The File On Thelma Jordon (1950

A Barbara Stanwyck femme fatale seduces a good man, lures him into a murder plot and then ruthlessly double crosses him when he's no longer useful, discarding the poor dupe like yesterday's garbage. Sound familiar? This time it's Wendell Corey's assistant district attorney Cleve Marshall whose eaten up and spat out, rather than Fred MacMurray's Walter Neff, but the similarities between Robert Siodmak's accomplished, production line Paramount noir and Billy Wilder's magnificent Double Indemnity (1944) are immediately obvious and undeniable. This is still a fine film, however, and has enough points of divergence to keep things interesting, shifting shape a number of times before finally revealing itself to be a tense courtroom drama, in which Cleve must prosecute his own lover for the murder of her Aunt Vera (Gertrude W. Hoffman) and engineer his own defeat to ensure her freedom. Perhaps the biggest difference between Thelma and Phyllis Dietrichson is that the former really does fall in love with her sap this time around and comes to regret eloping with her secret boyfriend, a no-good Florida cardsharp named Tony Laredo (Richard Rober), her guilt swelling until she can take it no more and pulls their getaway car off the road and over a cliff into a fiery inferno. A truly shocking development that put me in mind of Otto Preminger's later Angel Face (1952) with Bob Mitchum and Jean Simmons. Phyllis would never have been capable of Thelma's genuine contrition, even if it comes too late to save Cleve from total ruination.

Perhaps the most interesting mystery about The File On Thelma Jordon is that of its author. The movie's screenplay by Ketti Frings is based on an unpublished screen treatment by one Marty Holland, a studio typist discovered by Preminger whose novel Fallen Angel he made into a superlative noir with Dana Andrews, Alice Faye and Linda Darnell in 1945. According to Domestic Suspense, Marty was really a young woman named Mary Hauenstein from Beaverdam, Ohio, who published a series of pulp novels around the time of her late Forties successes in Hollywood before returning to the obscurity from whence she came and dying of cancer in 1971. Little is known about her life and Marty seems to have been a dame every bit as evasive and tricky as one of her heroines.

Check out the forthcoming Director's Special issue of The Dark Pages, edited by the brilliant Karen from Shadows And Satin, for a fuller appreciation of Siodmak's direction of The File On Thelma Jordon by yours truly. The issue will focus on the noir output of both Siodmak and Anthony Mann and hit print on April 24th 2014. Get yours here.


The Man Who Laughs (1928)

There's nothing funny about The Man Who Laughs. Paul Leni's film for Universal adapts Victor Hugo's novel of 1869 - set in England, 1690 - to tell the story of Gwynplaine, the innocent young son of an enemy to King James II, who is brutally disfigured by order of the monarch, his face permanently stricken into a hideous grin so that he may "laugh forever at his fool of a father", lately cast into the iron maiden. We pick up Gwynplaine's story in adulthood, where the outcast (Conrad Veidt) earns a living in a traveling fair run by the kindly mountebank Ursus (Cesare Gravina) and pines for his blind co-star Dea (Mary Philbin). The growing fame of "the man who laughs" soon reaches the court of Queen Anne, where the corrupt duchess Josiana (Olga Baclanova) pursues him romantically on a whim, encouraged by cruel court jester Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst). The latter learns of Gwynplaine's true heritage and claims to land and title. Gwynplaine is hurried to the House of Lords to be ennobled so that he may marry Josiana and surrender his lineage, but he refuses the honour and escapes, fleeing England with the banished Ursus and his beloved Dea.

Producer Carl Laemmle followed the success of his Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom Of The Opera (1925) with Lon Chaney by again trawling through the French literary canon in search of a sympathetic monster. This time Chaney was unavailable, so Laemmle exploited his connections with the German film industry to land Conrad Veidt, star of expressionist classics The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920), The Hands Of Orlac (1924) and Waxworks (1924), as well as his director on that last film, Paul Leni. The latter has opportunities to impress in The Man Who Laughs and seizes them, notably incorporating a clever first-person sequence on a ferris wheel to convey the giddy sense of fun enjoyed by the revelers at Southwalk Fair. However, it's inevitably Veidt's extraordinary Gwynplaine that steals the show. The great actor manages to inspire our pity for this grotesque creation with little more than a nervous wrinkled brow, an impressive feat. His frantic efforts to keep his "smile" concealed at all times behind scarf or clamped hands is an especially touching and well observed detail. The character famously inspired Batman creator Bob Kane to conceive the Joker and it's not hard to see why: the above still is once seen, never forgotten. Elsewhere, Olga Baclanova is memorable bathing nude as the degenerate Josiana, a character whose motivations she would effectively reprise in Tod Browning's similarly creepy Freaks (1932). Mary Philbin, a protégé of Erich von Stroheim returning from Phantom, is again very moving and Hurst is deliciously malevolent as Barkilphedro.


La Notte (1961)

Sharing a theme with Rossellini's Journey To Italy (1953) and a milieu with Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960), La Notte is a deceptively simple tale of the collapse of a loveless marriage from Michelangelo Antonioni. Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau star as listless author Giovanni Pontano and his frustrated wife Lidia, the couple introduced visiting Giovanni's dying editor Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki) in hospital. They then attend a book launch, take an afternoon nap and wander the shabby backstreets of Milan respectively before reuniting to attend a tedious all-night garden party, each silently ruing the terminus they've reached and considering extramarital affairs: Giovanni with Valentina (Monica Vitti), the precocious daughter of an industrialist who aggressively pursues the writer with the offer of an executive post with his firm, Lidia with a stranger she meets in a rainstorm.

Giovanni, a probable influence on the similarly situated though older Jep Gambardella in last year's The Great Beauty ("I no longer have inspirations, only memories", he sighs), appears the more anxious of the two to maintain appearances, while Lidia seems more disposed to face up to the reality of their having drifted apart, whether irreconcilably or not. Quite what has caused the rift between them is never explicitly stated, although the readiness with which Giovanni allows himself to be enticed into the room of a nymphomaniac patient while visiting Tommaso suggests a penchant for philandering on his part that is later confirmed by his interest in Valentina, however half-hearted that project proves to be. Giovanni and Lidia are certainly bored by the upper middle class circles in which they move and both are embarrassed by the public rituals they encounter - a gangland fist fight, a gathering of children firing rockets into the sky, a weeping toddler and a striptease act all uncomfortably echoing aspects of their crumbling relationship in abstract ways. The run-down concrete wastelands Lidia passes through on her aimless wander, lit in blinding white sunshine and faint shadow, also provides a comment on the ruination of their love. It's no surprise to learn that this is one of Don Draper's favourite films in Mad Men (2007-), the demise of the advertising executive's marriage to Stepford wife Betty providing a close parallel with Antonioni's scenario.

The great auteur largely leaves us to decipher the inner workings of his protagonists from their responses to the people and situations they involve themselves with and the layers of naturalistic detail with which he loads ever frame ensures that La Notte contains enough ambiguity and mystery to merit repeated viewings. "You've completely exhausted me, the two of you", cries Valentina as the party winds down, just prior to Giovanni and Lidia's apparent reconciliation. Quite. Incidentally, François Truffaut disliked Antonioni's use of Jeanne Moreau, soon to star in the Frenchman's own Jules Et Jim (1962), and complained that, "Antonioni had exploited the 'Bette Davis' side of Jeanne Moreau - the sullen face; she never laughed". Even at her most morose, Moreau is never far from lovely and gives a superbly nuanced performance, her horror of aging powerfully evoked.


Freaks (1932)

Banned in Britain for 30 years, Tod Browning's Freaks remains notorious and I've long shied away from seeing it despite being well aware of the film's important place within cult cinema history. However, having finally mustered the courage to sit through it, I'm pleased to report back that I found Freaks to be a touching and heartfelt plea for sympathy and understanding and by no means the grotesque pre-Code exploitation shlocker I'd been led to expect.

The film's story concerns Hans (Harry Earles), a German midget appearing in a travelling circus, who falls in love with "peacock of the air" Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a ravishing but cruel trapeze artist. The latter initially mocks the diminutive Hans before changing her tune when she learns that he has inherited a small fortune, plotting with her strongman boyfriend Hercules (Henry Victor) to marry Hans, murder him and then elope with the cash. Co-star Frieda (Daisy Earles) smells a rat and warns Hans against the wedding though he ignores her counsel. When Hans is duly taken ill with ptomaine poisoning, his fellow "freaks" turn on Cleopatra and exact a terrible revenge.

Freaks was a passion project for Browning, the director of Universal's seminal Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi, who had run away from a comfortable home in Kentucky at 16 to join the circus. Working for various sideshows from then on, Browning was a barker for the "Wild Man of Borneo", performed a live burial act and even appeared as a clown for the Ringling Brothers. He would later draw on his big top experiences when he persuaded MGM's star producer Irving Thalberg to option the rights to Clarence Robbins' 1923 short story 'Spurs', which had recently appeared in Munsey's Magazine. Browning wanted to draw attention to the plight of dwarves, pinheads, bearded ladies and conjoined twins appearing in carnivals and show the American public that they were people too and as deserving of dignity and respect as everyone else, casting real "freak show" performers in his film version to make the point. Thalberg ignored the advice of his peers in backing the project and came to regret the decision when Freaks was released and met with a horrified reaction, one woman claiming to have suffered a miscarriage brought on by the trauma of watching it. Browning would only complete four more films thereafter before vacating his director's chair altogether in 1939 and entering the real estate game, a sad decline for a major horror talent.

The real trouble with Freaks is that Browning tries to have his cake and eat it. The filmmaker (above, centre) implores us to see the likes of Prince Randian "the Living Torso" and Koo Koo the Bird Girl for what they are - human beings born with unusually extreme disabilities, innocents entirely undeserving of our revulsion - but in so doing only succeeds in again turning them into a sensational spectacle for punters to gawk at. Although Browning successfully conveys the humanity of these poor devils, capturing their perfectly natural emotional responses to interactions with their able-bodied colleagues on the fairground (Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams lead by example), they are still curiosities being exhibited to draw a crowd, this time moving picture-goers instead of Saturday night revelers. This problem is particularly obvious at the climax when they collectively pursue Cleopatra bearing switchblades, a frightening occurrence that restores them to the status of queasy outsider "Other". Their famous holler of, "One of us, one of us! Gooble gobble! Gooble gobble! We accept her, we accept her!", is as tribal and primal as that of the manimals in the same year's The Island Of Lost Souls, suggesting that these performers are something altogether more sinister than the makeshift, mutually supportive family we have previously been presented with. Despite this inconsistency, Browning's intentions were unquestionably noble and Frieda's unrequited love for Hans is beautifully played by Daisy and Harry Earles, even if they were siblings in real-life.


The Valley Of The Bees (1967)

Second Run recently released František Vláčil's The White Dove (1960) and Josef Kilián (1963) for the first time on DVD in the UK with the aim of reviving the director's reputation outside of his native Czech Republic. Vláčil's more ambitious later work The Valley Of The Bees, an immersive medieval drama set in 13th century Bohemia, was reissued in 2010 as part of the same project and makes an even stronger case for a reassessment of this bold and unusual artist outside of Central Europe.

Shot immediately after Vláčil's better known but baggier and more experimental Marketa Lazarová (voted the greatest Czech film of all time by critics in 1998), The Valley Of The Bees concerns Ondřej, a young boy sworn into the Holy Order of the Teutonic Knights as atonement for a youthful prank, who grows up to reject their masochistic belief in transcendence through self-denial and suffering and forsakes his vows, fleeing the Order's coastal monastery to return home. The adult Ondřej (Petr Čepek) finds himself doggedly pursued through the mountains and forests by his devout friend Armin (Jan Kačer), a veteran of the Crusades, who is mortified to learn that Ondřej has taken charge of his late father's castle at Vlkov and married his stepmother Leonora (Vera Galatíková). Armin's violent response to the sin he encounters finally persuades Ondřej to return to the Order, accept its codes and seek forgiveness.

A far cry from the whimsical beer-and-sausages humour of his Czech New Wave counterparts - typified by Miloš Forman's The Firemen's Ball, released the same year - Vláčil's moody meditation on dogmatic orthodoxy in conflict with human wants and desires really has more in common with the cinema of Ingmar Bergman or Miklós Jancsó than it does with the likes of Jiří Menzel. Scenes of inconsolably glum knights wandering alone along the sea shore in stark black-and-white unavoidably recall Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Valley Of The Bees shares with that masterpiece a dawning realisation of a crushing inevitability, an idea reaching far beyond the ancient times and places in which these two films are set. Vláčil's film was duly read as an allegory for Czech resistance being overwhelmed by the smothering force of Soviet Communism (another oppressive foreign ideology) when it was first released at the height of the Prague Spring, an interpretation that caused it to be suppressed and little seen thereafter. Whether or not this was the explicit intention of Vláčil and writer Vladimír Körner is open to question, but the result remains a deeply thoughtful enterprise as well as an impressively authentic recreation of the medieval world, making effective use of real locations to allow us to feel the weight of the chainmail on Ondřej's shoulders and the chill of stone walls or sense the thrill of the chase as a pack of hounds hunt a terrified deer across the plains. This end is well served by František Uldrich's crisp monochrome photography, as striking as Jan Čuřík's was on The White Dove, and further enhanced by a lovely folk score from Zdeněk Liška, evoking the period with choirs, solo female voice, wooden pipes and horns.


A Farewell To Arms (1932)

Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, the First Lady of the American Theatre, star in this schmaltzy adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's famous 1929 novel about his experiences as a Red Cross ambulance driver in northern Italy during World War I. Directed by Frank Borzage for Paramount, the script by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Benjamin Glazer foregrounds the stormy romance between Coop's Lieutenant Frederic Henry and Hayes' British nurse Catherine Barkley at the expense of all other concerns, almost entirely sidestepping Hemingway's thoughts on the grim futility of war and the author's abiding pessimism about human nature. Sculpting a blockbuster love story out of this prestigious literary work was a more problematic proposition than it might at first have appeared: the narrative taking in pre-marital sex, desertion and death in childbirth, all themes deeply unpalatable to Will H. Hays and his censorship office, who, fortunately, only began enforcing their new Motion Picture Production Code two years later.

Borzage's movie was made on a budget of $900,000, about three times higher than the average studio output of the time, and is inventively shot despite the obvious limitations imposed upon it by a soundstage production. The director makes use of low flying bi-planes, panicking horses, hillside graveyards, driving rain and bilious black smoke to effectively convey the terror and confusion of battlefields under siege from bombing raids. The film's biggest flaw actually turns out to be the unfortunate but undeniably hilarious height difference between its leads: the 6'3 Cooper towering over his diminutive 5' co-star. The filmmakers, having obviously noticed this problem and fearing ridicule, sought to overcome it by rarely showing the lovers standing up together, preferring instead to present them seated or lying enraptured in each other's arms, which only half works. Despite this unintentionally comic note, Cooper and Hayes are well matched and A Farewell To Arms was well received by contemporary critics. Hemingway, however, was unsurprisingly among the naysayers, despite not having seen it. Invited to a private screening near his home in Piggott, Arkansas, Papa sent a telegram to the studio, declining their offer and advising executives: “Use your imagination as to where to put the print, but do not send it here.” Perhaps he was too busy counting the $80,000 he received when he sold them the rights.


Earth (1930)

Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko completed a trilogy of films about life in his homeland during the first decade under Communism with this beautifully photographed meditation on collectivised agriculture, an ode to nature and human endeavour. Privately-owned farms were still tolerated in the Ukraine in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, a phenomenon that lasted until the late 1920s when grain shortages across the Soviet Union prompted Stalin to call for an end to "rural capitalism", striking out against wealthy smallholders and issuing a sinister order against the region's native Kulaks, decreeing that they should be "eliminated as a class". Many Kulaks were violently opposed to having their ancestral lands taken away from them during the subsequent implementation of Kremlin policy and it is at this pivotal moment that Dovzhenko's Earth begins.

Following the death of an elderly farmer (Nikolai Nademsky) in his beloved pear orchard, Vasyl Opanas (Semyon Svashenko), his grandson, chooses to embrace both collectivisation and modern mechanisation in spite of heated local opposition and the grave doubts expressed by his father (Stepan Shkurat). Vasyl buys the community's first tractor, which, after a false start, swiftly revolutionises the manner in which the peasantry till the soil and harvest their wheat, ending centuries of backbreaking labour. Peace endures until Vasyl is suddeny ambushed and murdered on a country lane late one night by a neighbouring political rival. The boy's death prompts his father to lose his faith. He demands that Vasyl be buried among the sunflowers in a secular ceremony, his defiance of the church bringing down a curse upon him from the local parish priest before the autumn rains arrive. Vasyl is cheered as a martyr to the Communist cause.

Dovzhenko's highly topical feature was met with a hostile reception when it was first premiered because of the director's apparent refusal to offer a clear political moral, meaning his failure to explicitly condemn Vasyl's enemies for impeding "progress". In fact, this ambivalent tone reigns throughout, Dovzhenko championing both the majesty and bounty of the natural world and the promise represented by emerging new technologies to cultivate it. The film is filled with bold framing and poetic compositions, notably in a montage of strapping young women cheerily gathering hay in the tractor's wake while their bearded menfolk stand astride the hills, gazing off into the middle distance and contemplating the future with evident wonder. A scene involving Vasyl's bereaved fiancee Natalya (Yelena Maksimova) flailing around naked, hysterical with grief and unable to accept his demise, may be especially moving and shocking, but, as Dovzhenko reminds us, death is as natural as the changing of the seasons. Vasyl has merely been returned to the earth he spent his life working for.

Incidentally, fans of this period are strongly advised to check out Kino/Film: Soviet Posters Of The Silent Screen, a free exhibition at GRAD on Little Portland Street in central London running until 29 March 2014. The show features striking graphic works by Georgii and Vladimir Stenberg, Yakov Ruklevsky, Alexander Naumov, Mikhail Dlugach and Nikolai Prusakov intended to promote cinema in the early days of the U.S.S.R. and is well worth the trip.