Shadows and starlight: The Uninvited (1944)

Uninvited posterThe Uninvited. A Paramount picture; screenplay by Dodie Smith and Frank Partos; associate producer, Charles Brackett; directed by Lewis Allen. Criterion Collection v677. Based on the novel by Dorothy Macardle. Originally released as a motion picture in 1944. Director of photography, Charles Lang, Jr.; music score, Victor Young; edited by Doane Harrison; art direction, Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegté; costumes, Edith Head; set decoration, Stephen Seymour.
Performers: Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Cornelia Otis Skinner, Dorothy Stickney, Barbara Everest, Alan Napier, Gail Russell. Summary: a London composer and his sister purchase a surprisingly affordable, lonely cliff-top house in Devonshire, only to discover that it actually carries a ghostly price. Soon they’re caught up in a bizarre romantic triangle from beyond the grave.

style ****
substance ***1/2

the ghost always rings twice

The 1940s were arguably cinema’s best decade for the atmospheric supernatural thriller, and The Uninvited may indeed be the best of them all [1], maybe the best ghost story ever filmed.

uninvited photo 2If Uninvited does not exactly invent the subgenre of the supernatural mystery rooted in murky secrets and mental pathology, it crystallizes all the elements in a way that previously had not been done, and it does so with a deft touch which subtly mixes atmosphere, story and low-keyed acting, along the way sneaking in some surprising shadings of plot and character. This is a long-winded way of saying that Uninvited is as much a psychological drama as ghost tale, with much of the terror inflicted, sometimes self-inflicted, by living mortals with their own issues.

The eminently familiar, eminently English, pedigree – crashing waves, imposing sea-cliffs, and the old Gothic house – sets the tone in the first scene, and the house in particular might be seen as a variant, a poor man’s version, if you like, of the  grand mansion in Rebecca, or the similarly imposing house in Jane Eyre. Flowing curtains, grandfather clocks, curved staircase, oversize fireplace, marble floors, grand pianos, large windows overlooking the shore: they’re all there, and provide a suitable backdrop for a ghost – or is it ghosts? – that refuse to leave and can be heard crying nightly and sometimes even glimpsed through the shadows, whose ectoplasm we see now and then, but usually only sense.

Uninvited photo 3
All is done with special effects of the most minimalist but highly effective kind. Most of the supernatural feel and general sense of unease is created by Charles Lang’s gloomy lighting and shadowy camera work which bathes the ghostly goings on in perpetual semi-darkness. This sense of never quite getting a clear vision provides a nice metaphor for the inner motivations of the characters, which are often ambiguous and unclear.

The cast of Uninvited is near ideal and the resultant performances pitch perfect. Ray Milland is his usual breezy and charming self, albeit with a touch of the intense. Milland’s screen persona seemed so effortless that we tend to forget how good an actor he really was, truly a case of an artist concealing his art. In an understated turn as Milland’s sister, Ruth Hussey is in her way just as good, delivering a natural, refreshingly unhammy performance. The minor players – Alan Napier as the wise doctor, stone-faced Donald Crisp as the evasive grandfather, and Barbara Everest as a very nervous housekeeper – contribute strong support.

stella and miss hollowayAs an added bonus, “Stella by Starlight,” the haunting tune Milland is composing, hovers throughout the movie like a ghostly presence, making fleeting appearances and never overstaying its welcome. But Victor Young’s score isn’t confined to a memorable serenade. Rather, it provides a lushly romantic backdrop throughout in a longing, old school style so favored by composers in cinema’s Golden Age.

The most memorable character in Uninvited is the elegantly creepy quack psychiatrist Miss Holloway, brilliantly played by the formidable Cornelia Otis Skinner. Miss Holloway is the film’s most flamboyant character, although the ditzy Miss Bird (Dorothy Stickney), a ‘guest’ at the retreat center Miss Holloway presides over, ranks a close second. In any case Cornelia Otis Skinner gives us Uninvited’s only camp touch with her mildly over-the-top take.

But it’s Gail Russell as the haunted Stella that’s the emotional heart of the film. In her first substantial role she gives a miraculous performance, never more so than at the séance where she speaks a kind of Spanish/Gypsy dialect, delivering her words at a fire breathing pace. The promise Gail Russell showed in the 1940s was tragically unfulfilled in her short, rather sad life and lurks throughout Uninvited, further contributing to the film’s pervasive melancholy, thus making it all the more spooky. Indeed with her gossamer clothes, somnambulist manner and pale appearance, we might be forgiven for believing Stella herself is a ghost.

Uninvited photo 6

The Uninvited was a hit upon its release and the passage of time has only added to its luster. Seven decades on it holds up exceptionally well. But even with its lofty repute, much of Uninvited – the characters’ motivations, the reality of the ghosts, the afterstory – remains an enigma. For all its virtues it still beguiles with a sense of mystery and incompleteness of its own. Could we expect any less from a ghost story?

[1] The film that comes closest in mood and content to Uninvited may well be The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, also photographed by Charles Lang. But clear precursors which deserve a mention are the early Forties RKO Val Lewton chillers like Cat People and The Seventh Victim, which gave us so much tone and atmosphere via shadows, sounds and suggestion, thus creating a mood of dread precisely because of what’s unseen.

Further reading

Stella and Miss Holloway 2Svehla, Gary J., and Susan Svehla. Cinematic Hauntings, Midnight Marquee Press, 1996, pp150-157.
White, Patricia. Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability, Indiana Univ. Press, 1999, pp68-72.


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future past: Things to come (1936)

Things to Come Poster (CC)H.G. Wells’ Things to come [videorecording (DVD)]. London Film production; produced by Alexander Korda; directed by William Cameron Menzies. Criterion collection 660. Originally released as a motion picture in 1936.
Settings designed by Vincent Korda; photography by Georges Perinal; music composed by Arthur Bliss; costumes designed by John Armstrong, René Hubert and the Marchioness of Queensberry [Cathleen Mann]; film editors, Charles Crichton, Francis Lyon; special effects directed by Ned Mann. Performers: Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Cedric Hardwicke, Maurice Braddell, Sophie Stewart, Derrick De Marney, Ann Todd, Pearl Argyle.
Summary: skipping through time, Things to come bears witness to world war, disease, dictatorship, and finally, utopia. Conceived, written and overseen by Wells himself as an adaptation of his own work.

style ***1/2
substance ***1/2

“I rebel against this progress … they’ve built this great city of theirs, yes… they’ve prolonged life, yes… is it any jollier than the good old days when life was short and hot and merry and the Devil took the hindmost…”

This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the mother of all science fiction films, Things to come [1], and I confess to a certain disappointment upon seeing it for the first time recently. This probably had more to do with the film’s technical limitations than anything else. But more to the point: I thought Things to come would be a science fiction movie throughout – the pictures in books and scattered around the ‘Net imply as much. However, the sci-fi elements don’t appear until about half way through, and the real sci-fi story proper, the part we wait for, forever, it seems, doesn’t turn up until the last twenty minutes or so. But no matter. The film’s an absolute classic anyway.

London Film Studios and especially producer Alexander Korda gave author H. G. Wells a large measure of creative control over Things to come, and to large extent it’s his movie. Thus, even with all the other considerable talents who collaborated with him on the film, much of what we see in the final product, the strengths as well as the weaknesses, flow out of Wells’ aesthetic and philosophical vision.

things to come photo 2
A frequently cited reference point for Things to come is Fritz Lang’s dystopian epic Metropolis of a decade earlier. The mob scene at the end in particular recalls the crowd scenes in the earlier work. There are many other similarities, ironic in that Wells famously disliked Metropolis and wanted TTC to be a kind of anti-Metropolis. A further unkind slap is that Fritz Lang’s mythic vision in Metropolis is probably the better predictor of the future, at least as far as it applies to our world in 2016: an economically stratified society, where the well-to-do live up there in the clouds and rule, not by dint of wisdom or intellectual superiority, but simply because they are rich. A final icing-on-the-cake insult is that today film buffs consider Metropolis to be the superior work.

On the plus side, Things to come holds up exceptionally well considering its vintage, and ultimately it’s the set design, especially the last act in the new, utopian world, that makes it such a landmark work. And for all its futurist bonafides, TTC gazes backward as well forward with its debt to silent movies, and it’s been suggested that the film would carry as much emotional power if the dialogue track were omitted entirely.

Things to come (image) 1TTC’s other major noteworthy aspect is that it foresaw several things that did come to pass: World War II (it misses the beginning by only about a year) and the London Blitz, most conspicuously. More impressive still is that it gets right quite a few, mostly high-tech, advances of later decades: space travel, including a moon landing (however wrong the details); the primacy of air power in war; genetic engineering; automatic sliding doors; glass furniture; big-screen TV; mass communications; zombie movies; laptop computers; cell phones; cavernous, high-rise hotels; and films with post-apocalyptic themes.

a perfect world – and movie – can be a bore

In any case all this is not to suggest that Things to come is a perfect work. Even at a (relatively) fluidly paced 97 minutes, TTC still feels on the longish side. To be fair, this impression may be due to the heavy cutting of the film over time by the studios. The talky, stagy performances don’t help either. And it’s not only the performances that seem dated and quaint: the sensibilities too, rooted as they are in a self-righteous, early Twentieth Century upper-crust English superiority. And yes, there are, alas, unfortunate racist undertones (sexist ones, too).

Thus in the dystopian second act we have the elite force of black-garbed, jackboot wearing white males who possess bigger, more modern planes and even bigger visions, who rule dictatorially, albeit benevolently and wisely, all of which may be a little too close for comfort given the historical pedigree. In any case by remaining true to their ideal – the pursuit of science as a vehicle for social engineering – these intellectual dictators manage to create a world free of disease, war, hunger and, curiously, humor. Interesting that the scientific overlords seem to base their movement in Basra, of all places.

Margueretta Scott photoThe black outfits eventually give way to the off-white, peak-shouldered quasi-Egyptian tunics worn in the utopian future. Fashion buffs can take further pleasure in the bespangled gypsy/spartan chic favored by the warlord’s consort Roxana (Margueretta Scott), one of the few significant female characters in the film. Fascinating her evolution: she gradually becomes, more or less, a kind of intellectual groupie to John Cabal (Raymond Massey), though her clothing remains the same throughout.

“… all the universe – or nothing!”

On balance, then, Wells’ message is optimistic, if a tad antiseptic: he sees humanity’s possibilities for good and progress, even if he’s wary of the dangers. This goes a long way to explaining the preachy tone of Things to come, with its heavy-handed, Wells-approved script that’s as subtle as a sledgehammer. In Wells’ calculus, an authoritarian world ruled along principles of scientific and technological progress is much preferable to a totalitarianism of political ideology, religious dogma, economic exploitation, or nationalist self-interest.

Contrarians would argue that totalitarian is still totalitarian, regardless of atmospherics. And part of the genius of Things to come is that things aren’t totally black and white. For a work operating from such a moral and political stacked deck, there are surprising ambiguities. To wit, we have several  dissenting voices throughout, most notably the aforequoted Theotocopulos (Cedrick Hardwick). Such characters have a point, and we can – sometimes – sympathize with them. Moreover, had TTC been an American film these characters most likely wouldn’t have been the antagonists but rather the good guys rising up against their self-appointed, anti-democratic masters.

things to come image 6

Posterity has proved generous to Things to come: a box-office and critical failure upon its original release, it now enjoys classic, even legendary, status as the original and, all these years later, maybe the best – and in its way most hopeful –utopian vision of them all. It also occupies a rare, possibly unique, place in cinema history in being an auteurist work in which the auteur, namely H. G. Wells, was not a man of the cinema, but rather, a historian, philosopher, political activist, social critic, journalist, lecturer, and yes, best-selling author of science-fiction novels.

[1] Depending how one defines a science fiction film, that honor may go to Metropolis (1927), discussed above.

Further reading:

Curtis, James. William Cameron Menzies: the shape of films to come. Pantheon, 2015.
Frayling, Christopher. Things to come. British Film Institute, 1995.
Galant, Justyna, “H. G. Wells’s and Cameron Menzies’ Things to come: a neurotic utopia of progress. ” In: Mediated utopias : from literature to cinema, Artur Blaim, Ludmila Gruszewska-Blaim (eds.), Peter Lang Editions, 2015, pp27-40.
A very British Metropolis: H. G. Wells’ Things to come

things to come image 5

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all too fleeting : the era of pre-Code

Fast pacing; snappy dialogue; edgy stories; lean, mean (but frequently elegant) set designs; and most of all, tough, worldly-wise characters. All presented in just an hour or so and with an obvious theatrical pedigree. The pre-Code movies just plain had a different feel about them. However, the backdrop and context is more complicated, or put simply: it’s not that simple. To wit, film historians still disagree over whether the Production Code which went into effect July 1,1934 [1], actually helped or hurt the movies artistically. No doubt many good movies were made after 1934, and it’s not the writer’s place to diminish classics like Lost Horizon, Ninotchka, Gone With the Wind, and The Grapes of Wrath.

red-headed-woman poster
However … those wonderful films from 1930 to mid-1934 – ragged and undisciplined as they were – had a raw vitality and electricity that’s hard to resist. Moreover, they explored taboo and quasi-taboo themes like prostitution, alcoholism, homosexuality, miscegenation, political corruption, economic injustice, drug addiction, wife abuse, adultery, and violent pathology. We also had things like leftist, anti-capitalist sentiments; unhappy (or at least ambiguous) endings; subtle jabs at organized religion; gangsters who are more heroic than evil; and charming swindlers who get away unpunished.

Women were portrayed as having a will, and a mind, of their own, and often possessing a smoldering sexuality, without necessarily being reprimanded for it or ultimately deferring to the man. In short, these films gave us a more accurate view of life and the human condition than those of the Code era, for that matter more accurate and to-the-point than most films released today in our supposedly seen- and heard-it-all world.

Indeed, it’s fascinating to appreciate the sensibilities which still resonate today. Created as they were in the midst of Depression, these early films were intimately connected to the economic woes of the early 1930s and the resultant psycho-social insecurities. As a result movies produced during this period took a pungently jaundiced view of the corrupt rich, high-handed moralizing, big banks, big corporations, big government and big military. Hovering in the background was the lingering shadow of World War I, which perhaps accounts for the occasional equivocal endings. One of the positive results of this unwieldy mix was a more nuanced treatment of the characters as they grapple with their emotions and deal with the vicissitudes of life, and even more so, love.

Divorcee posterIn a sense the pre-Code films might be seen as the delirious last gasp of the wild Twenties and especially the phenomenon of Prohibition. Interesting that the Code lasted about twice as long as Prohibition, if in somewhat gradually diminished application over time. In any case what the Production Code and Prohibition had in common was a desire, however laudable if misguided, to impose a vision of how the world ought to be rather than how it was [2].

In short, the Code wanted to ensure that movies were made that presented the image of a model society: virtuous, moderate, and based on solid family values rather than self-interest, self-indulgence, sensuality, and quick fixes. The wholesome, toned-down quality of Code-sanctioned movies extended to form and style as well as content. Thus films released after 1934 tended to have smoothly linear stories, glossy visuals, silken music backgrounds, and civilized, easy-to-understand dialogue.

By the way, getting back to Prohibition and alcohol, wasn’t the stuff – specifically the manufacture, sale, purchase and consumption of it – still illegal during the pre-Code era? Yet hard liquor literally flows all over the place in these movies, and not just in speakeasies and nightclubs, but in private homes, both of the well-to-do and just folks.

Safe in Hell photo

Safe in Hell (1931)

Anyhow there was no real successor to the pre-Codes, although some commentators note that the sexual energy in the early films metamorphosed into the screwball comedies of the late Thirties and early Forties. The pre-Code legacy might extend even as far as the early films noirs of the mid and late 1940s which managed to present a more verismo, eminently downbeat, view of human nature. Over time filmmakers – and the courts – chipped away at the Code’s authority and in 1968 the outmoded system was dropped once and for all and replaced by the rating system which stands to this day.

As much as I’m a huge fan of pre-Code films there are some things I don’t much like about them. One of my least favorite conventions is the seemingly obligatory comic relief character, one trope being the well meaning but slightly ditzy dowager or auntie, and her near-twin the kindly but doddering father or uncle. A close relative is the stern but eminently dim-witted police inspector or security guard. Sometimes the comic foil is the long-suffering girlfriend, and sometimes it’s the sympathetic but unsexy roommate (Una Merkel excelled in these roles). Another mild transgressor is the alternatingly cute and whiny, but always irksome, child, my least favorite examplar being the little boy in Three on a Match. Then we have the cute pet, usually a dog – much as I love The Thin Man movies I never took to Asta.

Most odious is the comic drunk, one of the more objectionable turning up in One Way Passage, an otherwise sensitive romantic melodrama with fine performances by Kay Francis and William Powell. Here the drunk character named Skippy ratchets up the insufferability factor by way of his incredibly annoying laugh/cackle. But on the other hand at least some films attempted to depict alcoholism seriously, as in the case of A Free Soul with the character played by Lionel Barrymore.

Of all things jarring to present-day sensibilities, the worst offender must certainly be the cringeworthy portrayals of ethnic, racial and gay stereotypes. The nadir of black stereotyping is reached in Al Jolson’s notorious musical number ‘Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule’ from Wonder Bar, a pretty good movie overall but with the bad fortune of including this number, which is probably a little much for Twenty-first Century tastes.

black cat photo

The Black Cat (1934)

While we’re on the subject of tastes and sensibilities, perhaps it’s appropriate to give a mention to the horror genre. Those early Thirties chillers got away with a lot: overt depictions of violence and torture; satanic rituals; hints of necrophilia and incest; and sometimes outright sadism. Some of the creepy and grisly scenes are still shocking even for today’s audiences.

As for performances, it’s the ladies who really stand out in these early years, only suitably so for a more liberated time. And indeed, many of these actresses, both famous and not so famous, had private lives that were more pre-Code than the pre-Code films they starred in. In any case some pretty big names shone during the era: Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer, Carole Lombard, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Loretta Young, Marlene Dietrich. But there were also then huge stars, today alas largely forgotten, like Ruth Chatterton, Miriam Hopkins, Ann Harding, Joan Blondell, Constance Bennett, Mae Clark and Dorothy Mackaill, all of whom possessed considerable screen charisma.

Speaking of performances, it seems that the principals, be they men or women, paradoxically, had a more natural acting style in these early talkies, somewhat surprising given that many of the films of that era were little more than filmed plays with a talky, stagey content.


Man Wanted (1932)

Maybe the single greatest boost for public awareness of pre-Code films was the arrival of videos in the 1980s and later, commentary- and bonus features-rich DVDs. As pre-Code consciousness took hold there surged forth the eminently welcome outpouring of articles, books and DVDs (with titles like Sin in Soft Focus and Forbidden Hollywood), and more recent, an online cottage industry of blogs devoted largely or solely to pre-Code movies.

Today the marketing of pre-Code DVDs in particular tends to overstate the case. Truth be told there’s literally much less than meets the eye – and little that could be considered forbidden, or forbidding – in these early talkies. Still … it’s tough to dislike these representatives of Hollywood in a rougher era [3]. As to whether the pre-Code movies are aesthetically superior, or inferior, to films of the second half of the decade, the issue is still debated – and debatable. But in their raw energy and no-frills directness these little movies gave us stories about life, love and human foibles with punch and clarity that’s proved durable over time as they speak to us eloquently in our much different world today.

three on a match photo

Three on a Match (1932)

For what it’s worth, along with the titles mentioned above, some of my favorite pre-Codes include: 42nd Street, Baby Face, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, American Madness, Rain, Waterloo Bridge, Red-Headed Woman, Trouble in Paradise, Lady for a Day, Safe in Hell, Female, Jewel Robbery, Island of Lost Souls.

[1] The Production Code Administration, popularly known as the Hays Office, also referred to as the Hays Code, was a series of moral guidelines established to regulate, systematically and carefully, the content of Hollywood motion pictures, specifically to counter the influence of “corrupt” practices in Hollywood. The Motion Picture Association of America adopted the Production Code in 1930, but it wasn’t strictly enforced until about July 1934*. Dubbed “the motion picture industry’s Magna Carta of official decency,” the Code remained in effect, albeit in gradually diminished application, until 1968.

42nd St poster  * The generally agreed-upon date of July 1, 1934, is not that clear cut: indeed, 1933 might well be seen as the pivotal year, when quirky experimentation existed side-by-side with a growing stylistic normalcy we associate with Golden Age Hollywood. At the other extreme, several pre-Codeish films were released in the latter half of 1934 which, for whatever reason, escaped the Code’s rapier gaze. Madame Dubarry, with its spicy themes and skimpy costumes, is sometimes cited as an example.

[2] “I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land… Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.”   – Catholic Legion of Decency pledge, 1934

[3] As cultural artifacts of a more raucous, few-holds-barred time in history, the pre-Codes might be seen as a distant relative of today’s reality TV.

Further reading:

baby face image

Baby Face (1933)

Bell, James, and Mike Mashon. “Pre-Code: Hollywood Before the Censors,” Sight & Sound, May 2014.
Doherty, Thomas. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema; 1930-1934, Columbia Univ. Pr., 1999.
Gottlieb, Robert, “Blue Period,” New York Times Book Review, Nov 28, 1999, p16.
Jacobs, Lea. The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942, Univ. of California Pr., 1997.
LaSalle, Mike. Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, St. Martin’s, 2001.
O’Brien, Geoffrey. “When Hollywood Dared,” New York Review of Books, July 2, 2009.

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Brief candles: Billie Holiday (1915-1959)

Billie-Holiday photoIt took me a while to warm to Billie Holiday’s singing – but now in my certain years I’ve become, over time, something of an enthusiast. Perhaps it was the unusual quality of her voice: I always gravitated more to the smooth, well-modulated vocals of a June Christy, Carmen McRae, Jo Stafford, or Ella Fitzgerald. Billie’s intense, edgy style was a tough sell for me, but I got there.

Perhaps my conversion to Billie’s art was a subliminal thing: it seems at all the coffee shops where I liked to hang out, her voice was always there wafting in the background. In any case, as some have pointed out, she was as much a torch singer as a jazz singer, and even less a blues artist. A touch of irony in that Billie Holiday, the most individual jazz singer of them all – and technically the most limited – has turned out to be the most enduring and universally popular.

But the would-be commentator faces a conundrum: with the possible exception of Frank Sinatra, more has been written about Billie Holiday than any other popular singer in history, thus the peril of repeating the obvious or merely summarizing what’s already been pointed out. Indeed she’s been covered from so many perspectives that some enthusiasts have criticized books for concentrating too much on her art, while others complain that books focus too much on the music.

lady in satinThus anything I might add about her singing or her tempestuous, rather sad life would be superfluous in the extreme, so I’ll just rave a bit about my favorite Billie Holiday album, one of her last, the once controversial but now classic Lady in Satin. Yes, the voice was maybe half of what it once was: scratchy, insecure, and her tendency to speak the lyrics as much as sing them was even more pronounced. But what insight into the words and emotional content of the songs. She seems incapable of spinning a phrase wrong or singing even one note mechanically. And how about those velvety orchestral arrangements by Ray Ellis?

My only regret in penning this modest tribute is that I’m a little late for the Billie Holiday centennial year of 2015. Still, a sincere appreciation for an incomparable artist who left us much too soon.

Further reading:

Blackburn, Julia. With Billie: a new look at the unforgettable Lady Day.   Pantheon, 2005.
Margolick, David, Strange fruit : Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an early cry for civil rights, Running Press, 2000.
Szwed, John. Billie Holiday: the musician and the myth. Viking, 2015.

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coffee with the existentialists

Existentialist cafe (cover)Bakewell, Sarah. At the existentialist café : freedom, being, and apricot cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others. London, Chatto & Windus; New York, Other Press, 2016.

existentialism, n. Philos. A philosophical movement or approach which focuses on the analysis of human existence and on individual human beings as agents freely determining by their choices what they will become. Also sometimes applied to other philosophies which lay particular stress on existence as distinct from essence.

existentialist, n. and adj. Philos. A philosopher who lays particular stress on existence (in various senses); esp. one who focuses on the analysis of human existence and on individual human beings as self-determining agents.

– Oxford English Dictionary

“You can make philosophy out of this cocktail!”

Existentialism was likely not the first philosophy that wrapped itself in an aura of modishness and glamour, even sexiness, but appearing as it did in the heady days of post-World War II Paris, it exerted a huge influence on Western, especially American, culture and intellectual life, at least for a time. For a movement to produce such an impact it needed high-powered, compelling personalities, and did it ever deliver, and author Bakewell’s breezily readable tome, happily, in the opinion of this writer, focuses on the philosophy as revealed through the lives of its principal exponents.

beauvoir photoThere was Simone de Beauvoir, “the prettiest existentialist you ever saw,” according to a New Yorker writer in 1947, and Albert Camus, he of the film-star looks and author of the cult favorite The Stranger. Other luminaries who were in varying degree related to the movement included: Hannah Arendt, Iris Murdoch (Britain’s first popularizer of existentialism), Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and James Baldwin. Of more peripheral association were de Beauvior’s sometime (and mostly long-distance) boyfriend, the American author Nelson Algren, actress and folk singer Juliette Gréco, author Colin Wilson, and finally, Norman Mailer, who once ran for mayor of New York as a candidate on the Existentialist ticket. And of course there were the philosophers Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, and Søren Kierkegaard, all lurking in deep historical background.

But of course the true star of the movement was Jean-Paul Sartre, whose unglamorous, singularly un-photogenic persona offered a stark contrast to his svelte companion de Beauvior. He wasn’t a particularly congenial personality: “self-indulgent, demanding, bad-tempered.” Nonetheless he managed to charm people, especially the ladies (“women swooned,” purred Time). His methods were as imaginative as his philosophy: he tempted women up to his apartment by promising them Camembert cheese (a difficult-to-find commodity in shortage-plagued Paris in the 1940s). He also sang, played pop tunes on the piano and did Donald Duck impersonations.

The appeal of Sartre for his followers was more than just gastronomic or musical: in Bakewell’s estimation Sartre took existentialism from the Germans and turned it into “a philosophy of expectations, tiredness, apprehensiveness, excitement, a walk up a hill, the passion for a desired lover, the revulsion from an unwanted one, Parisian gardens, the cold autumn sea at Le Havre.” Pretty hard-to-resist stuff for the susceptible.

And many felt – and still feel – the seductive pull of continental chic, literary angst, and exhortations to freedom and above all, free will, that was the essence of the existentialist creed. Indeed, for its early adherents existentialism wasn’t an abstract philosophical system so much as a lifestyle, a smoky witches’ brew of black dress, jazz clubs, coffee, alcohol, sexual promiscuity, erratic hours, and progressive politics.

The perfect metaphor for the cornucopia of ideas,“a big, busy café of the mind,” that swirled both nowhere and everywhere in post-War Paris was the Parisian café, noisy with talk and thought but where Sartre in particular found refuge and isolation, and where he penned much of his best work. The café had a more prosaic, eminently practical, function: the writers and various kindred spirits who congregated there did so because cafés were places where one could keep warm in perpetually energy-starved Paris, where many of the intellectuals lived in cheap, unheated hotels.

Sartre image 1Existentialism caught on famously in buoyant, optimistic post-War America, and Sartre, de Beauvoir and other French thinkers returned the favor, especially in their fondness for American low culture. They doted on pop writers of the ilk of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy, and James M. Cain (McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was a special favorite). These writers’ bleak, the-fix-is-in world view as expressed through their solitary protagonists’ struggle to make sense of life in a random, corrupt and corruptible universe seemed to provide a dark mirror to the relatively upbeat, dynamic gestalt that was existentialism, and for the French intellectuals it was little short of catnip. (Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, French film critics invented the term film noir about this time).

‘We are all existentialists now’

Part personal memoir, part academic overview, but mostly a deliciously gossipy recalling of the major figures in the existentialist movement, At the Existentialist Café is a remarkably accessible and entertaining book for so potentially arcane a topic. Mirroring author Bakewell’s maxim that ideas are interesting, but people more so, I confess to a certain heavy-going lethargy when I read her, albeit substantive and well-informed, discussions of Heidegger and Kierkegaard. I gravitated more to the spicy biographical anecdotes, especially of Sartre and de Beauvoir, and the colorful descriptions of the social and literary milieu that whirled around them in Paris.

Fascinating too the somber recollections of ordinary life during the German Occupation: “everyday life required constantly negotiating this balance between submissiveness and resistance, as well as between ordinary activity and the extraordinary underlying reality.” Come to think of it, this is a pretty good definition of existentialism itself.

Perhaps inevitably, the existentialist brand went out of favor: the initial bloom faded and it occupied its place as just another philosophical and intellectual movement in a century filled with such movements. But perhaps the explanation is closer to home: in our world today we are all more or less existentialists. In an ever fragmented, surveillance-state society of virtual selves, reality TV, and omnipresent social media, we all struggle with issues like: how can one lead an authentic life? what does it mean to be a person? what to do in a world obsessed with technology? Throw into the mix recent advances in neuroscience which challenge the very idea of how free our will really is, far from being passé, existentialism’s humanistic message of self-assertion, rebellion, and leading an authentic life is all the more to the point.

Café Flore ca. 1947 photo

Cafe de Flore, ca. 1947

Given the extensive, mostly good, press Bakewell’s tome has received, it seems that, far from going out of style, existentialism and its life-affirming message still strikes a nerve, but even more so, offers a certain amount of comfort in our all too modern world. We can slow down and enjoy wisdom, good company, and literary nourishment “At the Existentialist Café” while we sip another espresso and appreciate that life just seems better there.

Further reading :

Beauvoir, Simone de, The second sex, tr. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, New York, Knopf, 2010.
Faison, Stephen E. Existentialism, film noir, and hard-boiled fiction. Amherst, N.Y.: Cambria Press, 2008.
Rockler, Michael, Sam Spade, Existential Hero? Philosophy Now, April/May 2016.
Strenger, Carlo. The fear of insignificance : searching for meaning in the twenty-first century, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

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Brief candles: Rosa Tamarkina (1920-1950)

Rosa T photo 2 JPGAn exciting discovery has been the obscure Soviet pianist Rosa Tamarkina. Alas, very little biographical information about her life and career is available online or otherwise. A proverbial Wunderkind whose talent was apparent at an early age, she won Second Prize at the Third International Chopin Competition in 1937 at the age of 17 against a strong field of entrants. She graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1940, where she later taught.

Rosa Tamarkina made few recordings but happily we do have a nice sampling of postings on YouTube and a smattering of CDs. She had an extensive repertoire but is remembered today mostly for her interpretations of the mid-Nineteenth century romantics (Chopin, Liszt, Schumann) and the Russian moderns, who at that time included Scriabin and Rachmaninoff.

To get an idea of her mercurial style give a listen to the Rachmaninoff Prelude in C minor, op. 23, no.7. While she storms through this fingerbuster with a high voltage vengeance, her playing also sounds very musical, capturing as it does the work’s emotional ebb and flow. This and her other recordings reveal a passio­nate intensity and naturalness, along with a quintessentially Russian fiery temperament, as if through her playing she were reaching for the infinite and trying to break free of the constraints of the physical.

There have always been any number of musicians who are technically proficient, sometimes very proficient indeed, but who lack the basic sensitivity and musicality to make them interesting interpreters, much less great artists. But Rosa had equal helpings of transcendent technical brilliance combined with the gift, that mysterious something that creative artists have or don’t have that allows them to rise above the ordinary, in some cases even rise above extraordinary fellow artists who have all the mechanics but none of the soul.

A rare spirit who departed much too soon, Rosa Tamarkina left us a small but welcome artistic legacy, and for that we are grateful.

Further reading: Stephen Wigler, “Obscure Object of Desire,” International Piano no.52 (July/Aug2007), pp26-29.

Rosa Tamarkina photo JPG

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Spyscreen hot and cold

spy coverThe spy who came in from the cold [DVD]; a Paramount picture; a Salem production; screenplay by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper; produced and directed by Martin Ritt. Criterion Collection, 2008. 2 videodiscs. Originally produced as a motion picture in 1965. Special features: interview with John Le Carré; selected-scene commentary with Oswald Morris; “The secret centre: John Le Carré” (2000), a BBC documentary; 1967 interview with Richard Burton from the BBC series “Acting in the 60s” with film critic Kenneth Tynan.
Cinematographer, Oswald Morris; editor, Anthony Harvey; music, Sol Kaplan; Performers: Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Sam Wanamaker, George Voskovec, Rupert Davies, Cyril Cusack, Peter Van Eyck. Summary: After a fellow spy is murdered, an agent who is working as a defected spy trying to get inside information realizes that he is just as expendable as his fellow agent.

I confess to being a pushover for the espionage story, be it fiction, film, TV, theatre, or other medium. Two of the best spy movies ever, Thunderball and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, appeared a half century ago, almost to the day, and were in their different ways early summits of the two fonts of spy fiction and cinema that still dominate to the present [1]. That these two films, so different in tone, style and content, would appear in the same year is remarkable enough, but it’s downright uncanny that they had their world première’s with a few days of each other.

spy photo 3
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, hereafter referred to as The Spy or simply Spy, is the far less well known of the two, and was much less successful at the box office. But it deserves primacy as it’s both more topical and more durable. It holds up well over time, while Thunderball, despite its still impressive technical achievements, is showing some signs of age. Moreover, Spy is just straight up the better movie, a rare instance where the movie is as good, or almost as good, as the original novel. And happily it’s never been redone.

Anointed the best spy novel ever by no less an authority than The Third Man author Graham Greene, The Spy takes place in a monochromatic Fifties gestalt just before the onslaught of the Swinging Sixties. One of the more interesting aspects of the film version is the peek into ordinary life in Britain, specifically London, in those first couple of decades after WW2.

The-Spy-Who photo 4If the film is any indication this was a drearily ordinary life indeed. People wore heavy, dark grey overcoats. They lived in small, austere apartments with few creature comforts. And they shopped at primitive, barely stocked grocery stores. Spy then is just plain depressing. For the characters. For the audience. And maybe even the actors. And that is exactly the point.

John Le Carré was of course a onetime British intelligence officer when he wrote the novel on which The Spy was based, so he comes by his espionage bonafides honestly. And the heroes, if you will, of his novels, with their boring, bureaucratically grinding lives, had more than their share of neuroses and weaknesses (primarily alcoholism). Ergo they created a kind of anti-Bond template that had little in common with Ian Fleming’s larger-than-life superspy, who had more similarities to an Errol Flynn adventure hero or Wild West gunslinger.

Thus, with its casting against type, Spy heralded a trend of anti-Bond films and novels that presented the spy business in far more realistic terms. There are no fancy instruments, no tuxes, no glamour girls, no martini-studded repartee. In short, no wish-fulfillment fantasies. There is plenty of alcohol, usually vodka and whiskey, perhaps to numb the principals’ by turn dreary and high stress lives.

spy photo 2Le Carré’s universe then is comprised of agents who do not stand out in, say, hotel lobbies or cocktail parties as handsome, athletic, well-tailored specimens, but rather, in their bland ordinariness, melt into a crowd and blend in, which is what secret agents are supposed to do. As for the women, the plain secretaries, frosty bureaucrats, and in the case of Spy, Liz Gold, Alec Leamas’s mousy leftist girlfriend, are a far cry from the amazons, exotic temptresses and chic sophisticates of the Bond films.

Among Spy’s many pluses are the intelligent plot and very human characters, all presented with a minimum of visual or acting flourishes. The script faithfully follows the letter, and the spirit, of the novel, relying as it does on detail and moral arguments to move the story forward instead of hand-to-hand fights, fiery conflagrations and gee-whiz gadgets. The story is both convoluted and tight, revealing and cryptic, with nary a wasted shot or dialogue. Black and white photography is perhaps the film’s signature component, in dramatic contrast to the lavish, bright patina of Thunderball. BTW the only thing that vaguely resembles a Bondian scene in Spy is the encounter at the sleazy night club where Leamus is wooed by Stasi recruiters, while appropriately Sixities mod music and exotic dancer provide a tacky backdrop.

For all its virtues there are some details in Spy that I don’t buy, but these are minor quibbles in an otherwise exceptional cinematic experience. At its essence Spy is the dark mirror to Ian Fleming’s and Robert Ludlum’s brash and dash. But it’s more than just a counterpoint of view to balance the flights of fancy of more glamorized espionage films. It’s all the more bitter pill to swallow because it says something about ourselves, and our world. Le Carré’s downbeat vision of human failings is conspicuously bereft of mitigating factors such as silver linings, good-ultimately-wins-out, or ends-justifies-the-means reassurances. And the half-century vintage doesn’t dull its cautionary message, which is all the more to the point in our own unquiet times.

“You seem to be unbeatable, Mr. Bond!”

Thunderball [DVD]. United Artists; screenplay by Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins; produced by Kevin McClory; directed by Terence Young. Widescreen. MGM Home Entertainment, [2006]. Originally released as a motion picture in 1965. Features: audio commentary. Director of photography, Ted Moore; editor, Peter Hunt; music, John Barry. Performers: Sean Connery, Claudine Auger, Adolfo Celi, Luciana Paluzzi, Rik van Nutter, Bernard Lee. Summary: James Bond battles SPECTRE, who have captured a Vulcan bomber carrying two atomic bombs and have threatened to detonate the bombs unless a ransom of £100 million is paid.

Bond at casino table

With the James Bond films we’re propelled into a different moral, social and cinematic universe, the proverbial parallel world. It’s true that the first four Bond films – Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and Thunderball – share some common elements with Spy, specifically a concentration more on character and old-fashioned spycraft mechanics. And, not so coincidentally perhaps, these first four films had some connection to the original novels. Alas, with each successive picture we’re given fewer of the above, more low-keyed, qualities, while the glitzy, often grisly, elements are progressively escalated.

Thunderball represents by far the greatest excess of these early Bond films, and it almost totally dispenses with espionage tradecraft: the grunt work occurs either offstage or is performed by underlings. What it does give us is an über-romanticized, even by Bondian standards, version of the spy business – dangerous, to be sure, but with lots of compensations: tropical locales, five-star hotels, casinos, haute cuisine (and haute couture), beautiful women, acrobatic stunts, all conjured up in the context of a nostalgic recalling of a lost era of British supremacy.

fiona and largo skeet shooting
Thunderball still polarizes Bondophiles: true believers insist it’s the ultimate Bond experience, pointing out that it’s the only film in the half-century franchise to win an Oscar (for best special visual effects). Others view it as signaling a decline in quality from the two previous entries, From Russia With Love and especially Goldfinger, the latter of which is probably the consensus choice as the definitive 007 film, at least of the early ones.

In any case, with its huge budget Thunderball is bigger, more opulent, and more violent than its predecessors: it gives us snazzier technology, brighter backdrops, and more combat scenes (mostly underwater), all scrumptiously captured by the widescreen process in almost too lavish fashion. It’s been criticized as all flash without content, Dr. No with a few more baddies and more elaborate action scenes. And this is partially true: while Thunderball is an entertaining movie served up on the grand scale, it holds few surprises for hardcore 007 fans. The main villain is Old School, the plot thin and fairly generic, the running time overlong by about fifteen minutes.

luciana paluzzi photoIt’s a curious combination of flamboyant and (sometimes) boring, but for all the imperfections there’s something about the film that makes it very easy to watch. The actors fire on all cylinders, the script works well enough, and the sensual allure of the Bahamas is a thing to behold. Clever dialogue, chemistry, tension, and high-class gloss all add to the mix, but ultimately Terrence Young’s silken, if steady, directorial hand is probably the decisive contribution that allows Thunderball to carry the day.

[1] There emerged in the mid-1970s, possibly earlier, a variant which we might call the paranoid espionage thriller, first cousin to the paranoid political thriller which sprang full-blown in the Seventies. Paranoia was always an element of the spy film, even the Bondian type, but only around 1975 did it turn up front and center with movies like Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. The paranoid style continues to this day in TV series like Person of Interest and The Americans.

Further reading:

Black, Jeremy. The politics of James Bond: from Fleming’s novels to the big screen. Bison Books, 2005.
Dodd, Klaus. “Screening geopolitics: James Bond and the early Cold War films (1962–1967),” Geopolitics, v10 (2005): 266–289.
Frayling, Christopher. “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.” New Statesman 31 July 2015–13 Aug 2015, pp74-77.
Hoffman, Tod. Le Carré’s landscape. Montreal, London: McGill-Queen’s Univ. Pr., 2002.
Miller, Toby. Spyscreen: espionage on film and TV from the 1930s to the 1960s. Oxford Univ. Pr., 2003.
Strong, Jeremy. “James Bond: international man of gastronomy?” Journal of European popular culture v4 n2 (2013), pp155-172.
Winder, Simon. The man who saved Britain : a personal journey into the disturbing world of James Bond. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

MI6 meeting (thunderball)

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