Saturday, August 27, 2011
THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
In contrast to the trope "exotic lands and customs," which I explored in WILD WOMEN, SEVENTH VICTIM is a key example of the trope "weird families and societies." This trope deals with unusual groups that exist within the sphere of "normative" societies, rather than having their own separate, exotically-situated cosmos.
The "weird society" here is a group of Satanists who cause trouble for the "victim" of the title. Satanism, as noted on the commentary track for the movie in the VAL LEWTON COLLECTION, was an unusual subject for 1940s American cinema. Commentator Steve Haberman provides a treasure-trove of information about the film's genesis-- beginning as it did as nothing more than a title suggested by the studio-- as well as covering Val Lewton's general creative processes and those of his collaborators.
All that said, I can't claim that I've ever had any great affection for SEVENTH VICTIM. I can appreciate that it took some admirable chances with both its subject matter and its low-key approach, which, in contrast with 1942'S CAT PEOPLE, did not reap either critical or commercial success. The dour atmosphere strikes me as mannered in all but a few key scenes, and certain characters fail to impress, partly because, as the commentary makes clear, their narrative functions were sometimes changed in rewrite or deleted by studio cutters. Tom Conway's smooth-talking Louis Judd is a case in point. In some scenes he seems to be a professional exploiting his connection with "victim" Jacqueline Gibson (Jean Brooks), as when he talks her estranged husband Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont) out of money, ostensibly to help Jacqueline (though we never see her get the money). And yet he receives the standout speech at film's end, upbraiding the Satanists for their follies.
The Satanists are, in keeping with the Lewton approach, extremely low-key villains: they finally do resort to direct violence toward the film's end, though for most of the story they forbid one another from such measures, apparently leery of some unnamed repercussions. Their primary function is to evoke a mood of sombre terror, but the script doesn't dwell on their beliefs with any great rigor.
The story's essential mythic conflict is one relating to the psychological struggle of the viewpoint character Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) as she tries to find her missing sister Jacqueline within the environs of an alienating big city. She actually gets quite a bit of help considering that she has few resources: first from a detective who volunteers his services even though she can't pay him, and later from Jacqueline's husband Gregory and her acquaintances Judd and failed poet Jason Hoag. Despite this help, it's soon evident that Jacqueline's greatest enemy is not the Satanists stalking her, since they refrain from violence until the end, but her own suicidal urges, which do make Jacqueline the "seventh victim" of the devil-worshippers. (The other six are only referenced in passing to justify the title.)
Mary does gain a measure of independence even though she fails to save her sister from the sister's personal demons. However, when VICTIM is compared with Lewton's earlier films, CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, it's evident that the last thing that the *script* wants to have happen is Jacqueline's salvation. What all three films have in common might be termed the "Jane Eyre Myth," in that all of them feature a woman who finds love with a man with a previous commitment, and in all three films the "previous commitment" ends up taking a dirt nap. VICTIM is the first film which might be interpreted in Freudian terms, since it involves one sister essentially "stealing" her brother-in-law, though conveniently the married relationship has already withered on the vine by the time Mary arrives.
VICTIM is intended to be a very morose, pessimistic film. One wonders if some of that pessimism stems from the fact that the heroine's happiness depends on the death of the sister she seeks to save...
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
COWBOYS VS. ALIENS (2011)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*
There isn't a helluva lot to say about COWBOYS VS. ALIENS, except that its poor box-office performance disproves the canard that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American moviegoing public.
COWBOYS, while pleasant enough to view in uncritical mode, strikes me as a wasted opportunity to play with the conventions of the western. Trouble is, given that the script passed through about nine writers, one is never sure if any of the writers know what those conventions are. I got more authenticity from any single scene of RANGO than in the whole CVA film.
The plot is so simple that it avoids the entanglement of making the main character Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) interesting. He's a walking plot-device, in that he begins the film in an amnesiac state, though he's not too befuddled to remember he's a badass when faced with some bounty hunters. Lonergan dispels them quickly with the help of an alien bracelet clamped about his wrist, but that doesn't help him figure out where the weapon came from. Not surprisingly given the title, pretty soon some aliens come along to help solve the mystery.
Most of the characters who join Lonergan in his quest are disposeable, with the exception of the love-interest Ella (Olivia Wilde) and Dolarhyde, a gruff old rancher who represents an earlier heroic generation (Harrison Ford). Ella is also something of a humanized plot-twist, and never quite becomes more than that. The writers almost manage to craft something like a three-dimensional character for Ford to play, and even though they don't succeed Ford puts much more energy into this character than I've seen in his last five films.
The underwriting of Dolarhyde is particularly egregious since the script contains some dramatic nuances that go nowhere. As in the Jimmy Stewart film THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, we have an old rancher who has a spoiled real son who's become a rotten kid, and a ranch-hand who, despite being no real relation to the rancher, seems much more like a son to the old man. A good dramatic arc might've been reached had, say, Dolarhyde been forced to choose between his blood-kin and his loyal employee. But COWBOYS VS. ALIENS can't exert itself to drum up this much conflict.
Most of the alien action looks pretty good, if not overly inventive (note the signature "Star Wars" moment in the illo above). CVA also works in some Indians to help the Cowboys fight the Aliens, but in a move sure to promote egalitarianism, the noble red men are just as underwritten as the white men, so that the potential sociological themes of the western lie fallow here.
Friday, August 12, 2011
ACE DRUMMOND (1936) and Q PLANES (1939)
PHENOMENALITY: both *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: both *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *adventure,* (2) drama
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
I link these two films simply because both are marginally "science fiction" (ergo, of the "marvelous" phenomenality) due to their inclusion of one of the 1930s favorite gimmicks, the "death ray," used in both films to bring down airplanes. If either film had not used a death ray, however, ACE DRUMMOND would place in my "uncanny" category while Q PLANES placed in the "atypical."
DRUMMOND, directed by both Ford Beebe and Clifford Smith, adapts the short-lived ACE DRUMMOND comic strip of the late 1930s. It's a reasonably efficient adventure-serial, in which Drummond, "G-man of the skies," investigates sinister doings in Mongolia, accompanied by a comic sidekick, a little boy-kid and a young woman looking for her archaeologist father. The scientist has been kidnapped by a mystery mastermind, "The Dragon," who's also developing a death ray with which he can zap airplanes, but the villain's main goal seems to be to force the archaeologist to disclose the location of a fabulous "mountain of jade." (One assumes that building death rays is expensive business.)
Drummond's adventures follow the roughly "sociological" pattern of the period's "soldier-of-fortune" stories, in that at times the American hero must navigate the customs of the Mongolian natives: in fact, the serial's first chapter is entitled "Where East Meets West." However, DRUMMOND doesn't develop interesting from the potential clash of cultures. The most one can say is that if DRUMMOND doesn't capture any of the allure of exotic cultures, as does 1940's THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU, at least DRUMMOND doesn't go the other way and give us bad Asian stereotypes, as does 1943's BATMAN serial. Admittedly most of the "Asians" are played by Caucasian actors, notably Lon Chaney Jr before he rose to starring status.
Unlike HAWK OF THE WILDERNESS, a serial I rated as "atypical" because it lacked any metaphenomenal content, DRUMMOND does have a couple of "uncanny" devices, as the Dragon springs on the hero a few unusual gas-attacks and, most notably, the Old Room-with-the-Crushing-Walls Trick. But as with the death-ray, these don't occupy a lot of time and most of the action is efficient but mundane. The villain is never seen in costume like some of the more noteworthy serial villains.
Q PLANES doesn't have any more symbolic content than DRUMMOND, but it's much more fun. Its story opposes three heroes of wartorn Britain (flyer Laurence Olivier, his quarrelsome girlfriend Valerie Hobson, and intelligence investigator Ralph Richardson) against a plot against British air power by a Foreign Power. The enemy spies, who are responsible for using a ray to bring down several British planes, always remain fairly vague, as the Allies hadn't yet declares war on the Axis. Olivier and Richardson, with help from Hobson (Richardson's sister and a suffragette-flavored journalist), ferret out the scheme and take out the schemers.
Q PLANES also has two credited directors, Tim Whelan and Arthur B. Woods, but its 82 minutes are far more exciting than DRUMMOND's whole 13 chapters. I can't say if either director was more responsible for the jaunty, fast-paced approach of the film, but I'd tend to guess Whelan's responsible, as many of the setups feel rather Hawksian. A year or so later Whelan would again work for Alexander Korda as one of the credited directors for THE THIEF OF BAGDAD.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
TARZAN AND THE SHE-DEVIL (1953)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
SHE-DEVIL is best known as the last of Lex Barker's six Tarzan films, but it's something of a negative milestone as well. While it's not the last live-action Tarzan film to feature Jane, it seems to be the last film in which the romance of Civilization (Jane) and Savagery (Tarzan)-- the romance that vaulted the ape-man to sound-era movie stardom in 1932's TARZAN THE APE MAN-- proved central to the story.
To be sure, many of the sound-era Tarzans in which Jane has a sizeable role tend to downplay her, or even make her the villains' dupe. But director Kurt Neumann and scripting-team Kamb and Young bring back much of the romantic intensity that informed the early Weismuller/O'Sullivan pictures. Cheetah is still around but fortuitously no version of "Boy" is in evidence to dampen the couple's treehouse erotica. I'm not talking about actual sex, of course, but the way the performers communicate the intensity of a long-lived romance. Possibly the film's best scene involves Tarzan, still an animal-boy at heart, tossing Jane into a river to wake up her so she'll fix his breakfast. Jane, understandably peeved, makes a joke about going back to England, and Tarzan immediately looks thunderstruck at the very idea of losing her, leading to a swift reconciliation. Often Jane is presented as Tarzan's kryptonite in that she trusts strangers too easily. Here, the strength of the Tarzan-Jane romance is Tarzan's weakness. An imdb reviewer perceptively comments:
It is, after all, the "she-devil" who concocts the horrible idea of robbing Tarzan of his power by robbing him of his love. What man, however evil or intelligent, would ever be able to think of that?
Lyra (Monique Van Vooren), the titular "she-devil," certainly is one of the cinematic ape man's more memorable villains. She funds the expedition of ivory poacher Vargo (Raymond Burr), who naturally butts heads with the jungle lord over the question of killing elephants. It's significant that once Tarzan and Jane are alone with each other following a somewhat peaceful first encounter with the two villains, the lovers tease each other, Tarzan pretending to be interested in Lyra and Jane in Vargo.
Lyra, though not a deep character in the least, does exude more sensuality than most other villainesses in the series. She romances Vargo right in front of her sometime lover, the appropriately named "Fidel" (Tom Conway). She seems more than a little attracted to the ape-man as well. At one point, when Tarzan invades her compound to release some natives she's enslaved, Lyra sics a big beefy fellow on the hero for some one-on-one action-- apparently more for her own pleasure than to insure Tarzan's demise. Since she also interferes whenever Vargo or Fidel try to torture or kill Tarzan, it seems probable that she's meditating on keeping the ape-man around once he's served his purpose.
That purpose, by the way, is also Lyra's idea: she sends her henchmen to kidnap Jane so that Tarzan will call his elephant friends into a deadly trap. There are no "good white explorers" in this film: Lyra and her friends are all blatantly exploitative, the rule rather than the exception. Twice they enslave the men of a particular tribe, the Laikopo, to serve the expedition, rather than simply hiring some other natives, because of some ill-defined conviction that the more reluctant tribespeople are the best in the business.
On a side-note, the Laikopo tribesmen are not black Africans, and they employ (albeit briefly) the very un-African weapon of the boomerang. However, there are fleeting appearances of black characters who succor Jane when she escapes her kidnappers.
In the last third of the film Tarzan believes that Jane has died, and his mourning is so profound that he loses all strength to fight the villains, though he still refuses to lead the elephants to slaughter. Only when Jane turns up alive, and in the clutches of Vargo and Lyra, does Tarzan appear to give in to the evildoers' designs. However, Tarzan turns the tables so that the bad guys are killed, and the film ends with one last reconciliation between Savagery and Civilization.
Jane would appear again from time to time, but one might say that she was never again the same after she "died."
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