Bette’s (boring?) breakthrough: Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934)

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Honestly, Of Human Bondage is barely interesting for any reason other than its lead actors. Not that it’s badly made, or that it overstays its welcome; it’s just too self-serious and slight. It condenses the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, focusing on the plotline in which medical student Philip (Howard) becomes obsessed with Mildred, a cold-hearted, manipulative waitress who pulls him into her downward spiral. The story has an air of being over-simplified, leaving a little too much unexplained or unexpressed. Nothing has as much impact as it should, and much needs to be read between the lines.

Mildred was a breakthrough role for Bette Davis; greater things still did not come easily for her after this, but she proved herself as a daring actor here. She got the role because no one else wanted to touch it. Stridently unglamourous, Mildred ruins every chance she has to improve her life, unwilling to change her cruel nature. By the end, she’s suffering from a disease that’s probably syphilis, Davis applying her own makeup to appear withered and grotesque. It’s a dangerous character flaw for Philip to be unable to resist her. (I’ve variously read that Mildred emerged from Maugham’s misogyny, or that she was in fact based on a man he was involved with. Rather different theories, those.)

Davis was doing things that we still see today as the mark of a fine female actor, willingly making herself unlikeable and unpleasing to the eye. She received a Best Actress Oscar in 1935 for Dangerous, but the general consensus is that the award was really for her performance here. Perhaps the Academy just needed some time to get over their shock.

The problem with Davis doing things that are more common today is that it brings her into comparison with the likes of Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, and she’s nowhere near as assured. (Yet.) Basing her accent on that of a cockney woman who lived with her for a few weeks led to grating and clumsy results. To her credit, she hardly sounds like her usual self at all. Still, Davis seems to be trying so hard that she’s all but bursting at the seams.

This must be said however: Davis will get a reaction out of you. You may think she’s awful, you may think she’s annoying, but you most certainly will dislike Mildred, and you will remember her.

As for Howard – he’s far more controlled than Davis. He’s theater acting, and the contrast between them strains the whole film. Taken on his own, however, it is a fine performance. Though Philip is a similar character to Squier in The Petrified Forest, there’s clear differences between them. Philip is coarser, more grounded. His rare outbursts are well earned.

Davis would have many more opportunities to deliver better performances, in better films. Howard did not; he died just nine years later, in a plane shot down by Germans over the Bay of Biscay. It’s not so easy to find him in a good film, and in a role that suits him. For that reason alone, Of Human Bondage is significant for anyone who appreciates his talent, and wishes he had had more time in which to show it.

The boy who knew too much: The Window (Ted Tetzlaff, 1949)

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Tommy Woodry (Bobby Driscoll) is a Boy Who Cried Wolf of mid-century New York, unable to convince anyone that he witnessed his upstairs neighbours commit a murder. This makes for a fairly simple story, but one in which all the elements are sound. Driscoll, that classic tragic child star, is capable of carrying the film when called for. Meanwhile, stalwarts Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale are perfectly likeable and reasonable as Tommy’s quite mistaken parents. Of the murderous couple, Paul Stewart gives Joe Kellerson an overconfident sadism, while Ruth Roman is underserved in the promising role of a housewife who turns femme fatale by night.

The Window obviously didn’t cost a good deal of money, much of it taking place within a couple of interiors. They look convincingly cramped and grimy, however; this is not a wealthy part of town. Many scenes feature strong noir lighting, while those that are set outside on New York’s streets provide a fascinating document of a time and place. Numerous details, such as Mary Woodry hanging out washing on a line strung between apartment blocks, Tommy venturing further up a fire escape in search of a cooler place to sleep, or the family having to visit a local store just to make a phone call, add to the verisimilitude. While The Window is not complex or ambitious, what it does, it does well.

Carter fantastic: The Company of Wolves (Neil Jordan, 1984)

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The writing of Angela Carter adapted into a film – does life get any better than this? Let’s hope so, because it’s only happened twice, but that just makes The Company of Wolves something to treasure all the more. It’s taken from several stories in Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, a volume devoted to deconstructing fairy tales. Carter’s view of Little Red Riding Hood is that it’s a story that aims, through equating men with wolves, at making girls afraid of their burgeoning sexuality, and this forms the basis of the film.

Neil Jordan collaborated with Carter on the script, and the director seems to have been well-suited to working with this feminist author. Many of his films –Interview with a Vampire, Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Byzantium, The Brave One, Breakfast on Pluto, etc– feel more darkly feminine than masculine. He might joke that the target audience for The Company of Wolves is preteen girls and dogs, but his ideas for broadening the film’s scope only enhanced Carter’s material, and he shows a great sensibility for it.

Ostensibly, The Company of Wolves is a dream in the mind of young Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson). It contains stories within stories, with various tellers. The modern day mixes with what is seemingly an eighteenth century English village. Some moments operate on dream logic, more about feeling than meaning. These meld admirably well with the story’s more straightforward aspects.

The film’s visual richness belies its identity as an independent British film. The wolves, most of which are in fact malamutes, are often lit so that their eyes reflect in a predatory fashion. Images such as life size toys and stork eggs containing baby dolls harken back to the story’s source within Rosaleen’s mind. Meanwhile, the main set, the village and surrounding forest, is impressively large. It’s a detailed environment, populated by animals (not always British), that changes with the seasons. Like the period costumes and the romantic yet folksy score, it approaches realism while maintaining an unreal aspect.

The story is dependent upon special effects, some of which have dated more than others over the past thirty years. The animatronics are strongly unconvincing at times, but the concepts behind them, such as the famous werewolf transformation in which the wolf’s muzzle bursts through the man’s screaming mouth, are often inventive. The film is better in moments where it is more judicious about what to show, as when a group of humans transform bit by bit, with the camera frequently focusing instead on distortions in a mirror.

Jordan mixes well-established actors with some who are inexperienced. Patterson is one of the latter, as is Micha Bergese, a dancer, who plays the Huntsman. Patterson’s innocence and Bergese’s physicality seem to come naturally, and are ideal for their roles. The far more famous Angela Lansbury is perfect as Rosaleen’s grandmother; this is certainly no Disney film. David Warner is, as ever, quite good as Rosaleen’s father, though once you know that he had recently broken both his legs and sat down at every opportunity, you won’t be able not to notice. And most surprisingly, a post-Zod Terence Stamp appears in an uncredited cameo as The Devil himself.

After weaving through various stories, The Company of Wolves culminates in Rosaleen becoming a Little Red Riding Hood figure. The interactions between her and the Huntsman tease at what we expect from the story, while being quite different. Rosaleen should by now be prepared to meet her grandmother’s expectations and defend herself from the Huntsman, but perhaps she has not learned the lesson she was supposed to. Perhaps she is willing to change, and to be consumed.

The Company of Wolves is open to interpretation. Jordan himself doesn’t think the ending fits the rest of the film. Meaning is there if you want to find it, however, both in the individual stories, and the way they combine and conflict in Rosaleen’s psyche. The way the film is unclear about its intent, yet full of purpose, is a mark both of Carter’s intelligence and Jordan’s affinity for her work.

Portrait of a madman: My Best Fiend (Werner Herzog, 1999)

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“In the urine of a donkey in heat/in snakes’ poison, old hags’ spittle/in dog shit and foul bathwater/in wolf’s milk, gall of oxen and flooded latrines/in this juice thou shalt stew the slanderers.”

So goes a reading by actor Klaus Kinski, from poetry by François Villon, as excerpted in Werner Herzog’s My Best Fiend. It’s not hard to picture Herzog as the target, especially since he plays the monologue over a shot of his own face; this documentary about the relationship between the two men shows Kinski to have been capable of incredible wrath, frequently directed at Herzog. Dead since 1991, Kinski’s perspective on Herzog, with whom he made five films, is either absent or downplayed by Herzog himself. His monologue about slanderers, however, was no doubt one that Herzog carefully selected, if only as a bizarre bit of humour.

My Best Fiend is not remotely impartial, but it makes no object of being more than personal. We are not told the story of Kinski’s life, or shown an overview of his career. Rather, we largely get Herzog’s opinions of Kinski, with insights from a few others, and are left to take the film as it is. This view may be limited, but it is a vivid one. Herzog illustrates his points with new footage of his visits to locations of his earlier films, a few interviews and photos, and also clips of Kinski from various sources, including Burden of Dreams, about the tumultuous making of Fitzcarraldo. He shows some of Kinski’s best moments, and some of his worst.

Murder is a frequent topic when it comes to Kinski. While filming Aguirre, the Wrath of God, he used a sword to strike an actor on the head; the man was only saved from death by the helmet he wore, and still bears a scar. At another time, Kinski fired a gun into a tent full of people. In response to Kinski’s threat to walk away from Fitzcarraldo mid-filming, Herzog claimed he would shoot the actor and then himself. The Indians working on the film were so disturbed by Kinski that they offered to kill him as a favour.

It should not be particularly surprising that Kinski was also capable of being kind and gentle. Herzog includes a few filmed moments and anecdotes that show this. He claims that Kinski’s autobiography exaggerated the animosity between the two of them, that the two of them concocted some of the insults together, even, and that they were indeed friends. The viewer must, perhaps, be dubious about Herzog’s honesty at every turn. Most interestingly, he talks about any warm feelings he has for Kinski as though he wishes they didn’t exist.

My Best Fiend provokes questions about cinema and art. Why was Herzog so drawn to Kinski? The actor and his offscreen behaviour is inextricable from any consideration of their films, but did he make them better? Most people who like them would say, emphatically, yes. Indeed, the excerpts of Mick Jagger’s scenes from Fitzcarraldo, later refilmed with Kinski replacing Jagger and Jason Robards, are rather terrifying. But is the genuine suffering caused by Kinski, and by Herzog’s willingness to work with him, justified? We benefit from Kinski’s performances, appreciating his madness from a safe distance – but are probably fortunate if we’ve never met him.

And what about the Roman Polanski question? How far an artist can be extricated from their work? More recently, this has become still more relevant to Kinski. His daughter Pola has alleged that he raped her as a young child. There’s no mention of this in My Best Fiend –before interviewing Eva Mattes, Herzog that she’s one of the few women who had something positive to say about Kinski, and leaves it at that– but what we learn about Kinski here, even what we see incontrovertibly captured on camera, is enough to forever influence how the viewer sees him.

My Best Fiend is far too focused on Werner Herzog to be a complete character study of Klaus Kinski. It reveals near as much about its director, perhaps, as it does about its subject. Despite its inward tendency, however, it raises complex questions, even as it makes for an entertaining documentary. As a companion piece to the five Herzog/Kinski films, it is unmissable.

Taking a Shot: Possessed (Clarence Brown, 1931)

Clarence Brown’s Possessed may not be a great film –it isn’t even the best movie called Possessed that stars Joan Crawford– but it does have one great moment. Crawford plays Marion, a box factory worker who’s willing to do whatever it takes to achieve a better life for herself. While walking home one night, a train slows to a halt in front of her, the windows rolling by like a strip of film. The people she sees all seem happier than her, even if we do begin on the lower rungs of the social ladder:

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Marion doesn’t want to be the hired help, of course. She wants to be more like these people:pos6pos3pos4

We don’t need to see Marion’s face to understand how she’s affected by these glimpses of wealthier, more romantic lives.

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When the train finally comes to a halt, Marion encounters her ticket into New York high society. He’s no Clark Gable, but that’s who she’ll wind up meeting, through brazen ingenuity of her own. After that, well, as we watch Marion dealing with her not-entirely comfortable life as a kept woman, we could ourselves be the ones outside a window, looking in.

Pre-CGI spectacle over substance: Fantastic Voyage (Richard Fleischer, 1966)

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Fantastic Voyage has been parodied and imitated a multitude of times over the decades, and after seeing it, I can understand why. It’s not just because the premise –a craft and its occupants are miniaturised and injected into a human body so that they can perform life-saving brain surgery– is, well, fantastic, but because its characters are so thin that replacing them is not just easy, but makes the story more enjoyable.

The movie has a decent cast, even if leading man Stephen Boyd as tough guy Grant is dull as all heck. Donald Pleasance and Arthur Kennedy are capable of handling much more than they are given here, and do manage to make their characters the most interesting. Kennedy’s suspicious surgeon Duval is prone to off-kilter philosophising about inner space and outer space, viewing humankind as existing between two infinities. Pleasance’s Michaels is crazy because he’s been claustrophobic since being trapped during bombing raids on London during WWII, and also because he’s played by Donald Pleasance. The ever-reliable Edmund O’Brien and Arthur O’Connell, waiting topside, get nothing notable other than a nice moment in which one of them considers squashing an insect, but finds his perspective on doing such things has changed.

In the midst of all this, it seems natural that the film’s sole named female character, Cora Peterson (Raquel Welch), should be so inattentively written that she becomes little more than a damsel in distress. At least she does this in a novel way: falling into the patient’s inner ear hairs and getting smothered by antibodies. It should be noted that her wetsuit, much remarked upon by people who’ve seen the film, is not too different to the ones the men wear; Welch just has a different body to Pleasance, that’s all.

Cora isn’t so far off being a decent character. She does start out promisingly; she joins the mission at Duval’s insistence, and gets to show off with a laser, putting an end to Grant sizing up her abilities as a housewife. Imagine if the script played up on the fact that Grant likes her but doesn’t trust Duval, while Duval trusts her inplicitly, or if Duval became incapacitated and she had to perform the surgery instead of him. There’s a few of my ideas for a remake; just don’t let J. J. Abrams anywhere near it.

By showing the complexity of the human body, Fantastic Voyage aims to create a sense of wonder and give the viewer themselves a change of perspective. It’s quite charming in this. However, it’s so focused on the special effects that it becomes somewhat dull, even if some of the effects still look impressive. Despite being an influential movie, it’s not terribly enjoyable to watch.

There’s plenty of alternate takes on Fantastic Voyage out there. At the lower end of the range is the Doctor Who story The Invisible Enemy, which is far too ambitious for that show’s budget and enters so-bad-it’s-good territory. Since The Doctor isn’t human, the story often doesn’t even try to make the interior of his body look recognisable, or even organic. Joe Dante’s Innerspace from 1987, however, had a far, far bigger budget, and manages to be a fun movie that draws inspiration from Fantastic Voyage while having enough originality to be more than a remake or a parody. Martin Short and Dennis Quaid give strong performances, but Robert Picardo steals the movie out from under them. Both The Invisible Enemy and Innerspace are more entertaining, in their own ways, than Fantastic Voyage.