Friday, May 31, 2013


I don't know of a better film from the silent era than Victor Sjostrom's masterpiece THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE. Of course, that's just another way of saying that I don't know of one that I like better. I suppose plenty of people would nominate Lang's METROPOLIS or Griffith's INTOLERANCE or von Stroheim's GREED--and while those are great films, all three of them seem to groan under the weight of their own ambition. They were all conceived as epics of one kind or another, as proof of the greatness of their makers.

I'm not knocking ego, and I'm not suggesting that Sjostrom was immune to ego, but I am saying that THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE is a film that is as ambitious as any film of its time without drawing attention to how ambitious it is. There are no grand sets or outlandish shooting locales, just a sprawling story of life and death, of sin and redemption.

The movie stars Sjostrom himself as David Holm, a drunk who has abandoned his long suffering wife and two small children. He's drinking away New Year's Eve with a couple of friends, recalling how his deceased friend Georges once told him a legend that the last soul to die on New Year's Eve was forced to drive Death's carriage for the next year, collecting the souls of the recently departed, and bearing witness to unrelenting suffering.

I hesitate to disclose much more of the plot--and I recommend that would-be viewers stay clear of such details--because one of the pleasures of the film is the way it unfolds information through an intricate series of flashbacks that keep pulling us into the past while adding drama to the present. For people who think Welles (or, hell, Tarantino) invented the backtracking narrative, this film should come as a shock. Here's a story that is as densely packed as a great novel (it was based on the novel KORKARLEN by Selma Lagerlof), that respects our ability to keep up and follow along. This pays off toward the end, as the story builds to some of the most intense moments in silent cinema. (Without giving anything away: there's a moment toward the end of this movie that is as suspenseful as anything in NOSFERATU.)

At the time, the film was famous for its central special effect: the sophisticated use of double exposures that gives Death's carriage and the souls of the departed the apparitional quality of ghosts. While this effect, on a technological level, has today been rendered little more than a camera trick, its aesthetic impact in the film itself is undeniable. These images, over 90 years old as I write this, have a haunted quality that's only been compounded over time. David Holm's dark odyssey with death is as powerful now as it's ever been. Maybe more.

Having said all that, the film does have a decidedly disappointing ending. It's difficult to say whether or not the ending disappoints because it adheres to outdated notions of redemption--and I mean "outdated" only in the sense that the type of modern audience likely to see the film today has probably already rejected the idea of spiritual redemption. (The type of movie geeks who watch silent Swedish masterpieces are a pretty agnostic lot.) But perhaps the ending here disappoints because it adheres to melodramatic convention as a way to tie up a story that has otherwise been richly textured and brutally fatalistic. 

So is the ending a reflection of the glory of spiritual redemption, or is glorious spiritual redemption itself just a story some people like to tell themselves, a kind of tacked-on happy ending to life's preordained bummer of an ending? I guess it depends on your religion.

The most famous fan of the film was Ingmar Bergman, a disciple of Sjostrom who would later cast the great director as the old professor in WILD STRAWBERRIES. Watching Bergman's films, you can see the director wrestling with THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE-- most clearly in THE SEVENTH SEAL, in which the characters face the spectral figure of death without the benefit of either melodramatic or spiritual redemption; but also in something like WINTER LIGHT, in which a priest who loses his faith manages to find a redemption of sorts.

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE is available in a beautiful edition from the Criterion Collection, which is available for streaming on HuluPlus.  


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Noir's Goon Squad: Ted de Corsia

above: de Corsia as a crooked cop in Kubrick's THE KILLING

Sometimes I think Ted de Corsia is my favorite actor. He was good in everything. More to the point, I just smile whenever he shows up onscreen. In noir, he mostly played scumbags. One thing all his characters had in common was an almost pathological narcissism--Ted always knew what he wanted, and he wanted it now, consequences be damned. He was a man with a plan, but the plan was always halfassed and based entirely on a comically  inflated sense of his own abilities. I'd estimate that he spent roughly two-thirds of his career being gunned down by various leading men.

Check out my new essay on Terrible Ted over at Criminal Element

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Dreadful Beauty of TOP OF THE LAKE

Check out my new essay on New Zealand noir, Jane Campion style, over at Criminal Element. Elisabeth Moss stars in TOP OF THE LAKE as a haunted detective searching for a missing girl.

Click here to read The Dreadful Beauty of TOP OF THE LAKE.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


I got the urge to watch SILVERADO a few nights ago. Although I own Lawrence Kasdan's 1985 Western, it's been a while since I've sat down to view it.

I don't know how many times I've seen this movie. Dozens, I guess. As it began, though, I realized something for the first time. SILVERADO came out in 1985, when I was ten years old, which means that this movie might well be the first full length Western that I can remember seeing. I was a TV-Western obsessive as a kid. THE LONE RANGER, THE RIFLEMAN, and THE BIG VALLEY were favorites. I'm certain my parents took me to see the notorious flop THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER in 1981, but I don't really remember it.

I remember SILVERADO well, though. The first time I saw it, I was pretty sure it was perfect. As I've gotten older, of course, that original opinion has been tempered by nearly thirty years of seeing other Westerns. Watching it today, I can't help but notice that the film is essentially a grab bag of cliches. Just about every element from the genre is represented here: homesteaders versus evil ranchers, heroes who never miss, villains who can't hit the broadside of a barn, dance hall girls, sleazy gamblers, hangings at dawn, Henry rifles, six-shooters, jumps onto moving horses, wagon trains, community dances. The thing even ends with a showdown on a dirt street in the middle of town. SILVERADO is like an album of standards--it's performed with skill, if not with a great deal of originality.

If this renders the film as something of an exercise rather than its own artistic statement, I hasten to add that it's an overwhelmingly successful exercise. The cast--Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Kevin Costner, Danny Glover, Brian Dennehey, Linda Hunt--all seem seized by the same contagious sense of fun. From scene to scene, it feels like everyone is on the verge of breaking out in silly grins and yelling, "We're making a Western!" At the end of the day, maybe a movie doesn't need to make any deeper statement than that. The movie is a celebration of tropes and signifiers--gun belts and horses and rocky peaks and saddles and boots and saloons. And here's the thing: when I was a kid, that was really all I wanted. That was the stuff I loved. Hell, that is the stuff that people love when they love Westerns. 

One final word on this. I've also come to realize that this was my first exposure to Kevin Costner. At ten, I didn't know who he was, I just knew he was my favorite character in the film. But of course he was. He plays the goofy kid brother, Jake. I was a goofy kid brother, and my name was Jake, and I loved that he carries twin six-shooters and rides his horse bareback and kisses the pretty dance hall girl at the end. In his big scene in the film, he rides into town, jumps off his horse, and then shoots two guys at the same time as he's backing out of a saloon. I'm pretty sure I reenacted those moves in my living room. It's interesting to note, then, that Costner began forming the archetype of the Western hero in my imagination before I was old enough to know who he was.

I could say the same thing about the entire movie. In giddily reshashing a million old Westerns, it actually established the genre template that would guide me through another thirty years of watching cowboy movies. Looking back on it now, I guess I can say that for me SILVERADO was THE original Western.         

Monday, May 6, 2013

Merry Wellesmas

Happy Birthday, Orson, you magnificent bastard. 98 years young.

Here is a link to my series on "Welles And Noir."

And here is a link to the centennial celebration that's in the works. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Noir's Hard Luck Ladies: Cleo Moore

This week I profile a new hard luck lady of noir, the lovely Cleo Moore. Though she was widely dismissed as just another Monroe clone, Moore had her own charms and is is well worth rediscovering. Check out my piece on her over at Criminal Element.