Over the past few years the Vienna International Film Festival's retrospective, organized in close partnership with the venerable Austrian Filmmuseum, has shifted its focus from the standard—though no less rewarding—practice of showcasing the work of Great Directors (John Ford, Fritz Lang, Chantal Akerman) to carving out new lateral paths through cinema history, opening oblique thematic and geographical doorways that fruitfully undermine the notion of cinema as the product of a single monolithic creator. From tracing the circuitous second life of certain stories and their variations as they crop up, like musical refrains, in the form of remakes, sequels or re-imaginings across time to exploring the idea of utopia and its ideological correction in Soviet cinema, the Viennale's retrospective has become a dynamic platform through which to re-think cinema in all of its wonderful and varied complexity.
This year was no different with the retrospective detouring from the sanitized, big budget, star-driven (and, therefore more restrictive) studio productions of Hollywood of the 1940s and 50s to that wildly imbalanced, spontaneously inventive, zany poverty row creature known affectionately as the B-Film. Programmed by Harvard Film Archive curator Haden Guest, and spanning the years 1935 to 1959, the series was framed both as a counter-argument to classical cinema, as well as an archeological investigation into the formal currents and patterns, the recurring tropes and themes threaded through this marginal, low-budget mode of production. Familiar, well-established names like Edger G. Ulmer and Joseph H. Lewis were placed in the same ring with directors I had never heard of before, such as Robert Florey and Nick Grinde, thus producing a kind of makeshift canon of the B-Film. Many of the films were grouped in delicious and occasionally uneven double bills—an ideal way to dive into these offbeat, at times even impressively bad rough-cut gems, the offspring of scant budgets and rushed production schedules, which paradoxically opened up a space for a certain kind of creative freedom and innovation. Nick Grinde, director of the magnificently diabolical The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) knew what he was saying when he wrote: “The B director has to know more tricks than Harry Houdini did, and he has to pull them out of his hat right now—not after lunch.”
One of the tricks of the B-Film was its richly versatile ability to exist across genres (horror, film noir, western), and to disguise its, for example, illogical plot twists, visibly shoddy production value or second-rate acting, by casting a truly great screen master such as Peter Lorre or Bela Lugosi to deflect from the film’s faults. In fact, one of the fascinating tensions endemic to the B-Film is this friction between a good actor somehow finding himself in a movie that is undoubtedly beneath him in every way, as if he or she accidentally wandered onto the wrong set.
This was no more evident than Lugosi playing a revengeful mad-scientist (itself a subgenre of the B-Film) in the remarkably stupid horror picture The Devil Bat (1939), directed by Jean Yarbrough. Lugosi plays Dr. Paul Carruthers, a chemist working for a cosmetic company, who after years of being financially jilted by his selfish and wealthy employers, the Heath family, breeds and trains a species of large bats to (justifiably) kill them off. And so as the Heath family get their jugulars fatally punctured one by one by the bats, who are attracted to their victims by a particular aftershave lotion concocted by the doctor, a hopelessly inept police force together with a big city reporter turned amateur detective and his bumbling photographer try to get to the bottom of these serial murders. Along with such a tedious overuse of dramatic irony, the film is full of tonal incongruities, such as the inappropriate cheeriness of those whose family members have just been murdered, or the general irritatingly happy-go-lucky attitude of everyone, barring Lugosi, in the film—a testament not only to the poor acting, but also to Yarbough’s shortcomings as a director. No, the only real performer on set here is Lugosi, whose character remains the sole dignified presence, even when he is encouraging his daft victims to try the lotion ("Rub it on the tender part of your neck…," he says!) that will attract the killer bats. Of course, there is also something rewarding about the many brief scenes in which we see the winged mammals flying across the screen, en route to their next victims who, let’s face it, have it coming to them both for their financial greed and terrible performances. And it’s for that reason too that we watch at the end with a heavy heart as Lugosi himself, in an ironic inversion of Dracula, gets his neck clawed by his own creation, because he is the only one who did not deserve it.
Another mad scientist film from the same year is the infinitely superior The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), by Nick Grinde, and starring Boris Karloff as Dr. Henryk Savaard, a medical scientist obsessed with restoring the dead back to life. Never a dull moment in its crisp 64 minutes, the film’s propulsive energy, the way it manages to seamlessly jump across genres, from tense courtroom drama to horror and all of it bristling with a high-voltage charged Karloff (whom we never fail to doubt is in the right, even when his plans turn downright evil) made it a highpoint of the retrospective.
After being arrested and sentenced to death for ostensibly killing a volunteering medical student whom he claims he can restore back to life through his invention of a mechanical heart—a tangled contraption of glass tubes and steaming jars—Savaard hatches a revenge plot to get even. Addressing the court at his trial, he delivers a blood-curdling condemnation of his accusers in a monologue rife with righteous indignation, claiming his intellectual and moral superiority over a "stupid, unthinking world" in a speech that bears troubling echoes to the same kind of Superman nonsense that was being espoused at the same time in Nazi Germany. Karloff’s embodiment of fury is total, housed in every part of his body, all the way down to his caterpillar-like eyebrows arched in a fixture of permanent menace. After Savaard is sent to the gallows, and with the help of his assistant restored to life using his own invention, he sets out to systematically kill everyone, from the jurors, the prosecution lawyer, the judge, the police chief, and the head physician to the reporter who covered the story.
It’s here that things turn really psychotic, with Savaard (however implausible it may sound) imprisoning everyone in his house, which he has rigged into a veritable death trap, with electrified doors and telephones that shoot poison, in a way that reminds one of the machinations of the Jigsaw killer in the Saw franchise. No doubt, Savaard’s moral compass is way out of whack, but the cool nonchalance with which he confronts his unsuspecting victims, who are positively flabbergasted by his return from the beyond, along with the spinal pleasure we experience in the knowledge that they are all at his mercy, is too much to resist. But, naturally, the villain is not allowed to succeed and it’s the appearance of his daughter Janet (Lorna Gray) at the house that causes his plans to fail. However, that does not prevent the film from ending on an unequivocally bleak note: before dying from a gunshot wound Savaard blasts his invention to smithereens. "Why did you destroy it?" asks the head physician. Because—Karloff’s dead eyes seem to say—humanity does not deserve it.
Such searing, total pessimism regarding human nature reaches its apotheosis in film noir, a genre glued to exploring criminality and the inherent corruptibility of the mind. The B-film also adopted noir as a vehicle, channeling the genre’s key elements to project its own tales of a relentlessly cruel world and its noxious effects upon a seeming innocent, none more so than in Robert Florey’s The Face Behind the Mask (1941), with star Peter Lorre as the unfortunate sacrificial lamb. Framed as an immigrant story, though quickly dovetailing into noir territory (with traces of melodrama), the film opens with Lorre as the wide-eyed, gentle Hungarian immigrant, Janos Szabo, aboard a cruise liner pulling into the New York harbor to start a new life in America. Seeing the Statue of Liberty rear into view, he exclaims with gushing optimism: "She’s beautiful!"—a line drenched in bitter irony when read in the light of what is to come.
Things rapidly take a terrible turn on his first night in the new world when Szabo’s face is irreparably disfigured in a fire that breaks out in his hotel, effectively securing both his social ostracization as well as his alienation from the work force. He attempts to conceal his physical ugliness with a mask—a rubbery, sad and expressionless imitation that uncannily distorts the soft round geometry of Lorre’s actual face, setting his trademark prominent big eyes into a blank stare, resembling a death mask more than anything else. The mask, though failing to hide his permanent mental scarring, allows him to transform into a criminal, eventually becoming the ruthless boss of a successful heist crew. Raising the philosophical question, albeit in radically simplified form, regarding the existence of the self and whether or not physical changes fundamentally alter who we are, the film also probes the state of the exile, and the complex identity swaps that is thrust upon the immigrant. Szabo is cast out as "the other," forced to live out the American dream turned nightmare. (Lorre himself was compelled to immigrate to Hollywood from Nazi Germany during the 1930s, where he struggled to find a solid career footing whilst also battling a morphine addiction, and its possible to read his performance as unconsciously mirroring that experience.)
Hope briefly appears when Szabo falls in love with Helen, (Evelyn Keyes) a loving, innocent blind woman—which continues to play on the thematic polarities between seeing and blindness, the real self and its concealment—but his attempt to settle down to a new life with her is thwarted when she is killed (along with her seeing-eye dog) in a car bomb planted by his double crossing gang of thugs. Szabo does not fare much better, with the final face-off between him and his ex-partners taking place, in a cruel reversal of the opening scene on water, in the far flung remoteness of the desert. A masterpiece of uncompromising cynicism, Florey’s film, along with providing Lorre the narrative breathing space to assume a panoply of roles in just over an hour, from naïve émigré to suicidal outcast and shrewd criminal, is also an example of how the B-Film, despite its crude surface, was able to successfully infiltrate ideas that reflected contemporary American culture’s fear of "the other," and the darker currents of the so-called American dream.
The symbiotic fusion between film noir and the B-film reached its pinnacle with Joseph H. Lewis’ seminal Gun Crazy (1950), a desperate and delirious tale of love on the lam, a libidinous fantasy explosion of burgeoning sexuality with loud blasts of irrepressible violence. A proto-Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the film is an explosion from Hollywood’s periphery with Lewis’ innovative cinematographic vision bleeding right off the silver screen. The flaming couple is Bart Tare (John Dall) and Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummings), two young social misfits bonded by their unhealthy obsession for guns and ammunition. Their love hurtles them onto a reeling road of bank robberies and stick-ups and it’s not long before they are wanted criminals. Lewis, however, does not cheaply romanticize their outlaw status, nor is their gun craze easily explained away, though the fetishistic stand-in of the gun as a substitute for sex is clear enough. In fact, the two are largely denied psychological interiority, and are repulsed by violence. Even Annie, whose gleeful greed is the impetus behind their crime spree and is played with super-cool verve by Peggy Cummings, says she only kills out of fear. Bart, passive and inward, whose virginal boyish looks ingeniously clash with his actions, enters a near state of psychological/physical paralysis at the thought of offing somebody. Would it be too far to place the two in the same lineage as the eponymous pickpocket Michel from Robert Bresson’s 1959 film? I think not—all three are cyphers to themselves, walled in by a reality they do no accept.
The thrill too of Gun Crazy is reveling in how Lewis and his director of photography Russell Harlan basically established a new visual vocabulary of how to shoot from the moving vehicle, the most famous example being the four-minute sequence of the bank robbery scene with all of it shot in one take from the back seat of the car, the robbery itself occurring off screen. We experience the couple’s drive in real time, see how they must negotiate actual traffic and an uncoordinated outside world; a blissful combined moment of screen artifice and documentary realism. The lurid expression of arousal in Annie’s eyes as the car speeds away is reflected back onto to us, it becomes our own expression of pleasure.
Bart and Annie’s increasingly hopeless and bloody journey is matched by a progressive breakdown in set locations: what starts out as a series of scenes played out in the ordinary poetry of anonymous cheap hotel rooms, various automobiles and late night diners—the usual iconographic sites of action for B-noirs as forever epitomized in that other B-classic Detour (1945)—soon devolves into hostile exterior terrains. Forced to abandon their car in the final chase scene, they flee into a national park, eventually finding themselves lost in a thicket of swamp reeds enveloped in a dense blanket of eerie fog, a dream arena severed from the real—the world reduced to the exaggerated expression of threatening shadows, foreboding sounds and paranoiac visions. It is a scene straight out of the horror genre, transplanted to noir by Lewis to craft a stylized ending that, when the guns inevitably blast, is as haunting as it is tragic.
Spatial confinement is the narrative engine behind Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin (1952), a slick cat and mouse game between a brash detective and the mob aboard a cross-country train bound for Los Angeles. The cop is Sergeant Walter Brown (Charles McGraw), charged with the thankless task ("a rotten detail") of transporting and protecting the widow of a mob boss whom a crew of hit men onboard are trying to prevent from testifying at a grand journey. Taking place almost exclusively within the cramped confines of corridors and compartments, Fleischer has made one of the great train films, one whose tense momentum is defined and propelled forward by the train’s spatial layout. A film tuned in to the viatic excitement and the poetry of loco-motion; the train’s subtle rocks and jolts; a film with an ear for the musicality of a train, the way it always clatters and rattles, chugs and toots; the train as a vessel of reflecting surfaces and barriers; a texture of mirrors, windows, doors. The camera frees itself to roam hand-held down passageways, sneak into rooms it does not belong in, as if mapping a blueprint, or glance out the window to the watch the harmless landscape of overhead power lines and country roads zoom by: a constant play between inside and out.
McGraw is excellent as Sgt. Brown: his chiseled granite face, his bulk of a body and scratchy sandpaper voice, the way he is never still, but a choreographed bundle of nerves always dashing down corridors chasing after potential assassins, adding kinetic sparks of extra juice to an already wired picture. Playing opposite him is the statuesque Marie Windsor—the "Queen of the B’s"—as the targeted widow (or at least we are made to think), a catty, caustic femme fatale armed with an arsenal of acerbic retorts and jabs. The pleasure of watching, hearing her and McGraw’s verbal showdowns! Together the two, framed in close-ups as claustrophobic as the space they’re in, turn their tight compartment into a sparring stage, a competition of who can out-sass the other.
Just as Brown penetrates different sections of the train, so too does the film move briskly between narrative "compartments," dropping in on his encounters with other passengers, such as a certain Mrs. Sinclair (who may not be who she claims) and her son, who refers to him facetiously as "the train robber." Or in one repeated gag, wherein the narrowness of the corridors prevents him from getting past a 265-pound man, who too is falls under Brown’s suspicion. And then there are his numerous run-ins with the actually killers, resulting, in one instance, in a particularly vicious bathroom brawl reminiscent of the violent train scene in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977). Indeed, there is nothing like a good train film, the union of two technologies invented in same era speaking through each other to create a hyper-road movie of manic thrust and narrative compression.
To end with a western, to end in color, in Cinemascope: Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome (1959), of which it must be said that it is a truly beautiful film, where everything from the plot, the script, the characters and the landscape fit so harmoniously together that to watch it is to simultaneously experience the care and tenderness that was put into making it. Rarely has such a short film (a mere 73 minutes) felt so peacefully long and slow, its serene tempo borne out of the laconic, calm presence of Randolph Scott, his apollonian carved face and his every movement perfectly calibrated to the desert landscape that foregrounds the story. From the first moment we see him—emerging with a horse as if out of nowhere, barely noticeable in the hard still sea of phallic shaped rocks and narrow paths—it is he, the archetypal wanderer, a nobody without a home, that determines the rhythm of what we see and what we know.
But he is somebody, at least for the duration of the film. Scott is Ben Brigade, a bounty hunter transporting his prisoner Billy John (James Best) to Santa Cruz. Along the way he gathers up several desert strays: Mrs. Lane (Karen Steele), whose husband has been killed by Indians, and two outlaws Whit (James Colburn) and Boone (Pernell Roberts), both of whom are hoping to hand in Billy to the authorities themselves in exchange for amnesty for their past crimes, a proposition that Brigade stubbornly refuses to accept, even it means having to face them off. In another western concerned more with rushing the story along than establishing an attitude, this would become a source of high tension between the characters. In this slow western tension is defused by the warm ease with which everybody, especially Brigade and Boone, talk with each other, talk about women, the past, plans for the future. Pernell Roberts as Boone oozes a particular brand of masculinity, an understated sexuality, a laid-back honesty that gives everything he does, from how he rides a horse to the way he erupts into sudden endearing laughter, a sincerity that makes us believe in the integrity of his desire to change his life. He is the opposite of Brigade, who is as tight-lipped as a dead man about his real motives. Together, though, the two spread out a surface of such confidence in the belief that everything will turn out the way it is supposed to, that you begin to feel that the real story is elsewhere; that the film wants to show nothing more than the way these five characters and the horses move across a landscape, their journey to Santa Cruz turning into an aimless drift under an endless dream blue sky, a Homeric epic in the sand. In one shot the camera holds as long it is has to for each of them to advance out of the distance (departing a sunken adobe ranch where they overnighted), towards us and then exit the frame. The widescreen framing allows the vast expanse of the desert to wrap itself around, not just those in the movie, but us as well: a movie for you or me to walk around in.
Then at just the right moment, not a second before he has to, Brigade reveals how he is using Billy as bait to attract his brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef!), whom Brigade is out to kill for hanging his wife years ago. The film suddenly regains its destination: a clearing with a tree shaped like a terrifyingly deformed crucifix. After the final showdown (because there always is one), Brigade sets it on fire resulting in a closing image more surreal and violent than anything else proceeding it: Brigade’s tiny figure, as alone and indistinguishable from the terrain as he was in the opening shot, standing next to the burning tree, the flames charring it black, the camera slowly panning up to follow the thick smoke as it curls heavenward darkening the clear sky.