Friday, April 27, 2018

Ingrid Bergman's Swedish Films, Part 1

Before coming to the United States in 1939, Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman had a successful career in her home country.  The Criterion Collection has just released six of her early Swedish-language films as part of their no-frills Eclipse series.  Here are reviews of the first two.  For reviews of films three and four, go here; for reviews of films five and six, here.

The Count of the Old Town (1935)
A well-made but unfunny comedy set among low characters in the Old Town section of Stockholm.  The count of the title is in truth just a well-dressed bum, and the film spends much of its time on his and his pals’ (also bums) antics to cage drinks and evade the bumbling police.  Back in the 1930s, alcohol was rationed in Sweden.  If you had a steady job, you got a ration book with which you could buy liquor.  No book, no booze.  There has also been a jewel theft in town, and a handsome young stranger, Äke (played by Edvin Adolphson, who co-directed the movie with Sigurd Walden), has checked into a local hotel.  Is he one of the thieves?  People, and the police, are wondering.  Working in the hotel is the chambermaid Elsa, played by Ingrid Bergman.  She and Äke become the film’s romantic interest.  Finally, there’s a second romantic plot, but this one of an allegedly comical nature, involving the fat, middle-aged, single, fish-monger Amalia and her efforts get to a husband.   

If it all sounds like harmless and mindless entertainment, you’re right.  And if it all sounds tiresomely familiar, you’re right there as well.  Back in the 30s and 40s, Hollywood, too, was cranking out these kind of films: low budget, low characters, low laughs.  And just as in the American product, there are no surprises in this one either.  In the end the lovers unite, the jewel thieves are caught, Amalia gets her man, and the count gets a job and, thus, his hooch.  These are not spoilers - plots as light and predictable as these can’t be spoiled.  

The performances are fine; they meet the low bar set by the script.  Bergman isn’t meant to be anything more than a pretty romantic lead in this film and she fills that role well, but she doesn’t break out or shine.  Her co-star Edvin Adolphson also gives a serviceable performance.  As for their comic co-stars littering this film, I found them uniformly unfunny.  They have the polished artificiality of actors who’ve worked the stage a little too much (or not well enough, or both).  I don’t know if Sweden ever had a vaudeville or music hall circuit, but these performances have the same overworked “this-killed-in-Peoria” slickness and mediocrity of those wretched institutions.   

Walpurgis Night (1935)
Directed by Gustaf Edgren, this is a very socially conscious movie.  In the 1930s the population of Sweden was in decline, and this was a matter of great public concern.  Apparently, Swedes were not humping enough.  (Perhaps if they lifted the alcohol ban, the problem would have taken care of itself.)  

Ingrid plays Lena, an unmarried young secretary secretly in love with her successful boss, Johan.  Johan, though, is married to Clary but their marriage is on the rocks.  Clary is a cold and callous socialite, unwilling to start the family which Johan wants.  She is also, unknown to her husband, pregnant.  She decides to get an abortion and we’re introduced into the process of how these things were arranged back in the 30s.  Lena’s father, Fredrik (played by the great Swedish director and actor Victor Sjöström), is a newspaper editor who likes to pontificate - at length and repeatedly- about the fertility crisis (the solution is love, he assures us).  He soon comes to suspect that his daughter is romantically involved with Johan.  From this point on, the already convoluted plot becomes a bit of a train-wreck; post-abortion there are police raids, mistaken identities, blackmail, a shooting, and a suicide note that untangles it all at the end.  In other words, it’s a typical melodrama.

The Walpurgis Night of the title is April 30th, which is when most of the events in the film take place.  Traditionally in Europe, Walpurgis Night is a time for large public demonstrations against (or, perhaps, for) witchcraft.  People march through the streets, there are bonfires, etc.  In Sweden, though, it’s only a celebration of fertility and the coming of spring.  Still, while completely innocuous in this film, the footage of young men in 1930s Europe roaming the streets in groups, singing rousing songs about rebirth, and gathering in the dark around bonfires is a little disturbing.  Seeing it reminded me of the bonfire scene in the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland film Babes in Arms (1939).  There, too, a crowd of singing, determined, torch-bearing youths march into town at night and start a bonfire.  At one point in that Busby Berkley extravaganza someone actually begins to sing Wagner's "Ride of Valkyries".  Clearly, something was in the air at the time (and it wasn't love).
Victor Sjöström and Ingrid Bergman
Walpurgis Night is not a bad film, but it's not a particularly good one either.  As with so many films with a message it's weighed down by its own self-importance.  The characters are one-dimensional and Bergman's performance is not especially good.  She is too fidgity, spending most of the movie looking confused or hurt.  The performance lacks depth.  In her defense, so does the character.  When the material is so thin that an accomplished actor like Victor Sjostrom can't add dimension to a character then there's not much hope for a cinematic newbie such as Bergman.  Despite these limitations, though, the film is worth watching as a historical document.  It's unusual to see a film from this period dealing so candidly with abortion and sexuality in general.  Walpurgis Night was released in the US and I would love to see the American version.  It was heavily cut to avoid offending various Legion of Decency types.  I would be intrigued to see how coherent the resulting film was. 

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Not Involved

“You can rule me out,” I said.  “I’m not involved.  Not interested,” I repeated.  It had been an article of my creed.  The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved.  My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter.  I wrote what I saw.  I took no action - even an opinion is a kind of action.
 - Graham Green, The Quiet American (1955)

Thursday, April 19, 2018


Man’s chief difference from the brutes lies in the exuberant excess of his subjective propensities - his predominance over them simply and solely in the number and in the fantastic and unnecessary character of his wants, physical, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual.  Had his whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he would never have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary.  And from the consciousness of this he should draw the lesson that his wants are to be trusted; that even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of his life, and will lead him to issues entirely beyond his present powers of reckoning.  Prune down his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him.
  - William James, “Reflex Action and Theism” (1881)

Monday, April 16, 2018

Armchair Fiction: Laughter Came Screaming/The Extortioners

Armchair Fiction is the book publishing branch of Sinister Cinema, the mammoth online retailer of unusual horror, sci-fi, schlock, and B-movies.  AF publishes mostly classic sci-fi novels, but they have branched out into pulp fictions from the 40s, 50s, and 60s as well.  I love these books.  Along with Hard Case Crime and Stark House Press, Armchair Fiction is one of my favorites publishers of classic pulps.  They’re printed as two titles to a volume and I’ll usually snap up a few when they issue new releases - which they do several times a year.  Here’s a look at one of the recent pairs I picked up.

Laughter Came Screaming (1953) by Henry Kane
Highly enjoyable.  Jimmy Berio, a Chicago tough guy, pulls off the ultimate heist.  But in the process he double crosses two of the dangerous Ruggeri brothers; and unfortunately there are three more Ruggeri brothers out there to get revenge.  So Berio lams it, disappears.  He goes to France.  A year later he comes back with a new face (thanks to plastic surgery) and a new name - James Barr.  He restarts his life as a respected and successful New York lawyer.  But the past catches up with him.  

Henry Kane is one of those hard-boiled writers whom time has unjustly forgotten, though with some luck this reprint should help to correct that.  Kane’s writing style is what makes this novel so good.  From the opening page we’re plunged into a world of suffocating fear, dread, and paranoia.  And I mean literally from the opening page - Barr is sitting in a doctor’s office and the ticking of a clock become a Poe-esque source of terror.
The thick muffled ticking of an old-fashioned clock, tall in a far corner, was personal to him.  It called out his name.  “Berio,” it called.  “Jimmy Berio.”  It swelled, held high, subsided, called again.  “Berio,” it called, growing larger.  James Barr sat motionless as the ticking merged to the constant sound of a word repeated, beating back from the walls, fluttering as though imprisoned in the room…He could have gone across and stretched out a hand and ended the throb of the pendulum, but there was no method to reach into the fear that had congealed, stiff and sudden and remembered, as he had pushed open the door on the dim numb quiet of the waiting room, when the ticking had been normal and remote.
Is this tough-guy prose driven to the point of self-parody?  Maybe.  One senses that at some level tongue is placed firmly in cheek with this.  Still, Kane pushes this schtick as far as possible and the effect is liberating.  His style becomes deliciously baroque, mannered, and yet it has a hallucinatory vividness which is perfect for its subject.  For example, in the early part of the book, Barr is in a crowded saloon to get a drink.  When he tries to leave, another man attempts to stop him.  Barr doesn’t know if this man is just a drunk or a killer sent the by the remaining Ruggeri brothers.  
Panic swirled.  This was either an obnoxious drunk or a man pretending.  He [Barr] was not going to stay to find out.  He tried to push past him.  “So you want to play?” the man said.  He saw the fist, but could not avoid it.  It struck him on the mouth making it numb.  He answered quickly.  Street fighting was an old and unforgotten art.  He kicked his knee into the man’s groin, heard the grunt of surprise, drove his fists into the popping eyes.  The man fell, slobbering.
Standard tough-guys-fighting fare, but the end is the interesting part.  The language itself starts to take on a fevered or delirious tone.  Notice that Barr doesn’t punch the man in the face but rather in his eyes - which are “popping,” like the eyes of a cartoon character.  And the most salient part of the man’s fall is that he slobbers.  If Dostoyevsky wrote pulp fiction it would probably read like this. 

The Extortioners (1960) by Ovid Demaris
A mixed bag.  Wealthy Los Angeles oilman Hugh DeWitt casually hints at a business prospect to small-time hood Joe Rizzola.  Rizzola partners up with big-time mafia boss Jimmy Grazio.  When the prospect doesn’t pan out, Grazio wants his profits anyway.  Soon DeWitt and his family are the targets of terror and violence.  There is lots of mayhem.

The first half of this book is pure delight.  The characters are vivid, colorful, lively.  You devour the pages like candy.  For instance, in the opening of the novel, Rizzola and his wife pull up in front of DeWitt’s huge ranch house.  “Smell it, baby?” he says to her.  She asks if he means the jasmine.  He replies: “Naw.  I mean the money.  The mazoola, kid.  The smell is everywhere.”  Oh, yeah, it’s that kind of good.  But midway through the novel Demaris seems to give up; we meet two of the dullest police in pulp fiction history and suddenly Demaris is rushing to end the story.  The build up of the first half collapses (slobbering?) into a heap of implausible coincidences and sudden personality changes among the characters.  Ultimately this book was a rush job and it shows.  Nonetheless, the first half was very entertaining.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Danger of Identity

This theme of identity has always seemed dangerous to me, because unless it is enclosed in the exclusive sphere of the individual, I find it at odds with freedom.  The only admissible identity is that which signifies self-creation, a continuous effort by the sovereign individual to make himself, defining himself in the face of those impositions and legacies of the environment in which he develops, the geography that surrounds him, the history that precedes him, language, customs, faith, and the convictions within which he was raised.  But none of it is nature, an inalienable condition; it is culture, in other words, something that the reason and sensibility of the individual can accept, reject, or modify thanks to his critical conscience and as a function of his own inclinations, ideas or devotions.  An identity cannot be a prison from which an individual, due to the banal reason of having been born, is held captive…
  - Mario Vargas Llosa, “Welcome to Fernando de Szyszlo” (1997)

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Bernard Shaw's Modest Proposal

…I will go so far as to confess that there is a great deal to be said for hanging all public men at the age of fifty-two, though under such a regulation I should myself have perished eight years ago.  Were it in force throughout Europe, the condition of the world at present would be much more prosperous.
  - Bernard Shaw, letter to “The Manchester Guardian”, July 12, 1916