Sunday, 25 August 2019

Creepy-Crawl Cinema:
One Upon a Time in… Hollywood
(Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

1969 feels pretty impossible to escape at the moment. All these 50th anniversaries coming thick and fast – moon landing, Manson murders, Woodstock, Brian Jones, Altamont – and now, man-of-that-particular-moment Peter Fonda passing away right on schedule, an exact half century after his image was pinned up on a thousand dorm room walls. Perfect timing then, for retromancer in chief Quentin Tarantino to chime in with the celluloid equivalent of a shiny collectible plate. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got some room on the sideboard.


Like many movie fans, I could frankly spend all day here trying to unpack my mixed feelings about Tarantino and his work, but for the sake of both your sanity and mine, I’ll try to keep it brief.

As sophisticated, cine-literate readers, you will no doubt have realised long ago that all of Tarantino’s films are essentially set within a fantastical movie wonderland. They are films-about-films, indulgent thrill-rides with zero real world relevance, offering pure, dumb-headed escapism.

An obvious point perhaps, but one that is worth restating at the outset, given the persistent failure of many mainstream critics to comprehend it. (Honestly, how they can continue to toil away under the misapprehension that ‘Django Unchained’ actually has something to say about slavery, or ‘Inglorious Bastards’ about the Second World War, is beyond me.)

Though I can dig this superficial, ‘fantasy-land’ approach to a certain extent, I confess its appeal has worn pretty thin for me over the years, particularly when (as in the examples above) the Big QT finds himself romping around in the midst of subject matter which would conventionally seem to demand a certain amount of depth or ideological engagement. For a while now, I’ve been hoping that one day he might finally leave the play-pen behind and make, like, you know – a proper, sincere movie of some kind?

By gently weaning Tarantino away from his films-about-films universe and moving to a painstakingly researched, naturalistic historical setting that just happens to be all about the making of those films he loves so much, ‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’ (man, I HATE that ellipsis) would seem to offer him the perfect opportunity to do this, allowing him to play his meta-textural, movie nerd games, but in a more grounded / ‘realistic’ context - one in which actions may be seen to have consequences, and in which characters might finally manage to acquire a second or third dimension for themselves.

Given that he basically fails to take up this offer though, instead delivering yet another barrage of defiantly shallow, crowd-pleasing nonsense, I think we can assume by this stage that he probably never will make the jump to the quote-unquote ‘next level’.

As such, this leaves us with a few things that we are just going to have to accept if we are ever going to enjoy any Tarantino movies.

Firstly, they will mean nothing. Any thematic framework or ideological intent detected within will be purely coincidental - probably just a by-product of all the cultural tropes being re-heated and played around with.

Secondly, they will be massively indulgent, typically containing upwards of an hour of entirely irrelevant material that he shot and kept in the movie just because he could. (We may roll our eyes, but hey, if it’s good enough for Fellini…)

And, thirdly, everything in his films will feel just slightly cartoon-ish and overblown. Comedy / character scenes will drag on too long, just to make sure everyone gets the joke. Serious/violent scenes will pretty much always fall off a cliff into OTT absurdity, just because, as all exploitation fans know, crazy stuff is cool, and cool = good. Pop-cultural references and tributes meanwhile will be so shamelessly foregrounded that they might as well be accompanied by a little QT popping up in a box in the corner of the screen ala a Japanese TV show, pointing to them and guffawing.

Once we accept these certainties and abandon the possibility that things may one day be otherwise, we can hopefully loosen up a bit and appreciate the fact that, taken on its own terms, ‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’ is about the most purely enjoyable three hours of cinema that the 21st century has yet been able to offer.


As someone who has spent a great deal of time living and breathing the storied mythos of Hollywood ’69 over the years, I’ll confess that I was pretty psyched about seeing this movie, and that – leaving aside the caveats outlined above – I was not disappointed.

Although the film is packed with things (small details, creative decisions, wasted potential) which irked me, each of them is balanced out by two other things (character beats, clever gags and references, likable performances) which delighted me. (1)

Yes, this makes for a large number of ‘things’ in total - but such is only right and proper for a picture with this kind of gargantuan run time. If you like films with ‘things’ in them, well strap in buddy, cos you’ll certainly get your money’s worth here. The frantic pace barely ever flags across 170-odd minutes, and new stimuli comes thick n’ fast with every shot. As an immersive ‘Where’s Wally?’ puzzle for a pop-culturally literate crowd to lose themselves within, this film is hard to beat.

As such, it is ‘Once Upon a Time…’s production design which is chiefly deserving of celebration. Barbara Ling [Production Designer], John Dexter [Art Direction], Nancy Haigh [Set Decoration], Arianne Phillips [Costumes] – take a collective bow.

There are, it is safe to say, few other living filmmakers who have both the resources and the inclination to retro-fit vast swathes of Los Angeles to conform to some mystic, rose-tinted dream of late ‘60s perfection, and the results Tarantino’s team achieve in this regard are magnificent – a triumph of “world building” equal to any of this century’s CG-enhanced fantasy epics, and a hell of a lot more fun from my personal POV.

Again and again over the past forty years, we may have seen movie directors pay teary-eyed tribute to the days when Americans could roar around guilt-free in massive, pastel-coloured automobiles, chain-smoking their way into an early grave as they negotiate a neon labyrinth of cinema marquees, movie billboards and fast food outlets…. but never has this celebration been rendered quite so exuberantly, quite so convincingly, as it is here.

As a result, moments such as the panoramic shot in which Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth stands on the roof of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio)’s Cielo Drive house to fix the TV aerial, looking down over the perfectly rendered sprawl of the Hollywood Hills and down to the streets below, are pretty darn spine-tingling.

(The cinema in which I saw the film isn’t exactly what you’d call top of the line in terms of its A/V presentation, but even so, Robert Richardson’s 35mm photography, ripped through whatever kind of cutting edge HD processing brings it to our 21st century screens, looked *incredible*.)

Yes, brothers and sisters (but mainly brothers, let’s face it), this really WAS the promised land, Quentin seems to be telling us, and for a moment or two here and there, I do not feel inclined to disbelieve him.

The fact that Tarantino grew up in L.A. and was six years old in 1969 should probably be noted here, particularly in view of ‘Once Upon a Time..’s all-consuming obsession with syndicated TV, movie posters and radio ads. As you might well imagine, the film’s dense collage of movie nerd fan service is a joy to behold, at times becoming so dominant that it almost takes the movie into quasi-documentary territory, complete with voiceover narration and clip / poster-based alternate history recaps.

And, just as inevitably, I can’t help but love this stuff. Whatever high-minded reservations I may have about Quentin’s oeuvre, all I need do is think back on the fact that Rick Dalton’s calling card action movie was “The Fourteen Fists of McClusky”, or upon hearing Al Pacino (playing Dalton’s liaison with the Italian movie industry) describe Sergio Corbucci as “…only the SECOND BEST director of Spaghetti Westerns in the world” (in outraged, what-do-you-mean-‘who’ tone of voice), or indeed upon the clip of DiCaprio appearing in an Antonio Margheriti spy movie… and all is forgiven. I might as well be sharing popcorn with the fucker on weekend movie night.

(Incidentally, based on the audience’s mocking laughter, I think many of them must have assumed Tarantino was just making all this Italian b-movie shit up for giggles. Little do they know…)


More surprisingly meanwhile, the film’s other great strength is its cast. In the past, I’ve often been surprised to read critics earnestly praising the committed performances of actors in Tarantino movies, given that the director doesn’t display much more concern for in-depth characterisation than if he were Michael Winner shuffling around the cannon fodder in a ‘Death Wish’ sequel… but, such is the paradox of an exploitation filmmaker who finds himself working with the kind of talent and resources usually reserved for critically-acclaimed Oscar-winners, I suppose.

Here though, the plaudits seem more justified. After all, ‘Once Upon a Time..’ is a long film which needs to retain our attention whilst holding back violent action or pyrotechnics until the final reel, and, as fictional creations with the chutzpah to get us there, Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth certainly make for a winning pair of protagonists.

An anxious, clumsy, floundering movie star and his vastly more handsome and confident stuntman / gopher, they’re clearly conceived as an odd couple in the age-old Jeeves and Wooster mould, but their relationship is believable, their interplay with the movie’s other characters is always fun, and it’s basically easy for us to settle in and have a good time with their assorted travails and misadventures.

DiCaprio’s performance may have a touch too much huffing-and-puffing Wellsian grotesquery about it for my tastes, but this suits his character, and if nothing else, he certainly succeeds in persuading us to anchor our sympathies to a guy who is essentially pretty pathetic and dislikeable.

Here, though, is a sentence I never thought I’d find myself writing in a Breakfast in the Ruins post: it is Brad Pitt who is the real revelation here. He is not an actor I’ve ever much cared for in the past, but what can I say, he really seems to have “grown into himself” in ‘Once Upon a Time..’, if that makes any sense?

Essentially representing Tarantino’s ideal of the time-honoured Hollywood hero, Cliff Booth is our requisite humble, taciturn working class guy who looks good, does good, and always comes out on top. And, somehow, Pitt manages to embody this storied archetype whilst also ringing true as a fully-formed and immensely charming individual, absolutely nailing that crucial “yeah, what a cool guy” feeling we all love to get from our favourite movie heroes.

Of all of the far-fetched notions which film’s script asks us to accept in fact, probably the most outlandish is the idea that this guy has apparently been hanging around on TV and movie sets for decades, and no one seems to have noticed that he radiates star quality like a goddamned lighthouse.


Backing up this dynamic duo meanwhile are a wide variety of equally talented supporting players, whose work in small roles and ‘one-scene-wonder’ parts enhances the film considerably. I don’t so much mean the inevitable big name cameos (Pacino, Kurt Russell), but more the younger cast members really… which brings us neatly to the thorny issue of the film’s portrayal of the Manson Family.

Again, I have mixed feelings about this. In script terms, the Mansonites don’t really serve much of a purpose here beyond providing some generic antagonists, parachuted in to liven up the final act of what would otherwise basically be a stress-free three hour “hang out” movie. Indeed, Tarantino seems entirely unconcerned with exploring the context behind the Family’s existence and activities, instead relying entirely upon his audience’s perceived familiarity with the historical background – an approach which worked just fine for me, but which could easily cause problems in terms of the way the film plays for a wider audience.

For instance, I watched the film with a predominantly young crowd, and when, in a beautifully rendered scene early in the film, we see Cliff and Rick cruise past a group of ragged teenage girls who are scavenging from a roadside dumpster whilst singing one of Charlie’s songs, I could almost sense a 50/50 split in the audience between those who shared my shiver of recognition, and others who had no idea of the intended significance of what they were seeing.

Throughout the film, references to the cult’s lunatic beliefs or to Manson’s psychological hold over his followers are entirely avoided, leaving us in a strange situation where the only message which can drawn from the text itself is that dirty hippies are inherently evil and murderous, and that Quentin Tarantino hates ‘em.

That said however, the pivotal sequence in which Cliff visits the Spahn Ranch after picking up a fictional (I think?) Manson girl named ‘Pussycat’ (Margaret Qualley - and yes, fear not, Tarantino’s feverish obsession with trying to wring comedic value out of terms for female genitalia remains undiminished here), is wonderfully observed, feeling ‘real’ enough, and crammed with enough esoteric detail, to satisfy even the most demanding of Manson obsessives. (2)

Although Tarantino has the scary, dead-eyed hippies swarm and diminish like Romero zombies at times, what really won me over here is the fact that most of the Mansonites (barring a witchy, passive-aggressive turn from Dakota Fanning as Squeeky, and James Landry Hébert as a redneck grotesque Clem) are disarmingly naturalistic. The fact that they play it calm, friendly and not overtly crazy is to me more unsettling than any quantity of ominous, horror movie shit the film might have thrown at us.

(In view of my speculations below, it might be worth noting that the kill squad, when we share some time with them in the car on their way to Cielo Drive, basically speak very much like 21st century young people; I particularly liked Sadie/Susan (Mikey Madison) exclaiming that, “I’m sorry if I’m not familiar with every FASCIST who was on TV in the FIFTIES”.)

Likewise, the decision to concentrate during the ranch sequence on Cliff’s need to ascertain the well-being of George Spahn (a splendidly cantankerous performance from Bruce Dern – notable here I think as the only cast member who was actually on the scene in Hollywood when these events went down) proves an inspired one. It’s dramatically interesting, true to Pitt’s character, and allows the film to shine a light on an element of the Manson mythos which has largely been side-lined in the past, in factual and fictional chronicles alike.

Thinking about how Cliff immediately zeroes in on the necessity of speaking to George (because I mean, of course this 40-something stuntman would be more concerned with checking in on an old buddy than with quizzing a buncha fuckin’ hippies about the finer points of their belief system) meanwhile gets me thinking about the extent to which Tarantino essentially frames this entire film through the prism of his protagonists’ worldview. (Admittedly, it could be argued that this is not too far removed from his own worldview as another middle-aged Hollywood dude, but… let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume at least a thin line of division, shall we?).


Though the surface signifiers of the counter-culture – in the form of sex, drugs and long hair - may have been ruling the roost in Movieland by 1969, Hollywood nonetheless remained a world in which women were expected to be seen and not heard, and in which non-white faces were almost literally invisible. And, this is exactly what Tarantino gives us - reality filtered through the eyes of a couple of old school, movie industry bros, with no explanation or apology offered along the way.

For better or for worse, proceeding in this manner, without even a passing nod to contemporary standards of representation, is a ballsy move on the director’s part, and as usual, certain sections of the media seem to have had a hard time even comprehending it. In particular, articles such as this one, which criticise the director for giving Margot Robbie little to do beyond looking pretty in her role as Sharon Tate, seem to be missing the point entirely.

After all, the sad fact is that the real Sharon Tate was given little to do in her tragically foreshortened life, beyond looking pretty. She was the product of a culture that allowed young women few other avenues for advancement, and her portrayal in the film merely reflects this. Of course, we can always imagine that she may have steered her life and career in a more rewarding direction had she lived, but trying to retrofit this ultimate victim of the era’s chauvinist attitudes as a super-capable 21st century heroine would have seemed questionable to say the least.

Likewise, I’m happy to defend Tarantino when it comes to the movie’s other big bone of contention, comedian Michael Moh’s portrayal of Bruce Lee as an egotistical buffoon. In a complete reversal of the Robbie/Tate issue, I have no reason to believe that this is an accurate characterisation of Bruce Lee, but at the same time there is something very refreshing about seeing such a revered, untouchable figure get the bubble of his legend so crudely ‘popped’ and – the ultimate justification for anything in a Tarantino film – the scene he shares with Pitt is loads of fun. (I particularly enjoyed the perfect take-down of the old “my fists are registered as lethal weapons” routine.) (3)


WARNING: Spoilers follow in the next few paras. This film has some nice surprises, so please do go and see it before reading the rest of this review.


Whilst I’m generally cool with all this stuff though, I do fear that, whether by accident or design, the director’s willingness to court controversy and blow a few gentle raspberries in the direction of quote-unquote “political correctness” may be apt to lead him into some choppy waters here, should anyone choose to disregard my First Rule of watching a Tarantino movie above, and succumb to the cardinal sin of actually thinking about the damn thing for five minutes after the lights go up.

After all, QT’s personal/professional reputation only just made it out of the whole Miramax / Weinstein debacle in one piece, so, as much as I wish I could just turn my brain off and go with the flow, it’s pretty difficult not to detect a certain, uh, emphasis in the fact that the first movie he has made since severing those connections ends with the triumphant spectacle of two middle-aged Hollywood dudes violently murdering a couple of mouthy young women who wish to forcibly disrupt their comfortable, decadent way of life… y’know what I mean…?

In real life of course, we know that those women were the brain-washed pawns of a criminal lunatic whose practice of racism and misogyny dwarfed that of any Hollywood playboy, but, given that ‘Once Upon a Time..’ pointedly fails to address this and instead merely depicts them as a bunch of damn fuckin’ hippies who won’t get off Leonardo DiCaprio’s drive…. well, let’s just say that the potential for a very troubling alternative reading of the film is certainly there, should you insist on poking it with a stick.

Personally, I’m happy to leave it be. As I stated at the outset, I’d question whether Tarantino has *ever* set out to make a film with this kind of ideological subtext, and even if he did, I’d inclined to believe that this film’s violent finale should be read as heavily tongue in cheek – an intent clearly acknowledged by the young audience at the screening I intended, as they gasped and guffawed in “I-can’t-believe-he-just-did-that” style disbelief.

Basically, I think Tarantino chose to end the film this way for the only reason he has ever done anything in his films – because it’s cool, and funny, and will leave the audience feeling good. The bad guys lose, and DIE! Movies and the swell guys who make them triumph! Brad and Leo save the ‘60s, and a brighter alternative pop cultural universe opens up for everyone.

Which, come to think of it, is the only possible conclusion for a movie named ‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’. Fairy tale ending meets Western ending meets po-mo inter-textural headfuck ending. Perfect.

It may be crass and ugly and contrived and stupid… but there’s a strange kind of beauty here too. Just like Hollywood, am I right?

Boom, great ending for a review! Cut and print!


(1) I couldn’t find a way to slot this into the main text, but the only thing that seriously annoyed me about Tarantino’s direction here was his decision to include lengthy scenes of DiCaprio’s character performing his lines in a TV western pilot,  shooting them with gliding Steadicam, beautiful diffuse lighting, Leone-esque cutting between multiple angles and other things that would obviously NOT have been present in a 1969 TV pilot.

Basically he presents these scenes exactly as if they were part of one of his *own* Westerns, having apparently not yet got that bug out of his system, which feels both disruptive to this film’s period setting and indulgent in all the worst ways. Wouldn’t it have been a lot more interesting to pull back and take a verite / behind-the-scenes kind of approach to these TV-show-within-the-film bits, giving us a look at the detail of how shows like this were made, and of what the crew were getting up to as the actors did their thing etc…? Just a thought.

(2) The set looks pretty much like an exact repro of the photos I’ve seen of the Spahn Ranch, and I loved details like the pile of dune buggy parts, the sign pointing toward the ‘chop shop’, and the inclusion of a few surly, disengaged bikers, and even a guy done up like Bobby Beausoleil, in the background. Well done, team, well done.

(3) For anyone counting the beans re: the film’s representational issues, I’m fairly sure Moh is the only non-white actor in the cast who actually even has *lines* -- but again, I’d put this down to nature of the world inhabited by our viewpoint characters, rather than any reflection of Tarantino’s personal agenda.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Peter Fonda
(1940 – 2019)

As you might imagine, I was very sad to hear of the death of Peter Fonda this weekend.

Whilst many of the mainstream obits will likely begin and end with ‘Easy Rider’, those of us with a more, uh, diverse taste in cinema will remember Fonda fondly for the myriad of other off-beat roles he essayed through the ‘60s and ‘70s, in the course of establishing himself as what I can only describe as the pre-eminent leading man of the exploitation / counter-culture wing of the New Hollywood.

Whether playing asshole anti-heroes in ‘The Wild Angels’ and ‘Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry’, freakin’ out in ‘The Trip’, popping up as an incestuous ghost(!) in Roger Vadim’s segment of ‘Spirts of the Dead’, kicking Satanic ass with his buddy Warren Oates in Race With The Devil, or radiating affectless calm as he upsets the lives of Oates and Harry Dean Stanton in Thomas McGuane’s oddball Florida fishing black comedy ‘92 in the Shade’, Fonda has always been an actor whose performances I’ve enjoyed, and for whom I’ve always felt a great deal of warmth, irrespective of the sense of stubborn, egotistical antagonism which often seems to bleed through into his on-screen persona.

Just as important however is the fact that the two films Fonda directed in the early 1970s – the elegiac, character-driven western ‘The Hired Hand’ (which I reviewed many years ago here) and the independently-produced sci-fi oddity ‘Idaho Transfer’ (which made my best first watches list last year) – are both excellent. Far removed from anything his “Hollywood bad boy” reputation may have led the world to expect, these films are both thoughtful, humane and challenging works which stand alone within their respective genres.

If Fonda had had the inclination and resources to further his career as a director, I have little doubt that the world wouldn’t have merely been mourning the guy from ‘Easy Rider’ this weekend, but an important and distinctive voice in American cinema.

Hearing him talk about his experiences behind the camera in contemporary interviews, I’d imagine it must have simply been his frustration with the machinations of the movie-making “system” – and, no doubt, his films’ notable failure to reap commercial rewards – which led him to direct his energies elsewhere; into family, environmental activism and community work, publically lambasting both Republican and Democratic presidents in typically forthright fashion – and of course a steady stream of acting gigs that kept him busy right up until the end.

In the statements released by his family following his death, I was touched by his sister Jane’s assertion that “he went out laughing,” and by their collective request; “In honour of Peter, please raise a glass to freedom.”

Consider it done, with Bruce Langhorne’s sublime soundtrack to ‘The Hired Hand’ as accompaniment.

Friday, 16 August 2019

Krimi Casebook:
Der Hexer
(Alfred Vohrer, 1964)

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to settle down with a ‘Krimi’, but earlier this month I was suddenly struck with an urge to check in on Rialto Films long-running series of ‘60s West German Edgar Wallace adaptations, and 1964’s ‘Der Hexer’ (offered up to English-speaking audiences at some point under the far less enticing title of ‘The Mysterious Magician’) fit the bill nicely.

As might well be expected from a Wallace film, our Hexer / magician here is not an actual magician (of either genuine or stage variety) but instead a wily, Fantomas-type super-criminal. In keeping with this, ‘Der Hexer’ leans strongly toward the part of the ‘60s pop cinema venn diagram that sees the aesthetic of the krimi cross over with the more whimsical end of the era’s Eurospy / ‘moving comic book’ sub-genres, as exemplified by the ‘OSS 117’ and ‘Fantomas’ movies being overseen by André Hunebelle in France at around this time. Nonetheless though, director Alfred Vohrer still manages to cram in a few gothic flourishes along the way.

This melange of styles can be clearly seen in the film’s super-pulpy shock opening, which sees a solicitor’s foxy secretary shrieking as she is overpowered by a pointy-shoed assailant, before we cut directly to a view of her lifeless body, apparently enclosed within what looks to be a groovy little two-man submarine! This sub, it transpires, is being pushed beneath the water of what seems to be some kind of vaulted, subterranean drainage chamber, by an imposing, barge-pole wielding man who bears a passing resemblance to a young Boris Karloff.

Cue the credits, which in true krimi style crash suddenly into full colour (lurid, blood-dripping red lettering against a swirling, blue-and-green-tinted proto-psychedelic backdrop), accompanied by a frankly demented, reverb-drenched spookshow garage-rock theme tune from the reliably weird Peter Thomas. (Seriously, it’s got whips, chains, gun shots, orgasmic moans and cries of terror thrown into the mix – absolutely bonkers!)

I don’t know about you, but three minutes in and I’m confident that this movie is going be pretty great.

Once the movie-proper beings, a prototype swinging London / mod type vibe seems to be in play as we follow a beautifully turned out, mod-ish young blonde lady (Elise, played by Sophie Hardy) as she trades barbs with a revealingly attired, curvy young secretary (Finnish starlet Anneli Sauli, returning from Vohrer’s The Dead Eyes of London) in what, rather unexpectedly, turns out to be the office of a senior police officer.

Who could it be of course but that rakish silver fox himself, Joachim Fuchsberger, appearing here in the role of the dapper Inspector Higgins, a man clearly intent on shakin’ the dust off those other squares in Scotland Yard!

Chief target in the dust-shakin’ department is Higgins’ blustering superior Sir John (recurring krimi authority figure Siegfried Schürenberg), and through the antagonistic banter between the two, we soon learn that the girl whose body has been found washed up on the bank of the Thames was one Gwenda Milton of 17 Barkley St, London, and that her brother, currently based in Australia, is none other than Henry Milton, better known as that most notorious of villains… Der Hexer!

Time for a quick cut, and we find mention of that name putting the very fear of god into Jochen Brockmann, that seedy fat guy who appears in all krimis, working his usual magic here as Herr Messer, the unsavoury solicitor for whom the dead girl worked as secretary.

Messer, it turns out, is actually running a white slavery ring in cahoots with that Karloff-looking guy (Carl Lange) and a couple of other, similarly salty characters. (Hilariously, Messer keeps the door control for the secret passage in his office inside a bear skin hanging on his wall –the bear’s eyes flash when someone in the secret passage wants to be let in.)

In a direct call-back to the aforementioned ‘Dead Eyes of London’, this crew are orchestrating their devious operation using a rather scary, Victorian girls finishing school as a front. There’s even a Suspiria-esque monster-matron, and Lange is the headmaster. Having realised that they’ve just gone and accidentally killed Der Hexer’s sister for getting too close to their dark secrets though, the gang are one petrified bunch of nogoodniks, as they await his inevitable retribution.

So far, this film is clearly turning out to be far too much fun, and so, with a perfectly timed “guten tag gentlemen”, enter Eddi Arent, all-purpose dispenser of krimi comic relief, this time around playing a kleptomaniac-turned-butler named Archibald Finch.

Fear not though - as irritating as Arent’s initial “oh dear, poor old me, I can’t help but swipe things as soon as people turn their back” routine may be, ‘Der Hexer’ benefits from a relatively thin spread of his comic stylings. For some reason, his character entirely disappears for long stretch in the film’s central half hour, and when he does reappear, he is on his best behaviour, having become a lot more interesting following the revelation that his character has actually been planted in Messer’s hideout as a spy for Der Hexer.

Meanwhile, the film’s count of attractive, self-confident women with mod haircuts is further increased when Der Hexer’s wife (Margot Trooger) arrives in town for her sister-in-law’s funeral (taking place in “London’s central cemetery”, wherever that is). Certain that her husband must be lurking nearby, Fuchsberger is soon in hot pursuit, accompanied by his new partner in the investigation, Inspektor Warren (Siegfried Lowitz), a mercurial retired detective who has returned to Scotland Yard to take advantage of the opportunity to finally apprehend his arch-nemesis.

Whilst hassling Mrs Derr Hexer in a hotel lobby however, Inspektor Higgins also makes the acquaintance of a curious chap named James Wesby (Heinz Drache), an affable Australian crime writer who is also on the trail of Der Hexer, meaning that he often makes a habit of turning up in close proximity to the villain’s nefarious acts. Hmmm, I wonder….

Whilst this rather hum-drum “who’s the baddie?” plotline works itself through however, the film is at pains to ensure we remain sufficiently entertained, throwing in some delightful bits of comic book hijinks on a fairly regular basis.

After an evening spent horsing around in Elise’s flat for instance, Inspektors Higgins and Wilson set off on a frantic rooftop chase, in pursuit of some sinister, black-clad intruder. As smoke billows from dozens of huge, stone chimneys, I almost expected Dick Van Dyke to pop in for a cameo, but more than anything else the imagery harks back to those founding texts of the Euro-pulp aesthetic, Louis Feuillade’s silent-era ‘Fantomas’ and ‘Les Vampires’ serials – a comparison which also springs to mind when we visit the hideout of Messer’s smuggling operation, located beneath a trap door in the dusty, wine-barrel filled storeroom of an old manor house.

Meanwhile, it almost goes without saying by this point that the mysterious black-gloved killer who spends much of this movie creeping around the place throttling people feels like a direct precursor to the conventions of the giallo which would soon take root in Italy’s popular cinema.

(Lest we forget, Mario Bava’s epochal ‘Blood & Black Lace’ came out in the same year as ‘Der Hexer’, and was produced under the assumption that it would be presented to West German audiences as a Wallace film. The murder sequences here certainly bear a passing similarity to the kind of lurid set-pieces Bava would oversee in full colour in his film… although sadly he nixed the submarine.)

In another sign of things to come, ‘Der Hexer’ also dares to get just a little bit more kinky than we might have expected, given it’s year of production. This is largely due to the presence of Sophie Hardy, who appears here in full-on, raging sex kitten mode, even indulging in a salacious shower scene has her revealing some luscious bare back before asking Fuchsberger to dry her off. Lengthy scenes in which the pair fool around (fully clothed) on her bed, drinks in hand, meanwhile are suggestive of a dissolute lifestyle unbecoming of yr average early ‘60s movie hero… especially in view of an earlier, rather edgy, visual gag that revolves around Fuchsberger using the darkroom in his office to develop dirty pictures of his secretary.

Elsewhere, ‘SNAKE KILLS MAN’ reads the billboard behind a super-imposed Trafalgar Square newspaper vendor, foreshadowing another great bit of business which sees a nefarious villain hiding poisonous snakes in the pockets of our heroes’ overcoats whilst they dine at a restaurant.

Other highlights meanwhile include a moody and violent scene in which the policeman guarding the submarine tank after it has been secured by the cops is dragged into the water and knifed by a sinister frogman (shades of both 1965’s krimi-ish gothic horror The Embalmer and actual frogman-related krimi ‘The Inn On The River’ (1962))… and then, there’s the genuinely rather astonishing shot in which we see a grand country house being dynamited (it doesn’t look like a model shot).

A restlessly imaginative director with a distinctly whimsical sense of style, Alfred Vohrer certainly does his utmost to keep things lively here. At certian points, I suspect Vohrer is deliberately having fun with the kind of artificial studio backdrops necessitated by low budget productions; the view from Fuchsberger’s office window for example, rather than stock photo of London, displays some boldly sketched, cartoon-like rooftops, whilst some of the doors and windows in Messer’s office set are clearly painted directly onto the walls. A nice use of budgetary limitations to create an amusing, somewhat post-modern effect, this can also perhaps be observed in shots which see exterior ‘brick’ walls clearly chalked onto flat black set dividers.

Vohrer also employs some amusing business with moving figures being followed through holes in newspapers (in shots taken from the POV of snoopers observing them), and with extreme close ups of said holes being burned in the papers by cigarettes. (If nothing else, this stylistic quirk at least proves that the production went to the trouble of acquiring genuine British newspapers – ‘RESCUE BY SHRIMP BOAT’ is the unlikely headline in the Daily Mail.)

At one point, the director even attempts to top his audacious “POV from interior of mouth as man cleans his teeth” shot from ‘The Dead Eyes of London’, with a shot purportedly taken from inside a rotary telephone as a character dials a number.

(Although the sheer eccentricity of these “impossible POV” experiments remains unique to my knowledge within European pop cinema, you could, at a stretch, perhaps draw a line to Dario Argento’s later fondness for employing “impossible” camera placements – of an admittedly far less ridiculous variety - within his work.)

In spite of all this fun and games however, ‘Der Hexer’ finally flags somewhat in its final act. The story’s Big Plot Twist can be seen coming a mile off, and the decision to go with one of those dreary ‘whodunnit’-style finales in which the cast stand around en masse explaining the finer details of the plot to each other in lieu of any action, is regrettable.

Although it eventually comes up short on the kind of sadistic, baroque and surreal elements which have increasingly endeared krimis to horror fans in recent years though, ‘Der Hexer’ is still a ton of pulpy 60s fun – a richly atmospheric romp which mixes swinging spy movie tropes with exquisitely moody black & white photography, some startling moments of violence and weirdness, a top-line cast of krimi regulars (Klaus Kinski’s absence notwithstanding) and characteristically idiosyncratic and stylish direction from Vohrer.

It’s probably not the film I’d select as an initial introduction to the krimi oeuvre, but if you’ve already “got the bug” with regard these movies and find yourself in the mood for a kooky caper in the vein of Franco’s Attack of the Robots or one of those ‘60s Dr Mabuse movies, ‘Der Hexer’ should do the job nicely.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Noir Diary # 5 / Thoughts on...
Double Indemnity
(Billy Wilder, 1944)

Given its status as both a cornerstone of golden age Hollywood artistry and as arguably the key exemplar of the Film Noir aesthetic, I’m going to assume that most readers here will be familiar with Billy Wilder’s ‘Double Indemnity’, as released by Paramount Pictures in 1944, scripted by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, from a novella by James M. Cain.

So, rather than wasting time by proceeding with a standard review, I thought it would be more interesting to frame this piece as a list of thoughts and observations which struck me after recently re-visiting the film for the first time in many years.

I first watched ‘Double Indemnity’ at the age of seventeen, as part of a module on Film Noir which formed part of my A Level in Film Studies (yes, I have an actual A Level in Film Studies, in case you were worried I’d been writing about this stuff all these years without the proper qualifications).

I recall the course tutor insisting we watch the film’s opening scene – in which the mortally wounded Walter Neff (Fred McMurray) drags himself through the offices of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company in order to record his confession on the tape recorder belonging to claims assessor Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) - upward of a dozen times, painstakingly rewinding the VHS again and again as she encouraged us to explore the psychological significance of every vertical or horizontal line in the frame, and the placement of Neff’s figure in relation to them.

At the time, I recall finding this process extremely tedious, recognising even then that the notion that decisions taken by cinematographers, set designers, costumiers, lighting technicians on so forth on a commercial Hollywood thriller could collectively add up to some kind of grand, illuminati-style system of hidden, esoteric meanings, beyond the ken of casual viewers without A Levels in Film Studies, was… kind of far-fetched?

A few decades(!) down the line however, I can finally appreciate the value of this exercise, given the extent to which ‘Double Indemnity’ functions as a text book example of a director using visual detail as a fully developed form of alternative / parallel story-telling. This works both on the easy, conscious level of expressionistic set design (the insurance offices becoming a jagged ‘house of traps’, and the dusty Dietrichson house a seductive ‘lair of the spider’, both lousy with the ominous shadow-bars that so obviously foreshadow the prison cell lying in wait for their victims), but also through a remarkably effective brand of more fleeting, subliminal suggestion.

Check out for instance the lofty overhead crane-shot that is used to capture the dark, hunched figure we will soon identify as Neff as he exits a taxi and heads through the front doors of the insurance building. A presumably costly production decision, this tight, high angle composition functions solely to add a sense of vertiginous unease to what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill, three second transition shot, implying the presence of a remorseless divine overseer passing judgement on this character’s earthly failings, and by extension promoting us, the viewers, from a chattering peanut gallery to a classical Greek Chorus, ready to bear witness to a tragedy.

This is all very ‘Film Theory 101’, I realise, but the depth of the film’s visual language remains remarkable, and it bears repeating. The prospect of erasing ‘Double Indemnity’ from one’s memory and watching it again for the first time, sans sound, as a kind of avant garde silent film, in order to see just how much of the story’s essential emotional drive and narrative information is communicated purely through Wilder’s relentless barrage of visual suggestion, is a fascinating one.

Likewise, I’m struck by the way that both of Billy Wilder’s key noirs (the other of course being ‘Sunset Boulevard’, 1950) depict Los Angeles as a kind of glimmering, transitory, fantastical space, intoxicating yet fraught with sudden danger. It’s difficult to put into words, but there is a particular thing that is there in both these films, lending them an almost magical realist quality; a specific sliver of movieland sorcery which was left largely dormant until David Lynch harnessed it so brilliantly in ‘Mulholland Drive’, half a century later.

It can perhaps be more strongly felt in ‘Sunset..’, and also to an extent I think in Hawks’ ‘The Big Sleep’ - both films which feel so oneiric that you wouldn’t be totally surprised if the characters suddenly stumbled upon some demonic puzzlebox or started fusing/transferring their identities into each other or whatever - but the true origin of this “thing” can be found in Double Indemnity’, in spite of the cold steel logic of Cain’s “just the facts, ma’am” plotting.

It can be felt in the gleaming exterior of the Dietrichson house (the smell of honeysuckle indicating a kind of Lynchian transition between worlds), in the sunlight gliding across the dark bonnet of Neff’s car and the quasi-gothic ‘web of the spider’ décor which surrounds Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) throughout, but, perhaps even more strongly, it can be felt in the scene in which Neff dallies with the nymph-like Lola (Jean Heather), in the trees above the brightly lit Hollywood Bowl; an image which feels SO weirdly mythic and unreal, whilst at the same time depicting a location entirely real, and indeed physically reachable, to American viewers of the 1940s.

What manner of place is THIS, the world beyond Hollywood is invited to ask; what giddy, mythic tragedies are being enacted here, day by day, through long, drowsy eternities?

(It is all too easy of course to assign the origin of this “feel” to Wilder’s status as an immigrant, parachuted into the monstrous heart of Hollywood Babylon in the early 1930s – but I’ll leave the biographers and researchers to fill in the gaps on that score.)

Directly related to the above –

“I told [John F. Seitz – Director of Photography] what I would like to get on the screen – you know sometimes when the sun kind of slants through the windows of those old crappy Spanish houses, and if the house is not too well kept, you see the dust in the air.”
- Billy Wilder, interview with John Allyn for ‘Literature / Film Quarterly’, February 1976

The best part of a century down the line from the classic Hollywood era, we tend to think of the kind of grand Hollywood / Beverley Hills homes exemplified by the Deitrich house in ‘Double Indemnity’ as being iconic, nigh on mystical, locations (I’m always reminded of the house in which Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid shot Meshes of the Afternoon, a year before this). So much weird, water-from-the-desert faux classical beauty, so many generations of darkest intrigue, ruined / rented lives of the rich and crazy, and gateways to the bottomless pit of L.A. Gothic.

It’s hilarious therefore to realise that, for Wilder, this place was simply “crappy” – a gaudy, nouveau-rich folly which he aimed to depict with distaste and disdain; kind of the 1940s equivalent of a modern satirist depicting the lives of myopic tech company middle-management types living in flimsy-walled new-build penthouses, perhaps? The silver drinks tray and the clouds of dust hanging in the air, so retrospectively romanticised by modern viewers, were simply meant to imply that the Dietrichsons drank too much and were too damn sloppy to look after the place!

(It’s all too easy to imagine that Wilder’s take on this must have been shared by his co-writer, the perpetually snobby Chandler, whose work ironically did so much to define the parameters of sordid L.A. mysticism. Perhaps domestic architecture and housekeeping might even have been the only subjects the two could find common ground on in their legendarily antagonistic partnership?)

Although I appreciated ‘Double Indemnity’ as an enjoyable and well-made film when I saw it as a teenager, one thing that prevented me from embracing it as a favourite was the fact that the scope of its story just seemed so small.

At that point in my life, I’d recently discovered Chandler’s novels, and I suppose my ideal of a Film Noir narrative was already more of a sprawling, labyrinthine kind of a thing – the kind of story in which a sardonic, down-at-heel private eye takes us on a whistle-stop tour of sinister locales housing shady, desperate characters, with gratuitous plot convolutions, shock double-crosses and armed confrontations happening on a regular basis, and corpses messing up the rugs in hotel suites and beach houses like clockwork every ten minutes, until it doesn’t really matter WHO is responsible for all the carnage, because everybody is guilty in spirit. (Something very much like ‘The Big Sleep’, in fact.)

So - a movie about one murder, in which the central character is an insurance salesman? That just sounded like some uncool, small-fry kinda stuff to my eager teenage brain, I suppose. It was probably still a few years before I’d read ‘In Cold Blood’ and ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ (a story whose success Cain was clearly trying to replicate with this one, of course), and begin to develop an appreciation for the “zeroing in”, rather than “spreading out”, approach to crime fiction.

In fact, with both Cain and Chandler looming large on its writing credits, it’s interesting to consider ‘Double Indemnity’ as a unique meeting point between these two modes of storytelling, as represented by their quintessential exponents within the ‘hard boiled’ field.

Cain’s relentlessly logical demarcation of the background, planning, execution and psychological ramifications of a single crime of course predominates in ‘Double indemnity’, but at the same time I think we can see some of Chandler’s “spread” creeping in here too, particularly with regard to the Lola / Nino Zacchetti storyline. In fact, with Wilder acting as a kind of intermediary, I think the film eventually manages to strike a pretty perfect balance between the two approaches.

As a tightly delineated three-hander, the story moves in as straight a line as the express train which poor old Mr Dietrichson gets kicked off the back of, resulting in a film which still feels fresh and accessible to viewers over 75 years down the line, marking out its central points and conflict so plainly that they’d probably hit home even to a hypothetical viewer who had just emerged from a lifetime of total cultural isolation, having never heard of this strange place called “America”.

At the same time though, the film’s world has a wider scope and a sense of depth, with Wilder & Chandler’s screenplay incorporating a web of cultural references and allusions that Cain’s more stripped down, utilitarian writing often lacks, spreading out beyond the tunnel vision of Neff’s all-consuming anxiety and Keyes’ dogged attempts to break the case, embracing a sprawling, waking dream of Los Angeles circa 1944… presumably the same one in which the loping predators and troubled degenerates of Chandler’s novels lie in wait, just around the corner.


“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money, and for a woman. I didn't get the money, and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?”
- Walter Neff

Although Stanwyck and Robinson have understandably claimed the acting laurels for ‘Double Indemnity’ over the years, upon returning to the film it is the man upon whose shoulders their characters dance like some cartoon good n’ evil double-act – our resident straight man / fall guy Walter Neff, as portrayed by Fred McMurray – who fascinates me the most.

Presented by the film as an easily-relatable every-man and a feckless victim of his own, work-a-day moral weakness, Neff is a figure whom the vast majority of viewers, after watching ‘Double Indemnity’ for the first time, will state that they found sympathetic - but why?

We may not expect the behaviour of our protagonist in a story like this to be admirable, but, until he launches his last-minute attempt to achieve a kind a doomed redemption in the movie’s final reel, Neff actually does very little in the film that might justify our sympathy.

Though his background and psychology are never explored in much detail, he exemplifies a very particular strain of malign blandness and calculated over-confidence which is still all too frequently encountered in the worlds of law, sales and insurance - always with a terrible (but never overtly acknowledged) loneliness and loss of self-identity at its core.

Through the first half of the movie at least, Neff has a great, whip-smart patter, dropping a ton of genuinely witty lines and very much giving the impression of being a good-natured, street-smart operator. But, all of this is exactly that – his professional patter.

Even in the death-bed confession which forms the film’s famous framing narrative – directed of course toward Keyes, the ‘father figure’ whose absolution Neff seeks – he barely manages more than a few sentences which sound genuinely sincere. Right to the end, he still has his ‘professional’ face on; he’s still looking to impress his audience, looking to make a sale.

Who really lurks behind the mask? Who knows. Neff seems, perhaps, to be a former college jock? Sporting trophies and boxing portraits adorn the walls of his otherwise rather impersonal apartment, and when he is shaken up after meeting Phyllis for the first time, he unwinds by going bowling. ON HIS OWN, you’ll note, because he doesn’t seem to have any friends outside of work. And really, what kind of 35-year-old former jock with a reasonably lucrative job and carefully manicured social skills lives alone, in a stuffy furnished apartment where no one ever seems to call..?

When Phyllis visits his apartment, Neff tries to make out that he’s living the bachelor dream (“do you prepare your own breakfasts?”, “I squeeze a grapefruit once in a while” – my god, that dialogue!), but the flat lighting and depressing, cramped-yet-empty squares of his uncomfortable-looking rooms tell a different story. If she didn’t already have him pegged as the perfect mark by this point, one look at his living quarters must have really sealed the deal.

The only points at which Neff’s mask slips come when he tries to explain the feelings that Phyllis (and later Lola) have aroused in him – at which point, he begins to sound like some kind of artificial man, experiencing emotion for the first time and unable to explain or correctly respond to it… a too-late glimpse of actual humanity that leads him, ironically, to his final, bloody grasp toward moral redemption.

We are briefed of course to see Neff as a victim – just a helpless pawn of Phyllis’s evil machinations, an ordinary joe who got himself in a jam, the same any one of us assumed-to-be-dumb-hetero-male viewers could have done. Judged purely on his actions however, he is as black-hearted a villain as has ever graced the screen.

Driven by lust for a married woman, he murders an innocent man for his money, then begins spending time with his victim’s orphaned daughter, before murdering the wife whom he professed to love in order to prevent her from ratting on him! What a callous, amoral, home-wrecking fiend! No jury in the land would ever give this fucker a break. Are we in the audience to ‘forgive’ him, simply because we’ve followed him around for a while and know he’s a likeable shmuck with a good line in banter?

It is easy in fact to imagine an alternative version of this story, told from the POV of Zacchetti or Lola perhaps, in which Walter Neff is the sinister, shadowy villain - the ‘other man’ creeping around behind the scenes, orchestrating their woes for his own fun and profit, until he finally cracks up under the weight of his own guilt.

Or, for that matter, wouldn’t it be great to see a version of this story told from Phyllis Dietrichson’s point of view? In Neff’s telling – filtered through the typewriters of no less than three straight-laced male writers – Phyllis is pure evil incarnate, beckoning her victims to death and perdition as surely as any vampire or Satanic emissary. But let’s face it, no one on the face of earth has ever framed their own actions in such villainous terms. (In fact, as great as her role as the quintessential femme fatale is in pulp/genre terms, I could easily imagine a certain cadre of critics finding the film’s failure to believably develop her character to be a real deal-breaker vis-à-vis the possibly of ‘Double Indemnity’ being considered as a “serious work”, or whatever.)

So, what kind of a spin would she herself put on things? Wilder’s ‘Double Indemnity’, never gives us the chance to find out (the climactic final confrontation between the lead couple in particular comes to us direct from Neff’s self-justifying recollection, with no witnesses, and no evidence presented to support his version of events) – but, it is the possibility the film offers for these kind of ‘Rashomon’-like alternative angles that I think lends this story its crucial sense of moral ambiguity, helping the film’s ostensibly simple, open-and-shut case to remain endlessly immersive and re-watchable across the years.

Although on a surface level, ‘Double Indemnity’ is refreshingly devoid of religious symbolism (though I’m sure the Film Studies boys & girls will be able to find some in there somewhere), the moral schema underlying the film is brutally remorseless in its sense of Old Testament damnation – very much in keeping with the sense of a ‘looming presence’, placing the audience in an implied position of divine judgement, which I identified above in the film’s opening scene.

It’s all about the seed of doubt (seed of lust?) which enters Neff upon his first meeting with Phyllis. From the moment he returns to his apartment after initially walking out on her and reconsiders, basically deciding “ah, what the heck”, he is done for. No forgiveness, no hope.

This kind of unswervable, predestined doom of course became a key element of the Film Noir formula for which ‘Double Indemnity’ to some extent set the template, but even so, few of the films which followed managed to hammered home their “inescapable machinations of fate” type stuff quite so ruthlessly.

Phyllis and Walter’s ‘love’ (if we may call it that) is blighted right from its inception by the corrupting force of sin. Each intimate moment they spend together feels sick with horror – and what’s worse, they KNOW it too. “It’s straight down the line”, their dialogue reminds us ad infinitum; yeah, all the way to the cemetery, we’re encouraged to ad-lib. (Hell, at least the doomed lovers in ‘Gun Crazy’ and ‘They Live By Night’ managed to have some fun before checking into the boneyard!)

The depths of moral turpitude to which Neff has sunk by the drama’s final act are truly wretched. Only by piling sin upon sin, murdering his lover in cold blood, can be try to crawl free and “redeem” himself. He may gain the last minute absolution of Edward G. Robinson, but what about the Big Man Upstairs? Not a hope in….. yeah, you got it. This is some Mortal Sin type shit right here, and we, at the end of the day, are the ones giving his floating spirit with the cartoon angel wings the “thumbs down”. Think on, the next time you feel like sewing yr wild oats, smirking young insurance men.