Here’s what happens when the need to see takes over and I start pulling DVDs off the shelf with only my dark heart as a guide…
The sleazy, claustrophobic, catch-as-catch-can transience of the carnival world, with its ever-changing roster of freaks, geeks, disappointed con men and women with few options, all clinging to shreds of dignity and eyeing a better life while digging themselves deeper into the one from which they want to flee, seems a naturally cinematic subject. Yet there are surprisingly few movies that have ever captured the symbiotic push-pull of vibrant show-biz fakery and dark personal obsessions that lurk behind the curtain, beyond the barker’s call. Somewhere between the boy’s wish-fulfillment of Toby Tyler and the mind-wrenching funhouse mirror reflections of Tod Browning, Tobe Hooper and Rob Zombie, Edmund Goulding’s film of W.L. Greshman’s Nightmare Alley (1947), from a script by Jules Furthman (reportedly quite faithful to the novel), captures the attraction of the fairway for the suckers and the sham artists running the games, as well as the desperation to trade the sawdust floors of tented arenas for brighter, shinier halls where the sheep waiting to be fleeced have thicker wool and far deeper pockets.
Watching Nightmare Alley today, it’s plain to see that while the divide between the carnies and the upper classes awash in dough is as marked as ever (maybe more so), the desperation for recognition, for reward, is no longer a simple symptom of poverty. But in 1947 it must have been quite a shock to see a handsome star like Tyrone Power give himself over to a role for which audiences wouldn’t have been expected to have much empathy. Power’s opportunistic Stan Carlisle is so thoroughly at home amongst the shadows and hidden compartments of the carnival setting that it’s almost a surprise to hear that he has aspirations beyond it. However, his eagerness to expand his talents to more sophisticated scams for more sophisticated targets soon sucks in both the essentially good-natured Zeena (Joan Blondell) and the relatively innocent Molly (Colleen Gray) into a world where the lies get bigger, thornier, more perverse, and the inevitable fall back to earth is all the more devastating.
Cinematographer Lee Garmes brilliantly conjures the film’s first half in chiaroscuro patterns and recesses formed by the impermanent tents and wagons, all of which coexist almost subconsciously with the ballrooms and theaters of the slightly less compelling second half. But Nightmare Alley’s central power lies in the faces of its actors, the carnival life lived as painted in the creases on their faces, in smiles and banter meant to hide the truth, in haunted looks and, conversely, averted eyes. Joan Blondell is smashing as Zeena, accidentally widowed by Stan’s (subconscious?) enabling of her alcoholic husband. She carries the weight of an entire disappointed life in her big, beautiful, forlorn eyes.
As for Power, he couldn’t have been, and probably never was better than he was in this movie. Critic Charles Taylor observes about Power’s towering performance that the actor conjures Stan’s essence in that “he manages always to look away from anyone declaring any tenderness for him… His gaze is always fixed on where he’s going.” The commitment which Power, Goulding and Furthman show toward Gresham’s concept of Stan’s corruption is that which Hitchcock could not follow through on in flirting with villainy for Cary Grant in Suspicion. The blasphemous blackness in Stan’s heart is given near full reign down the darkest nightmare-fueled alleys in the film; it sticks its chilling effect in our hearts like a stake pounded into soft ground, a stake meant to anchor a carnival tent in place long enough to provide cover while the movie takes us for all we’re worth.
Electra Glide in Blue (1973) has the trappings of an action movie, but the crime investigation at the center of its plot feels more like a Macguffin, a concession to genre that more effectively plays as a diversion leading toward the movie’s ambient incertitude. Its real subject is the tug of war internalized within John Wintergreen (Robert Blake), a Vietnam veteran who returns to life as a motorcycle cop and is (like we are) seduced by the cold sheen imagery and laconic bravado surrounding his post-war profession. Wintergreen is torn between sympathy for the freedom of outlaw bikers and structure and discipline of police work, and Blake’s well-modulated performance—gritty, funny, sympathetic, but hardly pleading—suits the humor and the toughened mettle of a man who may not be big enough (or paranoid enough) for the job.
The visions coaxed to life by Conrad Hall justify Wintergreen’s shifting self-regard— the celebrated director of photography conjures motorcycles cruising through air, warped by heat and compressed by long lenses– images which have energy and forward thrust, but which are also powered by the ethereal beauty of strange, misplaced beasts in motion. Hall teases out the iconography of motorcycle-powered justice toward a much more ambiguous, unsettling end, intimating a very uneasy ride just ahead.
But director James William Guercio’s movie (his one and only, shot between gigs as producer of the music group Chicago, and featuring some of the band members in minor roles) finds just as much potency in immobility. It’s there in the looming monuments of the country through which those Arizona highways snake and wind. It’s there in the moments of repose when Wintergreen and his partner Zipper Davis (Billy Green Bush) are parked by the side of the asphalt, thinking and talking about everything and nothing. (Hall finds poetry in close Panavision glimpses of the hard gravel and sagebrush along the edges of the highway —you can almost smell the desert dust and feel the heat radiating off the pavement, warping the relentless sunshine.) And it’s there in the movie’s horrifying final image, in which a cop is installed on the road like one of those monuments looming behind him, perhaps as yet another reminder of a bloody American past and the many fallen, aggressors and victims who couldn’t reconcile themselves to a country bent on tearing itself apart. Electra Glide in Blue refashions the countercultural martyrdom of Easy Rider into a blunt blow toward an entire nation profoundly divided, the darkest fate reserved for those who see both sides yet end up in the middle of the road.
Maniac Cop 2 (1990; William Lustig) is mostly disposable junk—it has that signature blue steel sheen once fetishized by John Carpenter and James Cameron and a script that, to my tin ears and eyes at least, makes close to no sense. But even though it was partially shot in Los Angeles, it also makes good use of its nighttime New York City locations. It’s like a time capsule glimpse back to a city that no longer exists, at least not in precisely the same way, and it has a pleasurably scuzzy 42nd Street vibe. How could it not with Robert Davi’s gruff detective skulking around alleyways, investigating the apparent reappearance of the titular imposing figure of menace? (Davi is so tough, he smokes in hospitals!)
Fortunately, there’s also Claudia Christian as Davi’s antagonist, a sympathetic cop psychologist who comes to believe the wild stories about a wronged, killed and resurrected cop who’s out there taking out innocents and baddies alike; Bruce Campbell reprising his role as the lead investigator from the first movie (he doesn’t last quite so long this time); Michael Lerner picking up a (small) check as the corrupt police commissioner; Clarence Williams III finding one good note and playing it into the sunset as a loony death row inmate; and Leo Rossi hamming it up as a bushy-haired serial killer who befriends Cordell, the Maniac Cop, essayed as always (there was a third one, you know) by B-movie stalwart Robert Z’Dar, he of the hulking frame and XXL lantern jaw. Z’Dar sports the worst scary makeup job of all time, but at least he– or, more accurately, his stuntman– gets in some top-notch asbestos suit time when he gets set on fire near the end of the picture.
(Asbestos suit stunts are among my favorites, yet another harkening back to a more “innocent” age of filmmaking where if you wanted to show a guy on fire, you couldn’t decorate him with pixels, you had to really set him on fire… and all that protective outerwear still makes a giant like Z’Dar’s Cordell look like going up in flames somehow caused him to instantly gain about 75 pounds.)
Christian– or, more accurately, her stuntwoman— also gets a rousing action set piece about half an hour in when the Maniac Cop handcuffs her to a steering wheel and sets the car in high-speed motion down a crowded boulevard. It’s easily the highlight of the movie, especially if you don’t stop to think about who’s keeping the car hurtling forward with their foot on the gas. (Answer: no one.) After that it’s pretty much downhill (the movie, not the car—that would’ve explained things) straight toward the rote gory shoot-‘em-up, stab-‘em-up, set’-em-on-fire conclusion, which is topped, as many thought-disabled genre pictures have been since Carrie White and Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees rose from the dead, by the usual jolt that screams “Sequel!”
Maniac Cop 2 isn’t even close to good, but it’s the most well-paced and acted of the movies in the Cordell saga made so far, and its violence, though ridiculous and once considered on the extreme side, now seems almost period quaint. (Rumors that Nicholas Winding Refn was set to direct a Maniac Cop prequel seem to have dissipated, maybe because the grue-minded auteur never figured out a way to one-up the original’s enthusiastic scuzz factor.) You could chuck a dismembered limb or flame-charred skull in any direction and hit a far better movie, but as brainless, gory action-horror hybrids go you could also hit far worse (like Maniac Cop 3, for example). For all its clunky echoes of The Terminator and scores of other superior low-budget action thrillers, Maniac Cop 2 does manage to leave some grimy stains and a not entirely unpleasant aftertaste of its own. It’s the B-movie equivalent of a bong shot of Ripple guzzled near a Dumpster behind a strip bar, which at times, by the adjusted standards of the grindhouse anyway, gets within shouting distance of mean, dirty, stupid fun.
A night flight through a darkened wood opens Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) with a heightened pulse—a woman races down a deserted highway eyeing her rear-view mirror, fearful of the intent of cars approaching from behind but also keeping an eye on the passenger in the back seat. Soon the passenger, hidden in a too-big trench coat and hat, slumps forward, and the movie begins its steep descent into the interior of a twisted morality well worthy of being cloaked in a dark forest of secrets. A French-Italian coproduction released in Europe in 1960 (the same year Psycho was released) but not seen in the U.S. until two years later, Eyes Without a Face plays like a Grand Guignol fairy tale with imagery that, unlike the unforgiving slashes and sharp angles of Hitchcock’s landmark, seeps into the viewer’s subconscious with poetic assurance and smears the boundaries of our sympathies at the same time.
In an isolated mansion somewhere in that darkened wood a surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) familiar with past glories has instigated an escalating series of skin graft experiments in a desperate attempt to restore the face of his young daughter (Edith Scob), horribly disfigured in a car accident. The surgeon kidnaps young Parisian girls to use as unwilling epidermal donors with the help of his devoted assistant (Alida Valli), a former patient whose own successful facial reconstruction has blinded her to her savior’s madness. Given the elusive, seductive strangeness of the movie’s surrealist mise-en-scène, 21st-century viewers might be surprised at the film’s notorious centerpiece, a shockingly clinical surgical scene in which Franju’s camera barely glances away from the horrific procedure being performed, and then only to scan the landscape of moral conflict glistening like cold sweat across the faces of the doctor and his helper. But perhaps even more unsettling and ultimately frightening is the degree to which Franju allows us access not only to sympathy for the victims, but also for the daughter, whose dawning realization of what her father is doing might be as devastating as her own disfigurement, and even for the surgeon and his assistant, their genial manner and misguided, sincere love for the girl incapable of coexisting with their heinous deeds.
The movie is a masterpiece of raised goose flesh. Even during the film’s most ostensibly placid moments Franju burrows under our skin with image and sound— over unadorned tracking shots of the girl moving aimlessly through the empty halls of the house a faint, insistent, inexplicable barking can be heard, soon revealed as coming from the basement of the house, where the doctor’s very first victims are still penned. If Eyes Without a Face ends on a note of release best suited for a fairy tale it is a grim tale indeed, tainted by blood, destroyed loyalties and the prospect of a bleak future of isolation, as if a masked, faceless sleeping beauty had escaped the evil queen and made her way into the woods to find only suffocating darkness where magic should reside.