Steve Sekely, Hollow Triumph, 1948, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 83 minutes.


POVERTY ROW WASN’T A PLACE ON ANY MAP. The studios were scattered around Los Angeles and its environs: Republic was based in Studio City with a ranch for cowboy pictures in Encino. Monogram did its oaters in Placerite Canyon, with a lot on Sunset Boulevard, owned today by the Church of Scientology. Producers Releasing Corporation moved from Gower Street to Santa Monica Boulevard, where they would eventually acquire the pompous sobriquet Eagle-Lion Films after being purchased by British producer J. Arthur Rank. What unified the “B-Hive” wasn’t geography but the sort of work that they did—“B” pictures for the bottom half of double bills, usually running between fifty and seventy-five minutes, rarely afforded the same attention respect as their “A” counterparts.

While Poverty Row films tended to shoot on-the-quick and on-the-cheap, they weren’t always identifiable as a cinema apart from studio product. When making White Zombie (1932), for example, brothers Edward and Victor Hugo Halperin rented their sets from Universal Studios and hired contract player Bela Lugosi to play Murder Legendre, a white voodoo master in Haiti. White Zombie, which plays as part of a twelve-film program at the Museum of Modern Art of “Poverty Row Classics” restored by the UCLA Film & Television archives at greater time and expense than they were originally afforded, is one of the better remembered Bs because it contains a peak-period Lugosi performance and is the first feature-length zombie movie. More than a decade before Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, the Halperins drew the connection between zombie thralldom and black slavery, most strikingly in a scene at Legendre’s sugar factory, where one of the shuffling drones falls headlong into a cane-chopping hopper.

Poverty Row independence could foster innovation in style and subject matter, though not infrequently it settled for imitation. Watching George B. Seitz’s The Drums of Jeopardy (1931), a potboiler starring Warner Oland, a droopy lidded Swede who repeatedly appeared as Charlie Chan and generally functioned as Hollywood’s all-purpose Oriental, I found myself having vivid flashbacks to a recent viewing of the Oland-starring Daughter of the Dragon of the same year: Oland plays a Bolshevik named “Dr. Boris Karlov” (!) in the former and Dr. Fu Manchu in the latter, but the concluding races-to-the-rescue are nigh-interchangeable. I can’t make a claim for the film as a lost masterpiece, nor is Frank R. Strayer’s The Vampire Bat (1933) likely to change anyone’s life—though the latter does contain Dwight Frye, the Renfield of Universal’s Dracula (1931), as a village spastic who goes around stuffing “nice, soft” bats into his pocket, and that is no small thing.

The Drums of Jeopardy and The Vampire Bat do boast plenty in the way of threadbare atmospherics, and both passed through the hands of resourceful producer-and-sometimes-director Phil Goldstone, closely associated with Majestic Pictures, one of the six smaller outfits brought together by processing lab owner Herbert J. Yates to form the mighty Republic, which distributed independent production The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935). Budapest-born John H. Auer shot the Edgar Allan Poe–inspired thriller at the Bronx Biograph Studios, onetime home to D.W. Griffith, featuring freaky Frye in a rare straight role and starring Griffith’s onetime assistant Erich von Stroheim. By 1935 von Stroheim was already unemployable as a director, but America still loved to hate him, and he is in fine fettle here, stifling smiles while attending the funeral of a colleague who only he knows is actually being buried alive. (He also gnaws up a drippingly vitriolic monologue scene which, cut as it is from so many angles, seems to confirm that von Stroheim wasn’t much for learning lines.)

Duplicitous doctors make up something of a leitmotif in MoMA’s series, whose Murderer’s Row of malpractice includes Crespi, Oland in The Drums of Jeopardy, Lionel Atwill’s mad scientist in The Vampire Bat, and Lowell Sherman’s False Faces (1932). Sherman, who’d played the rich heel who seduces and abandons Lillian Gish in Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), here topped all previous displays of caddishness, directing and starring as an owlish, dissipated surgeon who leaves New York in disgrace to set up a fly-by-night plastic surgery operation in Chicago, leaving a trail of broken hearts and bilked patients in his wake. Brisk, nasty, and dramatically unrelenting, the film was Sherman’s last as an actor, though he went on to further success as a director with a flair for showbiz subjects (Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong and Broadway Thru a Keyhole, both 1933) before his premature death in 1934.

Victor Halperin, White Zombie, 1932, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 69 minutes.


The 1930s were the heyday of Poverty Row, and a period of studio consolidation: False Faces distributor Sono Art World-Wide Pictures, whose logo depicts a smiling young woman with two globes in place of bosoms, formed Monogram by merger with Rayart Productions in 1933. But the party didn’t last long. The Poverty Row outfits felt the postwar attendance slump more keenly than the better-insulated studios, and television all but did away with them. Eagle-Lion called it a day in 1950. Monogram rebranded as Allied Artists Productions in 1953, the name originally minted for their high-end unit, and focused on more polished productions. The final days of the B-Hive were among their best, however, and given the natural affinity between their product and cheap pulp fiction, the Poverty Row studios were a custom fit for the often-seedy postwar thrillers that would retrospectively be labeled films noir.

John Reinhardt’s High Tide (1947), for Monogram, took a cue from a contemporary craze for in extremis openings and flashback structures, opening with leads Lee Tracy and Don Castle, a low-rent Gable, pinned into a car wreck on the seashore, recounting the circumstances that got them there as the threatening waves lap ever nearer. It was the last film role for years for Tracy, playing one of the fast-talking newspaperman parts that made him famous in the ’30s, though here with an additional note of bilious acridity, the former breezy cynicism now hardened into hate. While Tracy’s talent is a known quantity, it’s a genuine surprise to find Paul Henreid—the good, dull Victor Laszlo of Casablanca (1942)—so effectively playing dirty in Hollow Triumph (1948), taking on the double role of a crook on the lam and the lookalike psychoanalyst who he conspires to take the place of. The absurd premise is put across with a feeling for nightmare logic, and while the director, Steve Sekely, is a definite subject for further research, it is tempting to give most of the credit for the film’s shadow-caressed look to fellow Hungarian John Alton, the prodigiously gifted cinematographer who around this same time was making a series of visually dynamic films with director Anthony Mann, also for Bryan Foy Productions and Eagle-Lion.

For some filmmakers, like Mann or Joseph H. Lewis, Poverty Row was a step on the way to better things, bigger budgets, and longer shoots. For others, it was the last stop before the glue factory. And for still others, be it ever so humble, it was simply home. The supreme stylist Edgar G. Ulmer had come from Berlin ready to take over Hollywood, but while shooting The Black Cat (1934) at Universal he shacked up with the wife of studio head Carl Laemmle’s favorite nephew, and—at least to hear Ulmer, an infamous fabulist, tell it—he would be blackballed forevermore.

No Poverty Row tribute would be complete without an Ulmer film, and MoMA’s program includes three. The first, Damaged Lives (1933), is his premiere North American effort, a venereal-disease scare film made for the Canadian Social Health Council that boasts a charming speakeasy seduction sequence, some gruesome skin conditions, and stern warnings against sharing a friend’s pipe. After The Black Cat crossed his path, Ulmer launched a make-do-and-mend career, working at the industry’s margins and taking what work he could, excelling with Yiddish-language films and “race” pictures. Among the steadiest years of his career were the four he spent at PRC, turning out eleven films under head of production Leon Fromkess, including his most famous, Detour, a bleak 1945 backroad noir. Strange Illusion, released the same year, is no less resourceful, a modern-day spare parts Hamlet bookended by weird dream-sequence processionals, between which adolescent Jimmy Lydon follows a hunch from his unconscious to search out a link between his widowed mother’s suave new suitor to the death of his father. For Ruthless (1948), under the new Eagle-Lion imprimatur, Ulmer got his biggest budget since winding up in Uncle Carl’s crosshairs, and put it toward a portrait of corrupt wealth—of the kind, it is perhaps not too much of a supposition to say, that he viewed as having stymied his own ambition. Zachary Scott stars as a poor Boston boy–cum–captain of industry, Horace Vendig, whose brutal claw to the top is recollected on the eve of his abdication of power, with a huge and mournful Sydney Greenstreet as one of the many he’s trampled over. (Vendig seems to lose a little of his soul with every figure he adds to his bank account, a thought that may have been some cold comfort to Ulmer.)

Ulmer has long been the subject of a deserved minicult, and noir sells itself, but there is more to recommend in Poverty Row than the occasional exceptional outbursts of expressive flourish. At the very least, the average run of Bs offer glimpses of an undressy approach that has almost no modern-day equivalent in commercial filmmaking, acting as a repository for what John Dorr called “the Griffith tradition”: “A recessive approach to direction best suited for keeping track of uncomplicated narratives over which a performer’s personality could easily dominate.” The pleasures such films offer, occasional flubbed lines and shaky sets and all, are those of simplicity itself—and if poverty is never a blessing in life, there can be no question it has often acted as the handmaiden of art.

Nick Pinkerton

“Strange Illusions: Poverty Row Classics Preserved by UCLA” runs October 19 through 28 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Stephen Frears, Mary Reilly, 1996, 35 mm, color, sound, 108 minutes. Mary Reilly and Dr. Henry Jekyll / Mr. Edward Hyde (Julia Roberts and John Malkovich).


PERHAPS MOTHER!, that self-gormandizing envisaging of Roman Polanski’s Stardust Memories as an all-you-can-swallow buffet of metaphysical leftovers and creamed corn à la mode, left you unsatisfied. Then Stephen Frears’s much-maligned and oft-magnificent Mary Reilly (1996) is the perfect Goth-Hitchcock antidote. A subliminally satirical reworking of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale from Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, Mary Reilly is a batty extension of their previous Dangerous Liaisons into the overlapping terrain of Victorian manners and sexual horror. The film is a world of interlocking chambers and Promethean vanity: Genteel bachelor household, private medical theater/laboratory, brothel, abattoir, tenement flat, morgue, every space is a heated serving tray in a smorgasbord of denial, violation, and corruption.

Exultantly returning from Liaisons, John Malkovich as Jekyll/Hyde does an indecorous, music-hall double-act, a continuum of foppish manners and Byronic flouting. (Dr. J: “What’s the difference between a vivisectionist and a libertine?” Mr. H: “Practice, my good fellow, practice!”) Disintegration for him/them amounts to an epistemological project: Taking off from Stevenson’s “strange case” to wander alleys and byways with the connoisseurship of De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Mary Reilly (a name recalling the creator of another Eminent Promethean) isn’t about the Victorian era in actuality but instead as it exists in the pop imagination. A conflation of ragtag-team archetypes—Victorian, Romantic, Edwardian, and beyond—comes together for a literate free-for-all: Jekyll and Hyde sucker-punching Beauty and the Beast, Freud and Jack the Ripper bloodying Dickens and Wilde.

In that register, Glenn Close (another Liaisons liaison) plays a nefarious madam as a Kabuki-Cockney slattern: hardly more than a cameo, but stoked with leering parodic genius. Playing opposite Malkovich, however, is Julia Roberts, a piece of miscasting on par with putting Courtney Love in a My Fair Lady reboot. At least ten years too old for the Irish servant girl, through whose wounded bird’s-eye view we see Jekyll House, she’s a flustered extraterrestrial in search of solid footing and a steady accent. (Malkovich’s accent is equally undetermined, just more insouciant.) But the intensity of their non-chemistry somehow serves the narrative’s overall perversity, inoculating the characters against backsliding into “relatability” or romance-novel postures. Social distance is maintained amid quasi-intimacies, as the upstairs/downstairs dynamic of master and servant veers into the realm of Families Without Boundaries: Paternal Dr. Jekyll nurturing Mary’s nascent personal development, Bad Brother Hyde prepping the once-victimized girl for further rounds of molestation.

The doctor’s interest in Mary is first piqued when he spies tooth scars on her neck. He’ll patiently break down her reticence until, in flashback, she reveals how her abusive drunk of a father punished her as a child by locking her in a closet with a sack of rats. Eating their way through the burlap, they disfigure and nearly kill her. Being fed to rats is a brutal analogue to incest—while reminding that abuse doesn’t have to be sexual to be unthinkable. Much of Mary Reilly happens off-screen, or in dark corners, cramped quarters, quivering under laboratory stairs. The audience, knowing the basic story in advance, gets to think its privy to more than Mary is, but the feeling of being steps ahead of her is tenuous. Frears maneuvers the poor lass through a dismaying maze of terror and arousal—suddenly she’ll find herself thumbing through a huge anatomy book Hyde has defaced with obscene drawings and ludicrous comments. News of her mother’s death sets her reeling back into the bowels of destitution, arranging the funeral with a hideous landlord who has already sold off the dead woman’s possessions to cover the back rent (with a shilling to spare). He’s stashed the rigid corpse in a closest for safekeeping—seemingly identical to the one Mary was once locked in with the rats.

In such moments, the old story breaks apart and new ones surface: Pushed out of her comfort zone, Roberts lends Mary’s desperation an awkward, quizzical blankness. No charm or charisma, just a head-down stratagem for endurance in a world where she doesn’t trust herself or her surroundings. It’s an unsentimental movie set in a culture where love and pity look interchangeable, and virtue’s an elaborate artifice, so sadism assumes the form of morality. Once the walls of propriety are breached, nothing pretty or noble will come of it: Knowledge facilitates destruction and the best our shaky heroine can manage is survival.

What Frears accomplished with Mary Reilly suggests an updating of what Jacques Tourneur did in his suspenseful, dreamy Val Lewton films (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man). Like Tourneur, Frears’s career as a hired gun has casually toggled between the extraordinary and the workaday. Anyone who can slip-slide among The Hit, High Fidelity, Philomena, My Beautiful Laundrette, Gumshoe, Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen, and Prick Up Your Ears has an uncanny adaptability. A director who can do reasonable justice to both Joe Orton and Queen Elizabeth deserves a special medal.

Mary Reilly employs classic Hollywood studio-craft and rings just enough stereotypical bells: George Fenton’s score puts scare quotes around “lush,” all red velvet and swooning angst. For all the outrageousness of Malkovich’s antics, while blood overflows slaughterhouse gutters and gushes down marketplace steps, these flights are held in place by the sturdy Britishness of the supporting players. Paragons straight from Central Casting, George Cole as the head butler and Kathy Staff (perfect name) as the cook italicize their roles to the degree they might have been plucked out of just about any London-set prestige picture from 1935 onward. A young Michael Sheen brings a pinch of musical-comedy cheekiness as a randy junior servant, while as Mary’s vile father, the great Michael Gambon dives into the part with such slimy gusto he could be auditioning for a Dennis Potter version of Oliver.

Technical assurance is essential: Mary Reilly is all about mise-en-scène made flesh and vice-versa. Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography embodies the film’s expansive claustrophobia. Stuart Craig’s production design, especially of Jekyll’s laboratory/operating theater and the network of catwalks designed for peekaboo chases, is integral to its labyrinthine quality. That Craig would go on to do the production for the entire run of the Harry Potter movies is a wonderful sick joke in and of itself. Frears’s film is a riposte to all the credulous, militantly innocent works of this New Victorian era, our Age of the Permanent Young Adult: Harry and Beauty and the Fantastic Beasts and the meta-execrable Twilight films. Against that backdrop, Mother! is mere art-film fan fiction (or fan-fiction art film?), but Mary Reilly leaves deep little hickeys.

Howard Hampton

Mary Reilly is available on Blu-ray October 17, 2017.

Philippe Garrel, L’enfant secret (The Secret Child), 1979, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 92 minutes. Jean-Baptiste and Elie (Henri de Maublanc and Anne Wiazemsky).


PHILIPPE GARREL WAS NOT YET A TEEN when the French New Wave first hit the shores of international cinema in 1959, and like many filmmakers over subsequent decades he would be heavily influenced by its leading lights, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Garrel made his first film in 1964 and, in the fifty years since, has written and directed more than thirty others, but has never achieved the reputation of his mentors. It was not until the late 1970s that his cinema assumed the distinct, quasi-autobiographical quality that remains his strength.

Earlier stabs at allegory and symbolism had mixed results. He was uncredited as writer and director of The Virgin’s Bed (1969), which, in the spirit of its era, is basically a hippie gloss on the New Testament, with a few nods to Greek myth. It opens with Mary sitting on a boat as Jesus emerges from the sea, suggesting, via an allusion to the genesis of Venus, an equally mysterious virgin birth. Attuned to his divine purpose, Mary places a crown of thorns on Jesus’s head. Off he goes on a donkey to a place where no one listens to him, and later runs into Mary Magdalene, who he appears to impregnate, and lugs a huge wooden box around that, like Pandora’s, contains the ills of the world. It’s not long before he is frustrated at his failure to have any effect on the “shithole of a world” his heavenly “papa” sent him to redeem. As Jesus, Pierre Clémenti, official anorectic wanderer in Garrel’s The Inner Scar (1972) and Pasolini’s Pigsty (1969), is more than appropriate, while Zouzou, familiar from Louis Malle’s work, plays both the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene for reasons too obvious to belabor. While the film’s efforts to mock the Christian story do not lack wit, they are undermined by a stark landscape and a mournful recognition of its failed mission.

Hovering between fiction and the personal, Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les sunlights . . . (She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps, 1985) considers Garrel’s ambivalent feelings about working in a field dependent on the idiosyncrasies of actors and financial backing. Famous filmmakers and stars either appear (Chantal Akerman, Lou Castel) or are cited (Jean Eustache, Andy Warhol). The recently deceased Anne Wiazemsky—discovered by Bresson for Au hasard Balthazar (1966)—plays herself as well as a character in the film-within-a-film. Having already worked for Pasolini and Godard, whom she married, and in Garrel’s L’enfant secret (The Secret Child, 1979), Wiazemsky embodies the era’s offbeat lyricism. But if anything captures Garrel’s frame of mind at the time, it is what he reveals to a fellow filmmaker: “I personally dream of being in a car with my son [Louis Garrel, who later appeared in several of his movies] and my wife, and the camera in the back seat, driving aimlessly to make some shots in the woods.” From what I’ve seen of Garrel’s work, he never pursued this path, one taken by filmmakers of the American avant-garde who rejected the commercial cinema more boldly.

Philippe Garrel, J’entends plus la guitar (I No Longer Hear the Guitar), 1991 35 mm, color, sound, 98 minutes. Marianne and Aline (Johanna ter Steege and Brigitte Sy).


Instead, Garrel eventually honed a theme—the alluring mysteries, betrayals, and contradictions of romantic love—that has preoccupied him over the past two decades. It’s no coincidence that many of these later films, like their subject, are as irresistible as they are ephemeral. To watch one is to peruse a family album and pause over a photograph, struck by a familiar pose or a compelling pair of eyes. Each new film seems part of a chain, in which characters talk endlessly about love even as they fall in and out of it and suffer and survive its disillusionments. In the brooding, affecting J’entends plus la guitar (I No Longer Hear the Guitar, 1991), a man remarks that love was invented by troubadours and exists only in books, and that “we may be the last generation to talk about it.” A woman, jeering at its impermanency, asks, So “love warms us, lights us, feeds us, and gets us high?” as her mate responds, “Exactly! The most precise definition I’ve ever heard.” Whether titled Lover for a Day (Garrel’s latest) or Jealousy (2013) or Regular Lovers (2005) or The Birth of Love (1993) or Les baisers de secours (Emergency Kisses, 1989), the obsession is earnest and, thanks to the appeal and extraordinary credibility of Garrel’s actors (sometimes a family member), often deeply affecting.

Not as frequently remarked upon is the seemingly invisible cinematic style that embodies this obsession. Beyond sentimentality and narrative efficiency, it suggests a philosophy of the human condition. In Guitar, for example, Marianne (Johanna ter Steege) and Gerard (Benoît Régent) speak in the first scene about having a child: He wants one, she has one she’s unable to care for. As couples do in other Garrel films, they continue to argue as the relationship sours without reaching a climax. Whatever consequences ensue are inferred only after an innocuous cut takes us not just to the next shot but to an entirely new situation. We barely register the breakup as Gerard gets into bed with Aline (Brigitte Sy), a woman neither he nor we have seen before; they smile, make love, and, via a cut, sit at a table in the next shot, married, with a six-month-old son. Though such ellipses owe something to Bresson, the sustained strategy here reflects an unaccented temporal flow that connotes that this is the way things are, that life is made up of undramatic natural successions of experiences—notwithstanding all declarations of love and promises. Genuine narrative closure is similarly precluded. At the end of the film, the incurably philandering Gerard argues with Aline toward what appears to be a dead end: Accusing her of talking like his mother, he walks out and slams the door. But, as the film goes black, we hear Aline offscreen reminding him to pick up their son.

Children, the primary victims of all failed relationships, are an important element in Garrel’s work—whether they exist or not, are onscreen or off, talked about or ignored. They are alluded to in the title of his first film, the fifteen-minute-long Les enfants désaccordés, and in his fifteenth, L’enfant secret, which is having its American premiere following a new, two-part retrospective at the Metrograph theater in New York. A tender, meandering tale, it touches on most of what makes Garrel Garrel. Couples meet, fall in love, experience ups and downs, and eventually separate—the reasons for their falling in love as inexplicable as those for falling out of it. In this instance, they are Elie and Jean-Baptiste—played by Anne Wiazemsky and Henri de Maublanc, another Bresson discovery, who played Michel in The Devil, Probably (1977).

Though the child of the title could easily be a metaphor for other things—including the films that both characters seem to be shooting in fleeting glimpses—there is a real child, Elie’s son, a beautiful boy named Swann who lives with his grandmother and whose angelic face says all we need to know about creation before the fall. Like much of Garrel’s work, explanatory detail is minimal. We never learn the reason for Jean-Baptiste’s nervous breakdown, nor why Elie’s devotion and promise to be with him forever suddenly reverse. Garrel’s camera lingers often for minutes on somber shots of one character or the other, or of both in an embrace as needy as it is sweet. His world is one of melancholic uncertainty and the accumulation of regrets. If “The Ophidian Circle,” one of the film’s enigmatic intertitles, characterizes this world as a serpent consumed with avarice, “The Caesarian Section,” in its evocation of forced birth, may suggest that the only safe place for any human is the womb.

Tony Pipolo

The first part of a retrospective of Philippe Garrel runs Thursday, October 12, through Thursday, October 26, at the Metrograph in New York. Part two will open in November.

Jacques Tourneur, Out of the Past, 1947, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 97 minutes. Ann and Jeff (Virginia Huston and Robert Mitchum).


THIS YEAR’S NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL pays tribute to actor Robert Mitchum, whose career began in Hollywood’s golden age, weathered the demise of the studio system, and continued with the rise of television and the birth of the miniseries—125 movies in all between 1943 and 1983. Known primarily as the quintessential noir tough guy with the moony countenance in the genre of the 1940s, he was a bit player in many B movies before his breakthrough performance in William Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe (1943), the only film to earn him an Oscar nomination. G.I. Joe kicks off the retrospective, followed by a sampling from the ’40s and ’50s with such rarities as Till the End of Time (1946), Blood on the Moon (1948), and Track of the Cat (1954), and some later films, such as Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995).

Like many of Hollywood’s “naturals,” Mitchum was so comfortable in his own skin that his acting was often invisible: Directors thought he was doing nothing until they saw the rushes. But while some of his best directors and fellow actors admired his professionalism, he was often underappreciated or misunderstood by critics. In his dismissive review of the now-classic noir Out of the Past (1948), for example, James Agee said of its male lead: “When he performs with other men (most memorably in The Story of G. I. Joe), Robert Mitchum is a believable actor. But . . . in love scenes his curious languor, which suggests Bing Crosby supersaturated with barbiturates, becomes a brand of sexual complacency.” Of course, one man’s—or woman’s—languor is another’s allure. Since the twisty plot and twisted psychology of Out of the Past apparently eluded Agee, it’s no surprise he failed to intuit Mitchum’s peculiar mojo—that sleepy listlessness masking an unsettling reserve, discernible in the tension between his direct body language and muted affect. It’s what kept viewers edgy and what many considered his strength.

Mitchum’s homme fatale was distinct, “oddly subversive,” as the more appreciative Andrew Sarris put it. In Out of the Past, he no sooner enters a room charged with tension, when, without breaking his stride, his fist flies out, flooring a mouthy wannabe heavy. The impulse is rote, but behind it is a gut-tested ethos: lightning appraisal of who’s in the way and what they’re made of, triggering decisive action. Life is too short for jerks who occupy an existential vacuum. While the gesture is pure noir, Mitchum lends it a soulful mien. The same keenness laced with self-disgust provokes the deadly finale with femme fatale Jane Greer, and infuses Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1953), an equally perverse gem, in which the fatal attraction between Mitchum and Jean Simmons drives them into another death machine.

At its best, the Mitchum persona brooked no bullshit—neither a spoiled woman’s temper tantrum nor the overreach of a thug. But under contract at RKO, he frequently landed in inferior films when it was hard to tell who or what was the real target. At one point in the utterly forgettable My Forbidden Past (1951), the temptress played by Ava Gardner threatens to scream when he leaves her on the dance floor. “Go ahead and scream,” he says, with that familiar offhand bluntness, fit for the occasion but perhaps equally directed at the mediocrity of the material. Every verbal barb, raised eyebrow, or hunch of his shoulders read, “Grow up, get real, or get lost.” Sometimes it didn’t work, as in His Kind of Woman (1951), a Howard Hughes train wreck that not even the chemistry between Mitchum and lifelong buddy Jane Russell could save.

Robert Wise, Blood on the Moon, 1948, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes. Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum).


Key to Mitchum’s mystique was that his impressive physique—a chesty bulk that moved with animal grace, somewhere between sleek panther and imposing stag—framed an enigmatic core. Yet directors said he was anything but detached, that they could actually see him thinking, so attuned to everyone else’s lines that he never missed a beat. To register surprise, his eyebrows lift so high they leave room for another pair, while his cleft chin rhymes so neatly with the dimpled philtrum above his lips as to suggest the sculptured bust of a proud but sulky Roman emperor. There’s nothing flabby about Mitchum. As comfortable with physical heft as he was with a cocksure demeanor, he knew when to play what and when to recede.

Biographers love to paint him as an outsider, citing his teenage rite of riding boxcars, the lifelong marriage that survived affairs, endless drinking bouts, indifference to Hollywood society, and his run-ins with the law. Even his being arrested and jailed following a drug bust only enhanced the romantic legend. Yet, there’s another truth. Thunder Road (1958), a story he wrote about moonshiners outwitting cops, with his son costarring as the brother he discourages from taking after him, borders on autobiography. The unrepentant bad boy knew when to capitalize on the image and when to draw the line. Either way, one senses a more remote, reflective Mitchum, apparently out of reach, but seeking a different kind of attention.

In Raoul Walsh’s Freudian western Pursued (1947), he seems out of his element, an odd mix with such gothic archetypes as Judith Anderson and Dean Jagger. Yet the contrast works. As Jeb Brand, a man haunted by a past he doesn’t understand, he evokes the classic outsider of Greek tragedy. But while the plot’s resolution never quite dissolves the Oedipal tensions aroused, Mitchum’s Brand, like Oedipus, remains steadfast in his search for truth, free from the anger, envy, and thirst for revenge that consumes everyone around him. He’s positively mellow in The Wonderful Country (1959), in which his oversize sombrero reflects his general discomfort fending off the law on one side of the Mexican border and revolutionaries on the other. His performance is charming, but the film was so botched in the final editing that whatever chemistry existed between him and Julie London now comes across as artificial icing on a half-baked cake.

Mitchum’s unique blend of primal energy and spooky intelligence lifted him above many genre actors, not only in noir, but in melodramas, westerns, and war films, but even this was not all he could do. Among his unsung virtues was his ability to let another actor steal a scene. Hence, he could be an upright man doing his job, as in Crossfire (1947) and The Racket (1951), in both of which he’s outweirded by Robert Ryan’s psychobullies. Even in a minor war film like The Enemy Below (1957), his moves as the navy captain who outsmarts a German submarine commander are so unforced you’d never know he was the same guy who could play the sociopath in Cape Fear (1962), not to mention the crazed preacher in The Night of the Hunter (1955). If the latter ranks as his broadest, showiest performance, it was no doubt egged on by his director, the brilliant Charles Laughton, who knew a thing or two about the deliciousness of pure ham. His only match in that film is the magnificent black-and-white cinematography of Stanley Cortez.

Otto Preminger, Angel Face, 1953, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 91 minutes. Frank Jessup and Diane Tremayne Jessup (Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons).


In his moving performance in The Lusty Men (1952), one of Nicholas Ray’s most beautiful and underrated films, Mitchum plays a has-been rodeo cowboy who ends up risking his life to save his friend, whose wife he has fallen in love with. His scenes with the fiery Susan Hayward are rich with a quiet yearning which his manner accentuates. An unsuspected grace also marks Heaven Knows, Mr. Alison (1957) and The Sundowners (1957), both featuring Deborah Kerr, who reportedly aroused a tenderness in him, prompting John Huston, director of the former, to remark that Mitchum was as good as Brando and Olivier. Some of us would not have thought it needed saying.

After the tough guy, the cowboy, the good cop, the brave soldier, the psychotic, the loser, the movie tycoon, and the cynic, where does an aging movie star go? He’s a terrible role model in Going Home (1971), where he is first seen descending a staircase, having just murdered his wife, who bleeds to death at the feet of their three-year-old son. Even earlier, in Vincente Minnelli’s Southern family melodrama Home from the Hill (1960), he’s a flawed father battling for one son’s manhood against an unforgiving wife while refusing to acknowledge the illegitimate son who saves his life in the first scene. Despite an overly literal screenplay, Mitchum’s character is commanding and sympathetic, his failings as naked as his unfulfilled needs. And, without a trace of irony he gets to deliver the film’s summary sentiment: “All our children deserve better parents.” It’s not the first time one wonders how many lines were inserted in screenplays over the years precisely because Mitchum would be delivering them.

As the title character in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Mitchum plays what may be his most pathetic character—a middle-aged, overweight ex-con trying to keep a wife and three kids off welfare by selling guns to bank robbers and, to avoid another prison sentence, selling his soul by finking to the cops. In his first scene he’s explaining how he got the extra set of knuckles on each hand (a clear nod to the good and evil contest in Night of the Hunter) from the nuns’ rulers and later from fellow thugs. In the last scene, he is shot point-blank in a drunken stupor by one of his “friends.” With nary a close-up to register the moment, he slumps offscreen. Ever the pro, Mitchum plays it straight, replete with self-effacement and dumpy physique—not a plea for sympathy anywhere in sight.

Tony Pipolo

A retrospective of Robert Mitchum films plays September 29 through October 14 as part of the Fifty-Fifth New York Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Anthony Svatek, .TV, 2017, color, sound, 22 minutes.


NEAR THE END of Finnish artist Jaakko Pallasvuo’s Filter, screening at this year’s Projections sidebar of the New York Film Festival, a man wonders, “Why am I watching this movie?” It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves countless times and one we assume programmers of film festivals wrestle with as they decide what merits attention. Given the current political climate, it’s not surprising that many works in this year’s Projections were selected in light of growing concerns about the expanding list of endangered species—not only of the racial, gender, ethnic, and environmental varieties, but democratic values and ethics. The incurably reflexive Filter does not directly address these issues, but it concedes that all experience is perceived through distorting filters and unwittingly demonstrates that ironizing is often part of the problem.

Those who forgo irony in favor of artistic and moral forthrightness are more indispensable than ever. Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s riveting Rubber Coated Steel, which won the short-film award at the Rotterdam Film Festival earlier this year, is a prime example of the artist who addresses political and social issues through a vigorous command of form. Born in Jordan, the filmmaker has a remarkable gift for listening—a “private ear” whose expertise not only defines his art but has led to his bearing witness when necessary.

Steel is an audio analysis of a case from May 2014 in which two unarmed Palestinian teenagers were killed by Israeli soldiers on the West Bank. The prosecution claimed that the soldiers fired live ammunition immediately after using rubber bullets, to cover their actions and elude investigation; further, they argued that such ruses had been used frequently to murder protesters. But for a few photographs—one which captured a bullet midair—Abu Hamdan uses neither the actual sounds of the event nor newsreels nor reenactments, instead setting the scene in a concrete tunnel-like space in which visual data moves back and forth on ceiling rails while the transcript of the trial appears in subtitles. This suppression of human and mechanical sounds induces an acute attentiveness in which the viewer must discern in blow-ups of sound frequencies the difference between real and rubber bullets. While the facts would appear to establish an open-and-shut case, the movie ends on an ambiguous note. Visitors in the court are asked to provide supporting testimony but no one comes forward; the screen goes black and the judge’s gavel is the last thing we hear. This is a work of audiovisual power that stands out in an atmosphere glutted with all kinds of cacophony.

Peter Burr, Pattern Language, 2017, video, black-and-white, sound, 10 minutes.


More personal but no less culturally resonant is Turkish filmmaker Nazli Dincel’s Shape of a Surface, an extraordinary exercise in first-person cinema, filmed in 16 mm. We first hear, and then see, the filmmaker’s sandaled feet via a high-angle shot from her handheld camera as she ascends time-worn rocky steps, pausing at the top to raise the camera and pan across the area, revealing the remains of a Greek amphitheater (the Aphrodisias ruins in western Turkey). No sooner does this register than we hear the salat, one of the daily calls to prayer in the Muslim world. As if to compound the contrast, the filmmaker holds a mirror, alternately confusing or conflating shots of the site with its reflection. With such simple hands-on means, she evokes not only a cultural divide but also the bearing it has on consciousness, perception, and physical existence—in short, questions of identity and place. From the start, the viewer is immersed in a filmic reality inseparable from the physical existence of the filmmaker, forced to accompany her, so to speak, on this personal journey. Questions arise: Are the shots of a bride and groom against these ruins of the ancient Greek city of love intended to mock their reduction to a cheap commercial backdrop? When Dincel cuts from a sculpture of a male nude to a bare chest, is she contrasting the Greek ideal to the real, or is she reflecting an internal struggle with another mirror image, of where she belongs within her conjurations of cultural spaces, past and present?

Peter Burr’s Pattern Language is further testament to the creative potential of computer-generated imagery, a visually stunning series of black-and-white graphics accompanied by a mesmeric sound design. The felicitous way animated human figures are incorporated within geometric grids prompts us to wonder which “species” controls which. A less benign view of our technological future is offered in G. Anthony Svatek’s .TV, a deadly serious but wittily poised prophecy of environmental oblivion. The title is the official domain extension given to Tuvalu, a group of Polynesian islands in the South Pacific. With a land mass totaling only ten square miles, Tuvalu is the world’s fourth-smallest nation and the 189th member of the United Nations. A warning voice from cyberspace, in the future, tells of Tuvalu’s final days, when it sinks into the sea. As it speaks of the “faceless threat eating away at its shore,” we watch alluring images of the island paradise with the bluest of seas and sun-drenched beaches. The acerbic punch line of Svatek’s work, as the voice intones, is that while Tuvalu itself has “vanished”—that is, from the point of view of the future—internet and industry experts declare that the websites of the domain, .TV, are too valuable to be terminated and are therefore protected from the fate of the islands and their inhabitants, assuring us of the ultimate triumph of capitalism.

Other short works deserving attention include: Rosalind Nashashibi’s Vivian’s Garden, a lovely portrait of Swiss Austrian artists Vivian Suter and Elisabeth Wild living in Guatemala, and arguably the series most lyrical film; Marta Mateus’s Barbs, Wastelands, which owes something to the work of Pedro Costa in its elliptical, enigmatic play with character and narrative; Luis Lopez Carrasco’s Aliens; and the five-film tribute to seasoned filmmaker Barbara Hammer, all of them preserved by the Academy Film Archive.

Barbara Hammer, Women I Love, 1976, color, sound, 23 minutes.


The feature-length works this year could not be more diverse. At 143 minutes, Ben Russell’s Good Luck is the longest, at once bluntly conceived and elusive. In the first of its two equal parts, Russell follows Serbian copper miners, filming them at work and engaging in conversation during breaks. The elevator that returns him to ground level seems to go on forever before the film cuts dramatically to another setting: Suriname, a country bordering French Guyana on the northeast coast of South America, where Russell films an illegal band of gold miners. His long takes capture the spatial and temporal dimensions of each site. Time seems suspended in the cramped and dark interiors of the mine, while the open, sunny vistas of the second part lend a languorous air to the workers. In both cases, the ambience exerts a power over these men beyond anything we learn from the dialogue. Russell’s questions are met with clichéd responses—as if, wary of this outsider with the movie camera, the men are reluctant to volunteer too much. Nevertheless, as they’re aware that they work for powers beyond their control, their demeanor speaks volumes.

Vera Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Caniba pushes the boundaries between aesthetics and revulsion even further than the filmmakers’ previous work, Leviathan (2012). Their subject is Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who murdered and ate the body parts of his female lover in Paris in 1981––he was tried in court, declared insane, and eventually released. Now older and feeble, he lives in Tokyo off his infamous history while continuing to disseminate sadomasochistic fantasies through home-drawn comic books. Apparently eschewing moral judgment, the filmmakers pursue an in-your-face style that alternately mesmerizes and repels. For long stretches, we watch restless, claustrophobic close-ups of Sagawa’s face as he muses over the past, an effect that tends to isolate him from the natural surround while daring the camera’s powers to detect hidden signs of what constitute the boundaries of the human. Home movies show him and his brother with their parents in what appears to be a normal childhood. But this impression is belied by the images of sexual and physical abuse and mutilation in the comics that suggest an ongoing condition, which his brother, Jun, for all his complaints, seems to share. While experts in sexual pathology may find this document rich in clinical data, viewers may be of mixed minds, with more than a few making their way toward the exit.

Kevin Jerome Everson, Tonsler Park, 2017, 16 mm, black-and-white, 80 minutes.


Race and human nature are front and center (and raucously mocked) in the must-see restorations of the films of Mike Henderson. Born in Missouri in 1944, Henderson taught drawing, painting, and filmmaking in the Art Department at the University of California, Davis. His 16-mm movies from the 1970s and 1980s, he insisted, were made for himself as a way of coming to terms with his experiences as a black man in America. Home movies or not, the eight presented in Projections radiate a genius and wit that belie their modesty. In Dufus (1970–73), we watch a makeshift “theater” space as different figures emerge from a door marked to designate social stereotypes. Each one enters, does a turn, and exits, accompanied by Henderson’s laconic voice-over mimicking their unspoken thoughts. Hands down, these are the funniest and most biting takes on character and race I’ve seen in a dog’s age.

On a more serious note, Kevin Jerome Everson’s Tonsler Park is a work of great beauty, simplicity, and hope. Everson takes on a public institution, fixes his camera unwaveringly, avoids overt filmic manipulation, and eschews commentary of any kind. While Frederick Wiseman comes to mind, it’s worth noting that he never tackled a polling site on election day, no less one seemingly run entirely by African Americans. The doc opens as a black woman swears in a group of volunteers who will serve as pages at several precincts in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the 2016 presidential election. Some stand at the entrance to guide people; others sit at the tables, check IDs, and otherwise assist voters. The seamless, unruffled manner is reflected in Everson’s long takes, the camera focused patiently on each volunteer performing his or her job efficiently, cordially, and without fuss. If Everson harbors a subtle irony, this white male liberal missed it entirely. What I grasped is a document, the directness and sincerity of which is grounded in every ten-minute take of the welcoming faces and earnest demeanors of the volunteers as voters enter and leave the frame, momentarily blocking our view, in a well-coordinated flow. What we witness, in short, is a white supremacist’s nightmare—aka American democracy in action. Essential to the movie’s impact is that Everson does not belabor the “point.” Tonsler Park is not just a forthright counterpoint to the deluge of violent images and condescending sermonizing offered by mainstream media. It’s an act of artistic and political clout that should run as a permanent installation on museum walls across the country in a continuous loop.

Tony Pipolo

The Projections sidebar runs October 6 through 9 at the New York Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Small Wonder

09.21.17

Blake Williams, Prototype, 2017, 3D video, color, sound, 63 minutes.


A SHELTER AWAY from the vast and all-consuming Toronto International Film Festival’s red-carpet parades, the Wavelengths program is TIFF’s home for all things experimental and otherwise undefinable. As of last year, the mandate of Wavelengths programmer Andréa Picard had even expanded to include off-site installation works, such as Albert Serra’s multiscreen Singularity.

Such expansions were curtailed in 2017. Wavelengths was slightly smaller this year—as, indeed, was TIFF in toto, part of an across-the-board attempt to rein in a megafestival that had become too big to present a cogent identity. The irony is that in reducing programs uniformly instead of making selective, thoughtful cuts, the TIFF brass made the fest only marginally smaller and no more coherent––it still screened more tennis-themed movies in one edition than any festival has a right to—though Wavelengths, even in a slightly abridged form, retained its curatorial personality as a program that puts its individual films into lively conversation with one another.

If a popular frontrunner emerged from the Wavelengths pack this year it was Texas-born, Toronto-based Blake Williams’s PROTOTYPE, subsequently acquired by Grasshopper Films for US theatrical distribution. Williams has, for some time, been known as a writer and active proponent of stereoscopic filmmaking, and while his previous short ventures into anaglyph 3-D didn’t succeed in making me a convert, his debut feature, shot in the polarized 3-D process, is an accomplishment on another plane. Without anything resembling a narrative, the film sustains its sixty-three-minute runtime by way of various movements composed of stereoscopic images from the catastrophic Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the “stacking” of 3-D screens shot from a 1959 Philco television set, rodeo footage in which the phases of movement have been broken down in the fashion of an Étienne-Jules Marey motion study, and a contemporary beachfront coda done in color video, concluding with a final piece of depth-perception play, an image of a foregrounded concrete stairwell’s horizontal lines meeting those of the waves beyond.

Where PROTOTYPE’s movements flow together, those of Narimane Mari’s Le fort des fous are jarring, presumably by design. The film is constructed as a triptych of similarly sized sections—the first is set in an imagination of the colonial past in the filmmaker’s native Algeria; the second follows a wandering commune on Greece’s Kythira island, poised somewhere between the present and a mythic past; and the third is a documentary-style platform for contemporary revolutionists, including a Prosfygika castaway in contemporary Athens. The central part, oblique and distinguished by dynamic figures-in-landscape framings, was easily the most absorbing, though regardless of personal preference it’s hard to imagine a viewer who could value all three drastically different sections equally. Perhaps this confrontation of categories of taste is the point—and Mari is a strong enough filmmaker to convincingly employ and dispense with different styles at will—though a shape-shifter such as Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark, included in the previous year’s Wavelengths, goes deeper in exploring the anxiety of approach. Another film in parts, Ben Russell’s Good Luck, the dregs of the section, is a bifurcated work that begins at a large subterranean copper mine in Bor, Serbia, and then moves to the compare-and-contrast setting of an open-air collective gold-panning operation in Suriname.

Where Russell’s film suggests a wariness toward its subjects that’s equal parts awed and awkward, intimacy occurs effortlessly in Mrs. Fang, the latest from prolific Chinese independent documentarian Wang Bing. A relatively to-the-point offering from a filmmaker best known for more sprawling undertakings such as West of the Tracks (2003), Mrs. Fang’s runtime is determined by its subject, the film being essentially a document of a days-long vigil at the deathbed of a woman in the final stages of dementia: When she ends, it does too. Scenes of the woman’s family speculating on minute changes in her stiffening body language and close-ups in which her staring eyes fill with tears are intercut with nocturnal open-air ones of relations night fishing with an electrified dip net. The sharp back-and-forth lateral movement between human woe and the natural world counterpoises two variations on waiting, and also fits somewhat in the tradition of Tang Dynasty poetry. Watching Wang’s emotional, moral, and pictorial intelligence at work from moment to moment elevates Mrs. Fang above mere morbidity.

Pedro Pinho, The Nothing Factory, 2017, 16 mm, color, sound, 177 minutes.


Wang’s movie is in conversation with another film that uses close-ups even more exclusively, Caniba, a portrait of sorts of Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man whose butchery of a Dutch woman in Paris in 1981 while they were foreign-exchange students earned him a tribute in the Rolling Stones song “Too Much Blood.” (“You know he took her to his apartment, cut off her head / Put the rest of her body in the refrigerator, ate her piece by piece.”) Codirectors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor are best known for their 2012 nautical GoPro epic Leviathan, a thrilling film and an unrepeatable stunt, a fact they have happily understood. Here, they’ve adapted an entirely new, pared-down observant style to their sedentary subjects, filling the frame with the aging, mottled flesh of Sagawa, now suffering near-paralysis, and his caretaker brother, letting the focus drift in such a fashion as to make them seem almost incorporeal. Sparse archival footage includes glimpses of the Sagawa brothers’ privileged youths—about as much as the film offers in the way of explaining how Issei escaped serious prison time. Among other things, Caniba is a study in pampered self-satisfaction, the undying compulsion toward sibling rivalry, and the invidious power of audiovisual suggestion—walk-outs abounded at my screening, though much of the worst here is willfully obscured.

Two other films that beg pairing are Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc and Pedro Pinho’s The Nothing Factory, both unorthodox musicals, though Pinho’s film contains just one old-fashioned production number. Dumont’s movie, based on texts by Charles Peguy, begins with eight-year-old dynamo Lise Leplat Prudhomme as young Joan and follows her into her teenage years, through her divine vision of Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria and her final departure from Lorraine en route to martial glory. Largely limited to the countryside where Joan tends her flock and delivered in song, Jeannette bears a clear debt to Straub and Huillet’s Moses und Aron (1973), though it’s distinguished by a heavy-metal-inflected score by French electronic musician Igorrr. The idea, one supposes, is to draw an analogy between religious ecstasy and the transports of head-banging, though Dumont shows even less affinity for thrash than he does for medieval Christianity. Has there’s ever been a filmmaker so single-mindedly preoccupied with the matter of faith who has so thoroughly failed to evince any reason for that preoccupation beyond fetishization of its more aberrant manifestations? While the formerly somber Dumont’s turn to the wacky since 2014’s miniseries L’il Quinquin has, to some, marked a creative rebirth, to these eyes it’s only made more glaring an essential absence in his work.

There is something more to recommend of The Nothing Factory, set during the lassitude of a labor dispute at an elevator factory outside Lisbon. It at least tosses off a lot of ideas, most regarding labor in a post-work society, during its more than three-hour runtime—though these ideas seem to decorate the film’s surface rather than act as a part of its superstructure. While Pinho’s film practically demands—and has received—consideration as a major work by virtue of its subject matter and daunting length, it works more in passages than as a sustained whole, and I doubt it will have anything like the same longevity in my mind as several short works at Wavelengths. Benjamin Crotty and Bertrand Dezoteux’s little piss-take Division Movement to Vungtau, for example, provided sick laughs in a program not overloaded with humor, a series of iris effects on archival footage of US troops in Vietnam, to which has been added a cast of anthropomorphic CGI fruit capering on the fringes of the image.

Further highlights include Rawane Nassif’s ingeniously framed Turtles Are Always Home, shot among the ersatz Venetian canals of Doha’s “Quanat Quartier,” which finds countless fresh variations on the theme of photographic and architectural illusionism in the course of twelve minutes. Jodie Mack’s Wasteland No. 1 – Ardent, Verdant, which moves between flower-bedecked fields and the artificial landscape of circuit boards, is a work of hard clarity of intention and thrilling cadence, and there’s something admirable in the setup-punch-line simplicity of Brown and Clear, whose title refers most explicitly to the two flavors of liquor served at a bar in director Kevin Jerome Everson’s hometown of Mansfield, Ohio. Finally, there was a Harvard Film Archive restoration of the late Framington, Massachusetts–based filmmaker Anne Charlotte Robertson’s 1976 Pixillation. I’ve been moved by every Robertson piece I’ve ever seen, and this prismatic, wind-tossed self-portrait was no exception. It’s a model in conveying maximum emotion with a paucity of means, in a program that continues to distinguish itself with diminished resources.

Nick Pinkerton

The Toronto International Film Festival ran September 7 through 17.