Doug DIBBERN’s CINEMA’s DOPPELGÄNGERS (recently published by Punctum Books) is a counterfactual history of the cinema—or, perhaps, a work of speculative fiction in the guise of a scholarly history of film and movie guide. That is, it’s a history of the movies written from an alternative unfolding of historical time—a world in which neither the Bolsheviks nor the Nazis came to power, and thus a world in which Sergei EISENSTEIN never made movies and German filmmakers like Fritz LANG never fled to Hollywood, a world in which the talkies were invented in 1936 rather than 1927, in which the French New Wave critics didn’t become filmmakers, and in which Hitchcock never came to Hollywood. The book attempts, on the one hand, to explore and expand upon the intrinsically creative nature of all historical writing; like all works of fiction, its ultimate goal is to be a work of art in and of itself. But it also aims, on the other hand, to be a legitimate examination of the relationship between the economic and political organization of nations and film industries and the resulting aesthetics of film and thus of the dominant ideas and values of film scholarship and criticism.
THE MALTESE FALCON
Raoul WALSH, USA (1942)
Pr. American Pictures,
Sc. A.I. BEZZERIDES, John HUSTON, & John WEXLEY
Starring Nick ALTON
Sound / b&w. / 35mm. / 100 mins.
Historians have generally credited Raoul WALSH’s adaptation of Dashiell HAMMETT’s The Maltese Falcon as the movie that kindled the genre that American critics later came to call Hard-boiled Cinema—and what the Parisian critics dubbed Serie Noir—those crime films of the 1940s and 1950s defined by dark chiaroscuro lighting, alluringly dangerous women, and grizzled detectives with a penchant for Hemingwayesque poeticisms who evince the same disregard for traditional morality as their criminal antagonists.
Two of the major studios had already adapted HAMMETT’s book: Fox’s silent edition in 1932 and Paramount’s talkie from 1937 had both followed the novel fairly closely, but neither caught on with the public and neither registers in the critical literature today. American Pictures’ equally faithful adaptation, meanwhile, became a commercial hit overnight and has remained an important benchmark in the history of American cinema. The screenplay—penned by, in the words of studio head Michael FEYNMAN, ‘any writer who happened to pass by my open door’— followed the novel almost scene by scene just as the previous adaptations had, including the majority of Hammett’s dialogue word for word. The script itself, then, had little to do with the movie’s success, so the qualities that made this version a classic shed light on some of the most fundamental aspects of film as an art form.
First, the cinematographer Nicholas MUSURACA understood the relationship between technology and poetics more than most of his contemporaries: he took advantage of Kodak’s new, faster film stocks, suffusing the movie with a dramatic high-contrast lighting whose inky, depthless blacks suffused the film with a mood of nihilistic despair, which then became—more than the characters or the plot—the essential subject of the hardboiled era. Second, WALSH’s decision to cast the then-little-known Nick ALTON in the role of Sam Spade demonstrated once again the inverse relationship that theatrically mimetic acting skills have with cinematic performance. Alton was pure presence. His oversized, jutting chin, and his perpetually unshaven indifference to the vicissitudes of life turned him into a new kind of American icon. When the French critics François TRUFFAUT and Jean-Luc GODARD debated fifteen years later whether ALTON was ‘the first existentialist’ or ‘the last Romantic rebel,’ they were talking about hardboiled cinema as much as they were about the actor in question.
In the opening scene, the seductive young bombshell Ruth Wonderley comes to the offices of private detective Sam Spade and asks him to look for her missing sister, but the central mystery begins to develop only the next morning after his partner is found murdered. When the police question him as a suspect in the case, Spade starts to investigate the crime himself—more to save his own neck than out of any concern for his erstwhile friend—and soon finds himself mixed up with a group of shady characters who’ve descended upon San Francisco in search of a black statuette they all believe must be worth a fortune. The eponymous Mediterranean bird is, of course, what the British director Alfred HITCHCOCK would later call a MacGuffin, the object that’s insignificant in and of itself, but which inspires the characters to play out the generic expectations of a Hollywood plot. The meaninglessness of this narrative catalyst is precisely what enables directors to express their more philosophical concerns—which in this case, is not the search for the titular bird of prey, but an examination of the ubiquity of evil and thus of humanity’s indifference to it. Spade, like the genre he helped create, inhabits a world that exists only at night, governed by no laws, no political institutions, and no social networks; instead, this shadow-world protagonist is what Gérard Genette called a ‘desultory monad,’ a drifter with no past and no future, an isolated animal only out for himself, whose actions are dictated by forces beyond his control, but who still strives to retain his dignity, if nothing else, since dignity may be the only thing a man can claim in a world that’s permeated by banks of fog so thick that half-lit neon bar signs are the only vestige of civilization that he might ever hope to glimpse.
In this sense, Nick ALTON himself, as much as the darkness, embodies the hard-edged spirit of the times; his incongruously masculine sibilance is the conflicted voice of the genre. After he’d been discovered selling tickets for a circus out in Long Beach, where he learned, he said, that ‘guys who talked loud got punched but guys who talked soft got the girl’—he’d worked as a B-movie tough on dozens of films throughout the 1930s for the smaller outfits in town like Sunset, Gower, and Universal. But the talkies made him a new type of star. He wasn’t attractive. His big ears, baggy eyes, and sputtering lisp all gave him the indefinably cinematic quality that producers back in the silent era used to call ‘It.’ His dissolute iconoclasm made him the perfect emblem for those who felt uprooted by the modern world. And his cinematic image assuaged the anxieties of the dispossessed for the next twenty years. After The Maltese Falcon made him the surprise star of the year, Alton solidified his position as the paradigmatic figure of Hardboiled Cinema by starring later as the genre’s other great icon, Raymond CHANDLER’s Philip Marlowe, in Howard HAWKS’ The Big Sleep (1944) and Frank Callaghan’s The Long Goodbye (1954)—perhaps the greatest of all hardboiled films.
Lino BROCKA, Philippines (1977)
Pr. Showtime Banking International
Sc. Lino BROCKA & Mario O’HARA
Starring Tiefolo SANCHEZ
Sound / Color / 35mm / 126 mins.
Lino BROCKA’s hothouse epic about a young cockfighter who comes to Manila to seek vengeance on his enemies has been overlooked since its release, partly because the movie’s melodramatic tone didn’t jibe with the dominant ethos of the cinéma engagé and partly because the Delgado administration’s censorship drive almost succeeded in wiping the film from the face of the Earth. It was only a dozen years later that the Belgian Film Archive managed to reconstruct the movie from the few remaining prints scattered across the globe. A new generation—more open to embracing outré aesthetics and to understanding sexuality as inherently political—has now come to extol the film as one of the most mordant commentaries of the decade.
The movie opens with one long, hypnotic tracking shot, flecked and haloed with the iridescent sunbursts of the camera lens, as Tiefolo SANCHEZ wakes, drags a hand through his unkempt hair, climbs out of bed, saunters naked out into the yard, and turns on a hose to give himself a cold shower. The camera lingers on his statuesque body until the rising sun behind him turns him into a mere silhouette, a black outline against a blazing sky. In this wordless introductory scene, BROCKA hints at both the film’s major themes and its plot trajectory: an aestheticized erotics that will lead inexorably to death.
Sanchez’s character grew up in a rural backwater but managed to achieve some prominence by running the local cockfights. The movie’s conflict begins when a group of young toughs sent by a Manila gang lord arrive unannounced in town one night, drag SANCHEZ into an alley, and beat him up with a lead pipe. It’s that easy to take over his business. The next morning, bandaged and bruised, he escapes by hitching a ride to the capital, where he hopes he might take revenge on the city’s crime bosses who’ve begun to corrupt the countryside. Wandering the streets at night, homeless and without a job, he ends up sleeping in the only place he can afford, renting a cot in the back of a shantytown barbershop. And here, by portraying SANCHEZ surrounded by piles of garbage, homes constructed out of cinder blocks and sheet metal, and human refuse streaming through the streets, Brocka transforms his story from a commercial melodrama into an exposé of the American-sponsored crony capitalism that was turning the island into a spiritual dumping ground. The rotting excrescence that is the contemporary Philippines forces SANCHEZ to humiliate himself in a quest for money, thereby replicating on a personal level the degradations of the nation. To make a new life for himself among the urban poor, SANCHEZ earns money first by selling recycled bottles from the garbage dump, then by selling drugs, and finally by selling his own body to the jaded wives of millionaires who flock to the downtown discotheques looking for amphetamines and sex.
What makes the film more than just a gritty genre pic from the low-budget Filipino scene is BROCKA’s baroque use of cinematic tools to make a recurring connection between the political economy of the Philippines, the corruption of urban life, and the abasement of the body. BROCKA returns repeatedly to an obsessive meditation on SANCHEZ’s nude figure, but whenever he does, he frames him to draw parallels with the larger world: in the background of the image in the shantytowns, women give their children baths with a hose in front of a pigpen, bands of teenagers face off against each other with broken Coke bottles, and bored prostitutes hang out in alleyways in the middle of the afternoon, adjusting their nylons and smoking cigarettes. BROCKA returns to this visual analogy between sexuality and the country’s degeneration so often that it becomes the logical development of the narrative as well. It is SANCHEZ’s discovery that he can make more money by selling his own body, after all, that leads to his spiraling humiliation and ineluctable demise.
And ironically for a gay director, Brocka portrays SANCHEZ’s final ruination as a descent into queer sexuality. He begins by sleeping with the bored housewives of the country’s politically connected nouveau riche, but near the end, in a sequence that hints at the film’s ugly resolution, BROCKA frames SANCHEZ getting a blow job from the effeminate son of a local politician as he leans against a Dumpster in an alley with the young man’s Mercedes-Benz parked in the background. As BROCKA moves in for a close-up, SANCHEZ’s face contorts in a grimace, half pleasure and half pain, just at the moment of orgasm. Unable to confront squarely his own desires and his own identity, SANCHEZ eventually meets the same fate as the nation—and for the same reason. As the film barrels toward its denouement, SANCHEZ’s affair with his gay femme pickup turns increasingly passionate, but increasingly out of control: BROCKA films their sex in a cramped basement storeroom with a swinging ceiling-light like two animals trapped in a pen. In the penultimate scene, after an unexpectedly rough encounter, the fey rich kid turns on him, spits his way, and knifes him in the groin. And in the final shot, BROCKA tracks in on SANCHEZ’s naked body discarded atop a trash heap in a back alley where his boyfriend has left him to die.
After critics raved about the movie at its Manila premiere and news spread about its scathing portrayal of the political class, the Filipino domestic security apparatus wheeled into action and rounded up and burned every print it could get its hands on. But by then the distributor had already shipped a few copies to Hong Kong and Singapore, and just to be safe, BROCKA managed to have his favorite actress, Lina BELMONTE, smuggle another print out of the country when she traveled to Macao—ironically, on a publicity tour for her biopic about President DELGADO’s wife. Just one month later, the government arrested both BROCKA and SANCHEZ on tax charges that most people saw as a thinly veiled attack on their film. Both were released after just a few months, but by planting scurrilous rumors in the press and blacklisting them at the major film companies, DELGADO managed to hobble both their careers without resorting to an outright ban that might have troubled his American sponsors. BROCKA was unable to direct a movie for another eleven years and then could work only on a series of low-budget musicals, while SANCHEZ eventually ended up working as a used car salesman in Quezon City. Both men had died by the time the film was restored and had its triumphant screening at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 1991, where Françoise BERGERON called it “more searing than any of the films of the so-called ‘engaged cinema’ of the period because its fervent tone makes its realist aesthetics more vividly human and thus more politically acute.”
THE PERFORMANCE OF THE SELF
IN THE MESSIANIC
EYES OF ORSON WELLES
Shirly JACOBS, USA (1975)
Pr. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting
Sound / Color / 35mm / 113 mins.
Shirley JACOBS had originally planned on making an essay film about the sociologist Erving GOFFMAN’s theories on the inherently performative nature of the self. Her goal had been to focus on the celebrities who appeared on Michael DOUGLAS’ daytime talk show as the contemporary paradigms of self-consciously fashioned identities. But on the first day of shooting—after Orson WELLES impetuously commandeered the stage to perform a wedding between two Bolivian midget circus performers, and then, with a sudden sweep of his magician’s cape, made the tiny couple disappear before a stupefied roster that included Carol CHANNING and the bandleader Xavier CUGAT—she began to question herself. After the commercial break, when WELLES spoke wistfully to DOUGLAS about the second film he’d wanted to make in Hollywood—the modernist biopic about the newspaper tycoon William RANDOLPH HEARST, which studio executives infamously axed midway through production—she decided on the spot to embark upon a much more poetic project, an actuality instead about the once famous film director, movie star, and failed political candidate and his decades-long litany of unfinished, destroyed, and unfilmable projects.
The movie opens with the magic trick that first inspired her, and the sequence ends on a freeze frame of CHANNING’s bewildered face as the soundtrack erupts with screams and explosive blasts, punctuated by WELLES’ booming voice from the 1939 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds that first made him famous. Then JACOBS dissolves into the hauntingly sinuous first-person tracking shot that WELLES intended as the opening sequence of his first Hollywood production—his controversial adaptation of Joseph CONRAD’s Heart of Darkness (1941)—the same shot, WELLES reminds us in an audiotaped interview with his biographer Peter BOGDANOVICH, that Stanley Films executives cut from the release print over his heated objections. The camera begins on a tight close-up of an indignant African slave in the hull of a steamship, glides past a line of Black men chained to benches, and comes to a stop on the face of Canada LEE in the role of chief Iwakube—a WELLES invention, he said, to counter the Eurocentric focus of the CONRAD narrative—then follows him as he sneaks through the machine-laden underbelly of the boat and finally comes to rest three minutes later on deck as LEE looks out over the river to see here and there amid the jungle trees the curved bows that hint at the hail of arrows that will soon fall from the sky like a horde of locusts just at the moment that the credits begin to roll.
From these first moments, JACOBS’ design plan is clear: rather than a chronological account of the tragic rise and fall of a washed-up talent, she instead fashions a collage-like meditation in which she repeatedly frames WELLES’ adventurous, baroque aesthetics as the source of his lifelong tension between corporate persecution and artistic self-annihilation. As the Heart of Darkness credits continue to scroll, she dampens Bernard HERRMANN’s score to let WELLES’ voice come through once again—this time an excerpt from another of his unfinished films, his 1972 version of Moby Dick, in which he radically refashioned MELVILLE’s words as a monologue that speaks as much about Ahab as it does about himself: ‘Tied up, twisted, eyes like coals still glowing in the ashes of a ruin, Ahab lifts up to the clearness of the morn his splintered helmet of a brow.’ Ahab, now defeated, whom JACOBS makes the stand-in for WELLES gazing over the ruin of his own career, casts his eyes over the vast, impenetrable ocean into which he knows his monstrous but pearlescent nemesis will inevitably drag him, the boundlessness of his own artistry intent on swallowing him whole.
Continuing in this poetic mode of assemblage, JACOBS highlights her linked themes of acting and identity, art and futility by cutting from the Welles material to grainy 8mm home movies of Erving GOFFMAN and his family in the 1950s as we hear the sociologist reading aloud from his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. JACOBS herself tells us that she first became interested in GOFFMAN’s work because she saw his sociological analyses as merely aesthetic theories in another garb. Thus, she uses footage of GOFFMAN throughout the movie acting out the same roles—puffed-up machismo, inveterate chicanery, wounded genius—that she’d previously shown WELLES unwittingly performing on TV, which leads her in turn to explore GOFFMAN’s little-known years working in actuality filmmaking with John GRIERSON at the National Film Board of Canada. GOFFMAN had initially been attracted to actualities because of what he assumed was the motion pictures’ scientific potential for objectively capturing human behavior, but he quit in frustration after only a few years when he began to realize how deeply the filming process influenced the behavior of the observed subject. Paraphrasing GOFFMAN, JACOBS wonders aloud, is there some fundamental aspect of the mechanical means of capturing and reproducing reality that intensifies our awareness of the quintessentially fictive nature of everyday life? And doesn’t the indisputably affirmative answer to that question, she continues, suggest that the goal of fashioning a plausible, fictional cinematic universe—that is, the primary aim of film as an art form—is ultimately futile because the performer is trying to represent a reality that is already, by its very nature, unreal?
JACOBS lets this question hang in the air over the modernist funhouse mirror finale of The Lady from Shanghai (1947), then weaves between scenes of WELLES’ own home movies—in Los Angeles in the 1970s making peanut butter sandwiches for BOGDANOVICH, ice skating with his oldest daughter in Central Park in the 1950s, offering a champagne toast to Pablo CASALS in Cordoba in 1963—and footage from his failed campaign for the Senate in 1954 against the then little-known congressmen from Whittier, Richard NIXON. In the presumably unrehearsed and thus ‘natural’ footage at home, WELLES clearly adapts a different persona for each of his audiences, though the same themes continually reappear: despite the outsized persona that he projects, we can always detect traces of a small and frightened creature misunderstood and tormented by the world. But he transforms the sheltered timorousness of his private personality into a tool to use for his own public glorification: in his campaign speeches, from ornate San Francisco ballrooms to the farm towns of the Central Valley, WELLES returns again and again to the theme of the little man beset by larger, inhuman powers on all sides, culminating in his now famously impassioned concession speech at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles in which he denounces ‘the forces arrayed against the common man like the constellations that control our lives but which are impossible to wipe from the sky.’
JACOBS transitions into the final act with a bravura montage sequence, intercutting footage of WELLES’s appearances on The Michael Douglas Show with clips from the unfinished Moby Dick project he continued to work on till the end of his life. Alone in his living room, sitting before a blank backdrop with deep chiaroscuro lighting, WELLES looks into the camera with piercing eyes and reads aloud his reimagined version of Melville’s text—‘This winsome sky at last seems almost to dissolve the canker-wrinkle beating in his heart, and the cruel, stepmother world now throws affectionate arms around that stubborn neck’—then JACOBS cuts to WELLES spinning tales to DOUGLAS about the time he set Charlton HESTON’s beard on fire, about the time he and Ricardo MONTALBÁN got so drunk in Guadalajara they somehow ended up as matadors in a bullring, and about the time he finally met Jorge Luis BORGES at a writers’ conference in Buenos Aires and wanted to punch him out for his negative review of Heart of Darkness but instead won the older man over by acting out on the spot an improvised filmic adaptation of the author’s short story, ‘Pierre Menard: Author of Don Quixote.’
And then, the final sequence: the afternoon appearance when Michael DOUGLAS finally gathers the courage to ask WELLES about his infamous failed follow-up to Heart of Darkness, the aborted movie about HEARST that WELLES himself claimed ‘would have been the best movie I ever made.’ WELLES takes Carol CHANNING’s hand with a naughty avuncularity as he begins the story of that film—about a reporter’s investigation of the dead newspaper mogul’s mysterious last word, about his life revealed from multiple clashing perspectives, about the innovative techniques he’d planned with an optical printer to create the illusion of deep space as a means of signifying the growing emotional distance not just between this man and the people he loved most, but between him and his own forgotten progressive ambitions. And then, as WELLES comes to the climax of the movie’s narrative, his eyes suddenly fixate on an invisible object just out of reach and he transforms himself into the role of the film’s protagonist that he had intended to play himself. He rises from his chair and, as himself, subtly orchestrates the camera crew in the studio and the director up in the booth with the fingers of one hand, while simultaneously, embodying the fictionalized HEARST-like character, he acts out—perhaps, for the first time in three decades—the moment when his mistress Susan, whom he’d built up from nothing into an enormous Hollywood star, announces that she’s leaving him and he falls back in anguish, reeling through their bedroom with crazed hypnotic eyes, smashing flower vases, tearing paintings from the wall, and sweeping books from their shelves until he totters in an exhausted spiral and collapses onto the studio floor, grasping in one hand the mysterious object that had so transfixed him from the first moments of the scene, whispering to the studio audience that this was the snow globe he’d held as he’d spoken that final mysterious word on his deathbed in the opening sequence of the film, the same snow globe that was sitting on Susan’s piano the first night they met, the very symbol of his lost innocence he tried to re-capture through her, and JACOBS freezes on her film’s final image, the moment that WELLES lifts the imaginary bauble before him and raises his eyes to search in the vast darkness of the rafters not just for HEARST’s lost virtue, but his own, as his disembodied, reverb-heavy basso profundo voice intones that mysterious first and final word of what he’d hoped would have been his greatest film: ‘Rosebud.’
Doug DIBBERN’s first book, HOLLYWOOD RUITS: VIOLENT CROWDS & PROGRESSIVE POLITICS in AMERICAN FILM, won the 2016 Peter Rollins Prize. He has published scholarly essays on classical Hollywood filmmakers, film criticism for The Notebook at Mubi.com, and literary essays for journals like the Chicago Quarterly Review and Hotel Amerika. He has a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from New York University, where he teaches now in the Expository Writing Program.
Production shot from the film set
of BARBED WIRE
(dir. Rowland V. LEE
&(an uncredited Mauritz STILLER), 1927.