R.I.P. Sally Menke

Written by Joe D on September 28th, 2010


Sally Menke, at my wine harvest party, 9/19/2010

I can’t believe I’m writing about the sudden passing of a dear friend, Sally Menke. I’ve known Sally and her husband Dean Parisot for a long time, over 23 years. I met them in NYC , I worked with Dean on The Appointments Of Dennis Jennings. We were all very close , I played guitar for Sally’s baby girl Isabella. Sally came out to Hollywood shortly after me. She cut Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Then she met Quentin Tarantino and edited Reservoir Dogs for him. He liked her so much that she cut all his subsequent films. Four Rooms, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Death Proof, and Inglorious Basterds. Between Tarantino jobs she edited Heaven And Earth for Oliver Stone, All The Pretty Horses and Mullholland Falls. She was nominated for an Oscar for Inglorious Basterds and Pulp Fiction. She should have won. Sally brought me onboard on Kill Bill and I worked with her on all the Tarantino films after that. I can never thank her enough for her generosity, friendship and love. I saw her about a week ago at a grape harvest, pizza party at my house and she looked great, seemed to be in a great place, relaxed, really cool. Peace Be With You Sally, we all miss you and love you.

Quentin loved Sally so much, he always had his actors say hello to her.

Val Lewton’s Curse Of The Cat People, Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura

Written by Joe D on September 21st, 2010


I recently re-watched Curse Of The Cat People, Val Lewton’s masterpiece. Running an extremely efficient 70 minutes, it’s incredible how much story, atmosphere, character, and artistry the filmmakers have packed into this B thriller. The brilliant script by DeWitt Bodeen picks up the characters from 1942’s Cat People 7 years or so later and now living in Tarrytown, NY, nearby to where Lewton grew up. This setting enables Lewton to inject local lore from his own childhood, notably the legend of the Headless Horseman Of Sleepy Hollow. Lewton was primarily a writer and even though he gets no screen credit as such, this script was a collaboration between Bodeen and him. Robert Wise, crack editor of such RKO gems as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Devil And Daniel Webster was called in to replace the original director Gunther Von Fritsch, who had fallen behind schedule, Wise began his directing career with a bang. Cinematography was by the terrific Nicolas Musuraca, lensman of the incomparably shot noir Out Of The Past. Art Direction by the prodigiously talented Albert S. D’Agostino ( perhaps a distant relation of mine) and Walter Keller. Top it off with excellent performances most notably that of the wonderful child actress Ann Carter. Curse Of The Cat People is an incredibly sensitive film, dealing with the fantasies of a lonely, mis-understood child. Amy Reed creates a “friend” that cares for her and plays with her, partly because her father refuses to believe her stories. Oliver Reed (played by Kent Smith) was married to Irena (Simone Simone) in the original Cat People. He’s afraid his daughters’ flights of fancy will lead her to a similar end as Irena. His loss of the woman he loved has made him afraid for his daughter and really for himself, he does not want to go through the loss of a loved one again, as a result he clamps down on his daughter, seeking to snuff out her “dangerous” imagination. He only succeeds in driving her into the arms of her friend Irena. Amy had discovered a picture of Irena and her mother’s guilty response triggered an unconscious identification with the beautiful, mysterious figure in the photo.

Winter comes and it gives Musuraca and D’Agostino a chance to really shine. Irena gives her Xmas present to Amy, transforming the garden behind the family home to a glittering cathedral of shimmering lights, fantastic winter forms of ice, snow, the bare limbs of trees, a magical application of Movie Studio Artifice, effects done in camera with lighting changes, some of the most beautiful examples of this lost Art ever created.


Another noteworthy sequence is when Irena appears in Amy’s bedroom, telling her little friend she must go, never to be seen again. This is accomplished with a tracking shot, Irena is there and then she is obscured by the camera tracking behind a chair,when the camera emerges Irena is gone, the open window letting some mist cascade in where she once stood, also pay careful attention to the sound track lest you miss the whispered “Goodbye” a beautifully mixed sequence. A group of carolers comes by the house and the shots of the family framed in the front door of their home listening are superb.

Sir Lancelot appears as the faithful man-servant and he is as always great. Lewton used him several times in his films and he always played a character of great dignity, a tribute to Lewton’s egalitarianism. Lewton was hired at RKO ( my favorite studio) to run their “B” horror unit. The movies had to be short ( these were the days of the double bill), produced for under$150,000, and based on a title the studio brass came up with. Lewton disliked this title and the marketing of the film was off base suggesting a straight horror revisit to the original Cat People but I think the title is good, the curse is what happens to the traumatized survivors of the first film, mainly Oliver and Alice Reed. Cat People was a huge hit, saving RKO from the brink of ruin so the studio left Lewton alone and he was able to create some wonderful fantasies on a shoestring budget, a real tribute to the talents involved. Culminating in his masterpiece Curse Of The Cat People, a very personal film.


Val Lewton
This brings me to Part Two of this essay, something that struck me while recently viewing this film. Does it contain the root of a character from Mario Bava’s masterpiece Operazione Paura (Kill Baby Kill) .Curse Of The Cat People was made in 1944, as soon as WWII was over the USA flooded Europe with films. They had been prevented from distributing films in Europe during the war. I’m sure Mario Bava went to see this film in Rome and it made a deep impression on him. Bava’s father was a special effects artisan, a sculptor who made creatures for films. Bava was an effects cameraman, master of the in camera effect, matte painting, trick lighting etc. He had to have seen this masterpiece of studio artistry and been deeply moved. The story goes that when he was casting Operazione Paura he searched high and low for a young girl to play the part of the ghostly killer. He couldn’t find one, finally he got a young boy to don a wig and play the part. I think he was looking for his own Ann Carter. A child that resembled her. There are some similar images in the films, for example when the girls are seen in Close Up looking through a window pane.





Another paralell, a child’s ball provides the key to another dimension in both films, in Curse Irena is first revealed tossing Anne’s ball back to her, the little girl throws the ball offscreen to her friend and Simone enters with it and throws it back. In Paura the bouncing ball of the devil girl is often the first sign of her coming.


Bava’s film is an illusion inside of an illusion, a puzzle at the heart of which is a subversion of innocence to evil, a baroque fantasy about the loss of childhood innocence. Perhaps not so far fetched considering the realities of a war torn country. One thing that always struck me about Curse Of The Cat People is the hominess, domestic peace of it’s setting. You want to live there in Tarrytown amongst the legends, old bridges, fireplaces, gardens. Life seems so peaceful, serene. Maybe Operation Paura is a reaction to that idyllic vision from an artist that lived through real horror. Another interesting fact, the girl who falls to her death, impaled on a wrought iron fence at the begining of Operazione Paura is named Irena.


Mario Bava

Ruminations on Carola and The Last Metro

Written by Joe D on September 7th, 2010

I got to thinking about The Last Metro, Truffaut and the creative process. Let’s face it all artists borrow from each other, nobody lives in a vacuum so we’re all influenced by everything we contact. Now it is a tried and true technique of film writing to base your screenplay on a film that you think powerful, effective, successful. This is what Francoise did, using Carola as his model. But like any true artist he had to inject the form with his personal virus, his obsession. Let me digress a moment, I think every writer, maybe every creative artist, is obsessed with something, it could be an illness, a phobia, a person, a traumatic event, something that causes an itch they can’t scratch except by writing or creating something about it. Think grain of sand, oyster, pearl. Now the object of the creator’s obsession may be disguised or hidden or it may be right out there in front of your face. Let me give some examples, Ed Wood, The World’s Worst Director wrote a lot of pulp and porn novels to supplement his income. They almost all had to do with transvestitism. That ,as anyone who’s seen Glen or Glenda knows was Wood’s obsession. It’s what fired his creative furnace. My friend’s father was a famous writer. Through overindulgence in drug use and other forms of self abuse he had a breakdown, from then on all his writings were infused with the idea that his deceased wife was a whore. This was not true but somehow in his delusional state he became obsessed with the idea and had to include it in every piece he wrote no matter what the subject matter. His kids became upset and told their father to cut it out so he became crafty and would only hint at in obscure ways. My friend gave me a piece of his father’s to read and after I finished it he told me about his father’s obsession. I had not noticed the reference to his ex- wife as a prostitute but my friend pointed out some cryptic passages that made reference to “plying her trade” and “world’s oldest profession”. I didn’t get it when I read it, I chalked it up to poetic license but when my friend ( who had been down this road many times before) pointed it out to me I got it. His father HAD to put that reference in everything he wrote. I think for a lot of creative people the amount of the personal obsession they put into a project can determine it’s success or failure both as an objet d’art and a commercial enterprise. Too much obscure reference can turn an audience off, it’s a delicate balance.


If you show me your obsession I’ll show you mine.

But back to The Last Metro. As I said Truffaut took Carola and injected his obsession into it. Truffaut’s discovery late in life who his father really was and the fact that his father was Jewish. This is where the character Steiner comes from. The director hidden in the basement of the theater ( in Carola it was a Resistance fighter they hid). Steiner even has a speech about being Jewish, what it means in French society, the pluses and minuses, how they get the hottest chicks, etc. This is Truffaut talking, he is Steiner, his Jewish roots, hidden like the director in the basement for years then brought up to an adoring public at the end of the film. This is the obsession Truffaut was dealing with and being a great artist, made into a film of universal appeal. As I said before the character of Steiner never quite rang true to me, I think that reflects Truffaut’s own confusion about his past,his identity, who he was, what it all meant.


Jean Renoir’s Carola vs. Francoise Truffaut’s The Last Metro

Written by Joe D on September 2nd, 2010

I tracked down a copy of Jean Renoir’s Carola, This is a play written by Renoir that he was going to direct but ill health forced him to bow out and his good friend Norman LLoyd filled in. It’s a made for TV production done for KCET’s Hollywood Television Theater back in 1972, it stars Leslie Caron, Mel Ferrer, Anthony Zerbe, and Michael Sacks. An interesting take on the Nazi occupation, redolent with Renoir’s humanism,some of the Nazi’s are human beings not just robotic killing machines and the worst people in the play are the French members of the Gestapo. The story is set in wartime Paris in an old theater during the performance of a play.


Francoise, you ripped me off!

Leslie Caron is the star of the play and almost all of the action takes place in her dressing room during the intermission between acts and after the play. Leslie is beautiful in the part of an actress on the other side of ingenue-hood, caught up in an offstage drama revolving about her many lovers, there’s Gen. Von Clodius (Mel Ferrer) her first true love from years ago now an occupying General seeking an audience with his ex-lover, Anthony Zerbe (a terrific actor and one time Citroen owner) the director/owner of the theater and Carola’s current bedmate, and Henri Marceau(Michael Sacks) a naive young Freedom Fighter, who risks his life for an autograph from his favorite actress, the woman he’s loved from afar, Carola. The spirit of this piece is closely related to Renoir’s masterpieces Grand Illusion and Rules Of The Game, Illusion for it’s gentleman officer (Erich Von Stroheim) and Rules for it’s frank sexuality. Carola has had many lovers since her first affair with Von Clodius and Zerbe even says to her “If you won’t speak to anyone you’ve slept with you’ll be all alone” or words to that effect. The life of an actress in Paris of that time was a promiscuous one. This play is really about love, different shades of it, and what love means to all involved, innocent, jaded, idealistic,etc. The center of this malestrom of passion is Carola, desired by everyone, each for his own reason, even desired by the Gestapo colonel who appears late in the play and praises Carola for her “proof of Aryan supremacy”. The occupation provides only a background to these passions and it creates a situation where normal people are put to the test, where their core values are under pressure and they can cave in or pay with their lives. The surprise is which ones do just that.

The Last Metro was released in 1980, 8 years after Carola. It too takes place in a theater during the occupation of Paris by the Nazi’s. There are some striking similarities, Catherine Deneuve is the star of the plays put on at the theater, she is desired by Nazi’s and idealistic Freedom fighters( Gerard Depardieu), the war is once again a kind of backdrop for the lives, passions, both real and petty, of the actors and personnel of the theater. Almost as if the war didn’t exist outside of the difficulties it created for the players, food, electricity, threat of being shut down by censors. Anthony Zerbe has a wonderful speech in Carola where he describes all life outside the theater as being less real to Carola than the parts she’s playing onstage, a real insight into both films. The main difference is the character of Steiner in Metro. He is Deneuve’s Jewish husband, director and owner of the theater. He is hiding in the basement of the theater, listening to the performances(and perhaps his wife’s infidelities) through an air vent.


Kiss me louder so my husband can hear!

For some reason I never bought into this character, something seemed false to me about him, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Only later when I read a biography of Truffaut did I get an understanding. Truffaut was a bastard, I mean he was born out of wedlock, his mother married soon after but the man she married was not his father. Years later when Truffaut was preparing a film he worked with a private detective on some research, then he asked the detective to find his real father. The man did so and Truffaut found out his real father was a Jewish dentist living in a nearby town. The sudden revelation of his own Jewish roots struck Truffaut like a thunderbolt. He was conflicted, he had an identity crisis and I think this is why the character of Steiner is so unsatisfying. Truffaut even hired a Jewish writer to work on Steiner’s part in the script, to assure him of it’s “Jewishness”. And to top it off the actor he hired to play Steiner (Heinz Bennent) wasn’t Jewish!


Catherine, do it more like Leslie Caron.

Truffaut took Carola opened it up in a more filmic manner (scenes outside the theater) transplanted his personal conflict about being Jewish into it and made a film. A very successful film, I might add, a real crowd pleaser, happy ending (unlike Carola) less realistic depiction of the sex lives of it’s protagonists, a bunch of cute eccentric characters. As a matter of fact several times in Carola one of the characters refers to the fact that due to delays, that night’s performance of the play will run longer, causing the audience members to be late, miss the last metro ( subway) and violate curfew. Truffaut even got his title from the text of Carola! The final scene of Metro reminds me of Zerbe’s speech where the play and reality are purposely confused, which is more real to the actor? A final note, Leslie Caron, a friend of Truffaut and Renoir was so incensed that Truffaut gave no credit or even mentioned Carola and Renoir in regard to Metro that she never spoke to him again.

Trailer for The Last Metro

Norman Lloyd speaks on Carola