Tag Archives: Mystery

CAPSULE: THE FIFTH CORD (1971)

DIRECTED BY: Luigi Bazzoni

FEATURING: , Silvia Monti, Wolfgang Preiss, Renato Romano

PLOT: A newspaper investigative reporter is obligated to turn full detective as a series of murders seemingly tie together everybody in his life in a labyrinthine web of intrigue.

Still from The Fifth Cord (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The only remotely possible way you could call this movie weird is if you had never seen a giallo before. It’s not just a giallo, it’s a stereotypical giallo just short of a scathing parody of the genre. It wouldn’t even make the list of the 366 mildly quirkiest movies.

COMMENTS: I have to break my usual mold with this one, because The Fifth Cord is just a special case. On the one hand, make no mistake, this is a good movie overall. It’s breathtakingly shot, handsomely mounted, beautifully scored, and is in fact a stand-out example of its genre. But when it comes to the plot… Italian giallo is a genre known for soap opera plotting that stretches credibility, but The Fifth Cord just takes that sucker to another level. It’s like twenty seasons of “Days of Our Lives” packed into a clown car. Giallo also has a reputation for being derivative, but this movie goes straight to the movie cliché Dollar Store and maxes out its credit card. This gives you two choices: try, in spite of the pumpernickel fruitcake structure, to follow the story (bring a notepad and a bottle of adderall), or ignore the yammering yarn and resign yourself to oohing and aahing at the pretty pictures and atmospheric scenes. Let us start down the first path and see how far we get into The Hyperthyroid Yarn From Hell:

Through the opening credits we witness a New Year’s Eve party at an Italian watering hole. Normally that’s movie-talk for “go ahead and get your drink, nothing important is happening yet.” But no, this is actually the most important New Year’s Eve party in film history, because everybody here is interconnected, and most of them are going to end up dead. At the party is one Julia, who takes her date under a bridge the next day, and Walter, a teacher who happens to be walking through a nearby tunnel at the same time. Walter is clubbed by a shadowy attacker, and Julia is first on the scene as the assailant flees. Walter ends up in the hospital. The main character, Andrea Bild (Franco Nero), is a newspaper reporter dispatched to cover this crime, although Bild is in fact more of a hardboiled detective straight out of a Dashiell Hammett novel. At the hospital Bild meets Dr. Riccardo Bini (Renato Romano), who stonewalls him, and the more helpful police inspector (Wolfgang Preiss), who directs him to Julia, who slams a door in his face.

Bild goes back to the home he shares with his cheesecake mistress Lu, but she checks out, so he visits his old flame Helene (Silvia Monti), who knows Walter, since they teach at the same school. While he’s following up on her leads, Dr. Bini is at home with his crippled wife Sofia. The doctor gets called out on an emergency that Continue reading CAPSULE: THE FIFTH CORD (1971)

CAPSULE: YOU NEVER CAN TELL (1951)

DIRECTED BY: Lou Breslow

FEATURING: , Joyce Holden, Peggy Dow, Charles Drake

PLOT: A dog is murdered for his vast fortune, then reincarnated as a human in order to solve the crime and protect his former caretaker.

Still from You Never Can Tell (1951)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Proving that high concept is not a recent phenomenon, You Never Can Tell is amiable and lighthearted, barely dipping its toe into the stranger implications of its premise. It’s perfectly pleasant.

COMMENTS: Deciding whether a movie is weird is complicated by the inescapable truth that weirdness is in the eye of the beholder. After you’ve watched enough movies with really strange storytelling and quizzical imagery, it can be easy to forget the simple charms of the unanticipated left turn. It occurred to me while watching You Never Can Tell that, while I was hardened to the oddball premise of a dog in human form, contemporary audiences must have been rendered speechless by the introduction of an animal purgatory lorded over by a lion and populated by a veritable peaceable kingdom. For most readers here, this is a minor obstacle to overcome, but even today, there are certainly audiences for whom it is a bridge too far.

The story of King the German shepherd cum Rex Shepard, Private Detective is built on a quirky idea, but once you get past the supernatural premise, you’re left with a pretty square whodunit. In fact, the villain is identified for us early on, putting a lot of pressure on our interest in King’s voyages through the human world to carry the film. That means you have to really have to be committed to the quest of Dick Powell to bring his own killer to justice, and between his laid-back performance and the script’s cavalier attitude toward its own plotting, he really doesn’t pull it off. In fact, You Never Can Tell is an interesting blip in Powell’s remarkably diverse filmography, running the gamut from the song-and-dance man of 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 to a hard-bitten private eye in Murder, My Sweet and Cornered. (To say nothing of his eventual gig directing the notorious cancer vector The Conqueror). Powell’s turn as private eye pup plays his tougher image for laughs, but other than a propensity for growling and a fondness for kibble, there’s not much to the performance. It’s light, wisely underplayed, but pretty straight and narrow.

If Powell doesn’t make the most of his role, co-star Joyce Holden absolutely does and then some. As Golden Harvest, a racehorse accompanying King as the detective’s confidential secretary, she gets to have all the fun he can’t. With her on-the-nose attire, inch-thick Kentucky accent, and propensity for horse metaphor and picking winners at the track, she is exactly the freewheeling comic relief the movie wants her to be. In fact, her antics hint at a completely different movie than the one that is developing as Rex tracks down his murderer. In that storyline, his pining for his old four-legged life (at one point, he literally steps over his own grave) is matched by the bittersweet longings of his former caretaker, Ellen. The mix of wacky hijinks and earnest grief is at least as weird as any of the rules of the animal kingdom’s afterlife.

Much of the stranger aspects of the premise are left unexplored, or even deliberately sidestepped, such as the deus ex animalis that justifies the climactic romantic pairing. Is it interspecies love if they’re the same species now? But what if the romantic interest started before that? Is this the story of the love of a beast for its keeper? How many of the humans we encounter on the street are merely animals returned to Earth in an inferior form? What are the implications of procreation in this universe, what is human anyway, and what will the sex be like? You Never Can Tell definitely has more potential for weirdness than it exploits, and possibly more than it knows.

You Never Can Tell is the kind of movie you could easily see being remade every dozen years or so, just to give new comedic talents a chance to unleash their inner hounds. It’s incredibly easy to picture this as a vehicle in the late 1990s. (Likely 2019 casting: Kevin Hart as Rex, Kate McKinnon as Goldie.) So it’s notable that the only (unacknowledged) remake of the film thus far, Oh, Heavenly Dog, flipped the script by reincarnating a human (Chevy Chase) as a dog (Benji). Maybe you need an actual animal to get more into character.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This weird premise makes for a funny, inventive comedy. The dog and horse may be human in form, but they’re still animals. Some hilarious scenes play off this, and I won’t give any away. It’s a one-joke movie, sure, but it’s a funny joke, and one that can last the full running time without wearing thin.” – Samuel Stoddard, At-A-Glance Film Reviews

(This movie was nominated for review by Ed. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: SAFE IN HELL (1931) AND MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934)

William A. Wellman’s 1931 Safe in Hell is lesser-known film, and one of the best. It is viscerally directed and has a powerhouse performance from lead actress Dorothy Mackaill, who deserves to be better known on the basis of this performance alone.

Within minutes. we are in pre-code terrain with Gail (Mackaill) squeezed into a negligée and garter, smoking a fag, and receiving a call from her madame to go meet her trick, who turns out to be her sleazy ex-employer Piet (Ralf Harolde). Gail is a hooker with standards, and after she refuses to sleep with Piet, she conks him out with some prohibition gin and takes off, accidentally setting the hotel on fire.

Wanted for Piet’s murder, Gail goes on the lam. Her sailor boyfriend Carl (Donald Cook) smuggles her onto a ship and drops her off on a Caribbean island with no extradition laws.

Dorothy Mackaill in Safe in Hell (1931)Before Carl takes off on his maritime tour, he marries Gail and promises to send her monthly expenses, but mean island executioner Bruno (Morgan Wallace) intercepts the letter and takes the money.

Having faked his death, Piet shows up at the island and tries to rape Gail, who shoots him dead. Bruno offers to defend her in exchange for some nookie, but she’ll hang before breaking her wedding vows.

OK, it’s a tad melodramatic in the scripting and in some of the performances, but Mackaill’s feistiness and Wellman’s brisk direction override the films flaws, delivering a superior pre-code effort. Although it’s typical of early 1930s output in having little music and static vignettes, it moves quickly and preposterously, akin to late . Mackaill bounces off the walls and often gets physical, not hesitating to give one brute after another a slap to the face. Safe in Hell plays fast and furious with the Curse of Eve mindset. Gail refuses to be a receptacle for thugs; she’s the most ethical person in the film, and takes a hooker martyr’s sweaty halo. Lurid and emotionally charged, it’s not only pre-code, but ahead of its time and still relevant.

At the opposite end of the timeline—one of Hollywood’s last full-throttle orgies before the Production Code began rigorously enforcing moral censorship— Mitchell Liesen’s 1934 Murder at the Vanities has something for everyone. There’s Duke Ellington (who belongs on jazz’s Mount Rushmore) and his big band playing “Sweet Marijuana,” (so sweet, it almost inspired me to light up, and I hate pot); a nymph dick (private eye, that is); and interracial can-can dancing with scantily clad gamins and -like choreography. It’s a celebration of the end of prohibition, along with the eroticism of (unpunished) murder, with winks and fast-talking, wisecracking semi-pornographic dialogue.

Still from Murder at the Vanities (1934)It’s not as plot-oriented as Safe in Hell, and hell, I’m not even sure the plot is relevant whatsoever. It’s more of a musical comedy than a whodunit: you’ll guess whodunit within seconds, but you won’t give a hoot. It’s all about the wackiness of a lost time period. If you’re attached to anything approaching “realism” or “believability,” stay the hell away.  It’s my personal favorite pre-code film, although it’s by no means the best, one that I’ve revisited countless times. It makes me warm all over.

Next week is a 366 first: a silent serial from a naive surrealist.

325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)

L’hypothèse du tableau volé

“People love mystery, and that is why they love my paintings.”–

“Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?”–William Butler Yeats

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Rougeul

PLOT: An unseen narrator explains that an exhibition of seven related paintings from the fictional artist Fredéric Tonnerre caused a scandal in the 19th century and were removed from public view. We are then introduced to the Collector, who owns six of the seven paintings—one of them has been stolen, he explains, leaving the story told through the artwork incomplete. Using live actors to recreate the canvases, the Collector walks through the paintings and constructs a bizarre interpretation of their esoteric meaning.

Still from The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978)

BACKGROUND:

  • Raoul Ruiz is credited with more than 100 films in a career that lasted from 1964 until his death in 2011.
  • Cinematographer Sacha Vierny had an equally distinguished career that spanned five decades. Especially known for his collaborations with and , he lensed the Certified Weird films Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Belle de Jour (1967), The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (1989), Prospero’s Books (1991), and The Pillow Book (1996).
  • Ruiz was originally hired by a French television channel to produce a documentary on writer/painter Pierre Klossowski. The project morphed into this fictional story that adapts themes and plots from several of Klossowski’s works, especially “La Judith de Frédéric Tonnerre” and “Baphomet.”
  • Many of the figurants in the tableaux vivants were writers and staff from the influential journal “Cahiers du Cinema.” Future film star Jean Reno, in his first screen appearance, is also among those posing.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, one of the tableaux vivants—the three dimensional recreations of Tonnerre’s paintings featuring motionless, silent actors. From Diana and the hunt to Knights Templar playing chess, these are (perhaps) inexplicable scenes which, the narrator explains, “play[s] carefully on our curiosity as spectators who arrived too late.” The strangest of all is the tableau of a young man stripped to the waist with a noose around his neck, surrounded by men, one holding a cross, others in turbans and brandishing daggers, and three of whom are conspicuously pointing at objects within the scene. Hanging above them is a suspended mask.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The hanged youth; whispering narrator; Knights Templar of Baphomet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Performed with art house restraint in an impishly surreal spirit, this labyrinthine, postmodern meditation on art criticism plays like a movie done in the style of Last Year at Marienbad, adapted from a lost Jorge Luis Borges story.


Opening of The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting

COMMENTS: The ultimate question Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting Continue reading 325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)

LIST CANDIDATE: SLACK BAY (2016)

Ma Loute

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Fabrice Luchini, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Brandon Lavieville, Raph

PLOT: During the holiday season on the beaches near Calais, two young people from opposite worlds discover a mutual attraction, but complications arise from the behavior of their quirky families and an ongoing investigation into unexplained disappearances among vacationers.

Still from Slack Bay (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The film goes all in on the oddness, contrasting over-the-top dramatics with an aggressively blasé attitude toward the more salacious elements of its story. Writer/director Bruno Dumont wants very badly to put you off your guard, mixing in livewire topics like cannibalism, incest, and gender confusion with characters who are carefully calculated to be ridiculous. But the effort is so determined, so blatantly deliberate, that there’s a case to be made that the weird factor is reduced by the strain behind it.

COMMENTS: Not long after the first run of Twin Peaks flamed out in the dual crucibles of American television production and audience fickleness, ABC decided to see what other ideas David Lynch might have up his sleeve. In the wake of perhaps the moodiest show in TV history, Lynch decided to mix things up by proffering, of all things, a situation comedy. Although possessing a quirky and dark sense of humor, Lynch was hardly anybody’s idea of the next Garry Marshall, and the resulting show—a true curio called “On the Air,” about a failing TV network in the 1950s—was so strange and off-putting in its attempts at comedy that the network pulled the plug after three episodes. There’ll be no latter-day revival for that Lynch project.

It would come as no surprise to learn that Bruno Dumont had stumbled upon “On the Air” and been suitably inspired. Known for the intense gravitas of his raw autopsies of life in Cannes Grand Prix-winning films like L’Humanité and Flanders, Dumont surprised everyone by throwing in with the comedians for Li’l Quinquin, a French TV miniseries that answered the burning question, “What if ‘Broadchurch’ were played for laughs?” Slack Bay continues that dalliance with silliness, viewing a number of serious themes through a filter of absurdity.

The most visible example of this is the extremely broad acting of almost everyone in the cast, resembling the broad physicality of the earliest sound films. Nearly every actor seems to have been given the note, “Go over the top and keep going.” The vacationing family, the nitwit Van Peteghems, revels in stretching every character choice to its extreme. Luchini’s hunchbacked, perpetually perplexed father is so flummoxed by basic tasks that it takes him several minutes to try to cut a piece of meat. (He is unsuccessful.) Bruni Tedeschi is eternally frazzled until a surprising burst of flight provides her with much-needed inner calm. And then there’s Binoche, attempting to become the dictionary definition of the word “histrionic.” She reacts in the biggest way possible to everything, so that when situations finally seem to justify an outsize response (such as an anguished revelation of a family secret), she has Chicken Littled herself into unbelievability.

But it’s not just the upper-class twits whom Dumont captures at their looniest. There are the taciturn Bruforts, who mostly grimace and grunt, barely speaking except to lash out at each other. And then there are the two detectives who stumble across the countryside like a Gallic , utterly incapable of putting one clue together with another. Didier Després’ Machin is a particular idiot: corpulent to the point of being unable to move around effectively (his repeated falls are Slack Bay’s nod to slapstick), he confronts everyone he meets with an aggressive tone and is defiantly oblivious to information directly in front of him. When he too unexpectedly takes to the skies, his experience is utterly different: inspired by nothing, angry, and only resolved by shooting him down.

The closest thing to normal is a young romantic couple. Played with a charming lack of guile by novice actors, Billie and Ma Loute are appropriately awkward, coy, and relatable in ways that set them apart from everyone else in the film. Well, as relatable as a couple can be when they consist of a gender-fluid teenager and a tight-lipped young man who whacks people over the head with an oar so they can be served up as food. It’s almost as though Dumont is playing a game in which you have to decide what makes a character more tolerable: acts or behaviors. In Slack Bay, he seems to lean toward behaviors.

The question of whether or not Slack Bay is weird relies heavily on whether you think Dumont is staging an elaborate put-on. Everything is so broadly vaudevillian, it’s easy to suspect that he’s purposely having a go at us. But I choose to believe that he earnestly wants to explore the human condition via these crazed antics. Maybe, like Lynch in sitcom mode, everything will inevitably filter through his old sensibilities, which will certainly carry over to other styles and genres, like his most recent film: a musical about Joan of Arc.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Just as you near the end of your patience with an item of slapstick farce, something weird and wonderful straight out of a Kevin McSherry painting comes into the frame to transfix you… The shenanigans oscillate from dark and distorted to joyously daft but they may prove too willfully eccentric for some viewers. Others, however, may find delight in such gay abandon.”–Hilary A. White, Sunday Independent (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: BUSTER’S MAL HEART (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Sarah Adina Smith

FEATURING: Rami Malek, DJ Qualls,

PLOT: A mysterious loner living in isolation in the mountains survives off the food and shelter of unused vacation homes; through flashbacks we see how his life unraveled after meeting a doomsday-prophesying computer engineer.

Still from Buster's Mal Heart (2016)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With its nonlinear style and a few nearly incomprehensible plot elements, this is definitely weird. But it also throws in a by-now familiar twist that makes it feel less special.

COMMENTS: For years, a man (Rami Malek) known only as “Buster” has been haunting the woods where a number of high-end vacation homes lie empty the majority of the year. He breaks into these homes and stays for a few days at a time, neatly tidying up after himself but often leaving some memento of his visit behind for the owners to find. The only interactions we see him engage in are periodic phone calls to radio DJ’s and phone sex workers, warning them of some impending doom called “the Inversion.” In an alternate vision of his life, he is lost at sea, waiting out his own death on a small rowboat, alternating between English and Spanish as he shouts at the sky. With the third version of Buster, we learn his history. He was once named “Jonah,” a hard-working young family man who had overcome drug addiction and homelessness and found salvation (and a wife) in the church. He works the night shift at a quiet airport hotel, and dreams of whisking his family away from the toil of working-class suburban life to their very own plot of land in the mountains, where they can live on their own terms. Jonah’s chance encounter with an unnamed drifter (DJ Qualls) who foretells the end of the world sets a chain of events in motion that leads to drastic changes in his lifestyle and worldview.

Buster’s Mal Heart is an exercise in nonlinear, enigmatic storytelling. Each scene is a flashback, a flash forward, or a flash-sideways, with seeming revelations about the protagonist often resulting in more questions, wrong turns, or dead ends. But writer/director Sarah Adina Smith (known for her stunning, secretive debut The Midnight Swim) throws viewers some bread crumbs, hinting at overarching themes. It seems that all of Jonah’s life as we know it is a constant push-pull between a “normal,” responsible, social existence and a completely free, independent one. He works in the hospitality industry, but due to his hours he spends most of his shifts alone, cleaning up the barren spaces of the hotel or sitting at the front desk staring blankly at the empty lobby. He loves his wife, Marty (Kate Lyn Sheil), and young daughter, but refuses to imagine a buttoned-up suburban life for them, instead saving all of his money to build them a cabin on a lake. He is an active member of an unspecific Christian church, but not actually invested in religion, likely remaining only because it is so Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: BUSTER’S MAL HEART (2017)

CAPSULE: BAD TIMING (1980)

AKA Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: A woman is rushed to the emergency room; flashbacks explain the troubled relationship between a psychology professor and a free-spirited younger woman that brought them to this pass.

Still from Bad Timing (1980)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Extremely subtle weirdness + adequate Nic Roeg representation on the List already + shrinking available space (only 85 slots left at the time of this writing) make it a bad time for Bad Timing to come along. Had this review been written earlier in this site’s existence, this movie’s layers of mystery might have convinced us to shortlist it, but now we have weirder candidates waiting in the wings.

COMMENTS: Nicolas Roeg shows excellent, if somewhat deceptive, timing with Bad Timing. He feints that he’s about to give us a bittersweet meditation on a failed love affair, but instead probes ever deeper into a psychology of paranoia and obsession, using a subtly dislocating style to keep us off guard. Opposed dualities appear everywhere: male vs. female, rational vs. emotional, East vs. West, law vs. crime. The setup is classic amour fou, pairing successful academic Dr. Alex Linden with the hard-drinking, free-loving Milena. As the relationship is slowly revealed in flashbacks, we see the power balance between the two shift back and forth, as both parties become mired in an increasingly destructive relationship, in different ways. Alex appears coldly rational—Milena bitingly advises him to try to love her instead of trying to understand her—but his advanced training doesn’t inoculate him from human frailty; he’s as subject to jealousy as the next man, and when he falls from his logical perch, he falls hard, into a churning id.

Paranoia and second-guessing are the rule in Alex’s world. The ever-present Cold War background, which is seldom explicitly mentioned, aroused more paranoid associations at the time than it does now. Alex lectures his Intro to Psych students about how everyone is a spy, starting with children peeking on their parent’s lovemaking; later, it appears that the psychiatrist himself is being analyzed by the detective, whose intuition and experience may lead him closer to Alex’s essence than Freudian methodologies would. Alex’s nemesis is a source of mystery and paranoia, too. Harvey Keitel’s obsession with investigating what on the surface seems to be an open-and-shut suicide attempt is itself obsessive, and seems almost unmotivated (until a last minute revelation). Wearing a greasy mullet, Keitel doesn’t make the slightest pretense of being Austrian; I don’t think this is bad casting, but deliberate dissonance, a clue that his character is pure metaphor.

Art Garfunkle, on the other hand, really is bad casting, and his presence damages what could have been an unqualified classic. Roeg’s good taste in casting as an alien The Man Who Fell to Earth doesn’t carry forward here. Not only is Garfunkle a stiff in the acting department, but we’re asked to view him as a suave sex symbol, someone whose magnetism would ensnare the heart of a young woman who could have her pick of any stud in Vienna. Fortunately, an excellent, brave performance from the underappreciated Theresa Russell blows through Art’s inadequacies in their scenes together.

The finale is truly shocking, but well-earned. Also of note is the excellent soundtrack, featuring hits from , Billie Holiday, The Who, and Keith Jarrett. The difficulty of re-securing the rights to all of this music for home video release put Bad Timing out of circulation for many years. It was released to mixed reviews and big controversies: it was rated “X” in the U.S. (a commercial death sentence), and the U.K. distributor called it “sick” and had its logo pulled off prints. Although the film is better appreciated today (even receiving a Criterion Collection release), the furor over Bad Timing led to a perception of Roeg as box office poison. After starting his career off with five memorable films, the director’s career fell off precipitously in the 80s, with 1990’s adaptation The Witches marking a brief comeback to relevance.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of Roeg’s most complex and elusive movies, building a thousand-piece jigsaw from its apparently simple story of a consuming passion between two Americans in Vienna.”–Time Out London

(This movie was nominated for review by sometime contributor Eric Gabbard,  who pleaded “The odd juxtapositions and time shifts. It’s a definite weird candidate. Give it a chance.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)