Saturday, 31 December 2016

Review: Rear Window (1954)



Obsession is a disease, the gnawing void of a heart that can never be filled but is ever expanding. As is warned by Virginia Woolf- “All extremes of feeling are allied with madness”- any obsessive has the making of a madman. The causes are more often than not inconsequential: one simply pricks ears too incessantly at the subtle goings-on next door, gaping too indiscreetly at a habitué of the local diner, or harbouring too absorbedly amorous illusions of someone one knows never truly exists. In the long run an obsession invariably extends to something pathological: the overriding, engrossing focus on an object exterior to oneself comes to assume the importance of life and death, as though it were the indispensible excrescence of one’s growingly implausible existence.

Obsession hovers around the diverse nominal subjects of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, most of which are at their core studies of human desire when bordering on destructive fixedness. Hitchcock has an unavowed proclivity of driving primal sentiments towards emotional desperation: love is preceded by an unquenchable thirst for possession; murders are chiefly committed on grounds of continual unfulfilled gratification; acts of heroism rarely achieved without yielding to the command of a greater evil.

In Rear Window (1954) the obsession has a name: voyeurism. The protagonist, Jeff, is a photographer temporarily confined to a wheelchair on account of a racetrack accident. Bored in his cramped studio apartment, Jeff whiles away the day observing from the rear window the inhabitants of a building across the street, and fancies in the midst of inspecting their sundry activities that a particularly suspicious-looking man may have just murdered his bedridden wife. The ethical question of how far can one be involved in a stranger’s affairs and not crossing the line of propriety is bandied about throughout the film, but clearly not alarming enough to mitigate the protagonist’s curiosity, as he proceeds spying on his neighbour day and night, determined to investigate the crime guided by barely any evidence but his nagging suspicion.

One of the disquieting aspects of Rear Window is its enforced affinity with the world outside its fictional context, its implicit involvement of the audience in situations that call into question the stringency of ethical integrity. Nearly half of the film is seen through the lens of Jeff’s long-focus camera, a convenient means of prying into every nook and corner the private lives of others. The vision that yields is at once sharp and limiting- images and motions can furnish only a fraction of the truth and reality, mostly in manners misleading and inconclusive. Obsession thrives also in narrow confines, and an obsessive’s vision is exactly that of a camera’s, naked and rarely swerved.

The occasional wisecracking aside, Rear Window should be ranked as one of Hitchcock’s bleakest achievements, as it deftly tackles the compounded moral issues in ways that still seem startlingly progressive decades after its release. It is also endlessly relevant: how often does our incorrigible nosiness land us in a pickle we are unable to get out of? Today I see the film more as a social indictment of the media’s relentless chase after an unimportant item and the general public’s culpability in abetting the cruel and perennial entertainment. The hunter always captures what he desires, but not without paying the stiff price of a slightly frazzled sanity, an exceedingly dubious conscience, and, as in the film, two broken legs.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Review: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)




In an interview with Paris Review James M. Cain made no bones of his aversion to films: “There are some foods some people just don’t like. I just don’t like movies.” Whether the avowal was merely an impulsive remark, or a manifestation of latent condour, it contradicted Cain’s fame with Hollywood and his past occupation as a screenwriter. From what can be gathered of the author’s reception of films that were derived from his works- the three most famous: Double Indemnity,Mildred PierceThe Postman Always Rings Twice were released successively from 1944 to 46- there is little indication of an abrupt shift of opinion later in life. Maybe it was less of a sudden repugnance of films than a nagging insistence of separating the authenticity of the books from the reduced value of their filmic translations.

It is no easy task adapting Cain’s novels into films. His debut, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was published in 1934 but it had taken Hollywood a decade or so to finally flesh it out on screen. At that time very few people would believe that a story about adultery and murder, steeped in unbridled descriptions and expressions of violence, prurience and moral depravity, could manage to by-pass censorship and be permitted a nationwide release. Whoever that took to task of making a picture like this would doubtlessly need more than sheer audacity; a peculiar ability of staying true to the raw intensity of the book whilst negotiating the line of social propriety would also be required.

The result (1946) contains no more gristly contents than should be warned of. Viewers who chose not to read the book might even find the film lumbering and laborious at times, and its narrative in want of more galvanizing sequences as had warily expected. The apprehension of an MPP code (Motion Picture Production code) enforcement must certainly rankle, as director Tay Garnett resolved to blunt the edge of violence and attenuate the vim of savagery. At length he seemed not to have any other alternative than to be forced to choose between either disturbing the audience or not to offend the audience. And scrupulously he plumped for the latter.

Though Garnett could do nothing with the ineluctably altered tone and temperament of the story, he recompensed by instilling a poignant and understated sensibility that Cain’s original work, rife with barefaced vulgarism and vague emotions, ostensibly evades. The recurring sequence of the reckless couple frolicking at beach as a deferral to the doomed end they fatalistically anticipate is especially stark and sorrowful. John Garfield and Lana Turner diluted their villainy with just enough doses of integrity to exempt them from any too severe moral condemnation. And as though the director was inclined to shed some sympathetic light on the tragic desperadoes, the ludicrous purposelessness of their clumsy acts of crime is downplayed to highlight the aching moral guilt and stifling piety that always occur a second too late.

The ending is unforgettable. Garfield’s character, in knowing he cannot escape twice the fate that is destined for him, remarks that he is like the recipient of a letter that is meant to deliver to him- if he fails at first to notice the doorbell the postman will always ring twice. Garfield delivers his soliloquy in an implausibly childlike grace, suffusing the last moment of his life a Dostoevskian self-awakening. This coda, considerably prolonged from that in the novel, may seem a moralising mush, but a truly effective one.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Review: The 39 Steps (1935)



John Buchan wrote what is perhaps his most known novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, the first of the five espionage thrillers that feature a bumbling, relatable hero Richard Hannay, in bed with a stomach ulcer. The bodily pain that accompanied the writing, and henceforth dogged his entire life, was recompensed with the fulsome reception of the book, especially from those who were fighting in the trenches during WWI. A soldier wrote Buchan: “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”

Buchan’s classic has all the stock materials that make up for a potent morale-booster: an everyman stumbles into an international conspiracy, undergoes every conceivable hazard and hardship, grapples with his limited means and amidst troubled water, finally and narrowly salvaging his own country from the boiling soup. Published in 1919 and at a time when the nation is battening down hatches for the imminent war, the story’s narrative tone is implausibly jaunty and wry, the episodes that succeed each other until the climaxing upshot have the ingenious simplicity of a Middle Age frame story. The comedy is undercut by an increasing sense of insidious threat- the hero, fleeing from cottage to hamlet in the Scotland highland, takes note soberly the gradual disappearance of its pastoral idyll and homespun naivete.

Much of the allegorical seriousness of the original story was weeded out in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 adaptation (titled The “39” Steps to differentiate it from the original); in its stead are lighthearted comedy and facile thrills. For entertainment’s sake we pardon the arbitrary excision. In hindsight a too faithful translation of the tale may suffer triteness and tedium.

The renown of Hitchcock as an intelligent storyteller rests more on his visual sensibility than any manifest skill for deft plotting. Camera becomes a sharper tool than pen in Hitchcock’s direction; it has the advantage of obscuring a straight message, of imposing a dual perspective to a given situation. The 39 Steps is one of the early examples with which the director began to explore the protean possibilities of camera- it can be omniscient, deeply subjective, or baldly voyeuristic.

It is in The 39 Steps that Hitchcock came to associate the building of suspense with the swift pace that hastens it on. Scene overtakes scene in such quick succession that the camera leaps towards the second person when the first has yet finished talking. An emphatic embodiment of the “talky” aspect of the talkies, the device seems ill-fitting for Buchan’s book, whose episodic structure and measured progression make it a better material for silent film. This is not to say that Hitchcock’s talkies are invariably dictated by motions and burdened with salvos of gabbling exchanges. Like a good symphony, the thrills are offset by the quietude. In The 39 Steps the nearing of the dénouement is preceded by a tender interlude in which the handcuffed hero and heroine (Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll) are forced to spend a night in a poky inn. Carroll’s supposedly prudish character at some point strips off her stockings in vexation whilst Donat’s, showing not a sign of embarrassment, looks on.

The 39 Steps is now best remembered as a benchmark whose thematic ideas would develop into the recurring motifs of Hitchcock’s later films. As the director was approaching the apex of his career maturity, the uplifting witticism and heartwarming sentimentalism of this early film came to be laced with poison and spices. The film thus justly represents the nostalgic leave-taking of an innocent era, a moral message that lodges at the heart of Buchan’s original work. But such elegiac contemplation lasts but only a blink: in the book the hero, after successfully completing his counterespionage coupe, commences the solemn preparation for the unavoidable war. The film, on the other hand, ends in the same place of where it begins, in a crowded music hall, with Donat’s character wrests from the know-it-all Mr. Memory the truth of the 39 steps. Mr. Memory is shot as a consequence of the revelation, and the hero and heroine clasps hands as they take cognizance of the tragedy. In both of the original work and its adaptation, poignancy somehow dominates the mood.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

William Eggleston and Under Capricorn (1949)



In 1946 the great American photographer Edward Weston, when being proffered the opportunity of capturing Point Lobos in Kodachromes, then a new invention, readily declined. He suspected that the intrusion of colours in a photograph would mar the peculiar beauty that only monochrome could achieve. Later, however, Weston confronted his undue reservations: “The prejudice against colour comes from not thinking of colour as form. You can say things with colour that can’t be said in black and white.” The notion of colour as form turns colour into an entity independent of the object to which it assumes an ontological subservience. In this new way of seeing we can say that an orange is regarded not as a fruit coloured with orange but a fruit that entails a contiguous existence of the colour orange. “Those of us who began photographing in monochrome spent years trying to avoid subject matter exciting because of its colour […] we must now seek subject matter because of its colour.” Weston urged, after appreciating how well his coloured prints of Point Lobos turned out.

One however needs more than a jolt of imagination to think of colour as without the object to which it is attached- in art, at least, the difficulty can be more or less surmounted. Visual harmony, in whatever form it assumes, relies chiefly on the congenial effect that colours, arranged according to their complementary nature, confers on the senses. The advent of colour photography reclaims that significance of colours that black-and-white photography is so markedly in dearth of. Art can now virtually mirror reality.

But taking into account the fact that no photograph will be made if without the operation of a photographer, the reality as reproduced by cameras is still, in the strictest sense, not to be equated with the one we live in. Several photographers, like William Eggleston, one of the pioneers of colour photography, played with this notion of a skewed reality that photographs invariably produce and created a sense of hyper-reality that seems stranger than fiction, confusing reality with dream.

In the case of Eggleston he figured that colour would be the chief asset in arriving at the desired effect. With this he adopted the use of dye-transfer printing, which allowed him to almost dictate the spectrum to his own liking. This took place in around mid-1970s, already some decades after cinema first introduced the technique to its audience. Because of this Eggleston’s artificial, deeply unnerving photographs have often been compared with many of such visual examples in films, ranging from Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Parallel can also be drawn between Eggleston and Alfred Hitchcock, whose films the photographer cited as a major influence especially in informing his personal knowledge of the aesthetic. Examples in which Eggleston may be directly or indirectly referencing Hitchcock abound, a notable one being a famous study of a woman’s natty updo taken from behind- the elusive image recalls immediately a similar shot in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which the camera lurks provocatively behind a smartly-dressed woman, who sits contemplate in front of a monumental portrait.


Both Eggleston and Hitchcock deployed their individual palettes to enhance the psychological dimension of the stories they were telling. Besides Vertigo, Hitchcock’s grossly undervalued Under Capricorn (1949) also uses colours to the effect of conveying feelings or connotations that are not made apparent in words. It is the director’s trick of establishing complicity with the viewers, a shared knowledge or coded message that only those who “read between the lines” will have the privilege of discovering. Of course the narratives have much to determine and affect our interpretations of the visuals, which in turn subverts our normal perception of things.

This “defamiliarising the familiar” was Eggleston’s forte. In his work, a woman’s hair is always too red, an orange too green, and the night too blue. In the latter the blue is closer to violet-indigo, the sort that one associates with the shadows that envelope a dangerous alley, or the sky before a storm. A similar shade, though with slightly different nuance, saturates the night sequences of Capricorn, with the two main characters- Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten) and Charles Adare (Michael Wilding)- slipping in and out of the murk in their dark attire, whilst up above them on the verandah the tormented Henrietta Flusky (Ingrid Bergman), dressed in white, laments her imprisoned life. Eggleston also fiddles with such juxtaposition in his night photographs, in which a bolt of shrill light illumines the nocturnal scene, accentuating the crampedness of a locale that darkness attempts to conceal.



Capricorn’s surreal photography is the work of Jack Cardiff, who was once a clapper boy of Hitchcock’s The Skin Game and whose credits as a cinematographer include John Huston’s The African Queen, King Vidor’s War and Peace, and the three Technicolor masterpieces by Powell & Pressburger. Like Eggleston, Cardiff was an artist who did not allow much autonomy for his device. His camera never wanders; its trajectory is flowing but determined, and once a target is within view the camera confronts it head-on. There is always the photographer behind the camera and Cardiff made sure the message was clear for everyone. Therefore no complaint should be raised if the camera decides to prey on the hands of Flusky, which finger covertly a ruby necklace that the husband hopes will please his wife. But Henrietta, going with Adare’s suggestion that ruby will only vulgarise her exquisite dress, bluntly declines. The camera returns to the hands of Flusky, uncertain as of what to do with the now useless necklace, then hold it firmly in the grip like a lover holding firmly the love he is rebuffed.


The lack of narratives in Eggleston’s photograph amounts to a sort of curiosity of ferreting out a secret narrative that the banal façade seems to be hiding. When viewed collectively and without any sequential order, those photographs seem to tell a story of a nameless spy, hot on the pursuit of a mysterious man he always misses. The single-minded mission turns slowly into an incurable obsession; the longer the search extends the stronger the desire of capturing the man. This is every great artist’s worst nightmare: not to know when to put a stop to this fruitless search, to such consuming obsession. A story does not end the moment you put a period to the line. Nothing’s over when it’s over. The story simply goes on.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Spellbound (1945) and Freud




There is a Latin epigram that goes: Quidquid luce fuit, tenebris agit, in English: what has taken place in the light continues in the dark. The reverse seems also true, though thousands of other epigrams also warn of the illusions that darkness elicits, the insidious workings that can so easily escape our beclouded vision. The riddle cannot be better illustrated through an even more insoluble enigma- that of dreaming. Nietzsche, in 1886, discovered that a man who acquired the ability to fly in his dream related this gravity-defying “upwardness” to an uplifted happiness he felt in his waking moments. From then on that man’s notion of happiness had been dramatically altered- whatever feeling that failed to evoke that peculiar upwardness would seem to him too heavy and, on a superior note, too “earthly.”

The entrance of Sigmund Freud, in his audacious quest of unlocking the age-old mysteries of dream, effected a startling change in the psychological study of the subject. His seminal work, The Interpretation of Dreams, introduces dream-interpretation as a viable means of curing the patients of their neuroses. This “talking cure” predicates on the unconscious as conducive to the visions we experience in our sleep. The method has its flaws, an obvious one being that the attempt at making conscious of the unconscious seems in itself a self-defeating antinomy- at what level of unconsciousness should the unconscious ultimately strive for?

Freud wasn’t heedless of the confusion to which his theory of the unconscious contributed, and throughout his life he’d retracted his views multiple times. In the early 20th century, however, when the surrealists, citing Freud as the forefather of their movement, began experimenting with automatism, a pictorial method that relies on the dictates of one’s impulse, it became clear of how absurd this exploration of the unconscious would bring about if done in extremis.

This link, though contentious, between Freud and Surrealism made Salvador Dali (himself always a detached member of the movement anyway) a worthy collaborator of Alfred Hitchcock’s Freud-fixated Spellbound (1945), responsible for the design and conception of an elusively beautiful dream sequence, reduced to two minutes from its twenty minutes original length by producer David O Selznick. This is the scene where the two psychoanalysts, one of them Ingrid Bergman’s stout-hearted Dr. Peterson, attempt to have Gregory Peck’s amnesiac John Ballantyne recount the exact details of his dream. The rudimentary reading of the patient’s dream seems disappointingly platitudinous. It is at best a “cipher method,” the most elementary kind of dream interpretation that involves with very basic decoding of signs. The procedure is ludicrously facile: one just simply connects the dots and the result will be arrived at in no time. Therefore it wouldn’t be too surprising when the possible psychic connotation of an eye- in Ballantyne’s dream there are a dozen of eyes dangling from the ceiling, and a man with an oversized scissor is cutting through one of them- goes blithely unnoticed by the two supposedly experienced professionals. In Freud’s thesis of the uncanny, the loss of an eye is associated with a fear of castration. The patient’s dream appears to be far more complicated than was pronounced to be.

Spellbound provides an inadequate primer of Freud’s theory. The attitude it displays towards the practice of psychoanalysis is what Freud had been frequently at fault, and thereby warned of: arbitrariness. In Interpretation of Dreams he opposes the notion that a definite connection can invariably be made between the dream-content and reality:

 “[…] it would be wrong to assume that such a connection between the dream-content and reality will be easily obvious from a comparison between the two. On the contrary, the connection must be carefully sought, and in quite a number of cases it may for a long while elude discovery.

Elsewhere, Freud admits to the limitations of his method. Apparently not every dream yields a persuasive answer:

“Every dream has at least one point at which it is unfathomable; a central point, as it were, connecting it with the unknown.”

One is often told that a good professional in his field would be one that embraces the unknown, instead of exhausting his exhaustible reservoir of what he knows. There is an ingenious twist near the end of the film when Dr. Peterson realises that there’s a fault in her initial reading of Ballantyne’s dream, and the real culprit of the mysterious crime dwells not in a faraway place, or solely in Ballantyne’s imagination, but just one floor above her room. This time the doctor needn’t do much analysing as the villain himself promptly confesses his crime, and corners her with a pointed gun.

Hitchcock, infamous with his penchant of complex psychic phenomenon between human relations and of human mind, had made and would be making better examples of such than Spellbound. The characterization, however, may be one of the few aspects that really yield a psychological edge, especially Bergman’s character, whose persistence and perseverance veer dangerously towards an unwavering allegiance to hard-and-fast rules. One wonders if Spellbound would do better justice to Freud if the focus were on the nuanced portrayals of the characters, instead of tossing off flippantly the numerous complexes as though they were the labels readily affixed to vials of poison.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Review: The Night of the Iguana (1964)



Of all those that explore the troubled frontier of human psyche, there can be a few who have subjected it to a more penetrating study, and with a greater avidity for the discovery of its intricacy than Tennessee Williams. His plays centre on the lonely, the grotesque, the misunderstood, the crazed, the perverted and, ultimately, the tragic. One is surprised to know that one of America’s most loved playwrights is such a morbid purveyor of unhappy tales. And a wayward maverick, too, unafraid to challenge censorship by evoking themes like homosexuality and substance abuse. In Williams’s memoir he enumerates the countless events in which he made for “long, agonising exits” when his plays were roundly booed by the audience. Common to those who rebel against an established tradition, Williams was both reviled and admired, the acknowledgement of his astounding impact on America’s theatrical culture however unanimous. In the late 50s and early 60s especially he became a favorite amongst serious filmmakers who took to cinematic realism in enacting bleak parables of social concerns.

The chronological order of Williams’s vast output tallies with the episodic development of his personal life. The Night of the Iguana, presented in 1961, is arguably the last great play of his long career, belonging to a period when life’s various miseries had rendered Williams embittered and contemplative, contrary to the irascible and angsty young adulthood to which his earlier plays bear testimony. The story concerns a deposed ex-minister Lawrence Shannon, banished from his service after a public blasphemy of God and just released from a mental institution, acting as tour guide to a squadron of women tourists on the coast of Mexico. The play opens with the group being led to a rundown hotel managed by Maxine Faulk, an old friend of Shannon and a brassy virago, barefaced of her promiscuity. Shannon arrives on the scene a shattered man, ravaged by his paroxysms of madness and a growing disenchantment with God. He hopes to seek refuge from a badgering Judith Fellowes, who accuses him of raping her sixteen-year old ward Charlotte. Also chancing on the resort is the wayfaring duo Hannah Jelkes, an artist, and her grandfather, a self-styled poet Nonno, who keep afloat by peddling second-rate artworks. A storm is imminent.

A chief part of the dialogues is dominated by long discourses that meander several topics, most of them confusing and inconsistent, without arriving at any plausible conclusions. There seems a shared tendency in modern theatre towards inconclusive endings- the most satisfaction a play can offer to its audience is, paradoxically but truly, an absence of such satisfaction. In Williams’s case, however, he wasn’t always so fond of the tenterhooks; he was a mild tragedian that wouldn’t behead his heroes or heroines without taking into account the feelings of the audience- the execution would therefore be conducted behind a drawn curtain, but by then we were complicit enough to know what were afoot. Nevertheless in those plays a semblance of conclusion, convincing or not, can be drawn, though it is often based on the characters’ still unsolved issues and ambivalent states.

In Iguana there isn’t a traceable route that leads us out of the labyrinth; to compound the troubles there seems masses of heavy fog obstructing every possible exit. To read the play is to commit to the arduous task of giving ear to an old man’s rambling speech. There are a lot of discussions, most of which fervently taken up by Shannon and Hannah, that do not stray far from a few banal matters of what can be reasonably termed an existential crisis. One suspects that loneliness, depressing though it may be, does not engender verbosity, at least not so much as an indefatigable will to survive- preluded the play is this couplet from Emily Dickinson’s poem:

“We talked between the rooms,
 Until the moss had reached our lips,
 And covered up our names.”

John Huston’s 1964 film adaptation, blindly complying with the loose pattern of the original play, fails to summon up a force that the play would’ve lacked if Dickinson’s poem- which by the way acts as a witty riposte to the play’s wordiness- were omitted. The performance, however, is brilliant- boasting of a stellar cast of Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon, they make the tedium of the long speeches bearable and occasionally even enthralling. I especially enjoy the sequence in which Burton’s Shannon, trying to dissuade Lyon’s Charlotte from continuing their affair, walks on a floor of broken glasses. Charlotte, unable to come to terms with Shannon’s addled behaviour, takes off her shoes and joins in with the walking on broken glasses. This combination of self-inflicted pain and grudging hilarity is a genuine Williams’s touch. I am surprised to notice that something like that is absent in the play.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Review: Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)







The economy of words is a literary device that is difficult to come by. It was accorded a prominent place in modernist literature, the most masterful writers of which deployed the artistry to an extent that rivals the beauty of poetry. Language had by then transcended its traditional role as a tool of expression, and revealed its nature as something akin to a magician’s trick. Novelists of this period began to explore and experiment with the various facets and potentials of language. In the case of D.H. Lawrence, for example, there would be no better way to articulate the complex human conditions than resorting to the repetition of a few significant epithets. Conversely, Ernest Hemingway would advice the aspiring writers to steer clear of superfluity at all costs- for him an absence of words always generates the loudest bang.

The development of modernism coincided at some point with the advent of motion picture, and curiously both share this penchant for textual ellipticism that invariably gives the narratives a capacity to mystify and unnerve with the lack of information conveyed. This may be in part why modernist literature has seemed so popular amongst the filmmakers, and how compatible it is to be adapted for screen, though these are, in turn, contingent on how well the director respond to the writer’s individual style, whilst not compromising his own.

It would thus be a prodigious challenge to be adapting works by as idiosyncratic a writer as Carson McCullers, who, like Hemingway, selected her words rather carefully and endowed her writing with a knowing naiveté that seems deceptively simplistic at first blush. Most of her characters are detached and impenetrable; the stories desolate and wanting of a hopeful prospect. Her debut, an instant national bestseller, The Heart of a Lonely Hunter, deals with themes like self-alienation and the illusion and disillusion with religion, sets in a mill town of Georgia during the 1930s, and features a motley of odd personages whose lives are woven together by fate and faith. Her next novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, is of lesser fame, but explores similar territory like the spiritual malaise that widens the distance between people, and the limited freedom of attaining true happiness in the age of repressed sensibility.

Other more flagrant themes like homosexuality, voyeurism, sadism seem, over years, to have taken central stage in the general perception of the novella. John Houston, in his 1967 adaptation of the work, thankfully doesn’t accede to the misapprehension. Though there are still moments in film where the director is obviously overplaying the element of suspense- the eerie music that accompanies scenes of built-up tension is truly annoying and incongruous with the dominant mood.

Marlon Brando is Major Weldon Penderton, a repressed homosexual who is unhappily married to the feisty, sassy, adulterous Leonora, played by Elizabeth Taylor. The couple is joined occasionally by their neighbor, the Langdons, he the timorous, spineless, whey-faced lover of Mrs. Penderton, and she the morose, frail, suffering patient of her husband’s infidelity and her own chronic depression. Observing from afar and silently meshing in their lives is Private Ellgee Williams, who makes a nocturnal habit of sneaking into Leonora’s room to watch her sleep. The story is set at an army base in Georgia, during “peacetime” as specified at the outset of the novel, though interestingly the book was published in 1941, when the nation was battening down the hatches for the coming war.

This peacetime may very well be a periodic respite attending the imminent storm. The atmosphere seems loaded with fear and uncertainties. A marked sense of contrariness starts rearing its head in men’s tenuous hold on relations with other people and their inner selves. The traditional values no longer hold good, but no one is courageous enough to pioneer a change.

Major Penderton is a victim of this embattled period, a square peg obdurately scraping the confines of a round hole. Brando’s nonpareil talent dazzles in the sequence when he is thrown off his wife’s favorite horse. Seized with a sudden rage he starts whipping the poor animal, his face grimaced by laughter and tears. He then collapses onto the ground, contrite and repulsed at his depraved moral; a naked Private Williams glides in and gently leads the horse away, whilst Penderton looks on, his moist eyes gleam with shocked admiration.

The critical reception of the film wasn’t well, though Houston considered it his best. Twelve years later he would be attempting another Southern Gothic classic, but this time with better success. His 1979 adaptation of Flannery O’ Connor’s Wise Blood seems many ways an undiluted Bourbon to Carson’s pure water with rain. It’d be tempting to wonder if Reflections were released in 1979, and Wise Blood 1967, the verdicts would reverse or be any different.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Review: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)



When we were young we resented being treated as children, being considered naïve, immature, unformed, being always the negligible inferiors tagging along their elders like lapdogs. This sense of inferiority dogged us, throughout the unendurable years of childhood, limited our freedom and, most exasperatingly of all, barred us from the fascinating world of adults. From time to time we would gaze with our burning eyes at the stars and wish for miracles- is it possible that we’d be grownups within a few blinks of an eye? Or perhaps a mysterious someone would suddenly materialise to save us from our protracted misery?

Flannery O’Connor says it best: “Anyone who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” In truth, whoever suggests that his childhood was as idyllic as the ones cloyingly depicted in those edifying children’s books is, more often than not, holding in his hand the broken glasses of his shattered dream. Our first awareness of joy is accompanied by, coincided with, or even preceded by our first awareness of sadness, of pain, of danger. What we’ve experienced when we’re old we had a foretaste of it when we were young.

The O’Connor quote can serve both as a foreword and an afterword of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Young Charlie, the heroine, is a precocious teenage girl wishing for a change of her humdrum life in Santa Rosa, a sleepy town of North California. Her wish is soon granted as her uncle Charlie, to whom she harbours an unbridled idolatry, pays a visit. Unbeknownst to the family Uncle Charlie is a criminal at large, the notorious “Merry Widow Murderer” the whole nation is warned of. This secret is soon uncovered by Young Charlie, after various incidents including a tip-off from a detective she unwittingly dates, and yet she agrees to stay silent for fear of the tragic consequences if her uncle is captured.

Joseph Cotten was exceptional as Uncle Charlie, bringing just enough depth and complexity to a role that remains somewhat a mystical figure towards the end. He can be charming and avuncular but not for long. When piqued he delivers nihilist speeches with a glaring lack of emotion, in a barely inflected monotone, like a sober-minded Nietzsche. In one of these moments the whole family is seated at the dinner table. Uncle Charlie starts talking about the “faded, fat, greedy” middle-aged widows that sponge off their rich husbands and squander their wealth away at luxurious hotels and bridge. The camera blends into the perspective of Young Charlie as it closes in on her uncle’s face, which is now growing more menacing. Young Charlie’s angsty voice is heard: “But they’re alive, they’re human beings.” “Are they?” Says Uncle Charlie as he directs a cold, sinister look at the lens, and at us audience.

Shadow of a Doubt belongs to Hitchcock’s more disturbing work. There are hints of how plausibly unnatural the relationship may be between Young Charlie and Uncle Charlie, though this remains essentially speculative. At any rate, both the niece and the uncle claim at separate occasions that they’re more than just niece and uncle. “We’re like twins,” declares Uncle Charlie. But at one point, after the discovery of her uncle’s crime and the suspicion that he may want to murder her, Young Charlie threatens back: “Go away or I’ll kill you myself. See that’s the way I feel about you.” One may want to parallel this sort of love-hate relationship to that between Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

This theme of a fallen idol has always been a favorite not only amongst coming-of-age stories. Some of the more notable examples in cinematic history: The Third Man (1949), also starred Joseph Cotten but this time as an honest pulp writer deceived by his cunning friend, a penicillin racketeer played by Orson Welles. A year previous to that Carole Reed directed another picture adapted from Graham Greene’s novelette, The Fallen Idol (1948), which is much more grim and unrelenting.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Review: Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)



Throughout his career, Tennessee Williams had written plays that deal squarely with his interest in violence. Violence not of a senseless, excessive kind but one that is nevertheless destructive, and targeted most of all to bring out the vulnerability of the others. The lack of any outrage that attended his violent plays emboldened him in furthering his involvement with graphic materials, and it climaxed with the release of Suddenly Last Summer in 1958, a one-act play that draws on issues like lobotomy and cannibalism. Williams was almost certain then that he’d be tarred and feathered, but the play proved a commercial and critical success. This says much about the social currents of the time, which fed on narratives like that to help coping with the bitter reality and malaise. In this case the public was obviously taken to Williams’s measure of honesty, savagery and explosiveness.

In the preface of Sweet Bird of Youth Williams attributes his propensity of violence to a means “to contend with this adversary of fear.” Fear can restore courage to the hearts of the weak, and can also be the last straw of the perennially defeated. Violence is sometimes a way of dispelling the fear but mostly with tragic consequences. Hope is absent; it seems almost as though Williams does not believe in the possibility of redemption or altered fate. There is always a sense of starkness despite the ceaseless hullabaloo.

Williams’s unsettling drama sets an uphill task for filmmakers. Past attempts at transposing Williams’s onto screen yielded very few good results. Richard Brooks, the director of the acclaimed Cat on the Hot Tin Roof (1958), did not repeat success four years later with Sweet Bird of Youth, a film that is now dismissed as one of the lesser adaptations of Williams’s great plays. It boasts of a stellar cast, with Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Rip Torn and Madeleine Sherwood reprising their roles from Elia Kazan’s Broadway long-runner.

Brooks’s production is by and large a clunky, cluttered affair, failing to grasp the correct mood and tone of the original and unwisely concluding with an implausibly happy ending, something the critics most carped at. Newman plays Chance Wayne, a small-time drifter going home to St. Cloud, Florida, with the Tinseltown has-been Alexandra Del Largo he picks up, in hope of winning back his childhood sweetheart Heavenly Findley, daughter to Boss Findley, a despotic, insular political provocateur, who tyrannises the small town with his racist cause and malign influence. Learning of Chance’s unpropitious arrival, the townsfolk are in league against him, since years ago he left without the knowledge of an unborn bastard. Driven by a need to elope with his girl out of the hostile town, Chance sees Del Largo as a springboard to Hollywood and blackmails her unsuccessfully. The highlight of the play is the acerbic exchange between the two protagonists, which the film decided to pare down, and in consequence dwindled substantially the solid characterisation of both leads, wasting especially the talent of Page, whose formidability should’ve required more screen time.

One thing the director did well was his handle of the fine balance between chaos and solitude, and his sage resolve not to attenuate the controversial issues like drug and abortion. Moral criticism may still be valid, though one is likelier to be swayed from judging, and instead sympathise with the victim-hero, whose sauciness is coloured with certain likeability. Newman lent charm, intelligence and a light dose of loucheness to a role that seemed his own.

A lugubrious melodrama but highly entertaining. Reading the play the second time after the film I was reminded of its affinity with Streetcar Named Desire- both centre on pariahs wronged by a provincial society, the relentless nature of time, the dreamers’ inability to overcome reality, and feature ditzy, aging beauties who at one moment stare boldly but wearily into the mirror, confronting their fading looks with dogged pride and wavering dignity.