Tag Archives: Art Deco

CAPSULE: GIORGIO MORODER PRESENTS METROPOLIS (1927/1984)

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DIRECTED BY: Fritz Lang/(version prepared by Giorgio Moroder)

FEATURING: Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge

PLOT: Freder, son of the man who rules Metropolis, discovers the plight of the subterranean

Still from Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis

workers who make the city run when he falls in love with a proletarian female preacher; his new lover is replaced by a robotic imposter who intends to lead the workers to ruin.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a powerful candidate for the List, but Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis isn’t.  Kino’s 2010 “Complete Metropolis” restoration is now the definitive version of the film; Moroder’s re-imagining, with its synth-pop soundtrack and vocal intrusions by 1980s rock acts like Loverboy, Bonnie Tyler and Pat Benetar, is a curiosity.

COMMENTS:  Set in a massive, mostly underground city that’s equal parts Futurist dreamscape and Babylonian pleasure garden, Metropolis is an unqualified, iconic Expressionist masterpiece, and if you want to turn down the sound and watch it while listening to Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga mp3s, that’s not going to destroy its visual splendor.  Whatever questionable choices “Flashdance… What a Feeling!” composer Giorgio Moroder may have made with the proto-techno soundtrack that he added to this restoration (more on that score later), this Metropolis looks like it’s been struck from a pristine print, and it’s as feverishly hallucinatory as any other version.  The decision to tint most of the scenes works wonderfully (and may even have reflected Lang’s original wishes; tinting was not at all uncommon in 1927).  The colorization is tasteful and intelligent, with scenes on the surface bathed in radiant sepia, while the underground sequences utilize shadowy shades of steel blue and grey.  This process retains the film’s monochromatic scale, simply shifting the palette towards the blue or the amber spectrum.  Moroder added additional color effects for a few scenes; some of the equipment in mad scientist Rotwang’s laboratory glows with electricity, and when he transforms his robot into the image of Maria, the automaton’s eyes shine with an inhuman, metallic blue glint.  Because some segments of Metropolis were lost, Moroder also Continue reading CAPSULE: GIORGIO MORODER PRESENTS METROPOLIS (1927/1984)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE BLACK CAT (1934)

The Black Cat has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Please make comments general comments about the film on the official Certified Weird entry.

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DIRECTED BY: Edgar G. Ulmer

FEATURING: , Bela Lugosi

PLOT: A young couple find themselves caught between the machinations of a doctor bent on revenge and a mad engineer in the latter’s Art Deco mansion, built on the graves of the soldiers he sold out in a World War I battle.

Still from The Black Cat (1934)
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEThe Black Cat has the cadence of a nightmare.  Its shadows haunt the mind long after the DVD clatters out of the tray. Still, as impressive as the movie’s evocation of corruption masked by civility is, it’s highly creepy but only mildly weird; it remains to be seen whether it’s eccentric excellence will overcome it’s somewhat suspect surreality and catapult it onto the List.

COMMENTS:  Today, The Black Cat looks like a cult film.  In the popular memory it’s almost never mentioned alongside the Universal horror classics Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1932), and The Wolf Man (1941), but “those in the know” sing its praises to the uninitiated: The Black Cat is a forgotten Expressionist classic, too cool for the masses, a film that had to be resurrected from oblivion by the cinematic savants at Cahiers du Cinema who recognized its neglected genius.  Truth be told, however, The Black Cat, which teamed up terror titans Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff for the first time, was a huge box office hit in 1934.  Despite reviews from The New York Times, Variety,and Time that ranged from dismissive to near-scathing, the film was a blockbuster, Universal’s highest-grossing release of the year.  Through modern eyes—with its daring pre-code perversity and its disjointed, dreamlike rhythms—The Black Cat looks like an ahead-of-its-time oddity we assume musty old timers would have misunderstood, but perhaps audiences in 1934 were hipper than we give them credit for.

At the time, the two rising horror stars were the main draw, and they acquit themselves admirably.  Returning to wreak revenge on the man who wronged him after spending 15 years in a WWI prisoner-of-war camp, Lugosi’s Dr. Vitus Werdegast makes an unlikely, suspect hero.  He’s a raw and damaged bundle of obsessions and phobias hidden underneath a suave, aristocratic exterior and filtered through a thick Hungarian accent.  Lugosi has his impressive moments, as when he loses his mind (and, temporarily, his grasp of the English language) in the film’s startling climax, but Karloff outshines him, turning in one of his finest performances as villainous architect Hjalmar Poelzig.  Initially glimpsed as a menacing shadow rising mechanically from his bed, when he steps into the light we see a frowning, grim faced man with a diabolically angular haircut, draped in black robes.  Karloff’s every motion is cold and calculated, detached and almost inhuman: he hangs back, animated only by the occasional spasm of evil (as when he reveals his hidden lust for the heroine by thrusting forth his hand and tightly gripping a nude figurine in the foreground while watching her kiss her husband).

Vitus and Poelzig play a cat-and-mouse game, dramatically demonstrated in an oddly conceived chess match for the soul of the heroine.  The backdrop before which they fence—Poelzig’s gleaming Bauhaus mansion, full of odd angles, deep shadows, and hidden rooms, including one with twisted crosses and jutting angular pillars before which he conducts his rites dedicated to Lucifer—lends their jousting an aura of  strangeness.  Karloff’s haircut is almost an Expressionist set of its own.  There’s no literary connection to Edgar Allan Poe’s psychological horror story “The Black Cat,” but the beautiful, flitting imagery and tone of repressed evil evokes Poe’s opiated style, and there is a literal black cat who pops up inexplicably on occasion, almost as an afterthought, to terrify the phobic Lugosi.

The Black Cat is full of arresting images: corpses preserved and encased in glass boxes, Lugosi recoiling before the giant shadow of the black cat, Karloff conducting a Black Mass.  The plot, on the other hand, is fragmented; it lurches forward without clear explanation  (the company hardly reacts when Lugosi launches a conveniently placed throwing knife at the pesky feline; the unexplained swoon of a female Satanist allows Lugosi to turn the tables on Karloff).   At one point Poelzig asks Vitus, “of what use are all these melodramatic gestures?,” a question he could well address to the movie itself.  The answer, of course, is to provide pure atmosphere: an atmosphere of psychic repression and elegant perversity, full of hints of necrophilia, sex slavery, incest, mass murder, and other European decadences.  The combination of powerful images and loose narrative connections gives the film a choppy, nightmarish feel that works even better in the memory than it does while you are watching it, and accounts for the weird feeling The Black Cat generates in susceptible viewers.

Director Edgar G. Ulmer apprenticed under F.W. Murnau and worked as an uncredited set designer for Fritz Lang on Metropolis, among other projects.  Set to be a big name helmer after the success of The Black Cat, rumor has it that Ulmer indulged in an affair with the wife of a powerful Universal producer and was exiled to the poverty row studio PRC.  There, he turned out workmanlike B-movies with titles like Girls in Chains and Isle of Forgotten Sins before creating another minor classic, the grimy and effective low-budget noir Detour (1945).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…nutty, nightmarish melange… a crepehanger’s ball.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (retrospective)

For another opinion and further background on the film, see Alfred Eaker’s Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat.

REPORT: THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS [1927] (2010 RESTORATION)

DIRECTED BY: Fritz Lang

FEATURING: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Alfred Abel

PLOT: The futuristic city of Metropolis is divided into a wealthy, hedonistic, and patriarchal

Restored still from The Complete Metropolis

above-ground, and the beaten-down workers who serve them below.  When the son of the city’s leader falls in love with a revolutionary worker, a chain of events is set in motion that ultimately sways the balance of power.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: While its story is standard allegorical fare and the performances are often melodramatic, the sheer inventiveness and visual splendor of Metropolis warrants its status as quintessential science fiction.  It set the standard for a host of weird films that came after it and has several iconically bizarre scenes and characters.  Taking into account its importance in film history, it is certainly worthy of the Weird Movie List.

COMMENTS: In a futuristic society functioning solely on a complex network of machines, the workers are beaten down to the point of exhausted submission, while the leaders squander their riches on pleasures of the flesh.  Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of the “Master of Metropolis” Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), leaves the pleasure garden cultivated for the spoiled sons of the elite and discovers the horrific conditions threatening his subterranean “brothers and sisters” who operate the machines.  His instant fairytale ardor for the saintly revolutionary Maria (Brigitte Helm) encourages him to become the prophesied Mediator, a man who will act as the “heart” between the brain above and the hands below.  When Joh Fredersen fears a workers’ rebellion, he enlists mad scientist and former romantic rival Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to disguise his newly-fashioned robot into a replica of Maria, so that the automaton can destroy their faith in a mediator.

Settling into my usual stage-right balcony seat at Cambridge’s historic Brattle Theatre, I felt privileged to see such a landmark early film on a big screen, and in its complete form, no less!  An introductory title card explained that the 30 minutes or so of missing footage found in a Buenos Aires museum were shot on 16 mm and would appear in different format than the rest of the remastered film.  The few scenes still unaccounted for would be described in similar title cards.  As the music swelled over a series of pumping pistons and grinding machinery, I was once again whisked away into the simultaneously dark and resplendent world of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

The new footage details much of the subplot involving the “Thin Man”, a devious fellow hired by Joh Fredersen to spy on his son.  In the prior version of the film he was a forgettable, barely relevant character, relegated primarily to expository title cards for his missing scenes.  Now he is integral to the stories of the stalwart Josophat (Freder’s assistant) and Georgy/11811, a worker who trades places with Freder.  One of the most impressive new scenes is a montage of Yoshiwara, the city’s pleasure district, in which Georgy traipses about the brightly-lit saloons with pearl-draped multi-ethnic women.  It’s a visually memorable scene with several shots merged together in a mosaic to capture the Las Vegas-like over-saturation of the place.

Unfortunately the new footage was not remastered before theater release, and while I appreciate the speed with which it was put together, I did bemoan the grainy, darkened quality of the restored scenes.  The main advantage is that it makes them noticeable so any viewer can ascertain what was missing from the more familiar version.  It’s also lamentable that the film was shown in a digital presentation, but I’m not sure if that applies to all theater screenings or just the Brattle’s.  All told these are minor complaints, and the overall effect of seeing a visionary classic in its near-complete form (about 5 minutes are still lost) is breathtaking on a big screen and required viewing for any fan of science-fiction, silent film, or just great movies in general.

Riddled with shifting loyalties and a large number of characters, Metropolis spreads its complex narrative across two and a half hours of ornate sets and meticulously-planned shots.  The lively orchestral and onomatopoetic score captures the mood of each moment perfectly, magnifying the enthusiastic performances.  Helm is mesmerizing in her dual role as Maria and her robotic doppelganger: alternately a glass-eyed saint and twitchy, devilish rabble-rouser.  Klein-Rogge is the other standout as the manic inventor Rotwang, twisting his metal hand into a claw and arching his eyebrows with mad fervor as he slithers around catacombs and dingy laboratories.

It could benefit from better pacing and a more organized plot structure, and the added scenes don’t help the already dragging and plot-holed story, but the sheer wonder and imagination with which Metropolis is filmed combine with intense performances and a heartfelt message to establish it as a true masterpiece of filmmaking.  Now that it is available in its most complete form, its weird visuals and ambitious story can be fully appreciated for all their muddled religious iconography, forward-thinking mechanics, impressive effects, and allegorical implications.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…adds even more depth to a delirious, dreamlike class parable whose dystopia still feels exhilaratingly modern.”–David Fear, Time Out New York (restored version)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)

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DIRECTED BY: Robert Fuest

FEATURING: Vincent Price, Peter Jeffrey, Virginia North, , , photographs of Caroline Munro

PLOT:  Dr. Phibes, a mysterious, organ playing supervillain, kills off doctors in bizarre and ritualistic ways as Scotland Yard races to find the pattern to the crimes and the identity of the killer.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Dr. Phibes, the supervillain, is pretty damn weird, from his obsession with acting out 1920s torch songs to the audio jack in his neck that he connects to a phonograph when he wants to speak.  Dr. Phibes, the movie, is somewhat weird, though less so than its central character. Doubtlessly, the proper but incompetent Brits who are perpetually one step behind the bad doctor would term the goings-on here “decidedly odd.”  We’re not sold that Dr. Phibes is weird enough to make the List on a first pass, but we’re not comfortable writing it off, either, so it will sit in the Borderline category.

COMMENTS: The first scene of Dr. Phibes wisely spotlights the film’s keynote set and admirably sets a tone of ghoulish whimsy.  Organ music swells as the camera travels up a marble staircase until it reaches an odd atrium.  In the center sits an organ with a fan of pipes glowing with subtly garish yellows, pinks and reds.  Flanking this centerpiece are trees with stuffed birds of prey perched on their dead limbs.  At the organ sits the hunched, hooded figure of a man, who sways as if possessed and theatrically throws up his arms during  random passages as he plays.  After the opening credits fade a longshot reveals there is more to this room: there’s a clockwork band of automatons in tuxedos.  The hooded figure finishes his dirge, steps away, winds a crank and begins conducting the stiff figures as they belt out an impossibly lush big band ballad.  On a balcony above a door opens and out steps a beautiful brunette, Continue reading BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971)