Scarlet Street (1945)

When it’s on: Friday, 29 December (8.55 am)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

Some time ago on these pages, I covered Ms Joan Bennett and her luminous starring role in Max Ophuls’s The Reckless Moment. Both in real life and on screen, Bennett was a compelling and fascinating lady, capable of adapting her talents to various guises just as her world away from film spun through a series of controversies and scandals. You can imagine her acting ability being put to good use as she switched from delicate victim to femme fatale, always with her survival instinct present and correct.

Before Ophuls cast her as a compromised middle class housewife in his 1949 movie, Bennett was perhaps best known for the two films she made with Fritz Lang in the middle of that decade, The Woman in the Window followed by Scarlet Street. Both feature the same cast members – downtrodden, broken Edward G Robinson and thuggish spiv, Dan Duryea – but it’s Bennett who takes two very different parts. In the earlier film she’s classy, but in Scarlet Street she plays Kitty, a low rent tramp, tied to petty conman Johnny (Duryea), who she loves despite suffering physical abuse from him. Though the script never states it Kitty is almost certainly a prostitute, or at least ‘fallen’ enough to use sex casually, and as a consequence she’s beautiful, brassy and in her manner and speech as pure as the driven slush. It would take a true sap to see anything in her beyond irredeemable white trash, and into her world slopes Chris Cross (Robinson), middle-aged, subservient, his soul crushed by life, and yet hopeful.

Through Dudley Nichols’s screenplay, Lang’s direction and a top notch performance by Robinson, Chris is one of those characters who appears to have stumbled into the film from bitter reality. He represents everyone’s broken dream. His lowly cashier’s job pays little and offers nothing, and yet he’s just completed 25 years’ service. He’s married to a lady who dotes on her former late husband, his portrait hanging in pride of place within the parlour to put Chris squarely in his place. Chris works and does the domestic chores while spending his scraps of spare time painting, a release from the dirge that offers him some tiny sense of pleasure. He knows his attempts at art aren’t very good, but that isn’t the point – he loves doing it, despite his harridan wife (Rosalind Ivan) complaining about the smell of paint and threatening to throw all his work away.

In Kitty – who he chances across one night – he sees a chance to turn his life around. She seems to show an interest in him, and that morsel of attention is enough to compel Chris to begin lavishing her with money and gifts, but the entire relationship is based on misconceptions and assumptions. He refuses to let the shades fall away and see her for what she really is, choosing to ignore shady Johnny who always appears to be around while claiming to be just a friend. As for Kitty, her initial meeting with Chris happens when he’s returning from a night out – he’s dressed opulently and is taking about £50,000 art purchases, which suggests to her he’s loaded, a big shot. Johnny tells her to exploit this, which she does half-heartedly. She doesn’t want to take their plan of swindling Chris out of his money too far, but it isn’t long before she’s in over her head. While Johnny starts selling Chris’s paintings to make a bit on the side, the pair have no idea that his largesse is coming from robbing the work safe, that he thinks it will all be worth it because it will ultimately lead to marriage with Kitty and some half grasped happily ever after.

The result of all this scheming and dreaming is an inevitable spiral towards destruction and doom for Chris, Kitty and even Johnny. Each character is punished in some poetic fashion, and while The Woman in the Window came with a final twist that suggested redemption and lessons learned, there’s no such optimistic coda to be found here. It’s as though Lang was robbed of taking his earlier feature to its natural conclusion by a studio fearful of such downbeat storytelling, but was allowed free rein on Scarlet Street and seized the opportunity, handing his characters their just desserts in various degrees of bleakness. As a cruel irony, Chris’s paintings happen to be spotted by a prestigious studio and go on to sell for thousands, though thanks to Johnny’s machinations by then the pictures bear someone else’s name. It’s a satirical note, a comment perhaps on the whims of fate, or a wink back in time to the director’s own early years as a struggling artist before entering the German film industry and becoming part of the Expressionist movement. In any event it shows the possible ‘happy ending’ Chris wishes for, but has long since pulled it from beneath him.

Scarlet Street builds to one of the most pessimistic and indeed depressing finishes I remember seeing on film, certainly where romantic Hollywood cinema is concerned. It brings a European ethos to bear, the sensibility that stories in which people do bad things won’t necessarily lead to an ending where the characters are compensated but instead face ruin, whether through death or forced to live, destroyed morally and haunted by the ghosts of the past.  It isn’t an easy film to stomach, but it successfully holds a mirror to the attitudes of the period, the Noir ethic reflecting society’s sense of uncertainty as the horrors of war and endings that held no satisfactory note were all too real. There’s a hint of unfairness about Chris’s fate, that his only real mistake was to fall in with a ‘bad crowd’ and allow himself to be duped, but hey, bad things happen to people who don’t necessarily deserve it and Chris, who lets himself be manipulated and has no right to imagine a future with Kitty, sort of has it coming. While Lang does offer a note of pity in his instance, it doesn’t really amount to much and the character, shattered and in the grip of a complete mental breakdown, is left to shuffle off into the void of his own making.

So why watch it at all? The reality is Scarlet Street is masterly film making and that ought to be reason enough. Lang was a perfectionist, slave driving his cast and crew to put his personal vision onto the screen, and in this film he spared no effort in capturing it. Milton Krasner, the cinematographer who would be rewarded with an Academy Award for Three Coins in a Fountain a decade later, applied Lang’s visual language with some stunning imagery. The way Chris sees Kitty, bathed in white and angelic, utterly at odds with reality but emphasising his ironic perception, is bathed in soft white light. Later, as our ‘hero’ embarks on his walk of ruin, the shadows creep into the frame more. He’s living in a pathetic hovel, light offered harshly by a neon sign outside the window, which leaves most of his room shrouded in darkness. Chris hears the voices of Kitty and Johnny, his ‘Hello, Lazy Legs‘ and her whispered, sexy ‘Jeepers Johnny, I love you‘ taunting him, presumably for the rest of his days, and the camera all but suggests that those black corners contain their spirits.

Robinson is absolutely believable as the film’s victim, to such an extent in fact that when I picture him it’s as this character, all those years playing hoodlums and the likes of Keyes in Double Indemnity playing support to his role in Scarlet Street. The same with Bennett. Lang saw in her the beautiful woman who has lived and those years of blows, bad choices and bitterness have created the jaded character of Kitty, in her own way every bit as pathetic as Chris, trapped within a destructive relationship and heading in just one direction. There aren’t very many film roles, especially for females, from the classic period that hinted at such a complicated back story for their characters, honing them into the people they are in the movie, but Scarlet Street suggests exactly that and without slapping minutes of exposition onto the screen. The result is a pessimistic work, but a masterpiece in the telling and execution.

Scarlet Street: *****

Metropolis (1927)

When it’s on: Friday, 6 March (1.00 am, Saturday)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The first version of Metropolis I watched was the infamous Giorgio Moroder release from 1984, for which the synth pioneer provided a brand new score and sped up the film’s frame rate. Listening to the soundtrack now, it’s dated severely with the vocal stylings of Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler and Jon Anderson all very much of their time, though I rather like Love Kills by Freddie Mercury. Moroder also supervised the addition of limited colour, which generally comes across as gimmicky although the flash of liquid blue in the android Maria’s eyes when she/it awakens remains quite a haunting image. Naturally, the purists were appalled, but over time ‘Morodroplis’ has gained its apologists and one could argue it did the old thing a favour, dusting it off and reintroducing its visual splendour to a new audience of science fiction nuts.

For a kid from the Star Wars generation like me, there was always something a bit mystical about Metropolis. The release of The Return of the Jedi brought with it a slew of sci-fi related TV shows, which showcased histories of the genre in terms of their influence on the Lucas leviathan. Much of the content appeared to be a string of bad, often cheap special effects, especially when compared with the leaps in technology that had helped make Star Wars such a massive hit, but then they would take real steps back in time, to the early years of cinema, and show us scenes from Fritz Lang’s epic. Even then, it was a feast for the senses, those enormous towers and cityscapes, cars both on the streets and flying along highways in the skies, every inch a working municipality. The impression it made on George Lucas is clear enough, and resurfaced during those lurid Coruscant scenes in the Star Wars prequels. It was made all the more impressive because Lang was working with primitive technology and produced many effects using models and mirrors. What matters more is the vision, the attempt to create a ‘future’ that looked and felt realistic, as though people could really live the way they were being portrayed, and there’s little doubt Metropolis scored points here. Whatever your feelings about the film’s politics and values, there can be few doubts about its technical accomplishments. It looks amazing and even manages to outdo titles that came out much further down the line.

A box office bomb upon its release, Metropolis had its fair share of critical maulings (including an acerbic ‘no thank you’ from HG Wells, writing in The New York Times) and suffered a series of edits that ravaged its original running length. The distribution company had retained the rights to make cuts as it saw fit, in exchange for funding the project, so that when it was launched in American and British cinemas some forty minutes of footage had been excised and was, for many years, believed to be entirely lost. More worryingly, Metropolis fascinated the Nazis when they came to power in Germany. No less a figure than Joseph Goebbels applauded its message of social justice, and when the film’s writer, Thea von Harbou, became a paid up member of the party, the links between Metropolis and fascism loomed large. Thea’s political leanings put paid to her marriage with Lang. The director fled when the Nazis took control as, despite being a Roman Catholic, his mother had been Jewish before marrying and converting, and he knew that his heritage might very well do for him. In later years, he would disown Metropolis thanks to its dubious association with Nazi Germany.

There’s always someone who can tie the film’s political allegories to fascism. Personally, I have always thought it leans far more to the left, the basic concept of workers and owners realising their paths lie together to be a classic Socialist ideal, if not a universal one. Perhaps I’m naïve in that regard. Possibly, it’s like the film critic Siegfried Kracauer said, that Metropolis’s central message – There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator – played up to the Nazis who often used direct emotional appeals in their speeches. Either that, or it’s just a good sentiment with which to underpin the film, and that seems a lot likelier to me, given it was made in the mid 1920s, when Germany was still very much a democratic republic and the Nazis a splinter faction struggling for recognition. All the same, the appeal to poor, downtrodden Germans of the time cannot be overstated. With unemployment and inflation rising at staggering rates, reparations to the victorious countries after World War One continuing remorselessly, and tariffs placed on German exported goods, the Weimar Republic was a state on the slide and festering with resentment. The film ends on a happy, positive note; Germany’s fate would turn out very differently.

Metropolis takes place within a city of the future, possibly the year 2000. Though the film was written before Lang’s visit to New York in 1924, it seems certain that his experience of sailing into the harbour and witnessing the skyscraper skyline had a profound effect on how he wanted it to look. In this dystopian vision of things to come, mankind has fallen into two distinct strata – the rich and ruling classes, who live in idle decadence above ground within gorgeous gardens and the dubious Yoshiwara nightclub, and the workers, made to spend ten hour shifts in backbreaking labour to keep the machines running before going to their dour, uniform homes in an especially built underground city. Masterminding it all is the austere Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), whilst his son Freder (Gustav Frohlich) is allowed to indulge his lavish excesses in the pleasure gardens. It’s here that he meets Maria (Brigitte Helm), a young woman from below who has brought the children up to see how the ‘other half’ live and declares them to be their brothers. She’s moved along, but Freder is transfixed, both with her virginal beauty and the message she carries, and he quickly descends to the depths in order to find her. What he discovers is the misery of the workers, men killed when a huge machine explodes (Lang added realism to the effect by making the extras fall about the studio whilst filming, sometimes suspending them on wires to have them really thrown back). Freder sees a vision of the machine as Moloch, a god from antiquity that worshippers appeased with human sacrifices. For Freder, the analogy is clear enough. The machines, driven by the greed of the rich, are Moloch, the workers the sacrificial lambs.

Maria spends her spare time inciting the unsettled masses to remain patient, arguing that in the end their masters will collapse, comparing their plight to the Biblical Tower of Babel story. She prophesises the emergence of a mediator who will join both classes, the brain and the hands together. But Fredersen has other ideas. Seeing her message as undermining his essential vision, he resolves to ruin her reputation. Visiting his old friend, the eccentric inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), he learns of the existence of an android, a ‘machine human’, and orders for it to be given Maria’s face so that it can ruin her reputation. Rotwang agrees, yet he has other ideas, blaming Fredersen for the death of his long lost love, Hel (Fredersen married her, and then she died giving birth to Freder) and programming the robot to destroy the son in order to break the father’s heart.

Maria is kidnapped by Rotwang and her likeness duly transferred to the machine, which ‘awakens’ with her features, but because it’s a machine carries none of her compassion and kindness, just evil. Let loose on the people, it spreads sedition and exhorts the workers to destroy their machines. In the meantime, Freder, in disguise as a worker, sets off in pursuit of the real Maria, whilst the city around them starts to collapse.

At 145 minutes, Metropolis is a long haul, telling a big, wide ranging fable to compare with any old D. W. Griffith saga. A lot of money was invested in it, the studio’s aim being to gain international recognition, though ironically it was only much later that its merits as a landmark piece of film making were properly assessed. Viewers can look at it in one of two ways. On the one hand, Metropolis is simply a good science fiction yarn. It looks great, even now, those fantastic futuristic designs, plus the iconic work on the machine human, earning it legions of admirers and copies/rip offs in a host of later movies. The social comment aspects are a little more troublesome. Some of the allegories are so heavy handed to have even the most patient viewers throwing their hands in the air, exasperated, and declaring ‘YES WE GET IT!’ Others, the Moloch vision, are handled really well and remain rather haunting and sinister.

The acting takes the form of the very physical performing that belongs firmly within the silent era. Much expansive gesticulating, characters fleeing in bundles of flailing limbs to emphasise the desperation of their situation. The best is probably Abel, so often inscrutable until the life of his son is mortally threatened and then the frosty veneer cracks. Helm is brilliant also. Clearly a beauty, she was 19 and in her first film role. She gets across the two dynamics of her personality, the light, ‘good’ half as personified in the real Maria, along with the squinting evil of her android doppelganger. Frohlich was an extra on the Metropolis set but impressed Lang to the extent that he dismissed his original choice for Freder and had him play it instead. All actors, along with the 36,000 extras, most of whom were impoverished Germans living in the Potsdam area and only too happy to accept a wage for appearing, were treated appallingly by the demanding Lang, who insisted on everything looking as realistic as possible. Helm’s dress was set alight when her character was burned at the stake. Frohlich suffered multiple injuries thanks to the director’s exacting ways.

This restored version of the film was only possible because of the chance discovery of a complete copy in Buenos Aires in 2008. Cleaning it was an arduous process, and not entirely a successful one, given the frequent cuts from crystal clear footage to far grainier images at regular intervals. It will probably never get any better than that. More importantly, recent versions of Metropolis come with the original score by Gottfried Huppertz, which is a real thing of beauty. Channeling the epic operas of Wagner, the misery of the workers juxtaposes to magnificent effect with the city’s splendour, and there is some wonderful riffing on Le Marseillaise as the downtrodden turn to revolution.

For me, Metropolis isn’t quite a masterpiece. It isn’t even Lang’s best film; that vote goes to the superior and chilling M. However, it’s impact over the years since its release cannot be over-emphasised. It can be detected in almost every science fiction film, from the design of Star Wars’ C-3PO to the nightmare vision of future Los Angeles in Blade Runner and Rotwang’s laboratory, with its levers, switches and chemicals, turning up in many a Frankenstein feature or indeed any featuring a mad scientist. Despite the borrowing, copying and downright stealing of ideas and concepts, there’s nothing quite like it and experiencing it, at least once, is well worth anyone’s time.

Metropolis: ****

Moonfleet (1955)

When it’s on: Thursday, 26 April 2012 (2.25 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Moonfleet is a 1955 offering by Fritz Lang that came towards the end of both the director’s American career and the studio system. Underfunded and unloved, the film ultimately found favour with French audiences who drew easy comparisons between its Gothic imagery and that of his earlier, German output.

It’s based on the 1898 novel by J Meade Falkner, but as is often the case the adaptation is a smash and grab of the text. The main diversion is a completely new main character, Jeremy Fox, who forms an unlikely double act with the book’s main character, young John Mohune. The setting, eighteenth century Dorset, is retained, as is the tale of south coast smugglers and skulduggery, though Fox looms large as the man with feet in both worlds – the gentleman of leisure, rubbing shoulders with the rich, and the leader of a motley crew of buccaneers. In Moonfleet, Fox is played by Stewart Granger at the apex of his box office clout. He finds the arrival of ten-year old John (Jon Whitely) an unwelcome diversion, but he’s strangely drawn to the boy, who turns up in Moonfleet at the behest of his dying mother; years ago she was Fox’s illicit lover. Back then, Fox was considered not good enough for the upper class Mohunes and was sent away with a flogging. But the years have been unkind to the family, now facing destitution, whilst Fox – thanks to his no-good profiteering – has become rich and powerful.

As the authorities steadily work out the source of Fox’s wealth, due in no small part to the testament of those he’s discarded along the way, his circumstances grow more desperate, and ultimately he comes to rely on John’s help in retrieving a long lost diamond that was hidden years ago by ‘Redbeard’ Mohune. Even in a lesser Lang there’s a dark edge, and it comes in the treacherous form of Fox, a morally bankrupt opportunist who is obviously going to double-cross John when the moment is right. This is made all the more tragic because the boy becomes swiftly devoted to his new benefactor, following him everywhere with adorable dedication and complete faith.

The reasons for the link between the two are telegraphed ahead without ever being made explicit and there are several lovely moments when Fox comes to John’s rescue without explaining why. The best of these comes in a duel between Fox and one of the treacherous buccaneers, the gentleman with his rapier battling the sort of enormous battleaxe that comes straight out of World of Warcraft. The final scene strikes an optimistic note that wasn’t in Lang’s original vision, but the director admitted later it was better than the dark and tragic climax he would have filmed.

Moonfleet clocks in at less than ninety minutes, giving it the feel of a Hammer-esque quickie that was in fact produced with 1962’s Captain Clegg, a smuggling yarn owing much to Lang’s earlier work. Captain Clegg is well worth checking out; it’s one of those Hammer releases made obscure because it didn’t deal in horror, but it deserves better and can be found tucked away on Universal’s Hammer Horror Series set. Moonfleet features less fun, yet stylistically it hits home. Much of the story is told in inky semi-darkness. Apart from John, its characters are a rogue’s gallery of grotesques. Our introduction to Fox’s gang of criminals is a shot of them glaring down at John, leering with menace and intent. The local poshos into whose company Fox works himself are little better. George Sanders puts in a reliable turn as Lord John Ashwood, who’s looking to make money from Fox’s capers. Lord John’s wife is played by Joan Greenwood, an altogether unlovely piece of work in fine silks.

Scarier than all of them is Moonfleet’s churchyard, according to legend haunted by Redbeard and concealing the hidden entrance to the smugglers’ cove. The pick of its jagged, shadowy gravestones is a glassy-eyed Angel of Death, perhaps the most frightening statue ever committed to celluloid and an early warning to John that all is far from well in the den of thieves into which he’s been sent.

Moonfleet: ***