Sunday, February 18, 2018

Noir City 2018: Address Unknown/Flesh and Fantasy/Destiny

Saturday was day two of the Noir City 2018 festival here in Seattle. Unfortunately, I was unable to see the first film of the day, Shadow of a Doubt, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s many masterpieces, so let me focus instead on the ones I did manage to view. 

Address Unknown (1944)
This is a powerful piece of war-time propaganda.  William Cameron Menzies directed this story about Martin Schultz (played by Paul Lukas), a German-emigre art dealer in San Francisco who returns to Germany in the late 30s.  With him is Griselle (K. T. Stevens), the daughter of his Jewish partner back in the US.  Soon Schultz is caught up in the Nazi fever, spouting the platitudes, and ultimately accepting a job as an official in the Third Reich.  Only when Giselle is killed does Martin realize the error of his ways.  But by then it is, of course, too late.  

Menzies, cast, and crew did an excellent job with this movie.  Even though we know where the story is going, we never lose interest or sympathy for the characters.  And it was fascinating to see how honestly and directly a Hollywood movie could deal with Nazi anti-semitism.  Although on the surface it may not seem like a true noir, the film’s harsh, unremitting depiction of Schultz’s entrapment and doom is in the vein of noir.  Additionally, to convey Schultz’s increasing Nazification Menzies uses the cinematic techniques of German expressionism, which is itself the source of film noir’s unique visual style.  

The best scene in the film is the one in which Griselle disobeys the Nazi censor (Paul Halton, with bad teeth) by reciting passages from the Sermon on the Mount during a play.  The censor stops the performance and unmasks her as a Jew to the audience by making her admit that her name is not Griselle Stone but rather Griselle Eisenstein.  At this, the play’s spectators go insane with anti-semitism and Griselle is forced to flee for her life.  It’s intriguing that Hollywood would use the revelation of a Jewish name as a way to convey the evils of anti-semitism.  Name changes were common in the film industry at the time and some of the studio heads, who were themselves Jewish immigrants, had changed their names on arriving in the US.

Flesh and Fantasy (1943)
Directed by Julien Duvivier this film is a collection of three different tales of the uncanny.  It’s sort of a 1940s “Twilight Zone” compilation.  The first tale is set during Mardi Gras and features Betty Field as an ugly young woman in love with a local boy played by Robert Cummings.  At the prompting of an old man in a mask shop she purchases the mask of a beautiful woman so that she may pursue her love.  No spoilers, except to note that this mask ultimately will transform both her and Cummings.  In the second tale, based on an Oscar Wilde short story, Thomas Mitchell plays a palm reader who tells a skeptical client, played by Edward G. Robinson, that he will murder someone in the future.  Robinson is driven mad and ultimately homicidal by this knowledge.  And in the final segment, Charles Boyer (who also co-produced the movie with Duvivier) is a circus tight-rope walker who has a nightmare of falling off the wire during his act and landing on an unknown woman in the audience.  The unknown women is played by Barbara Stanwyck.  When Boyer later meets her on an ocean liner the two fall in love.  But soon the prophetic power of dreams pulls them apart.   
Robert Cummings with a masked Betty Field from Flesh and Fantasy

I love this film.  The images are gorgeous and lush, the uncanny being evoked in the visuals as well as the stories.  Like his French countryman Jean Cocteau, Duvivier is a poet of the cinema.  Before the film, festival host Eddie Muller told us the sad tale of Duvivier’s professional fate.  A successful director in France during the 30s - his Pepe le Moko is a masterpiece - Duvivier fled to the US with the rise of the Nazis.  He had only some modest success in Hollywood and was soon sidelined.  On returning to France after the war, he attempted to resume his career but soon found himself regularly savaged by the film critics writing for Cahier du Cinema and never recovered his former prominence.   

If I may digress, one of the many accomplishments of the folks over at The Criterion Collection has been to revive and showcase the films of French directors from the 30s and 40s who were ignored or belittled by those New Wave connards* in the 50s and 60s.  You can get box sets of Duvivier’s films from the 30s, as well as collections of movies by Sacha Guitry and Jean Grémillon.  And, just recently, they’ve added a box set of the films Claude Autant-Lara made during the German occupation.

Destiny (1944)
Destiny was originally supposed to be a fourth tale told in Flesh and Fantasy but Universal cut it out of the final version.  In it, Alan Curtis plays an escaped robber who hides out at the home of a blind girl (Gloria Jean) and her father (Frank Craven).  They take him in to work as a farmhand and soon he falls in love with the beautiful girl.  But can he overcome his own cruel and criminal nature to be worthy of her love?  I won’t spoil it for you.  

After removing Duvivier's half hour sequence out of Flesh and Fantasy, Universal then decided to add some backstory and release it as a separate B film.  Reginald Le Borg was brought in to direct an additional thirty or so minutes which were tacked on at the front and back ends of Duvivier’s work.  The transition is not smooth.  It’s no exaggeration to say that you can tell the exact shots when Duvivier’s segment begins and ends.  

Eddie Muller mentioned (rather tentatively) that efforts are underway to see if Universal would restore Duvivier’s portion of Destiny back into Flesh and Fantasy and re-release it.  Let me say that I support that effort 100%.  However, I understand why the studio cut the segment at the time - it just doesn’t fit with the Flesh and Fantasy material.  The stories in the earlier film are about the supernatural and the uncanny, they’re akin to ghost stories.  But the Destiny segment is distinctly religious, and specifically Christian, in nature.  Jane, the blind girl in Destiny, is a creature of purity and innocence, there is something mystical and even holy about her.  Though blind, she can find her way around the house without a problem.  She can farm and even harvest honey from beehives without a hitch.  Squirrels climb onto her shoulder and birds perch on her head - whether she communes with them in the manner of St. Francis of Assisi is not clear.  When she prayerfully folds her hands (and she does this a lot), the weather changes.  When she walks past flowers and trees they bend towards her.  It was hilarious.  

Gloria Jean and Alan Curtis in Destiny
Eddie called it “Snow White noir” and warned us that there was something “pervy" about the Duvivier sequence in Destiny.  He was right.  Though clean as a church social, there was a distinctly sexual - and perverted - vibe in Duvivier’s depiction of Jane.  It was not just “Snow White noir,” it was “Snow White porn.”  The camera doesn’t just follow Jane, it practically leers at her.  Whenever Christians start to create idealized figures of female innocence it’s not uncommon for a kinky sexual element to creep in.  On one level that’s understandable - the more innocent and pure, the sweeter the deflowering.  It adds a nice frisson (oh, I’m just full of French words today) to one’s lusts.  I recall the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel recounting how in his youth he and his friends would form masturbatory circle jerks around statues and images of the virgin Mary.  There’s nothing like that in this film, but I can understand why the religiosity and pervy-ness of the segment compelled Universal remove it from the earlier film.  Nonetheless, Duvivier’s vision should be respected and the sequence returned to Flesh and Fantasy.  It's time for Hollywood to do right by him.  

*  assholes (Fr.)

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