The Cranes are Flying (1957)

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Soviet films flummoxed me a couple years ago. But this one charmed me.

Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov) are Muscovite sweethearts in the summer of 1941, just before the USSR enters the Second World War. They still live with their respective families, three floors apart from each other in the same building, but are old enough that both families have started expecting a proposal soon. But for now the lovers content themselves with sneaking out at dawn to watch the sunrise, cavort in the park, and watch cranes in flight before sneaking home back to their respective beds.

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After one such meeting, Boris gets an urgent wake-up from his cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) – the Germans have just invaded on the Western border. In a flush of patriotism, he volunteers for the army – even though it means he’ll ship out on Veronika’s birthday. He urges his family to give her his gift – a stuffed toy squirrel, into which he has tucked a love note. Veronika rushes to the army’s assembly station hoping to see him off, but just misses him; both families begin the long wait for war’s end.

War is hell, however, both on the battlefield and on the home front. Veronika’s parents are killed during an air raid, and Boris’ family takes her in. When she freaks out during another air raid, Mark – who’s always had a crush on her – takes advantage of her panic and rapes her. Boris, meanwhile, goes missing during a scouting mission and no one seems to know where he is; and instead of being able to wait for him in Moscow, Veronika and Boris’ family are all relocated to Siberia; Veronika is now married to Mark, having been pressured into it after Mark’s indiscretion. Still, she holds out hope that somehow – someday – she will hear from Boris again.

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It’s admittedly a sentimental plot, and uses several of the same cinematographic tricks from earlier Soviet propaganda films that left me cold. But here, they simply work. The camerawork isn’t in defense of a heady socio-political message; it’s in service to a poignant love story. There’s a sequence mid-film, where we see Boris on the battlefield and he’s shot – as he loses consciousness, he hallucinates himself back at home, he and Veronika happily skipping down their apartment building stairs on their way to their wedding. It’s poignantly dreamlike – lots of closeups of happy family members, Veronika beaming at him, her veil swirling about them both. Later, Veronika has a weak moment in Siberia and considers killing herself – her mad dash to the train station is shot with a shaky hand-held camera, following the rush of her steps as she runs.

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But the chemistry between Samoilova and Batalov is what really sells this film. Samoilova in particular – Veronika is a bubbly, spunky thing at the very start of the movie, and Boris is clearly wrapped around her finger. They clearly love each other – but they also clearly have enormous fun with each other, and it’s amazingly endearing to watch – which makes the wartime tragedies that befall them both all the sadder. Samoilova does equally well selling the sadder moments of Veronika’s story later; Veronika is thrown by some bad news towards the film’s end, but instead of going into histrionics, she just steps into another room to collect herself, then steps back out, resigned, and gets back to what she was doing.

The whole film feels like a big breath of fresh air as well, possibly because this was one of the first Soviet films made after Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev publicly denounced his predecessor, Josef Stalin, and the iron grasp he’d had on Soviet life. Under Stalin, filmmakers had to put a positive spin on Soviet life, and their films had to hew close to a party line; under Khruschev, however, filmmakers could finally acknowledge the losses of the Second World War. They could also tell stories of ordinary people instead of praising historic leaders. Director Mikhail Kalatozov jumped at the chance to do both with this film, to lovely effect.


Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956)

Terror with both feet on Earth: Invasion of the Body Snatchers | BFI

Strangely, I think I need to dedicate this review to my physical therapist, since we have been discussing this film for our past three appointments. She begins each session with some hands-on massage and treatment, coaxing my weak and wounded knee into bending just a tiny bit further than last time while I lie on my back and wince. This doesn’t give me much else to do, so ever since I told her about this blog, she asks about “what’s the last film you saw” to distract me.

Surprisingly, she hadn’t ever heard of this film – one which I’d heard about for years. So for her sake, in case there are others similarly unfamiliar: Kevin McCarthy is Dr. Miles Bennell, a doctor in the small California town of Santa Mira. He returns from a business trip to messages from his head nurse that a number of patients had been urgently asking to see him, each with the same complaint – they feared that something was wrong with one of their other family members. Even more curious, now that Dr. Bennell is back and following up with them, many wave away their complaints and insist that it was nothing. One patient, Wilma (Virginia Christine), still has concerns, so he visits her for a consult, and she says that something just seems off about her father. He looks fine, he seems mentally all there, but…there’s something emotionless and hollow about him. In fact, Wilma insists, it’s almost like her real father were stolen and replaced with an identical-looking imposter.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956 Dana Wynter Kevin McCarthy | Wynter, Kevin  mccarthy, Body

It’s an outrageous claim, and Dr. Bennell makes a mental note to get Wilma a psych consult. But he’s a bit distracted when he learns that Wilma’s cousin Becky (Dana Wynter), his old girlfriend, is back in town and conveniently single. And, Becky is all too eager for a date that night (as soon as Bennell sets something up for Wilma, of course). But no sooner have they settled down to their pre-dinner drinks when Bennell gets a call from a panicked-sounding friend of his, Jack (King Donovan) – Jack has just discovered a body in his basement. But not until Bennell and Becky show up do they discover that this body is actually a copy of Jack. Bennell later discovers a similar lifeless copy of Becky in Becky’s basement, and summons police. But both bodies have disappeared by the time police turn up, with the psychiatrist in tow, and all try to convince Bennell and Jack that they were just seeing things. But…there’s something a little uncanny about them all. Something emotionless and hollow….

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I had to explain to my physical therapist that this was the origin of the term “pod people”, because of the cocoon-like pods in which these duplicate bodies grow before taking over their hosts. And that gradually, Dr. Bennell and Becky find themselves on the run from everyone in town, all of whom seem to be attempting to turn them into “pod people” themselves before mass-producing them and spreading them around the country. “This kind of paranoia was classic 1950s sci-fi,” I told my therapist, “everyone out to get you.”

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

The thing is, though – I had assumed that the real “danger” the film was warning about was Communism. A handful of conversations Dr. Bennell have with some “pod people” urging him to give in seem to support that – they speak of the benefits of living in “an untroubled world” where “everyone is the same”, and how life is much simpler without complex emotions and individuality. However, some contemporary critics have argued just as strong a case for McCarthyism being the boogeyman – the near-forced conversions, the relentless hunt to root out dissent. Still others pointed to the stories of brainwashing techniques being tested on Korean War P.O.W.’s.

Ironically, the filmmakers intended none of these. Director Don Siegel had something of an allegory in mind, but he was thinking more of conformity in general, without ascribing it to any political mindset. Kevin McCarthy also stated in later interviews that they were making a simple thriller film, and producer Walter Mirisch backed McCarthy up in his autobiography: “I remember reading a magazine article arguing that the picture was intended as an allegory about the communist infiltration of America. From personal knowledge, neither Walter Wanger nor Don Siegel, who directed it, nor Dan Mainwaring, who wrote the script nor original author Jack Finney, nor myself saw it as anything other than a thriller, pure and simple.”

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

And it works quite well as a thriller – a slowly-unfolding mystery, a couple of good jump scares, several moments of will-they-escape-in-time. Siegel also wisely avoids falling into the “special effects” trap, relying on moody lighting and the actors’ performances to carry the storytelling. There are those seed pods, but they’re mostly just static props, more intimidating in numbers when you see a great pile of them ready to be shipped off throughout the country. Becky has somewhat more agency than the typical hero’s-girlfriend as well, and the film does not end with a happy “and-now-we-are-safe” moment where they collapse with relief into each other’s arms.

What are the sexual politics of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”? | Watch |  The Take

Speaking of the ending, too – I’m not going to spoil things, but I’d heard that there was a last-minute change to the end that dramatically alters the story of the film. The original ending was a good deal more pessimistic, and studios insisted on an epilogue of sorts. I’ve been thinking about the film both ways – and while the new ending is a bit more “Hollywood” happy, I have to say I didn’t mind it. …Although my physical therapist agreed that this kind of Hollywood ending can be a bit far-fetched.


Metropolis (1927)

I admit I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Art Deco, but still one of the things that struck me about Metropolis was just how beautiful it looked.  The city-of-the-future that is our setting is full of gracefully towering spires and elegant archways bedecked with glimmering lights.  Scenes are staged and filmed with tremendous care and attention to light and color, motion and movement.  Some details may not be realistic, but everything is beautifully detailed.

There’s a chance you may have heard of the plot, but just in case – “Metropolis” is a futuristic city run by one man, Joh Frederson; the rich and powerful idle away their time cavorting in pleasure gardens high in the city’s towers, while the working class lives underground, spending their lives manning the machines on a round-the-clock schedule to keep the city running.

One day, Maria – a woman who basically runs the workers’ day care – invites herself and the kids up to see the rich folks’ pleasure gardens, giving rich and poor a chance to have a look at each other before she calmly brings them all back down to the depths again.

But she’s caught the eye of Joh Frederson’s son, “Freder,” who heads down to seek her back out.  But instead he has his first glimpse at how the workers in Metropolis live, and is horrified; at one point he imagines the machines are a giant demon, ruthlessly eating the workers alive.  From then on, he has two goals – to reconnect with Maria, and to come to the aid of Metropolis’ lesser-off citizens.

His father is less than thrilled with this, though, and consults with the city’s finest scientist and inventor, C.A. Rotwang; Rotwang has just invented a robot, and Joh persuades him to fit the robot out like Maria. The real Maria is a pacifist, but his plan is to have Robot Maria start a rebellion so he can have an excuse to call in his thugs and break things up for good.  Rotwang agrees, but also secretly launches his own plan to have Robot Maria moonlight in the Metropolis strip clubs to cause a little chaos among the rich folk as well.

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A word about Maria, actually – both versions are played by actress Brigitte Helm, in what was her movie debut at the age of only eighteen.  Both performances are notable – no real over-acting, and a limited amount of “look at the pretty girl in soft focus” beauty shots.  Helm does use a couple of obvious signifiers to distinguish Robot Maria from Real Maria – namely, heavy black eyeliner and some muggy winky faces – but they’re used sparingly, and it’s unclear whether these choices were Helm’s or Lang’s.

I keep coming back to how the film looks.  The plot and theme are notable themselves – a message best summed up with the film’s famous epigram about how the heart needs to be a mediator between the hand and the mind – but the imagery is what really grabbed my attention, over and over.  The opening shots of a series of gears give way to Metropolis’ workers mechanically marching to the elevator to start their shift – as another group of workers ending their shift also marches away, moving much slower.

A character trying to get past the city’s red-light district spots a flyer advertising a night club, and then another, and another, and is then caught up in a blizzard of flyers raining down on him.  Robot Maria does an erotic dance at the night club, and the shot of the rich men ogling her dissolves into a collage of wide-open eyes.

Meanwhile, a delerious Freder – who’s just had a run-in with Robot Maria after an emotional moment in a Cathedral – imagines Maria as the Whore of Babylon.

Some critics point to Metropolis’ influence on other sci-fi films like The Matrix and Blade Runner, but the visuals have had a stronger impact on music videos.  Janelle Monae’s “Archandroid” character is a nod to the initial appearance of the Robot from the film (as is C-3PO from Star Wars, while we’re on the subject).  There are nods to the film in Lady Gaga’s videos for “Born This Way”, “Alejandro”, and “Applause.”  Twenty years earlier, Madonna all but re-made the film for her video for “Express Yourself.”


Queen went even further and outright used some clips from Metropolis in their video for “Radio Gaga.”


Queen may have actually had Metropolis on the brain for another reason, though.  That same year, Italian music producer Giorgio Moroder bankrolled and released a new edition of Metropolis that I can only assume was meant to appeal to a “modern” audience.  The film was already a bit of a hash at the time; during its original release, like many longer films, it suffered from some cuts at the hands of studio heads, and cinema scholars figured much of the original footage had long been lost.  Moroder’s version re-introduced some multicolored filters of the kind often used in German expressionist cinema, but cut the film’s running time and cut out several shots.  Moroder’s version also had a rock-score soundtrack, heavily using music by Queen, Bonnie Tyler, Adam Ant and other 80s stars.  (Full disclosure: I actually saw this version on VHS sometime in the early 90s.)

Miraculously, though, in 2005, cinema scholars discovered a nearly-complete print of the original film in Argentina.  Using that print, scholars were able to reconstruct and release a version in 2010 that restores most of the original footage (and ditches the rock for a more traditional score).  That is the version to track down if you can.