Archive for February, 2014

“The Respectful Prostitute” (1952)

February 11, 2014

Last night it was The Respectful Prostitute, taken from Sartre’s play about racial tensions in the Deep South, a movie surprising both for its perceptiveness about American culture and its adult, no-bullshit approach. A prostitute (the rather scrumptious Barbara Laage) becomes a pawn in a powerful politician’s plan to frame a black man for rape, but the seemingly predictable theme of two outsiders is undercut by the Northern woman’s inability to comprehend the utter helplessness of the Southern black’s position. Though a word from her could save his life, she’s too busy launching a romance with one of the local bigots—himself a beautifully complex creation—to get involved.

Produced by a French film company, and performed in French by French performers, it’s nevertheless indistinguishable in look and feeling from many American movies of the period, to the point that it’s a through-the-looking-glass vision of what our movies might have been like had they never been subverted by the Production Code: unapologetically political, sexually frank, and pragmatically blunt in language. This is a movie in which unmarried lovers are seen waking up together after a one-night stand, and whose script freely employs the words “bullshit”, “whore” and “nigger” whenever those terms are called for—which is often.

Like the gathering of the lynch-mob in Fury or the road-trip in Nabokov’s Lolita, this X-ray of America by a foreigner is so revealing that in places it’s almost embarrassing. Certainly no white American movie I know of ever bothered to capture the atmosphere of a “coloreds only” railroad coach, much less did it so convincingly. It’s also noteworthy for being the last film of Marcel Herrand, who played the lethal Lacenaire in Children of Paradise, here playing the senator who clouds Laage’s mind with some subtle racist logic. However, I can’t pinpoint in the credits the name of the black actor who played the accused man—which is fitting, in a sick kind of way.

respectful prostitute

“The Axe of Wandsbek” (1951)

February 10, 2014

Falk Harnack’s The Axe of Wandsbek is another DEFA production, this one about a Hamburg butcher whose shop is ailing because he can’t afford to modernize. The time is September 1933, i.e., just a very few months after Hitler took power, and through a string of circumstances (a couple of them a tad forced) the butcher is offered 2,000 marks if he’ll do the state just one tiny favor: behead four Communists who’ve been framed for murdering a soldier. The thing is, this isn’t like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie where Cosmo Vittelli had to choke down his scruples to commit murder. No, Albert Teetjen wants to perform the executions, because he wants the money, but knowing that he’ll be ostracized in his community if word gets out, he takes steps to hide the deed, even from his bourgeois, religious wife. Then, of course, word does get out, and…

The Second Track remains the most visually accomplished DEFA production I’ve seen, but The Axe of Wandsbek is the most poetic one. Axe opens with a Langian touch: some little girls playing hopscotch between the words “Heaven” and “Hell” scrawled on the sidewalk. The quadruple execution isn’t shown directly—instead, we experience it through the wildly varied reactions of four secondary characters watching it from an attic. The giant old axe which the butcher is so proud of—it belonged to his grandfather and, as he constantly points out, is made of “the finest Sheffield steel”—is a potent symbol. When things start going wrong for him, Teetjen literally tries to bury the token of his misdeeds, but a neighbor, spotting him, digs it up again, and the bad penny comes home with a vengeance.

The movie was made by people who lived through Nazism’s early years, so all the little social touches—the salutes, the atmosphere of the shops and beerhalls, the decor of the various abodes, the things the characters do for entertainment—ring true. What I’m less certain about is how safe it really was for people opposed to Hitler to air their views back then. None of the characters go so far as to deliver anti-Nazi speeches in the town square, but among themselves they express their political feelings with surprising freedom. A character like the social worker who shows open sympathy for the doomed Reds…well, I’m just not sure how long she would’ve stayed on the street, even in ’33. Communist propaganda is probably heavier in Axe than any of the other DEFA films I’ve seen, but at least it’s confined to the one or two scenes in which the butcher’s neighbors discuss the execution of the Reds primarily as a blow against “the workers”. Even with its symbolic shadings the film is mainly a character study, and a bully one at that.

axe of wandsbek1

Ad Spell

February 4, 2014

So you’re selling a new product that’s linked to a bodily function which is saddled with yucky connotations. Your major competitor has a stranglehold on the marketplace, and consumers are so accustomed to their product that an alternative like yours is bound to seem alien—even a little gross. Your message has to discredit the competition’s motives, defuse your customers’ fears, educate the public about the biological and environmental benefits of your product, and carve out a new client base. Oh, yes: It needs to be eye-catching and funny, but mature as well.

You have 108 seconds to work with.

Now, go.

flotsam & jetsam

February 3, 2014

bill and billie



noir poster


(h/t Elliot Lavine)

past blast

February 3, 2014

Totally bizarre…I’m sitting here watching How Green Was My Valley, in particular the scene where Anna Lee visits the family for the first time, and a very young Roddy McDowall, taking one look at her, falls instantly in love. The concept of a kid falling in love with a grown-up idly passed through my mind, and out of the blue I flashed on something I can’t even remember the last time I recalled. When I was about seven we visited my aunt and uncle’s house one night (this was in St. Louis), and my cousins—all in their late teens—had some of their friends over. There was one girl, I’m sure she wasn’t older than 19, who I spent the evening absolutely *fixated* on. I can’t remember her name now but I can remember how she looked, and I especially remember how soft her neck looked, and that at one point I was sitting next to her on the couch, in a room filled with people of all ages, and I was just dying to kiss her there–on her neck, I mean. (Hey, I don’t know who controls these things. It for damn sure isn’t me.)

Anyway, when it was time to leave and my family was walking out the door, it suddenly felt all-important that I let her know how I felt, and so in a moment of real panic I turned around and blurted out “I love you!” There had to be 8-10 other people in the room, including my mom, who was standing right next to me. For a second I thought I was going to get away with it, but then the room erupted in laughter—friendly, sympathetic laughter, but laughter just the same—and I got embarrassed and walked out the door. Sitting here now I can appreciate that it’s a touching memory and yadda yadda, but mostly I’m struck by the fact that I remember this tiny little event well enough that one small moment in a movie can bring it back in so much detail. Seriously, I can picture exactly how, when I said those words, that woman’s mouth fell open and she looked at whoever it was sitting next to her.

Like I say…just bizarre.

(July 17, 2013)


another one down

February 3, 2014

For more than 30 years I’ve had a loose phrase—“that rapturous swig of scotch”—bouncing round my head like a song lyric. It was a description of the sip of booze James Mason takes in the bathtub after Shelley Winters’ death in Lolita, and I’ve remembered it this whole time because, simple as it is, it so nicely captures one of those private moments movie characters are sometimes allowed to enjoy, and also because, well, scotch was involved. But despite always keeping one eye peeled for the phrase whenever reading something about the movie over the years, I never could find it, not in Kael or in any of the other critics from that era, and I couldn’t think who besides a film critic would’ve zeroed in on such a fleeting moment. Then this weekend I re-read the screenplay Nabokov wrote for Kubrick, which I owned way back in Houston, and when I finished it I quickly flipped back to the preface where my eyes alit on the following: “Quite a few of the extraneous inventions (such as the macabre ping-pong scene or that rapturous swig of Scotch in the bathtub) struck me as appropriate and delightful.”

I should’ve known, I guess; anyway, I’ll take it. Anything that reduces the list of things to be puzzled about in life is fine by me.

(November 24, 2013)


The Knife

February 3, 2014

About 25 years ago I was good friends with a co-worker named Leslie who around 1987 gave me a Swiss army pocketknife for Christmas—a thoughtful, unexpected present. A couple-three years later, though, she and I had a fight about some things I did while I was drunk one night, and she cut me off with extreme prejudice. I haven’t seen her since then, but not only did I hang onto the knife, I kept it on my coffee-table, first all through my time in my last apartment and then again all through my time in this one, using it again and again and again to open things and whatever. Then, about five years ago, my landlady remodeled my bathroom and some of the plumber’s stuff inevitably spilled over into my already cluttered livingroom for a couple days. When he finished and went away I didn’t notice anything different until about a week later, when I picked the knife up to open something and I noticed the little Swiss army pocketknife logo was missing from it—and realized what I had in my hand was a common cheap red pocketknife that the plumber had somehow swapped out for Leslie’s knife. In my head I went through the whole scenario of calling my landlady and having her make Mr. Lee drive back here from God knows where, all to return a gift from someone who doesn’t even like me anymore, and I decided to just skip it and struggle through life with a plain red emotionally-unadorned pocketknife. And that’s what I did. But I swear, there wasn’t a single, solitary time, out of the scores of occasions I’ve used that nothing little knife since then, that I didn’t feel some embers of upset and resentment about losing Leslie’s gift.

And so we come to last Saturday, when I went into the kitchen to check out how much packing tape I had in the house. (Answer: none, but I’ve gotten really good with a tape-gun in the meantime.) I was digging around in the utility drawer, home to myriad tangled extension cords and double-A batteries past their expiration date, and I was trying to dig a little deeper when I realized that what I was holding in my hand was Leslie’s Swiss army pocketknife. I have no idea how it got there; I mean, over all those years I hadn’t just kept it on the coffee-table, I’d kept it on the same particular corner of the coffee-table. Anyway, I’m glad it’s back (and I hope it’s glad to be back), even if I can’t retrieve the psychic energy I wasted on it lo these many years. My apologies to Mr. Lee, and to Leslie, too.

(December 4, 2013)


“The world revolves around you. Question mark.”

February 3, 2014

February 3, 2014

Yeah. I do.

February 3, 2014

“You’re 53, with a life in tatters, like the rest of us. Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We’re all on the brink of despair. All we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, and joke a little. Don’t you agree?”

Jep Gambardella, The Great Beauty


%d bloggers like this: