Gods and Geeks
Given the self-styled Christianity that’s been suffocating America’s mainstream ever since an “ex-” alcoholic/cocaine junkie “took” Presidential office, the time may be right for a reevaluation of Edmund Goulding and Jules Furthman’s film version of William Lindsay Gresham’s twisted pulp novel, Nightmare Alley (1947). The film’s been curiously unavailable on home video up until this new DVD. In the 40’s it was a disappointment to 20th Century Fox, who saw a failed attempt in elevating Tyrone Power from the pigeonhole of handsome leading man. Thanks to television, cults appeared twenty years later recognizing a rarity from Hollywood’s l’age d’or, one to address both God and geeks.
I’ll admit to never making it through all of Gresham’s original, be it fallout from my unwavering admiration for the movie or a personal dissatisfaction with the author’s scattershot approach to his own material. (The title, however, is flawless.) He was an alcoholic apparently cognizant of inherent psychological defects, delusions of grandeur and despotic urges. Though not a drinker at the outset, Stan Carlisle, Gresham’s lead character in Nightmare Alley, is obsessed with control. First over the carnival “suckers” he swindles, onto a trio of women worked for personal gain (three on a match), to sham mind reading, spiritualism, and a tumble (or, comeuppance) into madness. Alcohol haunts the character throughout, especially after he accidentally and lethally feeds a drunk poison instead of gin.
It was sleazy stuff for the time and for Power, Fox’s answer to Errol Flynn, but he gave a terrific performance. Starry-eyed and hungry, Power’s “Great Stanton” is the ultimate used car dealer, a man fighting to block out sour memories while exerting Godlike control and fleecing all those around him. By the end he’s snarled by his own ego, demoted to freak show geek, penance for reaching too high.
Director Goulding was skilled with actors (he was Bette Davis’s favorite), and conducts an assortment of peripheral characters with great attention to detail. Power is never upstaged, but Joan Blondell, Helen Walker and Coleen Gray are on equal footing as his mother figure, his destroyer, and his saving grace respectively. Gray’s confusion during her argument with Power over his ‘Godliness’ is as fine a performance as I’ve ever seen.
After he’s alienated everyone and hides from the law in a fleabag hotel, Stan begins using booze to control his own mind. But the effort backfires and accelerates his descent to Hell. There’s nothing quite as chilling as that brief moment when the drink slides down his throat, and a distant sound of carnival barkers and screaming fades in delicately on the soundtrack. It should be required viewing in detox.
Less is More
New to DVD, More (1969) marked the directorial debut of Barbet Schroeder. The co-founder (with Eric Rohmer) of the French production company Les Films du Losange, Schroeder produced the omnibus feature Paris vu par... (1965) and some of Rohmer’s early shorts. (He was once an aspiring actor: you can see him in the lead in Rohmer’s La Boulangère de Monceau and in a bit part in Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiniers.) A “drug film” in the era of Easy Rider and sundry American International exploitation movies, More drew some positive notices from New York critics but failed elsewhere and soon vanished. (Thanks to an excellent soundtrack recording by the then-unknown Pink Floyd, the film resurfaced briefly in the 70’s on the midnight show circuit.) Slow and deliberately paced, Schroeder’s film never aspired to the histrionics of such paisley parables as Psych-Out or The Trip, and thereby alienated its core audience. (That along with the ridiculous X-rating it was given for subject matter and nudity.) Following a young man’s descent into heroin addiction, Schroeder handles much of it verité style—and faces an awkward dilemma once scenes demand dramatic embellishment. Not having seen the new DVD, I don’t know if they’ve reinserted the drug stew recipe that’s been missing for years from the audio track. But it may be worth investigating, if just to check out the Néstor Almendros images of Paris and Ibiza; the Paul Gégauff screenplay; and an appropriately paranoid performance by Mimsy Farmer.
A thirty-year-old film just released to DVD offers a breed of masculinity that underlines the softness of today’s crop of pretty boys and pantywaists. Not that the movies existed back when ships were made of wood and men of iron, but screen dudes of late have been a little too buffed and mindful of familial obligation ever since Russell Crowe’s character whined about the wife and kids in Ridley Scott’s silly Gladiator. It’s difficult to imagine Orlando Bloom or Brad Pitt taking time out from pedicures and tanning beds to tackle the role of ‘Benny,’ the burnt-out gringo piano player portrayed to the hilt by Warren Oates in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974, Sam Peckinpah). Then again, it’s difficult to imagine anyone in the part other than Oates. He was never a big star, but found a niche playing grubby scumbags for Peckinpah, and this was his first lead role. Wearing sunglasses to bed and waking to delouse his bug-infested crotch with tequila, Benny and his woman go bounty hunting. She’s played by Isela Vega, who’d later co-star with Oates in Drum, the unfortunate sequel to Mandingo. (“Mandingo lit the fuse,” cried the ads, “Drum is the explosion!”) There’s a price on the head of Alfredo Garcia, the ne’er-do-well who knocked up a rich man’s unmarried daughter. In keeping with the motif of the 70’s when so many films took to the open road, Peckinpah abandons any hint of glamour or cleanliness, filming in a succession of Mexican shit holes, towns and villages that may still be without running water or electricity. For Oates and the director, the end result is nothing less than a cinematic nervous breakdown. Some consider it a masterpiece, but it honestly defies convenient labeling. Also with Gig Young, Robert Webber, Helmut Dantine, Kris Kristofferson, and Emilio Fernandez (‘Mapache’ in The Wild Bunch).
Minnelli x 2
Two late-period Vincente Minnelli pictures have just been released on DVD from different labels: MGM’s (via Warners) Bells Are Ringing (1960) and Paramount’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970).
Minnelli’s is an odd career in which sophisticated comedy and musicals have clashed with the darkest drama (sometimes all in one picture), by a man who often appears reticent and detached. For an example of his reserve, compare The Bad and the Beautiful to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, both of them caustic swipes at Hollywood and a display of Minnelli’s reluctance with Wilder’s brand of histrionics and cynicism. (Even Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town keeps its head—though just barely when Kirk Douglas freaks out Cyd Charisse during a charged drunken joy ride.)
From its opening minutes (and dragging for over two merciless hours), Bells Are Ringing is hopelessly trapped on the stage. Co-starring Dean Martin, the picture belongs to Judy Holliday who starred in the original Broadway production. (This was her last film: she died from cancer at the age of forty-four in 1965.) Once celebrated for playing the ditzy blonde with a heart of gold in Born Yesterday, Holliday divided her time between stage and screen, and rocketed to fame in the 50’s. (To these eyes, her best movie performance was in Cukor’s low-key comedy about celebrity greed, It Should Happen to You.) Flat and oppressive, Bells Are Ringing fails to ignite at every conceivable chance, even during its two or three ‘showstopper’ musical numbers.
I had no hopes at all for On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, remembering it as something of a flop in the early 70’s. (It really wasn’t: budgeted at $10 million, it grossed $14 million in the United States.) Despite the hokey ESP/reincarnation plot (was it derived from The Search for Bridey Murphy?) and some ghastly late-60’s fashions, the picture (dare I say it?) works. Not to any great degree, but it holds together and I thought it was entertaining. A few of the songs were familiar (one number, ‘Come Back to Me,’ may have been used in a 70’s airline commercial), and the trips back in time show a heavy reliance on soft-focus. Barbra Streisand is an odd looking woman to be sure, but in some of the flashbacks Minnelli enhances her sexuality with warmth and vivacity. Playing her hypnotist (Babs wants to quit smoking), Yves Montand initially seems miscast, but when trying to imagine anyone else in the role I drew a blank. For camp value, there’s Jack Nicholson and Larry Blyden in supporting roles, the latter a one-time host of The Movie Game on syndicated television.
Claude Chabrol L’Artisan
According to the Sundance Channel synopsis: “Half a century after he and his New Wave compatriots—Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Francois Truffaut and Jacques Rivette—reinvented French cinema, Claude Chabrol remains one of France’s most active filmmakers. Focusing on the man rather than a retrospective of his more than 50 films, filmmaker Patrick Le Gall delves into the personality behind such disturbing classics as Le Beau Serge (1957), Le Boucher (1969), Violette Nozière (1978) and La Cérémonie (1995).”
What they’re talking about is Le Gall’s Claude Chabrol L’Artisan, the documentary he made in 2002 while Chabrol was filming La Fleur du mal. Originally available on the French DVD of that film, Le Gall’s ‘focus’ is a little hazy. Clocking in at fifty-one minutes (and, from what I can tell, Sundance is running the complete version), it’s a patchwork affair giving lip service to Chabrol’s early days on Cahiers du cinema and Le Beau Serge, his first feature. From that point it essentially bypasses everything until 1994’s L’Enfer. That Le Gall fails to mention Stéphane Audran, Chabrol’s ex-wife and lead actress for over ten years, is no small lack of consideration.
There are interview clips scattered throughout, several with Chabrol, a few with Isabelle Huppert. Le Gall’s other talking head participants, however, will be familiar only to those with an advanced education in recent European cinema. No subtitles are supplied to identify who these people are, so a lot of viewers will be left in the dark. I recognized François Cluzet without makeup, but how many others share in my familiarity with screenwriter Caroline Eliacheff and producer Marin Karmitz? There’s an interesting chap shown sitting at a table pontificating on Chabrol’s aesthetic, but damned if I know who he is.
A noticeable gap in narration implies that Claude Chabrol L’Artisan has been trimmed from a larger work. And viewers who don’t speak French may be dismayed by the white, often illegible subtitles. As the synopsis says, it’s no career study. But Le Gall isn’t entirely successful in the attempt to show us how Chabrol’s films mirror the man’s traits and personality. We’re tossed a few scraps, but little else.
Claude Chabrol L’Artisan will be rebroadcast on the Sundance Channel on March 22, 26, 28 and 31.