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 and 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 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 Archive 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 it 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 the 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 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 as film 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 in 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 look-alike 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 back-road 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 he 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 unusual exceptional outburst 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.