Sunday, July 25, 2010

Shock and Awe

The first time I encountered Shock (1946, directed by Alfred L. Werker), it was in a plagiarized form in E. C. Comics as "Mute Witness to Murder." Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines weren't above swiping their material wholesale when they were under the gun. They were pretty shameless about it. They only got caught once, I think, when Ray Bradbury called them out for it and started taking a piece of the pie. Anyway, "Mute Witness to Murder" showed up on HBO's Tales from the Crypt, too, starring Patricia Clarkson in the lead, and it's pretty good. It has an instinct for the jugular that's missing in the original. Shock was done on the cheap and features a depressing literalism. It's one of the founding films in the psychiatric ward noir (most recently on screens as Shutter Island), in which a woman witnesses a man murder his wife, goes catatonic, and discovers that the murderer is the psychiatrist charged with treating her catatonia.

For the most part, the movie's not worth going out of your way to see, save for one small detail: it stars Vincent Price. Price was in the ascent at the time, after toiling in supporting parts for other Fox films. With this film, and Dragonwyck from the same year, Price graduated to leading roles of a particularly sinister bent. This is one of the first urbane villains in his portfolio. He's not a horror star yet, but you could see the seeds of it. He pretty much steals Shock from everyone, in spite of playing a character who is fundamentally weak (a spiritual brother to his gigolo in Laura perhaps), and it's fun to watch him work.

Also of interest is a dream sequence toward the beginning of the film, one of those surreal phantasmagorias that were really the only genuine experimentation Hollywood indulged in during the classic period. Come to think of it, they're also a hallmark of the psychiatric noir, too (see also: Spellbound, Shock Corridor). This one, as I say, is depressingly literal-minded, and functions more as exposition than poetry.

Still and all, it's a fun movie that doesn't over-stay its welcome.

Talk to Her (2002) might be Pedro Almodovar's most perverse film (and that's saying something). Mind you, it's a startling portrait of love and loss, but it also asks the question: if you were shrunk to the size of a couple of inches tall, would you climb into your lover's vagina only to be lost and smothered? This shows up in another of Pedro's films within a film, this time imagined as a striking silent movie recounted by one of the film's twin protagonists to his comatose patient/love object. I had to stop the movie for a short time because I was laughing so hard, which is a nice tonic to what is otherwise a fairly tragic movie.

The film follows two men in love with women who are comatose: Marco's girlfriend is a Lydia, a bullfighter who has a disastrous encounter in the ring. Benigno is a nurse caring for Alicia, a ballerina with whom he has been long obsessed. The two men strike up a friendship. Both men begin the movie watching a ballet in which a man moves chairs out of the way of a blind dancer, and both wind up in much the same position, caring for helpless women. Unfortunately, both men are headed for grief. Marco's girlfriend, he learns, was trying to break up with him at the time of her accident, favoring her ex-lover with the promise of marriage. Benigno, unfortunately, follows his obsession with Alicia over the cliff, raping her and getting caught because she becomes pregnant. He comes to a bad end.

The movie moves through successive layers of grief. It's kind of a shock to arrive at the end of the movie to discover that it has entirely healed that grief. There's a tantalizing hint of uplift that sends the viewer away happy. It's an amazing balancing act, made doubly difficult by the moral quagmires the movie sets up. Benigno is unquestionably a rapist, but does he see that in his mind? Can he help himself? The scenes where Benigno cares for Alicia have an elegant beauty and an uncomfortable jolt at the same time. And can the audience get behind Marco's loyalty to his friend? This could be a disaster in other hands, but Almodovar doesn't drop a single stitch.

And is there a filmmaker making as much use of widescreen as Almodovar? I can't even imagine a pan and scan version of this film. It's weird: I used to think that Almodovar was an empty stylist. In the last dozen years, though, I finally see the humanity behind the over-the-top colors, I finally feel the emotions evinced by the outlandish situations. His movies get more and more beautiful by and by.

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