“Many would attest that The Pianist is Polanski’s most personal work, given the obvious Holocaust subject matter, but look beneath the surface, and when the window curtains are drawn aside, Polanski’s The Tenant shines brightest as the work closest to his being.”–Adam Lippe, A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity
PLOT: Meek clerk Trelkovsky rents an apartment in Paris that’s only available because the previous tenant threw herself out the window. He takes it upon himself to visit the woman, who has just awakened from a coma; while there, he meets Stella, a friend of the pre-deceased, with whom he embarks on an awkward romantic relationship. After the previous tenant passes Trelkovsky moves into the apartment, where his odd neighbors are obsessed with keeping the grounds quiet, and finds himself slowly taking on the personality of the previous tenant.
Based on the 1964 novel Le Locataire Chimérique by Panic Movement member Roland Topor. Polanski co-wrote the screenplay, rewrote the main character to be a Polish immigrant rather than a Russian, and cast himself in the lead.
Because of its apartment setting, The Tenant is considered part of Polanski’s unofficial “apartment trilogy,” which also includes Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
The film was shot in English, but most of the French actors were dubbed over by American voice talent. (Polanski dubbed himself in French for that language’s version).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Unfortunately (because as a looker he’s no Dustin Hoffman, or even Ed Wood) it’s the sight of Polanski in drag, particularly as he admires himself in the mirror, hiking up his dress to reveal his garter and stockings, and concludes “I think I’m pregnant.”
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Tooth in the wall; toilet mummy; high-bouncing head
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Take a novel by Surrealist writer Roland Topor and give the property to Roman Polanski to adapt and star in while he’s having an anxiety attack, sprinkle lightly with hallucinations, and you get The Tenant. It’s a little Kafka, a little Repulsion, a little Bergman, a little cross-dressing exhibition, and very weird.
FEATURING: Christopher Jones, Hal Holbrook, Shelley Winters, Diane Varsi, Ed Begley
PLOT: A rock star parlays his immense popularity and the ascendant power of the youth vote into the Presidency, which he then uses to marginalize the country’s adults, banishing them to concentration camps and dosing them with LSD.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A true document of its time, Wild in the Streets takes its premise of a counterculture gone mad with power to its outrageous extreme. Viewed half-a-century later, the sheer 60s-ness of the thing makes it feel strange and even absurd. But strip away the hippie affectations and what remains is a straightforward sociological horror film, revealing the dangers of demagoguery that lurk in every generation.
COMMENTS: Wild in the Streets is the tale of a temperamental, rich celebrity with parental issues and no political experience who capitalizes on the support of an angry and marginalized electorate, co-opts a group of venal, self-interested politicians who think they can control him, and proceeds to undermine the very core of American democracy for his own corrupt ends. Any similarities to current events are entirely coincidental, of course.
If the plot of Wild in the Streets seems to echo today’s tango with a tangerine-tinted tyrant, rest assured it’s because these provocateurs seem to pop up throughout history in similar ways. In truth, the film sometimes plays like a psychedelic cover version of It Can’t Happen Here. We’ve seen the celebrity-driven, public-aided rise of fascism in other films, from A Face in the Crowdto Bob Roberts, to say nothing of the history books.
Wild in the Streets is so very, very Sixties, though. The vivid costumes, the perpetual drug use, the liberal use of groovy lingo…they all root the film firmly in its time. Providing an additional anchor are the rock songs performed by aspiring dictator Max Frost and his band, the Troopers. It may stretch the imagination to think that these songs represent the sound of a revolutionary generation; to these ears, they sound like The Animals. (Their best song, “The Shape of Things to Come,” was a genuine hit, and re-emerged nearly 40 years later in a Target ad; the revolution will be commercialized.) But Wild in the Streets isn’t quite as concerned with the “how” as it is with the “what comes next.”
Legendary schlockmeister producers James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff backed the film with one of the biggest budgets they had ever laid out on a single picture, and it shows. Editors Fred R. Feitshans, Jr. and Eve Newman earned an Oscar nomination for capturing the feel of Max’s unsettled mind, the production design is bold and colorful, and the movie boasts an unusually strong cast for what was essentially an exploitation picture. (Blink and you’ll miss a very young Richard Pryor, underused in a non-comedic role as Max’s black-power drummer). This is still an American International Picture, however, with carefully chosen stock footage, heavy-handed narration by Paul Frees, and all topped off by Shelley Winters, so over-the-top as Max’s horrible mother that one longs for the relative calm and dignity of The Poseidon Adventure. Her awfulness is absolute (the moment she gets behind the wheel of a Rolls-Royce, she runs over a child), but as the root cause of Max Frost’s lust for power, it’s oddly appropriate. Mixing high production values with low satire, the film has a tendency to feel like an extended riff on the famous “Blue Boy” episode of “Dragnet.”
At times, the strident tone of the movie threatens to dull the impact of its message, but the threat posed by fascism and a failure to take responsibility seriously is never far away. Consider Max’s girlfriend Sally, a zonked-out former child star whom he conspires to get elected to Congress. The realization that this glassy-eyed burnout is the linchpin of Max’s strategy is one of the movie’s biggest laughs, but when Sally takes her place in the House of Representatives and manages to push away the drug haze long enough to set Max’s plan in motion, the funny quickly drains away, and the mood shifts first to deeply uncomfortable, and then to outright horror. The idea that politics is a joke isn’t so funny once you start to treat it like one.
Because ultimately, Wild in the Streets isn’t a joke at all. It’s a nightmare. Go beyond the surface conflict of unruly youth declaring war on intransigent adults, and you find the story of a fascist who rises to power on the backs of an outspoken movement which he never truly intends to appease. It’s telling that, in the movie’s “Twilight Zone”-ish finale, Max discovers the one true downside to absolute power: when you’re king of the hill, someone’s always waiting to knock you off. Again, any similarity to your power at the ballot box in November is entirely coincidental, of course.
PLOT: Harry Powell is a self-ordained Reverend during the Great Depression who makes a living by touring Appalachia and marrying widows, who disappear soon thereafter under mysterious circumstances. In prison for stealing a car, he shares a bunk with Ben Harper, a bank robber on death row who has refused to tell the authorities the location of the $10,000 he has stolen. After his release (and Harper’s execution), Rev. Powell finds the robber’s widow, and learns that his young son John knows where the fortune is hidden.
The film is based on a 1953 novel by Davis Grubb. The book was a bestseller at the time of it’s release but was long out-of-print until a 2014 reprint.
Night of the Hunter‘s Harry Powell was based on real-life murderer Harry Powers, nicknamed “The Bluebeard of Quiet Dell,” a West Virginia-based killer responsible for the deaths of two widows and three children.
Gary Cooper was Laugton’s first choice for Harry Powell but he turned down the role of the serial-killing misogynist preacher, thinking it might damage his career. Robert Mitchum had no such concerns and was eager to play the part.
Mitchum’s autobiography contains several inaccurate accounts of the filming, including the allegation that Laughton heavily rewrote James Agee’s original script (an accusation supported by Laughton’s widow Elsa Lanchester). Film scholars who studied Agee’s original script, which was discovered in 2003, reported that the director shot the film almost exactly as written.
This was the only film Charles Laughton ever directed. Although the story that he was so stung by the negative critical reaction to the movie that he never directed again is often repeated, Laughton himself claimed that he simply preferred directing theater to working on films.
Prior to shooting, Laughton screened silent films by D.W. Griffith to get a feel for the look he wanted for the movie.
In 1992, Night of the Hunter was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Pick a single image from Night of the Hunter? It’s a fool’s errand. As much as it hurts to pass up the vision of the “good” Reverend with his right hand of love wrestling his left hand of hate, or the dreamlike serenity of Willa Harper’s final resting place, we think the most meaningful image must come from the children’s flight downriver—specifically, we chose the shot of the skiff passing before the spiderweb, as John and Pearl (temporarily) float away from their murderous stepfather’s snares.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Night of the Hunter is such a massive achievement that we’re invoking 366 Weird Movies’ sliding scale rule: the better a movie is, the less weird it needs to be to make the List. Not that Hunter isn’t strange, by Hollywood standards (and particularly by 1950s Hollywood standards). Film archivist Robert Gitt called this expressionist/Southern Gothic hybrid “the most unusual and experimental film made in Hollywood in the 1950s.” Perhaps that is why director Charles Laughton decided to bring cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who once bragged “I was always chosen to shoot weird things,” onto the crew. Hunter is packed with shadowy, stagey, artificial shots (contemporary critics complained that the effects—both narrative and visual—were “misty”). Mixing fairy tale menace and Freudian killer fathers while masquerading as a titillating potboiler, Hunter was so unique and unexpected that it slid right under the upturned noses of viewers in the 1950s, that most conformist-minded of decades. Generations since have remembered it fondly—well, in their nightmares, at least—and it has since been elevated into the canon of great movies. And now, of great weird movies.
“The most bi-polar epic ever made” would be more apt.
Big budget Hollywood Bible blockbusters are a category that can put shame to the campiest excursions found in low budget horror and sci fi pics. The king of sword, sandal, and sacred cleavage (male and female) was undoubtedly Cecil B. DeMille. Like many patriarchal types, DeMille was, by most accounts, a mean-spirited, obsessive controlling showman, who aggressively pushed his propaganda in some of the greatest howlers ever committed to celluloid. The trademark DeMille camp was intact from the beginning, with his silent King of Kings (1927) gifting us some of the most jaw-dropping intertitles in cinematic history. Mary Magdalene, in jewel studded bra, on the way to meet her lover Judas, mounts her chariot and barks the command: “Nubian slave, harness my zebras!” Still, even DeMille was ecumenical enough to place blame for Jesus’ death on the religious leaders, as opposed to Mel “I hate other religions” Gibson’s medievalism of condemning an entire race of people.
DeMille was at his most seductive in Sign of the Cross (1932), a sexy romp about first century Christians starring Charles Laughton as a leering Nero and the slinky Claudette Colbert taking a pre-code bath in goat’s milk. As usual, the sinners are more interesting than the hopeless saints.
By and large, the Hebrew Bible makes for better cinematic material than the story of Jesus. Those primitive tribal tales make no apologies about contradictory portrayals of a divine being who is, alternately, a savage and a benign father (depending on who was writing). Some of the more outlandish fantasies found in the Torah are almost hidden, which is rather convenient for the childish, self-proclaimed literalists who tend to bypass such passages. Darren Aronofsky‘s Noah (2014) looked at the troubling contradictions without blinking, and gave us one of the most challenging Bible-inspired works of art since Arnold Schoeberg’s opera “Moses und Aron.”
A hopelessly derivative pastiche of preexisting rabbinic narratives, the New Testament Jesus narrative is a bit more problematic. Worse, Jesus himself is, more often than not, rendered in artistic representations as a kind of reverential masochist, a bland “John Boy” Walton deity. Some of the figures that surround Jesus are infinitely more compelling. The giddy and girlish Mother of Christ delivers her Magnificat (which echoes Hannah in 1 Samuel). That soliloquy is better written than almost anything that comes out of Jesus’ mouth. The sassy Martha is the Mary Ellen Walton we all secretly root for over her hopelessly pious sister. Insert-foot-in-mouth Peter makes for a more colorful companion than that dullard, beloved John. The woman at the well and post-Gospel figure Paul have more personality than Jesus himself, with a few notable exceptions. When Jesus steps out of character and horsewhips the money changers, or mantles a Garboesque “I want to be alone” attitude, he suddenly comes to life. Oddly, those wonderful Technicolor miracles and kicking demon ass moments are often inexplicably bypassed in Hollywood treatments, probably because they are uncomfortably “unrealistic.” Of all the Tinseltown interpretations of Jesus, Continue reading THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)→
PLOT: Years ago, a cosmic menace known as Sateen escaped his alien captors and wreaked havoc across the stars. The forces of good and their army of birds vanquished him, but not before he reached Earth and impregnated multiple human women. The children born from those couplings would become mutants, telekinetic beings with the power to rule the world encoded in their genes. Much later, the mysterious being known as the Visitor (John Huston) dreams of a towering figure in black trudging across otherworldly sands. The figure turns into a young girl, and through this vision the Visitor realizes that Sateen’s abilities have resurfaced on Earth within eight-year-old Katy Collins (Paige Conner).
Katy’s hapless mother Barbara (Joanne Nail) recognizes the evil growing inside her daughter as well, as does the cabal controlling Barbara’s boyfriend, Raymond (Lance Henriksen). Seduced by his employers’ promise to fund his pro basketball team, Raymond agrees to impregnate Barbara with a second child in order fulfill their plans for world domination. Will Raymond succeed and help bring the world to its knees, or will Barbara exercise her right to choose (not to be an incubator for mankind’s destruction)?
Also, will the Visitor ever intervene, or will he spend most of his time wandering aimlessly to theme music that is a bit too dramatic and funky for a man who takes forever to walk down a single flight of stairs? And why is Jesus blonde and surrounded by bald children? The answers will surely surprise you, because if nothing else The Visitor is a story that nobody could ever see coming.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: One might read a summary of The Visitor’s plot about a possessed little girl and dismiss it as a rip-off of The Exorcist—which it is—but what’s really special about Giulio Paradisi’s film is that it also rips off Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Birds. In a story where the Satan’s origin as an interstellar felon merits only the briefest attention, director Giulio Paridisi combines a range of ideas from across the spectrums of sci-fi, horror, and religion with such inspired fervor that he could almost be accused of originality. Yes, this is a film that steals parts of very recognizable movies and puts them together with the grace of a child forcing LEGO bricks into a jigsaw puzzle, but the uneven hodgepodge born from The Visitor’s plagiarism is utterly unique in its weirdness.
COMMENTS: From an overqualified cast whose presence could’ve only resulted from blackmail to a plot that immediately requires you to accept that Jesus Christ lives in outer space, very little about The Visitor makes sense. As with many of the so-bad-they’re-weird films, though, that incoherency is the source of the film’s charm. To sit down and explain The Visitor, either by rationalizing its production choices or clarifying its plot scene by scene, would reduce it by turning it into something knowable and common rather than the masterpiece of the bizarre that it is.
The best way to describe The Visitor is to instead just recount a few of its many insane twists, all of which are delivered with the abruptness and enthusiasm of someone making it up as he goes along. This is a movie that casts celebrated director John Huston as a second-fiddle messiah known as the Visitor, whose efforts to stop the possessed Katy Collins soon detour into posing as her babysitter and losing to her in a game of Pong. The threat posed by the girl lies in her telekinesis and a murderous pet hawk whose presence and ability to open doors is never questioned, at least until a maid played by Academy Award-winning actress Shelley Winters kills the bird with her bare hands. However, even more dangerous than Katy is the prospect of her mother, Barbara, giving birth to a son. That second child promises to usher in the end of times, but luckily Barbara lives in post-Roe v. Wade America. After getting pregnant she averts the apocalypse with a timely abortion, leaving the Visitor and his conscripted army of pigeons to take care of Katy and save the day once and for all. Of course, one may wonder why the Visitor didn’t simply take care of Katy as soon as he arrived on Earth, but the answer is clear. That would mean denying us a pretty awesome movie.
After leaving the film’s premiere, Huston reportedly walked up to director Giulio Paradisi and said, “You know what, I had no idea we were making that kind of movie. Congratulations.” Therein lies the wonderful essence of The Visitor, an undertaking so strange that even the people making it could not understand it. It veers from one crazed idea to the next without a care in the world. The results are inscrutable, but within that inscrutability lies a kind of magic. Ultimately, it’s a movie that proves that, when you don’t need to justify yourself, anything is possible.
Drafthouse Films is re-releasing The Visitor to theaters through January 2014, with a new DVD release to follow.