Saturday, March 11, 2023

After Hours: Robert Siodmak's "Phantom Lady"

Even though I admire the toughness of Robert Siodmak's perennial film noirs, "The Killers" (1946) and "Criss Cross" (1948), nothing quite prepared me for the formal, stylish greatness of "Phantom Lady". Released in 1944 and starring Ella Raines as a secretary who descends into the New York netherworld of coked-up jazz musicians and psychotic killers in the hopes of saving her boss (Alan Curtis) from a murder rap, the film is relentlessly surprising in both narrative and mise-en-scene. There are two or three camera movements that rank with the visual inventiveness of Hitchcock's best (just watch as we finally discover "the hat") and a mood imported from the inky grains of German expressionism. Everything is mixed flawlessly within a somewhat cute American studio system work. Between this film and others, Siodmak has created a large (but still somewhat undervalued) body of work. And outside of his noirs, finding them is the trick.

But, what we do have (courtesy of the Criterion channel) is invaluable. For the first half of "Phantom Lady", the film doesn't even hint at the heroics of female secretary Kansas (Rains). She's barely present, except to establish her mundane duties of filing receipts and returning phone calls within the office of her architect boss Scott (Curtis). Instead, we have a traditional set-up where a lonely man picks up an equally morose woman (Fay Helm) in a bar and persuades her to go to a theater with him. Breadcrumbs of possible alibis are stacked, but then he returns home to find his wife has been murdered and the police already waiting for him. His emotions are confused, but heightened.... and in one of the many stellar provocations in the film, Siodmak chooses to expend narrative off-screen. As Scott's wife is hauled out of their apartment, the camera holds on him as he screams out "look what they're doing to her hair!". It's a moment that says far more than shows. There's no need to show a body. The image of a lifeless woman's hair being dragged along the floor is pungent....horrifying..... and soaks an image of careless disregard in an otherwise gutting personal moment. The off-screen theatrics will be employed brilliantly throughout "Phantom Lady".

Enter Rains as the Nancy Drew-like secretary who fully believes that her boss is innocent and sets out into the city to find witnesses to Scott's bar tab, theater event, and (most importantly) the woman that no one claims to remember. There's a wonderfully energetic Elisha Cook Jr who takes Rains behind the grimy veil of after hours musicians. There's the sheepish bartender who may be concealing more than he knows. And, most importantly, there's Franchot Tone as Scott's best friend who returns from overseas to help Kansas clear his name. Together in his modernistic New York high rise apartment, Tone embodies a role that's both slimy, perverse, and haunting all the same. But more important than any extra-Freudian overtones,"The Phantom Lady" shifts gears completely and becomes Rains' film in spirit and body as her quest will take her close to extreme violence.

Playing with genre as if it's shuffling cards, Siodmak never loses control of the film. When it stops down for a couple of minutes to vibrate and gyrate with a coked-up drummer, it works. When it devolves into a thriller and the door knob to escape is just out of reach, it works. And it certainly works as a film noir where the city hisses steam at all hours and the police are hard nosed but virtuous. Even despite its seemingly happy ending, "The Phantom Lady" hints that the savior complex of Kansas may have doomed her to a place of subservience that's well beneath her true worth.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Moments of 2022

Inspired by the now defunct Film Comment "Moments Out of Time" series and the great Roger Ebert's year end recap, this Moments of the Year list (now in its 24th edition) represents indelible moments of my film-going year. It can be a line of dialogue, a glance, a camera movement or a mood, but they're all wondrous examples of a filmmaker and audience connecting emotionally.


The long shot holding on the face of a jockey (Clifton Collins Jr) as he starts and finishes a race. The range of emotions curbed by splotches of dirt being kicked up into his face don’t lessen his array of feelings.  “Jockey”

A young girl munching precociously on chips in the backseat of a car and then her small arm protruding into the frame with a juice box for her mother to drink while she drives  “Petite Maman”

The diner scene between Jessica Chastain and “The Good Nurse” (Eddie Redmayne) as she tries to gently coax a confession from him. The unease slowly builds

"I don’t even know what you make at the factory!”    “You’ll know what we make at the factory, when you work at the factory!”     The comic line reading of the year by Toby Huss in “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story”

The dance title sequence.  “After Yang”

Pretty much any line reading of  Andrew Scott in “Catherine Called Birdy”

From a comfortable bedside reading to a tortured wounded soldier screaming. Just one of the many sublime (and heartbreaking) transitions in Terence Davies’ exploration of self identity in “Benediction”

A woman (pleading?) saying that the woman (Dolly de Leon) inching up behind her with a rock can work equally in their new household.   “Triangle of Sadness” 

“Everything Everywhere All At Once” and the Wong Kar Wai inspired wet, moonlit alley conversation between Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) and Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). Both are dressed to the nines, but the spare emotion expressed between them is heartbreaking

“Montana Story” and the performance of Eugene Brave Rock as a Native American car seller. It's a complex moment in the film. Can we trust him? 

Colin Farrell and his imitation of Werner Herzog. “After Yang”

“She Said” and the numerous shots of tense bodies carefully poised around a speakerphone intercom

The first meeting between Jakob (Tom Schilling) and Cornelia (Saskia Rosendahl) in “Fabian: Going to the Dogs” as she emerges as a shadowy figure bathed in blue light behind, and the quick succession of future images that will mark their torrid love affair. Perhaps the most romantic moment all year

A man hitting on two women at the bar as Modjo plays and his line of “I have a lot of money. A lot of money….” and they perk up to him.     “Triangle of Sadness”

The waves taking a baby’s body with it.  “Bardo, False Chronicles of a Handful of Truths”

An empty bed. "Sr."

The needle drop of ethereal music as a young girl floats on a boat. "Petite Maman"

Strobe lights on a dance floor. A father and daughter oscillating in time. A long walk down an airport hallway and then out a door. The gutting final few minutes of Charlotte Wells' brilliant debut "Aftersun"


Friday, February 03, 2023

On "The Mind Benders"

Generally regarded as one of the first true paranoid thrillers, John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" dealt with the brainwashing of a Korean War POW (Laurence Harvey whose steely eyed presence seemed like the perfect tonic for an empty vessel) and his subsequent mission as a presidential assassin. It holds up even better today.

Released just a year later in 1963, Basil Dearden's "The Mind Benders" certainly hasn't gotten the same acclaim as Frankenheimer's effort, but it's no less terrifying. I'd even argue it's a much more insidious example of the ability of one human to crack open and infect the brain of another human. In Dearden's stratosphere, the purpose isn't world domination, but simply the nature of suggestion in wielding power over another.... which plays havoc and begins the dissolution of a happy marriage.

As he did a few years prior in Dearden's taboo breaking "Victim" (1961), Dirk Bogarde is the man placed in a precarious situation fighting for his very soul. Portraying Dr. Longman, Bogarde is a scientist involved in an experiment whose opening title card suggests the entire story is ripped from the annuls of American research documents involving isolation tanks and perception reduction. And if this doesn't sound so far out today where such tactics dot the fringe landscape of psychology, things don't start so well for one doctor involved in the experiment who rightly tosses himself off a moving train in the film's opening minutes.

Hoping to find out if this strange death is a matter of political subterfuge or just someone unable to deal with his own mind, Major Hall (John Clements) asserts himself in the experiment and convinces a research aide (Michael Bryant) to help him push the boundaries of isolation. Enter Henry Longman (Bogarde), another doctor on the experiment who volunteers to stay submerged for the longest amount of time possible.... a stoic step for science and the perfect excuse for Major Hall to play with his own limits of twisted psychology.

After a terrific paranoid-filled first half, "The Mind Benders" turns chamber-piece driven in the second half. The slight suggestions whispered about his wife (a wonderful Mary Ure) moments after a hectic decompression from 7 hours in the tank turns the film into an acidic story about the slow dissolution of self and relationships. Bogarde doesn't always drip with empathy in many screen roles, but here, he really allows the snide distrust to leak off the screen..... even as his wife is 8 months pregnant and struggling just to understand the seismic shift in her once loving husband. 

This abrupt shift from tangential science fiction elements feels odd at first, but once "The Mind Benders" settles on Longman and his wife's shifting power dynamic, the film's kitchen sink realism (a style dominating much of British cinema during this time) feels all the more powerful in showing how disruptive progressive science can be. He's not slated to kill a presidential candidate, but the final riverside boat party seems just as violent for the way he openly courts another woman (Wendy Craig) and flagrantly challenges the tenets of marriage. Longman's brainwashing may not be the equal of murder, but "The Mind Benders" makes a strong case that its something far more damaging.

Perhaps best known for the aforementioned "Victim" and the first film in his own production company, "The League of Gentlemen" (1960), Dearden isn't an extremely well known filmmaker, mostly noticed for his social justice films of the 50's and early 60's. While "The Mind Benders" doesn't seem to have a great cause, it's no less thrilling for how it utilizes genre to twist and burn into an expert examination on psychology. Based on the handful of films I've seen, Dearden deseres to be mentioned in the same breath as other contemporary artists of his time.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Your Lying Eyes: Jacques Audiard's "A Self Made Hero"

As a doom laden masterpiece where a whisper can be deadly or the nod of a head betrays friendship, Jean Pierre Melville's  "Army of Shadows" is one of my favorite films. Applying the same fatalistic sense that imbues his crime thrillers, it's a film that paints the Resistance during French Occupation of World War II as a carousel of death slightly postponed in order for its men and women to grasp at heroics. It's sad, infuriating, calculated, and full of Melville's memorialized relics from his past.

All of this to say that Jacques Audiard's "A Self Made Hero" would make for an interesting double bill with Melville's film. A bitter character study about a man who worms his way into the upper echelon of French military immediately after the liberation, "A Self Made Hero" is just as calculated in the dynamics of how a lowly no one (a brilliant Matthieu Kassovitz) becomes an interloper through sheer determination. It's a film that seems to question just how good such a person could have been if they'd applied their talents to something worthwhile.

We first meet Kassovitz early in life during the war, unsure of what to do and working menial jobs with little direction. He claims to be a writer of romance novels, which attracts Yvette (Sandrine Kiberlain) and they end up marrying. It's only after finding out his in-laws were once tangentially involved with the French Resistance (as well as his own mother's political leanings) that he makes a rash decision and walks away from his provincial life. The only thing left of him is his bike on a railway platform.

Through sheer determination (memorizing the stories in numerous newspapers each day), he transforms into the fictional Albert Dehoussie. And like the cold mechanisms that chart the success and betrayals of the Resistance in "Army of Shadows", Audiard's film utilizes the same blueprint for Albert's cowardice. We're at once embarrassed for the way in which he liberally inserts himself in the circles of post-war government, and somehow charmed by his remarkable shape-shifting intelligence. As a cipher for modern politics (thinking of the whole George Santos parallels), "A Self Made Hero" was made 25 years ago, but its exploration of hollow representation feels more apt than ever. He gets free room and board by playing on the militarism of his ex-soldier landlord. He gleans all he can from the smooth operations of a self proclaimed spy (Albert Dupontel) who gives him, perhaps, the best advice of his career. To survive in 6 different cities, tell 6 different lies. Eventually, Albert becomes a top official routing out collaborators during the war.... a point not lost on Audiard and writer Alain de Henry as "A Self Made Hero" is essentially a film about the layers of deception that necessitate survival in a post war environment.

Adding a bit of comical complexity to the film, Audiard also inserts numerous fake current day interviews which comment on the Dehoussie affair, even going so far as to have the iconic Jean Louis Trigtignant playing the aged Albert with a wink and charm that only he could provide. It's fascinating to see theses fictional testimonies inserted as the men comment on Albert's exploits by showing the camera a prominent newspaper image, then deconstructing the deceit that Albert used to place himself there. It's a sharp deconstruction of his rise to power.... a mordant commentary on truth.... and a brilliant black comedy. And that's another essence to "A Self Made Hero". While being a repulsive main character, it's imminently funny. The fact that Albert ends up where he does with two women (one he scorned and another whose innocent love forced him to ultimately reconcile himself) is an embarrassing wealth of riches for such a mythological man. The fact that the film goes even further and shows Albert come out the other side with a reputation seemingly impertinent to the halls of politics is about as funny a comment on his life as anyone could fabricate.