Thursday, February 19, 2009

Vampires, Pink Horses, and Counterfeiters

Let the Right One In (2009, directed by Tomas Alfredson) was a bit of a surprise to me. I had seen the praise here and elsewhere, but I really didn't know what to expect. An anti-Twilight, I suppose, but that's not what I got. Well, no, that IS what I got, but not in the way I expected. This is a film that draws from a deep well of loneliness. Visually, it's a bleak and austere movie, composed in the main of long takes and snowy drabness. It's a film where you can feel the chill of winter radiate from the screen. For me, though the surprise is in how it mixes it all up with a striking genderqueer ambiguity. I had no idea it was as queer a movie as it turned out to be, but it strikes exactly the right notes in this regard, too. Best of all, though, it functions as a horror movie on top of all of its other concerns; it plays by the rules of vampire mythology (including a ghastly demonstration of what happens when a vampire enters a home uninvited). The finale at the swimming pool is both ghastly and comic by turns, delivering the goods for the horror audience. And then...the movie demonstrates an admirable grasp of irony, though the irony is there from the outset (the scene with the dog is a good example). The very end of the movie seems hopeful and touching, but I found it utterly horrifying. After all, we saw what became of Eli's previous familiar. Did he start out as Oskar did? I think he might have. Longer review here.


I wasn't very far into Robert Montgomery's Ride the Pink Horse (1947) before I realized that it was a tour de force in the very basics of the director's craft. At a basic level, the director of a movie is responsible for blocking the actors and supervising their movements, and collaborating with the cinematographer to compose the frame. At the outset of this movie, there is a long unbroken take in which a man arrives on a bus at a border town, gets off, walks into the terminal, puts a significant slip of paper in a locker, and hides the key. This is, perhaps, not as showy of a long-take opening as the one in Touch of Evil, but it certainly demonstrates a mastery of craft that used to be taken for granted in movies. This sort of thing is pretty much lost these days, as films are cut to mimimize the need for blocking or the creation of environments. Which is too bad. Ride the Pink Horse isn't an a-list classic, but it has more craft--more art--in that one sequence than can be found in the entire filmography of, say, Michael Bay. The story itself follows embittered veteran Montgomery as he attempts to blackmail a war profiteer. It's a stock, hard-boiled b-picture, though it adds some interesting flourishes, like the Mexican girl who thinks she's seen our hero dead, and the wonderful Thomas Gomez as a merry-go-round operator (which provides the pink horse of the title). After its opening, it doesn't feel the need for complex camerawork, and doesn't need it, really. It's enough to know that they COULD do it if they wanted to.

I could say much the same thing about the crime films of Richard Fleischer, which are models of narrative economy that often end with a flurry of noir stylistics. Trapped (1949) is such a film. It starts as one of those semi-documentary crime films that were popular at the time, complete with stolid narrator extoling the virtues of the agents of the Department of the Treasury, but that goes silent in short order as we engage the story, in which counterfieter Lloyd Bridges escapes from custody to track down the people who are using his plates to make funny money. It's a pretty standard crime-does-not-pay story, but the ending, in which the T-men track the bad guy to a trolley depot, dissolves into a dazzling abstraction of light and shadow. It's not a masterpiece, by any means, but it's a nifty little film.

No comments: