
A rat would be perfect. He could send it murderous thoughts for hours on end and get satisfying vibes back. He was certain of it.
“We have just one.”
It didn’t look like the ideal type of rat to receive murderous thoughts, for it was mostly white with a few brown patches, but the mere knowledge that it was a rat would more than make up for its prim coloration. If he ever felt uncertain, he’d just stare at its eyes and nose and repeat the word “rat” in his mind, and he’d get a metaphorical hard-on. He just knew it.
He bought the rat. The love affair began immediately. It was torrid. That evening, they watched TV together, the rat lying spread-eagle, flat like a pancake, on Alan’s stomach. Alan was stroking its back while the rat practically purred with contentment and fell asleep.
Alan took a bath with the rat. Then he combed it and talked to it and named it Pancake. The rat’s small abrupt movements were slightly annoying, and Alan thought Pancake would look more intelligent if only he didn’t move so jerkily. That was really the pet’s only flaw: bad body language.
Alan held Pancake on his chest, his hand over the rat’s back, his fingers around the rat’s face, to hold it in place and prevent it from making those movements that made Pancake look as though he had Parkinson’s disease. Alan stared into the rat’s eyes and said, “What do you think? Should I kill them? Should I?” He stared deeper into the little black eyes that reminded Alan of periods.
Love Creeps by Amanda Filipacchi