Saturday, November 16, 2019

UNDERWORLD.

While he was notoriously difficult to work with, Josef von Sternberg (who borrowed the "von" from Erich von Stroheim) was a master craftsman and one of the greatest filmmakers of the early 20th century. While he is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich (including his 1930 masterpiece, The Blue Angel), he made three films at the end of the silent era that stand among his very best

Much of his work before Underworld is either lost or truncated. After catching the eye of Charles Chaplin, Chaplin hired Von Sternberg to direct a comeback vehicle for his onetime lover, Edna Purviance called A Woman of the Sea. Chaplin was so displeased with the film that he never released it, and the film is now the only film connected with Chaplin to have been lost. Still, Von Sternberg did things his own way, and eventually landed a gig as a director-for-hire on the Paramount gangster picture, Underworld (1927). The film was an instant smash-hit that catapulted Von Sternberg into the upper echelon of filmmakers working at the time and helped popularize the gangster genre  The story of a charismatic gangster (George Bancroft) who begins to suspect that his girlfriend is in love with his best friend while he sits on death row, Underworld showcases Von Sternberg's mastery of light and shadow. Its luridly evocative look at honor among the gangsters and thieves who populate the Dreamland Cafe of Chicago is the stuff that old Hollywood dreams are made of, a shadowy tale of virtue among vice that The film is a masterwork of building tension, as Von Sternberg carefully lays the groundwork for the drama that will come to a head in its violent climax. He manages to convey so much information with so little (an entire jewelry store heist is conveyed in just four quick shots), lulling the audience into a kind of rhythm that pays off beautifully when they're all finally cornered during the climactic shoot-out.

THE LAST COMMAND.

In The Last Command (1928), Emil Jannings stars as a high-ranking Russian general who finds himself taking low-paying work as a Hollywood extra after the Bolshevik Revolution under the direction of his former rival (William Powell), a Communist spy now directing a film about the Revolution in America. Jannings won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Actor for his towering performance as a man becoming unhinged from reality, unable to tell the difference between the real Revolution and the make-believe one he finds himself recreating for the cameras.

While the film spends much of its time in an extended flashback to Grand Duke Alexander's glory days commanding the Czarist army against the Bolsheviks, where he falls in love with a beautiful spy, it's Janning's final scene that really sticks in the memory. There he is, commanding an imaginary army under the glare of the studio lights, lost in a world that no longer exists. It's easy to see why Jannings won the Academy Award, and Von Sternberg captures something really special here. While the film doesn't quite have the energy of Underworld, Jannings gives the film a morally complex center. In 1928 world sympathy laid more with the deposed Czarists than with the Communist revolutionaries, here depicted mostly as a bloodthirsty mob, but Jannings' performance is filled with both fire and humanity - he's a tyrant brought low, paying penance for a life of abusing those under him, and yet somehow we feel sorry for this man. Even his rivals realize this, after watching the madness consume him his onetime enemy can't help but be moved. It's a film unafraid to exist in shades of gray which looks even more remarkable in our own black and white times.

THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK.

And finally we come to The Docks of New York, a film that demonstrates Von Sternberg's striking versatility. Whereas Underworld solidified the template for the gangster genre and The Last Command took us back to the Russian Revolution, The Docks of New York is a simple love story. George Bancroft reunites with with Von Sternberg as Bill Roberts, a stoker aboard an ocean liner who  falls for a woman he rescues from a suicide attempt. He soon finds himself caught between his love for a woman and his love for the sea, but his own moral code eventually forces him to stand up to his old bosses and embrace a new life on land.

The Docks of New York is, at its core, a song of the working class. Released a year after F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, it recalls that earlier film's working class milieu while presaging Jean Vigo's seafaring romance, L'atalante, which would come five years later. Von Sternberg finds such beauty in the film's grungy locales (an early shot in which the action takes place in the reflection on the water is especially lovely), examining the often disarming moments of joy and happiness even amidst the harshest of conditions. He also revisits a similar idea from Underworld, putting the protagonists in a rowdy nightclub; except this time it's not a collection of high society criminals, but a truly seedy underworld of its own. And yet even in this rouge's gallery of thieves and murders Von Sternberg finds something of value, just as his two lovers find something in each other no one else can see. The fog-shrouded shores of New York provide Von Sternberg with his most beautiful canvas, and he delivers some of his most evocative work, his use of light and shadow no longer conveying the dichotomy between light and dark in men's souls but singing an eerie, wistful hymn to the forgotten men and women of the working class looking for their own slice of happiness in grungy places.

Taken together, these three films represent a stunning run of artistic successes for Von Sternberg, even if they represented increasingly diminished financial returns after the astronomical success of Underworld. Criterion's packaging of these early masterworks, much like their similar box set of Von Sternberg's later collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, is a veritable showcase for the filmmaker's work, his breathtaking ability to paint with light on full display on Blu-Ray, representing some of the finest work from one of cinema's greatest enfant terribles.

UNDERWORLD - ★★★(out of four)

THE LAST COMMAND - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK - ★★★½ (out of four)


3 SILENT CLASSICS BY JOSEF VON STERNBERG is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Kaycee Moore and Nate Hardman in Billy Woodberry's BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS.

What's new on Blu-Ray and DVD.

THE 3-D NUDIE-CUTIES COLLECTION

In the 1960s, “nudie cuties” were a popular form of scintillating exploitation films before hardcore porn became mainstream in the 70s. This single-disc release from Kino Lorber includes two "classic" nudie-cuties from 1963, The Bellboy and the Playgirls and Adam and the Six Eves. Neither are what you might call "good," are of some historical interest. The Bellboy and the Playgirls was co-directed by none other than Francis Ford Coppola making his feature film debut. Coppola helmed the color 3-D sequences, while Fritz Umgelter handled the bulk of the work. It's a rather bland film (especially considering it was basically supposed to be porn), and there's nothing you wouldn't see in a fairly tame R-rated film today, with topless women making occasional appearances as a hapless bellboy/aspiring house detective discovers that they're lingerie models in the midst of shooting a commercial.

Adam and the Six Eves features a lot more nudity, but still nothing particularly shocking by today's standards. The film centers around a chubby treasure hunter who stumbles across a desert oasis populated by beautiful women who are guarding a secret. The film has no dialogue, and is instead narrated by the man's wise-cracking donkey. Some of the one-liners are genuinely funny, but this is one strange film. Its director, John Wallis, never made another film, but in one fell swoop nearly becomes the Ed Wood of porn with the shoddily constructed cardboard sets and truly head-scratching framing device. But in the end, it's just an excuse to ogle naked breasts, and in that regard it delivers on its promise, even if the sight of the treasure hunting hero doing the ogling while his donkey makes fun of him is anything but erotic. Still, they're a fascinating piece of cinema history even if they will mostly be of interest for fans of psychotronic film.

ADAM AND THE SIX EVES - ★ (out of four) 

THE BELLBOY AND THE PLAYGIRLS - ★½ (out of four)


BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS (Billy Woodberry, 1983)

Like its spiritual predecessor, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1978), Billy Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts focuses on a black working man in the African American Watts district of Los Angeles.  Except in this case, Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman) is more of a *not* working man, because he finds himself perpetually un and under employed, spending his days at home with his harried wife, Andais (Kaycee Moore) and their children.

Andais wants him to get a job, while Charlie insists there's no work to be found. This leads to Charlie wandering listlessly through the streets of Watts, and eventually into the bed of a neighbor, leading to a titanic clash between Charlie and Andais that has far-reaching consequences for their family. Moore is so good in this scene, her feelings so real and raw, that Woodberry was reportedly unable to capture a third take. The first take was interrupted when Hardman improvised grabbing Moore, an act that so enraged her that she channeled her emotions into a fiery second take, resulting in a scene that feels almost uncomfortable in its veracity. Woodberry filmed it all in one, single take, with the camera wandering around the Banks' kitchen as if the audience is an unseen third party bearing witness to a domestic dispute that we shouldn't be seeing, but can't possibly escape. In those nearly 10 uninterrupted minutes, Moore channels the energy of a woman who has had enough, fed up with her deadbeat husband's excuses and releasing years worth of pent up frustration.

What makes Bless Their Little Hearts so remarkable is Woodberry's attention to the smallest details, the way in which the fly-on-the-wall nature of the film creates what I like to call a kind of poetry of the mundane. Woodberry sets out to capture a very specific time and place, in this case the African American Watts neighborhood, and the lives of th people in it who are just trying to get by. Poverty is rampant and jobs are scarce, and Woodberry follows his characters as they attempt to find things to fill their empty time. The grainy, black and white cinematography adds another layer of verisimilitude, and every frame is alive with a kind of jittery energy teeming with life, constantly threatening to burst forth from the screen. Woodberry is an unheralded virtuoso, and Bless Their Little Hearts is a revelation that can at long last be given its due.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)



GEBO AND THE SHADOW (Manoel de Oliveira, 2014)

Manoel de Oliveira was 104 years old when he directed Gebo and the Shadow. It would end up being the Portuguese master's final film, but it's the work of a filmmaker who remained prolific and vibrant right up to his last day, churning out such late-period masterworks as Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl (2010) and The Strange Case of Angelica (2010) well into his hundreds. De Oliveira was the last remaining filmmaker from the silent era - his first film, Douro, Faina Fluvial was released in 1931, four years after the advent of sound but before it had fully caught on in Portugal.

Over 80 years into his career, the influence of silent film was still keenly felt in de Oliveira's work, mainly in his use of blocking. De Oliveira never moved the camera around much, carefully composing the minimal amount of shots he needed to convey his meaning, often leaving the camera in one place for an entire scene. And yet what could easily be seen as a blocky, static mise-en-scene comes alive, its characters perfectly placed in their surroundings so that their words come to vibrant life. Each frame of a de Olivera film could be hung on a wall as a painting, and Gebo and the Shadow  is no different. It's an understated family drama about an old man named Gebo (Michael Lonsdale) whose son, Joao (Ricardo Trêpa) has run away from home and descended into a life of crime. Gebo tries to hide the unsavory details on Joao's life from his wife, Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), but eventually everything comes to light when Joao shows up back at home unannounced. De Oliveira deftly explores the family dynamics while crafting a moving tale of a man willing to do anything to protect his family.

It tends to get lost a bit in its sometimes rambling dialogue scenes, but de Olivera never loses sight of the plot for long, bringing it all back for a powerful ending that explores the shadow children can cast over a family's entire existence. De Oliveira concocts striking images (the disembodied hands emerging from the darkness in the opening scene feel like something straight out of the silent era) in very confined spaces, leaving us with a film that should feel cramped and claustrophobic but instead feels consistently vibrant and alive, a testament to the extreme talent of its director who ran rings around much younger filmmakers for nearly a century.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


THE LION KING (Jon Favreau, 2019)

The original animated film holds a special place in the hearts of many of us who grew up in the 1990s, and it remains one of Disney's finest achievements of the era. The remake brings very little new to the table - adding a few lines of dialogue here, a reworked song there, but for the most part this new Lion King is content to be a shot-for-shot remake of its predecessor, hitting all the familiar notes fans of the original have come to expect but offering nothing new of any real note. The more realistic animation is certainly eye-popping, but the characters lose something in their transition to more life-like incarnations. They're less expressive and engaging as "real" animals; as such, the film lacks the emotional core that made the original so endearing.

In fact, the entire film lacks a certain elegance in its translation to photo-real animation. For all the epic vistas the film shows us, it's impossible not to recall its animated counterpart, and the way in which the colorful drawings of the original Lion King expressed the emotions and feelings of the narrative with such grace. This new Lion King is often thuddingly literal - simply tracking characters trotting through musical numbers rather than bursting into swirls of color and song. For a film full of such breathtakingly real images, the musical numbers are often flatly staged, the realism constantly undercutting the story's vibrant emotions and narrative drive.

GRADE★★ (out of four)


TOY STORY 4 (Josh Cooley, 2019)

The idea of a homemade toy finding a home among Bonnie's "real" toys is an appealing one, but it's a conflict that is resolved all-too-quickly in favor of the film's action/adventure plot. The film's villain, a creepy antique doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) who covets Woody's voice box, is perhaps one of Pixar's most intriguing antagonists. Rather that follow their usual formula of revealing a seemingly benign character to be evil, TOY STORY 4 takes the opposite approach with Gabby Gabby, giving her a poignant twist that subverts what Pixar has conditioned audiences to expect.

Nevertheless, there's a strange sense of "been there, done that" to the whole thing. Toy Story 4 is moderately engaging, and it's always nice to spend time with these characters, but it mostly feels like an afterthought to the original trilogy, attempting to take the story in new directions that it didn't really need to go. The existential drama of toys trying to find their purpose and their place has given the series some truly gut-wrenching emotional moments, but nothing in Toy Story 4 reaches the level of Toy Story 3 s crushing denouement. It feels as though we've already said goodbye to these characters, so saying goodbye again doesn't have quite the same impact as it may have otherwise. It's as if we just said a tearful goodbye to a relative and watched them drive off into the sunset, only to return to run back into the house real quick because they forgot their keys. It's nice to see them again, and we all had a good laugh, but the previous goodbye was much more emotionally satisfying.

GRADE★★½ (out of four)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Aydin Doğu Demirkol and Hazar Ergüçlü in "The Wild Pear Tree."
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.

In his follow-up to 2014's Palme d'Or winning Winter Sleep, Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan turns his camera inward for a fascinating and  deeply introspective exploration of the very nature of art itself.

The Wild Pear Tree is ostensibly about a young man trying to differentiate himself from his deadbeat father, a man whose sometimes harebrained schemes and constant state of debt make him something of a laughing stock in their rural Turkish village. But beneath the surface it's about much more than that. Upon his return home from college, Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol) is immediately met with requests from neighbors to remind his father to pay them back the money they borrowed from him. He soon learns his father has embarked on a quixotic quest to dig a well on top of a hill where the villagers insist there is no water. Embarrassed by his father's seeming incompetence, he sets off on his own potentially impossible dream of publishing a book, but meets with resistance and failure at every turn.

Ceylan crams a lot of soul searching into the film's 3+ hour running time. Sinan isn't always a likable protagonist - he's full of himself and the arrogance of youth, completely assured of his own brilliance and convinced that the world around him doesn't understand. His father is similarly self-possessed but approaches life with a greater sense of humility. It is up to Sinan to reconcile his own shortcomings with those of his father, while finding some semblance of wisdom in his father's tenacity. All the while he's grappling with the very idea of art and his own feelings of inadequacy. The question "am I really an artist?" has plagued the subconscious of many a creative person, and Sinan's growing suspicion that he may be an imposter fuels much of his arc in the film.

Aydin Doğu Demirkol in "The Wild Pear Tree."
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Like all of Ceylan's films, The Wild Pear Tree is often breathtaking in its beauty, featuring expansive wide shots and an overall sense that its characters are but small players in a much larger world, often moving through the frame in long, leisurely paced tracking shots, sight lines seemingly stretching off into infinity. Its sweeping cinematography and wide angle deep focus shots also serve to make its shallow focus close ups have all the more impact, as Ceylan frequently uses zooms to convey subtle shifts in mood and character emotion. Whereas Winter Sleep was awash in the muted tones of winter, The Wild Pear Tree employs much warmer tones, and Ceylan makes subtle use of lens flares - the blue light playing off the rich autumnal color palate.

It's often quite talky, any film this chock full of ideas and musings was bound to be, and it sometimes feels like Ceylan is really wrestling with some of these ideas himself, using the film to think out loud as a form of self reflection. Yet for all its philosophizing and intellectual banter, it's the sense of quiet that really lingers. The sound of wind rustling in the trees permeates the soundtrack, their gentle susurrus lulling us into a kind of meditative state appropriate for contemplating its myriad ideas. It’s big and wordy and a bit unwieldy, but it’s so full of artistic angst and insecurity in which an artist grapples with the meaning of art and whether or not he is fit to even be called an artist. It's a nervy, jittery, restless work from a filmmaker determined to never stop probing, reflecting, and seeking answers. Art is the ultimate act of nakedness, each new work opens oneself up to ridicule and heartbreak. It's that risk that provides the thorny center of The Wild Pear Tree - what if, after all that work, you turn out to have completely missed the mark? But no amount of greatness comes without risk, and by the time the film has reached its haunting final shot, it becomes achingly clear that art, be it film, or writing, or music, or even digging a well against all odds, will always be worth it if you persevere.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


THE WILD PEAR TREE | Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan | Stars Aydın Doğu Demirkol, Murat Cemcir, Bennu Yıldırımlar, Hazar Ergüçlü, Serkan Keskin | Not Rated | In Turkish w/English subtitles | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Cinema Guild.

Monday, November 11, 2019


It's somewhat surprising that it has taken Hollywood this long to produce a major biopic of Harriet Tubman, perhaps one of the most extraordinary women to have ever lived. Her story is so rife with danger and drama that it seems tailor made for the big screen. Then again, maybe it shouldn't be that surprising that the story of a black woman, no matter how famous, has been largely ignored by Hollywood, despite a major push to get her on the $20 - a campaign put on hold by a Trump administration that seems more interested in preserving the genocidal legacy of President Andrew Jackson than honoring one of history's great liberators.


There have been quite a few films dealing with slavery over the last few decades, from Steven Spielberg's Amistad and Lincoln to Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave to Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, a film that sought to repudiate the legacy of one of Hollywood's biggest, and most racist, successes, D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic of the same name, which painted the end of slavery as a great blow that destroyed the South and necessitated the rise of the Ku Klux Klan to protect it, and gave birth to not only the idea of the blockbuster film, but to a new era of the KKK. Yet all of these films were centered on men, or benevolent white saviors. The story of Harriet Tubman, a black woman who escaped slavery and helped liberate hundreds of enslaved people through her work on the Underground Railroad and with the Union Army during the Civil War.

And so, perhaps most appropriately, it has taken a black woman to step up and tell Harriet's story. Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou, Black Nativity) has taken the story of the woman known as "Moses" and turned her into a modern day superhero; and while the results are somewhat mixed, Harriet Tubman feels like the superhero we need right now, and as embodied by an phenomenal Cynthia Erivo, she exudes a kind of steely righteous fury that fits right at home in our current moment.

Of course, Harriet takes quite a few dramatic liberties with Tubman's story, in the process giving it a somewhat conventional arc complete with a lovely but at times overbearing score by Terrence Blanchard that seeks to turn every moment into a swelling crescendo of emotion. Yet there's something undeniably rousing about the way Lemmons directs this, as if she's directing a superhero film with Tubman as the hero. She's like a Civil War era Avenger, rescuing enslaved people and leading the Union Army into battle against hapless slave owners. There's some debate to be had about the merits of overdramatizing a story that was already incredible without any embellishment (in reality, the identity of "Moses" was never discovered, meaning the pursuit by her former masters that serves as the film's central conflict was mostly manufactured to give the film a specific villain), but Erivo is so good and Lemmons so passionate that it's hard not to get swept up in the story, even if one occasionally wishes the film had more confidence in its protagonist's own ability to carry it. Harriet also takes the time to try and understand the economy of the pre-Civil War era South, and how it was propped up by slavery. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act allowing former enslaved people to be extradited from free states illustrates the fact that the North was not some magic anti-slavery utopia, but the script has a tendency to over-explain things by building exposition a little too awkwardly into the dialogue.

However, it feels somehow appropriate that a black woman is at long last given a larger-than-life treatment like so many white male historical figures before her. What Tubman achieved was by all means remarkable, even if much of the manufactured drama around her threatens to turn the story into a relatively standard Hollywood melodrama. But under Lemmons' capable direction, Harriet is a solidly crafted and entertaining film, one whose "you go girl" sensibilities may seem more constructed for a modern audience than for the woman Tubman really was, that nevertheless embraces Tubman's status as a folk hero and celebrates her with a rousing and often moving tale of passion and resistance in the face of extreme oppression. Harriet Tubman is the the hero we need right now.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)


HARRIET | Directed by Kasi Lemmons | Stars Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monáe, Jennifer Nettles, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Clarke Peters | Rated PG-13 for thematic content throughout, violent material and language including racial epithets | Now playing in theaters everywhere.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Cinema history is littered with filmmakers who turned the camera on themselves - stories of tortured artists, great men burdened great talent. It would be easy to dismiss these films as mere vanity projects, tales of self-aggrandizement by mostly male filmmakers who see themselves as saddled with great genius that no one else could possibly understand. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Fellini's 8 1/2, although Tarkovsky's Mirror and even Von Trier's The House that Jack Built could arguably comfortably in that category.


However, there's something much more humble and self-reflective in Pedro Almodóvar's Pain and Glory, an ostensible act of self-reflection that seems to flow directly from the filmmaker's heart rather than his own ego. It's a film about a legendary Spanish filmmaker (natch) named Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) who finds himself at the twilight of his career. His last few films haven't achieved the same lofty acclaim as his earlier work, and he finds himself reflecting on the mistakes of the past - discarded friendships, a painful childhood, relationships that faded away. He dulls the pain with drugs and alcohol, addictions that threaten to derail any hope of a comeback, as he faces the prospect of obsolescence, a once great artist fallen into obscurity, a mere shadow of his former self.

There is no trace of ego in what Almodóvar achieves here. Pain and Glory almost feels like an exorcism, an autumnal reverie filled with pain and regret, of mistakes made and loves lost. And yet there's a glimmer of hope as Almodóvar wrestles with his demons through the medium he loves. It's a film as much about the healing power of cinema as it is about Almodóvar himself. As Mallo reckons with his conservative, Catholic upbringing (with Penelope Cruz memorably embodying his long-suffering mother), and his sexual awakening as a child in the form of a handsome illiterate painter he teaches to read, and ultimately his own addiction to drugs, one can almost feel Almodóvar breathing a great sigh of relief, laying it all bare on screen in a gripping sort of personal and artistic catharsis.

This is easily Almodóvar's finest work since Talk to Her (2002). It combines the maturity of an elder statesman the distinctly queer sensibilities that helped establish him as one of the greats in his early, more overtly sexual, work. Many of those films starred Antonio Banderas as the central figure of sexual desire - here he embodies Almodóvar, joining his old friend as an aging muse, evoking the anguished soul of an old friend whose career helped launch his own. Banderas has never been better, delivering a wistful and haunted performance filled with quiet longing and flagging sexual voractity , a distinguished former sex symbol of another time who still carries the steely glint of his former glory.

It is through Mallo, an obvious avatar for Almodóvar himself, that the filmmaker subverts the trope of the struggling genius and the women who inspired him, putting a queer twist on what has become a kind of cinematic indulgence for straight filmmakers. Here we see a gay filmmaker baring his soul and exploring the roots of his own sexuality in ways once only afforded to straight artists, and the results are bracing and often deeply moving. This is not the same Almodóvar who made Matador (1986) and Law of Desire (1987) - this is a film that finds the filmmaker in a much more reflective mode, more reminiscent of his work in Bad Education (2004), a film with which Pain and Glory shares a similar thematic outlook. Yet by the time the film reaches its wrenching, revelatory conclusion, Almodóvar manages to re-contextualize everything we've just seen. It's one of the most stunning film endings of the year, and yet it's so quietly earth-shattering that its power is almost disarming. It's the kind of film that cements Almodóvar in the pantheon of great artists, and it does so without ego or pretense, an understated glory that finds devastating beauty in the wreckage of a lifetime of mistakes and missed opportunities as only the cinema could have given us.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


PAIN AND GLORY | Directed by Pedro Almodóvar | Stars Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, Penélope Cruz, César Vicente | Rated R for drug use, some graphic nudity and language | In Spanish w/English subtitles | Now playing in select cities.

Sunday, November 03, 2019


Not to be outdone by the burgeoning horror genre spearheaded by second-tier upstart Universal, prestige studio MGM decided to capitalize on the popularity of their monster films by hiring Dracula filmmaker Tod Browning to reunite with his star, Bela Lugosi, to deliver a new vampire film about a mysterious Count preying on provincial villagers from his forbidding castle.

Mark of the Vampire starts out as an almost defect remake of Dracula  or at least the sequel Lugosi never got, featuring some of the same villagers warning travelers to stay indoors at night and away from the castle of Count Mora (a third-billed Lugosi). The castle itself is like a smaller version of Dracula's, complete with the same massive spider webs and menagerie of spiders and possums crawling through the ruins. This time, however, the Count is given a "daughter" in the form of Luna (Carroll Borland) who preys on the young women of the village. Her newest target is Irena (Elizabeth Allan) the daughter of a local nobleman who was killed under mysterious circumstances the previous year, with two unexplained puncture wounds on his neck. This brings Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwill) and Professor Zelin (Lionel Barrymore) on the case, one a vampire skeptic, the other a true believer, to get to the bottom of the crime, leading to an unexpected revelation that turns the entire film on its head.

That's where the film diverges most from Dracula  In fact, Browning's last-minute twist was kept such a secret that not even the actors were let in on it, leading them to play their roles completely straight until the last minute. Suffice it to say that this is not a traditional vampire film, even if it has all the trappings of one, but it's clear that's exactly what the actors thought it was. Lugosi's role is mostly silent until the last minute or so of the film, and he spends most of it standing around looking menacing. What really distinguishes the character of Count Mora from Count Dracula, however, is the conspicuous bullet wound on the side of his head that is never mentioned in the film at all. It is said there was a subplot that suggested that he had been shot because of a romantic relationship with his own daughter, but that it was excised by MGM before the film was released, which explains why the film is only an hour long, rather than the reported 80 minute runtime it was reported to have at the time. The missing 20 minutes of the film have never been found or released, so it's impossible to know what they contained, but it definitely feels like something is missing, with the action in the film's final act feeling especially truncated.

The big twist also makes little sense, turning an otherwise straightforward horror picture in the Universal style into a convoluted detective story buried under a layer of overly complicated intrigue. One can't help but wonder if those missing 20 minutes would have fleshed out the narrative a bit more, because as it stands it feels slightly stunted, an evocative and atmospheric pseudo-remake of Dracula whose power was ultimately undercut by studio meddling. It's important to remember that those early Universal horror films - DraculaFrankenstein, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man, were all released before the adoption of the Hays Code. The cuts to Mark of the Vampire were likely the result of MGM's nervousness about the newly adopted Code, and Browning, whose last film, Freaks (1932), was a major flop for the studio, was powerless to stop it. Still, his knack for crafting eerie atmospheres is on full display here, and the eerie cinematography by James Wong Howe rivals and at times surpasses Karl Freund's work on the original Dracula, awash in deep shadows and creeping fog.

In a world where Lugosi never got a proper sequel in which to reprise his most iconic role, Mark of the Vampire scratches a certain itch. But in its truncated state it feels more like the scraps of a much better film,  a victim of the Production Code whose true form may never see the light of day.