Reflecting on Dragonwyck (Mankiewicz, 1946)

Annex - Price, Vincent (Dragonwyck)_01

Tonight, I finally saw Dragonwyck (Joseph L. Mankiewicz); and in 35mm at New York’s Lincoln Center, what a place to see it. It was introduced by someone at the festival, who said what we all know with not little sadness that “prints are disappearing,” so of course this was a very special treat. It was only unfortunate that I had to sacrifice the chance to see a 35mm print of Barefoot Contessa (1954), screening in a theatre over the road, but given Dragonwyck is one that had been on my hard-to-get list for a long time.

But what a great film. Mankiewicz’s first directorial effort, based on a screenplay he had written, though he had been co-writer on at least twenty films before it. He had received two Academy Award nominations, one for Best Screenplay for Skippy (1931), and one for Best Picture for The Philadelphia Story (1940). He had introduced Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. He was, this means, a very talented man — something that Ernst Lubitsch could sense, as he pushed Mankiewicz into directing his own script despite the latter’s apprehension. Dragonwyck is, though, a remarkably assured film.

At the heart of the story is 18-year-old Miranda Wells, played by 25-year-old Gene Tierney. It isn’t always easy to appear younger in age on screen — even to this day — and such was the case that often young women could seem much older than they were. But Gene Tierney does a remarkable job acting as a woman barely ready to be one. In the first scene, her mother reads a letter received from an unknown source; it turns out to be from a distant relative inviting her to explore a life away from her dinky Connecticut farm, and as Miranda says she dreams of going away her heavy breath is visible beneath her clothing. Never before feeling such excitement, Miranda is unable to contain it. Throughout, Tierney does a number of things that convey she is uncertain, unassured, holds her facial features with a little less firmness as she does in other pictures. In the final scene, in her mourning clothes, she seems much more grown up; she is a widow, after all.

On her first night at Dragonwyck, Miranda reads the poetic lyrics to a tune that the ever sinister Nicholas Van Ryn plays on the harpsichord. She recites, “I dreamt that I dwelt within marble halls.” Her mother later tells her, “You can’t marry a dream, Miranda.” This whole film is portentous, as so many great gothic mysteries are. The oleander, which Van Ryn used to poison his first wife and tries to poison Miranda with, is ominously framed at its first appearance. Lamps glow like crystal balls. Shot by well-known and awarded Arthur C. Miller, who had a long-term contract at Fox but who worked many more years in Hollywood, Dragonwyck follows the dark signature of many gothic melodramas. He captures some of the best thunder-and-lightning photography I’ve ever seen (although that is also the work of the film’s visual effects team) and one of the spookiest staircases in Hollywood history.

And Vincent Price has never been more delightful. His back is so straight. His lips held together so tightly. His voice like velvet. It’s unfortunate that his delightful rejection of Christianity — the bible is nothing but “printed mottos” — had to equate to his being a murderous lunatic, which was less a product of the Code, I imagine, than a commitment to faith. But I’m ready to forgive that for the time being, because look at this staircase.


Also tips to one of my favourite Twentieth-Century Fox sound design teams, W. D. Flick and Roger Heman, Sr.

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Another brief thought on Under the Skin

A longer reflection on Under The Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) is here:

Scarlett Johansson Under the Skin


At a crucial point in the alien’s uncomfortable warmth towards humanity, Scarlett Johannson is people-watching. She does a lot of people-watching, observing and learning about human movement and interaction. In one of these sequences, the faces of people become overlayed with each other, washed with an orange light, in a sequence reminiscent of F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). It is a beautiful trick of lighting and digital manipulation. There is a similarity in subject here, too, a sort of visceral experience of a life that is unknown, experienced through the eyes and body of an onscreen vessel. It is part of the alien’s journey to discovering human impulse, observing a way of life and movement that she is unfamiliar with—like that of the bright city lights to a rural commoner—and she becomes drawn to it.

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Dean, Brando, and Capote

In Truman Capote’s shrewd but not malicious profile of Marlon Brando, taken and written in 1957, during the star’s filming of Sayonara, he wrote:

James Dean, the young motion-picture actor killed in a car accident in 1955, was promoted throughout his phosphorescent career as the All-American “mixed-up kid,” the symbol of misunderstood hot-rodding youth with a switch-blade approach to life’s little problems. When he died, an expensive film in which he had starred, Giant, had yet to be released, and the picture’s press agents, seeking to offset any ill effects that Dean’s demise might have had on the commercial prospects of their product, succeeded by “glamorising” the tragedy, and, in ironic consequence, created a Dean legend of rather necrophilic appeal. Though Brando was seven years older than Dean, and professionally more secure, the two actors came to be associated in the collective movie-fan mind. Many critics reviewing Dean’s first film, East of Eden, remarked on the well-nigh plagiaristic resemblance between his acting mannerisms and Brando’s. Off-screen, too, Dean appeared to be practicing the sincerest form of flattery; like Brando, he tore around on motorcycles, played bongo drums, dressed the role of rowdy, spouted an intellectual rigmarole, cultivated a cranky, colourful newspaper personality that mingled, to a skilfully potent degree, plain bad boy and sensitive sphinx.

According to Brando, Dean had an “idée fixe” about him. “Whatever I did he did.”

If this is an accurate telling of a relationship, produced by and for the Hollywood star system (under the guise of being for another culture, that of the “regular” person), then it has been wiped out in the decades since with a new narrative. And yet, whatever it may be, both figures are valuable. They both still serve a purpose, some elements strengthened and yet some have waned. But both of them were extraordinarily gentle, passionate men, and that quality, almost above all, remains forefront in their images. And here’s the most important thing: both men read books, and both men had cats.

Marlon Brando with His Cat at Home, circa 1950s (2) James Dean


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Kanal (Andrzej Wadja, 1957)

“These are the heroes of the tragedy. Watch them closely. For these are the last hours of their lives.”


What do these last hours sound like?

A stern, dark eyed man plays the piano gently, his refletion in the polished surface representing a clarity that is absent from the rest of Polish culture. There are scenes of closeness, yet we are still held at a distance, held back as intruders, spyers, uninvited. When there is finally a scene, almost 25 minutes in, when we are shown real intimacy, and the camera lingers close on bodies, on kisses and caresses, on the folds of his shirt and the flows of her blonde hair, they are ripped from us by a bomb, an attack. Violence launches. The man playing piano so beautifully is now an accoplice with a cannon.

From here, the threat never leaves. Moments of joy are quickly bombed, bloodied, killed. At the next moment of rest, characters converse. “The Silence is deafening.” “It’s only a brief pause.” The man with whom we were sharing his intimacy is shot, wounded, incapacitated. The piano is out of tune. “Now all I come up with are empty sounds.”

Gunfire becomes dull, droning, a constant soundtrack. When there’s no gunfire, in the sewers, the silence is not a sign of rest or of solace. It is not a cloak of comfort. It is something to be feared, and it is terrifying, because it threatens to expose. The Germans soak the sewers with gas, and it becomes even more claustrophobic.

The groaning of the almost empty sewer, a sewer filled with death and rot. “Stumbling through stinking shit,” as Daisy says, despite her lover wanting to lighten his world with illusion. The sewer pathways get smaller and smaller. Pascal said, “The silence of infinite space fills me with terror.” Here the space is constricted, it is narrow, it is not infinite – but in a way, the space in which they are vulnerable to capture is infinite. The silence if terrifying. It is almost paralysing. And it takes them.

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Silent Sonata: a brief reflection

In 2011 I wrote a program note for the Melbourne International Film Festival, about this Slovenian film, Silent Sonata. The URL is missing, now, but I’ve found my brief reflection. I still remember this joyful film. Wonderful to listen to.


After a brief visual prologue featuring a series of landscape tableaux, Silent Sonata (Janez Burger) presents us with a line from Walt Whitman’s poem, Song of Myself. “I know I have the best of time and space. And was never measured and never will be measured,” we read on the screen. This suggests the forthcoming psychological direction of the film: that there is an absolute freedom in existence, that the despair of a barren reality is leavened by a belief in the marvellous, and that we, as clichéd as this may sound, can live life as we love it.. The following line of Whitman’s poem, “I tramp a perpetual journey (come listen all!)” while not included in the film, must have been on writer-director Burger’s mind. Life is a journey, and in this film we are invited to listen. 

As the opening credits roll, simple white text on a black background, the film opens its intense sound landscape onto a world of auditory envelopment. As the soundtrack continues over the black screen, we are subjected to sonic violence: weapons relentlessly penetrate the soundtrack. Hyper-aware of personal, environmental, and wartime sounds, and only slowly reintroduced to the image, we are taken to a place where sound and silence are both imperative. 

Free of dialogue, Silent Sonata wastes absolutely no sound, and sometimes this emphasis is overwhelming. In the film’s beginning there is a slow, painful zoom on a dying man, and the intensity of the sound here is driven to excess. Of course, this is the point, and only makes us more aware of the suffering present in this sparse, lonely, war torn place. Consequently, the wonder of the bizarre circus interludes are comforting, strange but magical. 

Silent Sonata has the same joyous, frenetic surrealism which infused Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995). In the face of war, the uplifting visual and sonic splendour resonates with the recent history of the Balkan region. The moments of magic and circus antics – juxtaposed with the harsh, barren conditions of rural Slovenia – are at first oddly comforting. As the moments become more pronounced, however, it becomes apparent that Silent Sonata is concerned with the body in the face of war. 

In one such scene, a piano sonata overwhelms the soundtrack while a gymnast performs her act, her hoop suspended in the air as she is watched, in awestruck desperation, by a widower. This bizarre appearance of a circus troupe at the home of a man and his children gives the survivors of war hope. It is a hope in the possibilities of life, and the potential of human strength, physical or otherwise. How do the human body and mind cope in the face of war, against an unknown fear of loss and destruction? When we are at a loss for words, what becomes important? Silent Sonata definitely took a while to warm to me, but once it did, I was utterly engulfed in the film. There are some truly stunning scenes: a circus performer dances with a tank; children ride bicycles on a beach, with the waves and a harp as aural accompaniment; an interior deluge destroys a typewriter. By inviting the spectator to explore the auditory realm he has created, Burger has given poetic expression to the spirit of humankind.

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On my favourite films of 1944

This is a list I created last year for a particular shared social media “game”, where I was asked to provide my favourite films of 1944. Obviously, my instinct was to first go for all those glorious Hollywood productions, but I probed a little deeper, and came up with a list that recognises and appreciates other countries, genres, and film forms. Oh yes, 1944 was a good year.


10. DOUBLE INDEMNITY — Billy Wilder (This goes first as it’s no doubt why I was given this year.)
9. LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE — Jean Cocteau
8. LAURA — Otto Preminger
7. AT LAND — Maya Deren
6. ALL THE CATS JOIN IN — a Walt Disney production (One of the best animations going around in this age of strong short films. Plus I had to get some Benny Goodman.)
5. TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT — Howard Hawks (For the script, the music, and for being the first appearance of the name and star Lauren Bacall)
4. GASLIGHT — George Cukor (Excellent film but mostly getting a mention for being the significant first role of powerhouse Angela Lansbury)
3. IVAN THE TERRIBLE, part 1 — Sergei Eisenstein
1. WEIRD WOMAN — Reginald Le Borg (Got to have a Lon Chaney Jr voodoo B-film on this list)

CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE — Robert Wise, Gunther von Fritsch, and JAMMIN‘ THE BLUES — Gjon Mili, nearly made it and deserve mentions. I also need to mention THE SEWER OF LOS ANGELES, a film that was planned but never made by Luis Buñuel and Man Ray.

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Violette (Martin Provost, 2013)


Violette (Martin Provost, 2013) opens as a film that is concerned with textures of the body and mind, the mind of a vivid writer and her body, as its is viewed by others and herself. In the opening scene, Violette (Emmanuelle Devos) bathes herself in the crisp air, then later cares for her injured friend, told through close ups of hands and body parts and a sound track caressing the skin. I began this film with no knowledge of Violette Leduc or her work, so this seems an insightful choice given the name of her first published memoir, In the Prison of Her Skin. Her skin, without the protection of clothing, is not an exposure which frees her — it is the very thing in which she feels trapped, punished. 

As her friend, Maurice (a fake husband, to keep up appearances), convinces her to direct her sadness and despair into writing. The first line she narrates from her work is, ‘My mother never held my hand.’ Surely, a harsh line and a hard thought for so many to hear, redolent of rejection, spite, or yearning. This neglect manifests as a clutching obsession with people she comes into contact with, particularly her literary mentor and peer, Simone de Beauvoir (an extraordinary Sandrine Kiberlain).

In reflection, this is all a worthwhile part of the film, but experiencing it as the opening segment was very slow, cold, and alienating, despite its bodily sensations. Thankfully the particular part, set in the French countryside, did not last long, and when the film cuts to a more self-confident, sartorially assured Violette, in Paris, this feels like the film’s real beginning, the beginning of French dandyism and the literary scene, as she makes a new life in the city. She escapes the empty countryside, but what she can’t escape from ultimately, though, is life. ‘My mother spared me, to my despair,’ she tells Simone de Beauvoir, who tells her to write it all down, ‘you’ll do women a favour.’  

‘Everything wounds you,’ her friend Jacques Guérin (Olivier Gourmet) scolds, and although she is a mercurial personality it is hard to believe that his criticism does not stem from a fear of women, and of women’s voices. Breaking news that her sexually explicit material is being censored, Simone tells Violette, ‘A man told me humiliation at being a woman should never be an excuse to humiliate men.’ That is the way that the early feminist fight for equality was viewed, and as the more vulnerable voice it was silenced. (This makes particularly interesting viewing around International Women’s Day.) 

In the end, Violette found a way to have her voice heard and found some pleasure. At least, those things are settled upon in the film by the success of her sixth book, 18 years after her first. The Bastard draws the film to an end, an uplifting scene that, while I’m sure the text wasn’t so uplifting, allowed her some reprieve, some satisfaction. Violette kept living, and writing.

This is, really, a beautiful film, with delicately drawn characters, subtle acting, and a delicious palette. There is the odd cliché, like when Violette looks at the cracks in her apartment ceiling when she is on the verge of a breakdown over Simone, her mother yet again pulling her hand away and later a seducer clutching her hand with his, but these are forgivable. Gentle clichés like these can be expected in works that rely on and creatively interpret metaphor, particularly from another artist or art form, and visual description can suffer in some formal cinema constructions that are without the fluidity and freedom allowed of literature. 

So, it all works, and with the intrigue, the fascinating relationship between Violette and Simone, and the brief snippets of her writing narrated on screen, Violette proves an important, remarkable film. Leduc was always the least noticed in her circle; at least, that’s how she felt herself, and wrote very convincingly that she was. In her writing and her thoughts, she admits that she blended real life with dream life, creating her perfect narrative, the perfect form for her feelings — just like some of the best films do. This is one, so see it, and honour International Women’s Day. 

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