The Manchurian Candidate

A piece I wrote on The Manchurian Candidate for a web encyclopedia, and thus meant to be an introduction to a classic. It’s one of the ten best movies of 1962, a list seen here. –Robert Horton

I love Yen Lo. Perhaps you don’t recognize the name? Well, the brain can easily play tricks on a person, as Yen Lo knows better than anyone. Yen Lo is the bald, droopy-mustached, thoroughly malignant brainwasher, played by Khigh Dhiegh, in The Manchurian Candidate. He is a man of menace, but he delivers his evil with a twinkle in his eye—“Always with a little humor,” as he advises a fellow Cold Warrior. Although he is a bad, bad man, Yen Lo is the kind of killer who appears at the door and introduces himself (“Yen Lo—Pavlov Institute?”) with the engaging good cheer of a Shriner in town for a convention.

manchurian5Yen Lo’s perversity is bottomless. Just before toddling off to spend the afternoon shopping at Macy’s, he converses with a Russian agent as they stand in a room with the brainwashed American, Raymond Shaw, who represents their great experimental hope. Without taking a pause between thoughts, Yen Lo traverses the spectrum of philosophy and criminality as he turns his attention from chortling with the Russian to interrogating Shaw: “There’s nothing like a good laugh now and then to lighten the burden of the day. Tell me, Raymond, do you remember killing Mavole and Lembeck?” The incredible horror and fun of the character is at the heart of The Manchurian Candidate, a masterpiece of both suspense and satire.

This is a deeply, deeply twisted movie. Very few films have captured the free-fall sense of America as controlled chaos, or the political process as a facetious circus. Although it is faithful in many ways to Richard Condon’s source novel, director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod added their own quick, savvy energy to the piece, and the actors are downright exuberant in their willingness to wallow in depravity. Seen many years after its initial 1962 release, it feels like an utterly modern film. Would there have been a Dr. Strangelove—that even more outrageous assault on common decency, released a year later—without it?

Condon’s story describes the fiendish plot to program a U.S. soldier for the purposes of wreaking political havoc. Brainwashed after being taken captive in the Korean War, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is unaware of his mission. At key moments, he can be turned into a submissive zombie by clues dropped in his presence—a loaded phrase, or the sight of the queen of diamonds (a suggested game of solitaire is one of Raymond’s “triggers”). Yen Lo puts it this way: “His brain has not only been washed, as they say, it has been dry cleaned.”

Raymond moves in political circles. His mother (Angela Lansbury) is a right-wing mover and shaker, and his step-father is Senator John Yerxes Iselin. The ambitious Iselin, whose name is usually preceded by the prefix “that idiot,” is a pawn of Raymond’s mother, a woman so nightmarish, so pervasively bad, she doesn’t even have a name. These two are perhaps the most satirically poisonous politicians to come out of the cinema; they make Wag the Dog look like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. (Every once in while a critic of the film will suggest that these people are caricatures, to which I would say: try watching real Senate hearings, and then decide which is the more unbelievable.)

Iselin, portrayed with preening unctuousness by the braying character actor James Gregory, is a wicked send-up of Senator Joseph McCarthy, right down to the variable number of communists the senator claims to have on various lists. (Gregory physically resembles another red-baiting politician, Richard Nixon.) At one point, trying to decide on exactly how many communists have infiltrated the government, Raymond’s mother glances down at the ketchup bottle Iselin is using, and settles on “57,” the number of varieties in the Heinz advertising slogan. One of the many ways this film is hip is the way it uses Madison Avenue as part of its texture. Even Yen Lo gets into the act, with his reference to a jingle for Winston cigarettes—“Tastes good,” he grins, “like a cigarette should!” (The man is au courant on pop culture, even from within Manchuria.)

The Manchurian Candidate may be a brilliant political satire, but it delivers its barbs via a gripping suspense structure. A tense prologue gives us a taste of the Korean War, and a sense that Sergeant Shaw is not especially well-liked by his fellow soldiers. Thus it is strange when, back home, we see two of Shaw’s platoon members respond in precisely the same robotic way when asked about Shaw: “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” Continue reading

Jules and Jim

Jules and Jim

I wrote this piece for a program note at a college film series in 1983 and subsequently published it in The Informer. I am amused now by the worldly opening phrase, since I was a kid at the time and over 25 years have passed since then. Jules and Jim is one of my favorite movies, and this strikes me as a young person’s angle on a complex movie. For me, now, this appreciation is one of those “odd, left-behind artifacts” that the characters discover on their trek. Maybe someday I can write to the movie as a grown-up.–Robert Horton

julesposterI’ve known Jules and Jim for a few years now, and whenever anybody mentions the title, the same moment always comes to my mind first. Jules and Jim and Catherine are at their white castle, and they head into the woods—Catherine says, “Let’s find the last signs of civilization!” The three figures, dressed primarily in summery white, pick up odd, left-behind artifacts, and toss them into the air. Catherine finds a chain hanging from a tree, and swings from it. The camera prowls along the ground with them, and discovers a matchbook, a cup, a pottery shard, and, under Jules’ foot, a packet of cigarettes. During the sequence, that incomparable music is swelling on the soundtrack, music full of youth, romance, melancholy. Part of Francois Truffaut’s special gift is in capturing essential moments such as this—those moments when nothing much is happening, and yet everything matters: the quality of the sun on the grass, Catherine’s hair swirling when she shakes her head, Jim’s hand hoisting Jules’ foot. The sequence is lit by the intensity of the friendship of the three people, an intensity that will later darken the film, and their lives.

Let’s follow that sequence a bit: when Jules tells Jim he wants to marry Catherine, Jim tells Jules, “She’s a vision for all men—not just one.” Cut to Catherine, shaking her mane in rapturous close-up. Jules and Jim carry her back to the house. She takes their swimming clothes down from the line, and they ride off on bicycles. Truffaut cuts to a gorgeous long shot of the three figures riding around a curve, then to closer shots as Jim looks at the back of Catherine’s neck as she rides in front of him. At this point in the film, we are aware of the way in which Catherine is both woman and objet d’art to the two men—she is the statue that they traveled to see (and which they first encountered on a movie screen, at the slide show). They will discover that behind the mysterious smile of Catherine is a complex and unpredictable woman—a real woman, not the dry and dusty statue.

Earlier, we have seen Jules sketch a woman’s face on a café table—Jim wanted to buy the table, but the café only sold them by the dozen—and this is symptomatic of the way the two men see women. They are in love with love, and they are in love with the idea of Catherine, but the flesh-and-blood Catherine, very much a woman of her own mind, turns out to be titanically confounding. She is different from anything they know or have experienced, and in some way—the movie does not tell us, this, but we must assume it—the instability she produces makes them feel alive. When the three of them foot-race across the bridge, and Catherine, in her boy’s outfit, jumps to an early start so she can win, it is unfair. But Jules, dazzled, can only turn to Jim and say, “She’s taught me things.”

jules3Jim’s relationship with Catherine is somewhat more complicated, and more darkly shaded; something is stirred in him in that exquisite moment in her apartment when he hooks the clasp on the neck of her dress. Later he will tell her, “I like the nape of your neck—you can’t see me when I look at it,” as though he treasures the safety of that position; he can abstract the object of his love more easily when her flashing eyes aren’t looking him in the face.

Incidentally, the arc of the relationship between Catherine and Jim is marked by a nice directorial device on Truffaut’s part: Continue reading



by Robert Horton

Somewhere on the criss-crossed, free-flowing canals and waterways of world cinema, a small barge called “L’Atalante,” launched in 1934, glides along even today. It always will; the permanence of movies bestows immortality on the vessel, and on the motion picture that carries its name, and on the fevered young director who gave himself so completely to film that he died from the giving.

latalante3People like to invoke the “magic” of film, but the truth is that movies rarely soar above the nagging, earthbound requirements of plot or realism. Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, however, is a magic thing: luminous, suspended, utterly (even misleadingly) simple, much closer to a fable than a novel, and imbued with its director’s drunken infatuation with cinema. No wonder Francois Truffaut, surely the filmmaker most obviously influenced by the privileged moments of Vigo’s films, once wrote that with L’Atalante Vigo “achieved perfection, he made a masterpiece.”

It is somewhat miraculous that Vigo made the film at all. The director’s unhappy and sickly childhood was crowned by the death of his father, a left-wing radical, under mysterious circumstances while in prison for alleged wartime treason. After studying film, Vigo made two shorts, including A Propos de Nice, and then the remarkable featurette Zero de Conduite. Despite the controversy caused by the latter film, Vigo was rewarded the chance to make his first feature, from a traditional screenplay—a conventional story that Vigo promptly re-worked. Pitifully ill with chronic lung problems, Vigo had to direct some scenes from L’Atalante while lying on a cot.

The movie begins, like a proper fable, with a wedding. The blond bride, Juliette (Dita Parlo) is going off with husband Jean (Jean Daste) on his canal barge. They will travel and live with a cabin boy (Louis Lefevre) and an eccentric first mate, Pere Jules (Michel Simon), a tattooed ape-man who tells unbelievable stories of Havana, Caracas, Shanghai. On an early day on the boat, Juliette discovers that one of Jules’ many cats has had kittens in her bed— a curious omen, like an inscrutable sign in a fairy tale. Much of what follows is Juliette’s adjustment to life on the water: the lovers’ embraces and spats, the excitement of docking in Paris, the jovially peculiar world of Pere Jules. The final act of the story sees Juliette lured away by the appeal of the city, for a while, as Jean sails miserably without her.

As Truffaut observed, “Two of the major tendencies of cinema—realism and aestheticism—are reconciled in the film.” Vigo and cinematographer Boris Kaufman (the brother of Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov, and later an Oscar-winning Hollywood cameraman) capture the absolute reality of waterfronts and smokestacks and human faces, with a naturalistic eye that reflects the British documentary film movement and predicts Italian neo-realism. But through some seamless alchemy, these sights are pixillated by Vigo’s commitment to the love story, which is tender and truthful and lovely. In one of many superstitious asides, Juliette tells Jean that if you open your eyes under water, you can see the face of the person you love. This leads him to dunk his head in a bucket and then dive into the river—and also leads to a dreamlike passage late in the film, when Jean, separated from Juliette, ducks in the canal and “sees” her floating under water in her wedding dress. Continue reading

On Staring into the Camera: Aguirre and Bears

(This piece was presented as lecture to a general audience at the Seattle Art Museum following a screening of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I left it as is, so it might feel more spoken than written, which was the original idea. It’s co-published with Parallax View.)

by Robert Horton

Near the end of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s amazing documentary about a man who lived and died among bears, Herzog finds a close-up shot of a grizzly bear’s face. The shot was part of the vast amount of footage shot by Timothy Treadwell, the naïve and self-dramatizing manchild who spent 13 summers communing with Alaska’s grizzlies and ended up being eaten by them. Treadwell was someone who saw a variety of emotions and personalities in animals. Herzog, as he makes clear in his narration, sees only the absolutely blank, completely amoral cruelty of nature. Herzog’s films will do that, simply hold a shot and stare at something (or the absence of something) until any kind of sentimental or romantic effect between camera and subject is completely erased.

aguirre2And yet this device can have mysterious results. One of the greatest moments in any Herzog film comes in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, after the soldiers aboard the raft have thrown their horse into the river. After the horse scurries onto land, the camera finds him on shore, looking out of the choking jungle. The horse simply stares into the lens as the receding camera on the raft curls downriver away from it, its motion serving to slowly wipe the animal from view as the vines overtake him, abandoning him from the expedition and from the remainder of the film. But the horse, like any good actor, maintains the moment, and his blank stare, following the camera, following us, looks forward to that grizzly bear, stubbornly giving his insensate glare to the viewer.

That look into the camera is unsettling – there’s a reason that in classical filmmaking the actors are instructed not to look into the lens. It breaks the fourth wall, it implicates the viewer in the onscreen action, it’s almost naked. Of course these are the reasons Werner Herzog uses the effect in his films. He is too much of a modern filmmaker to present the world as a piece of polished storytelling. In Aguirre, he has made a film that does not merely depict the collapse of an expedition of conquistadors in 1561, but one that seems to embody that collapse, with a sense of danger threatening to break apart its frames, a grasp of storytelling that founders at times, and a lead actor who appears almost as deranged as the character he is portraying.

I want to talk about some of these aspects of the film, but let’s follow the horse for a while. You notice that Herzog keeps returning to animals in Aguirre, using animal images like a repeated musical drone that runs alongside the film’s vibrant main character and episodic plotline, which is about colonialism and its effects. Think of the prehistoric nebulousness of the sleeping creature Aguirre shows his daughter, the family of rodents that does its own colonizing of the raft, butterflies, pigs, and of course the complete anarchy of the monkeys in the final sequence – Aguirre’s last group of unruly followers.

These animals may summon up a sense of mystery, like the staring horse, but they also give an almost comic deadpan reaction to the ludicrously overblown ambitions of the people in the film – who are fond of looking out over the jungle and declaring their supremacy over it – so beautifully crystallized by the monkeys swarming away from their demented lord Aguirre and high-tailing it away from the raft. It’s a little like the disturbing and very blackly comic effect of watching the footage of Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man as he interacts with the bears and goes into Whitmanesque rhapsodies about how loving they are and how sacred his relationship with them is, all the while the bears wear their perpetual expression of hungry curiosity about whether this intruder might be tonight’s dinner. Continue reading

Last Year at Graceland

Last Year at Graceland: The Story Behind Elvis Presley’s Lost Film

by Robert Horton

 Actual listing from the Turner Classic Movies website, August 16, 2002:

TCMElvis33:00 PM – TICKLE ME/1965

A wealthy man tries to convince a bored socialite that they had an affair years earlier. Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoeff. D: Alain Resnais. C-91m.”


In the ill-starred filmography of Elvis Presley, Tickle Me has long been considered the lone instance of the King reaching out beyond a simplistic movie formula, and thus presents a fascinating case study for Elvis fan and serious film scholar alike. (To be sure, Girls! Girls! Girls! has its champions, but save that for another day.) Tickle Me was originally assigned to director Hal “First Take” Beauregard, who, despite his advanced age and unfamiliarity with post-World War I music, had already guided four Elvis vehicles to box-office success. Just before shooting began, Beauregard was taken off Tickle Me when it was discovered that he had been legally deaf and partly blind for the previous decade, a condition known only to himself and Presley’s manager, the legendary Colonel Tom Parker.

tickleme2Desperate to proceed, and with a brief window available before a locked-in start date for Paradise, Hawaiian Style, Col. Parker sought advice from the only person in Hollywood older than himself: Sam Spiegel, the producer of Lawrence of Arabia. The Colonel hoped to hire that Oscar-winning film’s director, David Lean, and indeed Lean worked on a story treatment for a week or so – but by the time he finished, Tickle Me no longer resembled its original concept. The Lean script would have necessitated re-casting, to say nothing of a three-hour running time, so Lean moved on. (Traces of his ideas can be found in the Presley vehicle Harum Scarum, its Arabian Nights atmosphere clearly influenced by Lawrence.)

This is where the saga truly becomes interesting. With only days until principal photography was scheduled to begin, Colonel Parker asked Lean for an inspiration. And Lean found one: Alain Resnais, the French director of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which had exploded onto international movie screens a few years before. Resnais was in Hollywood hoping to jump-start his American career with an MGM horse-racing picture, but immediately leapt at the chance to work with the singer known in France as Le Roi du Pelvis. It was Resnais’ inspiration to enlist writer Alain Robbe-Grillet to punch up the Tickle Me script, which was originally penned by Ellwood Ullmann and Edward Bernds, a long-established writing team whose previous film was The Three Stooges in Orbit. One might expect Robbe-Grillet, widely celebrated for the 1950s Nouveau Roman movement as well as his superbly manicured fingernails, to look down on the assignment. Yet he relished the prospect of exploring U.S. culture from the inside. Later he was to recall the experience as a welcome break from the “excess of thinking” that marked his work in French literature.

The end of lonely street.

The end of lonely street.

Because Resnais’ original cut of Tickle Me was never released, it deserves close description. Elvis plays a rodeo rider known only as X, who travels to an all-girl dude ranch to work as the equestrian instructor. There he fends off the amusingly amorous advances of the lady ranch boss (leggy Julie Adams), while carrying on a romantic rivalry with the only other male at the ranch, a racecar driver/scuba diver/roustabout named Brad (Giorgio Albertazzi). X meets a woman called A (Delphine Seyrig), a bored socialite. In a series of enigmatic scenes, X and A wander the cold, drafty halls of the ranch house, puzzling over the question of whether they had met the previous year and arranged to meet again here at the Circle Z. He insists they had an affair at Marienbad, but later admits it may have Daytona Beach, or even Acapulco. Perhaps, he wonders, it happened at the World’s Fair.

Characteristically, Resnais toys with our traditional notions of time; we are never entirely sure whether we are in past, present, or future. Even Presley’s physical appearance seems to bear this out: X is sleek and lively in one scene, bloated and dozy in the next. The stark flatness of the studio shooting, with its painted Arizona skies and cardboard tumbleweeds, anticipates Resnais’ future excursions into Brechtian theatricality, such as Smoking/No Smoking.

Elvis’s habit of eating meatloaf and mashed potatoes at every meal amused his worldly director and leading lady, who tried to encourage the boy from Tupelo to sample the French cooking at Hollywood’s leading haute cuisine restaurant of the era, Le Petomane – to no avail. It may come as a surprise to film buffs that Elvis got along so well with Delphine Seyrig, the elegant, aloof queen of 1960s art cinema. He described her as “a real fine gal, very clean and polite,” and she later claimed to have based her performance as a reclusive, ritual-driven housewife in 1977’s Jeanne Dielman on her observations of Presley.

The film’s plot culminates in a visit to a ghost town, where treasure has been buried – an apt metaphor for the overall feeling of alienation, missed opportunities, and submerged emotion. The cryptic ending suggests that X and A have exited the dude ranch together, but even Colonel Parker agreed that the resolution should be left in the viewer’s mind. The song titles are a virtual index of classic Resnais motifs: “I Feel That I’ve Known You Forever,” “Slowly But Surely,” “It’s a Long Lonely Highway,” and “Put the Blame on Me.”


Seyrig's replacement, Jocelyn Lane

At this point, some of you may have looked up Tickle Me on the Internet Movie Database, and wondered why veteran director Norman Taurog and Ellwood and Bernds are credited, but not Resnais and Robbe-Grillet. And here we must say that the eternal battle for the soul of cinema – Art or commerce? Prestige or box-office? Glen or Glenda? – rears its inevitable head. Allied Artists, desperate for cash after sinking most of their money into the expensive biblical flop Hotter Than Ninevah, needed the Presley picture to hit big. Veteran director Taurog was called in to shoot a new subplot, much of the Resnais footage was cut, and the song “Dirty Dirty Feeling” was added. The latter, although admittedly a kickass number, is an especially jarring note given the delicate, ghostly atmosphere Resnais had been trying to evoke.

The French director, infuriated, returned home. His interviews with the European press indicate that he was especially upset at the removal of Elvis’s karate scenes. Nevertheless, Tickle Me was released in 1965 and became Allied Artists’ third-highest grossing film ever. Elvis and the Colonel returned to their safe formula, although throughout his life Elvis maintained an affection for the products of the Franco-American food company – a suggestion, perhaps, of his lingering affection for French culture. And the real Tickle Me, the film that might have transformed Presley’s career into something more than inane musicals, was forgotten. Until now.

We owe a great debt to Turner Classic Movies and Canal Plus for the restoration of most of the Resnais footage. (There is no truth to the canard that Ted Turner wanted to colorize the film until he learned it was already in color.) Some of the missing reels were discovered in metal cans in a dairy in Tillamook, Oregon (by happy chance, nitrate film stores exceptionally well at the same temperature as Muenster cheese). Except for the smell, they were in superb condition. Another print, nearly full-length, was unearthed in a prison library in Budapest, where it had entertained inmates throughout the Cold War. Thanks to the miracle of computer imaging, the Hungarian subtitles have been digitally removed with virtually no loss of picture quality.

The resulting film, which Resnais has dubbed Tickle Me Redux, debuted at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival to a fourteen-hour standing ovation, and will bow on the Turner Classic Movies channel on the anniversary of Presley’s death. The Film Society of Lincoln Center will feature it in their upcoming program, “Alain et Elvis: Studies in the Phenomenology of Time,” a collection of 25 films on the theme of Resnais and Presley. Finally – inevitably! – a DVD box set will be released for Christmas, with three cuts of Tickle Me (original release, Redux, and Hungarian), full letterboxing, and a commentary track by Resnais and longtime Tickle Me booster Quentin Tarantino. Tragically, the karate footage has been lost.

The Turner Classics website still carries the “Brief Synopsis” above for their entry on Tickle Me. Check it out here, but please don’t tell them to correct it.

This piece is co-published at Parallax View.

The Searchers

Here is a 1990 piece written for a film series program note, complete with contemporary references to Dances with Wolves. (Remember that? It won a lot of Oscars.) I revive it in anticipation of tomorrow’s posting: the ten best movies of 1956.

The Searchers

by Robert Horton

“You fit a lot of descriptions,” says Captain Reverend Samuel Johnson Clayton to Ethan Edwards. That’s about the size of it. Ethan Edwards, the towering main character of The Searchers – one is unsure whether to call him the hero, except in the most mythic sense – is one of the fugitive figures in American films. We do not know precisely where he comes from when he arrives at the beginning of the film, except that he had served on the losing side in the Civil War. And he does not explain why it has taken him three years to return to his family, though we may infer it has something to do with certain vague criminal charges, a never-forsworn allegiance to the Confederacy, and, most pointedly, the fact that he appears to be in love with his brother’s wife, and she with him.

Film AFI Top 100We also do not know exactly why he embarks on the five-year search for his kidnapped niece; or, allowing for familial duty and outrage, why that search is so ruthless, so obsessive, so determined to cross landscapes, seasons, time – especially when his avowed purpose is to kill the girl to save her the supposed barbarism of living as a Comanche bride. Ethan Edwards is like a buffalo, standing in the face of a blizzard, the better to ride it out. His reasons are his own. Perhaps he undertakes the search because it gives him a reason to live for five years, an excuse not to settle down and become part of a community. At the end of the film, he will have to find some other reason, some other war.

A few days ago I saw a new film called Dances with Wolves, directed by and starring Kevin Costner. (It appears the only way to get a Western made these days – and a three-hour opus featuring Native American dialect, at that – is to be a matinee idol.) Dances with Wolves has its problems, but it shares a few things with The Searchers, including a white girl taken in by Indians, and a lone man who flees the Civil War horror for the nothingness of the West. The character Costner plays removes himself utterly from the world, requesting an assignment at a godforsaken outpost; like Ethan Edwards, he seems to have deliberately buffered himself against all human contact. Costner isn’t actor or icon enough to suggest the darkness and the complexity of such a figure, and that failure makes the film’s hero less an intriguing mystery than a black hole.

The Searchers, on the other hand, has John Wayne. There are those who do not consider Wayne an actor at all, but to believe that is to miss something profound about the nature of screen acting, in which presence and personality and physical grace have enormously to do with the creation of a character. There is also history; the man who rides up at the beginning of The Searchers is ineluctably John Wayne, the man who hit the street shooting in Stagecoach, who drew his brand with his fingers upon the land in Red River. And, as John Ford uses Wayne, he is in an almost religious harmony with the Western land itself (if not with the civilization that makes outposts there), particularly among the cathedral-like buttes of Ford’s beloved Monument Valley. Wayne carries the West, and seems to embody the white man’s ambiguous place in it; he is a killer, he is a hero, he extends the frontiers where people (the people of his tribe, anyway) can safely live, and then he is shut out of the new world.

Ford is supremely attuned to place and history in The Searchers. The Edwards homestead is pitched in Monument Valley (not named as such, but passing for Texas), near no other human presence, in a landscape that seems both inhospitable and sacred. Elsewhere in the film, Mrs. Jorgensen describes the way the earth in Texas needs to be seeded with human blood to justify living there: “Maybe it needs our bones buried here first” (recall the scene in Ford’s film of The Grapes of Wrath where similar words are used by sharecroppers kicked off their farms). This speech is delivered by Olive Carey, the widow of Harry Carey, one of the great Western stars and an actor who worked with Ford often in the director’s early career. John Wayne gives his own tribute to Harry Carey by imitating the actor’s habit of grasping one forearm with the other hand, in the final moments of the movie. On many levels, The Searchers is about consecration; of land, of character, of memory.

The Four Feathers

The Four Feathers

by Robert Horton

The following was written for a series, “The Best Films You’ve Never Seen,” probably in 2000, as an introduction to this film. It’s slightly updated.

The year is 1939, and the movie is a rousing tale of action in a far-flung British colony, a ripping yarn of courage set against spectacular scenery, a boy’s adventure with the spirit of Rudyard Kipling. No, we are not talking about Gunga Din. The other 1939 movie that fits that description is The Four Feathers, a sublimely entertaining piece of derring-do that remains criminally anonymous to conventional film history.

fourf4Why is The Four Feathers not as revered as Gunga Din — or Casablanca, for that matter? I haven’t the foggiest notion, although being a British production on the eve of the Second World War might have limited its accessibility. Minute for minute, this picture is the equal of those classics, and it closes with a final scene that rivals the most delicious fade-outs in film history. The story is obviously well-regarded, as the A.E.W. Mason source novel has been filmed a half-dozen times since the silent era, including a 1977 TV movie with Beau Bridges and a deeply regrettable 2002 remake with Heath Ledger. The 1939 version was popular at the time, and garnered an Oscar nomination for its cinematography. But first-rank fame has eluded this gem —  perhaps a fitting destiny for a story about glorious deeds done surreptitiously.

The picture opens in the 1880s, with the misery of 15-year-old Harry Faversham. Young Harry perfers reading poetry to hearing his father’s friends talk about their battle exploits, but he is doomed to a military career — following in the ancestors’ footsteps, and all that. Ten years later, Harry (now played by John Clements) resigns his commission in the Army, just as his regiment is about to leave for dangerous duty in the Sudan. The act brings disgrace on Harry, and his fiancee Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez) breaks off their engagement.

Here’s where the title comes from: Harry’s three Army comrades send him three white feathers, with their cards attached. The white feather signifies cowardice. As he leaves Ethne after their break up, Harry bitterly tears a white feather from her fan and takes it with the others. Although he has thoughtful reasons for not wanting to go to war, Harry admits to a doctor (Frederick Culley), an old friend of his late father, that he is also afraid of battle. In order to redeem himself, he decides to go to Africa on his own.

To reach then Sudan from Egypt incognito, Harry pretends to be a member of an enslaved Arab tribe whose tongues have been cut out — and whose foreheads have been branded with the letter S. He can fake the muteness, but the brand is actually scalded onto his face. After a marvelous sequence showing Harry’s forced labor as a barge-puller along the Nile (great music here by Miklos Rozsa, then at the start of his long career as a movie composer), he escapes into the desert and goes to help his comrades.

fourf3The Hungarian-born Alexander Korda, one of the most important British producers of the era, sent the Four Feathers crew off to the Sudan to film the terrific location footage, which includes awesome battles scenes and beautiful views of sailboats on the Nile. (The movie has two rungs up on Gunga Din in this department: it’s in Technicolor, and it was shot where the story is set; Gunga Din, a tale of India, was filmed in Lone Pine, California.) To direct the film, Korda tapped his brother Zoltan, a great field general for outdoor movies, who stages the adventure scenes with a sure touch.

As splendid as the action is, the movie would not be a classic without its subplot, in which Harry’s mate John Durrance (Ralph Richardson) pines for the love of Ethne Burroughs. And what man would not pine for the love of a woman with a name like Ethne Burroughs? Sigh. Anyway, poor noble John always knows he is second choice, even when Harry is in disgrace, and the great Richardson beautifully captures his heroic resignation.

The film’s other great performance comes from eagle-faced C. Aubrey Smith, that most English of all English character actors. As Ethne’s father, he is forever boring everybody in sight with his memories of the Crimean War — “war was war in those days, and men were men.” That The Four Feathers pokes fun at the official voice of patriotism, while nevertheless un-ironically upholding old-fashioned virtues such as honor and self-sacrifice, has everything to do with its enduring (if neglected) charm.

New on DVD: Forever

How many dead people have you seen in movies? Thousands, yes, but I mean a real dead person, a late being, in a documentary context other than a war newsreel. The impact of one particular sequence in Heddy Honigmann’s Forever, in which a sensitive funeral make-up artist works on the face of a recently deceased, quite beautiful young woman, is intensified by the shock of looking at an actual corpse on screen, especially in comparison to the facile way bodies pile up in fictional films. I have never seen a sequence like it — but then I could say that about a dozen other scenes in this gently extraordinary 2006 film, which comes to DVD this week.


An offering for Proust.

Hongimann’s movie finds lyrical views of Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, with its thousands of small tombs and well-worn pathways. She also talks to the visitors there. They are strangers who have come to see the graves of the famous (Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Proust, Jim Morrison), or they are family members who tend the memorials to their loved ones; Honigmann’s weaving together of their stories becomes a window onto large ideas about death, art, and the urge to memorialize. Among the people she meets are an Iranian taxi driver who can recite the words of his favorite Persian poet, Sadegh Hedayat, and two blind men who, in their fondness for Simone Signoret, get together and “watch” Diabolique. (Hedayat and Signoret are both buried at Pere Lachaise.) Forever showed just once in Seattle, at the Frye Art Museum in 2008, and I have adapted my introduction of it below. We showed it in connection to an exhibition of Dario Robleto’s art, which creates memorials re-fashioned out of hair, letters, bones, and other unexpected objects.

Forever is made by a Dutch filmmaker, Heddy Honigmann, who is of Polish extraction. Her parents escaped the Holocaust and settled in South America; she was born and raised in Peru, and has lived and worked in Holland for many years. Honigmann’s films have not shown much in Seattle, but they are primarily documentaries: she has made a film about veterans of recent wars who talk about the ways music kept their spirits alive (Crazy) and one about street musicians in Paris who are illegal immigrants (The Underground Orchestra). It sounds as though the concerns of her previous films have culminated in Forever.

Forever is set in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, one of the grandest graveyards in the world. If you have been there, you know that Pere Lachaise is truly a city of the dead, a small metropolis, or necropolis, unto itself, and you will see that part of the interest of the movie is visiting the tombs of the many famous artists and performers who now reside there—and meeting the pilgrims who visit these Holy Grails (raising the question of why we need these celebrities and their art). But Honigmann finds as much poignancy in the non-celebrity denizens and their loved ones, reminding us that mortality is the one thing we really all definitively have in common.

As a companion piece to Dario Robleto’s memorial art, Forever is similarly consumed with the way people hold on to things, especially in clinging to the departed. A graveyard itself is an elaborate refusal to let go, and for the mourners in the film—some of whom have been at it for many years—that impulse expresses itself in rituals, whether it is washing off a grave marker with water or delivering flowers. The film creates a sense of distance from its mourners with its calm, objective flow, whereas you could say that Robleto’s work creates a similar distance by his use of objects whose substance might not be immediately apparent to us, and his turning those objects into re-imagined memento mori. But both artwork and film become very moving, in the act of creating a new permanent memorial—one that outlasts death itself—that is, the film or the artwork.

The cinema itself is one of the world’s great graveyards, a method of suspending death; through it we can hear the voices of artists who are long gone and watch the exquisite movements of people who have been dead for a half-century. Thus Pere Lachaise is a most fitting subject for a film treatment, and a wonderful microcosm for revealing the behavior of human beings as both meaningful and absurd.

Culture Notes: Leave it to Beaver

Alison Bechdel’s review of Jane Vandenburgh’s memoir A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century appeared in the New York Times Book Review in comic-book form in the March 29 edition, a witty approach that not only shows off Bechdel’s crisp style but surely gave the Book Review editors a break from printing yet another review of yet another coming-of-age-in-dysfunctionia memoir. (It’s here.) One complaint, though.

Bechdel refers to “the tranquilized ‘Leave it to Beaver’ conformity of the San Fernando Valley in the early 1960s.” You know what she means; I know what she means. Various shorthand terms have represented that idea of the late Eisenhower/early Kennedy era, the era of Revolutionary Road: the Organization Man, the Gray-Flannel Suit, the Lonely Crowd, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. My own favorite summary of the era is an Alan Sherman song, “Here’s to the Crabgrass,” which contains the immortal stanza, “Here’s to mosquitos/Clam dip and Fritos/To golf and bridge and scuba there./Men wearing knee pants/Women in Capri pants/Discussing what’s with Cuba there.”

beaver5Invoking Leave it to Beaver is one of those shorthand references, and it’s an easy one, and I’m afraid I have used it myself. You can see why: the show, which ran from 1957 to 1963 and was created by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, depicts a safe, white-picket-fence world in which the family unit is not only intact but beyond any intimation of divorce or scandal. It has few, if any, ripples of subversiveness, not even in the duplicitous form of Eddie Haskell, who in any case is regularly tamed by the show’s ethical rounding-offs — not that he seems to learn anything from them. (Eddie Haskell, played by Ken Osmond, is nevertheless one of TV’s greatest characters, a Dickensian figure along the lines of Uriah Heep.)

I watched a lot of Leave it to Beaver in my childhood, as it was on every afternoon in re-runs, but it wasn’t until seeing it in adulthood that I appreciated to what extent the show does not merit its reputation as a phony part of a repressive Fifties monoculture. Yes, it depicts a world that probably never existed, and yes, like most of what was on television at the time, it under-represents diversity. There are no homosexuals (although who can be entirely sure about Mr. Rutherford?), few black people, and very limited controversy. Within its contained world, however, Leave it to Beaver promotes honesty and personal responsibility over the values of social status or self-interest. It also overturns (usually, anyway) the assumption that dishonesty is an accepted, and even expected, mode of behavior; think of how many sitcoms, following in the frantic path of I Love Lucy, are built on tiresome spirals of lying.

Hypocrisy of any kind is frequently the target of Beaver‘s scripts, and its basic set-up — bestowing as much attention and point-of-view on the kid world as the adult — guarantees the skewering of various kinds of foolish “grown-up” behavior. The show’s gentleness is embodied in the gloriously serene (but hardly spineless) performance of Hugh Beaumont as Mr. Cleaver, which establishes the series’ moral center but also its sense of play; Beaumont is almost Dalai Lama-like in his measured good humor. It’s also worth noting the warmth of the parental relationship between Beaumont and Barbara Billingsley, which distinguishes them from the plastic figures of so many sitcoms. In short, there’s a great deal more than nostalgia to love about Leave it to Beaver, certainly much more than an easy association with the domain of Pat Boone and Velveeta.

Bad Company

Bad Company

by Robert Horton

badc2 About a decade ago the early 1970s were officially enshrined as the last golden age of Hollywood, especially (probably not coincidentally) by the filmmakers and critics who came of age during that time. This view has some nostalgia attached to it, and at times it distracts people from appreciating some of the important work being done right here, right now.

But an awful lot of good movies came out of that epoch, including smaller movies that — even at the time — were overlooked in the tide of Godfathers and Chinatowns. Here is an absolute gem: Bad Company, from 1972, the directing debut of Robert Benton. Written with Benton’s longtime writing partner and Bonnie and Clyde co-scribe, David Newman, Bad Company is the kind of Western that people were making at the time: revisionist, ironic, modern. Strangely enough, this particular revisionist Western is also full of its own beauty.

There’s not a lot of story. The time is the Civil War, and the hero is young Drew Dixon, an Ohio lad, played by Barry Brown. Hustled from home with his parents’ help (“When you get to a town,” mother advises, “you seek out the Methodist Church”), he is fleeing from conscription in the Union Army by heading west. (So many Westerns from this era were really about the Vietnam War, and draft evasion was a potent issue at the time.) Hoping to hook up with a wagon train in Missouri, Drew lands instead in the company — bad company it is, too — of a group of scalawags, “hand-picked for gumption.” They are led by the scruffy Jake Ramsey, played by Jeff Bridges.

This gang of self-styled outlaws heads west, and stumbles into one miserable situation after another. Most of the film is comically curved around the ineptitude of these supposedly bad hombres, but despite the humor Bad Company does conform to a particular vibe of the era; its de-romanticizing of the Old West is shot through with bracing shock tactics. For instance, a boy runs to an isolated farmhouse to steal a pie from the window sill; all is high spirits as the chickens scatter and he dashes towards safety. It’s plenty funny until, without having been prepared in any way for it, the top of his blond head comes bloodily apart, taken by the discharge from the farmer’s unseen shotgun. Continue reading