Tag Archives: 1943

CARL THEODORE DREYER’S DAY OF WRATH (1943)

‘s Day of Wrath (1943) is an undeniable masterpiece that should be required viewing. It’s bleak as hell; a kind of synthesis of Rembrandt and Nathanel Hawthorne filtered through a lens of wrenching pessimism. After viewing, you’re likely to break out in a sweat and be reduced to incoherent mumbling. If you’re brave enough to attempt a second viewing, wait twenty-five years. It’s that intense: the most somber opus in this unrelentingly somber filmmaker’s oeuvre.

As in virtually all of Dreyer’s work, Day of Wrath (the title is taken from the hymn “Das Irae,” used in requiem masses) highlights the director’s excruciating obsession with realism, and his paradoxical stylization. Set in the 17th century, Wrath‘s subject is the Danish church’s persecution of accused witches. Critics at the time noted  Dreyer’s unflinching comparison of the powerful Protestant Church with the Third Reich (Denmark had recently acquiesced to the Nazis). In The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Dreyer had previously held the English Catholic Church to accountability (although one must concede that he wasn’t entirely sympathetic with the saint either). Here, his lack of favoritism is equally unsparing. His grim eye for religious and political institutional thought soaks every pigment of every frame, but falls short of full-scale condemnation. His shrug at commercial filmmaking and its audience is proportionately tenacious. In daring to produce films of authentic spirituality, he appeals to no brand of atheism—be it religious or cinematic atheism.

Still from Day of Wrath (1943)In approaching Day of Wrath, holster all naive notions of hope. There is none to be had, except for a sensuous sliver in the form of Lisbeth Movin as Anne, the second wife of Rev. Absalon (Thorkild Roose). For the sin of youthful earthiness, the poor woman is inherently doomed.

The superlative early sequences focus on the old woman Marthe (Anna Svierkier), an accused, tortured witch who believes she can blackmail Absalon into interceding to save her from the stake. Anne, who sympathizes with Marthe, is the daughter of a witch, one whom Absalon hypocritically protected to secure the arranged marriage. Complicating the loveless union is Anne’s  love for Absalon’s son Martin (Preben Lerdoff Rye) who is closer to her age. Intensifying the already oppressive milieu is Absalon’s mother, the sadistic and jealous Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), who hated Anne’s mother and now equally despises her daughter-in-law.

With Anne clearly more a trophy than a beloved, Absalon fails to heed Marthe’s threat, and relinquishes the old woman to the stake. The scene is excruciating to watch and, as he had Maria Falconetti in Joan of Arc, so Dreyer again puts an actor through extreme physical discomfort to solicit the right degree of suffering. Perversely choreographed to an ominous hymn, it climaxes with the dying Marthe placing a curse on Absalon and Anne.

What follows may or may not be the aftermath of that curse. Wisely, Dreyer leaves that decision to the viewer. Ordinary people lose their humanity in subscribing to the fears and platitudes of religiosity and the status quo. Even Anne becomes unsympathetic when she sets the wheels of Absalon’s comeuppance in motion. Rather than being freed after the Lutheran pastor’s death, Anne is betrayed by the weak Martin and denounced as a witch by Merete. Like Melisande, Anne becomes purified by accepting her fate.

Strikingly photographed by Karl Andersson, the black and white chiaroscuro further intensifies an almost unbearable experience. For contemporary viewers, the unrelentingly static pacing of Day of Wrath may prove a challenge. Yet, it is unquestionably the most powerful film to date on its subject.

THE FILMS OF MARK ROBSON AND VAL LEWTON

By general consensus, director Mark Robson’s films for are considered to be the weakest of the famous producer’s RKO Pictures output. However, one of them, The Seventh Victim (1943) has garnered a posthumous critical reputation.

Few would dispute the excellence of the /Val Lewton collaborations for RKO, which stand-apart in aesthetics, comparable to ‘s stand-apart films for  (or ‘s stand-apart films for ). Yet, despite the drop off in quality, the Robson entries in the Lewton canon could hardly be compared to the execrable lows that Universal and Hammer achieved through hack directors like Erle C. Kenton (1945’s House of Dracula) or Alan Gibson (Dracula A.D. 1972).

Robson’s post-Lewton films validate the claim that he was little more than an assignment director. The nadir of Robson’s directorial career might have been Earthquake (1974). With one or two possible exceptions, Robson’s post-Lewton work was unremarkable, climaxing with the pedestrian action-oater Avalanche Express (1979). This imminently forgettable swan song is only memorable for being a cursed production, during which both Robson and star Robert Shaw died.

Robson would earn a flippant dismissal in the annals of film history, were it not for his collaborations with Lewton. The higher quality of Robson’s work with Lewton strongly indicates that the producer was collaboratively engaged with his directors. Both Lewton and Robson benefited from that partnership. Unfortunately, after Lewton, Robson would never again be afforded such an opportunity.

Still from The Seventh Victim (1943)The Seventh Victim was the first and best of the Robson/Lewton films. Drenched in a noir sheen, it is also the bleakest movie in Lewton’s RKO cannon.The film has an exceptional cast: Kim Hunter as Mary, Tom Conway as Dr. Judd, and Jean Brooks as Jacqueline. As excellent as Hunter and Conway are here, it is Brooks’ raven-like, hypnotic, fiercely haunting performance, exuding a Montgomery Clift-like fragility, which vividly lingers. RKO had no appreciation for such an individualistic, interiorized actor, and unceremoniously released her. She died of extreme malnutrition and alcoholism at the age of 47.

Mary (Hunter) leaves her boarding school to search for her missing sister Jacqueline (Brooks). Jacqueline’s disappearance is linked to her membership in a Satanic cult and her efforts to flee it. Six previous members of the cult have tried to leave, all meeting violent ends. Jacqueline is their potential seventh victim.

The film is awash in doom-laden relentlessness. Unlike many Lewton films, it’s literary references are minimal, although it begins with a quote from a poem by John Dunne. Satan worship, adultery, hints of incest and lesbianism, and suicide merge in the film’s abundant shadows. It’s a miracle the film made it past the Breen office. Continue reading THE FILMS OF MARK ROBSON AND VAL LEWTON

JACQUES TOURNEUR’S THE LEOPARD MAN (1943)

The Leopard Man (1943) is the third and final collaboration between producer and his best director, . It is also, erroneously, often considered their least effort. The Leopard Man was clearly RKO’s attempt to cash in on Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941). But, instead of a wolf turning into a man, we’ll have a leopard! Real clever, imaginative types, these 1940s execs were (of course, now that breed has devolved into the independent trailer trash horror film scene).

Based on a book by Cornell Woolrich (who also wrote the story that inspired Hitchcock’s Rear Window), The Leopard Man is a lucid example of how to produce something worthwhile, even when saddled with a studio-mandated drek title. Perhaps somebody with guts and resources enough will round up the countless perpetrators of low budget horror porn and force a Val Lewton festival upon them. The Leopard Man would be a good starting point.

Like Cat People (1942), The Leopard Man has elements of noir. Set in a sleepy New Mexico town, it’s a film soaked in shadows. A black leopard from a night club act escapes from its leash and runs loose in the town.

Young Teresa Delgado (Margaret Landry) has heard about the leopard on the loose and is afraid. Her mother (Kate Lawson) needs cornmeal. Despite Teresa’s impassioned pleas and objections, Ma Delgado forces her daughter out into the night and deadlocks the door behind her. Cut off from maternal arms, Teresa, cornmeal in hand, is returning to the desired safety of her home. Tourneuer’s use of shadow and light to convey tension and dread is as expert here as in Cat People. It is an extended scene. The callous treatment of Teresa by her mother sows a blackened nightmare. Teresa’s frantic knock on the door, begging for sanctuary from the leopard’s death claws, falls on deaf ears. Ma Delgado’s only concern is the needed ingredient for her meal. By the time Ma realizes that, indeed, her daughter is in danger, the blood, trickling in from under the door, reveals that misplaced priorities and apathy has reaped a slaughter. Teresa is killed off-screen. Instead, Tourneur’s focus is on the most frightening monster of The Leopard Man: a cold parent.

Still from The Leopard Man (1943)The murders are the film’s focus, which was daring for its time. In that, The Leopard Man may lack the poetic qualities of Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie (1943), but it evokes a unique quality of terror.

The second murder takes place in a cemetery. Consuelo is visiting her father’s grave. She is also planning a clandestine meeting with her boyfriend. She promises the keeper that she will not stay long. In looking for her boyfriend, Consuelo instead finds her end. This suspense is heightened and conveyed through the rising sound of rustling branches.

The third murder involves the dancer Clo Clo (Margo) who was responsible for unleashing the beast. A dropped lipstick case and a half-smoked cigarette reveal that she has paid the price, evoking far more horror than a machete-yielding serial killer.

And, as it turns out, there is indeed a serial killer on the loose. The sleuthing is less interesting, as are the men in the film. In this, there is a consistency in Lewton: the heroes are usually, and considerably, duller than the heroines.

Unfortunately, the collaboration between Lewton and Tourneur ended here. Tourneur went onto direct the superb Out of the Past (1947) and Curse of the Demon (1957). Lewton would continue with good, but lesser, directors.

We will pick back up on the remaining Lewton films in three weeks. Next week, we will diverge with the first of a three-part look behind the scenes of John Semper’s Creeporia (2012).

JACQUES TOURNEUR’S I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943)

 considered I Walked With A Zombie (1943) his best work. It is an assessment many critics agree with. It is, perhaps, the most apt of Halloween entries. Horror is not at its ripest in 7 foot tall hatchet-welding slashers, brain-eating zombies, or slickly produced libidinous teen-age vampires. Rather, it flourishes in the everyday. Horror is in the droves of people flocking to Wal-Mart to purchase torture porn dressed up as religious dogma, or in the self-made blinders we wear. Producer and director Jacques Tourneur knew this, and delivered a fascinating horror despite being handed one of the most idiotic film titles in cinema history (clearly inspired by pulp sources).

Betsy (Frances Dee), a Canadian nurse, has taken a position on the island of St. Sebastian. Betsy’s blinders prevent her from hearing. When a black driver transports her to the Holland plantation, he tells her how slaves were acquired and brought here: “Well, they certainly brought you to a pretty island,” is all she can muster. When she meets her employer, Paul Holland (Tom Conway), he pierces her illusions: “There is no beauty here, the water’s illumination comes from death.” Conway, with his sensual, rich voice, narrates in such a way that Betsy’s love for this tragic figure seems reasonable.

Betsy is to care for Holland’s wife, Jessica (Christine Gordon), who is the title’s alleged zombie (the opening voice over plays humorously with the title the studio saddled the producers with). Paul’s alcoholic brother Wesley (James Ellison) evades his own guilt and harbors a grudge for imagined ills. The plot is loosely based off a literary source: “Jane Eyre,” with Paul Holland substituting for Rochester. Surprisingly, Hollywood hack Curt Siodmak assisted Ardel Wray in writing the screenplay. The film feels more in line with Wray’s other credits (which include Lewton’s 1943 Leopard Man and 1945 Isle of the Dead).

Still I Walked with a Zombie (1943)Even the film’s phantasmagoric qualities are filtered through the poetry of concrete reality. The symbology of the sacrificial St. Sebastian manifests in Betsy. Betsy falls hook line and sinker to the local voodoo lore, fed to her by Jessica’s maid, Alma (Teresa Harris). Although Betsy loves Paul, she is willing to sacrifice her love when she takes his wife Jessica to a voodoo priest for a cure. The ceremony itself is filmed kinetically. The natives are as naïve as Betsy and Wesley, having inherited the misogynistic framework of colonial society and transposed it onto the perennial Eve, Jessica. A frequent theme with Lewton is his refusal to see death solely as a negative. The ambiguous watery catacomb is more gifted relief as opposed to undesired finale.

Tourneur and Lewton’s I Walked With A Zombie is a poetic philter, far removed from Romero’s fantasy apocalypses. And that makes for a refreshing All Hallow’s Eve.

Next week: Tourneur’s Leopard Man (1943).

119. MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943)

“This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.”–Maya Deren, notes on Meshes of the Afternoon

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , Alexander Hammid

FEATURING: Maya Deren, Alexander Hammid

PLOT: Approaching her apartment one afternoon, a woman picks up a flower, sees a figure disappearing around a corner down the garden path, then fumbles her key as she tries to unlock the door to her room. She goes upstairs and falls asleep in a chair looking out of the window, where she has a series of dreams that recombine these simple events and objects in unexpected ways. Doubles appear, she floats up the staircase, and the person she briefly glimpsed earlier appears as a figure of menace haunting the corners of her mind.

Still from Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

BACKGROUND:

  • Deren legally changed her first name from Eleanora to Maya (Sanskrit for “illusion”) just before embarking on her career as a filmmaker with Meshes.
  • Alexander Hammid, Deren’s second husband, co-created and appears in Meshes as “the Man.” The music that now accompanies the film was added in 1957 and was composed by Deren’s third husband, Teijo Ito.
  • Some commentators, including avant-garde director Stan Brakhage (who knew the couple) claim that Meshes was largely the work of Hammid rather than Deren, who went on to have the more noted career.
  • Meshes was made for $275 (which would be about $3,500 today adjusted for inflation). Deren once joked that she made movies for what Hollywood spent on lipstick.
  • Added to the National Film Registry in 1990. The registry began in 1989 with twenty five American films worthy of preservation due to their historical and artistic importance and adds twenty five more films each year since; Meshes was in the second class inducted.
  • Deren, a Ukrainian immigrant, was the first avant-garde filmmaker working outside the studio system of any importance in the United States. She was also a lecturer, wrote articles on film theory, and established the Creative Film Foundation and the Film-Makers Co-op. She unexpectedly died of a brain hemorrhage at 44 while studying and filming Voodoo ceremonies in Haiti.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The image film critics usually invoke when describing Meshes is Deren with her face and palms pressed up against the windowpane, the reflections of palm trees merging into her curly black hair and an inscrutable expression on her face. The picture has an undeniable metaphorical power: here we see a portrait of the psyche, the plane where reflections from the external world merge into the self. But while there’s an undeniable intellectual appeal to that selection, we’re going to go instead with something freakier and more nightmarishly visceral: the cloaked form with a mirror for a face, a mysterious figure into whom the sleeping protagonist pours her suppressed fears and anxieties.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Many weird movies are about dreams, or plumb the sleeping mind to exploit dream logic and plunder the unconscious’ mutated symbols, but Meshes of the Afternoon is probably the most psychologically accurate dream movie ever made. From the way it repurposes everyday events and objects, turning keys into knives and passing pedestrians into emissaries of the unknown, to its impossible geometries where windows open onto stairs and distant beaches, Meshes captures the architecture of a dream—and traps us inside it.


Film student analysis of a scene from Meshes of the Afternoon

COMMENTS: A mesh is a net or a web, and this afternoon the strands that trap our nameless Continue reading 119. MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943)