Monday, May 18, 2015

I Hate the Sight of Blood but It's in My Veins

I have a couple of short reviews of films soon to be released on DVD and Blu-ray. Read on, you son of a bitches!

The Girl Who Knew Too Much/Evil Eye (d. Mario Bava) - In his commentary track for Mario Bava's 1963 thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Tim Lucas notes an early difference between the original European cut of the film, which bears the aforementioned title, and the Samuel Z. Arkoff-shepherded American cut, which, in a reversal of the expected, is slightly longer and goes by the title Evil Eye. The star, Leticia Roman, is on a plane. In Bava's original cut, after some establishing stuff and credits, there's a hard cut to Roman and we get some narration about who she is and why she's flying to Italy. In the American cut, before the camera lands on Roman it drifts along the plane's aisle and we hear the thoughts of various other passengers. They're all mundane, everyday thoughts until we reach Roman, who is thinking about murder. It turns out her character, an American named Nora Davis, is obsessed by mystery novels, and she's simply thinking deeply about the one she's currently engrossed by. This opening, Lucas informs us on the commentary, is considered by Quentin Tarantino to be one of the greatest openings of all time, and it, Lucas goes on to say, along with other tone-lightening elements to be found in the Evil Eye cut, are missed when one watches The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

Maybe, maybe not. I have Evil Eye playing now as I write this, which I offer in the spirit of full disclosure, and because having seen neither, when I received the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray that contains both versions, I opted for The Girl Who Knew Too Much, it being a Bava film I'd never seen, and it being Bava's preferred cut, or so I've inferred, although since Bava went on to more or less dismiss the whole enterprise who can say, and, even if one could, would it matter? On top of this is the fact that, for what I presume are rescued-from-obscurity reasons, Kino gives Evil Eye preferential treatment on the cover, The Girl Who Knew Too Much snagging only a "Plus The Girl Who Knew Too Much" credit.

In any event, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is somewhat less spirited than Evil Eye (which in fairness to myself is nearly over) and a big reason for that is that Bava's cut makes Nora's obsession with mystery novels less of of a fun tone-setting idea than a plot contrivance, and, in fact, it's the film(s)'s plot that came to bug him later in life. He called the plot, which has to do with a series of murders in Rome the victims of which, all women, have last names that progress through the alphabet, hence the designation "The A-B-C Murders," the most recent of these Nora witnesses, anyway, Bava called the plot "preposterous." I guess it is, but if preposterous plots were a barrier to be avoided in making these kinds of films, I'm not sure we'd even have these kinds of films. In the end, none of that matters. What matters is what Bava does with it. That beginning to Evil Eye is pretty good and a very Hitchcockian idea, Hitchcock being the artist Bava is clearly pursuing here. There's lots of nice touches, such as Nora walking through a deserted series of hallways and rooms while the voice of, one assumes, the killer plays over a tape recorder. That bit is very stark and creepy, and not particularly light-hearted -- when Hitchcock wanted to make a light movie he tended to do so top to bottom, but Bava doesn't, or couldn't, which might explain why he removed those elements for the final version of The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Maybe he thought it was an uneasy marriage; if so, I'm not sure I agree. When Nora witnesses the murder, she sees the killer (face obscured) pull the knife from the dead woman's body, and Bava shoots this so we get the killer, the body, the street, the low brick wall, trees, the night, and we see the body move with the killer's effort to retrieve the knife. It's a terrific bit of restrained gruesomeness that adds weight to the proceedings without getting in the way of the fun. As I watch Evil Eye now I think that, surprisingly, Samuel Arkoff had the right idea. It's a better time at the pictures. Either way, John Saxon is in both versions and he's pretty young, and young John Saxon looks like Walter Koenig. So there's that too.

Limelight (d. Charlie Chaplin) - Charlie Chaplin turned 63 in 1952, the same year he released this film about an aging, alcoholic vaudeville comedian who noticed some time ago that the world no longer has much interest in him. At the beginning of the film, Chaplin's character, Calvero, is stumbling drunk into the boarding house where he lives when he discovers that another tenant, a young woman named Terry (Claire Bloom) has attempted suicide. Calvero saves her and the two become friends. Terry is a ballerina whose depression and crippling lack of confidence keep her from performing, while Calvero, even with all he knows about show business, maintains a perhaps unreasonable optimism. The two encourage each other to keep trying, to find work performing. Calvero stops drinking. He and Terry fall in love but don't do anything about it.

Such is the basic plot of Limelight, the one Chaplin masterpiece that has really struggled to be recognized as such. When it was released, Chaplin's life was in upheaval due to accusations that he was a Communist; this essentially scuttled the US release, which can only be regarded as ironic since Limelight is perhaps his least political film. It's about art, creativity, performance, the past, love, and death. It really is an immense piece of work. Watching it again today after many years, on the new Criterion Blu-ray that comes out Tuesday, I was struck most by what a confident, natural all-around actor Chaplin was, as at home in the sound era that he resisted as he was in the silent films that made him famous. His Calvero is a man battling despair and finding it both tempting to surrender as the time left to him to begin a new life on stage quickly runs out, and easy to keep going, to let his natural optimism and frothiness win out in the face of a young, beautiful, talented woman who has unaccountably given up. Chaplin is able to play all of this, from one scene to the next, within the same scene, from the beginning of the film until it ends over two hours later, without ever letting his performance seem messy or overstuffed. Simple things like Chaplin's ability to make his voice break as emotion threatens to overwhelm Calvero feel not just like good acting, but like brilliance.

The biggest criticism Limelight has had to fight against over the years is the charge that it is sentimental. Oh, it's sentimental, all right. Lots of Chaplin's films are sentimental. The problem with this accusation is that it accepts the corrupted definition of "sentimental," which sees the word only as a pejorative, and leaves behind its original, more Victorian (and Limelight is a very Victorian film in a lot of ways) meaning, which merely describes a thing or person that is nostalgic or tender or sad to large, perhaps exaggerated degree. Excessively so, one might even argue, and of course this is where the anti-sentimentality crowd gathers their ammunition. It's funny, though, how an excess of just about any other emotion is considered acceptable. No one would complain that a horror film had too much fear in it. Melodrama (which Limelight might have been had Chaplin's visual style matched his emotional pitch) has fought this same battle, but in critical circles, at least, the understanding of melodrama as a genre, or a form, won out long ago. With sentimentality, it's still not appreciated that like anything else it can be used well or badly, it can be executed well or badly. And if you think that Calvero marveling at the grace of Terry's dancing, or Chaplin and Buster Keaton, as Calvero's partner for one show, appearing together on screen for the first and only time, or Nigel Bruce, in a wonderful performance as a theater producer, simply and devastatingly delivering the line "Carry the sofa out to the wings," counts as bad sentimentality, or is bad because it is sentimental, then I guess we'll have to leave it at that. There's no talking to you.


Robert Fiore said...

Dismissing things out of had for being sentimental is like reflexively dismissing all white jazz musicians. It's been drummed into your head that sentimentality is Art Incest so all you have to do is recognize and you're a person of taste.

I think the greatest first line of a pop song is from "A Fool Such As I": "Pardon me if I'm sentimental when we say goodbye." Either that or the one from "Tears on My Pillow": "You don't remember me, but I remember you . . ."

John said...

No one would complain that a horror film had too much fear in it.

It's not impossible. I can't think of an example offhand, but bad horror movies and overacting usually go hand in hand. And a lot of it depends on what the source of the fear is in the first place. A cat suddenly jumping in through a window, say, shouldn't really provoke a response on the same level as, for instance, the spectacle of a dead person sucking out your best friend's brains.

I generally accept your point, though. Chaplin was a genius who had no time for the kind of cheap and forced and obnoxious emotionalism that "sentimentality" and "nostalgia" are automatically lumped together with, often unthinkingly. True genius is simply as rare in popular entertainment as it is in horror films.

Paul Dionne said...

Well done Mr. R - that may be the most insightful comment on the skill of Chaplin's presentation of "sentimentality" I have ever read.