Dir: Lewis Milestone | Cast: Robert Mitchum, Myrna Loy, Shepperd Strudwick, Louis Calhern | US Drama 89′
Ten years after his classic version of Of Mice and Men for Hal Roach, Lewis Milestone this time went to Republic (the title design is the same as on their John Ford westerns) to again film John Steinbeck (this time adapted by Steinbeck himself), who professed himself satisfied with the results.
In addition to Steinbeck & Milestone this stagy but affecting little fable recalling The Yearling and The Boy with Green Hair marshals various disparate talents including composer Aaron Copland (who had also scored Of Mice and Men) and veteran cameraman Tony Gaudio doing a lovely job behind the camera on his final film; while Bob Mitchum is in his only Technicolor film of the 1940s and Myrna Loy of course looks ravishing in her first since the two-colour days and coming as close as she ever came to her long-cherished desire to play a frontierswoman.
The brash little blond kid with blue eyes is a seven year-old Beau Bridges, Louis Calhern as Loy’s garrulous pappy looks and sounds almost exactly as he did the following year as Buffalo Bill in Annie Get Your Gun; while Margaret Hamilton as the local schoolmarm appropriately looks as if she just stepped out of a painting by Grant Wood. @Richard Chatten
Dir: Dwain Esper | Cast: Bill Woods, Horace B Carpenter, Ted Edwards, Phyllis Diller | US, Horror 51′
Although copyrighted in September 1934, Maniac feels as if it were made five years earlier, both technically and in its extraordinary subject matter; the latter because it was never intended to be exhibited by any of the major theatre chains and thus beyond the reach of the newly enforced Production Code.
To watch Maniac is as if the Production Code had never happened, as it abounds with such brazen flouting of the Code as four young girls sitting about in their underwear discussing current stories in the press in surprisingly highfalutin’ language, a couple of fleeting glimpses of bare breasts, eye-watering and jaw-dropping violence such as a scene involving cruelty to a cat lifted (along with much of the rest of the plot) from Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’ and a remarkably energetic, hair-pulling, clothes-ripping catfight in a cellar between Thea Ramsey and Phyllis Diller that escalates from hypodermics to a baseball bat. (Ms Diller – whose name regularly provokes comment – as the scheming Mrs Buckley is an elegantly dressed, bun-faced middle-aged woman who sounds as if she’s reading her lines off cue-cards and couldn’t less resemble her much younger namesake.)
Crudely made but with a nodding acquaintance with rudimentary cinematic technique, this film is obviously cheap but far from inept. The veteran editor William Austin makes competent use of cutting and dissolves (as well as footage apparently lifted from Maciste all’Inferno), the laboratory scenes are actually quite good-looking and reasonably competently framed and lit by cameraman William Thompson (who also shot Plan 9 from Outer Space!), there’s a satisfactory amount of outdoor photography (although the night scenes are far too dark), including exterior shots of the back yard of a Hollywood bungalow, and the climax looks as if it’s shot in a real cellar.
The script is by the director’s wife Hildegarde Stadie, and she plainly knows her Poe, who is actually name checked at one point. Some of her dialogue is also quite a salty commentary on modern life, like the exchange between the two embalmers: “between the gangsters and the auto drivers, we won’t need another war to carry off the population. You didn’t even mention the suicides”. A lot of the humour is plainly blackly intentional, like the neighbour discussing breeding cats for their furs while feeding them on (and to) rats.
One narrative device that heightens the film’s rather archaic Pre-Code feel is its use of intertitles which periodically interrupt the plot to describe various abnormal mental conditions (all of which sound applicable to the former incumbent of the White House). Plainly fig leaves to maintain the pretence that the film has a Serious Educational Purpose (and accompanied by the only music in the film, apart from the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth over the opening credits), normally this medical stuff would have been delivered at some point by an actor pretending to be a doctor, but here it’s done with passages cribbed from medical publications. One of these conditions, Dementia Praecox, was a quarter of a century later the condition Elizabeth Taylor was diagnosed with in Suddenly Last Summer and compared by Katherine Hepburn to an exotic bloom (“Night-blooming Dementia Praecox”) in a purple passage that wouldn’t have been out of place here. @Richard Chatten
Dir: Alberto Cavalcanti, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer, Charles Crichton | Cast: Mervyn Johns, Michael Redgrave, Roland Culver, Google Withers, Mary Merrall, Frederick Valk | UK Horror 113′
The biggest mystery connected with Dead of Night is why the studio never made another film like it (Basil Dearden had recently made the literally haunting wartime fantasy The Halfway House; but apart from the multi-story film Train of Events and the spooky anecdote The Night My Number Came Up that was it).
Made by Ealing Studios with individual segments directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer, the drama centres on architect Walter Craig (Johns) who has arrived at a country house party in Kent to offer the owner, Elliot Foley (Culver), renovation advice. Craig soon realises he has seen the guests in a recurring dream despite never having met any of them, and senses impending doom as his half-remembered recurring nightmare turns to reality. The guests encourage him to stay as they take turns telling their own supernatural tales.
My personal favourite episode is Robert Hamer’s The Haunted Mirror (I found myself avoiding mirrors for a while after my mother died in case I saw her in them); while Hitchcock plainly lifted the final close-up of Michael Redgrave that concludes the ventriloquist’s dummy episode for the end of Psycho.
Dir: William Wyler | Wri: Howard Koch | Cast: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, James Stephenson, Frieda Inescor, Gale Sondergaard, Bruce Lester | US Drama, 95’
Geoffrey Hammond learns the hard way in this mesmerising classic Hollywood melodrama that you end a relationship with Bette Davis at your peril. Although Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall get top billing, the film is really held together by the late James Stephenson in an Oscar-nominated performance, while Gale Sondergaard is unforgettable as the vengeful “Mrs.Hammond” (who with her arched eyebrows and in her skin-tight qipao bears an eerie resemblance to the Martian Girl in Mars Attacks!).
Davis is the wife of a rubber plantation administrator who shoots a man to death claiming it was self-defence. But a letter in her own hand may prove her undoing.
William Wyler not surprisingly had wanted Gregg Toland, but veteran cameraman Tony Gaudio provides a more gothic look (aided by the immaculate production design of Jules Carl Weyl), and creates some vivid moonlit scenes, while Wyler occasionally achieves an interesting effect, akin to Toland’s depth of field, emphasising the intensity of the images by occasionally putting Stephensen in some of his scenes with Davis exaggeratedly out of focus either in the foreground or background.
It all goes a bit over the top towards the end in order to appease the Hays Office, and Max Steiner’s score is a bit – well – Steinerish at times, but his eerie main theme is yet another aspect of the film that will stay with you long afterwards. Richard Chatten
Dir.: Hu Bo; Cast: Zhang Yu, Peng Yuang, Wang Yuwen, Liu Congxi, Ling Zhenghui, Zhnag Xialong; China 2018, 230 min.
Written, directed and edited by the Chinese director Hu Bo, his award-winning debut is an immersive masterpiece and also his last film: he committed suicide at the age of just 29, just before the end of shooting.
The action takes place during a single suspenseful day, from dawn to dusk,where the train to the Northern Chinese city of Manzhouli is about to depart. The only noticeable feature in this miserable backwater is an elephant, who, according to rumour, simply sits and watches the world go by.
The symbolic creature draws all sort of people from the surrounding villages: There is young Wei (Yuang), abused by his venal father who father lost his job for taking bribes. Wei’s friend Li (Zhenghui) is accused by Yu (Xiaolong) of stealing his mobile ‘phone. But Li protests his innocence, and Wei defends him. At school, Yu corners the two boys on a staircase and Wei is seriously injured after a scuffle.
This is a community on its knees and at each other’s throats, forced into crime and misdemeanour by harsh economic circumstances. The sins of the parents are meted out on their kids. Wei is in love with Huang (Yuwen) but her troubled mother has projected her own fears onto the young woman causing problems for them both, and Huang to cheat on Wei with the vice-dean of the school whose luxury apartment seems to exist in a parallel universe to the rest of city.
Their secret relationship has been outed by Li, whose phone images of Huang and the teacher, have now gone viral on the internet. The teacher throws Huang out of his flat, blaming her for jeopardising his career. At home Huang is hassled by the teacher’s wife who accuses her of ruining her marriage. And so it goes on, a series of interconnected stories of misery, mistrust and pain all gracefully crafted. A poetic epilogue sees Wang, his granddaughter, Huang and Wei at the station: their train to Manzhouli has been cancelled, forcing them to take several replacement buses to their destination.
Unfolding like one of Balzac’s novels from La Condition Humaine, Hu Bo keeps the narrative going, always finding new angles, plot lines and twists. Everything is elegantly elliptical as the main protagonists meet again and again under new circumstances, completely out of their control. They are always in motion, the city providing a beguiling backdrop to their rat-like existence. In their alienated indolence the young become victims of their elders, who prove poor role models.
Chao Fan’s camera pans relentlessness over the sordidness of it all, tracking the protagonists through the minefield of misdemeanours, like a prowling beast. Even Bela Tarr, always on the lookout for a backdrop of utter desolation, would be impressed by the machinations of Elephant; and there are shades of the Hungarian director’s Werckmeister Harmonies in the the lack of substantial interplay between these characters who glide through the swamp of the city without finding an identity: nothing sticks to them, as they drowning in the quagmire. Fan’s delicately rendered camerawork leaves a great deal to the imagination: the background often distorted in a filmic milkyway. And most impressive of all, we never notice the substantial running time: Hu Bo invites us to live with these characters, and we become part of their world.
A monumental undertaking, to be remembered as a part of film history and with utter regret for being Hu Bo’s sole feature output.A team of China’s FIRST Film Festival, who co-funded Elephant, finished the saga of despair and alienation the way Hu Bo had envisaged it. Elephant won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin Film Festival (Forum section) along with a string of awards at Festivals all over the world including The Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan, Asia’s equivalent to the Oscars. The copyright of An Elephant Sitting Still is now with his parents. AS
Dir.: Jedd Wider, Todd Wider; documentary with voice-over by Lori Singer; USA 2016, 97 min.
The directing debut of producers Jedd and Todd Wider, credited for many Alex Gibney documentaries, is a melancholic and visually stunning portrait of the life and death of Linda Bishop, whose decomposed body was found in an abandoned farmhouse in rural New Hampshire in May 2008.
Linda left two notebooks describing her final few months which are narrated by Lori Singer. Born in 1956, Linda was nature-loving and gentle, a joyful child and teenager – according to home videos. After the birth of her daughter Caitlin in 1985 and a subsequent divorce, Linda’s mental health deteriorated. She told friends she was being hunted down by the Chinese Mafia through her job in a local Chinese restaurant. Her sister Joan, and Caitlin talk at length about Linda inventing a male figure, a ‘knight in shining armour’ “who was going to save her”. This man was Keith, who was actually married and working in the same restaurant as Linda. Her diary states she had high hopes about him in the lonely cold winter in 2007/2008.
Linda had been in and out of residential psychiatric care for over a decade, her diagnosis was Paranoid Schizophrenia: A classification recently removed by the American Psychiatric Association, who eliminated all sub-types of Schizophrenia as a diagnostic tool, because “of their limited diagnostic stability, low reliance and poor validity”. But the failure of Linda’s doctors went much further than a muddled diagnosis: after Joan was named her guardian Linda repeatedly refused to take her medication over long periods of time, the hospital simply let her go. And a court, in a very short session, declared her sane enough to live on her own. Without notifying Joan, Linda was set free: in her notebooks she describes the elation of this freedom, and how she found the farmhouse in 393 Mountain Road.
The winter of 2007/8 was one of the harshest in history. Linda arrived in Autumn and collected apples from a nearby orchard. She lived on these apples and snow water until she died of starvation in January 2008. In her diary, she counts the remaining number of apples meticulously. But in her delirium, she also expects to be alternatively saved by the “Keith” figure, or killed by “domestic violence, because she cannot go to a home for battered women, as the ‘evil’ is everywhere.” In the end she turned to God, whom she asked to save her “I am trying, but I don’t know what to do”. And “It is so sad, that I am dying, when I have so much to look forward to”. Finally, she asks to be buried in the nearby cemetery, “where I have friends”.
DoP Gerardo Puglia shoots mainly on 35mm, and the depth of the film is apparent in these images: nature is shown as a refuge for Linda. The farmhouse where she took refuge was not a place of horror, but a sanctuary where she found a certain peace, particularly in the attic. Another sad story of how her family failed to be there for her, and a system that let her down. It did not help her to connect the two different parts of herself, as best described by her daughter Caitlin: “There was my mother, and there was Linda Bishop”. An elegiac swansong for a lost soul. AS