Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Confessions of a Nazi Spy

"Force is the only language you will understand! And we'll speak to you in your own language soon enough!"
Hollywood tiptoed around Nazi Germany for years, reluctant to court controversy and alienate foreign markets. Anatole Litvak finally broke the silence with Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). While the film's message plays stridently today, it's still an engaging, passionate drama.

Dr. Karl Kassel (Paul Lukas) helps organize the German-American Bund, a fascist group pairing German immigrants and Nazi spies. FBI Agent Renard (Edward G. Robinson) works to unravel their network, targeting Kurt Schneider (Francis Lederer), who's infiltrated an American military installation. Renard's investigation leads him to Kassel and other leaders, while Berlin works to save or destroy their agents.

Confessions of a Nazi Spy is a propagandized blend of fact and feverish antifascism. The real German-American Bund was rather ineffectual, embarrassing even Goebbels as a boorish liability. Confessions casts them as the vanguard of Nazi invasion, spreading propaganda couched in Americanism as Hitler subdues Europe. Litvak and writers Milton Krims and John Wexley conflate America First isolationists with nascent Hitlerism, with Henry O'Neill's attorney sternly announcing the necessity of American intervention.

Much of Confessions is a straightforward message film, Litvak pairing pronouncements of Nazi terror with montages of marching stormtroopers and propaganda flooding America. We see rallies where Bundists beat American Legionnaires, camps of Nazified children and menacing Gestapo men dragging uncooperative agents to Germany. Litvak also takes care to highlight anti-Nazi refugees, like a shipboard matron who unknowingly denounces Hitler to spy Hilde (Dorothy Tree).
Crude in many ways, Confessions nonetheless avoids stereotyping its villains. Kassel is a cultured ideologue who tries squaring affection for Hitler with his patriotism; cornered by the FBI, he becomes an informant. Schneider is a malcontent motivated by money more than patriotism, making them an easy mark for Renard. Even Schlager (George Sanders), Kassel's tough right-hand man, has a warm romance with Hilde. Unlike Fritz Lang's anti-Nazi works, Litvak finds humanity even in fascists.

Audiences not receptive to interventionist harangues can enjoy the well-constructed spy plot, with Renard methodically uncovering Kassel's spies. He flatters Schneider into betraying his secrets, using blackmail and persuasion to nab his colleagues. The Nazis use American rights as a shield while denouncing democracy; Schneider has an American wife and others are similarly integrated. Renard rouses complacent superiors (and viewers) into action, informing them that peace is an illusion with Hitler fighting a one-sided war.

Edward G. Robinson's stern G-Man provides a firm anchor, allowing his costars to shine. Paul Lukas gives a layered villain turn, alternately hateful, conflicted and pitiable. George Sanders and Dorothy Tree provide fierce adversaries, with Francis Lederer, Sig Ruman and Henry Victor in supporting turns. Many supporting players were German or Austrian émigrés, investing their performances with extra urgency.

Confessions of a Nazi Spy can't possibly seem as daring, inflammatory or urgent as it did eighty years ago. Even audiences who don't need persuasion of Hitler's evil can appreciate a well-crafted show like this.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Bird With the Crystal Plumage

Dario Argento launched his long, sporadically brilliant directing career with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). It provides a template for future giallos, a sloppy but compelling mystery spiced with stylish slayings.

American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) witnesses the attempted murder of Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi) in an art gallery. Police tie the attack to a serial killer terrorizing Rome, and Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) presses Dalmas for details. Dalmas can't remember any clues, but becomes drawn into case anyway as the killer targets him and his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall). A menacing phone call provides an enticing detail that Sam and the Inspector can't quite finger.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is loosely inspired by Fredric Brown's The Screaming Mimi, but owes an equal debt to Alfred Hitchcock's oeuvre and Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup. Argento shows the citizen detective hounded by ineffectual cops as he investigates. He catches an imperfect glimpse of the murderer, trapped between soundless glass doors as Monica's attacked; later, he records a menacing phone call and rattles his memory for hidden details. Argento's Deep Red revisited these tropes, adding Blowup star David Hemmings for good measure.

Plumage has a relatively coherent storyline, a giallo rarity, with clever Macguffins in the title bird and a rare painting. As usual though, its characters are thin. Tony Musante is a bland hero and Suzy Kendall's a pretty whiner. Enrico Maria Salerno breathes life into his stock role, though Mario Adorf's wasted in a strange cameo as a reclusive artist. Eva Renzi is more effective, her role more prominent than appears at a glance.

Plumage's black-gloved killer, fractured flashbacks and long takes became an Argento signature, with Ennio Morricone's eerie score an adequate placeholder for Goblin. The most graphic scene shows the killer attacking a woman in bed, methodically stripping her with a knife; later, we're granted a POV shot of him wielding a razor blade. There's also an excellent chase scene, where a gunman hunts Sam through shadowed alleyways and a crowded bar.

The Bird in the Crystal Plumage doesn't match Deep Red or Tenebre as Argento's masterworks, but it shows his strengths and weaknesses fully formed. Few directors had such a variable filmography, but few were so effective at their best.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Bay of Blood

Mario Bava kick-started Italian horror films with gothic gore fests like Black Sunday (1961) and Blood and Black Lace (1964). Even more extreme is A Bay of Blood (1971), an obvious touchstone for the slasher genre. Indeed, it's influence is more noteworthy than its cartoon gruesomeness.

Countess Federica Donati (Isa Miranda) and her husband (Giovanni Nuvoletti) are murdered at their bayside estate, triggering a real estate squabble. Two greedy real estate developers (Chris Avram and Anna Maria Rosati) who wish to develop the property into a resort. The Donatis' daughter Renata (Claudine Auger) and her meek fiancé Albert (Luigi Pistill) arrive with their kids in tow. A drunken medium (Laura Belli), her entomologist husband (Leopold Trieste) and a groundskeeper (Claudio Camaso) also become involved, along with a quartet of horny teens.

A Bay of Blood (also titled Twitch of the Death Nerve) is absurdly convoluted, with a coterie of monstrous caricatures carving each other to bits. If the premise sounds clever, Bava's approach is too murky and self-serious to generate fun. Expository flashbacks and asides prevent the killings from gaining momentum. Good actors like Luigi Pistilli, Isa Miranda and Laura Betti stammer through banal dialogue scenes while waiting to die. Only Claudine Auger, Thunderball's Domino, gives her character a kinky Lady Macbeth charge.

Bava constantly contrasts his Saubadia locations with the squalid killings. Bay hammers home a strange ecological message, showing humanity as greedy, depraved and deserving of death. The bay's pristine beauty clashes with mankind's destructiveness, whether Paolo's torturing insects or a squid crawls across a corpse's face. Even Albert and Renata's kids become drawn into the cycle of violence. It's a bizarre, overwrought message too heavy for the material, and too silly to stand on its own.

Bava's hyperviolent slayings inspired a generation of slasher movies: a death tableaux anticipating Halloween, two teens murdered during sex like Friday the 13th Part 2. Even by the genre's standards, Bay's killings are extreme: a graphic decapitation, a face spit by machete, several prolonged strangulations. Deaths contrast with trite irony: Bava lingers on the teens' smiling car grill and incongruously cheerful music plays over the final murder. This is as clever as Bava's direction gets.

Mario Bava fared best with broad, operatic material, mating F.W. Murnau's shadowy, formalized frights with sexually charged gore. His films aren't for all tastes, but their baroque craftsmanship's undeniable. A Bay of Blood only offers invention in overwrought bloodshed, limiting its appeal to undemanding exploitation fans.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Inferno (1980)

Nobody watches Dario Argento movies for lucid plots or nuanced characters. Inferno (1980) shows Argento at his fever dream best, a supernatural slasher film more striking than comprehensible.

Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle) discovers a book entitled The Three Mothers, a Latin text telling of three evil spirits who rule the world. This sets in motion a macabre chain of events, as Rose and her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) search for clues in New York, London and Rome. Their search leads to an escalating body count, leaving Mark to face the Mother of Darkness alone.

Inferno is nominally a sequel to Suspiria, recapturing that film's mad aesthetic. Argento revives that movie's wild color schemes, bathing sets in demonic red and soothing blue, creeping shadows hiding clawed demons, a menagerie of animals (rats, cats, iguanas) portending death. The international settings give the movie a broader scope than usual, with murder scenes filmed in Rome and New York's Central Park, capped by Keith Emerson's jolting goth rock score.

As expected, Inferno's storyline is a complete mess, with Argento roving between personages slain within minutes of their introduction. But his slayings are as garish and inventive as ever, with characters victimized by sewer rats and sharpened glass, tearing through cloth sheets, plunging into watery crypts or evading fires. Argento prolongs the killings for maximum gruesomeness; when one suffering character's decapitated by a butcher knife, it's a relief!

Admittedly, Inferno's acting is poor as its storyline: TV actors Irene Miracle and Leigh McCloskey are inert, while Italian actors like Alida Valli are hamstrung by silly characterizations. But the movie delivers on its promise of garish executions staged stylishly, and that's all we ask.

Monday, October 17, 2016

I Walked With a Zombie

I Walked With a Zombie (1943) marks Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's second collaboration. As usual, they enrich a chintzy B Movie set-up with remarkable depth and ambition.

Zombie borrows its basic plot from, of all things, Jane Eyre. Nurse Betsy Connell (Francis Dee) arrives at the West Indian island of Saint Sebastian to treat comatose sugar heiress Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon). Her husband Paul (Tom Conway)seems more interested in wooing Betsy than curing his wife; Wesley Rand (James Ellis), Paul’s half-brother, a resentful drunk. Unable to cure Jessica, Betsy takes servant Alma’s advice (Theresa Harris) that the island’s voodoo rituals may hold a cure. Instead, the natives shun Jessica as a zombie, doomed to a living death in punishment for her family’s transgressions.

I Walked With a Zombie couches its horror as racial-colonial critique. Voodoo is the defense mechanism of an oppressed culture; Saint Sebastian's natives use it both as unifying cultural touchstone and defiance to the sybaritic, exploitative whites. Their subversive unity contrasts with the Holland family's tawdry melodrama, from Sir Lancelot's troubadour mocking Paul to a St. Sebastian figurehead pierced with arrows. If Lewton typically treats superstition as humanity's Achilles heel, it's no more destructive than mundane pettiness.

Lewton and Tourneur reprise Cat People's horror by inference, cast in suggestive shadows and half-believed myths. Jessica's somnambulism seems psychological rather than magic, destroyed by family guilt and betrayal from her faithless husband. Yet zombified reality bleeds into the story, from Darby Jones' bug-eyed factotum or a creepy climax involving a voodoo doll. Ultimately, privilege and power can't save the Hollands from supernatural vengeance or their own frailty.

Francis Dee struggles to rationalize events while growing engrossed in the island soap opera; she's endearingly sweet and smart. Tom Conway plays an agreeably charming cad, with Sir Lancelot stealing his scenes as a cheeky singer. Other players act with varying degrees of broadness; Theresa Harris and Edith Barrett give fine turns, but James Ellis overplays his drunken jerk.

Casual viewers wouldn't think a movie entitled I Walked With a Zombie to be any good. Credit Lewton and Tourneur yet again for transcending their budget and genre with a remarkably spooky chamber piece.