Sunday, July 22, 2012

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Years ago I attempted to “review” this film for a forum I frequent and the results lets say were less than stellar. The problem was I couldn’t think of anything to say and pretty much gave up and it ended up being a half-assed paragraph. Pretty embarrassing to say the least, going back and reading it all these years later. Well I owe it to this film to try again, it deserves it. Now that that’s out of the way, when it comes to Hitchcock’s it’s virtually impossible for me to pick an absolute favorite film. Even making a top 10 list would be incredibly difficult, as he’s one of those filmmakers, where, to me at least, you’ll be watching a film and be so wrapped up in it you’ll think to yourself “ Now THIS is my favorite!”, then you’ll watch another and think the exact same thing. While Hitchcock wasn’t immune to missteps, as no filmmaker really is, his consistency was quite staggering, plus it’s been said by many that even one of his lesser films is better than most directors at the top of their game, so I’m defiantly guilty of referring to a good majority of his films as “one of my favorites”. Now if I were to ever attempt to make said top 10 list, 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt would be sitting near the very top. Shadow of a Doubt was part of the first crop of Hitch flicks I watched way back when I was first getting into his work. I’ve stated before on this very site that I started watching Hitchcock films at a pretty young age, so naturally I wasn’t so quick to pick up on all the subtexts and things of that nature happening in the films, it was all about the story for me back then. As I got older and wiser to the ways of the world, with each subsequent viewing the more things jumped out at me and I began to appreciate the films much more and on an entirely different level. Case in point, Shadow of a Doubt. While the story of uncle Charlie will never fail to grip me no matter how many times I watch it, it wasn’t actually until a few years ago until I fully grasped just how dark this film really is, and while I may have a hard time determining just what my favorite Hitchcock film really is, the master himself certainty didn’t, as he believed Shadow of a Doubt to be his finest work, and it’s easy to see why.

Young Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) is an average bored American teenager. Nothing ever exciting happens in her small town of Santa Rosa, California and in her mind her life is just spinning it’s wheels and her family is going to pieces. On a whim she decides that the one person who could cheer her up and bring excitement back to the family is her uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton), whom she was named after. While sending her uncle a telegram she finds out that uncle Charlie is actually on his way to Santa Rosa from Philadelphia to stay with the family for a while. Upon hearing the news young Charlie is ecstatic as she absolutely idolizes her uncle, and indeed when he arrives in town young Charlie and the family seems to be rejuvenated. But uncle Charlie left Philadelphia for a reason, and he didn’t come alone. He’s being trailed by two men, men who trick the Newton family into thinking their survey takers in order to get closer access to uncle Charlie. One of the men takes a liking to young Charlie and during a night on the town reveals to her their true motives. They’re detectives and her uncle Charlie is one of two men suspected to be a serial killer known as the Merry Widow Murderer, a stranger of wealthy widows. Young Charlie of course refuses to believe it, furious that anyone would even think that about her uncle, but the detectives words do leave an impression and after doing a little detective work of her own she uncovers a sinister side of her beloved uncle that she wished she never found out about, and uncle Charlie is determined to keep it a secret.

Very early on in the film, Hitchcock gives us a brief overview of the town of Santa Rosa. It’s quintessential small town America, the kind of place where everybody knows everybody, idealistic and picturesque, a great place to raise a family it would appear. But that picture soon turns incredibly bleak. Like I said above, Shadow of a Doubt is a dark film, one of Hitchcock’s darkest in fact, as the façade of small town USA is peeled back, presenting a frightening possibility of what could lurk beneath the surface of such a place, and the idea of the happy all American family is totally perverted. It’s defiantly the family element that makes the ideas present in the film so effective. Anyone can imagine young Charlie’s horror of finding out her uncle, isn’t who she thought he was at all, and in that sense the film is almost heartbreaking, as this is a person she thinks the world of, someone who brought her out of her slump and brought some life back into her and the rest of her family. Not only does this revelation completely shatter young Charlie’s image of her uncle, it would appear that the way she views the world and others is tainted as well. For the first half of the film, the suspense element comes not in wondering whether of not uncle Charlie is the Merry Widow Murderer, but wondering if and when young Charlie will find out his secret, and what will come of it.  (a type of tension building that Hitchcock would brilliantly return to with James Stewart’s character in Rope (1948). Despite the films title, there really isn’t a whole lot of “doubt”, as right from the first shot of the film it’s obvious that uncle Charlie is a shady character, being followed by the two men trailing him, pretending to be ill during his train ride to Santa Rosa plus his eccentricities after his arriving, such as vehemently refusing to be photographed by the two men when they pose as survey takers and tearing an article out of a newspaper, acting more than a bit defensive when young Charlie finds said article. It’s actually after young Charlie finds out the truth that Hitchcock really cranks up the intensity by making uncle Charlie a serious threat to his niece. Without giving anything away, you won’t believe what he does to try and keep her (very) quiet, and the way he acts so “concerned” about all the “accidents” his niece is suddenly having, one after another, and the matter of fact way Hitchcock presents it makes it all the more chilling. A lot has been said over the years about the actual look of the finale on the train (it was 1943 folks, movie making technology wasn’t what it is these days) but the scene itself is one hell of a nail biter, and as short as it is, you’ll be out of breath by the time it’s over. Pure Hitchcock through and through.

If all that weren’t more than enough to make for an unforgettable film, what really seals the deal are the performances of Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright. I believe that this was one of the few, possibly only time Cotten played a bad guy (correct me if I’m wrong as there are others who know more about that stuff than I do) and he relishes every moment of it. It’s Cotten’s performance of uncle Charlie that makes Shadow of a Doubt as unsettling as it is, because if you strip away all the widow murdering, uncle Charlie seems like a pretty good guy. He’s well traveled, sophisticated, and comes across as the consummate, loving family man, even bringing expensive gifs for the entire family (his gift to young Charlie becomes a major plot device by the way). He manages to pull the wool over the entire town of Santa Rosa’s eye as he’s well liked by seemingly the whole community. Uncle Charlie’s real personality comes out in the form of two brilliant monologues wherein he opines on his nihilistic views of life, women and the world in general. Cotten’s delivery is astoundingly sinister, and it’s after the second monologue, when it’s clear to him that young Charlie knows the truth, we no longer see the man with a secretive side, only the monster that young Charlie now sees, yet at the same time there is a slight sense of shame in self-loathing in uncle Charlie, as he pleads with his niece to never let her mother find out the truth, knowing full well it would devastate her as much as it does his niece.  In sharp contrast to Cotten’s menace is Teresa Wright’s youthful innocence and naivety, making young Charlie an instantly likable character, and it’s these qualities that make it incredibly easy to sympathize with her as it’s is quite troubling to see this young girls ideas of her uncle smashed, and you’ll be wishing for her safety for the majority of the later part of the film. The two of them together is the definition of chemistry, both before and after the truth about uncle Charlie is revealed, and there is always this odd tension between the two, which brings me to something that’s always stuck with me about this film. Is it just me or is young Charlie a bit too enamored with her uncle? I mean, she even says at one point in the film (and I’m paraphrasing here) that she’s always viewed them as so much more, claiming she loves being seen with him in public, gushing at the fact that all her friends fawn over him when they see the two together. Maybe I’m the weird one for even thinking about it, or perhaps it was Hitchcock’s way of darting around a taboo without spelling it out completely, but regardless it’s just another aspect of the film to creep you out.

Of course with material like this the opportunity was prime for some of Hitchcock’s trademark black humor in the form of little Charlie’s father Joe (Henry Travers) and his best friend, the Newton’s neighbor Herb, played by Hume Cronyn. The two are avid murder mystery readers and spent most of their free time discussing crime (they even bring up the Merry Widow case) and how they would murder the other and get away with it and which methods were more effective than others. This is Hitchcock so naturally one such discussion is had at the dinner table (a running joke in the film is Herb always showing up at dinner time), much to little Charlie’s dismay. My favorite discussion of theirs is when Herb asks Joe if he tasted the soda he put in his coffee, about the same amount he would use if it were poison. Both men have great comedic delivery (Cronyn especially) and their scenes are always fun. There’s also the great “I’d die for a ring like that” remark made by young Charlie’s waitress friend after seeing the ring her uncle gave to her as a gift. The Newton family is quite the quirky bunch, especially Charlie’s bookworm little sister Ann, so Hitchcock does make time for some light humor along with all the doom and gloom going on in the film. One more note about the whole small town aesthetic, there’s a big reason why it feels as authentic as it does, the film was actually shot on location in Santa Rosa, California, and like I stated above it’s pretty much your average, Norman Rockwell-esque community. The perfect place for a killer to hide out with complete anonymity it would see. Just the right subject matter for Hitchcock. The idea of seedy characters existing in suburbia has been a theme for many a film over the years (Blue Velvet immediately springs to mind) and you can clearly see Shadow of a Doubt’s influence in such films. Like so many of Hitchcock’s works, the more you watch Shadow of a Doubt, the more little things pop out making you appreciate the film even more so, while the storyline remains as captivating as it was on the first viewing. It is absolutely an essential Hitchcock masterpiece, and it just might make you think twice about putting people on pedestals, no matter how well you think you know them.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Lost Highway (1997)

Bear with me folks, this is gonna be a long one…

Lost Highway is my favorite movie, full disclosure. I’d been wanting to do this for a while but I also realize that this is a film that has been discussed, dissected and overanalyzed to death ever since it’s release so I had been debating on whether or not to even bother. At the same time, I’d like to think that anyone who writes these damned things has written about their all time favorite in one way or another. Fandom calls I guess. This isn’t going to be some essay about what my interpretation of the film is, who or what I think the Mystery Man is or represents or anything like that because that’s played out and you’ve probably read/heard all the theories before anyway, some that might make sense, or some that may even be more confusing than the film itself (they exist), so let’s just say that the film is open to interpretation and leave it at that. Plus if you ask me, watching a film like this for the sole purpose of picking it apart, constantly searching for “meanings” is watching it for all the wrong reasons. But that’s just me. Lost Highway is a film that never fails to give me a nice nostalgic feeling whenever I watch it. When the film was released in 1997 the promotion for it was seemingly everywhere, and the title “Lost Highway” intrigued me. I would always catch the trailers for it on TV and to say the least what I saw caught my attention. The previews really didn’t give me any indication as to what exactly the film was about, but it looked exciting. Plus I remember the film being mentioned a lot during MTV news briefs due to the bands on the soundtrack (remember this was 1997, MTV still played music videos). When the film hit Pay Per View the trailers were all over the TV again so just had to check it out. Now obviously it didn’t become my favorite film on first viewing, but to say the least I was a bit dumbfounded. Dumbfounded, but blown away. You see this tired line all the time all the time in reviews but fuck it, I really had never seen anything like it, and I seriously hadn’t been that reeled in by a film since my first viewing of Psycho. With each viewing I found even more things to appreciate and not only did it eventually become my favorite film, David Lynch subsequently became one of my favorite filmmakers.

This isn’t the kind of film that you can crank out a brief plot synopsis for as to be honest there really isn’t a “plot”, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. I really don’t like just explaining events that happen in the film, yet at the same time you kind of have to when discussing a film like Lost Highway if by chance someone who’s never seen the film happens to stumble onto this site. Jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife Rene (Patricia Arquette) receive a strange package on their doorstep, a videotape in an unmarked envelope featuring footage which appears to have been shot right outside their house. They receive another, longer videotape soon after, starting out with the same footage, only to move inside the house eventually landing in their bedroom showing the two in bed sleeping. The morning after attending a party where Fred has a strange encounter with a “Mystery Man” (Robert Blake), Fred finds a third tape, which he watches alone, and to his shock it features him murdering Rene in the bedroom and butchering her limbs off. Although he has no memory of murdering Rene, he is tried and convicted of the murder, and sent to death row. After suffering a violent fit of sorts in his cell, Fred inexplicable morphs into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young mechanic. Upon discovering that this young man in Fred’s cell is defiantly not Fred Madison, the police have no choice other than to let him go, and he is released to his parents. It’s then we get acquainted with Pete and his world, and are introduced to characters such as the charismatic, powerful mobster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), who is also known to the police as Dick Laurent, (who happened to be pronounced dead to Fred over his intercom during the opening of the film) and Mr. Eddy’s mistress Alice (also played by Arquette). Pete and Alice begin an intense romance, and what follows is even weirder than what came before if you can believe it.

Going any further than that would be a major disservice to anyone who has yet to see the film. Lost Highway is the kind of film you completely immerse yourself in. Every possible aspect of it, be it the characters, the imagery, the music, every little thing works to suck you right into this surreal, nightmarish world Lynch creates, complete with seedy characters, Mystery Men, doppelgangers and multiple identities, and if you’re willing to come along for the ride, perfect, but if not that’s completely understandable. Obviously this isn’t a film for everybody, as Lynch in general is an acquired taste, and Lost Highway continues to be a polarizing film. Judging from a good number of the negative reviews I’ve read of the film over the years, what seems to have frustrated people the most was, amongst other things the abrupt switch in narratives, going from Fred to Pete. Along with Fred‘s first encounter with the Mystery Man, it was Fred‘s morphing into Pete when I realized that nothing was off limits in this film, anything could happen, and Lynch had me hooked. Like I said above, the previews didn’t exactly give me any clues as to what to expect, so on my first viewing I had no pre conceived notions about anything. This film completely yanks you out of your comfort zone in terms of storytelling. I had never seen a film go about telling a story (some may say lack of one) in the manner in which Lost Highway did, and I can honestly say I was never frustrated by the narrative, as I was too busy being entranced by the happenings on the screen. When the focus turns to Pete, Lynch enhances the intrigue, and the film plays out like an existential mystery only we’re not sure what exactly the mystery is. Whether it’s Pete’s relationship with Mr. Eddy or his dangerous romance with Alice, the events that play out during this portion of the film and the characters involved couldn’t get anymore compelling, plus you have to keep Fred in the back of your mind as well. All the while Lynch throws us even more curveballs to perplex us and keep us on our toes, such as (but not limited too) the secret of what exactly happened to Pete the night Fred turned into him, and his parents refusal to tell him, the police referring to Mr. Eddy as Laurent, and the photo of both Rene and Alice together, not to mention wondering what connection, if any, does Fred have to Pete, Alice to Rene, Mr. Eddy/Laurent to Rene, the Mystery Man to everyone. Yeah, it defies all plausible logic, but that’s a major part of why I found the film, and still do find it to be so exhilarating is the fact that Lynch somehow finds a way to keep pulling fast ones on us, especially during the second and third acts. Wherever it was going I didn’t care, but I wanted to go there.

The distressed look on Bill Pullman’s face during the first shot of the film (and pretty much in scene he’s in) says it all about Fred. Fred is a man on the edge it seems. Highly suspicious of Rene being unfaithful, he distrusts her, yet he is desperate not to lose her. Rene’s hold on Fred is obvious, yet equally obvious is her boredom. Their conversation is strained and awkward, both would seemingly rather be anywhere else but where they are. Arquette is enticing in the role of Rene, and it’s easy to see why she holds such power over Fred, but it’s as Alice where Arquette really shines. Lynch shoots her like Hitchcock would one of his famous leading blondes, and much like a Hitchcock blonde, Alice is mysterious, seductive, dangerous, in essence the ultimate femme fatale. The same effect she has on Pete is felt by the viewer, as Arquette just radiates lust and sexuality. You really can’t blame Pete for wanting to follow her everywhere, no matter the cost. From the leather jacket to the sideburns, you can practically smell the cool emitting from Balthazar Getty, who gives Pete the quintessential “bad boy” aesthetic, while at the same time being a tad bit reserved. Robert Loggia was no stranger to tough guy characters by the time Lost Highway was made, as he’s just so damn good at playing them. As Mr. Eddy, (or Dick Laurent) he has the ability to come off as incredibly threatening and charming at the same time. Case in point being the scene were he calls Pete “wanting to know if he’s doing OK”, pure intimidation, and of course there’s the infamous tailgating scene which will have anyone who’s ever wanted to do that to a tailgater applaud. Whenever he’s on screen, he owns it, pure presence. Then of course, there’s Robert Blake as the Mystery Man. Those reading this who’ve seen the film will no doubt notice that in my little events description above I left Fred’s encounter with the Mystery Man at the party as vague as possible. Reason being is that I feel it’s a scene that really cannot be done justice but just describing it. You really need to see it first hand, as it’s an incredibly eerie moment, pure Lynch. It would have been so easy to make that role campy what with the pale white face makeup and all but Blake plays it totally straight and kills it (no pun intended). The party scene has now become iconic, and you’ll think twice the next time somebody asks you “We’ve met before, haven’t we?”, but my favorite Mystery Man moment in the film comes after Mr. Eddy asks Pete if he’s ok and hands the Mystery Man the phone and he proceeds to educate Pete on what happens to men condemned to die in the far east. Absolutely bone chilling delivery, and just like the party scene, it comes out of left field, even for a film like this.

Lynch perfectly paced the film, deliberately if you ask me, so that it fit’s the personality of it’s characters and their situations. Even with the very first shot Lynch immediately sets up an overwhelming sense of impending doom with the cryptic statement “Dick Laurent is dead” and the following 40 minutes or so are steeped in dread and paranoia. During the scenes with Fred and Rene, time seems to stand completely still, it’s as if Lynch was forcing the audience to feel the stagnation that has consumed Fred and Rene’s life. One particularly telling moment is when they are telling the police about the videos they keep receiving, even when their not talking directly to each other they seem as distant as possible, the dialogue is almost alien. Their house seems cold and unwelcoming, as Lynch almost makes the house it’s own personality of sorts, one that is slowly draining Fred of all life, little by little. The moments after Fred and Rene return home from the party where Fred first meets the Mystery Man are dreadfully unsettling as Lynch heightens the tension and makes it seem as if Fred is slowly disappearing into the darkness of the house, like it’s finally devouring him. As the film moves foreword, the shifts in tone are radical, going from the drawn out lives of Fred and Rene to the faster paced, devil may care lives of Pete, Alice and Mr. Eddy. Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford described Lost Highway as a “21st-century noir horror film”, and it’s this half of the film where the noir elements kick in. There’s murder, deception, forbidden romance, hell even a plot device involving snuff porno, and this goes back to what I was saying above about getting being fully invested in the film even though you might have given up on trying to follow the story. For Pete, Lynch created a world is sexy and exciting, so much so you can’t help but want to go along, much like the character of Pete in a way. He might not completely understand where his relationship with Alice will take him, or why Alice choose him, but he’s in it for the long haul anyway, knowing full well of the danger. It’s part of the fun. No matter who the film is focused on, Lynch is always flexing his artistic muscle. From the expert use of slow motion, the perfectly placed close up’s (especially when the Mystery Man is involved) to the trippy use of colors and the gorgeous looking scenes in the desert, the visuals on display in Lost Highway are sure to make most filmmakers jealous. The love scene between Alice in Pete in the sand is just heavenly looking and a prime example of Lynch‘s ability to create a mood with lighting alone. There are moments that veer into music video territory highlighting Lynch’s genius use of color where it’ll appear as if your screen is hallucinating, such as Fred’s transformation and the final moments of the film. No Lynch film would be complete without shots of the road at night, plus I’ve always loved the scene taking place in the “Lost Highway Hotel”, the perfect name and the perfect location for a place where characters such as these would hide out for illicit activity, totally fit’s the whole vibe of film.

Lost Highway not only exhibits Lynch’s great eye but also his ears. When I reviewed Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) a few months back I talked at length about the importance of music and sound in Lynch’s films and anybody who’s even seen just one of his film can attest that the music and sound is crucial to the whole, and with Lost Highway, Lynch proved once again that he’s an absolute master when it comes to perfectly matching image and sound. Lost Highway’s soundtrack is filled diverse artists such as David Bowie, Lou Reed, Marilyn Manson, This Mortal Coil, Rammstein, Nine Inch Nails, and so on. Even if your not a fan of any of these bands, it really shouldn’t matter, as the brilliant way Lynch utilizes the songs will make you forget about whether or not you like the artists. Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” immediately sets up a vibe during the opening credits with it’s pulsating tempo while the credits jump out and the yellow road lines speed past you. The song has a light, dreamy quality to it as well thanks to Bowie’s vocals which is a nice indicator of sorts of the mood of the film in certain places. Speaking of dreamy, when Lou Reed’s cover of “This Magic Moment” plays when we first meet Arquette as Alice is a magic moment indeed. Lynch presents the scene in beautiful slow motion, while the droning guitar effects Reed added to the track work hand in hand with Arquette’s undeniable sensuality, hypnotizing the audience as much as it does Pete seeing Alice for the first time. Equally hypnotizing but in a much more sinister way is the use of Marilyn Manson’s cover (a lot of covers on the soundtrack) of “I Put a Spell On You” while Alice recounts to Pete her first meeting with Mr. Eddy. It’s quite jarring, and when played at a high volume (which the film should always be played at) will put you in a quite the daze, watching Arquette strip at gunpoint with that song as a backdrop. Manson’s “Apple of Sodom” is also heard in the film, and Manson himself and bassist Twiggy Ramirez have (very) brief cameo’s in the film. Perhaps the best musical moment in the entire film is when Pete and Alice make love in the sand to This Mortal Coil’s “Song For the Siren”. If any song deserves the description of ethereal it’s this one, and if any scene in this film were to be called “otherworldly” this one stands head and shoulders above the competition. Combine all that with Angelo Badalamenti’s slick score, which only enhances the noir-ish atmosphere of the film. “Dub Driving” as it’s referred to on the soundtrack is a stand out piece. Revolving around a laid back bass line, I think it perfectly captures the seedy, mysterious world the film creates. Then theres the haunting drones that are peppered throughout the early parts of the film, making pretty much any scene with Fred even more unsettling.

Lost Highway was the first in what Lynch fans have come to call the “Los Angeles trilogy”, the others obviously being Mulholland Drive (2001) and the aforementioned Inland Empire (2006). With each film Lynch puts a different spin on the whole multiple/alternate personalities/realities or whatever you want to call it theme. There’s always debates among fans regarding which film Lynch perfected his idea’s, but all things considered, Lost Highway get’s my pick. It goes without saying that not everyone took or will take to Lost Highway the way I did. Siskel and Ebert gave the film two thumbs down, which Lynch famously and hilariously exploited by putting it on a poster for the film with the blurb “Two more great reasons to see Lost Highway!” Ebert actually went as far as to say the film was made in contempt for it’s audience. A bit harsh, wouldn’t you agree? Regardless, whether you like it or not you have to at least admit it’s originally and Lynch’s style and uncompromising artistry. Even people who hate the film have complimented it’s look, as they should. Have I figured out what Lost Highway is “really about”? No, and if you want to know the truth of it, I’m really not all that sure I want to either. Now I’m not going to bullshit you and say I’ve never thought about it, as I think that anybody who’s seen the film has, but to me, going too deep would ruin the films mystique for me. Just go with it, get lost in the universe it creates and the experience will be much more rewarding. I’ve seen this film countless times, it’s to the point where I could probably do a one man show reciting the entire script. It’s a film that I can put on anytime and I know no matter how many times I see it, it will never get old, and the same effect it had one my the first time I watched it is never lost. In fact spending all this time writing about it just made me want to watch it again, which I probably will. I can safely say that on the list of my top whatever number of favorite films, Lost Highway will always get top billing. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.