The Magnificent Ambersons

Written by Joe D on July 8th, 2014

936full-the-magnificent-ambersons-poster.jpgI’ve been thinking about this film lately so I watched a few clips on Youtube, I have a Japanese import dvd somewhere but I haven’t run across it in a while. The shots in the party scene are so amazing, so fluid, so space delicious , I don’t think their baroque splendor was reached until Fellini’s 8 1/2 and this was Welles 2nd film! The interesting sequence of Joseph Cotten trying on different types of clothing, shoes, hats illustrating the evolution of sartorial styles is unique in Cinema. The wonderful opening shot of the house and the horse drawn carriage that comes by and the orchestrated movement in the frame is unequalled in timing, simplicity, complexity. It’s not boring one shot that doesn’t move with a kind of Victorian vignetting, incredible. I read some where that Welles, enfant terrible of radio, recorded the dialog for the big dance scene as a radio play, worked with the actors till the timing was perfect, then played back the dialog on the set as they filmed and the actors had to say their lines in sync with the recording! It seems impossible but the scenes are obviously(to me) dubbed. And these are some intricately choreographed moving shots! With overlapping dialog no less. It really is unbelievable.


The way characters move from light into darkness, become silhouettes, then are illuminated again, so beautiful, tenebrae is the term for this dramatic lighting effect. The wonderful performances, all great.

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The movie does have a kind of a downer tone that was out of sync with it’s time, WWII and all, probably why it tested poorly, but it was ahead of it’s time, it plays better now. Watch Joseph Cotten’s speech about the impact of the automobile on civilization, brilliant .


The idiotic regime that replaced Schaffer at RKO hated Welles, so did a lot of people in Hollywood, they resented this upstart and they didn’t understand him so they tried to destroy him. And they did a pretty good job, even though it was at a high price to themselves! If they had not reclaimed the silver from the original negative of Amersons by melting it down, they would have been able to release the Directors cut in theaters all over the world, on VHS, dvd, Blu Ray. They would have made a fortune from it. As a fortune was made from Citizen Kane over the years. I can think of no other lost film I would rather see than Welles cut of Ambersons. It’s like a dream, the idea of going into a theater and seeing the whole thing. Welles went to Rio to shoot “IT’s All True” before Ambersons was completed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had persuaded his friend to take on this project to foster good feelings between South America and the USA, keep them from joining the Fascists. I read that Robert Wise sent a work picture and track down to Rio for Welles to watch and comment on. No one seems to know what happened to that print. Could it still be down there in rusty cans, in storage somewhere, in an old warehouse. The heat and humidity might have turned the nitrate film stock into highly explosive goo but maybe there’s a chance it was put in a cellar somewhere, a vault, and it exists. Lying there in the darkness ,the plastic realization of a young man’s genius, like frozen thoughts, Donovan’s Brain in it’s fish tank, waiting.

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Welles on the Ambersons set, Robert Wise the editor 2nd from left. Welles blamed him for the hatchet job

Ambersons was one of the favorite films of Jean Pierre Melville. He speaks of it in a book of interviews I once read. He comments on a scene between Joseph Cotten and Anne Baxter (playing his daughter). How Mellville remembers seeing the “cottony trees” they were walking through even though the scene is in a close 2shot and you don’t get a good view of the surroundings, Welles created this unseen world in the viewers minds by the actors voices, a direct link to Radio.

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I might as well mention Tim Holt. Son of Cowboy star Jack Holt ( a Jack Holt Western is playing at a theater Tim and Anne Baxter walk by in the film)

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Holt never really wanted to be an actor but he was born into it, Hollywood Royalty, a member of the Beverly Hills polo club. This was a big year for Tim, he appeared in Ambersons and The Treasure Of the Sierra Madre, not bad!

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Welles did not appear in Ambersons but he did the voice over, and narrated the credits at the end, one of the first times a film appeared with no letters on the screen (other than the RKO logo and the main title). Once again Radio rears it’s antennaed head.


Future filmmakers beware! Never walk away from your film before it’s finished! Even if FDR and Rockefeller are beseeching you to do so! This action on Welles part not only “ruined his best film” but put a huge dent in his fledgling yet stratospheric career. A pattern that repeated itself throughout his films, he left Touch Of Evil to go down to Mexico to set up a new project, but that film fared much better than Ambersons, they even recut it following a 100 plus page memo Welles left behind. Oh well if only somebody stumbling out of a World Cup match wanders by mistake into an old film vault and kicks over a box and cans marked RKO spill out otherwise we’re left with the image from the end of Citizen Kane but it’s not Rosebud that’s consigned to the flames, it’s the missing negative of The Magnificent Ambersons.

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Model Shop

Written by Joe D on April 9th, 2014

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Jacques Demy came to L.A. in 1968 and made a film, Model Shop. I knew nothing about this film when I watched it and I suggest you watch it in the same state of innocence, you will be rewarded with a delicious surprise. Like other European directors who came to Hollywood to make a film, Demy finds the extraordinary in our ordinary, beauty in plain sight, yet invisible to most Americans who take it for granted or in the case of L.A. (where Model Shop is filmed) downright hate it. The comparison that comes to mind is Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, a much maligned film that I like. Both of these films were flops at the Box Office but so what, they capture a Los Angeles at a point in time like a fly trapped in amber.
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With the sucess of Easy Rider and other counter culture films, producers were desperate to cash in on the youth craze and gave young directors like Demy a shot. Anouk Aimee is wonderful, so beautiful, so feminine, so mysterious.
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Do yourself a favor , do not watch the trailer or read anything about Model Shop, just watch it. It’s photographed by an ex-pat Frenchman who moved to Hollywood, Michel Hugo and he does a wonderful job, the Technicolor portrait of L.A. is stunning, and the locations are great. It looks like they filmed in the real places in the story. I met Michel many years ago when he was teaching a cinematography class. He also shot the 1st Kolcack, The Night Stalker, one of the best TV movies of all time. Gary Lockwood is good, enigmatic, handsome. All American. He was fresh off his big role in Kubrick’s 2001,
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Demy wanted an unknown actor he found, Harrison Ford but the studio said no, here is some footage from a screen test Ford did for Demy.

I guess Anouk was reprising her character from Demy’s first film Lola, but I haven’t seen it yet so I’ll report back after checking it out. Anyway take a trip down Memory Lane, the 60’s , psychedelia, Vietnam, the music of Spirit and check out Model Shop.

Bonus Added Update! I just watched the latest episode of Mad Men and it opens with Don Draper watching a movie in a theater, and it’s Model Shop! Crazy man!
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Michelngelo Antonioni’s La Notte, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita

Written by Joe D on November 15th, 2013

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I just got the Criterion Blu Ray release of La Notte, it is fantastic. If you are at all interested in this film, get it you won’t be disappointed. Such a visually stunning film, set in Milan in 1961, the center of the Italian Economic Boom, it contrasts the old and the new city in brilliant ways. In a way this is what the film is about, the characters in this changing landscape, this changing, evolving world, and what it does to them. An investigation into the function of human emotions in this rapidly changing theater, do they still make sense? Do they have to evolve as well? These characters, figures in a landscape, that are so cut off from everything. Three of the greatest Cinema actors of all time grace this production, Marcello Mastroianni, Jean Moreau, and the sublime Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s Muse.
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Marcello and Moreau were unhappy with this film, probably because Marcello has never seemed so weak, so dissatisfied, so nothing. Moreau on the other hand is much more alive, curious, searching. Her intelligence and sensitivity are revealled in snatches of conversation, a monolouge, glances, gestures.
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Antonioni celebrates the power and intelligence of women better than anyone else, especially considering the time and place this film was made, Italy,1961, a male dominated culture. His women are so much more interesting than his men, he saw the gifts and insights women have to offer and illuminated them so clearly. A sign of his maturity as an artist and human being. All this and more is expressed by the incredible camerawork of Gianni Di Venanzo. This guy has become my favorite cameraman of all time, such a genius,his framing is so unorthodox and powerful, his use of Black, amazing, people are always turning off lights and becoming inky silhouettes, or moving through darkness and light. Plus this film has many wonderful mysterious reflecting surfaces, sometimes you can’t tell what’s real, people become ghosts floating through Architecture. Bravo Gianni! A Poet of the Eye, the camera.
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There is a little booklet that comes with the Criterion release, in it Antonioni speaks about the gestation of the film. He had the idea before L’Aventura and had begun working on it. He thought a less attractive woman would be good for the lead, so he went to see Giulietta Massina, wife of Federico Fellini and talk to her about the film. Fellini loved the idea and said it would make a fantastic film. But Antonioni didn’t make it at that time and changed his mind about the lead, using the compelling Jean Moreau.
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Fellini went on to make La Dolce Vita with Marcello Mastroianni, a film that shares many elements with La Notte. The male leads are both writers, alienated, losing their creative spark. Both films have important characters that are encouraging to the artistic sides of the writers, friends that wind up dead. Steiner in La Dolce Vita, Garani in La Notte.
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There are scenes in nightclubs featuring exotic dancers in both, fetishistic, sexualized performances by people of a different race. Monica Vitti is the bored beautiful daughter of a super rich businessman that firts with Marcello, Anouk Aimee plays that part in La Dolce Vita. Vitti has a reel to reel tape recorder she plays with, recording her spoken thoughts that she erases, Steiner has a reel to reel also that almost reveals his innermost thoughts. A working woman at a snack bar on the edge of town, in kind ofa run down area tells Moreau of a nearby hotel she can use for an assignation, Anouk takes Marcello to the run down apartment of a prostitute to have sex with him. They both have climactic scenes at a huge party on a big estate that wind up with decadent games. Both end at dawn after the party, even the cmaera movement through the trees in the final scenes is similar.
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Ennio Flaiano was a screenwriter on both. La Dolce Vita was a huge hit, probably because of the controversy surrounding it, the Church banned it, people were forbidden to see it, a sure way to increase ticket sales. I don’t know how La Notte did at the box office, it is an uncommercial film but it is interesting to compare them, these two artists obviously inspired one another, I wonder what their relationship was like? In any case see La Notte. A vision of the future of Makind from 1961.
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Michaelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse

Written by Joe D on August 17th, 2013

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I just watched this on Hulu Plus, it’s not out on BluRay yet so I will wait to buy a copy, but hurry up Criterion! What a beautiful film, two amazing actors in their young, glorious prime. I’m speaking of the incomparable Monica Vitti and the super cool super handsome Alain Delon.

But don’t read this or watch the clip of Scorsese below until after you have seen the film. See it in your innocent state unaware of the treasures it holds, then come back and read this if you like, I don’t want to compromise the experience of seeing this film for the first time for anyone.

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A visionary director at the peak of his creative powers and my new favorite cameraman of all time, Gianni DeVenanzo,(what a genius!) There’s something about a director in love with his leading lady that can be stupendous. I am reminded of Godard and Anna Karina, they made such beautiful, honest, moving films together.

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Maestro and Muse
Here Antonioni does it with his Muse Monica Vitti, the love scenes that play out in this film are so real so immediate, I dare you not to be transported back to your own first stirrings of intense passionate love. it is all photographed so beautifully and allowed to breathe and live on the screen, to me when a film is really working, it’s like it comes to life on the screen before your eyes, like the characters can step off the screen and dance around the theater or the top of your Steenbeck. The film going through the gate seems to pulse with life, to breathe. This is true Cinema, the magical machine that captures the essence of humanity and preserves it like a fly in amber for all time. I don’t even care what this film is about, Italian stock market crash, white African neighbor, breakup of one relationship beginning of another, it’s the informed point of view of the filmmakers that really elevates it to the stratosphere, a point brought home by the amazing montage at the end of the film, it goes on for 10 minutes, it features none of the actors even though Antonioni plays a trick on the viewer by having a blond woman enter the frame during this sequence, is it Vitti? No it’s just some woman walking through the same spot where some of our story took place.

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This montage shows the culture alive at that moment recorded by an artist, it can’t help but convey his world view, his philosophy in a series of seemingly random images, but this is another basis of Cinema in the capable hands of an artist like Antonioni. Jess Franco had the ability to say so much with just an establishing shot of a European city, you somehow got more than some shots of buildings at dusk, a clock tower, whatever, it’s not just postcards when filtered through the mind of a genius.  It’s like a Jazz musician playing a riff on Civilization, improvising with images and ideas. And by the by these sequences are usually accompanied by music. Images and Music, does it get any better than that?

And here for your viewing pleasure and cinematic edification is  Martin Scorsese discussing Antonioni.

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David Lynch Interview

Written by Joe D on July 7th, 2013

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Here is a blast from the past. an interview with David Lynch from 1979. And it takes place at the location of Eraserhead, actually the early scenes of Henry wandering through an industrial waste land.

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The interesting thing is it’s an old oil field where the Beverly Center now sits, I always thought it was shot in Philadelphia, PA. There is also some great footage of people leaving the theater after seeing Eraserhead and their reactions to the film. You can see all this here.
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The Chase -Peter Lorre, Bob Cummings, Steve Cochran

Written by Joe D on March 23rd, 2013

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What a cool movie! Dripping with atmosphere and featuring some powerful performances especially from Steve Cochran and Peter Lorre.
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Lorre is one of my favorite all time film actors, check out Friz Lang’s M if you haven’t seen it. Cochran has one of the most distinct physical presences in films, his nastiness  just shoots off the screen in a way like no other actor. He’s just a bad dude.

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Bob Cummings is the perfect American everyman, sort of innocent, shocked by what he saw in WWII, messed up but a good egg. He brings to mind a comment Quentin Tarantino made to me about Joseph Cotten, “I love Joseph Cotten, he’s so weak.” Cummings is kind of in that category, but Cotten always had that down at his heels ex-Southern gentleman thing going on, Cummings is just from small town nowheresville.

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This film is a kind of confluence of many strange and wonderful things. Based on a book by noir maestro Cornell Woolrich called The Black Path Of Fear, (I ordered a copy) it’s film noir pedigree could not be higher, I believe Woolrich had more novels made into film noirs than anyone else,( I include Val Lewtons The Leopard Man, and Truffaut’s Bride wore Black and Mississippi Mermaid).

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The Producer Seymour Nebenzal produced Lang’s M, which Lorre starred in, the director , Arthur Ripley,was an old hand that got started in the silent days and would go on to direct Robert Mitchum’s Thunder Road and found the UCLA film school. Michele Morgan, the blond femme fatale, is still alive and living in France. A friend of mine (Duke Haney)reminded me that she was having her home built while this movie was being made,  A kind of French Chalet that would go down in infamy some years later, 10050 Cielo Drive, scene of the grisly Manson murders of Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Voychek Frykowski, Jay Sebring and Steven Parent.

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Michele Morgan at her Cielo Drive home

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The camerman was the amazing Franz Planer, a Vienese transplant who emigrated to escape the Nazis. Planer also shot the beautiful, atmospheric noir Criss Cross for Robert Siodmak. His photography is nothing short of amazing. There is a wonderful sequence of a black limousine racing a locomotive at night , it’s a tour de force of miniatures, rear projection, great low angle shots of Lorre driving, shot through the steering wheel.

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The film is in the public domain now, you can watch it on Youtube, but I just learned it was restored by UCLA and screened recently, unfortunately I missed it. Hopefully they will screen it again soon or at a noir festival.

Deadhead Miles

Written by Joe D on February 29th, 2012

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This is a film I’ve heard about for many years and now finally it can be seen, thanks to Netflix streaming. Written by the great Terrence Malick a couple years before he directed his masterpiece Badlands, Deadhead Miles is a paean to the open road, a picaresque tale of two and eventually one traveler. That one traveler is played by Alan Arkin, a terrific performance and one of the weirdest Southern accents ever. Arkin is the driver of the big rig of destiny. Beautiful cinematography, 35mm, rich color,awe inspiring landscapes, 1971 locations make this movie a kind of low ball visual feast. And a cool country music score, by Tom T. Hall. A great supporting cast, including some real gems.

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But the reason I knew about this movie is that a friend of mine worked on it. Bud Smith, great editor of such films as The Exorcist, Putney Swope, Cat People, Zoot Suit, Sorcerer, Personal Best and many other films, told me about his time on Deadhead Miles. Bud was hired to edit the film, he stayed in Los Angeles while the crew shot on location and sent the film back. Bud cut the film as it came in. At the end of the shoot the director took a few weeks off to recuperate from the rigors of a road movie. When he came into the editing room Bud was ready with his first cut of the movie. They screened it. The director said,” Can you take that all apart and put it back in dailies?” Bud said, ” You mean there’s nothing in there that you like?” ” Yes, that’s exactly what I mean.” “Well, I guess you got the wrong guy to work on your film.” And with that Bud left. Tony Bill , the producer, wisely duped Bud’s cut before having it disassembled and after a little while Mr. Bill fired the director. The new editor used Bud’s original cut for a lot of the film which then languished in obscurity until now. So check it out, a unique film.

John Barrymore, Jr. in Joseph Losey’s The Big Night

Written by Joe D on January 18th, 2012

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Here’s a crazy film I happened upon last night. Joseph Losey’s The Big Night. A Coming Of Age Noir Urban Fairy Tale. John Drew Barrymore , son of the great Barrymore and father of Drew, stars and gives a great performance. He is pretty mesmerizing to watch, a fact not only due to his great talent but also to his mental instability. When a crazy person has talent they are fascinating to watch, Brando is another crazy genius that comes to mind.

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Atmospheric Imagery thanks to veteran cinematographer Hal Mohr

This is a strange noir story of a boy’s 17th birthday and the night that he becomes a man.

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Barrymore witnesses his father getting a savage beating from a crippled newspaper man, it sends him out into the night, the big city, thirsting for revenge.

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John Drew Barrymore aka Barrymore Jr.

He goes to all the noir city hotspots, first a prizefight, his prey is a sports writer, thus serving up another staple of the noir canon, the figure of the newspaperman and the paper itself, their role in the Big City. While at the fight Barrymoore makes the acquaintance of a drunken PHD, a Doctor of Philosophy that aids him in his quest for “Al Judge” the evil columnist that caned his prostrate father. A spectator at the fight hands a bottle of liqour to the drunken doctor and I recognized this large individual as Robert Aldritch, who had worked as an assistant director with Joseph Losey on M and The Prowler. The pair of new friends follow Al St. Judge to a bar, lose him and wind up at another noir touchstone, The Nightclub! Complete with Jazz band and black vocalist. Here Losey masterfully limns a disfunctional relationship between the doctor and his mistress in a few deft strokes that tell you so much about them.

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The second Mrs. Charles Foster Kane, Opera Singer Susan Alexander

The women is non other than Dorothy Comingore, Susan Alexander of Citizen Kane. She dances with Barrymore, a harbinger of her sister’s kissing him later in the film, his sexual initiation is with two women old enough to be his mother. An artifact of Losey’s relationship with his own mother, described in a biography as a “sexual predator”. Outside the restaurant Barrymore bumps into the Jazz singer telling her “she’s the best singer in the world” and ” really beautiful even if she is a…” (nigger).

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Beautiful Jazz Singer! Mauri Lynn

The look on her face triggers instant regret in Barrymore, he didn’t mean to insult her, he just revealed his own upbringing and cultural limitations. A great shot follows of his anguished face in the rear window of a taxi that pulls away and disappears into the Stygian Night Of the City. A wonderful scene between Barymore and the sister of Comingore occurs at the apartment, again a motherly /sexual love thing happens. After a nighttime visit to the graveyard shift of the newspaper, Barymore finally tracks St. Judge down and has it out with the evil cripple. St. Judge reveals some startling information about the foibles of Barrymore’s father viv a vis his recently deceased sister, so unsettling the teenager that he puts down the gun and tries to leave but the rotten reporter reveals the depth of his depravity and turns the gun on our young hero, a struggle ensues , a shot is fired, the handicapped columnist hits the deck. John Drew returns to the apartment of lonely older women where the sister comforts him but his new “friend” the doctor throws him out threatening to kill him if he gets him involved in the case. Losey’s bleak view of humanity on display. Young John winds up back at home the cops show up and he pulls agun, threatening to kill himself, OK, nowadays the cops would open fire on the poor sap but back then they waited for him to work it out with his old man, the father reveals the boy’s real mother isn’t dead, she just met a new guy and split. “Don’t you hate her?” the teen asks. “No, I love her. ” The dad replies. The end! And it’s available for streaming on Netflix!

Pasolini’s Arabian Nights

Written by Joe D on October 12th, 2011

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Another rare discovery on Netflix streaming, the 1974 Grand Prize Winner of the Cannes Film Festival, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Arabian Nights or Il fiore delle mille e una notte. I saw this film on it’s initial release back in 1975 in NYC and this is the first time I’ve watched it since then, I started watching it around midnight last night and couldn’t turn it off, I was so caught up in it’s mystic spell of storytelling, just like the caliph who can’t bring himself to kill Scherezade because he wants to hear how her story turns out.

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It took a lot of courage for Pasolini to travel to these exotic locals (Yemen, Ethiopia, etc.) for one he was homosexual and in some of these places at that time that was punishable by death. He got the creme de la creme of Italian film artisans to work on the film, costumes-Danilo Donati, Set Design- Dante Ferretti, Editing- Nino Baragli, Music Ennio Morricone, Camera-Giuseppe Ruzzolini.

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Pasolini and his intrepid crew penetrated hermetic societies, filming in locations that had never been seen by Western audiences, these places are like something out of a dream, it imbues the film with a sense of poetry and magic, bringing the intertwined tales of the Arabian Nights to life in a primal, savage, beautiful way. It is interesting to compare it with Korda’s Thief Of Bagdad,they both spring from the same source and have similar scenes, the prince transformed to an animal, discovering a princess in her garden, taking on a beggar’s clothing, but Arabian Nights tells the tales in a more authentic way, truer to the original. Pasolini was fascinated with the early roots of the novel, picaresque tales of travelers, collections of anecdotes that gave rise to the novels form. The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales come to mind, storytelling at it’s most basic interpreted by a 20th Century poet. A beautiful work of Art by a great artist. Check it out.

Citizen Kane Screens For Free at LACMA

Written by Joe D on December 20th, 2010

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That’s right, here’s your chance to beat the unemployed holiday blues by watching a magnificent film about a super rich guy looking for love and it’s FREE! 35mm projection no less, the Grand Daddy of all Primitive Accumulators, Charles Foster Kane! SEE Deep FOCUS cinematography as pioneered by GREGG TOLAND and his custom made F-stops, hear Bernard Herrmanns first film score. See the great actors of the Mercury Theater. Here’s a piece I wrote about KANE. Here’s the info for the screening. Tuesday Dec 21, 11am LACMA.
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XANADU!!

I Walked With A Zombie

Written by Joe D on December 8th, 2010

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I went, I watched, I walked with I Walked With A Zombie. It was incredible! Really the best way to see this film is in a big theater with 35mm projection! There is no substitute, you pick up so many more nuances, the atmosphere becomes all pervasive, your psyche is opened up to the incredible images and fantasy pours in through your eyes and ears to your very soul! This is how the makers designed the film to work, they didn’t think about TV or video. To say the least it was a moving experience and it clocked in at a rocket fast 70 minutes!

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This film is crammed with ideas, Lewton and his team did exhaustive research and it shows, the music, the dancing, the Afro Caribbean culture give Zombie a rock hard foundation on which to build a castle of fantasy and terror. But terror in a Fairy Tale like way, sort of innocent yet savage, ruthless as Nature and as pure. This film is a textbook of studio filmmaking at a peak of artistry. The B&W photography,the lighting, the production design, the process photography, amazingly executed.

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The Great RKO Artisans of Storytelling-P.S. Check out the legal disclaimer at the bottom of the frame for a joke.

We start in Canada, in a Victorian office, snow falls furiously outside the window. Our Heroine (Francis Dee) is ta nurse being offered a job in the Caribbean, one stock shot of a big sailing schooner later we’re on board (thanks to process photography) with the boss of the plantation and his men, who sing a strange island song in the background. The scene here between Francis Dee and Tom Conway is a brilliantly written piece, it expertly sets the mood for the rest of the film. “It’s so beautiful” Dee thinks to herself only to be interrupted a second later by Conway telling her “It isn’t beautiful” Dee answers “You read my mind” , Conway replies, “You see those flying fish, they’re jumping in terror to escape being eaten, that phosphorescence in the water? The putrescent bodies of dead organisms, This is a place of death.” He sets a tone of unease, he unsettles Dee by reading her mind(supernatural), he belittles her naivety, he fascinates her with his honesty. That sets up their complicated relationship for the rest of the film. All in a couple of minutes.

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Then theirs a scene in the town of San Sebastian, probably the RKO backlot dressed up by D’Agostino and Keller. They filmed here maybe a day or two at most, it’s used a couple of times in the film but sparingly, you really get the impression that everything was planned out and organized with maximum efficiency, the budget was $134,000! A scene in a buggy (process) as an old black islander drives Dee to the plantation is also illuminating. The driver tells her how the slaves were brought to the island in chains on a ship, the figurehead of which is now prominently displayed at the plantation. “It’s so beautiful here” “He replies “If you say so miss, if you say so” She naively ignores the whole slavery aspect, the inherent inhumanity, brutality, focusing on the lush scenery. Lewton’s comment on Western insensitivity.

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Figurehead of St. Sebastian, a representation of the slave based history of the island

The story continues and some of the high points are, the first night at the plantation, Dee is awakened by a woman crying, she goes out to investigate and enters the Tower where the wife of Ellison is kept. It’s pretty creepy, the tower set is particularly effective consisting of a stone stairway slashing across a black frame. Dee climbs the stairs and is confronted by the wraithlike zombie wife of Conway, Jessica Holland. The zombie advances upon her and I swear they applied a skull like make up to her face, it’s shot in a long shot so you can’t see her too clearly but I want to watch it again and check.

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The next great set piece and my favorite scene of the film is when Dee brings Mrs. Holland to a Voodoo ritual, she leads the entranced blonde through a swamp, all artfully created on soundstages, the native drums beat ominously, they come across several talismans , a cow skull, a hanging goat, a human skull and finally a huge zombie guard, he reminds me of Gort from Day The Earth Stood Still.

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But due to their protective amulets , pinned to them by the maid at the plantation, they pass unmolested. The ceremony is great, excellent music by real voodoo drummers and authentic dancing that must have blown peoples minds back in 1943. Here’s another aspect of this film that added to it’s tabu appeal, the underlying hint of interracial sex, the way the maid wakes Dee up by tickling her foot, the fascination of the voodoo priests for the tall beautiful white zombie. The confession by Conway’s mother that she participated in zombie rituals and was possessed by a voodoo god! This is 1943! Lewton so skillfully implies all this and gets away with it! Genius! Also he employed a lot of black actors, including Sir Lancelot, the calypso singer who Lewton also used in Curse Of The Cat People and Theresa Harris who is wonderful as the maid Alma. She is funny and sexy and appears in Out Of The Past and many other classic films.

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The beautiful Theresa Harris-she is the crying woman that awakened Francis Dee on her first night on the Island. She was crying because her sister had a baby. The Islanders cry at a birth and rejoice at a death. The only freedom from their slavery.

There’s a transitional device used in this film that’s very subtle. I first noticed this technique in Cat People which was edited by the same person, Mark Robson. It’s a sort of a wipe, but it’s as if a black shape passed in front of the lens, in Cat People it feels like a black panther crossed very close to the camera, it creates a subconscious sense of unease, you’re not really aware of what happened, it seems like a quick fade out fade in but it isn’t. Watch Cat People and Zombie carefully and try to catch it. In Zombie it occurs late in the film, a transition between Dee talking to Conway at night at the plantation and Mrs. Holland trying to leave. Somewhere around there. A very subtle masterful stroke that I’ve never heard anyone speak of. The end of the film is a brilliant study in visual poetry, economy of storytelling, and the power of an ending. The drunk half brother kills Mrs. Holland with an arrow from the figurehead in the garden, just as the voodoo priest pierces the doll of Mrs. Holland with a pin.

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The half brother(James Ellison) carries Mrs. Hollands body away pursued by the giant zombie guardian. He walks into the ocean to escape the zombie only to be swallowed up by pounding waves.
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Dissolve to native fisherman spearfishing in the shallows ( a tank on a sound stage artfully lit and decorated) as they fish and sing they discover Mrs. Holland’s body,

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Studio Artifice

dissolve to them carrying her in a funeral procession back to the plantation where Dee and Conway wait. The END! No dialog explaining what happened, no happy ending with Dee and Holland rushing off to get married, we don’t know what they’re going to do, it’s ambiguous and it’s great! As a matter of fact there is no dialog at all in the last 10 minutes of the film! Pure visual poetry accompanied by music! Try that today. All I can say is thank you LACMA for showing this film in a theater, with 35mm projection! And every film lover out there should see it this way, it’s a blessing!

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I Walked With A Zombie to screen at LACMA

Written by Joe D on December 6th, 2010

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Treat yourself to a Holiday Zombie Afternoon. Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s classic I Walked With A Zombie will screen Tuesday Dec.7th at 1pm, how delicious an afternoon screening! When you come back from your trip to Zombie Island it will still be light outside, be like Woody Allen, share his guilty pleasure of seeing a movie in the daytime. Plus it’s a rare opportunity to see this gem in glorious 35mm B&W! Movie theaters are turning more and more to digital projection soon you’ll only be able to see film at museums and revival houses, Bah! Humbug!
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I want to see it in 35mm!

Here’s all the info. This is a great example of how Art Directors Albert S. D’Agostino and Walter Keller were able to create a poetic mystical world on a shoe string budget, ably abetted by Cinematographer J. Roy Hunt. So check it out, see for yourself what all the hubbub about Val Lewton and his gang of tricksters is about. Too Bad the Tiki Ti is closed or we could all meet there for a post screening Zombie.

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