I watched this recently in preparation for an event on film noir and enjoyed it very much. It’s a significant film in many ways, though its short running time (82 minutes) seems to indicate a ‘B’ picture. The cast and crew and the sheer artistry of the film do, however, point to an ‘A’ picture from RKO. Researching the film, I came across a fascinating website, The Film Noir File: A Dossier of Challenges to the Film Noir Hardboiled Paradigm written and compiled by Dan Hodges. I should have been aware of this site because it explores the arguments against the conventional academic film histories of film noir and also the supposed American uniqueness of the genre/style. I would tend to support both of the main aims of the website.
The Spiral Staircase challenges the ‘paradigm’ of film noir in one sense and ‘fits’ it in another. It is not based on the kind of ‘hard-boiled’ crime fiction of the 1930s/40s, but it is directed by an émigré German director, Robert Siodmak and photographed by another, the Italian Nicholas Musaraca (who had worked in Hollywood since the 1920s). In fact, Siodmak and Musuraca were two of the principal ‘creators’ of film noir as later described by Hollywood film scholars. Musaraca worked under Val Lewton in RKO’s ‘B’ unit in the early 1940s on films such as Cat People (1942) and would later shoot the film noir classic Out of the Past (Build My Gallows High, 1947). Siodmak came to RKO after early noirs such as The Phantom Lady (1944) and The Suspect (1944). He would go on to make another recognised noir classic, The Killers, also in 1946.
So, how does The Spiral Staircase challenge the paradigm? The first films noirs to be studied extensively in retrospect were based on hard-boiled crime stories, often featured a ‘doomed man’ and a femme fatale and were contemporary in setting (though they might update 1930s stories to the 1940s). The Spiral Staircase is based on a novel by Ethel Lina White, a British writer who turned to crime fiction in the 1930s. Three of her novels were adapted for cinema, beginning with The Lady Vanishes in 1938 (UK, Alfred Hitchcock). She died in 1944 and didn’t see either The Spiral Staircase or Unseen (1945). The Spiral Staircase was adapted by a radio drama writer Mel Dinelli.
Ethel Lina White was born in 1876 in Abergavenny so it isn’t surprising that she set her 1933 novel Some Must Watch in the Welsh borders. It was adapted as The Spiral Staircase and transposed to early 20th century New England, but still featuring an isolated country house. Though the adaptation sees a few characters altered, the important point here is that the central character is Helen (Dorothy McGuire), a young woman who has lost her voice after a childhood trauma and is now the ‘ladies companion’ of the bed-ridden Mrs Warren (the formidable figure of Ethel Barrymore). The local town is experiencing the terror of a serial killer and the film opens with the murder of a young woman in a hotel while below an audience (including Helen) watches an early film screening. When Helen returns to the isolated country house (in a rainstorm), Siodmak reveals the shoes and single voyeuristic eye of the murderer hiding in the shadows on the stairs of the great old Victorian gothic mansion. The film’s title refers to the staircase down to the extensive basement/cellar. If you want more background on the book and film (with possible SPOILERS) there is an interesting post on ‘Le curieux Monsieur Cocosse | Journal’.)
We can guess what will happen, but the film is highly engaging with its narrative twists and turns and the superlative camerawork, lighting and set design make it always watchable. Helen is both ‘damsel in distress’ and investigator (and arguably the ‘final girl’ as identified in the horror films of the 1990s). As well as Helen and Mrs Warren, the film also features two other significant female roles played by Rhonda Fleming (who went on to lead roles in the 1950s) and Elsa Lanchester (wife of Charles Laughton and dogged by her early Hollywood success in The Bride of Frankenstein). The narrative draws primarily on the suspense thriller repertoire. The visual style suggests the horror film as much as the film noir and it is supported by a strong soundtrack mix of effects referring to the terrible storm outside, the banging of windows and shutters and the sound of the wind and rain. Horror and film noir arguably have roots in common in German expressionism of the 1920s and the same roots also apply to the particular cycle of female-centred melodramas that became popular in the 1940s. Many of these reveal a certain kind of paranoia about being in the ‘old dark house’. In Gaslight (UK 1940 and US 1944), both films adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s play, a woman in London becomes fearful that her house is subject to strange events. Her relative was murdered in the house some time ago but is her present husband trying to frighten her? Ingrid Bergman is the frightened woman in the Hollywood version with clear film noir links. The Spiral Staircase also links to the Barbara Stanwyck ‘woman in distress’ film Sorry Wrong Number (1948) in which she plays a woman who is bed-ridden, like the Ethel Barrymore character in the Siodmak film and similarly fearful of an attack. These melodramas are also films noirs.
Melodrama implies other familiar conventions. Helen is affected by her trauma so that she can’t speak – and therefore can’t ask for help or convey what she knows quickly. In the scene above she looks at herself in the mirror, a common image from melodrama that might suggest that there are two Helens or that she has something to hide that might not be revealed to the other characters. The mirror also allows the composition of images which are ‘disrupted’ in their presentation of narrative space. Here the deep focus which operates throughout the film shows the dining room below. In this case, the mirror image helps conjure up Helen’s fears that being unable to speak will be dangerous in the febrile atmosphere of her gothic surroundings. This image also gives an indication of the detailed set design and ‘set dressing’ which adds greatly to the power of the images. The art direction duties are credited to Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey. D’Agostino worked on 27 films released in 1946. The Spiral Staircase certainly benefits from the experience and expertise of personnel working within the studio system. Helen’s ‘lack’ of a voice is also a feature of certain melodramas where such ‘lacks’ are often seen as symbolic. In this film, the lack is also imagined by Helen in a sequence representing her internal thoughts and in another where a visual effect obscures her mouth.
I think that Dan Hodges is right to challenge the ‘paradigm’ of American film noir. So many different kinds of films have benefited from the application of themes and style features associated with noir. I think I’d describe The Spiral Staircase as a noir melodrama melded with the suspense thriller/horror film.
The early 1950s has often been dismissed by critics as a weak period in British cinema, when British producers churned out war films and comedies that were popular but not very interesting. In reality this was a stable production period in which British films competed very well with a diminished Hollywood for a big share of over 1 billion cinema admissions annually in the UK. There were also some excellent films that are certainly worth re-visiting. The Long Memory is one of the best and over the last few years plenty of viewers seem to have found it (many on a DVD box set of John Mills performances). The first point of interest is its director Robert Hamer, the genius at Ealing whose later career was damaged by alcohol. Hamer left Ealing after making three well-received films, Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), It Always Rains on Sundays (1947) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). He’d also directed a segment to the portmanteau film Dead of Night (1945) and made uncredited contributions to San Demetrio, London (1943) and The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947). Charles Barr (in Ealing Studios, Movie, 1977) picks out Hamer (and Alexander Mackendrick) as the Ealing directors who showed most ‘personal continuity’ and exemplified the best of ‘mature Ealing’. It’s fairly typical that in a Guardian piece in 2004, Kevin Jackson ignores The Long Memory completely and focuses primarily on Kind Hearts and Coronets. Keith is a big fan of that fine film and writes about it on this blog, but I prefer the other Ealing films and The Long Memory.
Why Hamer left Ealing isn’t clear to me but the consensus seems to be that he had a conflict with studio head Michael Balcon and decided to strike out as a director for hire with various producers. The Long Memory is the third of his features in this freelance career. Although made for two small independents, Europa Films and British Filmmakers, it had the backing of Rank and was an ‘A’ release on the Odeon circuit in 1953 with a starry cast led by John Mills. Mills plays Phillip, a ‘wronged man’ first seen on the day of his release from prison, arriving back in London and then heading down the Thames to find a home in an abandoned barge near to Gravesend. He is followed by a plain clothes police officer. A flashback then reveals that he once had a girlfriend, Fay (Elizabeth Sellars) whose father was an old ship’s captain mixed up in smuggling. Phillip got caught up with the smuggling operation and following a fracas he was arrested and convicted of a crime he didn’t really commit. After 12 years inside he discovers that Fay is now married to a police Superintendent (played by John McCallum, one of Hamer’s actors from Ealing). Why did she betray him? Who else might Phillip want to seek out for revenge?
The Long Memory is notable for both its contemporary concerns – the arrival of refugees in the UK, the importance of smuggling and the black market in a period of austerity (rationing was still in force in 1952) – and its distinctive visual style. Oddly, its narrative doesn’t seem to acknowledge the war directly – Phillip would have been sent to prison in 1940. The film is strikingly shot, making use of the stark landscape of the estuary mudflats and the whole river environment as far up as Tower Bridge. The landscape is similar to the Romney Marsh wetlands of Kent and East Sussex on the South Coast which featured in The Loves of Joanna Godden. Douglas Slocombe, who shot that film, was still working at Ealing in 1952 and Hamer communicated his ideas to Harry Waxman, another distinguished British cinematographer whose previous titles included Brighton Rock (1947) and who would later shoot The Wicker Man (1973). Waxman covered much of the action in long shot on the mudflats and in beautifully orchestrated chase sequences. At other times the film takes on a noir atmosphere – the story, from a novel by Howard Clewes, a well-known ‘action’ novelist of the period, shares elements with several other British films of the post-war era. The ‘wronged man’, the black market and the revenge narrative were also the basis for They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), a classic British noir directed by Cavalcanti, Hamer’s mentor in his GPO Film Unit and early Ealing days. Basil Dearden, Hamer’s directing colleague at Ealing, made The Ship That Died of Shame in 1955 about a trio of ex-Navy men who run a smuggling boat until their confidence gets the better of them and in an actual Ealing film, Pool of London (1950), there are similar chase scenes through night-time London, as there are as well in the classic Jules Dassin film Night and the City (1950). British noir was strong for several years from 1947 through to the late 1950s (though it wasn’t described as such at the time) and Hamer certainly knew what he was doing. In a marvellous sequence, Phillip, the Mills character, watches a house in Gravesend throughout the night – and is in turn watched by the police. From inside the house, a frightened man peers through the letterbox to see Phillip framed half in the shadows but clearly visible.
Hamer began his career as an editor and in the second half of The Long Memory his editor Gordon Hales puts together an exciting chase sequence with parallel actions in different locations involving different couples whose lives are intersecting. This may be a relatively conventional crime thriller but it is presented with real flair and I wish I could see it on a big screen. Part of the pleasure is in recognising the array of British character actors – Geoffrey Keen as a principled investigative journalist on a Sunday tabloid, Peter Jones as a younger journalist with much to learn, John Slater as a rather dim-witted heavy, Thora Hird as his wife, Vida Hope, Laurence Naismith and more.
The Long Memory is fine as it is but it’s worth noting that the off relationship between Fay and Bob Lowther the police Superintendent seems to signal a growing interest in the domestic melodramas of the families of police officers in later police procedurals in the 1950s, both in the UK and the US. In the clip below the journalist and the police Superintendent discuss Phillip Davidson’s possible actions – does the journalist know that the woman he suggests is in danger is in fact the Superintendent’s wife? The clip includes some interesting location work (I love the sound of the steam train towards the end of the clip).
The title ‘Old Stone’ is a play on the English translation of the Mandarin name Shi Lao, a taxi driver in a ‘third tier’ city in Eastern China. Impressively played by Gang Chen, Shi is the unfortunate man caught up in the scandal of road accidents in contemporary China. When a drunk passenger pulls his arm and causes him to knock over a motor-cyclist, Shi foolishly forgets about the ‘proper procedures’ and takes the injured man to hospital where he undergoes emergency surgery and then falls into a coma. Shi then finds himself liable for all the hospital bills. The taxi company’s insurers won’t pay out because Shi moved the injured man (and therefore what caused his subsequent condition cannot be determined). The police won’t release Shi’s taxi or an accident report.
The sensible course for Shi would be to tell the man’s family that he has no money. As soon as Shi’s wife realises that he is paying hospital bills ever day, she closes their joint account and distances herself from him (she runs a children’s nursery). I won’t spoil the narrative further but clearly this situation can’t go on. Gradually Shi is moved to take drastic action. In reality, those who cause motor accidents in China are sometimes driven to running over the victims again and fleeing. The financial penalty for causing death on the road is less than the cost of paying insurance bills. Old Stone will eventually become a form of film noir in which Shi is the doomed man. As his name implies, Shi is stubborn and obstinate in maintaining his responsibility – he remains true to a collectivist spirit which has been lost in China’s headlong rush into ‘modernity’. Eventually however he is going to be forced into desperate measures.
Writer-director Johnny Ma left Shanghai for Canada aged 10 and returned to work in New York and Shanghai after graduating in 2010 from Columbia. Old Stone was made by a mixed Chinese-Canadian crew and lensed by Leung Ming-Kai from Hong Kong on location in China. At a concise 80 minutes this is a tightly edited and very effective slice of social realism morphing into a film noir crime story. It is remarkable as a first feature. I was reminded of both a Fifth Generation film like The Story of Qui Ju (Zhang Yimou, 1992) and a Sixth Generation film like Beijing Bicycle (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2001). Both these films take a simple premise in which a working-class character seeks some form of justice in the face of bureaucracy and a changing society and, as the title of the second implies, they draw inspiration (directly or indirectly) from neo-realism and films like Bicycle Thieves (Italy 1948). Neo-realism also offers the possibility of melodrama and the noirish ending of Old Stone reminded me of a tragic sequence in Rocco and His Brothers (Italy-France 1960). In North America, the legal problems around car accidents might lead to the arrival of ambulance-chasing unscrupulous lawyers and in Carancho (Argentina 2010) Pablo Trapero explores similar forms of criminality around car crashes in Argentina. This is a universal issue effectively used in this new form of independent cinema in China (i.e. ‘new’ in the sense of the mixed crew and the tighter edit).
I feel I must also say something about the look of Old Stone. When the film began I struggled for a moment when plunged into the middle of a street scene. It struck me that some films seem made for a smaller screen. At times the image looked very grainy when seen close on the large Vue screen. I wondered if it had been shot on 16mm, or perhaps post-produced to give that effect. Either way it enhanced the sense of the neo-realist approach. By contrast Ma also offered us lush shots of treetops blowing in the wind, seemingly as abstract images but later revealed as associated with the film’s finale. Again these images struck me as reminders, first of the start of Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (no connection I could spot, except that they are both enigmatic) and, more directly, Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (South Korea 2003) – a film mixing social and political commentary with a crime investigation by a disorganised and corrupt police team.
Old Stone has impressed at various festivals with Nominations and Prizes. It will definitely be released in North America and I recommend it. Here’s a good trailer.
Despite access to Technicolor for appropriate genre films, Douglas Sirk found that he was back to Black & White for this costume melodrama starring Barbara Stanwyck. Presumably Babs was not considered a big enough draw to justify the extra production expense of colour, though Sirk certainly wanted it. This is a major indictment of the Hollywood studio system. Stanwyck was for me the leading actress of her generation, matched only by Bette Davis. Ten years earlier, some reports placed her as the best-paid woman in America. ‘Too old’ at 45, Stanwyck, as the great trouper she was, continued to work through the mid 1950s featuring in several interesting films before moving over to TV.
All I Desire is an adaptation of the novel Stopover by Carol Ryrie Brink. Stanwyck plays Naomi Murdoch, a woman at the start of the 20th century who has left her family and ‘run away’ to become an actress. Now she is stuck in a touring vaudeville troupe but her family believe that she has become a big star, touring Europe. She has kept up the charade. When her younger daughter Lily writes to her with the news that she is to appear as the lead in her school graduation play, Naomi decides to risk going home to meet the family again.
Brink was a writer of what we might now think of as Young Adult novels and the narrative of Stopover suggests a focus on the mother-daughter relationship. In Sirk’s hands this becomes a family melodrama, but one hampered by the ‘happy ending’ imposed by producer Ross Hunter as per Universal’s policy. Sirk was disappointed that the title was changed since he thought Stopover signalled a different kind of story. In his conversations with Jon Halliday (Sirk on Sirk, faber & faber 1997) he says that Stanwyck’s character is in some ways a “‘pre-study’ of the ‘actress’ in Imitation of Life“. Stanwyck (admired by Sirk and many of Hollywood’s other leading directors) “had the unsentimental sadness of a broken life about her”.
Naomi arrives back in the small town of Riverdale, Wisconsin and finds a complacent middle-class family. Her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) is the high school principal and her three children seem to live separate lives. The youngest, Ted, still has the innocence of youth and loves his mother unconditionally, the eldest, Joyce, blames her mother for her father’s unhappiness and treats her coldly and Lily is all ego.
Sirk is highly skilled in the way he manages his resources and marshals Universal’s crew to produce something always worth watching. The film is full of moments when the possibilities of the full-blown melodramas towards which he is heading can be glimpsed. The plot includes the darker side of Naomi’s sudden departure ten years earlier in the shape of the local gunshop owner played by Lyle Bettger whose re-appearance certainly disturbs the Stanwyck character. Sirk’s mise en scène and the camerawork by Carl Guthrie are heavily imbued with film noir flourishes which spread through the family scenes as well as those referring back to Naomi’s past. Sirk’s comment to Halliday was ” . . . a woman comes back with all her dreams, with her love – and she finds nothing but this rotten, decrepit, middle-class family”. I’m not sure these strong words are merited for the family we see in the film, but the mise en scène and camerawork do suggest what Sirk was thinking. If he’d got his own way Stopover might have become a great film. As it is we can just enjoy the craftmanship of Sirk and Stanwyck and look forward to There’s Always Tomorrow a few years later.
Julien Duvivier was an established director from the 1920s onwards perhaps best known in the UK for the proto-noir Pépé le Moko (1937) with Jean Gabin, although he ranged successfully across several genres. Like Jean Renoir, Duvivier spent the war years in the US and on his return he struggled to re-establish himself in the climate of mistrust surrounding those who had left France under Vichy and the Occupation. By the late 1950s his kind of cinema was going out of fashion as the New Wave came in. He died in a road accident in 1967. Duvivier’s earlier films from the 1930s had often been highly praised and GFF16 mounted a mini-retrospective of three films.
Panique was scripted by Brussels born Charles Spaak and based on a novel by the great Belgian crime writer Georges Simenon. The same novel was adapted again as Monsieur Hire in 1989 directed by Patrice Leconte. Spaak was a former colleague of Duvivier as was Michel Simon who played the mysterious M. Hire in the 1946 version. The simple story sees a small town (a Parisian suburb?) community in which M. Hire is a man of independent means who roams the town with his camera and fusses over his shopping. He clearly isn’t ‘one of us’ to use Margaret Thatcher’s unpleasant phrase. The disruption which kicks off the narrative is the arrival of an attractive woman, Alice played by Vivian Romance. She has just been released from prison and threatens to be the femme fatale who will provoke both Hire and the man for whom she ‘took the rap’ (and who in the same period in the UK would be called a ‘spiv’ – marked as a criminal type by his dress and demeanour). At the same time, a fair comes to town and the body of an older woman is found when the fair sets up. Murder and robbery are suspected.
The narrative is constructed around an extensive studio set in which M. Hire has a room which overlooks the hotel where Alice is staying. Apart from a brief excursion the whole plot is worked out on the set – a familiar approach from 1930s French cinema. Duvivier uses every possible narrative device to drive M. Hire to his doom. We will find out a little more about his background and why he is the way he is but mainly we are transfixed by how he is set up for the murder and the way in which the townspeople are whipped up into a frenzy about his presumed guilt. In one memorable scene he ‘escapes’ onto a dodgem car in the fairground only to find that every other couple on the rink ‘bumps’ into him deliberately. The use of these devices and the close control over mise en scène creates exactly the kind of social commentary about collective self-deception that must have been very uncomfortable for French audiences when everyone is likely to be identified as being in the résistance or a collaborator. The final scenes are a tour de force with a final tragic revelation. I’m certainly up for more Duvivier films if I can find them. The other two titles in the GFF retrospective were La belle épique (1936) and La fin du jour (1939). Although it was in the smallest auditorium at GFT, this screening was packed – an encouraging sign that a foreign language film can still generate an audience on the big screen.
As part of its centenary tribute to Orson Welles the British Film Institute has re-released Welles’ Touch of Evil (US 1958) on a DCP. I’ve seen the film several times before but not for some time. I was amazed/heartened to find an audience of over 50 for a screening on a sunny August morning in Hebden Bridge. I was also surprised to discover that this was a release of the 1998 version – the re-edit by Walter Murch. This following the detailed description given in the memo that an angry Welles sent to Universal after the studio took the film from him and shot extra footage as well as re-ordering scenes and using more non-diegetic music than Welles wanted. All of this I learned after the screening from the detailed account by Jonathan Rosenbaum who was the ‘Welles scholar’ consultant on the re-edit.
Touch of Evil was not a box office success in 1958 but its reputation has grown considerably since then and it is now very highly regarded. It was a relatively low budget film, shot on Universal’s lot and in nearby Venice. Charlton Heston is Mike Vargas, a Mexican police officer visiting a border town with his new American wife Susan (Janet Leigh) on their honeymoon when they become involved in a cross-border incident – a local businessman and his girlfriend are blown up by a car bomb. The local American lawman is Captain Quinlan (Welles) who very quickly finds a suspect. Vargas soon realises that Quinlan’s methods are unorthodox and risks saying so. In the meantime Susan falls into the clutches of a local criminal family headed by Joe Grandi (Akim Tamaroff) who turns out to be the brother of the big drug dealer who Vargas has arrested in Mexico City. The narrative thus involves a diabolical triangle between Quinlan, Grandi and Vargas. The other major star involved in the film is Marlene Dietrich who has a small but significant role as Tana, a rather exotic madame of a local brothel.
I’ve seen several theatrical re-releases recently and I’m often aware of how much I’ve forgotten about films I thought I knew well. But I also have contradictory feelings so that one moment I’m in danger of getting bored because I know (hazily) where the plot is going and then suddenly my attention is caught by something I hadn’t noticed before. Screenings often have a specific context which ‘fixes’ a reading of the film. Touch of Evil was at one time classified as a film noir – indeed as the ‘last film noir‘ of the classical period. That is probably the context in which I first saw the film. It still is a great noir, but this time round I was more conscious of other features of the film, some of which are certainly noir elements, but others which produce new perspectives. For instance, this time I was more conscious of the racism inherent in Quinlan’s approach and I was also intrigued with the way that Joe Grandi’s ‘gang’, comprising mainly younger members of his family, were presented as ‘leather boys and girls’, a Mexican version of what in the UK were originally ‘teddy-boys’ and later ‘rockers’. Allied with aspects of Henry Mancini’s score this seems like an attempt to make a crime genre picture more attractive for younger audiences (a crucial move in 1950s Hollywood).
Welles’ directorial credit seems to have come about because Heston saw that Welles had been cast and assumed that he would direct – and then persuaded Universal that this should happen. In terms of studio productions it is also interesting that the film’s producer and cinematographer, Albert Zugsmith and Russell Metty are Universal regulars familiar from Douglas Sirk’s films of the 1950s. The two art directors, Alexander Golitzen and Robert Clatworthy had also worked with Sirk. Given the cast and crew it seems surprising that Universal would release the film cropped to Academy Ratio (1:1.37) in 1958 even though it had been previewed as 1:1.85. The 1958 release version ran only 93 minutes (the print I saw was nearer 110 minutes) and otherwise differs from the 1998 re-edit mainly, as indicated above, by presenting linear narrative sequences rather than cross-cutting between what is happening to Vargas and what is happening to his wife. What is really noticeable though is that the re-edit omits the titles completely at the beginning of the film (they are given in full at the end. This means that Metty’s incredible opening tracking crane shot of the car with the bomb in its boot is not encumbered by traditional overlaid credits. Also, instead of Mancini’s traditional non-diegetic score, we only hear snatches of music played in bars and on the car radio. Rosenbaum suggests:
Though the suspense is lessened, the physical density, atmosphere, and many passing details are considerably heightened, altering one’s sense of the picture from the outset.
I agree that this creates a heightened sense of atmosphere but I actually thought the tension and suspense increased. Because the intricate movement of the car is so closely choreographed with the walking couple (Heston and Leigh) I found myself more and more concerned about where the explosion would take place – even though I knew Heston and Leigh would not be injured. The other moment when diegetic sound becomes important is a fight in a bar when the juke box suddenly stops playing. Overall the sound in the 1998 version is improved dramatically from the 1958 cut and that’s another reason to see this print even if you know the film from earlier versions. The other revelation for me was the terrific performance by Joseph Calleia as Quinlan’s sergeant.
Trailer from 1958 (1:1.37)
Documentary on the ‘making of’ the film (there is also part 2 on YouTube):
Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl was an immediate bestseller on its appearance in 2012, generating considerable discussion in mainstream and social media. Now she has written the screenplay for David Fincher’s film adaptation, her ideas about modern marriage and her presentation of an array of female characters – most of them perhaps unlikeable but nevertheless dominating the narrative – are again at the centre of public discourse.’Gone Girl the film’ is being hailed as one of the possible saviours of the 2014 box office in both the UK and US. It has also become the focus of a number of hostile reviews and claims that it is in some ways ‘anti-feminist’.
I decided to run a public event on Gone Girl on the basis of the initial interest in the novel. I’m not a David Fincher fan, though I respect his filmmaking skills. My reactions to his last two cinema features, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo were not particularly positive. I’m aware that Fincher has many fans but I’m not really clear what it is that is supposed to distinguish his approach. His previous films have often been relatively expensive productions which haven’t always attracted audiences in the numbers that might be expected. Box Office Mojo suggests that Fincher’s second feature Se7en remains his most popular film so far (when adjusted for inflation). I wondered therefore if Gone Girl would be a box office winner and if Fincher’s style would suit the material. Given that most of Fincher’s films have been ‘action’ orientated, including the two with female leads (Aliens 3 and Panic Room) I did further wonder if Fincher was the most appropriate director for a film which is ostensibly about marriage.
Having watched the film twice (all 149 minutes of it!) in two days and discussed it with several regular local filmgoers, I’ve come to some conclusions. First, my overall opinion of David Fincher as a director hasn’t really changed. Gone Girl is well-made. It looks good, it moves at a good pace, the performances are very good and it provides genuine entertainment (although if you have read the book, the film narrative of course doesn’t offer the same level of surprise). For me, Gone Girl was a ‘clever’ book – and I mean that in a complimentary way. Gillian Flynn knows what she wants to do and she does it skilfully. It’s also a long book with many characters and several sub-plots. There is no way that everything in the book could arrive on screen – or that the central ideas in the book could be thoroughly explored in a film that wants to include all the exciting action. Fincher himself said this about the book in a Screendaily.com Interview (20/9/2014):
“The thing I thought was profound and has not been articulated in this way is that we construct a façade of ourselves, an image for people to deal with us and understand us and hopefully we learn from teachers, parents, siblings how to present the best version of ourselves.
“Then we go out into the world as adults and mate, couple and seduce people with this projection of ourselves. Often, completely oblivious to the fact that that person is doing that too, and there comes a point where one who enters into this contract says I can’t keep it up. I’m not interested in being the man of your dreams or the woman of your dreams anymore. I don’t know what to tell you. This movie was about the resentment that might engender.
“A marriage is hard and really hard under the glare of 10,000 watt magnified 24-hour a day news cycle. No one can survive it.”
I agree with him. This is an interesting observation and that should be at the core of the film. Unfortunately, I think it takes second place to the psychological thriller/noir mystery aspects of Fincher’s film. All the ingredients are there but they didn’t have the impact I expected. Overall, my small group discussing the film concluded that it was an entertaining film, but it didn’t really tell us much about marriage – and it didn’t project a sense of Fincher’s personal style (whatever that might be). It felt like it could have been made by any mainstream experienced Hollywood director.
I’ve purposefully not mentioned the plot so far since the film has been so heavily promoted. Let me just point out that it is a story about a married couple told throughout by each marriage partner in turn from the moment when the husband discovers that the wife is ‘missing’ with some evidence suggesting that she has been abducted. He is immediately under suspicion and a tabloid media storm ensues in which he is effectively accused of her murder. The narrative twist is that Amy (Rosamund Pike) tells her story through diary entries that start seven years previously when the couple first met – she disappears on their 5th wedding anniversary. Nick (Ben Affleck) tells his story starting from the day of her disappearance. Amy is an ‘unreliable narrator’ via her diary entries. Nick’s version is told in the third person in the sense that we watch him and his actions – but we also listen to what he says to the police and others. A second and third part of the story are narrated in a similar style but with the time differences between the two narrations shifting. I won’t ‘spoil’ the narrative twists.
I suspect that our discussion group is not representative of the mainstream audience. Mark Kermode in the Observer offers a much better analysis of how the film might work with a popular audience. He links it to the popular/populist successes of Paul Verhoeven/Joe Eszterhas in the ‘erotic thriller’ stakes, naming Basic Instinct to go alongside Fatal Attraction and references to Hitchcock, Clouzot etc. I think he is probably right. I think he is also correct in this observation:
Shooting in handsome 6K digital widescreen, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth keeps the visual tone cool and detached even as events heat up, eschewing the tics and flashes of yore. This is a picture-perfect world, presented with the untouched clarity of a crime scene, fine-tuned and framed by Fincher . . .
Gone Girl is a conventional American thriller that should please mainstream audiences. I think that in its presentation it comes across as more of Flynn’s film than Fincher’s. I’m not a fan of Ben Affleck but in some ways he was well cast and he played the role well. But he typifies a problem with American leading men. He’s so buffed up with bulging muscles in arms and thighs that he just doesn’t look or feel right for a man who seemingly does very little and eats badly. Rosamund Pike is just terrific in every way.
In the end the important debate about Gone Girl should be about the array of great roles in the film for female actors – and the debate about the importance or not of so many female characters who are presented in a ‘negative’ way. But then, apart from Nick’s sister Margo, the investigating detective Rhonda and the lawyer (played by Tyler Perry) almost every other character is there to be the subject of criticism. As a Guardian reader I’ve been taken aback by the ‘op ed’ pieces by Guardian journalists online and in the paper – they don’t seem to have seen many films and read this one in very black and white terms. I wish they would think a bit more before they submit copy.
Gone Girl won its first weekend in North America. Nothing is certain these days, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t still around in a few weeks time, going on to be Fincher’s biggest hit.
I expect that some audiences will be disappointed/baffled by Night Moves – because they won’t get the thriller they were expecting from promo material like the poster above. On the other hand director Kelly Reichardt’s fans will know what to expect and should ‘enjoy’ the film. I use the scare quotes because Ms Reichardt’s films are clever and satisfying exercises in constructing a certain kind of narrative around various themes. The big shock here is that Michelle Williams is not in the cast and, despite Dakota Fanning’s expertise, I did miss Ms Williams.
Night Moves is a film about ‘ecological activists’ and the title refers to a boat, a motor launch, with that name. If I understood the dialogue exchanges, ‘Night Moves’ does indeed refer to the Arthur Penn film noir from 1975 (there is a discussion of movie titles that I couldn’t completely follow but the previous owner of the boat was a film fan). I haven’t seen that film since it came out and I don’t remember much except that I think it was the film in which a character describes an Eric Rohmer film as being “like watching paint dry” – an ironic comment on some of the pauses in the Reichardt film? In this new film, the boat’s name might be seen as describing the central moment in the narrative when the three ‘eco warriors’ attempt to blow up a dam in Oregon (to protest about the excessive power usage in the US and the diverting of water for golf courses). This is the basis of the ‘thriller’, but mostly I think Reichardt doesn’t play it as a thriller. In fact, I think she plays it as a story about guilt with the central character Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) as a possible film noir hero, a form of ‘doomed man’. Nick was with me and he disagreed – he didn’t like the film and was irritated by what Reichardt was doing with the thriller tropes.
This is a long shot I know, but at one point the location switches to ‘Medford, Oregon’. If you’ve seen Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, you’ll know that the witness who places Fred McMurray at the scene of the crime is a “Medford man. Medford, Oregon”. Since Reichardt used a similar kind of reference in Wendy and Lucy (a man reading a specific novel), I’m tempted to see these two references (i.e. with the boat’s name) to films noir as deliberate pointers. The three activists comprise Josh/Eisenberg, a worker on an organic family homestead, Dena (Dakota Fanning), a rich girl working in a bathhouse/hot tub establishment and Harmon (Peter Sarsgard), an ex-Marine whose ‘day job’ I didn’t catch but he is clearly the ‘professional’ here.
Kelly Reichardt sticks to her established methods in this film. She doesn’t explain everything about the characters. We have to slowly glean bits of narrative information. Equally she doesn’t spell out the theme and give us clear arguments to follow. We are shown the Pacific North West in all its Autumn glory in the forests, on the hills and in the valleys. We also experience the impact of the dams and flooded valley when ‘Night Moves’ is steered past the rotting tall trees whose roots are now deep underwater. When we get a debate about ecology and political action it is played obliquely at the breakfast table of the organic farm as well as via a campaign film screened on a sheet in a pop-up cinema. On both occasions, Josh is a silent observer – Eisenberg’s performance toned down and internalised so that it is hard to know what Josh thinks. The suspense in the film is evident in the act itself but don’t go expecting explosions the aftermath of the act happens off-screen. Instead, the real suspense comes afterwards and focuses on Josh – will he fall apart, can he go back to an anonymous life? I don’t want to give away any of the later plot points – suffice to say that we do get the ‘usual’ Kelly Reichardt ending which makes you think. I thought this one was especially effective.
I’ve read some interesting commentaries on the film and it is interesting that different audiences can produce quite different readings. One commentator clearly didn’t like it and thinks it has a very old-fashioned feel in terms of its subject matter. She also suggests that Dakota Fnning is underused and that Peter Sarsgaard is ‘lazy typecasting’. I think those are good points. I’d add that the intriguing Alia Shawkat is also wasted in a minor role. Reichardt and her writing partner Jon Raymond don’t seem that interested in the Harmon character who seems a little like a plot device (Sarsgaard is indeed typecast as a slightly sleazy character) and I did want to know more about Dena. Since Reichardt tells us very little about her three central characters, it is quite difficult to see the film as ‘character-driven’. Even Josh has no background, so we don’t know what he is giving up/can’t go back to etc. Is the film ‘dated’ in terms of its subject? Jonah Raskin, who was clearly around forty years ago expresses what might be a common response in some parts:
But the characters belong to a timeless time. I can’t imagine that an ecoterrorist in 2014 might do what Josh, Dena and Harmon do on screen. It’s also unlikely that they’d be able to buy hundreds of pounds of fertilizer to make a bomb.
Night Moves would have had a great deal more punch had it come out in 1970 at the time of the first Earth Day. Now, 44 years later, it feels like an artifact from another era.
Hmm! I can see what is being said here but I think that the 1970s feel is deliberate. I’ve already suggested that Reichardt is deliberately referencing a 1975 neo noir in Penn’s Night Moves. I think that she is also possibly evoking those paranoia thrillers from the early 1970s such as Pakula’s North West-set The Parallax View (1974), not in terms of similar stories but in that sense of a character who fears being followed and ‘found out’. I’ve not been to Oregon but I get the sense of a persistent possible alternative culture that has survived alongside US capitalism since the 1950s and possibly earlier. Reichardt and Raymond keep worrying away at how people behave in the region and this seems like a film that ‘fits’ a certain kind of auteurist take on the region. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and music composer Jeff Grace both worked on Reichardt’s earlier Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Reichardt does her own editing so there is a strong collaborative approach to the story. What will they choose next, I wonder?