The Scarlet Empress
Every review of Josef von Sternberg’s 1934 film The Scarlet Empress begins with a quote from the director calling it, “a relentless excursion into style,” and that’s pretty accurate. This film is packed so full with style that the actors seem to be competing for space within the frame. The sixth of seven collaborations between von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, the film tells the story of Catherine the Great’s rise to power in bold visual extravagance, complete with bawdy humor and twisted, fetishistic desire.
To see it is to bask in its utter strangeness. At the time of its release, the Hays Code was in full force, cracking down on what it deemed to be Hollywood’s rampant immorality. How Von Sternberg slipped this one past them is either an act of cunning or bribery. Dietrich portrays Catherine the Great as a sexual adventuress brought to Russia with the sole mission of providing a male heir to the imbecilic Grand Duke Peter (played with leering brilliance by Sam Jaffe), while igniting the passion of the matinee idol pretty Count Alexei (John Lodge). She provides Peter with an heir, all right, but it’s very clearly not his, nor is it Alexei’s.Continue Reading
I'll never forget seeing The Celluloid Closet, the documentary based on Vito Russo's seminal overview of LGBT representation in American film. I was 19, a college student in Lawrence, Kansas watching it in a documentary film class. It was like oxygen - for the first time I was seeing a film that confirmed gay stories and a gay sensibility had always been a part of Hollywood Cinema. You just had to know where and how to look.
Vito Russo's work as a film scholar synthesized a whole history of gay images and themes in film. The Celluloid Closet is an ecstatic celebration of such iconic gay images as Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo in Morocco and the gut-wrenching ensemble piece about life in New York for a group of gay male friends in The Boys in the Band. The movie also serves as a scathing indictment of Hollywood and its "morals" code, a system that perpetuated the false notion that homosexuals didn't exist and, if they did, they had to die by the film's end. It was sobering, educational, cathartic, and celebratory. And the man responsible was not alive to see it because he had died of AIDS years earlier.Continue Reading
Witness for the Prosecution
Almost forty years after her death in 1976, Agatha Christie is still the queen of the mystery novel. Her characters, including Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, are seemingly just as popular and prolific today (mostly on television now) as they were when she first invented them. Though many of her stories have been adapted for film, only two--by my recollection--have lasted the test of time. In '74 Sidney Lumet made a solid Poirot story, Murder on the Orient Express, thanks to a great cast led most memorably by Albert Finney. But even better was back in ’57 when Witness for the Prosecution was directed by the superstar director Billy Wilder. First appearing as a short story, Christie later turned it into a play. But Wilder and his two co-screenwriters, Larry Marcus (who would go on to co-write the brilliant screenplay for The Stunt Man) and Harry Kurnitz (the play A Shot in the Dark) would open it up for the screen and add the wonderful role of Miss Plimsoll for actress Elsa Lanchester, giving her an opportunity to share the screen with her husband Charles Laughton. Ironically, a TV remake and most stage adaptions of the play since have included the role, a Wilder invention, not a Christie one.
In England, big-time defense attorney (barrister) Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) is on the verge of forced retirement due to health issues. He has a full-time nurse, Miss Plimsoll (Lanchester), on his case, nagging him to rest and give up his vices. But when Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) appears at his door, about to be indicted on murder charges, Sir Wilfrid is too intrigued to pass the case up. Vole, a handsome and married playboy (and American, though that is never acknowledged), is accused of murdering a much older woman who took a shine to his charms and conveniently had just changed her will, making him the beneficiary to her fortune. Vole reasonably explains his side, and it does appear to be circumstantial evidence stacked up against him. Vole's passionate German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) backs up his story. But when the trial comes along, strangely Christine is called by the prosecution, claiming Vole admitted to killing the old lady and painting a terrible picture of both herself and her husband. The great Wilfrid looks to be defeated until a greedy Cockney woman sells him some current love letters exchanged between Christine and her secret lover. The new evidence shows that the wife lied and it is enough to prove Vole’s innocence and end the trail. But Sir Wilfrid knows it was all too easy and there is something amiss. And here we get the great, shocking M. Night Shyamalan twist that Agatha Christie and her ilk specialized in.Continue Reading