Saturday, December 31, 2005

#46: The Most Dangerous Game

The Most Dangerous Game, 1932, directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack, screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman, from the short story by Richard Connell.

The Most Dangerous Game seems doomed to languish in the shadows of the other film Schoedsack and producer Merian C. Cooper were working on in 1932; an obscure art-house gem called King Kong. But although it's not a groundbreaking special effects masterpiece, The Most Dangerous Game stands up very well on its own. I actually enjoy watching it more than Kong, mostly because it is so quickly paced (it's all of 63 minutes long).

The movie, like the story, is about a famous big game hunter named Rainsford who finds himself washed ashore on an island in the Pacific. There he meets Zaroff, a Cossak aristocrat who has retired to the island in the wake of the Russian revolution. The two men share a passion for the hunt, and Zaroff is delighted to have Rainsford as a guest. Rainsford is more than happy to be there, until he realizes that Zaroff hunts a little differently than he's accustomed to.

I've written about the problems David Lean and his collaborators faced when adapting Dickens; you can't film half of a Dickens novel in a reasonable theatrical runtime. The creators of The Most Dangerous Game faced the opposite problem. The story, beloved of middle school English teachers, clocks in at just over 8.000 words. You could probably film a ten minute version that remained faithful to the original text. That wouldn't endear you to studio heads who'd asked for a feature, however. So to stretch Connell's story to feature length, Creelman had to pad it a bit. What did he add? Well, James Creelman also worked on the screenplay for King Kong. Here's that movie's fictonal impressario Carl Denham talking about his art:

I go out and sweat blood to make a swell picture, and then the exhibitors and critics all say, "if this picture had a love interest, it would gross twice as much." All right, the public wants a girl, and this time I'll give 'em what they want.

So here's what the public wants:

Fay Wray, playing the woman in distress. In the story, Rainsford is Zaroff's only guest; in the movie, Wray's Eve Trowbridge and her brother Martin (played with aplomb by Robert Armstrong, also in Kong) are recipients of Count Zaroff's unique form of hospitality. Zaroff, as portrayed by Leslie Banks, is one of my all-time favorite screen villains. Here's his entrance:

As you can see, he's that most dreaded of American villains: the European Aristocrat. He may look a bit ominous in this shot, but Rainsford meets him after trying and failing to have a conversation with Zaroff's mute servant, Ivan. And compared to Ivan, Zaroff looks warm and welcoming. It's Ivan who answers the door, and listens to Rainsford's pleas for help, with the following expression:

Zaroff, sensing that Ivan has been rude to his new guest, orders him to smile. He does:

And things just get more unpleasant from there. As you can see, this isn't particularly subtle filmmaking, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. Leslie Banks performance is fantastic to watch, start to finish. He was injured in World War I and the left side of his face was paralyzed, which means that in scenes where he is meant to appear civilized and welcoming, he is nearly always shown in profile, as below:

That's the Count talking to Rainsford for the first time. And yes, that's Joel McCrea playing Rainsford. Anyway, in profile, Banks looks normal. But when he's meant to be creepy, he's shot straight on, letting you see his bulging eye and asymmetric features:

You can't do that kind of thing with makeup. The still above is from the end of one of my favorite exchanges: Fay Wray is going to bed, leaving her increasingly drunk and obnoxious brother with Count Zaroff. She urges her brother to get to bed early, and he replies, "Don't worry! The count'll take care of me, all right!" At this, Zaroff looks at her forbiddingly and says, "Indeed I shall..." and the camera does this fantastic dolly towards him staring up the stairs at Fay Wray. It need not be said that the brother is never seen again. If that kind of Grand Guignol dialogue sounds like fun to you, rent this movie immediately; it's one of the best of the sort I've seen.

One of the reasons it's so great is that Zaroff is, for all his campy dialogue, genuinely creepy and threatening. If you haven't read the story, and you haven't figured out what Zaroff is up to on his island, here's a shot of his top-secret trophy room:

But while in the story he's simply a sociopath, in the movie his pathology is more complicated and more frightening. For one thing, the trophy room is a gruesome invention of the filmmakers, and I think it stands up to modern horror standards. For another thing, Zaroff explicitly links hunting with sexual desire; he only wants women immediately after the kill. It's apparent that he plans to rape Eve Trowbridge once he kills Rainsford. It's possible he's brain-damaged; he has a scar from an old head wound that he strokes absentmindedly when in the grip of his madness. And although he has actively sought isolation from the outside world, he desperately wants companionship and understanding. He believes that Rainsford is the one man on earth who can understand him (as Rainsford has written a series of books about hunting which are very Darwinian), and his fury when Rainsford is disgusted by his hobbies is horrible to behold. Of course, the lighting doesn't help:

Don't get me wrong; Zaroff is not a character we're meant to sympathize with or feel sorry for. But his psychology is more complicated than one would expect from the time period, and Banks makes him mesmerizing to watch. The fact that he depends on killing for sexual arousal makes him the precursor of a thousand slasher movie villains. He's not crude in the same sense that, say, Leatherface is, however; I'd put him head-to-head with Hannibal Lecter, that other villainous aristocrat, any day of the week. I think The Silence of the Lambs owes this movie a great debt, and not just for the scene where the heroine finds a pickled head in a jar:

Of course, Eve Trowbridge and Clarise Starling don't have that much in common; Wray is playing a passive character who seems most notable for her ability to open her eyes wider than should be humanly possible when she's horrified:

But while Eve Trowbridge isn't a particularly interesting character, adding her to the story is what makes Zaroff seem so much more awful than he does in Connell's version. This is the rarest of occasions: the addition of a superfluous character vastly improves on the source material. The Most Dangerous Game has other, more sophisticated virtues: the way Rainsford has to embrace Zaroff's philosophy to leave the island, and the fact that there's not too much difference between the way Zaroff "wins" Eve's affections and the way Rainsford does. But if you need more than Leslie Banks and severed heads mounted on walls, we're not coming at films from the same perspective.


  • Ivan, Zaroff's taciturn servant, is played by Noble Johnson, who also appeared in King Kong. If you look closely at the photo above, you can see that he's not so much Cossack as he is black. As well as a long career as an actor, Johnson was one of the co-founders of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, Hollywood's first black production company.

  • The Most Dangerous Game has more in common with King Kong than a producer, director, writer, and several actors. Both movies used the same jungle sets (on what is now the Sony lot) for their respective islands. If you look closely, you will notice some similarities in the two stills below. The first is from The Most Dangerous Game, the second from King Kong.

  • As you can see from Fay Wray's closeup at the top of the page, Henry Gerrard, the cinematographer, favored extremely soft focus for his female star. It's pretty jarring, given how sharp the rest of the film seems, but every time we cut to a closeup of Wray, someone's been slathering vaseline on the lens. Wray didn't need that treatment to look good, as you can see in King Kong.

  • Zaroff's hunting dogs belonged to Harold Lloyd, who loaned them to the production. They were Great Danes, and didn't look threatening enough, so the filmmakers had their fur dyed. Lloyd was apparently none too pleased.

  • The fight scenes in this movie seem surprisingly energetic and elaborately choreographed for the period. Below, Rainsford flips one of Zaroff's henchmen over his back while Zaroff himself rolls of the chair where he's just been thrown. There are not many films from the 1930s with fistfights that still seem interesting. This is one of them.

  • Cooper hated movies that glorified drunkenness, which is why Eve's brother is so unbearable and comes to such an unpleasant end. Both Cooper and Schoedsack hated hunting for sport, which made this story a natural choice for them.

  • If you look closely at Zaroff's entrance shot above, you can see a gruesome tapestry depicting a centaur carrying off a woman. It's one of those decorating motifs you won't see at Ikea, and it's repeated spectacularly in his front door knocker, which requires the user to grasp the woman in the centaur's arms to knock. It's a really excellent piece of set design, and an immediate warning that all will not be sexually kosher in Zaroff's castle:

  • In the original cut of the movie, the scene in Zaroff's trophy room was a full ten minutes longer, and featured Leslie Banks showing off several fully-stuffed and posed men, describing in detail how they were killed. This proved to be too gross for preview audiences, many of whom walked out during that scene; as a result, the scene was cut back to the head on the wall and head in a jar pictured above. The disc doesn't include the cut footage, which is too bad. To paraphrase Kennedy, some people see human taxidermy and say "Why," but I see human taxidermy and say "Why not ten minutes longer?"

    I am never going to be President.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

#45: Taste of Cherry

Taste of Cherry, 1997, written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami.

Everyone who has written about Taste of Cherry has to find some way to deal with the fact that this is an incredibly slow movie. Some people describe it as "languid," or "deliberately paced." Everyone uses the word "meditation" at some point. One synopsis reads, "When Kiarostami directs, the doors are opened to metaphysical reflection." That's undeniable. But the doors are opened to metaphysical reflection when staring at a blank wall, too.

People seem to enjoy this movie to the extent that they fill in the long, slow shots with thoughts of their own. I suppose that this is a fitting response to Taste of Cherry, a languidly paced meditation on the unbridgeable distances between people. I think Kiarostami takes boredom as a narrative strategy about as far as it can be taken, however, and although I liked the movie, it's an exhausting experience and not one I would recommend to most people.

The phrase "boredom as a narrative strategy" isn't entirely a joke. Here's Kiarostami describing what he likes and doesn't like in movies:

I don't like to engage in telling stories. I don't like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice. I don't like to belittle him or burden him with a sense of guilt. Those are the things I don't like in the movies. I think a good film is one that has a lasting power and you start to reconstruct it right after you leave the theater. There are a lot of films that seem to be boring, but they are decent films. On the other hand, there are films that nail you to the seat and overwhelm you to the point that you forget everything, but you feel cheated later. These are the films that take you hostage. I absolutely don't like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them. I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap and not leave you disturbed when you leave the theater. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kind of films I like.

I agree with Kiarostami that there are films that "nail you to the seat and overwhelm you to the point that you forget everything, but you feel cheated later." I think a lot of stylish, visually interesting, narratively dead films are that way (Oldboy, to name a recent example). But I also think that the best films, my favorite films, are the ones that nail you to the seat and overwhelm you, but for a purpose. And even a slowly-paced film (Andrei Rublev) can do that. But Taste of Cherry is more of a Rorschach blot than a movie; what you get from it depends on what you bring to it, more than any other film I've seen.

The film does have a story: Mr. Badii, a middle-class Iranian played by Homayon Ershadi, is driving around the hills to the north of Tehran trying to find someone to help him commit suicide. Most of the movie takes place in Mr. Badii's Range Rover:

And we see Badhii's passengers the same way. Here's Ali Moradi playing a soldier Badii meets:

The vast majority of the movie is one of the two shots above, or a wide shot of the Range Rover winding through the hills, as Badii and his passengers converse about suicide. Kiarostami does have an eye for interestingly framed shots, like this one, of workers converging on Badii's car to push it out of a ditch:

The flattened compostion here is striking, all the more so because it's one of the few moments that something is happening besides Badii's drive through the hills. And if Kiarostami doesn't care much about plot, he has even less interest in character. You know very little about Badii, less still about the other characters. Part of the point is that you can't know the things that really matter about any of these people; this is central to Badii's view, at least. Here's his answer when asked why he wants to die:

It wouldn't help you to know and I can't talk about it. And you wouldn't understand. It's not because you don't understand but you can't feel what I feel. You can sympathize, understand, show compassion. But feel my pain? No.
A lot comes down to whether you agree with him or not. The movie, at least, goes out of its way to make viewers aware of the unbridgeable gulf between this character and our own lives, and not just by severely limiting what he tells us about himself. When Badii's not in his car, there's usually something between us and him, most often glass.

The second still shows Badii either taking his sleeping pills or not, before taking a taxi to the grave he's dug for himself. In a standard film, this would be the moment of revelation; in this one, we see it in a long take from outside his apartment, behind curtains, and never know what he's chosen. The one moment Badii seems to break through his carefully controlled facade, our view of him is obscured by rock dust from some sort of quarry.

Kiarostami keeps this strict distance between viewer and characters, as though he's treating their inner lives with respect or allowing them to keep their dignity from us. But of course, these aren't real people. For me, the most beautiful shot in the movie was of Badii's shadow, cast on a pile of dirt falling through a sifter at the quarry. As long as the dirt continues to fall, there's a surface for him to cast a shadow on; at the end of the shot, the dirt ceases, only the grid remains, and Badii's shadow diffuses onto the equipment below him.

It's a really beautiful reminder that what we're watching is transient and fictional. I'm not sure that Kiarostami wants us to make the next connection, to say that human life is as transient as Badii's shadow, mostly because of the ending of the film. Here's how it ends: we see Badii lie down in his grave, and cut from a point-of-view shot of the sky over Tehran to a close-up of Badii's face, intermittently illuminated by flashes of lightening, as he closes his eyes. It's not clear whether he's dying or going to sleep, and the screen goes black. But lest we ponder the question too long, Kiarostami jarringly cuts to grainy video footage from the making of the movie; we see Homayon Ershadi smoking a cigarette on location as Kiarostami and his crew work on the movie. Whatever imaginative connection viewers have drawn between themselves and Mr. Badii are purely illusory; he doesn't exist. As the instrumental parts of Louis Armstrong's version of "St. James Infirmary" plays over the credits (the only non-diagetic music in the film), we are forcibly reminded that when thought we were watching Badii, we were, in fact, alone with our own thoughts.


  • The sound mix (by Mohammad Reza Delpak), is much more subtle and interesting than the cinematography. Sound is treated more realistically in this film than in most I've seen, from muffled and misheard parts of conversations to the distant sound of a helicopter or children. It's also the first movie I've seen where the mixer got a before-the-title credit.

  • Roger Ebert hates this movie. From his review: "A case can be made for the movie, but it would involve transforming the experience of viewing the film (which is excruciatingly boring) into something more interesting, a fable about life and death." I didn't hate it, but I'm not planning on watching it again.

  • I think that some of the moments that moved me in this film benefited from how boring the scenes around them were. (By the same token, I think Fishing With John is all the funnier for how spread out the funny parts are). I don't think this is a strategy I'm going to be able to use myself, so if it seems like you can do something with it, go nuts.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

#44: The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes, 1948, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, screenplay by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, additional dialogue by Keith Winter.

Brian Eno famously observed that only 100 people bought the Velvet Underground's first album when it was originally released, but they all started bands. The Red Shoes may well be the cinematic equivalent. Over the years, The Red Shoes has inspired albums, installation art, choreography, and the careers of countless ballerinas. Pretty much all of the great MGM musicals of the fifties owe it more than a little. It's one of Martin Scorcese's all time favorite movies, and he credits it with providing the breakthrough he needed to figure out how to film the fight scenes in Raging Bull. But unfortunately, Powell and Pressburger are also responsible for Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars, and The Bonfire of the Vanities, since The Red Shoes convinced Brian De Palma to become a filmmaker.

It's clear why creative people of all types would turn to The Red Shoes for inspiration; the movie is about the level of personal sacrifice and dedication practicing any art at a high level requires. The movie follows the lives of two young people as they get their start in the world of ballet. Moira Shearer plays Victoria Page, the ballerina:

And Marius Goring plays a young composer named Julian Craster:

Both Victoria Page and Julian Craster join the Ballet Lermontov, a touring Russian company modeled on Diaghelev's Ballet Russes, and fall to different degrees under the sway of Boris Lermontov, the diabolical impressario who runs the ballet. As you can see from the stills, the movie is not what you would call down to earth in terms of its costumes or settings; it's set among the highest of the upper class. Believe it or not, Page and Craster are the closest the movie gets to working class characters; Anton Walbrook's portrayal of Boris Lermontov will go down in history as the definitive European aristocrat. Here he is early in the film and early in the morning, smoking a cigarette and reading his mail:

Yes, that's a tartar robe he's wearing. In a few seconds, he's going to hold out that cigarette until his butler appears from nowhere, takes it from his hand and extinguishes it; walking to the ashtray himself would be too, too exhausting. And here he is taking a stroll with other members of his company on the streets of Monte-Carlo, wearing exquisitely bizarro sunglasses:

Lermontov is a bully, he's arrogant, he's jealous, he's manipulative, and he cares for nothing but his ballet. As a result, he's able to extract brilliant work from everyone who works for him. Craster and Page join the Ballet Lermontov at the same time (in fact, on the same morning), and the early part of the movie follows them as Lermontov carefully cultivates their talents. They both get their big chance at the same time, too: Lermontov asks Victoria Page to dance the lead in a new ballet that Craster is writing. The subject is "The Red Shoes," and here's how Lermontov describes the story to Craster:

"The Ballet of The Red Shoes" is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a young girl who is devoured with an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes and goes to the dance. For a time, all goes well and she is very happy. At the end of the evening she is tired and wants to go home, but the red shoes are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the street, they dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by. But the red shoes go on.

Craster asks, "What happens at the end?" and Lermontov carelessly replies, "Oh, in the end she dies." The careful reader will guess that there are some similarities between the story and Victoria Page's. The movie is, in fact, about the way art consumes life. Lermontov, while not an artist himself, understands this better than Page or Craster; it's the source of his power over them. He has no understanding and even less interest in what he calls "the doubtful comforts of human love," so his reaction on hearing that Craster and Page are seeing each other must be seen to be believed. He finds out at the birthday party of his head choreographer; here's his reaction shot, surrounded by people having a good time:

The life of the party.

And later, when he discovers they've just been married:

Note the full ashtray next to him and that unbelievable Russian velvet shirt. When you break out the red velvet, you know it's been a long, dark night of the soul. He's not conventionally jealous, however: he simply thinks Victoria Page can't be a great dancer if she allows herself to spend any time on normal life.

As you can see from the costumes, nothing in this movie is played subtly. Moira Shearer, on first reading the script, thought it was "simply awful. Pure women's magazine," and in its bare outlines she was right. But Powell and Pressburger take so many risks throughout that you're inclined to forgive them their more baroque conceits. The biggest risk by far is the Ballet of the Red Shoes itself, which is the centerpiece of the movie, and an actual ballet, albeit a short one, created for the movie by Brian Easdale and choreographed by Robert Helpmann.

Most movies about artists of any type make one of two mistakes. If the movie is about an actual artist (e.g., Pollock), then the art itself is liable to be good. To counter that, most filmmakers succumb to an irresistable urge to come up with a ridiculous story about how the artist got their ideas. If the artist is fictional, the art itself tends to be, shall we say, not as good as the other characters would have you believe. Powell and Pressburger avoided both of these pitfalls here. The scenes of Craster working on the score have a ring of truth to them that is usually missing from this kind of movie; watch for a scene in which he excitedly explains to Lermontov that the church scene should use a four-part chorale, and then bangs out on the piano how he'd like it orchestrated. And although I'm no balletomane, the ballet itself seemed quite passable to me.

Which is a good thing, because rather than showing excerpts from Victoria Page's big performance, Powell and Pressburger show you the whole ballet, start to finish. This is a fifteen minute sequence right in the middle of a conventional melodrama, and it could have brought the movie to a screeching halt. It works, though, and is actually necessary for the rest of the film to make sense.

First, it's a cinematic ballet, not a theatrical one. The first shots of the ballet are done from the audience's perspective, but the camera quickly moves onto the stage. Within the first minute, Victora Page sees the red shoes on display in the shoemaker's shop and imagines herself dancing in them. We see what she sees, thanks to the miracle of optical printing:

This is an effect that would be difficult to produce on stage, to put it mildly. From that point on, the ballet is completely cinematic. It uses optical shots, jump cuts, variable camera speed and other special effects of all sorts to make the first film ballet (as opposed to filmed ballet). "The Red Shoes Ballet" is bold gesture after bold gesture, and enough of them work that it's difficult to fault the ones that don't. There are parts that didn't work for me; the line of dancers that transform into flowers, birds, and clouds, for example. But it's like watching a standup comic—not all the jokes hit but as long as they keep coming, it's all right. For me, the single best shot in this sequence comes at the end of the fair. All the other dancers are dropping from exhaustion, but Victoria Page keeps dancing. The camera follows her down an alley as cellophane posters drift to the ground. It's a tracking shot, and couldn't happen on stage, but on film it's haunting.

Even more importantly, the Red Shoes Ballet is subjective. Rather than trying to capture the experience of a hypothetical audience member, Powell and Pressburger try to capture on film Victoria Page's experience dancing. Take a look at this still from the pas de deux:

It's one of the only shots we get of the audience, and as you can see, they're not particularly important to Page. She's dancing for two people: Craster (conducting) and Lermontov (in the box). As I said earlier, Scorcese learned how to shoot the fight scenes in Raging Bull from studying this sequence. Like Powell and Pressburger, he stays mostly in the ring, focuses on La Motta's subjective experience (think of the zoom in/dolly out shot during the last Sugar Ray Robinson fight). He treats the audience the same way Powell and Pressburger do, too:

La Motta doesn't give a fuck about them, so they fade into the background. She wouldn't put it that way, but Victoria Page feels the same way. Even when they begin applauding before she's finished dancing, she doesn't process it as applause. In the soundtrack we hear applause but here's what we see:

Filming the ballet subjectively is incredibly important for what follows. For the audience to understand why choosing between life and art is near-impossible for Victoria Page, it has to be clear what she gets from ballet. She says, early in the movie, that asking her why she wants to dance is like asking someone else why they want to live. By the time the ballet sequence is over, you understand what it's like for her to be on stage, and it's very clear that when she is forced to choose between art and "the doubtful comforts of human love," she'll choose art every time.


  • This disc has one of the strangest commentary tracks I've ever heard. In the seventies, Powell and Pressburger co-wrote a novelization of the movie for Avon Books; there's a complete audio track of Jeremy Irons, no less, reading from this novelization. There's a similar track on Lord of the Flies, but it's Golding reading from his own novel on which the film was based, not a book based on the movie published thirty years after the fact. Not surprisingly, the book is not as good as the movie; nobody watches The Red Shoes for the screenplay.

  • And speaking of embarassing collaborations between Powell and Pressburger in the 1970s, the last film they made together is featured in the (excellent) filmography on the DVD. It's The Boy Who Turned Yellow, an educational film about electricity. Besides the novel and this movie, their collaboration ended in 1957.

  • Moira Shearer is interviewed on the disc. At the time the film was made, she was a world class ballerina at the top of her game. The same could not be said, however, for Robert Helpmann or Léonide Massine, the two other featured dancers. Massine had been world-class; in fact, he was the one cast member who danced in Diagilev's Ballet Russes. At the time The Red Shoes was made, however, he was in his early fifties and well past his prime. Helpmann was younger, but was never as good a dancer (I recognized him from Henry V, where he played the Bishop of Ely). Shearer wastes no time in pointing out that neither man is a very good dancer in the film, although she does allow that "Bobby's" choreography is "perfectly adequate." She sounds like she might have not been much fun to work with. Apparently she and Michael Powell grew to hate each other over the course of the film. She does seem to have nothing but respect for Anton Walbrook, however.

  • The locations in the film are great; they really used Covent Garden and the Mercury Theater in Notting Hill. The best, however, is a brief scene inside the Opéra National de Paris. Check out this room:


  • Everyone who writes about this film mentions the color, so: it's lush. According to the founders of Technicolor, this is the best example of three-strip Technicolor there is. As you no doubt know, three-strip takes incredible amounts of light, which means that the shots during the ballet that featured a spotlight (see the stills above) were very difficult to create. Because the non-spotlit areas were already so brightly lit, an unbelievably bright light had to be built to create the circular outline of a spotlight. It was designed specifically for this production and, unlike every other light I've ever heard of, was water-cooled.