THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER: The Richest Gift a Body Could Have

Thursday, April 7th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Charles Laughton's masterpiece, The Night of the Hunter (1955), were written by UW student and WUD Film programmer Vincent Mollica. A 35mm print of The Night of the Hunter, from the UCLA Film and Television Archive, will be the first screening in the Cinematheque's "One and Done" series on Saturday, April 9 at 7 p.m., in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Vincent Mollica

If I were to choose a single film to introduce someone, of any age, to classic cinema, it would be The Night of the Hunter, a southern gothic-thriller whose great stylishness and emotional depth make it endlessly watchable. Director Charles Laughton was known primarily as an actor, both on stage and on screen, working with many of the most famous filmmakers of the 1930s-1960s such as Alfred Hitchcock, Leo McCarey and Billy Wilder. In the early 1950s Laughton worked with producer Paul Gregory on a bible reading tour as well as theater directing work, before Gregory helped Laughton direct his first and only Hollywood film.

Set in the midst of the Depression, The Night of the Hunter is about a young boy, John, and his younger sister, Pearl, whose father is sent to death row after a bank heist gone wrong. John’s final moment with his father is right before the police whisk him away, in front of their West Virginia home, as he entrusts John with hiding his stolen booty. In prison John’s father meets Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a woman-murdering psychopath in preacher’s clothing. Upon learning of his hidden prize, Powell leaves prison to ingratiate himself in John and Pearl’s lives by taking advantage of their lonely mother (Shelly Winters). The film becomes a mind game between Powell and the ever vigilant John who wants nothing more than to protect his father’s honor.

To his great credit, Laughton didn’t squander his time in the director’s chair by making an anonymous actors picture. He thrills his audience by creating a rich, unique, visual world for John and Pearl to get lost in, as laid out in the invaluable featurette, “The Making of the Night of the Hunter” on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD release. In it author Preston Neal Jones explains that Laughton made the film to return viewers to the era of silent film where he felt they engaged with films on a more active level. Jones and academic Jeffrey Couchman show how the filmmakers set out to create the film’s world from a child’s point of view. They applied stripped down sets, mimicking what a child might notice, and formed expressionistic visuals and special effects to evoke the world of a nightmare (helped in great part by Stanley Cortez’s stark lighting). In skillfully using the medium of film as fully as any of the auteurs he worked under as an actor, Laughton made a film world that thrills and excites an audience in a timeless way.

Although there is clearly great technical skill on the screen, what has always had the most immediate effect on me as a viewer are the film’s performances. Most famous is Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell, whose high theatricality and flair, used to con and manipulate everyone he meets, is constantly on. The drive that Mitchum possesses is especially notable in the film’s final moments, after he has been arrested, and it is as if all the life has drained from his body, reducing him to a human rag doll. Perhaps more than any other one element of the film, there is nothing more reliably entertaining and engrossing than Mitchum’s mannered villainy. My favorite moment with Mitchum is a rare scene where I think we see past this persona. It’s the moment right before he kills Shelly Winters where, in an extravagant long shot, he tenderly reaches to the heavens while, as revealed in a later close up, his face ominously twitches. Benefitted by the shadow on his body and face, which allows us to partly fill in Powell’s emotion ourselves, it comes off as a much more private, genuinely religious, version of Powell.

The second listed adult lead is Lillian Gish, as Ms. Cooper, who protects the children from Powell in the film’s final act. Gish was a carryover from the silent cinema of D.W. Griffith, a director whose work had inspired Laughton and that he had studied in preparation for the film. She transforms her lines, many of which are meant to underline the film’s themes about survival and the durability of youth, from the potentially tacky into something weary and beautiful. However, it’s Billy Chapin that gets my favorite moment of the film. It comes at the very end as Chapin runs, crying, to the arrested, broken Powell, who he begs to just take the money, mirroring his final scene with his father. This scene’s unexpected complexity and sadness haunted me so much when I first saw the film at age 10, I felt the need to try to explain it to anyone who would listen.

Night of the Hunter’s initial commercial failure, which crushed the insecure Laughton, meant he was only allowed create such a rich vision once (his follow up would have been an adaptation of Norman Mailer's novel The Naked and the Dead), which gives an added tragic quality to the film. However, despite this failure The Night of the Hunter has rightfully risen higher and higher in the ranks of the canon of great American cinema over the intervening 60 years. It even spawned a few worthwhile pseudo-remakes: the subversive anti-Reagan slasher The Stepfather, David Gordon Green’s dreamy Undertow and of course Radio Raheem’s take on Mitchum’s Love and Hate speech in Do the Right Thing. Like many “great” pieces of cinema it’s maybe best to not overthink its myriad qualities, as touched on here, while watching the film, and rather let the film come back to you later, piecemeal, like a dream. Watch the film as Laughton intended it to be seen: On the edge of your seat, attention rapt. As if a child.


Tuesday, March 29th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

These notes on Powell and Pressburger's The Tales of Hoffmann were written by Jenny Oyallon-Koloski, Ph.D candidate in the Communication Arts Department of UW Madison. A newly restored version of The Tales of Hoffmann will screen on Saturday, April 2 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening is co-presented by Madison Opera, whose production of Tales of Hoffmann will be presented April 15 & 17.

By Jenny Oyallon-Koloski

In the fall of 1950, the British fan magazine PictureGoer described The Tales of Hoffmann as a “pure essay in musical fantasy” and “the biggest film experiment since ‘The Red Shoes.’” In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find contemporary reviews of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s cinematic endeavor that don’t evoke or make the comparison to the duo’s earlier production, The Red Shoes (1948), a melodrama about the alluring yet sinister world of ballet. The two projects are difficult to separate, given that The Red Shoes laid the groundwork for The Tales of Hoffmann’s marketing and formal experimentation.

The Tales of Hoffmann adapts Jacques Offenbach’s final opera. While waiting to meet the prima ballerina he idolizes, Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) drunkenly recounts the tales of three of his lost loves: Olympia, an automaton; Giulietta, a courtesan; and Antonia, a consumptive singer. Powell and Pressburger were in part able to put this film into production as a result of The Red Shoes’ international financial success. Producers, as a result, viewed The Red Shoes as a model for selling British prestige pictures abroad. Even though The Tales of Hoffmann adapts an opera, advertising for the film explicitly emphasized images of its ballet dancers over its singers in the ads to indicate the presence of balletic content and draw attention to the overlap of casting between the two films—of dancers Moira Shearer (as both Stella and Olympia), Leonide Massine, and Robert Helpmann, especially. The film’s producers made a point to sell the film’s appeal to American audiences, PictureGoer reports, choosing to premiere the film in the United States instead of Britain, and creating buzz by holding that premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House, making it the first film “ever to be shown at the tradition-bound Met.” Not only was Tales of Hoffmann breaking barriers for cinematic opera, the reviewer suggests, it was expanding the horizons of operatic conventions in general.

Comparisons between the films arise equally because the filmmaking duo saw The Tales of Hoffmann as doing for opera what The Red Shoes did for ballet, and marketed it as such. “The ‘Red Shoes’ Line will be Adapted for ‘Tales of Hoffmann,’” touts Box Office in 1951. Critics were mixed on the earlier film’s narrative qualities but praised its technical achievements and balletic sequences, proving that traditional ballet on screen could be financially profitable. Audiences were equally taken with the visual spectacle of the dancing and impressive set pieces, qualities that Powell and Pressburger sought to re-create in Tales of Hoffmann, this time with the addition of an operatic context. Yet despite the shift in source material, The Tales of Hoffmann contains more dancing than The Red Shoes (as well as a looser narrative), with the ballet sequences largely upstaging the musical performances.

Ultimately, The Tales of Hoffmann did not achieve the critical and audience favor of the earlier Red Shoes; the trade press warns exhibitors that the film’s episodic structure, long running time, and dialogue presented exclusively through song could be challenging to certain demographics, especially those seeking an “evening’s relaxation” at the movies. The film lacks at times the narrative redundancy common in Hollywood cinema, rewarding instead the viewer who devotes their full attention to the stories developing on screen. And you’ll want to: The Tales of Hoffman provides plenty of audiovisual stimuli to delight the senses.

Variety praised the film for its technical achievements, pointing to its inventive use of effects and Technicolor, excellent casting and performance choices, and a “brilliant integration of dance, story and music.” Opera connoisseurs will recognize musical strains from the Jacques Offenbach opera that bears the same name, but there is much in the film to visually impress operatic amateurs. The filmmakers create a variety of optical effects to accompany sequences like the opening “Dragonfly Ballet,” including selective blurring to enhance the sense of blurred motion evoked by Shearer’s fluttering movements. The production consists exclusively of abstract, impressive set pieces, including an early illusion as we shift between shots of a flat scenery wall to one that is painted and filled with posed performers—in the style of living portraits—who join in the fun as Hoffmann recounts his first tale. Powell and Pressburger do not focus their efforts exclusively on the aesthetic qualities of these nested operatic and balletic scenes however; the vignettes also include moments that humorously undercut the flawlessness of the performers (and their athletic bodies) seen elsewhere in the production. We can observe some farcical, mickey-moused gags at the end of Olympia’s number as her neck extends with a rising musical note in the score. The humor becomes more perverse and grotesque, however, when Olympia is torn apart by her makers who then fight and beat one another with her dismembered body parts. With a little something for everyone, Tales of Hoffmann is truly a spectacle of color, movement, and music.

IL BRIGANTE screening postponed

Thursday, March 17th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

Due to a shipping problem, our screening of the new restored Il Brigante, part of our New Italian Restoration series, has been postponed. Originally scheduled to screen on Saturday, March 19 at 2 p.m., Il Brigante will now screen on Saturday, April 2, at 2 p.m. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Alexander Payne on I KNEW HER WELL

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

"My favorite national cinemas, other than American, are Japanese and Italian from the forties to the seventies—and particularly from the fifties and sixties. As one continues to dig, one finds in this period an inexhaustible supply of gems, and I Knew Her Well is nothing short of pay dirt. It stands with Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso, and Antonioni’s trilogy as a brilliant—and brilliantly entertaining—document of Italy’s contradictions in the second decade after the war, and, like Antonioni, Pietrangeli put women at the center of his films. Here winds of both sadness and compassion blow through his portrait of an aspiring starlet who moves to Rome and, in a series of minutely observed episodes, allows herself to be used by a string of men. The perfectly cast Stefania Sandrelli plays Adriana, a wannabe who realizes too late the pointlessness of her dreams. Pretty much everyone who sees this movie is blown away.”

- Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election, Nebraska) on Antonio Pietrangeli's masterpiece I Knew Her Well (Io lo conoscevo bene), which will screen in our New Italian Restorations series on Saturday, March 5, at 7 p.m., in our regular screening venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY: The Beginnings of Bergman's Chamber Cinema

Friday, February 26th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961) was written by Harry Gilbert. A 35mm print of Through a Glass Darkly will screen in our Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen: Ingmar Bergman in Black and White series on Sunday, February 28 at 2 p.m.

By Harry Gilbert

In the November 1960 issue of the Swedish film journal Chaplin, then unknown Frenchman Ernest Riffe inveighed against the films of Ingmar Bergman. Riffe declaimed that Bergman’s “deep misanthropy” and “lack of contact with his surroundings” foreclosed any possibility that his work might approximate “originality,” and that his continued filmmaking confirmed the poverty of his writing, for which he had “never [...] been well-regarded [...] in his homeland” and for which he “suffered under the contempt from his literary colleagues.”  Such allegations were not without intellectual or popular support. Indeed, that single issue of Chaplain contained three critiques of Bergman’s work from three preeminent Swedish film critics.

Moreover, the landscape in which films were produced and circulated, and the aesthetics of “European art cinema” were shifting.  In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Sweden witnessed a significant decline in cinema attendance, with the nation’s film production making up an increasingly small portion of the market. The appearance of television also offered new ways to distribute, aestheticize, and see the moving-image. Both of these transformations in modes of (re)production affected how—or, indeed, whether—Bergman was seen and how his work was received. Furthermore, the advent of French New Wave and Italian auteurs, some scholars have contended, crowded Bergman out of Swedish and European intellectual circles. This is a limited portrait of the environment which launched Through a Glass Darkly.

Up until that point, however, critiques had not taken Bergman to task for the inferiority of his writing or disparaged him personally—at least not to the degree Riffe had. Prior to the publication of the third issue of Chaplin, Bergman had revealed Riffe to be a personal pseudonym. Bergman recalled in a later interview: “I experienced a special freedom in collecting my innermost self-criticism (which, to some extent, matched the criticism directed at me from outside), verbalizing it, tricking it out to seem a bad Swedish translation from the French, and then opening Expressen to read: ‘This is the best statement about Ingmar Bergman in recent years.’”

Much has been made of Bergman’s thematic and artistic interests, and how these questions are uniquely bound to Bergman’s life: he is serious and deals with serious issues, he is interested in existential truths, he is of a bad temperament and difficult, etc.  To some degree, Bergman’s trick speaks to that. Less, I think, has been made of the way Bergman gets at these serious, difficult, existential truths through play and playfulness of varying kinds and of varying effects.

This idea of play can be understood in different ways. For one, Bergman was an active producer and consumer of different media—film, theatre, television, music, writing, etc.—and was interested in how various art forms might have resonances with and could speak through one another. Music and theatre were such forms. Married at the time to renowned concert pianist Käbi Laretei and intrigued by music more generally, Bergman noted in interviews before the release of Through a Glass Darkly that he was interested in structuring his films not as symphonies but in the chamber music format of Beethoven and Bartók. Indeed, Bergman’s initial choice (later renounced as a “decoy for eager journalists”) to compose Through a Glass Darkly as the first of a trilogy of films, including Winter Light and The Silence (both released in 1963), known as “God’s Silence” speaks to organizing music as a suite. 

Moreover, Bergman was interested in the intimacy of chamber music’s format. As opposed to a “sprawling” and “grandiose” symphony, chamber music brought attention to how a few instruments—like a few actors—could interact and produce tension with each other within a confined space—such as the isolated island of Fårö, a Baltic isle that would form the setting of many of Bergman’s films. 

The intimacy of space might have been on Bergman’s mind for a host of other reasons, all related to his interest in other media. Just four years prior, Bergman had made his directorial debut on television with Mr. Sleeman Is Coming and went on to direct three more television films before the release of Through a Glass Darkly. In interviews, Bergman had admitted that “television was his new theater,” which brought new artistic, technical, and commercial freedoms and constraints. Among other things, this new context prompted Bergman to work exclusively with director of photography and “sculptor of light” Sven Nykvist over the next thirty years.

Bergman's merging of cinema, theater and chamber music allowed for an exposition of interior lives and an intimate look at the tense, textured relationships between people. Perhaps no better example of this is Minus’s (Lars Passgård) intimate—chamber?—play, “The Artistic Haunting; or, The Funeral Vault of Illusions,” that crowns the first act of Through a Glass Darkly. The morality play quite literally stages the questions of the film: father David (Gunnar Björnstrand) watches on as Minus, playing the artist, becomes seduced by the Princess of Castile, played by his sister, Karin (Harriet Andersson); ultimately, the Artist cannot follow the Princess “into the realm of death” and, instead, chooses to “write a poem about my meeting with the princess. Or paint a picture, or compose an opera—though the end, of course, must be given a more heroic twist.” 

Artist desires woman but refrains in order to turn her and his experience into a commercial product, son desires (the position of the) father, brother desires sister, men are cold and distant, and play penetrates film.


Bjorkman, Stig, Torsten Manns, and Jones Sima.  Bergman on Bergman: Interviews with Ingmar Bergman.  Trans. Paul Britten.  Cambridge: De Capo Press, 1993.

Gado, Frank.  The Passion of Ingmar Bergman.  Durham: Duke University Press, 1986.

Koskinen, Maaret.  Ingmar Bergman Revisited: Performance, Cinema and the Arts.  London: Wallflower Press, 2008.

Mandelbaum, Jacques.  Masters of Cinema: Ingmar Bergman.  Paris: Cahiers du Cinema Sarl, 2011.

Just Added!: Pre-release Screening of THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY

Monday, February 15th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

The UW Cinematheque has added a special free preview screening of the new comedy The Brothers Grimsby. The screening will take place, Wednesday, February 24, 7:30 p.m., at the Cinematheque’s regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

MI6’s top assassin (Mark Strong) has a brother. Unfortunately for him, he’s an English football hooligan (Sacha Baron Cohen) from the town of Grimsby.

Nobby has everything a man from the poor English fishing town of Grimsby could want – 9 children and the most attractive girlfriend in northern England (Rebel Wilson). There’s only one thing missing in his life: his little brother, Sebastian. After they were adopted by different families as children, Nobby spent 28 years searching for him. Upon hearing of his location, Nobby sets off to reunite with his brother, unaware that not only is his brother an MI6 agent, but he's just uncovered a plot that puts the world in danger.  On the run and wrongfully accused, Sebastian realizes that if he is going to save the world, he will need the help of its biggest idiot.The Brothers Grimsby’s original screenplay is co-written by UW Madison graduate Phil Johnston (’94). No passes required. Seating is limited and provided on a first-come, first-seated basis. Doors open at 7:00 p.m. We anticipate a full-house. Please arrive early!

What and Where:

A screening of The Brothers Grimsby

Wednesday, February 24, 7:30 p.m.


UW Cinematheque
4070 Vilas Hall
821 University Avenue

Admission free. Seating limited.

OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR: A Musical Masterpiece

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Richard Attenborough's Oh! What a Lovely War was written by Cinematheque Programmer Amanda McQueen. The conclusion of our Musicals of 1969 series, Oh! What a Lovely War will screen on Friday, February 12, at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's main venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Amanda McQueen

Fabulous, shrewd, mocking, emotional, witty, technically brilliant: these are just some of the adjectives Variety used to describe Oh! What a Lovely War. But Variety also anticipated that this musical recounting the events of World War I could be a hard sell. Indeed, as director Richard Attenborough explained, it was a “courageous move” by Paramount to fund the film in the first place; it was anti-war, it was exceedingly British in subject and tone, and its style was unorthodox. But what it lacked in commercial potential, it made up for in artistic promise. Hailed as a “masterpiece,” Lovely War is a moving and beautiful example of the unusual approach to film musical production that makes the late-1960s such a fascinating period of the genre’s history.

Lovely War began in 1962 as The Long Long Trail, a BBC radio play that critiqued WWI through a combination of facts, reminiscences, and contemporary popular songs—including the soldiers’ alternate versions of those songs, written in the trenches and recorded in the 1917 collection Tommy's Tunes (e.g. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” became “When This Lousy War is Over”). The broadcast was adapted for the stage in March 1963 by Joan Littlewood, director of the alternative Theatre Workshop in London's East End. Littlewood presented Oh, What a Lovely War! as a commedia dell'arte-style revue, in which actors, dressed in Pierrot costumes, improvised against a backdrop of period photographs and a neon ticker-tape running statistics. In June—despite objections from the family of Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig—the musical transferred to the West End, where it enjoyed a long and celebrated run. Lovely War made the jump to Broadway in September, but despite four Tony nominations, it closed in January 1965 at a financial loss. Variety surmised that Broadway’s audience was “too old, too passive, and too frivolity-minded” to appreciate Littlewood's endeavor.

Two years later, John Mills brought his friend and fellow actor Richard Attenborough a screenplay for a film version of Lovely War, insisting that he direct it. Attenborough had long been considering moving into directing, but, following David Lean's advice that “the time to direct is when you feel that if you don’t direct that particular film, you’ll die,” he’d been hesitating. But Attenborough had a penchant for socially-conscious projects, and he’d seen Lovely War multiple times on stage, so he accepted Mills’ proposal.

To secure funding for the challenging project, Attenborough went directly to Charles Bludhorn, head of Paramount’s parent company, Gulf+Western, who was thought to be just nuts enough to say yes. As part of his pitch, Attenborough promised to fill a significant portion of Lovely War’s 120 speaking parts with top British actors. Bludhorn agreed: if Attenborough could supply the marquee names—chief among them Sir Laurence Olivier—Paramount would supply the money. Thanks to Attenborough’s personal connections and Lovely War’s strong reputation, the director more than delivered, and a veritable Who’s Who of British stars agreed to take small, featured roles for minimal pay. Mills, in return for initiating the project, was cast as Haig. With Paramount on board, Attenborough partnered with producer Brian Duffy and writer Len Deighton (Duffy and Deighton had purchased the film rights from Littlewood) to co-produce under the newly-formed Accord Productions.

Deighton also worked on Lovely War’s screenplay. Interestingly, though, while Variety claims Deighton as the sole author, Attenborough attributes the script to both Deighton and John Mills. Furthermore, early in 1969, for reasons that are slightly unclear, Deighton quit the film and asked that his name be removed. Nevertheless, it does seem to have been Deighton who was chiefly responsible for reshaping Littlewood’s play for the screen. He replaced the Pierrot concept with that of a seaside arcade; he created the Smiths—an archetypal British family, played by unknown actors—to provide a narrative through-line; and he turned the stage musical’s M.C. character into The Photographer (Joe Melia), who provides commentary and records the events of the war. Other conceits of the play—such as tallying deaths on a cricket scoreboard—were retained.

Principal photography began in March 1968 at Brighton Pier and the surrounding area, where the entire film was shot over a period of fourteen weeks. After shooting wrapped in September, Attenborough went to Twickenham Studios, London, to assist with editing. Going only slightly over budget, Lovely War came in around $3 million—a tiny sum compared to other late-1960s musicals. It was released in the UK in April 1969, and opened in America that October, immediately following its showing at the New York Film Festival.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lovely War was only a modest commercial success; it was, however, a critical favorite. Judith Crist called it not only “the best film of 1969 but an outstanding film for all time.” Roger Ebert called it “breathtaking.” It won 6 BAFTAs and the Golden Globe for Best English Language Foreign Film. The acting and the technical credits were all deservedly applauded, and the film’s final shot—16,000 white wooden crosses in a field—was universally singled out for its emotional impact. The bulk of the praise, however, went to Attenborough and his skillful blending—in Crist’s words—of “theatrical fantasy with the realism that the camera demands and creates.” Indeed, Lovely War transitions fluidly—sometimes through editing, sometimes through camera movement—from the cheerful artificiality of Brighton Pier to the devastating reality of war. It layers the symbolic over the realistic: men lie in the muddy trenches, not blown to bits, but clutching poppies. And woven throughout are dozens of optimistic, bawdy, cynical, and tragic songs, sometimes presented as lavish production numbers and sometimes presented starkly a capella.

In the late-1960s, Hollywood seemed particularly willing to gamble on artistically adventurous film musical productions. Oh! What a Lovely War proves that those gambles could pay off. Born of experimental theater and shaped by a deft and daring cinematic hand, Lovely War is nothing if not unique. It is a challenging musical—history, politics, and Britain’s class hierarchies are key to its arguments—but it is also visually striking, emotionally rich, and truly unforgettable.

WHITE ZOMBIE: A Horror Subgenre Begins

Thursday, February 4th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Victor Halperin's White Zombie was written by Timothy Brayton, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A 35mm print of White Zombie will be the fourth of four screenings on the first day of the UCLA Festival of Preservation on Saturday, February 6 at 8:15 p.m. The screening takes place in our regular Cinematheque venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Timothy Brayton

There's no movie monster more reliable than the zombie, which can be had for cheap (some red food dye and a dirty, ripped shirt – boom, instant undead), and which can be pressed into duty for just about any storytelling need, be it social satire, gory action, or plain old jump scares. From the prestige of TV's The Walking Dead all the way to the self-consciously disreputable camp of Zombeavers, we live in an age of zombie ubiquity; but of course it was not ever thus. The whole teeming mass of undead cinema and television had to start somewhere, and by all accounts, that was White Zombie, a 1932 independent production made by the Halperin brothers, director Victor and producer Edward.

The very word "zombie" was still a novelty in 1932; though it can be spotted in English texts back to the beginning of the 19th Century, it owed its popularity to the 1929 pulp novel The Magic Island, which kicked off a vogue for stories of dead bodies revived through voodoo magic to serve as the slave army for this or that unscrupulous landowner in Haiti. Earlier in 1932, the stage play Zombie opened in New York, greeted by a New York Times review which spent nearly as much time explaining the concept to its reader as examining the play. Still, by the time the Halperins' film (written by Garnett Weston) rolled around in August, the reviewers clearly assumed they needed to define this bafflingly exotic phrase for their readers. A sarcastic, dismissive notice in the Times observes "the idea of the picture is that in Haiti there are individuals who dig up bodies [and] invest them with motive power", while the far more enthusiastic Variety reviewer lingers over the idea in somewhat morbid detail: "they are animate bodies without souls, generally corpses disinterred before dissolution of the physical structure..."

In short, White Zombie made quite a splash, for good or ill. While it wasn't a box office hit on the order of Dracula and Frankenstein, from the year prior, it handily made back the Halperins' $50,000 investment and then some, and its influence stretches on for decades. It provides the basic structure and many of the ingredients for very nearly every English-language zombie film into the 1960s, including those made by RKO's horror movie B-unit under Val Lewton, and by England's legendary Hammer Films. In the 1980s, aspiring rocker Robert Cummings took the film's name for his metal band White Zombie, while christening himself Rob Zombie.

Notwithstanding how important the film was in establishing one of the most prolific of horror subgenres, the contemporary viewer of White Zombie is likely to be thrown by how altogether unfamiliar it is. There are none of the cannibalistic rotting ghouls from Night of the Living Dead and its countless imitators to be found here. Here, zombies are uncanny and disturbingly otherworldly, with the true danger coming in the form of their controller, Murder Legendre, played by horror icon Béla Lugosi. Quite a potent villain he is, too. Since Variety declared him "exceptionally good" as the prime mover of all the evil in the film, virtually every commentary on White Zombie has singled out Lugosi as its strongest element. Much as in his star-making Dracula performance, the actor marries his singularly charismatic screen presence with a leering, sexually hungry menace. Whatever shortcomings White Zombie might have, Lugosi has ably kept the film charged with tension long after so many other early zombie films have entirely disappeared from view.

Murder Legendre is, to be fair, more of a background presence in White Zombie, serving as the catalyst to a relatively sedate conflict between affianced lovers Helen Short (Madge Bellamy) and Neil Parker (John Harror), and unscrupulous plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), the latter of whom is willing to use Legendre's dark magic to have his way with Helen. If it sounds a little creaky and hokey, that's because it is. This is very much a film of its time, both in its relatively slow pace and melodramatic plot for a horror film, and certainly in its gender and racial politcs: no matter how potent the image of a white plantation owner with an army of unresisting brown-skinned workers performing menial agricultural tasks, White Zombie doesn't care a whit about any of those implications, honing in only on the title's promise of a pretty blonde American woman horrifyingly turned into the dead-eyed slave of Béla Lugosi.

Even so, in the moments where everything comes together just right, this is one of the clear highlights of horror cinema in the '30s. The foggy images, barely lit by cineamtographer Arthur Martinelli with murky shadows, paint the sets borrowed from Universal's much better-funded horror films with a glowering menace, and the hollowed sound, an artifact of early recording techniques, increases our sense of foreboding through minimalism. In one of the film's signature moments, we see Legendre's zombies driving a mill in the dark, making no sound except the rhythmic creak of the blades chopping sugar cane. One zombie stumbles and falls, mutely, into those same blades, with nothing interrupting the steady movement and sound of the mill. Not even the passage of eight decades have dulled the basic horror generated by this stillness, and its when it reaches these heights of unearthly atmosphere that White Zombie justifies itself as a horror classic.

HEIRONYMOUS MERKIN: A Musical Cinematic Phantasmagoria

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Anthony Newley's Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? was written by Cinematheque staff member Amanda McQueen. Part of our Musicals of 1969 series, a 35mm print of Can Heironymous Merkin...will screen on Friday, February 5, at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's main venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Never before released on home video, this screening is an ultra-rare opportunity to see one of the era's wildest and most personal movies.

By Amanda McQueen

“You must read this review carefully. Every word of it. Yes, if you decide to run off and see Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? you are going to have to know what you are letting yourself in for.” So wrote the Chicago Tribune about Anthony Newley’s self-proclaimed “sexplicit” musical. Combining traditional show tunes with a Fellini-esque reflexivity and a surplus of nudity and bawdy humor, Merkin is indeed a very strange film. Merkin is also—as the Los Angeles Times noted—“a genuine document of its time,” tapping into nearly every contemporary cinematic and cultural fad. When else but in 1969 would a major studio produce an X-rated musical art film?

Newley came up with the idea for Merkin during down-time on the production of Doctor Dolittle (1967). “I would write down all I could remember about my life,” the English actor-singer-composer explained. “The ladies, the selfishness, the death of my first child. I decided this was going to be my movie. I would direct it and for once I’m the painter instead of one of the daubs of paint.” Newley also produced the film and starred as the titular Heironymus Merkin—an aging performer and womanizer reflecting on his life and legacy by making and watching a film about his life and legacy. He cast his own wife, Joan Collins, as Merkin’s wife, and his own children as Merkin’s children. He co-wrote the screenplay with Herman Raucher, and he composed the songs with lyricist Herbert Kretzmer (Les Miserables [1985]). In short, Merkin became Newley’s pseudo-autobiographical one-man show.

After some difficulty getting anyone interested in the project, Universal’s British arm agreed to co-produce and to distribute the film under its subsidiary, Regional Film, which, according to Variety, “handles product Universal doesn’t care to go out under its own banner.” The studio’s uncertainty was understandable. In Newley’s words, Merkin was a “modern musical with no plot, but very sexy, very funny and very serious.” Though not quite plot-less, it is an episodic, surreal, and telescoping film-within-a-film-within-a-film. Its characters are called Polyester Poontang (Collins), Good Time Eddie Filth (Milton Berle), and The Presence (George Jessel). It references everything from Ingmar Bergman to Rodgers and Hammerstein. It details Merkin’s obsession with the nymphette Mercy Humppe (Playboy Playmate Connie Kreski). It contains a suggestive song about a princess and a donkey. In short, Merkin was sexually explicit and arty—both factors that could limit its success with a general audience. Reportedly, though, Universal was more concerned about the musical’s “abstract and symbolic” elements than its “epidermis and erotica.” Hollywood's self-regulation of adult content had been relaxing for some time, and the MPAA would replace the Production Code with a rating system in November 1968. Sexy movies were in vogue; art cinema remained a niche market.

Budgeted at just over $1.25 million, Merkin went into production in March 1968 in Malta, where filming was inexpensive and scenic, but not without difficulties. The country was predominately Catholic, and a campaign was waged against Newley’s nudity-filled movie. Local authorities ultimately had to intervene to disperse protesters and allow shooting to continue. Upon its completion, Merkin was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and given an X rating by the MPAA—the sixth film to be so designated. (It was reclassified as R in 1972.)

In March 1969, Merkin had a profoundly disappointing premiere in New York City. Forty people walked out of the press preview, and the film was panned by many influential critics. The New York Times called it an “act of professional suicide.” Its box office performance was correspondingly “dismal.” But as Merkin made its way across the country that summer, it started to become a hit. Unlike many other X-rated films, Merkin encountered no grassroots censorship problems, and it played in many rural and suburban communities where X-rated films and hardcore pornography rarely screened. Variety hypothesized that the cast—Berle, Jessel, and particularly Newley, who was associated with family entertainment due to his musical theater work—had perhaps “softened” the film’s potentially offensive material, removing any “’dirty movie’ taint” for those “hinterland” audiences.

But industry insiders surmised that the true key to the musical’s success was its extensive advertising in Playboy Magazine, which had a strong influence on those under thirty and especially on those living outside major cities as “a source of mild titillation and tastemaker.” In March 1969, Playboy ran a ten-page spread on Merkin, emphasizing Connie Kreski's involvement. This was followed by a full-page advertisement in April, and another nude spread of Kreski in June, which further referenced her acting debut. For middle America, Playboy was the “acceptable view of erotica,” and Merkin was Playboy-approved. In cities like Detroit, Minneapolis, and Louisville, this X-rated musical was a smash.

Moreover, Merkin was not universally derided by critics. Though reviewers generally agreed that the film had flaws, many still admitted that its “moments of eccentric charm and bizarre interest” (Los Angeles Times) made it “somehow . . . a rather enjoyable little something” (Chicago Tribune). And in the end, as both Roger Ebert and Judith Crist acknowledged, Merkin was sort of “critic-proof.” The reflexive premise allows for characters who are screenwriters, producers, and critics—all of whom accuse Merkin’s cinematic project of being self-indulgent, meandering, and tasteless. Those same complaints were lobbed by real-life critics at Newley’s musical, but Merkin itself had already beaten them to the punch.

To my mind, Ebert gets the film just right: even if it’s “not quite successful” in its endeavor to be the nudie musical version of Fellini’s (1963), it is nevertheless “strange, wonderful, original.” It is, as Variety called it, a “cinematic phantasmagoria.” And it is, as the Los Angeles Times and many others noted, a filmic artifact that defines a generation—the “ultimate statement of the decade of the pink Cadillac, the mink-trimmed john, [and] the topless saloon.” Love it or hate it, Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? is a musical oddity not to be missed.

SWEET CHARITY: The Musical Pulse of 1969

Thursday, January 28th, 2016
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Bob Fosse's film of the Broadway musical Sweet Charity was written by Cinematheque staff member Amanda McQueen. A screening of a 35mm print of Sweet Charity will kick off three weeks of unusual musicals from 1969 on Friday, January 29 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.

By Amanda McQueen

Upon its release in April 1969, Universal declared Sweet Charity "The musical with the pulse of today." In many ways it was. It was part of the cycle of roadshow musicals that escalated following the unprecedented success of The Sound of Music (1965). Its plot, as Variety explained, "cater[ed] nicely" to the "nihilistic and cynical" attitude of the late-1960s. And its visual style, inspired by youth-oriented movies like The Graduate (1967), was decidedly contemporary. Memorable and unusual, Sweet Charity is indeed a hallmark of its generation.

The musical takes its story from Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957), which stars Fellini's wife, Giulietta Masina, as a prostitute vainly searching for true love. Conceived by director-choreographer Bob Fosse as a vehicle for his own wife, Gwen Verdon, and adapted for the stage by Neil Simon, with songs by Cy Coleman and Tin Pan Alley legend Dorothy Fields, Sweet Charity retained the basic plot of Fellini's film, including its bittersweet ending. But the protagonist, now called Charity Hope Valentine, did have her occupation changed to the less sordid dance hall hostess. Charity debuted on Broadway in January 1966. In October, Universal purchased the film rights for $500,000, and hired Fosse—who’d never directed a film before, but who did have Hollywood musical experience—to transfer his show to the big screen.

Conflicts soon arose over what approach to take to Charity’s somewhat risqué and cynical subject matter. I.A.L. Diamond (Billy Wilder’s regular collaborator) drafted the initial screenplay, which moved closer to Fellini's original. Producer Ross Hunter objected, believing that Charity should be glossy and cheerful—something akin to his previous musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). So Diamond was replaced by Peter Stone (Charade [1963]). Then, in November 1967, during the early stages of pre-production, Hunter and Fosse had a similar clash of artistic vision. Citing "serious and irreconcilable differences . . . between the director and me," Hunter bowed out, and veteran Univeresal producer Robert Arthur took over.

Principle photography began in January 1968. In May, the crew traveled to New York City for twelve weeks of tricky location shooting; in the canyons of Wall Street, for example, Fosse and Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Surtees (Ben-Hur [1959], The Graduate [1967]) had only twenty minutes of useable daylight. Fearing further studio objections to his musical's lack of pure optimism, Fosse also shot an alternate ending, in which Charity finds her happily-ever-after, but Arthur, claiming total faith in the first-time director, approved the original ending. At a final negative cost of $10 million—$3 million over budget—Sweet Charity was Universal's most expensive film since Spartacus (1960).

Charity needed to be a hit; Universal was struggling financially and Hollywood was on the brink of recession. But many critics found the musical over-long, over-produced, and miscast—the same complaints lobbed at most big-budget adaptations of the 1960s. After a few strong opening weeks, Charity's box office returns dropped. Maybe audiences agreed with the critics. Or maybe the marketplace was just overly-saturated; over the course of its run, Charity had to compete with seven other roadshow musicals, all vying for the same, increasingly limited audience. To try and revitalize the film's performance, Universal re-vamped its ad campaign. To capitalize on the vogue for films with more explicit sexual content—and ignoring the G rating from the MPAA—Universal emphasized Charity's prostitution angle with taglines like "Meet the pros" and "Men were their business." The new approach made little difference.

In spite of its poor box office performance, however, Sweet Charity has a great deal about it to recommend. There are Coleman and Fields' classic songs, including three new ones—"Sweet Charity," "My Personal Property," and "It's a Nice Face"—written specifically for the film. There’s Fosse’s Tony-winning choreography, best showcased during “The Rich Man’s Frug.” And there are stellar performances: the film debut of the incomparable Chita Rivera; cameos by Ricardo Montalban and Sammy Davis Jr.; and a Golden Globe-nominated turn by Shirley MacLaine as Charity Hope Valentine. MacLaine had been attached to the project from the very beginning and seemed an ideal choice: she was a popular young star with a musical theater background and a penchant for playing sympathetic, lovelorn women. Gwen Verdon, who served as an uncredited assistant choreographer, rehearsed the role extensively with her, and Fosse insisted that although MacLaine lacked some of Verdon's natural dance ability, "she makes up for [it] in her enthusiasm and drive." Variety thought Charity was MacLaine's "finest and most versatile performance to date."

Finally, Charity boasts a bold and expressive visual style. Employing a wide range of in-vogue techniques—zooms, freeze frames, rhythmic editing, tinting—Charity looks like no other Broadway adaptation of the time. Variety gushed that "In one giant step, Fosse has become a major film director . . . Atop his remembered [choreographic] style is a brilliant, film-oriented appreciation of the emphasis possible only with camera and movieola." Cue Magazine similarly proclaimed that Charity was "exactly the kind of shot in the arm so desperately needed for the world of movie musicals." Admittedly, it can sometimes feel like Fosse is an unsupervised kid playing with a camera, and the director did later concede that perhaps Charity had "too many cinematic tricks in it. I was trying to be kind of flashy. That's a pitfall on your first film." But Charity’s flashy tricks are a lot of fun, and there are undoubtedly moments when they demonstrate, as The New York Times put it, that "by golly, Fosse had got it . . . he was making a real movie musical."

In October 1968, Variety wrote, "It's an accepted fact of film history that the most innovative and influential directors of musicals came from choreographic origins." Fosse proved this with Sweet Charity, joining the ranks of Busby Berkeley, Stanley Donen, and Gene Kelly.  His follow-up film, the Oscar-sweeping Cabaret (1972), permanently enshrined him in the halls of film musical history. As a directorial debut, Sweet Charity is not as polished as Cabaret, but it is more surprising and more exuberant. And it absolutely captures the pulse of 1969.