Thursday, October 28, 2010

Octoberfilms: Night of the Demon (1957) — The hell you say

When it comes to movies appropriate for Halloween marathoning, my favorites aren't those that aim to generate jolts to my limbic system with in-your-face "Boo!" or "Ick!" shocks. Instead I prefer the movies that subtly drill a tendril into my brain to pick the lock on those primitive fears waiting under my mind's bedframe since childhood.

However, these days the term "horror movie" elicits greater expectations of CGI eyeball kicks than of goosebumpy chills. While I love as much as anyone the high-tech eyeball kicks that serve the cause of creeping me the fuck out (The Ring and John Carpenter's The Thing come to mind), when I make a list of recent horror movies my strongest shock reaction is to warm up my coffee while wondering if I can find good parodies of them at Funny or Die or The Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror."

You know those classic Warner Brothers cartoons where Foghorn Leghorn lifts up the big snarly dog by the tail and whales on its ass with a two-by-four? That's what I'd like to do to everyone behind such recent whipped dogs as Jennifer's Body, The Human Centipede, and this year's remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

So I seek out those movies that genuinely know how to push my buttons — which means that they know where to find my buttons, when to push them (and, equally important, when not to), and how to push them in such a way that I'm not too aware that the movie has its long, bony finger on my button in the first place. They demonstrate that atmospherics, mood, and suggestion can be more effective than power-sprayer special effects, and that the scariest monsters are those you can't see, at least not clearly (e.g., Alien), because a monster imagined is always worse than a monster standing naked in the studio lights. (Controversially and arguably, our subject film at hand proves the point by, reportedly due to a producer's meddling, briefly violating it.)

For me, Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963) is a nonpareil of that second category. Accompanying it on my list of Top 10 Favorite Scary Movies are such films as  The Innocents, Alien, Psycho, The Changeling, Quatermass and the Pit, The Wicker Man (1973 only), and a modest but effective thriller of necromancy and devilry that's a high point in British genre cinema, Night of the Demon.

This spooky gothic number from 1957 played in the U.S. in a recut release, 13 minutes shorter, titled Curse of the Demon.

Under either title, any self-respecting horror cineaste with a taste for period genre stylings and precision craftsmanship can go here for an intelligent script directed with mastery and style by Jacques Tourneur, protégé of the great Val Lewton in the '40s.

Stephen King, in his nonfiction book on horror fiction, Danse Macabre, places Demon on his list of films that contributed something of value to the genre, and gives it a special asterisk as one of his personal favorites. Not a bad recommendation, and it's only right to add that Night/Curse of the Demon is a movie that lots of its fans remember with affection and respect from their childhoods — because that's when it scared the crap out of them.

Here's a deceptively simple story exceptionally well told, its pulse beating beneath its skin with Tourneur keeping its lub-dub steady from start to finish.

American psychologist John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in rural England (not far from Stonehenge, which figures in the proceedings) to headline a parapsychology conference. A die-hard skeptic and debunker ("not a superstitious sucker"), his very public aim is to disprove the alleged black magic of "witch cult" leader Dr. Julian Karswell, played with smooth affability by Niall MacGinnis.

However, Holden's local colleague, Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham), has realized that their investigations into Karswell's group have uncovered demonological truths too terrible to dismiss, and Harrington begs Karswell to "stop what has begun." But the scientist recants too late. The urbane and polite sorcerer reminds Harrington that "You said, 'Do your worst,' and that's precisely what I did." Not even Karswell can halt what is underway, and deep in the night-black woods Harrington perishes violently by a giant hellish creature, his death occurring at a date and time predicted to the minute by Karswell.

Karswell had passed to Harrington an ancient strip of parchment inscribed with occult runes. The runes can invoke a demon that kills any person possessing the parchment. And not just any bush-league demon either — we're talking a monstrous fire demon "whose legend has persisted through civilization after civilization.... Babylonian Baal, Egyptian Sethtyphon, Persian Asmodeus, Hebraich Moloch."

The curse can be broken only by stealthily passing the parchment to someone else, and after Holden arrives and pokes too closely into Karswell's business, he turns out to be the latest unbeliever to whom Karswell slips the demonic death warrant.

Much of Demon's tension arises from our watching Holden pull the runes from his pocket and place them back again, the paper fluttering as if alive, while he refuses to recognize the terror stalking him. Holden is our anchor, our point of view that must be convinced of the dark forces on the loose in the dark, and his ghostly encounters in dark hallways, alone in the woods, in a lonely farmhouse, and other scenes where the overriding question is "Who's there?" do the job thoroughly.

Peggy Cummins also stars as Harrington's attractive niece, kindergarten teacher Joanna. She occupies the middle ground between Holden's obstinate skepticism and Karswell's witchcraft beliefs. Joanna is as level-headed as any educated modern woman, but unlike Holden she's willing to acknowledge the evidence that's before her eyes.

Demon takes full advantage of this collision of realities: stiff-necked modern matter-of-factness vs. ancient supernatural magicks. It's a theme seen again and again in British genre films of the '50s and '60s, and a duality well suited for a British setting, where the isles' stiff-upper-lip pragmatism occupies the same space as Stonehenge and haunted castles. Karswell understands these dueling dogmas far better than Holden could ever hope to.

The cold light of reason, Holden is told, casts very deep shadows. It's Joanna who at the very end, after witnessing the horrific climax of Karswell's demonic conjurings, declares that perhaps it's better not to know some things.

After Holden calls Karswell "crazy," the rotund necromancer replies genially, "On the contrary, it's you who seem to be slightly unhinged," and we have to give Karswell the point on that round. It's worth considering the evidence that in this story's reality it's Karswell and his little cult who have the more accurate bead on how the modern cosmos operates, not Holden and his scientific materialism. Within the opening minutes, we in the audience witness hard evidence that the supernatural horrors are certifiably real. For the remaining running time that awareness steers our feelings regarding the doggedly skeptical Holden — he may be the narrative hero, but the guy is so pig-headed, so self-righteous, so willfully closed-minded that we know something's going to come along to corkscrew his thinking before the closing credits.

Although well-regarded today, Demon's reputation took time to amp up.

Considered little more than filler during its initial distribution, in the U.S. Curse of the Demon was double-billed as the "B" entry with Hammer's Revenge of Frankenstein. We can imagine a typical American moviegoer's reaction to such a pair of dissimilar creature features — Hammer's garish full-color EC Comics sensibilities paired up with Demon's more sedate, suspenseful, black-and-white turns of the screw. (John McElwee at Greenbriar Picture Shows has a rather marvelous two-part history of that pairing's American distribution experience.) In the U.K., Night of the Demon was paired up with Ray Harryhausen's 20 Million Miles to Earth, making another set of mismatched socks.

Over the decades it has accrued an admirable level of respect among genre devotees. That was helped by Forrest Ackerman's monthly subscription favorite, Famous Monsters of Filmland, which carried tantalizing images and descriptions of the movie throughout the '60s and '70s. Then the June/July '87 copy of Filmfax made it a cover feature. It's been only spottily shown on TV, but more and more it has appeared on the bill at international film festivals and university campuses. Today it's recognized as a first-rate specimen of its form, a textbook model of how to make an unsettling paranormal movie.

And no doubt some of the film's appreciators discovered it thanks to a line from Rocky Horror Picture Show's famous opening song: "Dana Andrews said prunes / Gave him the runes / And passing them used lots of skills."

Jacques Tourneur was a master craftsman who was himself the son of director Maurice Tourneur. By 1942 he was Val Lewton's first director when Lewton headed the new horror unit at RKO. Their partnership led to some of the most lauded films of the genre: Cat People ('42), I Walked with a Zombie ('43), and The Leopard Man ('43), all displaying Tourneur's command of visually rich composition and precision-targeted atmosphere, with Cat People in particular being an artistic and commercial success. Tourneur went on to helm other fine work as diverse as westerns, comedies, and the film noir classic Out of the Past. He directed one of the earliest episodes of TV's The Twilight Zone.

With the arguable exception of a few key shots reportedly inserted against his wishes — more on that shortly — Tourneur concocted a tightly wound suspense film that would awe a Swiss watchmaker. Like Lewton before him, he employed every tool in his kit to control the goings-on and catch us off our guard.

Demon displays an exquisite sensitivity to the use of light and shadow, and Tourneur accents meticulously architectural dark compositions and sunny outdoor scenes alike with little epiphanies, sudden surprises, Hitchcockian camera work, and cool spritzes of humor. Every scene, shot, and sound counts, and the result is a deliciously "Lovecraftian" mood film that could make ol' H.P. himself shake off his New England funk.

The screenplay is credited to writer Charles Bennett, who scripted several of Hitchcock's better British films in the '30s (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Sabotage, etc.), and producer Hal E. Chester. They drew inspiration from M.R. James' Edwardian ghost story, "Casting the Runes," opening up the story into a screenplay that's clever, subtle, and refreshingly chooses not to insult its audience.

Other names here are cinematographer Ted Scaife (The Dirty Dozen, also contributed to The Third Man and The African Queen), production designer Ken Adam (Dr. Strangelove, numerous James Bond films, Addams Family Values), and composer Clifton Parker.

It's a rare pleasure to find a good villain, and Demon sports a terrific one in Niall MacGinnis' scene-stealing performance as Karswell, a character templated on that infamous showboating Satanist, Aleister Crowley. Fantasy fans will recognize MacGinnis as Zeus in Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts. Because Demon avoids flinty good guy/bad guy dichotomies, here's an antagonist far removed from the cackling stereotypes of Satanic high priests in starched Ming of Mongo collars.

Against Dana Andrews' self-consciously flat and steadfastly boorish unbeliever, MacGinnis' Karswell is simultaneously several contradictory things — a dangerously powerful occult religious leader, a charming trickster who hosts children's Halloween parties at his remote country mansion (where he lives with his doting mother and performs magic shows as Bobo the clown), a sympathetic bloke just securing a living in his chosen field, and a genuinely frightening master of platinum-card witchcraft.

"Oh yes, I don't think it would be too amusing for the youngsters if I conjured up a demon from hell for them."
MacGinnis' engaging work leaves open the question of whether Karswell is a true Satan-sanctioned diabolist who learned demon-summoning through long study, or else was once just a dweeby Anton LeVay fanboy who got lucky by stumbling across that magic parchment, then puffed himself up to wealth and power like a goateed Jerry Falwell.

Either way, when Karswell explains to his mother that their mansion and high-living lifestyle derive from what his followers give them out of fear, he confesses that he cannot stop what has begun because of his fear for his own life. "This house, the land, the way we live. Nothing for nothing. My followers who pay for this do it out of fear. And I do what I do out of fear also. It's part of the price.... Because if it's not someone else's life, it'll be mine. Do you understand, mother? It'll be mine "

Not even Holden, whose skepticism comes as rigid as a Stonehenge megalith, can ultimately deny the potentially lethal presence of supernatural forces associated with Karswell. Once Holden is told that he is marked for death by a gigantic demon next Tuesday at 10 p.m. sharp, those forces appear to be approaching closer and closer and....

A number of memorable moments stay with you after the closing credits:
  • The thing in the woods. First pursuing Harrington, then Holden, that billowing smoky Hellmouth cloud out of which the demon materializes inspires Harrington's cry, "It's in the trees! It's coming!" — a line sampled by Kate Bush in her song "Hounds of Love." 
  • The wind storm. One of the best scenes occurs at the children's party, when Karswell gives Holden a pointed demonstration by whipping up a wind storm as casually as lighting a cigarette. The eerie magicks contrast with Karswell's Bobo clown makeup and glib offhandedness. "I didn't know you had cyclones in England," the befuddled scientist says, to which "Bobo" responds, "We don't. You could probably use a drink." Tourneur was justifiably proud of this scene, its effects accomplished with four strapped-down airplane engines. 
  • The Lewtonisms. By the time he signed on for Demon, Tourneur was a veteran director who had learned much by working for Lewton, whose contribution to the filmmakers toolchest included sudden emotional hits achieved through sleight-of-hand visual and aural legerdemain. Demon is punctuated by "Lewtonesque" touches that, through misdirection and expert timing, jolt you with simple sounds and objects. Some jumps here are delivered solely by blows from the soundtrack.

    (In a possible hat-tip to Lewton's Cat People, Tourneur sends Holden into a confrontation with a house cat that transforms into an attacking leopard; the effect is one of two brief moments of embarrassment in the film, as the savage beast is too clearly stuffed. The second such moment occurs soon afterward with a shot of the moon and, nearby, three equally bright stars that blink off and back on in unison as if a stagehand leaned against a toggle switch.)
  • The clinical hypnosis scene, in which a local True Believer — catatonic after a prior encounter with the demon of the parchment — finds relief by leaping through a high window, pointing to harrowing consequences in store for one of the attending hypnotists, the coolly rational Holden. 
  • The seance. After being etherically attracted by a screeching singalong of "Cherry Ripe", the deceased Prof. Harrington speaks from The Great Beyond to warn Holden that he is indeed quite satanically fucked.
  • The climactic train sequence. From the final confrontation between Karswell and Holden to a doomed and futile chase along the tracks, leading to the towering millennia-old demon taking wrathful vengeance like one of Lovecraft's Otherworldly Terrors. In a manner not unlike what Jaws did for coastal beach swimming, Demon may have given riders on the 8:45 to Southampton reason to take a pause.
  •  The appearance of the titular demon, which brings us to this movie's controversial sticky wicket....

Sit down at any film fan convention bar over White Russians and Manhattans, and you can't engage in a learned discussion on Night of the Demon for more than 60 seconds before the heated topic of "It" comes up. "It" is the appearance of the title demon itself. Does it help the overall movie, or does it kneecap Tourneur's well-tuned mood and tone? No matter who starts the topic, a fight's going to break out and some poor M. Night Shyamalan fan is going to end up hiding under the table.

Different sources tell differing stories about how much Tourneur knew and approved (or didn't) regarding the demon's two boldly realized materializations, one near the beginning, the other at the climax. Did the director really never intend for the demon to be seen at all, his personal aesthetic calling for complete ambiguity? Or did he plan for its presence but visible only in hazy, ill-defined forms? Some Demon scholars have made a case for Tourneur knowing about the demon as we see it all along. After all, it was in the original script and its presence had been discussed pre-production. The full-figure winged version of the beast is so well integrated into the body of the film that it's hard to imagine Tourneur not having some foreknowledge of its presence.

Almost every account attributes the final demon images — achieved via some fairly obvious puppetry and an ornate animal-like head used for screen-filling close-ups — to 11th-hour insertions authorized by producer Hal Chester, who decided that a full-blown "monster" would make the film more commercial. (Notice that it's the central image in the theatrical poster art.) That decision is said to have outraged Tourneur, scenarist Bennett, and actor Andrews.

In the Summer '73 issue of Cinefantastique magazine, Tourneur himself gave his sharply worded remembrance:
"I wanted, at the very end, when the train goes by, to include only four frames of the monster coming up with the guy and throwing him down. Boom, boom — did I see it or didn't I?.... But after I had finished and returned to the United States, the English producer made this horrible thing, cheapened it. It was like a very different film."
Here's Tourneur speaking to the French film magazine Midi-minuit fantastique, as printed in Chris Fujiwara's Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall:
"The scenes in which you really see the demon were shot without me. All except one. I shot the sequence in the woods where Dana Andrews is chased by this sort of cloud. This technique should have been used for the other sequences. The audience should never have been completely certain of having seen the demon. They should have just unveiled it little by little, without ever really showing it. They ruined the film by showing it from the very beginning with a guy we don’t know opening his garage, who doesn’t interest us in the least."
Likewise, Bennett is on record (in Pat McGilligan's Backstory 1: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age) decrying that Chester...
"...messed up the screenplay quite a bit. It was so good, the screenplay, that it couldn't be completely destroyed, only half destroyed. It's still considered a good movie. I think the job Jacques Tourneur did with what Hal Chester gave him was awfully good. Hal Chester, as far as I'm concerned, if he walked up my driveway right now, I'd shoot him dead." 
"I had to sit by while Chester made the biggest balls up of a good script that I have ever seen.... somehow the movie, perhaps because the fundamentals of my screenplay couldn't be entirely wiped out, succeeded. To add insult to injury I frequently get letters, even now, from cult-type organizations, asking me to write something about Night of the Demon because it is still loved in peculiar areas."
Honestly, I love his supercilious old-fartism when mentioning "cult-type organizations" in "peculiar areas." We call them movie lovers, Mr. Bennett, and they're damn near everywhere these days.

However, even with these damning testimonials, there's room to say, "Hold on a minute here."

Britain's Today's Cinema at the time singled out the "thrills from well-staged giant fiery demon in the woods and on the railway." Danny Peary, in his first of three Cult Movies books, wrote "I believe most critics dislike the demon for no other reason than they know it was studio-imposed.... I am in favor of this vile creature as big as a house and ugly as sin.... It's the scariest monster in film history as far as I'm concerned (no matter that others think it ludicrous)." In his book Classics of the Horror Film, critic and film historian William K. Everson hailed the apparition as "such a lulu that it lives up to the fearsome descriptions of it."

I'm one of enthusiasts who sees the beast an essential pleasure of the film. Its first appearance early in the story sets up anticipation for an even bigger pay-off later on, and that pay-off delivers the goods. 

Similarly, opinions on the creature's design range all over the map. To some the demon, especially in its distant winged formed, looks as shudderingly authentic as any hell-beast in a medieval woodcut from Häxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages). Naysayers, however, assert that the winged version is too obviously a puppet or a man in a costume. Some see in the close-up model head a well-wrought Stygian terror, others a mood-shattering resemblance to, say, the aforementioned snarly dog from the Warner Brothers cartoons.

To me, what we have here is mostly a matter of insensitive editing — the rather vague full-body shots look great, but the close-up model head is overused. It shouts when the rest of the film whispers.

So is the demon a flaw in an otherwise polished gem, or a worthwhile facet in the gem's structure? In either case, it's not on screen long enough to destroy the Night of the Demon's many virtues, and there's something to be said for a monster that sends eight-year-olds scurrying behind the couch, making them fans for life.

Music: "Shoot To Kill," by Quincy Jones, from the movie Mirage. Via Crime Jazz: Murder in the Second Degree.
Near at hand: Elizabeth, prepping a requested agent proposal for her novel, The Seventy.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Metropolis" with the Alloy Orchestra live

This evening, Elizabeth and I are catching Fritz Lang's 1927 science-fiction epic Metropolis, newly restored from recently discovered elements, at the Seattle International Film Festival Cinema.

That's cool enough all by itself, but what makes this presentation even better is that the film will receive its musical scoring performed live by the Alloy Orchestra.

My favorite "silent movies music" combo for years, the Alloy Orchestra are the most eclectic and eccentric — and brilliant — film re-scorers working. This Boston-based trio possesses the uncanny ability to be hip, odd, clever, raucous, delicate, or playful while simultaneously showing respect and affection for the films we're watching. Their nontraditional percussive, quirky orchestrations are action- and scene-tailored while avoiding the temptations of "old-timey" clichés or "postmodern" avant-garde ambiguities. Their scores are fresh and thoroughly modern but aren't likely to ever feel frozen into a definable "now."

With their newfangled approaches to vintage movie scoring, the Alloy Orchestra can be an acquired taste. Some traditionalists don't care for their distinctive innovations. Others — yours truly, for one — acquired the taste in the first bite. In my case, that was David Shepard's restoration of The Lost World, followed soon by the Image Entertainment DVD editions of Buster Keaton's The General / Steamboat Bill, Jr., and Slapstick Masters. They've been doing this sort of thing for a while: in 1999 Entertainment Weekly listed them among "The 100 Most Creative People in Entertainment."

Think of them as, perhaps, They Might Be Silents.

The Alloy Orchestra's Metropolis soundtrack is available (MP3-CD format) via their website. It will sync up with the Kino DVD and Blu-Ray release of the film (see below).

Oct. 22 Edited to add post-viewing thoughts:

The SRO crowd gave the movie and the Alloy Orchestra an extended standing ovation. Well deserved too. The new score was electric and note perfect. 

As for this edition of the movie itself, its narrative tracks much more smoothly now. Old gaps in sequence and plot logic are (for the most part) sewn up, and the nefarious character of the Thin Man (not William Powell) finally has a sense of purpose (and that actor is a real standout in a film full of interesting faces). Also clarified is the backstory between Joh Fredersen and the necromage Rotwang, how their rivalrous love for the lost Hel feeds Rotwang's scheme to create the Maschinenmensch and take from Fredersen everything he believes in. Best of all, this time I came to really appreciate how terrific an actress Brigitte Helm (age 17-18 during filming!) was in the dual roles of Maria and the faux-Maria robotrix.

I've always found Metropolis to be more impressive cinematically and historically than narratively, a stance that probably doesn't make me some radically contrarian outlier. It's visually stunning, of course, like no other film of its era, and this new restoration bolsters that even more so. Yet for me its visual and social metaphors are as subtle as an undergrad paper on Poetic Symbolism, and that grates. The plot's reductive simplicities — previously heightened by the gaps in logic and structure that
this edition mostly remedies — have always been speed bumps on my path toward fully embracing the film's singular awesomeness on an emotional level. With this newly refurbished edition of the film some of those bumps still remain, but they hardly matter. Mere molehills. I recommend this Complete Metropolis with a hearty Oh hell yeah.

Kino International's Complete Metropolis Restoration site.

May 4, 2010 NYT article on the restoration.

Roger Ebert's review of the 2010 restoration is here.

David Bordwell serves up plenty of fine analysis and background leading to this restoration here.

And most exhaustively, the International Federation of Film Critics' webzine Undercurrent posts Metropolis Found, a comprehensive history of the movie in all its tangled iterations, focusing on the game-changing near-complete print, uncovered in Argentina, that provided this restoration. It's by Fernando Martin Peña, excerpted from his book Metrópolis.

In related news, Kino International has announced the Nov. 16 release of on DVD and Blu-ray. According to Kino's press page, this edition will finally let us bring home the film...
...with 25 minutes of previously lost footage and the original Gottfried Huppertz score. Only six minutes short of the film Fritz Lang premiered in January of 1927 (in Berlin), THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS was made possible due to an essentially complete 16mm dupe negative (struck decades ago, from a now-destroyed nitrate print) discovered by the curator of the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine in 2008.

Such a rare discovery demanded another restoration of this classic film, and the Murnau Stiftung (Foundation), under the supervision of Film Restorer Anke Wilkening, embraced the challenge of putting together the most historically accurate version of this German masterpiece.  Also returning was Martin Koerber, Film Department Curator of the Deutsche Kinimathek, who had supervised the 2001 restoration.

As special features, THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS makes available (both on DVD and Blu-ray) a never-before-seen 50-minute documentary on the making and restoration of Metropolis - as well as an interview with Paula Felix-Didier, curator of the Museo del Cine, in Buenos Aires, and the Trailer to the 2010 restoration. This new 147-minute version (being released as THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS), opened theatrically in April of 2010 and has broken box office records in many of the 100-plus markets it has played in.

This Blu-ray hits the shelves two days before Elizabeth's birthday, and I love, love, love the fact that I'm married to a woman who, immediately after viewing that trailer up there, let me know what her present should be. She blogs about the movie here. (I loved typing that.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Friday, October 15, 2010

Backbeat (1994) — There are places I remember...

Being a longtime devotee of John Lennon and The Beatles, I perked up at seeing this trailer for Nowhere Boy, which opened here in the U.S. last week.

It brings to mind another movie that, if not actually singing the same biographical tune, does harmonize with it like the lad nearby holding the left-handed Gibson Les Paul.

Before they were the band you've known for all these years, the Beatles c. 1960-62 were a rough, rude, and raw quintet who came of age in Liverpool's pubs and, especially, the clubs along Hamburg's seedy tenderloin, the red-light Reeperbahn district.

The dramatis personae in 1994's Backbeat, a remarkably accomplished first film by writer/director Iain Softley, include John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The narrative is hermetically sealed within the seminal time before the Beatles became the Fab Four, from the band's early days barely getting by as inchoate rock-and-roll rebels to just before their pop-chart success preceding the 1964 debut on American television that changed the orbit of the planet.

However, this is not "a Beatles movie." Instead it's an intimate love story that strums the power chords between John Lennon (superb Ian Hart), his best friend Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), and Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee), the lovely German photographer who first captured the Beatles on film and helped shape their image and avant-garde explorations.

At the center of this three-pointed star is the conflict between Stu's fierce friendship with John, both young men's feelings about Astrid and each other, and Stu's passion to be not a rock star but a gifted abstract painter in Hamburg with Astrid.

While balancing that elemental rock-and-roll energy with quiet, romanticized melancholy, Backbeat's pulse lies in its well-crafted meditations on hard choices, the expansive definitions of love, and (when the film is at its most self-conscious) the caprice of destiny.

When broody, James-Deanish Stu travels from Liverpool to Hamburg as the Beatles' bass guitarist, it's more out of loyalty to his old art-school mate John than his musical talent, which he knows isn't as good as John's or Paul's (Gary Bakewell). The Reeperbahn dives are harsh but ideal crucibles for the group, with exhausting gigs as the house-band playing between strippers.

It's while rocking, speeding, and shagging at the Kaiserkeller that Stu catches the eye of Klaus Voormann (Kai Wiesinger) and his girlfriend Astrid, who are taken with the Beatles' sound and with Stu in particular. They invite him into their bohemian world — all Miles Davis, absinthe, French films, black turtlenecks, and Edith Piaf — and it's a lifestyle that suits Stu far better than it appeals to John, who immediately feels that Astrid is stealing his friend away from him.

The power struggles among them, and between John and Paul, heat up after Stu and Astrid become lovers. Their relationship steers Astrid's heart away from Klaus. Meanwhile, Stu's desires and drives elevate away from the band and toward his new lover and art studies.

John's tension and jealousy pulls two ways: not only is his friend drifting away, but, as he says of Astrid, who asks how he will remember her, "I'll say she was the girl I always wanted, the girl of me dreams ... I might have fallen in love with her, but she fell in love with me best friend and that was the end of that." It's a triangle that a lesser film might have portrayed with mawkish soap operatics. Here, though, Backbeat keeps its cool with respect and a welcome gentleness, plus a nod toward the complexities of relationships, especially relationships that involve the ferocious complexities of John Lennon.

Just outside the triangle's border fence, looking in, is John's girlfriend Cynthia Powell (Jennifer Ehle). Prim and sweet, she's almost dowdy in her pastel sweater-set alongside John's rock-and-roll leather and the boho nonconformity of Astrid's world. When the two couples take an overnight beach outing, Cynthia confides in Astrid that all she wants in life are a house and babies and above all John. Yet she's no mere naif as she watches the man she loves drawn into a world that will never really mesh with hers. (Powell became Cynthia Lennon in August 1962, and we know how that ended up.)

Stu is doomed, of course, as a brain hemorrhage, possibly resulting from a bar brawl dramatized early in the film, does its work soon after his 21st and final birthday, before he achieves the success and happiness within his grasp. Beatles historians still try to unpack the profound effect of Stu's death on Lennon, the way it shaped and haunted him to a degree equaled only by the death of John's mother Julia just three years earlier.

Backbeat is not a "biopic" or an attempt at a history lesson. Necessarily reductive, it concertinas time and shoves everyone outside the John-Stu-Astrid trio to the back burners. Beatles purists (such as yours truly) could nitpick Backbeat, missing all the incidental details it gets right and also completely missing the point. Softley cast his movie with actors rather than impersonators, and aimed for an authenticity and "truth" that avoid a Mt. Rushmore approach to his subjects.

As Sutcliffe, Stephen Dorff holds his own even when he doesn't seem entirely comfortable being an American abroad. Ian Hart, a native Liverpudlian, delivers John's acerbic wit with a pitch-perfect Lennon Scouse lilt. He so dynamically inhabits the cynical, incendiary Lennon that every scene he shares threatens to yaw sideways as if by the gravitational field of the real Lennon's history.

Occasionally we feel Backbeat's nostalgia for these people and this time immerse us like a warm bath. (Kirchherr herself was an advisor and the screenplay grew out of Softley's interviews with her.) And it can't resist casting hooks into its characters' future, snagging too-self-aware moments like Lennon's line, "We're gonna be big, Stu...too big for our own bloody good." We wince when someone quotes a lyric that hasn't been written yet. (Stu: "I'm in a band, plays eight days a week.") Sometimes its poignancy boils over into the maudlin.

But you can't miss the affection and sincerity Backbeat carries from start to finish. In painstakingly recreating that place and time, Softley bottles the attitude and energy, the excitement of the new, that were as integral to the Beatles' success as their songs.

That's amped up by how terrific Backbeat looks and sounds. The camerawork is polished and mature for a first film. The soundtrack's music is raw and loud and great, performed by a group that brought together members of Nirvana, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, and other '90s grungers. 'Cuz it's gotta be rock 'n' roll music, mere soundalikes couldn't capture the feverish drive of the Beatles in their Hamburg heyday.

If your own personal Top 40 doesn't already include at least a couple of Beatles albums, you may leave Backbeat with no greater understanding of what the fab fuss was all about. (In this DVD's extras Softley says that early in its development he considered leaving the band's name, and even the characters' surnames, unspoken throughout the film.) But the film's appeal isn't restricted to Beatles fans. And there's a lot to be said for a "rockudrama" that leaves you wondering what might have happened if.

This past February, Iain Softley re-imagined Backbeat as a stage drama, featuring a live band. It premiered at Glasgow's Citizens Theatre. From the looks of the show's website, it was favorably received. I would've loved to have seen it myself.

Universal's 2005 Backbeat: Collector's Edition DVD offers a print and transfer that are as good as they get, with lovely color and richness from cinematography that's even more striking in repeated viewings. The DD 5.1 audio likewise exhibits superb clarity and strength (and a mindfully produced surround range) suitable for both hard rockin' and quiet dialogue.

Extras kick off with a commentary track from director Softley and (uncredited and recorded separately) actors Dorff and Hart. It's your typical harmless reminiscences about the project's development, performance experiences, and "This was a tough scene" chit-chat.

A Conversation with Astrid Kirchherr (7 mins.) comes illustrated by her original photos of the Beatles in Hamburg. A three-minute assemblage of deleted scenes fills time before a good 2002 Sundance Channel interview with Softley (28 mins.), in which the director fills in facts about the film's origins, production history, and casting. Then, a 10-minute interview with Softley and Hart delivers a low-key chat over the now-familiar production history. (Data-point redundancy is the bonus materials' one drag.)

Shot during production, TV Featurette (12 mins.) is a promo short with on-set interviews (and a narrator who sounds suspiciously like George Harrison). Casting Session (6:40) unspools home-movie footage of Dorff, Hart, and others during auditions. Director's Essay chronicles production history in more detail through 18 click-through text frames. And a click-through Photo Gallery holds 19 annotated stills.

Music: The Beatles, Live at the BBC
Near at hand: Ken Scholes' Long Walks, Last Flights

Thursday, October 14, 2010

It's a Vertigo kind of day

...although it's not because I'm feeling unbalanced. Well, no more than usual anyway.

Elizabeth was in the mood for some Hitchcock recently. So I connected this Macbook to the big screen and, voila!, via Netflix steaming we watched Strangers on a Train. Chances are good that The 39 Steps will be next in line.

Since then, ol' Alfred has been popping up on my day-to-day radar with unnerving frequency. Last weekend Seattle's SIFF Cinema featured a Hitchcock series. Our friend Wendy emailed to ask if we might be in Portland for Halloween, in which case we could catch Psycho screened with Bernard Herrmann's signature score performed live with the Oregon Symphony. My big blog post on the near-miss of a Hitchcock version of The War of the Worlds drove email into my Inbox as recently as this morning. Meanwhile, downstairs in our movie room, the North by Northwest poster framed above the shelves urges me to slide that Blu-ray disc into the player again. Or else Rear Window, my other Hitch fave.

And now, mere minutes ago, Elizabeth sends me email stating that our upcoming trip to San Francisco (where my stepson Austin rocks grad school, and where we have friends and relatives) will include reservations at Hotel Vertigo...
... a newly-opened homage to Hitchcock in San Francisco. It's been 50 years since Hitchcock's thriller of the same name was released (some scenes were filmed in the original hotel that occupied this building); to mark the occasion, the movie will be projected onto the floor of the lobby, and screened in the rooms 24 hours a day. Madeleine cookies (named after Kim Novak's character) are dished out to guests on arrival, and bedrooms will be decked out in a giddy white-and-tangerine combo. Hitchcock obsessives should book into Suite 13, where they can spend sleepless nights hunting for the 13 references to the film.
Maybe we'll take the Vertigo Movie Tour of San Francisco. The fact that a movie buff can make such a pilgrimage amuses me amply.

And finally, just a few hours ago I spied my most frequent Hitchcock reminder. It's exactly three miles from our house, on the other side of the West Seattle Bridge (once home to the mysterious Grouchos). It's an example of vintage neon signage that I pass routinely on my way into downtown Seattle.

That's the Vertigo Building on 1st Avenue South. The sign is indeed an image of Jimmy Stewart as "Scottie" Ferguson in Vertigo.

Although you'd be forgiven for thinking of North by Northwest:

I've seen businesses come and go there over the past five years. Earlier this year the building was empty and up for lease, so I feared that its odd and magnificent sign would soon end up either in a trash dump or on eBay. Yet this summer J&J Cigars moved in, and cigar aficionados may now gather together in the second-floor Vertigo Club. I'll gladly take that as a clue that the sign is staying.

Naturally, there's an obvious question you've already asked. What the hell's up with that sign? Where did it come from?

A little googling turns up a Seattle Times neighborhood profile from 2003. The building is owned by Dr. Scott Andrews, a dentist and developer who "imprinted his personality, hobbies and memories" on this section of the largely industrial neighborhood. The Vertigo sign is the last remaining item of Dr. Andrews' street nostalgia. The attached building next door once displayed three leaping cutouts of old-time baseball players, and a 1950s-vintage Superman hung in mid-flight on a building across the street. Those are gone now, alas. According to the Times piece,
Andrews still practices dentistry, but keeps an office in the building. He pushes a bookcase door to reveal his private theater, with eight double-wide leather seats. His party room on the same floor is adorned with movie posters and worn stadium seats, representing old Sicks Stadium. Soon, he hopes to have an old-time hotdog stand on a nearby street corner.
"Everything here relates in some way to my childhood," Andrews explains.
I wonder if he's still practicing seven years later?

Here's hoping this recent The Birds-like clustering of random Hitchockiana around me peters out soon. Not that I don't dig Hitch, mind you. It's just that any day now I expect him to start making cameo appearances in my life: