Meanwhile, back in my other, digital life…

Saturday, by some weird fluke, I watched two movies whose plots hinged on the same twist. I much preferred An Education to Up in the Air, especially if I don’t think about Alfred Molina’s overacted, conveniently confused father in the former, or the prudish homiletics that kick in near its end. (The movie views the idea of taking time off before college, even if it means traveling the Continent and reveling in its culture, as some worrisome venture one might never safely return from, like a Turkish prison, or worse, the Beatnik life.) I liked it, though—it’s gorgeous, it’s rather cool as a period piece, Peter Sarsgaard and Carey Mulligan both kill, and its view of small-time gangsters is unorthodox if not totally convincing. I was a little thrown by seeing Cara Seymour already playing a mother role but it turned out to be an irresistible bit of casting; like Seymour, the corners of Mulligan’s mouth pull downward when she smiles. (I also see on IMDb that Mulligan’s slated to play Eliza Doolittle in a remake of My Fair Lady. That’s pretty far from being my favorite musical but this is clearly a thing that must happen.)

Up in the Air and Fantastic Mr. Fox are both cute, amusing and very, very slight. Up  in the Air in particular evaporated into guess-what before the credits were over, thanks largely to that plot twist. Why in the world one character would hide such information from another character while doing everything but beg that person to accidentally ruin their world is a question that only a Hollywood screenwriter can dodge.

John Cromwell’s 1950 Caged is a prison expose whose cynicism is almost as spectacular as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang’s. The gorgeous, forgotten Eleanor Parker plays Marie Allen, a 19-year old girl tagged as an accessory after her husband dies while committing a robbery; the movie opens with a slowed-down, magnified look at the first day of her 15-year stretch, then widens to cover the whole of life in a dorm-style cell block. Caged bluntly shows how crooked pols and complacency create more criminals than the system can ever rehabilitate, and its allusions to lesbianism are reasonably knowing and sensitive. The story traces Marie’s transformation from mousy naïf to hard-hearted crook, a movement made a little less schematic by a terrific stroke of plotting: the butch boss of the cell block is slowly (and painfully) supplanted by a certified “vice queen” with mob connections, and Marie’s descent is considered complete when she switches allegiance from one woman to the other. Parker was nominated for an Oscar for Caged in a Best Actress field that included two woolly mammoths—Bette Davis, for All About Eve, and Gloria Swanson, for Sunset Blvd.—charging directly at each other. Presumably the two titans split their own vote; it’s otherwise impossible to understand how Judy Holliday wound up grabbing the gold, for Born Yesterday. No offense to Holliday, who’s totally fine in her cute little movie, but that’s a Dances with Wolves-beats-GoodFellas level of ha-ha.

Mad Love (aka The Hands of Orlac) is the movie which Pauline Kael pinpoints in “Raising Kane” as the source of certain touches in Citizen Kane—mainly, the chilly views of bald men and white cockatiels. The movie also served as the Joycean totem of guilt and impersonal vengeance that keeps catching Geoffrey Firmin’s eye in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. A concert pianist loses his hands in an accident; a mad surgeon, in love with the pianist’s wife, replaces the hands with those taken from a murderer who’s just been hung. Bummers ensue. Mad Love was directed by the legendary Karl Freund, and as “Doctor Gogol” Peter Lorre got one of his few chances after M. to really strut his stuff. Mad Love isn’t in that league, natch, but it’s closer to the spirit of German Expressionism than any of Universal’s more famous horror films from the ’30s.

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