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The Servant (1963)

This film….hmm.

Well, it’s dark, for sure. A rich London playboy named Tony (James Fox) buys a posh pad with his inheritance and hires Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) as his manservant to complete the picture. At first all seems to be going well – Barrett tolerates Tony’s boozing and mess, anticipates Tony’s every need, and is quiet and efficient at his job. There’s some friction between Barrett and Tony’s fiancée Susan (Wendy Craig), exacerbated when Barrett “forgets” to knock on the parlor door and walks in on the pair making out on the couch; but both Tony and Susan speak to him separately about that, and peace seems to be restored. So much so that Barrett is able to convince Tony to hire his sister Vera (Sarah Miles) as a second servant in the house.

Only…Vera isn’t Barrett’s sister; she’s his girlfriend. And once she’s in the house, she starts flirting with Tony too….with Barrett’s blessing, because Barrett has a plan.

I think the thing that frustrated me most about this film was that I couldn’t really get a sense of the specific machinations of Barrett’s plan. Tony’s a twit, and he’s easy to manipulate….and Susan has a classist chip on her shoulder. So both are ripe for a con. But it was unclear how much of what happens was Barrett’s idea, and how much of it was him improvising and reacting to how things were falling out. The scenes towards the end – as Tony moves into a final downward spiral – also felt strangely rushed and chaotic, and introduced a faintly homoerotic vibe that ultimately didn’t go anywhere. ….At least, it didn’t go anywhere to my 21st-century eyes; audiences in 1963 might have been more inclined to read a subtext into the dialogue in these scenes that I’m not.

On the plus side, things look gorgeous. Tony’s house is a genteel townhouse, empty and painted white at the start (Tony receives Barrett for his interview while lazing on a camp chair in the living room), but Barrett oversees the decor, turning it first into a posh gentleman’s residence – but then gradually making things darker and dimmer, occasionally adding some cheap art pieces you’d find in a bordello. Susan’s parents house – an even tonier mansion outside London – is lavish, but strangely sterile, and the one scene taking place there opens with everyone in such artfully languid positions it looks like they’re posing for a group portrait.

There’s also repeated shots involving one of those convex mirrors as things get more and more fun-house surreal.

Nevertheless I found I wanted to simply understand Barrett’s long game a bit better, if for no other reason than wanting to know just how slippery a fish he was.

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The Nutty Professor (1963)

I’ll be damned, it’s a Jerry Lewis movie I could tolerate.

In this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde parody, Lewis plays “Julius Kelp”, a nerdy, clumsy college professor of chemistry. When one of the football stars stuffs him into a locker – and he is rescued by another of his students, the pretty Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens) – Kelp resolves to Improve Himself so he can fight back. But when his initial plan to join a gym doesn’t pan out, he decides to tackle the problem chemically, devising a tonic that instantly transforms him into a suave ladies’ man with a better haircut, better teeth, and a boost of confidence. Or, rather, a boost of ego.

In this new guise, Kelp presents himself as “Buddy Love” and starts hanging around the night club frequented by students, bossing around the bartenders and commandeering the piano. He also aggressively pursues Purdy, who is strangely attracted to him despite finding him rude, conceited and lecherous. Also he has a strange habit of running away unexpectedly (the effects of Kelp’s tonic are temporary and this is the only way he can think to cope when they wear off). Purdy keeps pining for Kelp – but the rest of the students become fans of “Buddy Love,” pressuring the Dean (Del Moore) to invite Love to perform at the student prom – the same prom at which Kelp will be serving as chaperone. Now what?….

In my last review of a Jerry Lewis film, I lamented that there was no plot as such – it was just Jerry Lewis Doing Stuff. This is more like it – this has a plot. It’s a ridiculous plot, and there are holes you can drive a truck through, but there’s still much more of a framework story to hang Jerry Lewis’ schtick onto. That alone was a vast improvement for me. But even better – Lewis isn’t playing another screaming, mugging manchild like he did in both The Ladies Man or Artists And Models, which was honestly a relief. He takes on two different characters instead – both larger-than-life caricatures, to be fair, but both also blessedly different. Kelp’s original persona is even a bit….likeable. “Buddy Love,” by contrast, was almost aggressively boorish – but he was supposed to be; he’s supposed to be Kelp’s unbridled id in a sense.

There was one unfortunate side effect to Buddy Love’s persona – this film came out shortly after Lewis had a contentious split with his creative partner Dean Martin, and many people (myself included) suspected that Lewis was basing his “Buddy Love” persona on Martin himself. Lewis insisted repeatedly that this was not the case, however; it was instead a reflection of Lewis’ own “bad boy” side. And now that I think about it – Martin’s own suave ladies-man persona was more a construct of their films, one that Martin ultimately came to resent, and now I’m wondering how much of a hand Lewis had in those characterizations as well.

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Méditerranée (1963)

So this….baffled me.

Méditerranée felt like it was an ancestor of one of those non-narrative pseudo-documentaries, like Koyaanisqatsi (which will be coming up later), where we see an assembly of footage from all over the world, and the juxtaposition itself tells a story. Here the footage is confined to scenes from around the Mediterranean; a Greek temple, Egyptian ruins, a Sicilian garden, a Spanish bullfight. An elderly man fishes. A young Greek girl combs her hair. Barbed wire fences off a cliff which drops down to the sea. A comatose woman is wheeled down a hall into an operating room.

…But we see these same clips again and again – we never learn what happens to the woman, we never see the girl do anything but comb her hair. The fisherman just rows his boat. The bullfighters just keep fighting bulls. I lost count of how many times we were treated to the same shot of the same orange on the same tree in that Sicilian garden.

And unlike the Qatsi films….there is a narration, of sorts. I actually went to some great lengths trying to find English subtitles for the French narration – but I needn’t bothered, because it was similarly repetitive, circular musings on time and history and perception. I actually may have been better served without it; the repetitive scenes, the contrast of the ruins with the more modern scenes, the ancient and the contemporary, make the filmmaker’s point just fine on their own. The Mediterranean Sea has seen scores of empires and countries rise and fall, and for centuries people have been born and grew up and got married and lived and died and were buried along its shores, and more would come after doing much the same, and the handful of clips repeated over and over make that point.

From what I’ve read – the director Jean-Daniel Pollet assembled this film after a road trip around the Mediterranean with Volker Schlöndorff, a German filmmaker. They stopped to shoot whatever looked interesting, and then locked themselves up in an editing room for several days – resorting even to sleeping on the floor – trying to figure out what to make of it all, and this is what they finally came up with.  It may have been an approach born of sleep deprivation, but it’s certainly an ambitious one; I just wish there were a bit more variety or resolution to some of the scenes.

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The Leopard (1963)

I might have enjoyed this film a bit more if either I knew more about Italian history or cared more about the pageantry and lifestyle of the royalty class. I might also have enjoyed it if the film cared more about this story. I neither know nor care about either one, and it seemed the film didn’t either, so this came across as more like a long and plodding filmic throwback.

Set in the 1800s, during and after the tumultuous Unification of Italy, “The Leopard” is the story of Don Fabrizio Corbera (Burt Lancaster), a minor Sicilian prince. He has been leading his family through a sort of comfortably idle life; overseeing the daily family prayers, keeping the peace between his son and three daughters, coordinating family movements between their three mansions, and grooming his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) as the family heir; Tancredi is sweet on his daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), so it’ll serve the family even better. But when a war breaks out against the ruling class, lead by nationalist Giuseppe Girabaldi, Tancredi is swayed by the romance of the cause and joins Girabaldi’s ranks. And Don Fabrizio….just lets him, figuring he’ll get bored eventually and come home.

Fortunately Tancredi does. But the Girabaldis have done their work; Italy is now to be a unified nation, and the various ruling families have lost a good deal of their political power and prestige. Meanwhile, some middle-class families have gained some privilege – like Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), mayor of the small town near one of the Corbera’s mansions. Sedara pays a visit to the Corberas soon after Tancredi’s return, bringing his pretty daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale); Tancredi gets his head turned, and so does Don Fabrizio a bit. And when Tancredi announces he plans to marry Angelica instead….Don Fabrizio shrugs and figures eh, she’s rich, it’ll be a good match for Tancredi. Also, that kind of match makes a bit more sense in the new Italy.

That’s….kind of all that happens for much of the film, I’m afraid. Don Fabrizio notices something is changing, and he lets it happen, and life goes on. He’s offered the chance to join in the new Italian Senate, but turns it down, and life goes on. Tancredi changes his mind about who he’s marrying, Don Fabrizio shrugs, and life goes on.

And then there is a high-society ball which takes up nearly the final hour of the film. Tancredi is there to introduce Angelica to society; Don Fabrizio is there with his wife to carry on custom. And for a good 45 minutes, we watch as the younger couples dance and the older folks gossip, as Don Fabrizio aimlessly wanders around the mansion looking at the paintings and getting bummed out about the nobility getting tossed over. Angelica insists she dance with him at one point, and he does, but it doesn’t lift his mood. And the movie ends soon after.

Now, this ball scene was supposed to be a lavish look at the lifestyle which was on its way out, and I could tell I was supposed to be mourning its passing along with Don Fabrizio. But instead of lavish and genteel, it felt silly and pointless – and coming after Don Fabrizio’s relative inactivity throughout, I didn’t even get why he was lamenting its passing in the first place. If we’d seen a bit more about Don Fabrizio’s way of life before this – seen what kind of political influence he had, or seen him throw a livelier ball of his own – perhaps that would have made more of an impression. But putting the ball at the very end, after Don Fabrizio spent the whole film talking about accepting change, just made it look dull and vapid and reinforced that he’d made the right decision – so it made no sense he was upset about it.

So ultimately I was quite bored; this was a pretty adaptation of an ultimately dull story which I wasn’t all that interested in to begin with.

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Blonde Cobra (1963)

This film baffled me in two different ways.

It baffled me in and of itself. It’s a short experimental work, of the same ilk as the earlier Flaming Creatures – meandering, stream-of-consciousness snippets of a couple people in costumes, non-sequitur voiceovers, and snippets of old music. Jack Smith, who was in turn Flaming Creatures’ director, is the main performer here, although “performer” is a bit inaccurate; he doesn’t seem to “perform” so much as seems to just “do stuff”. He tries on dresses and hats. He mugs at the camera. He uses a chicken carcass as a puppet. He rigs a curtain up around a corner of the room and pretends to be a fortune teller. He pretends to eat a floor tile. He draws or writes things on a pad of paper and sometimes holds them up, pointing at them with an eager grin. Once or twice another man wanders into the shot and Smith pulls him into the fray. Sometimes the screen goes black entirely. And over all this, Smith’s voice keeps up a running stream-of-consciousness monologue, ping-ponging from personal anecdotes to quoting Greta Garbo to spinning a tale about nuns in an irreverent convent. The narration doesn’t match the action, and none of it makes any coherent sense.

The other reason this baffled me is – I wasn’t bothered by this the way Flaming Creatures bothered me. I wasn’t a fan, either, but….at the end I was surprised to find myself a tiny bit charmed by this film. Even though the narration gets pretty risque – Smith talks about things that qualify as sadism, necrophilia, or group sex in places – and even though Smith spends most of the film in drag, it felt strangely innocent.

Actually, comparing this to Flaming Creatures may be a good way to illustrate why. Both films looks like they were made by people trying to shock their audiences – but for Flaming Creatures, it felt like Smith was being more calculating. He specifically chose performers and set up specific shots so as to deliberately shock his audience; he wanted them uncomfortable, he wanted their buttons pushed. But Blonde Cobra felt more like a spontaneous thing director Ken Jacobs made while hanging out with Smith one day; “I’ll just run the camera, do whatever you want.”

That may have been what gives it that innocence for me. It looks like the goofy stuff that a bunch of 14-year-olds would make if one of them got a videocamera for their birthday and they were all bored; silly costumes, shakey camerawork, and technical hiccups galore. True, some such kids would immediately start writing a screenplay and their handiwork would have linear plots and dialogue and some rudimentary special effects, but most such kids would simply turn the camera on and point it at things, taking turns dropping one of-the-moment reference or another and people jumping in front of the camera whenever they got an idea for something to do or say. There would be that one kid who thinks of really edgy stuff to say that would make everyone laugh because dudes, our parents would freak if they heard us say that. There would be the occasional music break – either a popular song everyone knew now or something old and corny that was cracking everyone up at the moment because they’d caught their mom playing it and it was so dumb. One kid would slather makeup all over his face and put on one of his grandma’s dresses and it would be hysterical that he actually let them film him like that. There would be in-jokes that would only make sense to the kids involved and would be incomprehensible to anyone else.

None of what I’ve described is anything like how this film was actually made; on the contrary, Jacobs made it as a sort of homage to a 1940’s cult film called Cobra Woman. It completely fails in that respect, from what I can see – but its seat-of-the-pants, let’s-just-fool-around style endeared me on its own.

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The House Is Black (1963)

Apologies first for the long silence; I’d actually hoped to have this review up and written a few days ago. But after two years my luck finally ran out, and I finally got a case of Covid-19. Fortunately it was a mild case – my symptoms never got worse than what I typically get with a cold, and I very nearly talked myself out of the “just in case” at-home test I gave myself Saturday. But thank goodness I took it, and was able to isolate myself and warn Roommate Russ; and thanks to our caution (and both of us being vaccinated) he never got infected, and I am on the mend. I never even lost my sense of smell or taste – and given that my go-to cough remedy is a Canadian product that’s famous for tasting hideous, I briefly wished I had.

But I still went through four solid days of quarantine – confined to my room, and having to warn Roommate Russ each time I had to step out to the washroom or the kitchen. And by staggering coincidence, the movie I had just seen before this all happened was this 1963 documentary short about an Iranian leper colony.

Actually, I’m not sure whether “documentary” is the right word for this film; it’s more like a tone poem. There is a brief introductory message from the film’s producer, Ebrahim Golestan, stating that we are about to see “an image of ugliness”, but that we are seeing it in the hopes that we may therefore be moved to help ease the suffering we see. And then after that….we are simply shown various residents of Iran’s Bababaghi Hospice, going about their lives, with director Forugh Farrokhzad periodically reciting passages from the Q’uran, from Sufi poetry, or from some of her own poetry.

I realize that makes things sound really pretentious. But somehow it isn’t. Farrokhzad’s narration is minimal, letting the sights and scenes she’s captured carry most of the day; the young woman looking in a mirror, regarding the missing nose and ulcerated eye on her face. The man who has nothing to do but pace back and forth past a row of five cabins, lightly tapping each door, over and over. The women trying to spin yarn with stubs for fingers. The man in threadbare torn pants, one leg amputated from the knee down, walking with a sort of half-kneel on the bare stump. There are some moments of joy – people gathering for meals, a wedding celebration, kids playing football. But even in these scenes most people are dressed to hide their missing limbs or worn-away noses. Even some of the ball-playing kids are showing the sores of early-stage infection.

The lengthiest sequence is no more than two minutes long, and comes at the end – a brief schoolroom scene, where a teacher is firing questions at a group of giggling kids. After one student has recited a Muslim prayer of thanks to Allah for “giving me a mother and a father”, he asks one boy why you’d thank Allah for that. “I don’t know, sir,” the boy says with a smirk. “I don’t have either one.” Another boy is challenged to name “three beautiful things”, and then another challenged to “name three ugly things” – the three ugly things he names are “a hand, a foot, and a face!” to appreciative giggles from the rest of the group.

There are some brief scenes of patients getting treatment – doctors giving cursory exams, or one woman stoically letting nurses pile weighted pillows on her outstretched hands – and Golestan adds another title card that given adequate care, leprosy is completely curable, but the medicine is often too expensive and so leprosy has become another disease of poverty. But most of the narration, and most of the scenes, are simply scenes of the residents stoically making what they can of their lives, with Farrokhzad’s quiet voice occasionally quoting a Sufi lament or a Muslim hymn.

In the wrong hands, this kind of parade of grotesquerie and suffering could feel exploitative. But I could somehow sense that Farrokhzad cared deeply about her subjects – she was not showing us suffering lepers, she was showing us suffering people. Any of these people would have been completely healed with better medical care, better sanitation, better food, better housing; but they got the short end of the stick and they ended up here….and while the rest of the world was pushing them away and avoiding them, they were just stoically accepting their fate.

Journalist Joobin Bekhrad also thought of this film during the pandemic. He was writing in 2020, when it felt like we were all in an interminable lockdown and were all going stir crazy; for some, though, this kind of isolation would have been nothing new, and would never have ended. And then, as now, the people with out the money or the resources would have been more likely to be pushed off into the shadows and forgotten. In Iran of 1963, rich as well as poor might have been exposed to leprosy; but it’s the poor people who would have had more exposure, with less money to treat their own cases, and found themselves more likely to suffer the worst effects. Similarly, in 2020, it was those with service jobs who put themselves most at risk of exposure to Covid – grocery workers, gas station attendants, cab drivers – and these same people had the least access to health care. I lasted until 2022 before catching Covid, buying myself time to get three vaccine doses first and thus greatly lessening my case, and my isolation lasted only four days. Some people from 2020’s first wave who had no health insurance are still struggling with the isolation of “long Covid” to this day – and may end their lives there, as the rest of the world moves on.

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Flaming Creatures (1963)

This is a shorter experimental film, so this is going to be a shorter review – at least, it will have less film discussion than usual.

Filmmaker Jack Smith made this experimental work on the slimmest of budgets, using nearly-expired filmstock and filming on the top floor of an abandoned theater and casting other avant-garde artists of the time, such as Piero Heliczer, Mario Montez, Judith Malina and Marian Zazeela. And what Smith asked them to do is…a bit chaotic. The film is a series of disjointed scenes, some of them barely visible thanks to the poor quality of the filmstock or the shakey camera; the only sounds seem to be some soundtrack music – opera, other film scores, and the song “Be-Bop-A-Lula” all make appearances – some occasional sound effects, and in one lengthy sequence, there is what sounds like someone reading a parody of advertising copy for a brand of lipstick. That narration accompanies a lengthy sequence of the entire cast sprawling around and putting on lipstick for a solid two or three minutes, before the shot is finally interrupted with another man’s voice asking:  “Is there lipstick that doesn’t come off when you suck cocks?”

For, yes – much of the film’s thrust (so to speak) seems to be creating sexually transgressive images. Much of the cast is in sexually ambiguous garb, or are clearly dressing in drag. And often, there are shots of nudity – closeups of a flaccid penis being fondled by a hand and then waggled at the camera, or closeups of a large breast getting the same treatment. Towards the end there are occasional tableaux of a topless woman lying down like an odalisque, facing the camera, as a man lying nearby presses her nipple with one of his fingertips. They don’t do anything further, they just….do that. There isn’t any actual sex, but sex is certainly suggested and mimed in several scenes.

…So it’s clear that Smith wanted to be sexually transgressive with this film; he wanted to play with gender conventions, especially as they were depicted in mainstream culture, and he wanted to turn them on their heads. But there’s one scene that…well, let’s just say that it landed a bit different for me these days. In an early scene, a woman dressed somewhat akin to a Spanish flamenco dancer is chased by a man dressed as a sheikh; when he catches her, they flirt for a couple seconds, but then he suddenly pushes her to the ground, and three other men crowd around to simulate gang-raping her as she screams and beats at them with a folded fan. It’s not “really” sex; there’s a fake staginess to the whole thing. But it goes on for a long time, and the woman’s screams as one man licks her kicking foot and another yanks a breast out of her dress are the only sounds we hear.

I watched this film two days after the highest court in my nation decided to strip me of some of my rights as an American Citizen. I am both an American and a woman by happenstance of birth; my constitution claims that I am entitled to several rights and freedoms. One such right is the right to bodily autonomy; including the right to consult with my own doctor, in privacy, about any medical procedure I may need. However, this court ruling has decreed that some of those rights can be taken away from me.

I personally will not be at risk through the outcome of this case. I live in one of the states which still protects reproductive rights; and, moreover, I am no longer capable of becoming pregnant anyway. But in the aftermath of the announcement, several politicians and other conservative leaders already started speaking of what they were going to do next; one politician even tweeted that the court should also look at the ruling which found that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. One of the justices even mentioned, in his commentary supporting the ruling, that perhaps the Supreme Court should also reconsider the historic rulings which confirmed the rights to access to contraception, to consensual sexual activity outside of marriage, and the right to same-sex marriage.

Even more frustrating, though, was the response from many of the more liberal politicians – who started flooding every American with pleas for donations, urging us to give them money so they could beat back against the ruling somehow. The pleas left a sour taste in many mouths; news of this possible ruling was leaked nearly two months ago, and many of the leaders I voted for to preserve my rights largely did nothing. One young woman, when asked for her comments about the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling, was highly critical both of the ruling and of the left-wing response; “my rights are not a fundraising platform for you,” she angrily said.

My rights aren’t either. Nor are they conditional. Nor are they meant to be used to create an “edgy” moment in an experimental film. I know Jack Smith may not have had ill intent, but it will be a long, long time before I see it as anything else.

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8-1⁄2  (1963)

So I…think I may need to revisit this later. Apologies for the long silence – I kept meaning to give this film a rewatch, as I kept feeling I had missed some things, but that may take too long to coordinate; best not to leave you hanging.

The plot I understood just fine. Marcello Mastroianni is “Guido Anselmi”, a renowned Italian filmmaker at work on a sci-fi piece. At least, he’s supposed to be – he’s hit a creative wall, and is unable to finish casting the film or writing the screenplay, to the great consternation of the producers and investors on the project. In an effort to dodge them and concentrate to get some work done, he’s escaped to a tony health spa, dragging a movie critic friend (Jean Rougeul) along to help him with the screenplay.

But that plan blows up when the producer also books the whole rest of the production team there so they’ll be “ready” when Anselmi is. And then the critic hates everything about Anselmi’s existing script. And then Anselmi’s mistress Carla (Sandra Milo) turns up, hoping to either hook up with Anselmi or get a part in the film – or both. Soon after Anselmi’s estranged wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée) also shows up, with some of her friends, to watch the whole show crash and burn. Anselmi is all too happy to procrastinate on the film with either Carla or Luisa, but he keeps fantasizing about an Ideal Woman – and then meets her, in the form of aspiring actress Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) who turns up towards the end. Anselmi begs her to take a part – but Claudia senses that Anselmi has a lot going on in his personal life, and is uncertain; is Anselmi really trying to make a film, or is he just trying to hide from reality?

It’s an interesting enough story – the part that brought me up short is in the telling. Federico Fellini starts to step away from his prior realistic approach here, and includes a lot of sequences hinting at Anselmi’s inner turmoil – dream sequences, memories, sometimes a mix of both. In the opening sequence, Anselmi is flying through the air above a beach until his producers lasso him and pull him back down to earth. In another lengthy sequence, he is back in his father’s country villa, Lord Of The Manor, and overseeing a harem made up of all the women in his life – Luisa, Clara, Claudia, and a number of other lovers and crushes – who fawn over him for several minutes until one woman leads a sort of revolt and they collectively throw him out.

Some viewers were baffled by these sequences, and found it hard to tell which sequences were “really happening” and which were Anselmi’s fantasy. I could usually figure it out – but the whole film was so visually rich, I feel like those sequences were loaded with nuance that might enhance the story even more if I caught it.

I’ll likely put that rewatch off until later, but I am definitely intrigued enough to do so.

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Shock Corridor (1963)

This one felt weird. Not because of the subject matter itself, and not because it took an experimental approach – quite the opposite, in fact, it was a lower-budget film that stuck so close to earlier conventions it felt like a throwback. But about midway through it went in some different funky directions and felt almost like the director had shoehorned a couple different short documentaries into this piece to fill things out – and made it work.

It starts out in a very film noir style. Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is an ambitious journalist looking for The Story That Will Make Him Big. He hears about an unsolved murder in a psychiatric hospital, and comes up with a scheme to Play Mad so he can get committed, leaving him free to investigate the murder, crack the case, and write a Pulitzer-worthy article. He enlists a psychiatrist, Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn), to coach him in how to sell his case, and enlists his very reluctant girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) to play his sister and file a police complaint accusing him of attempted incest. Cathy still sells her case, and so does Johnny, and in short order he is committed to the very psych ward where the murder took place. Spurred on by his Pulitzer dreams, Barrett easily keeps up his act, even when coping with unexpected and baffling hurdles like a roommate who sings opera all night (Larry Tucker) or getting attacked by a ward full of nymphomaniacs.

He also seeks out and bonds with the three witnesses to the murder in question – and this is where the film gets really interesting. The three witnesses are Stuart (James Best), who thinks he’s Confederate Army General Jeb Stuart; Trent (Hari Rhodes), a young black man who thinks he’s in the Ku Klux Klan; and Boden (Gene Evans), a former scientist who has regressed to the mental and emotional age of a kindergartener. In each case, Barrett first tries drawing them into more general conversation, to kind of bring them “back to reality” a bit so he can then ask them about the murder.

And while that did feel facile – Stuart and Trent’s “breakthroughs” seemed awfully convenient – the roots of all three men’s madness became a fascinating window on the anxieties of the 60s. Stuart had been brainwashed into working for the Communists during the Korean War, and was in turn ordered to brainwash another American POW – but was in turn “deprogrammed” by that prisoner, sent home by the Soviets and reviled as a traitor, which triggered his delusions. Trent, meanwhile, had been one of a handful of students sent to desegregate a college in Mississippi and cracked under the relentless pressure. Boden’s own madness seemed strangely deliberate – he had been pivotal to the development of nuclear weapons, and was so horror-struck and guilt-ridden by his contributions that he regressed to a childlike state.

There’s also the usual noir-ish melodramatic stuff going on – Barrett trying to hold on to his own sanity while playing mad, Cathy wringing her hands outside and fretting about her sweetheart’s safety, and the actual murder mystery itself. But compared to the scenes with Stuart, Trent, and Boden, the rest of the film almost feels secondary. The three witnesses’ stories even briefly use color footage to represent their own flashbacks and recollections, while the rest of the film is in moody black and white.

This approach made for a serious shift in my response about midway through – before we met any of the witnesses, I was getting ready to write this film off as a B-movie noir throwback, but now I see it as a scrappy indie filmmaker’s Comment On The Times.

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The Birds (1963)

I have seen bits of this Hitchcock classic before. And then, as now, there is one small detail which still rubs me the wrong way – but I’ll save that for the end. Because there’s a good deal else about the film which is similarly odd, but somehow works.

The script is a weird hybrid – it starts out as a romantic drama, but then takes a hard left into an environmental disaster story. Socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) are the “lovebirds”, so to speak – ironically meeting when Brenner enters a San Francisco pet shop to get lovebirds for his kid sister. Daniels is already there in search of her own pet. Brenner – a prosecuting attorney – has an existing grudge against Daniels, the high-spirited daughter of a media mogul who uses Daddy’s money to buy her way out of trouble (and the public eye) when she does things like break picture windows or jump into the Trevi Fountain. Since Daniels dismisses her hijinks as “pranks”, Brenner decides to pull his own prank on her – pretending to mistake her for a pet store employee and grilling her with questions about bird behavior for a few minutes before calling her out and then leaving.

Instead of being ashamed or confounded, though, Daniels is intrigued – and decides to step up the prank war. Since Brenner left without his lovebirds, Daniels buys them – using Daddy’s connections at the newspaper to find Brenner’s whereabouts – and sets off for the small town of Bodega Bay to the north, where Brenner’s on a visit for his sister’s birthday. She rents a boat so she can sneak in from the back and “mysteriously” leave the lovebirds. But Brennan spots her as she leaves and races to the boathouse in town to meet her there. …So he’s watching as she’s approaching the dock, and sees when a seagull swoops out of the sky and bites her on the head.

Brennan leaps to the rescue, cleaning her up in the local diner and insisting she come to dinner that night and stay in town overnight to recover. Why, she can even stay with his ex-girlfriend Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), the town schoolteacher. Brennan’s sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright), dazzled by her surprise lovebirds, also asks Daniels if she can stay for Cathy’s birthday party the next day, an impulsive invitation which Mitch and Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) grudgingly accept. Daniels is just as dubious as Lydia, but agrees to the invitation; so she’s there when another gull dive-bombs Annie’s front door later that evening, and when a flock of crows starts attacking the kids at Cathy’s party the next day. And when Lydia discovers their neighbor, a chicken farmer, has been pecked to death.

This is where all the really memorable stuff about the film kicks in, as the rest of the town notices the birds are acting really weird and scramble to figure out what to do. And this is where Hitchcock’s work really starts to shine – there’s the slow build of suspense when Daniels, sitting on a park bench, is oblivious to a whole flock of crows gradually building on the fence behind her. Or the fantastic sequence where Daniels and Brennan are crowded in the diner, discussing the latest attack, and everyone present has their own unique reaction – the nervous mother frets over her kids, the birdwatcher tuts about the fuss (“their brain pans are not big enough for a massed attack like you say”), and the town drunk keeps quoting apocalyptic passages from the Book of Ezekiel. Or the chaos when a bunch of birds do attack a group of kids trying to sneak away from school and get to safety.

Again, this film isn’t perfect – but very few of the “flaws” bothered me. Hitchcock leaves it an open question as to the cause of the birds’ sudden attacks, save for a few throwaway comments in that diner scene suggesting that it’s revenge for eons of mistreatment. But…that didn’t bother me, nor did the vague ending, where Daniels joins the Brennans in a drive off to an uncertain future. The special effects fall a bit short, but only when you compare them to 21st-Century technology; in the climactic scene where Daniels is cornered by hordes of gulls and crows, there’s some obvious use of double-exposure work, and it looks like Hedren is being pecked by handpuppets once or twice. But Hitchcock only used those kinds of “action” shots sparingly, preferring to stick to either the aftermath or to the power of suggestion, which always makes things all the creepier. Hitchcock’s masterful use of suspense and his close read of human nature also more than make up for it.

But trying to be “creepy” may have led Hitchcock to make the one choice that nagged at me. Hitchcock did away with music in the film almost entirely and went all-in on the sound effects; but instead of using actual recordings of bird calls, Hitchcock enlisted the German composer Oskar Sala to generate a lot of otherworldly noises on the trautonium, an early synthesizer. And they were indeed otherworldly – so much so that they didn’t sound like they could possibly have been made by birds, and that distracted me from the movie at a couple of pivotal moments. I grant that’s a small nit to pick – but can’t help but think that a little more verisimilitude with the bird sounds would have terrified me so much more.