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A chance to feel
21 April 2018
The last episode, which begins when the first plane hits (not a spoiler), brought me up against my own memories of 9/11. My son was in the city, and on that day I worried about him and listened to him on the phone. Aside from that, I was numb. It seemed utterly incomprehensible that this should have happened. Who? Why? How? Equally incomprehensible was the speed with which these questions were in fact answered, for reasons the Hulu series makes clear: the answers were already at the fingertips of various players who didn't know what to do with them (though the finale implies that various parties were prepared to exploit the bombing instantly). The series begins at the (or a) beginning, including the Kenyan embassy bombing, the USS Cole bombing, and interactions among the players on both sides. The questions have been answered, the lines drawn in such a way as to meet at this point, with the bombings. As I watched the last episode, I was able to feel for the people I love who were breathing that dust that day. I could finally weep for them, as well as for John O'Neill and Ali Soufan, whom I had not known about until now.
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Wormwood (2017)
Long but compelling
17 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
I binged-watched this in one evening mostly because I was afraid that if I stopped I would never go back and finish it. I gather that happened to others. But I had the time and in the end it was a great ride. The story moves from one theory to another about one man's death over the decades--and the final conclusion is that his murder can't be solved unless a whole lot of other ones are brought to light at the same time, as well as some very dark moments in America's past. That is a worthy theme for 4 1/2 hours. As the story moves on, you realize that the collages of news stories, photographs (e.g. of actual people mixed up or jigsawed into the actors who play them in the re-enactments) and places are deeply tied into the story: the main character, Eric Olson, began making collages after his father's death and later developed a method for using collages to help traumatized people deal with their experiences. It seems to me that this method fits well with Morris's style, and the rhythms of the images can be very beautiful. Eric lost track of this work, apparently moved back into the house he lived in as a child, and talks at the end about having lost himself in his search for the truth about his father. He remains however extremely articulate and persuasive. In a sense, the film itself redeems Eric and his father by exposing the secrets they wanted known.
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Elementary (2012–2019)
Holmes the great friend
11 December 2012
I was quite doubtful about this show. I have been enjoying the recent Sherlock Holmes movies and the British Sherlock TV show, while sometimes being a bit dismayed by the elaborate and over-the-top plotting, piling one adventure on another. Holmes and Watson have become brilliant themes on which wonderful actors can riff for our delight. Nothing boring here! What more is needed?

Well, the Holmes of Elementary, while he is eccentric, arrogant, disrespectful, etc., is also a good, kind person, and this was true of the original Holmes, who was capable of gentleness, charm, and anger at those who inflict suffering. He is selfish and self-centered--after all, since he is always right, you should be doing what he says--but he is also generous and cares about Watson and about crime victims. Jonny Lee Miller is developing a strong character who likes dealing with the kinds of odd urban crimes that are really Holmes's province.

It's true that Law and Order:CI presented a similar team, but that show isn't on any more. I am finding Elementary fresh and worth watching.
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Painted Lady (1997 TV Movie)
Going for Baroque
1 April 2012
Warning: Spoilers
I watched this on TV over a decade ago, kept a tape of it at whose spine I looked fondly from time to time, and finally saw it again on Netflix with my husband last night. He was not immediately enthralled (though I was, all over again). After the first hour or so, we had to keep watching as the suspense and loose ends multiply, and I had forgotten the twists and turns. I love way the plot works out and the loose ends are tied up. On second viewing, however, with a more critical companion, I realized how absurd some of the best plot developments and most memorable scenes actually are.

At some level, the production works because of the way it is haunted by images of Baroque paintings, saints in various violent and twisted poses and situations. The love of art is intense in many of the characters, and when Maggie finally sees Artemesia's Judith canvas her face tells us that this violent, even horrible scene is beautiful. (Another important painting in the story is a Goya bullfight scene.) As in a Caravaggio painting, the faces--the performances--stand out as realistic, everyday people, recognizable in the street (or at least the streets of drama)--they are complex, confused, liable to do stupid things or to misunderstand a given situation completely. Many of them are obsessed by symbols, too--Charles dies at the beginning of the story because he cannot bear to see his long-dead wife's rather ugly portrait damaged; Maggie carries her father's cigarette case like a fetish. The way these characters meet each other and interact in the gloom of the plot is beautiful and moving. But their motivations remain murky and incomprehensible.

Mirren performs a fabulous double role--Maggie the tough streetwise bohemian earth-mother artist and her alter ego The Countess, whose knowledge, apparent prosperity, and aristocratic manner hide a terrible fragility. Maggie is of course acting the role of The Countess, worrying that the mask may slip, but her sister at one point implies that she is also acting the role of Maggie. Maggie lives in her own world, a world of music, in which emotional attachments last a long time and give life shape and meaning. That "explains" everything.
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Screen Two: Heading Home (1991)
Season 7, Episode 1
Still thinking about it after all these years
8 January 2012
I went to check this out on IMDb after seeing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) because I remember it as a really great performance by Gary Oldman. I had taped "Heading Home" from TV and watched it several times. Since it has few reviews and no plot summary, here goes.

As the other reviewers noted, the story is set in the early 50s, at a moment when England is still recovering from the war and there are all kinds of ferment in London: artists and poets have their own marginal culture, supporting each other's efforts to develop a new British aesthetic, while other, less educated men, like Oldman's Ian and the gangsters who lurk in the background of his life, are scrambling in the economic chaos to make their own pile of money.

Beautiful Janetta comes to London from the country and falls in love with a handsome poet, who displays her to his friends as his muse. Then she meets Ian, who is not handsome or educated but who is full of energy, hope, desire--and intelligence. Ian sees her personal charm as something to be put to work, and gives her a job and the possibility of making money.

The final scene, in which Janetta talks about the fragility of the truths she knows about that era, moved me at the time very deeply and still echoes in my memory. Richardson was great, and Oldman's Ian was one of the most alive characters I have ever seen on the screen.
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Hands of Orlac, restored
24 August 2011
This is not a great movie, I admit. Certainly the acting is bizarre (though often moving) and the rhythm takes getting used to. But I thought I would put in a good word based on a recent viewing experience. I am not rating it high but I really enjoyed it a lot.

6 or 7 years ago I went on a Conrad Veidt spree and bought copies of some his silents from an ebay seller/devotee. The quality varied and I recall that he particularly apologized for this item, which was barely viewable. All you could really see was Veidt's face... The other night TCM showed the Kino restoration and I sat down to see the film "for real." It was a pleasure to be able to take in the wonderful decors and costumes, and to get a relatively coherent version of the plot. The train wreck scene is stirring. And Veidt's face, again, as he progresses from sensitive soul to tormented monstrosity... In short, it was very rewarding.
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The Countess (2009)
Rashomon in Transylvania
9 July 2011
Well, actually, in the Little Carpathians, apparently, which are not part of Transylvania, or so Wikipedia tells me.

I really enjoyed this film (at home on pay-per-view)though I think it is intended for a pretty narrow audience. As others have noted, the dialogue is amazingly stilted (very literary, rather like a French novel of the 17th or 18th century) and delivered in near-monotone. I kept feeling that the whole movie had been dubbed into English. On the other hand, I found the acting very fine, and I admired the insistence on presenting these characters as not at all like you, me, or the folks in the latest TV drama. The Countess in particular is a strange, unique portrait--her piety, her desire for amorous adventure, her pride, her intelligence. And that's before you get to the blood-of-virgins part.

The film proposes that what we are seeing before our eyes is not the truth about the Countess. We are watching a fantasy of a noblewoman enacting a tale "told by the victors"--by the men who were enriched by her downfall and relieved, too, to be rid of the very possibility of an intelligent woman. The tale is told, too, by the peasants and others whose sons are fighting in her army. Yet the man who questions the gory story is her lover, and he too may be deceived. There is no simple answer to the question, what really happened?--no resolution.

In short, it's an intellectual (and visual) treat, but it won't affect your blood sugar.
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How it's made.... far from Mood
10 September 2010
This show is delightful! The episodes I've seen involve the two most outrageous Project Runway designers shopping in small towns for fabric to create dresses for women who normally are way too busy raising kids, pulling down a paycheck, or putting deer meat on the table to wear a dress. It becomes a chronicle of the various ways in which women "wear the pants"--literally--around the country, doing various jobs where a dress would get in the way.

It is indeed charming, and whoppingly sentimental (dad's eyes tear up as he sees his 30-year-old little girl all dolled up), but really delightful, too. It is a paean to "real people" and small communities, the kind where the only yardage in any store is quilting fabric. Austin and Santino are fish out of water and it is clear that they are learning a lot, too. They bring to it such warmth and zest--and humor and love of their work--that it is a pleasure to watch them.
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Julie & Julia (2009)
Butter, Butter, Butter, and Time
23 August 2009
I decided to write on this movie because, unlike most of those whose reviews I have read, I really enjoyed BOTH parts of the movie.

Yes, the Julia-and-Paul-in-Paris segments are over-the-top wonderful. They are superbly acted, funny, delightful, full of mouthwatering food and wonderful eccentric women in hats--and they present a romance of mythical proportions. Streep as Child is a double goddess, and Stanley Tucci stands tall as a man whose various disappointments in life fade beside his satisfaction in his wife.

But I thought the Julie-and-Eric-in-Queens sections made a good contrast. Instead of ebullient postwar Paris and beloved colleagues and "penpals," you get sad, litigious New Yorkers and the somewhat dismal options open to a smart, educated, idealistic young couple living hand to mouth on two jobs. At the beginning you get some classic Ephron satire, but pretty soon the story focuses on food and love. Julie's life turns out to include friends who appreciate both. The modern folk aren't so witty, so ironic as the Paris group, though. They deal in compromises and sincerity. Julie is resigned to seeing herself as a bitch, rather than a goddess, and Eric pleads not to be called a saint.

But Julie accomplishes in one year what Julia needs more than eight years to do: get a book contract. Everything is faster, cooler, sadder and yet less potentially tragic in Queens than in the Childs' kitchens. This contrast was what made the glorious Child sections work. Myth and grimy reality.

Amy Adams was perfect. She gave Julie a depth and believability--the depth of shallowness, maybe, but still a touching quality.
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Alegría (1999)
Children of Purgatory
21 June 2009
Warning: Spoilers
The enthusiastic reviews here led me to purchase this DVD--I couldn't find it to rent and, after seeing the recent touring production of Saltimbanco, I was particularly eager to see the mime René Bazinet who, I gather, created the original mime role in that extravaganza. Unfortunately, the most interesting bits for a Cirque fan are the extras, which include two beautiful sequences of performers in strangely appropriate European settings and a few compelling seconds of Mr. Bazinet actually performing as a mime rather than as an actor (he gets to do this briefly at the end of the movie, also, when his character is finally integrated into the circus, having kissed his true love). I expected something like the film Children of Paradise, which presents the extraordinary relationships between a clown and his public, true love and the realities of daily life. Although these are the themes of Alegría, the relationships are so poorly drawn that the result seems a muddle.

This is a confused, sentimental, and somewhat monotonous film (narrated in voice-over). The "real world" presented in it was as fantastic and beautiful as the circus world--just less disciplined and well-lit. The hero, Frac, is supposed to be a Little Tramp everyman character, but his mime makeup and costume are there from the start and he sings like a bird. His plumage is rather dull in the "real" world of Felliniesque whores and retired opera singers and exotically dressed child flower-sellers he inhabits. We never learn anything about the past which is represented by the photographs of himself he tears up, nor about his relationship with the child Momo. When the circus arrives the main difference between it and the dark, supposedly terrible and desperate street world is that it has better lighting (there is even a little speech about "stepping into the light" of the stage, awkwardly inserted to support a dramatic moment) and the women are a lot skinnier (the better to tie themselves in knots). When the children finally escape the dark world to come to the circus, they discard their bright clothes and choose to dress in uniform white--this is visually impressive but symbolically disturbing, I think, as if the circus requires both performers and audience to discard individuality, to bring nothing of the past to the experience. Perhaps this is the intended message, but if so it is no more liberating than the sermons of wicked Marcello, the child-enslaver. The symbolism of flowers (Marcello runs a flower factory, which since it has no light or dirt presumably grows flowers from the children's energy; but when Frac wants to give his true love a symbol of his feelings, he chooses flowers, and she treasures them) is messy rather than complex, too.

Good stuff: I enjoyed Frank Langella as the head clown who rules the circus. The little boy acting Momo provides genuine emotion (which the adult Momo's narrating voice drains away, though) The clown wedding sequence is surreal (no voice-over needed, or comprehensible words except for "Mama! Daddy!") and helps tie together the themes of love, the sad darkness of "real life," and performance. And Mr. Bazinet is fascinating when he is allowed to let himself go.
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Boy travelers in Japan
13 February 2009
I got interested in Western views of Japan in the 19th century a few years ago, so I knew a bit about the milieu Branagh purports to have chosen for his adaptation of Shakespeare's "As you like it." Well, I can see why he went for it: like Elizabethan theater, Kabuki has men playing the roles of women; there is wrestling in the play, so you can have a sumo wrestler; there are notes hung from trees, and that is something the Japanese know how to do properly; and everybody can dance around in gorgeous kimono at the end. Full stop. There is no attempt at all to think about Westerners in Japan, about the Japanese vs. the Elizabethan concept of nature (Arden looked like California to me), and they didn't even bother to get the sumo referee properly dressed. I didn't see anything at all remotely suggesting Yokohama (compare the wonderful scenes in Last Samurai). The colors were wrong. This Japan is as inauthentic as can be.

So what? It's a marvelously directed film which kept the plot chugging along in full sight, the wonderful speeches singing, and the dialogue hilarious. The actors were all golden, golden. It was just fun. My son got hooked by seeing Olivier's Henry V as a child, my daughter by Branagh's Much Ado about Nothing. I think I want to be sure a copy of this one is available for my grandson.
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No Such Thing (2001)
Beauty and the Matter Eradicator
12 April 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I really like this movie. Partly that's because I like Iceland. You would swear that the Icelanders describing the monster were reciting Beowulf.

No such Thing is a version of "Beauty and the Beast" that would make Jean Cocteau jealous: the need of Beauty for the Beast and vice-versa is stripped of psychology or eroticism, and the likelihood that "this is all a dream" is pushed at us again and again. First, we have the unlikelihood that Beatrice survived the plane crash, or left the operating table under the hands of her Fairy Godmother. Then, there are the terrific little moments like the one where we watch the Beast turn away from us and hunch over, like any carnival fire-spitter, to prepare the mouthful of liquid which he will then spit out in flames. "I saw him breathe fire," says Beatrice later, to clarify that her monster is the genuine article. And then there is the Matter Eradicator, a device designed to convince the Matter that he has no self, that he does not in fact exist.

Like Cocteau's Beast (or the gorgeous beast played by Ron Perlman in the TV series), the Monster is quite attractive and looks very gentlemanly (his costume suggests Heathcliff), is brave, and keeps his promises. Like Cocteau's Beast, he is not pleased with his own murderous nature. He drinks to salve the pain of being inhuman. In No Such Thing, however, we need not fear that the Monster will suddenly turn into a boring human prince. There is no Gothic hint that he is a suitable object of sexual desire, or that lust is something he feels (rather, it is something that his human neighbors project on him by "dumping a piece of ass" on his island from time to time).

The movie keeps its balance between the blessing that Beatrice might bring to the Monster and the role the Monster plays in the human imagination. Helen Mirren's character and her cohorts have developed to a point of civilization where they no longer fear the Monster. They happily express in word and deed their own cruelty and rapacity, which far outrun the monster's. To them he is fascinating as a being who can be tortured indefinitely and in many ways without actually dying. The good scientists, Dr. Anna and Dr. Artaud, on the other hand see the monster as matter to be eradicated. Beatrice, however, who is wholly good, simply loves the Monster.

I think there is no ending to the film because there is no beginning. Beatrice keeps losing consciousness; before our eyes, she shows blind faith in some pretty doubtful tricks. So we are not allowed to suspend belief sufficiently to trust the final sequence of events. The face of Beatrice is offered as a kind of vision at the end, like the vision of God at the end of Dante's Divine Comedy. What would you want to see when you are about to have your matter eradicated? Surely this glowing face of love.

The question, if we did suspend disbelief, would be: can the Matter Eradicator, which we are told relies on the Monster's acceptance that he has no self, work when he sees that face? If not, he is back in the hands of the torturers. He does not need Beauty's kiss; he needs a Minna, as in Coppola's Dracula, to cut off his head. Or a Beowulf.
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Fever Pitch (1997)
How to film a novel
30 September 2007
I am a middle-aged American woman who has never seen a soccer game and has never seen any kind of live sports game all the way through beyond Little League (3 brothers, 1 son). I live in a town where football is the main local religion. Nick Hornby's novel was a delight to read and really gave me some sense of the psychology as well as the anthropology of being a fan. I rented the movie because I wanted to SEE the novel: the stadium, the terraces, the colors, the craziness Hornby describes. Youtube and Wikipedia could tell me some about Alan Smith, Highbury, the Hillsborough tragedy, but not enough. The movie came through. Actual footage of games and scenes inside the stadium gave a powerful sense of what it's all about. The final sequence, in which various characters Paul's fandom has touched watch a championship game, was wonderfully moving. The plot has three characters--Paul the young fan, Paul the adult fan, and Sarah the outsider who is repelled by the irrationality, the loud and sweary masculinity of it all. The plot exists to allow Paul to expose, stubbornly as a child and articulately as an adult, what it means to be a fan. Sarah is there to force him into talking and thinking a bit about it. Both Pauls are marvelous. Colin Firth is amazing. His physical attractiveness is essential to the plot--it gets him into Sarah's bed so they can start talking about Arsenal-- and that simple fact leaves him huge amounts of room to be boyish, goofy, moody, clueless, innocent, and cruel.
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God exists, and he has a script
16 September 2007
This film was just good fun, not-quite-two hours of entertaining suspension of disbelief--literally, since if one does not believe in God, or believes anything in particular about him, one has to forget that. Which is easy, because every little idea and character is worked out just enough to keep the viewer engaged: yes, the Hebrew typewriter (on which God is typing his screenplay--he is woefully underendowed with electronics and evidently doesn't even have cable, though there is a satellite in his neighborhood) goes to the right when God hits "return"; yes, God is a baby-ditchdigger-pigeon-garbage man; yes, some kind of wings will appear in the proximity of the angel René until he gets his "real" ones. The Burning Bush becomes a hot-dog roast, a woman who reads the newspaper tells God off for allowing the news to happen, the devil has his own rewrite department. There is some kind of dumb or clever joke, visual or verbal or both, every minute. Maybe every thirty seconds.

The movie God makes provokes the one long sequence with relatively few jokes: people watching a movie. It reminded me quite a bit--and was surely meant to--of the movie scene in Sullivan's Travels, with men at the lowest ebb of dignity laughing at Mickey Mouse. But this audience is not a chain gang; it is all the people of Paris, cushioned by a social safety net (at one point René says that if he gets fired as an angel he'll have to apply for unemployment; hospitals are evidently good places to die or go crazy; you need a permit to make a movie; the police always seem to be in place whether needed or not; the more dangerous bits of the Eiffel Tower are roped off). Perhaps if there is a message it is that a society is better at providing safety nets than God, but that he survives because our imaginations need him (or, in the movie, vice versa).
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Conviction (2006)
The best lack all conviction: Existential TV, maybe?
19 March 2006
I was impressed by this show, of which I've seen two episodes. The theme seems to be that the pace of life and of crime today is so fast that one can no longer seek truth or justice--one must just keep doing what one is doing and perhaps try to be kind to those who can't keep up.

The classic crime show follows the track laid down by Sherlock Holmes and beloved of all mystery readers: the Good Guys are the recurring characters, and they are completely dedicated to Justice, and in each episode/story they track down Bad Guys who have violated the law or morality in some way and try to see that the legal system punishes the Bad Guys for what they have done. Maybe sometimes it turns out that there is no crime actually committed--no Bad Guy this time; maybe sometimes the Bad Guy turns out to be sympathetic and virtuous; sometimes legal system is unable to follow through. But all these conflicts are registered for us through the wisdom of the Good Guys, who represent the desire for Truth and Justice.

In Conviction, the protagonists are not in fact particularly Good Guys. The head of the group of DAs, Cabot, will bend truth, justice, and/or the law to obtain a desirable conviction, and clearly gets a personal thrill not out of Truth or Justice but out of Winning. In another show, she would be shown up as stupid or incompetent, but here she is the smartest and most competent person around. The assistant DAs who make up most of the cast could be divided between those who will bend the law to protect themselves and those who are naively committed to some version of Justice--except that the law-benders have consciences and the committed ones find themselves compromising, and compromised too. Winning a case can be worse than losing one, even if Justice is served for a few minutes in the courtroom. What's more, in some cases even we the audience don't get to know the truth about a case--all we get to know is what the DA knows, and that may not be conclusive.

It is really impressive to have such a large cast, each member with a case, all moving around, bumping into each other, often lying to each other, in one episode. The plot is just a pattern glimpsed in chaos. There is no illusion that when one case ends, the DAs can sit down and congratulate each other; more crime is out there, other cases are bubbling up as the criminals and victims of the preceding one sink into the background. I feel that this could be a very truthful and moral show, precisely because it does not comfort one with the triumph of Truth and Virtue.
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Eerie Tales (1919)
Naughty scary stories
22 November 2005
Warning: Spoilers
An aspect of this film that amused me was that four out of the five stories involve romantic triangles of one sort or another. A man picks up a woman who cries on his shoulder, and pretty soon he's kissing her in her bedroom, though he is pushed out because she has a headache (oops, the plague). Two men decide that the girl who has left them at a club to dance with somebody else must belong to one of them, so they throw dice for her; she is surprised to find one of them lying on her couch when she comes home and not pleased that he's a corpse; when she meets the other a few years later, they seem ready to take up where they left off. A drunkard takes a stranger home to his wife and within 30 seconds the stranger is kissing the wife (Conrad Veidt gets to do all the kissing in this movie). A wise French marquis encourages his wife to snuggle up to an amorous stranger, then shows her that he himself is a much better snuggle. All this (plus another story) in a version that only lasted about 95 minutes.

Because the segments are so short, each seduction takes at most a few minutes. There is no time for anyone to be sentimental or even fall in love--it's lust at first sight in every case. True, usually someone in the story dies before fornication or adultery can be committed. But there is something about the galloping pace that brings the horror--the deaths, the hauntings--right up against the sexy parts in a balder way that is usual in the early horror movies I've seen.

The film is fun because each actor gets to play a wide range of characters. Reinhold Schunzel particularly gets to play a crazy sadistic brute, a sly drunken brute, a jealous but gentlemanly brute, a masterful cop, and a charming but cowardly 18th-century marquis. Anita Berber has a scene in which she (or a double? there was more costume around her head than around her legs) performs a fairly lengthy piece of modern dance--this character is a proto-flapper, but she also does quiet little 19th-c American wife and "the Strumpet" with great energy and sweetness. Veidt--well, as I said, he is the guys who get to the kissing as fast as possible in 4 of the stories, and a sadistic monster in the fifth. Who could ask for more?
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Conrad Veidt as Richard III?
21 November 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I saw this film in a version that was a bit over 80 minutes long, with English intertitles (evidently from several sources as the font--and typo ratio--varied, the best being one with long extensions on the b, d, h, k, l so that titles like "Kill him!" and "Murdered!" looked very elegant) and no score. It was evident that at least one subplot, and possibly two, were missing: the character of the Countess Orsini was introduced in one scene, evidently as Cesare Borgia's mistress, but there was no real explanation and she did not reappear; and we see Cesare leer very briefly, in passing on a street, at Naomi (a woman of the people who turns out to be his brother's fiancée), but there was no development of his interest in her despite the fact that it evidently motivates his killing both Naomi and his brother. If these subplots had been developed with another scene or two, we would have a picture of Cesare as man who takes his pleasure with women high and low and considers any woman he has lusted after his personal property. Moreover, we'd see a Cesare who will not kill his brother for political reasons or as revenge for tattling on him to their father (the Pope), but will kill him out of a very casual sexual jealousy over a woman he has hardly met.

There also seemed to be a gap between a moment where Lucrezia tells Juan that Cesare is "at the Circus" and the next scene, in which all three of them are now in the Circus audience.

The production was splendid, with a wonderful Sistine Chapel set (at least that's what it looked like, minus of course the ceiling which would have been painted by Michaelangelo at a later date) for Papal audiences and a spectacular final sequence involving the siege of a castle in which Lucrezia has taken refuge after Cesare murders her husband. There were many extras, many scenes of Cesare's men galloping towards and away from the castle, scaling the walls, etc. There were good, coherent smaller sets too, for Naomi's adventures (a 3-story blacksmith shop in particular). There was also "the Circus", which seemed to be the Colisseum but was not as coherent, and a vast nunnery which I also found confusing as Lucrezia tries to escape from it at midnight or dawn and finds nuns with candles processing in all directions.

Lucrezia, Liane Haid, was quite good. She had to spend a lot of time basically just resisting Cesare's advances, but her character was dynamic–from relatively passive and dependent on her father (the philoprogenitive Pope) to active, riding her horse around the countryside and escaping from the convent, and finally vindictive in her desire to see Cesare dead. Albert Basserman was also wonderful as the Pope, combining affection for his children, a pious dependence on God, and a political ruthlessness in a way that made sense. The nice men in the story (Cesare's brother Juan and Lucrezia's two suitor-husbands) were well differentiated from each other and from Cesare's three assassins.

Veidt is marvelous as Cesare. His Cesare is of course wicked as can be, but intelligent enough to enjoy duping a prisoner into revealing secret information by making him *imagine* he has been poisoned. He then uses the information to distract his father the Pope from brother Juan's accusations about his general tendency to kill people whom he considers to be in his way. These are his first scenes, and they establishes a Machiavellian Cesare who has more than a little of Shakespeare's Richard III in him– one almost expects him to be able to convince Lucrezia to take him as her lover over her husband's dead body, as Richard does with Lady Anne. Although he carries himself like a live Renaissance portrait, strong, straight, and elegant, Veidt conveys the quality of a moral hunchback, born twisted and ready to do what it takes to live with that. His final battle scenes, in which he steps in to lead the troops personally when they are discouraged after several failed assaults, and is slain in a duel but turns out to be hard to kill, also recall that aspect of Richard III.
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I love Elisabeth! I love her! I love her! I love her!
18 November 2005
I watched a version of this about 2 hours long, with French intertitles. It kind of staggered visually but had a nice score that underlined the dramatic moments of the plot. At least a bit was missing, since it is announced as a drama in prologue and 5 acts, and the 5th act intertitle was missing.

The story is based on the Schiller play/Verdi opera Don Carlos, and it is abundantly operatic, with romantic passion and politics intertwining. The main character is King Philip of Spain, the one who married Mary Tudor Queen of England and wanted to marry her sister Elizabeth I. In fact, his second or third wife was it seems a French princess, Elisabeth de Valois, who had at one time been intended for his son Carlos. Carlos himself died young after being imprisoned, and this "triangle" became the nucleus for a plot about romantic and political generational strife.

I suspect that it would help one to follow the plot and issues to have the story and characters well in mind (as I certainly did not). There are presuppositions about their roles that are not clear from the film itself, I think. The result was that I watched 2 hours of actors in Velazquez costumes emoting in wonderful vast sets viewed at many dramatic angles.

The actor playing Philip, Eugen Klöpfer, was excellent. He went from bold, cruel youth to broken age quite impressively. Since he loves his wife Elisabeth and wants her to love him, and loves his son although he doesn't trust him one bit either with political office or with his wife (rightly), and loves the Inquisition, his motivation in any given scene often seems to come out of nowhere. You never know whether he will threaten someone with death, beg him/her for love, or be too busy to notice them; yet he always seemed convincing. The result was, for me anyway, a character as histrionic and self-contradictory as a real king might be.

The actress playing Elisabeth had to look good in the elaborate costumes, look unhappy, and swoon a lot. She did her part but lacked charm. It was not clear why anyone would fall madly and irrevocably in love with her.

Conrad Veidt as Don Carlos was a puzzle to me. I find in Wikipedia that it is assumed the historical Carlos was mad, and Veidt's performance would bear that out. He literally seems to be half a man--his buddy the Marquis Posa (William Dieterle) is a solid man of action and thought who keeps proposing that Carlos liberate somebody--Flanders, or the Spanish people, who love Carlos. The person from whom they need liberation is, of course, Philip and his Inquisition or domination. But every time Posa suggests that Carlos start a revolution Carlos replies, "But--I love Elisabeth!" The only variation is when Philip shoots Posa and Carlos draws a sword on his father--but then drops it, stunned by the realization that Posa loved him enough to die for him. He can't act, because again, love gets in the way. The force of love seems to twist and bend Carlos's frail body, making him incapable of action, magnetized by the objects of his love and oblivious to politics or honor.

At the last, Carlos is awaiting the Inquisitors, having been told that if he begs for mercy he will get it. It is not clear what his heresy is, but certainly it has something to do with coveting his father's wife. Unfortunately Elisabeth comes to visit him in his cell and they are glued together in an embrace when the Inquisitors arrive. Although the Grand Inquisitor has the document of clemency, Carlos forgets to ask for it.

Conrad Veidt is always the most interesting thing on screen in the film, yet his character is never one who can be understood or sympathized with. His makeup is somewhat grotesque (very white with very dark mouth, compared to the other men) and when he is on the scene (he also plays Charles V, Philip's father, in the prologue) his body pretty much defines the space in front of the camera--reaching arms, falls to the ground, creeping along hedges in the park or walls in the dungeon. I noticed several scenes in which everyone else is just standing in a row and he is moving in front of them. The result is that Carlos seems rather like a Cesare who has been mesmerized, not by a killer, but by Elisabeth. He has one long moment (when his father asks him if he loves E. and he leans his head back and slowly closes his eyes) that is downright Garboesque. His last scene, in which he caresses the block lightly before laying his neck on it to have his head chopped off, is marvelous too.

But rarely, in watching a film, have I been so aware that it is just shadows, images flickering and fooling one into thinking there is life there.
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The Wandering Jew (I) (1933)
Early death of the Wandering Jew
12 November 2005
Another reviewer, in 2002, commented on this film: "The film unfortunately ends rather abruptly and arbitrarily. Matathias has only got as far as the Middle Ages when the curse is suddenly lifted and he is permitted to die. No compelling reason is given for why this particular time and place should be the end of the Wandering Jew's journey." In fact, the Middle Ages segment is the second one; it is followed by the Renaissance segment and finally the Spanish Inquisition, in which the Jew is burned as a heretic. I think the answer to the decision to end the Jew's life in this period has to do with the period when the film was made, the early 30s, when the Nazis were once again asking "Are you a Jew?" and condemning people based on the answer.

(I should add that the same director made a silent film of The Wandering Jew, 10 years earlier, and there is a note on IMDb that his star was famous in the role in theatrical productions. So the story and probably its blazing finale were established in a stage version much earlier.)

The original story would be that the Jew is to wait "until Christ comes again," i.e. the Second Coming, the Last Judgement. The film script modifies this to "until I come to you again," and the plot shows us the slow progress of Mathatias from a man who would rather see his beloved dead than alive with her husband, to an understanding of the Christian hope in life after death and a less selfish love (in the Italian story, where he decides not to kill his wife as a gesture of possession when she wants to become a nun), to an actual Christ-like role in the Seville sequence, where a whore defines her relationship with him as that of Mary Magdalene to Christ (thank heavens the DaVinci Code theory had not been cooked up at the time). So Christ "comes to him again" as he is being burned as a heretic.

Interestingly, his heresy consists of (1) blasphemy, in saying that Christ might be hard put to recognize his own, i.e. the inquisitors themselves, since they are not Christlike, and (2) refusing to deny his Jewishness. Christ, of course, was himself brought before the High Priests on a charge of blasphemy. The film sort of finesses the problem of baptism (in the version I saw, there was no evidence of the Italian son's being baptized, but the friar says that he has gone to Heaven when he dies), which is what the Inquisitors are in principle asking Mathatias to undertake.

However, the decision is presented to him not as being baptized in Christ but rather as denying his Jewishness, ceasing to be a Jew, and in the early 30s the ringing declaration--by a Christ figure--"I am a Jew!" must have been pretty strong stuff.

The end of another British film starring Veidt, Jew Suss, is similar; Suss in fact has a choice to declare himself not Jewish, since in fact his father was a local aristocrat, but he opts to die a Jew, representing the people he grew up with. Both Suss and Mathatias are heavy-duty sinners (lust, avarice, and pride to say the least) and their Jewishness is not "normalized"--parts of the Wandering Jew look like an excellent production of Merchant of Venice--but they redeem their sins by their concern for the poor, the outcast, and, in Jew Suss's case, specifically Jews in a pogrom situation.

Since Veidt in fact insisted on declaring he was a Jew on official German forms in the early 30s, although he wasn't (his wife was), his choice of two roles of Jewish martyrs was a pretty obvious political move. (Later in Hollywood he starred as a Nazi general in Escape, whose plot turns on the internment in a prison camp of a famous American Jewish actress who was born in Germany.) I think there was a lot of denial in the UK and America about the situation of the Jews under the Nazis, and Veidt seems to have done what he could to make it clearer that antisemitism should disgust decent people and especially Christians.
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Nazi Agent (1942)
Dead ringers
11 November 2005
Warning: Spoilers
In 1926 Veidt made another film in which he played a good brother and a bad brother--The Brothers Schellenberg. They both came from an educated but penniless class; the good brother founded a commune and the bad one was a ruthless, social-climbing capitalist. The good brother, as I recall, had a beard and wore rumpled clothes, while the bad one was clean-shaven and and had an elegant wardrobe of evening clothes.... In Nazi Agent, the two brothers have similar physical distinctiveness but now they of the landowning class: the gentle academic driven from Germany by the Nazi aversion to historical truth, and the potently Nazi German Consul in "State City."

The twist is that the good brother must disguise himself as the bad brother in order to make his contribution to the anti-Nazi effort by breaking up a nest of spies. It seems to me that the twin-substitution plot usually involves women, not men--with the notable exception of Dead Ringers...? Veidt gets to do what Jeremy Irons did, play twin A pretending to be twin B in such a way that the audience, but not twin B's associates, sees the difference. Even old Fritz, who has known the twins from childhood, recognizes Otto by a scar, not by his manners.

The film seems to have been made before Pearl Harbor and released afterwards; in the world it depicts, Canada has joined the war but the U.S. is still on somewhat friendly terms with Germany.

Another viewer commented that Veidt is not sexually attractive. Hmm. I think that the character he plays in this film is not supposed to be very sexually aggressive--the big romantic scene does not even involve a kiss, and the bookseller twin has been up to this time someone who is more interested in rare stamps than in women. But one might check out his two films for Michael Powell, or Escape, or A Woman's Face, in all of which his character is supposed to be, and is, extremely sexually attractive. It is interesting that in both Escape and A Woman's Face he at first appears as sexy and charming, in different ways, a real Prince Charming for the very different heroines of the two films. Then, towards the end of the films, he reveals himself for the ruthless Nazi he is, showing extreme cruelty of various kinds.

So although Veidt could turn on and off the sexiness and otherwise vary his characters, he made three films in this period in which he is the good German (OK, Scandinavian in A Woman's Face) and the bad Nazi: Escape, A Woman's Face, and Nazi Agent. By this time, I believe, he was a British citizen, contributing generously to the war effort, but it's interesting that he was not playing The Hun who tosses babies out the window, as Von Stroheim did during WWI, but two men, one who loves music and women and knowledge, the other who sees Nazism as the only path to success and riches, and who has been utterly corrupted by it.
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Queer genius
18 July 2005
It is hard to vote for this film, because it is really just the shreds of a film. The odd thing is that ONLY the parts of the story relevant to gay sensibilities remain: the relationship between the violinist Paul Körner (Veidt) and his youthful protegé, the scenes of all-male partying, Paul making a pass at the man who turns out to be a blackmailer, and apparently the slide-show lecture on the sexual continuum (though perhaps this was reconstructed from the historical sexologist's actual slide shows?). Besides this, there is the skeleton of the legal plot: Paul reading about suicides and knowing what's behind it, the judge giving the blackmailer 3 years and Paul one week, and Paul coming home to kill himself.

What you don't see is any scene at all with a woman in it, except for one where young Paul runs in terror from a whorehouse. Evidently there were two sets of parents and a young woman all active in the original film, and they all ended up being cut from the final film.

There is not much development of the character of the boy Paul loves--it is not quite clear from the end whether he mourns Paul as a self-sacrificing friend, a great violinist, or the love of his life. Paul himself, in an extended flashback, evidently realized he was gay at the moment a whore kissed him; the fill-in titles explain that a young woman of dubious morals kissed the boy at a point after his story has disappeared from the surviving clips of the film. So presumably the boy has realized that, since he does not like being kissed by a woman, he must be gay and love Paul after all. It's an odd logic, redeemed only by Veidt's combination of sensuality and morality (great moment when he starts eagerly kissing a pick-up and then is horrified when the man asks for money).

Veidt is pretty amazing. The man played vampires or at least exotic sexual predators, Jews, Nazis in Allied films, a Devil's Island inmate--every kind of marginal monster; in one movie he seems to be playing Jesus. When he played kings, he played them mad and/or deformed. Yet he gave every character an edge, a dignity, a strength that made you feel it wasn't right if he got shot in the back. In this film, he looks rather like Cesare from Cabinet of Dr. Caligari but the same skeletal-elegant physique and haunted quality (and haunted makeup) become expressions of human sorrow, longing, and a frail nobility of character.

It is interesting to compare this film to Victim, made 42 years later. In both stories, the protagonist is a man who discovered and explored his sexual feelings for other men as a schoolboy; as a mature adult, having achieved a position of great prestige, he becomes involved in an unconsummated relationship with a much younger man who admires him passionately. In both stories, a law makes homosexuals an easy target of blackmailers, and both men attempt to defy the blackmailers and the law. In the 1919 movie, however, Körner, after attempting to redirect his sexual desires by various means, accepts himself as the way he is and lives a gay lifestyle (or so we may assume from his activities at the drag ball). When he is confronted with the prospect of marriage, he sends his parents or prospective girlfriend to a sexologist so that they, too, can accept him as he is. If he does not try to seduce his protegé, it is presumably from a sense that it would be wrong to exploit his position of power over a very young, indeed virginal, student (and the boy is horrified when he realizes that the relationship is potentially sexual). Melvin Farr, on the other hand, has succeeded in redirecting his sexual desires: he is married to a cool blonde and together they are confident that he is, if not completely heterosexual, completely monogamous. No gay bars for him. The boy with whom he is in love, on the other hand, is frankly gay and would like to seduce his hero. In both stories, the tragic "victim" is the man who, openly and unreservedly gay, is vulnerable to blackmail, tries to protect the man he loves, and finally kills himself. The earlier movie has a distinguished doctor arguing that there is a sexual continuum which is natural and good, and should not be subject to legal penalties or blackmail; the later movie just has examples of presumably good (eminent) men who happen to have secret homosexual sides, and the hero's nobility lies in going to bat for a working-class boy who could not keep his own sexuality secret.

I am struck by the fact that both the tragic victims look physically frail--thin, as if worn to a bone in the hope that if they turn sideways they will be overlooked by society. Both the ambiguously sexual survivors are heartier types, physically more solid and substantial, though of course Dirk Bogarde could out-edge even Veidt.
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How to update Jane Austen
8 May 2005
Warning: Spoilers
OK, that's a high rating I am giving but it is out of sheer gratitude. After an exhausting day I was looking for something to relax with on TV and stumbled across this. I laughed for 90 minutes. Take note, Mormons: it was better than drinking beer.

Also take note: I missed the subtitle referring to the LDS so I didn't actually grasp that the movie takes place in Utah until about halfway through; moreover, there seemed to be no explicit references at all to Mormonism or its culture. It seemed rather to be set in a never-never-land where modern Americans lived modern lives which were nevertheless church-centered and sexually, well, repressed. Utah, yeah.

What the filmmakers got with the faux-LDS setting was of course a faux-Austen culture in which marriage is important but premarital sex, casual affairs, etc. are out of the question. A kiss is tantamount to an engagement ring (and in fact Caroline Bingley uses a kiss on the cheek to indicate that she is engaged to Darcy, for Elizabeth's benefit). As in Jane Austen's world, but rarely in movies about young modern singles, the idea of discussing sex (as opposed to romance and hooking a man) is out of the question.

I should add that the Mormon admiration of procreation casts a gentle shadow on Elizabeth's desire to avoid marriage. All these lovely girls will be stuck having babies for the rest of their lives, though Darcy seems to be enough of an outsider that he lets her get going with children of the mind, first. At any rate, there is a strong reason for girls to postpone marriage and just not think about sex for a while, even as they dress provocatively, eat ice cream when dumped, and go on long hikes. (Having grown up Catholic myself, I know how it is.) The writers did some (IMHO) clever things with the plot. (Spoilers!) Instead of having Charlotte Lucas get chained to Collins, they saddled him with Mary, which makes much more sense. Caroline Bingley is not just a bitch but an "insane" bitch. The girls have no protective parents in evidence, but they do a good job of protecting each other. The evocation and dismissal of cell phones as a means of stopping the marriage is hilarious. I also enjoyed the Las Vegas sequences with the two young heroes running passionately for block after block--much more fun to watch than, say, twin sex scenes.

Oh, well, it was fun!
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Power (1934)
A thin line of antisemitism
29 July 2004
I watched this movie (a bad copy, with almost inaudible sound) absolutely spellbound, because of Conrad Veidt's performance. It is also fascinating because it was made as a voice against German antisemitism (one of the first bits of dialogue in the film is along the lines of "But it's 1730! anti-Jewish sentiment is a thing of the past!" "No, my friend, they will be against us in 1830, and in 1930, too"). However, there was a lot of trouble getting it to open in NYC because in America it was perceived as antisemitic. (I got this from John Soister's book on Veidt). It was hard to get a Jewish character on film in the 1930s who was both recognizably "Jewish" and not a stereotype. In 1940 the Germans made a film of the same book which made Veidt's elegant Jewish martyr into an elegant Jewish monster.

The plot is not new. It's similar to Musset's Lorenzaccio or Victor Hugo's Le Roi S'Amuse (Verdi's Rigoletto), I think: a sexually rapacious prince is served by a man he despises, up to the moment when the prince's lust and cruelty make the "best friend" into a mortal enemy. Frank Vosper is interesting as the prince in this movie, a man who at the beginning has a few noble impulses but who quickly degenerates into drunken cruelty and lecherousness. Benita Hume is also pretty cool as his decadent wife, who encourages his liaisons.

Veidt's role, Joseph Suess Oppenheimer, is however completely absorbing. His character is also a sensualist. He kisses everybody on the face or mouth--rabbis, his mother, his daughter--except for the woman he falls in love with. He loves luxury and enjoys beautiful clothes and presiding over a ball, and finding a new female tidbit for his prince to deflower. He seems to fantasize about knocking down the walls around the ghetto where he grew up, but his power is in fact a bit shaky; his service to the Jews seems to consist mostly in not denying he is Jewish. When he finally puts himself on the line to save an innocent Jew, it turns out to be a bad move--the prince wants vengeance on him for this concession. As Veidt's character confronts these disappointments, we see the man emerging from the courtier, and it's a wonderful transformation.

There is an odd plot twist, in which Oppenheimer learns that his biological father was a Gentile. Supposedly this makes him not Jewish. However, since Jewishness is reckoned by the mother, this makes no sense. Either his mother is a Gentile (not clear from the film) and the Jews would not consider him truly Jewish even if his father was the virtuous Jew Oppenheimer, or else she is a Jewess and our hero is thereby Jewish no matter who fathered him. The idea that he chooses to be a Jew feeds into the final scenes, and is relevant to Veidt's own life (apparently, though he was not Jewish at all, he insisted on stating that he was Jewish to the German authorities).

Although the plot is messy and a wee bit incoherent, the performances are beautiful and this is worth a look.
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First a Girl (1935)
An entertaining translation
5 July 2004
Warning: Spoilers
One marked SPOILER below.

I watched First a Girl after seeing the 1933 German version, Viktor und Viktoria.. And of course I know the Julie Andrews version, Victor/Victoria. So it is fun to make comparisons. I was hoping that First a Girl would help me a bit with the German one (no subtitles!), but after the first section it goes off on a tidier and kinder version of the girl-posing-as-guy-falls-in-love-with-guy plot.

And a good thing, too! In both the other movies there is a long sequence in which the two 'men' go out together, and it is a wee bit sadistic, though in different ways, in each one. The charming thing about First a Girl is that Victoria's lover really likes her as a boy, and seems a bit distressed when he finally discovers the truth! The 'problem' of Mr. Victoria as a probably gay man is raised frankly and casually, and Jessie Matthews is delightful proving that 'he' is a real he-man by smoking a very large cigar and getting drunk. (In the German version it looks as though the prospective lover, who knows the truth, might be planning to take Viktoria to visit some prostitutes, though they are distracted by a brawl.)

I really liked Renate Müller in the German version, as the girl pretending to be a female impersonator. She was a marvelous actress and the most charming and vulnerable of the three heroines. Her 'manager' Viktor–the original Viktoria–Hermann Thimig, is really funny, an energetic actor who, like Bottom the Weaver, wants to play every part ever written–you can see how he got into drag, though he is a mighty homely woman. (Robert Preston in the later version was not saddled with this bit of the plot–he comes up with the idea of selling Victoria as a drag queen, but she is not taking over his own gig.)

Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale play these roles in First a Girl, and the great difference is that they are wonderful dancers and decent singers, so the big production numbers that are an essential part of the plot really take off. In this version, Victor is not just Victoria's manager but her dance partner, and they do a lovely fake-Brazilian number that seems to have wandered in from Flying Down to Rio (1933). But even in the absurd 'bird in a gilded cage' number which is spoofed at the end, Matthews is a delightful performer. My favorite bit of dancing, though, is a little solo she does as a delivery girl at the beginning. It actually looks as if she were improvising, not in the polished Astaire manner, but with great rhythm and fun. SPOILER. And when Victor gets hired as a replacement Victoria at the end, Sonnie Hale is so talented (though of course he clowns around like anything) that you are willing to believe it.

The British version boils the German plot down so that instead of six people in love there are only four, and the two high-society types get more screen time. Anton Walbrook in the German movie has extraordinary charm and humor as the man in love with Viktoria, though he is not very romantic with him/her. Griffith Jones in the same role mostly just looks pleasantly muddled, but as I say the plot gives him a bit more room to get to know and like Victoria as a person. Anna Lee is delightful in the beefed-up role of the naughty Princess, nicknamed 'Lady Wiggle-waggle.'
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Prime directive
18 June 2004
This movie is very clearly a play turned into a film--all the action except one sequence takes place in a 3-story boarding house, and during three days. Each of the characters is very distinctive. The poor "reform school" girl Stasia working in the kitchen, on whom everyone else takes out their frustrations, is the main figure. Her boss, Mrs. Sharpe, is sharp--always happy to accuse Stasia of stealing, call her a slut, and tell her to work harder. Vivian is the lovely daughter of a retired military man and his wife; they haven't paid the rent in months, because Dad can't stand the idea of taking a job in sales, and their only capital is Vivian. Vivian however is in love with an idealistic architect, Chris, who wants to design hospitals. Mr. Wright is Vivian's prospective husband, an unlovable, self-made man. Miss Kite is a genteel, snobbish, catty working woman on the wrong side of thirty; Mr. Larkcom is a pianist who works playing jazz in a record store, but can play classical music if requested.

The story begins with preparations for the engagement party. Stasia is driven to consider suicide by the general cruelty, but running out the door she runs into a stranger. The stranger wants a room, even though the only one available is quite undesirable. His politeness, and promptness in paying in advance, calm everyone down instantly. However, as he watches Vivian and Chris in the speeches leading up to the engagement, he is the catalyst in her leaving the table without putting on the diamond ring.

The next day is a bank holiday, and the stranger invites everyone to take a ride on the steamer down to Margate. As he listens to the various characters talking, or simply touches their shoulders or arms, they find their sense of themselves changing. Suddenly love seems possible. The third day, however, is Mr. Wright's day. He plants suspicions and temptations in everyone's way, and by the end of the day is close to making everyone meaner and unhappier than they were when they began.

The stranger is, basically, an angel. Mr. Wright is Mr. Wrong; he is a mortal man, with an experience and appetites, but as he says he does not want to be happy, which he could only accomplish by being generous. He sneers at the stranger that the latter is "not allowed to interfere," to solve the various characters' problems by simply giving them money (which would indeed help Vivian and her parents, Chris, and Stasia). So it seems that angels, like the Star Trek travelers, must follow the Prime Directive: just to help what's already going on in each person. The last day is a struggle between Good and Evil.

The movie is full of wonderful goofy little roles and moments, played by charming actors and actresses. Conrad Veidt is the reason I bothered to get hold of the film and he does not disappoint in the role of the angelic stranger. He radiates goodness and a kind of healing sensuality as he walks among these disappointed people. One really feels that a man like this, by paying attention to people and speaking gently to them, could wake them up to their own better selves; he's a bit like an ideal psychotherapist. At the same time, he suffers to see them suffering. Apparently he himself was fond of this role, which exploits his magnetism in such a different way from his many romantic villains.

Mr. Wright makes a little speech explaining how he has made a fortune building housing for the poor--"and don't let anyone tell you you can't collect rents from the poor. You can! It just takes character." I must admit I find this definition of "character" helpful in following the rhetoric of presidential elections.
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