‘Diary of a Lost Girl’

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In just two collaborations, the German director Georg Wilhelm Pabst and the Kansas-born Louise Brooks created a screen personality that left a permanent mark on the history of film. The iconic Brooks—impeccably dressed, seductively smirking, short, jet-black hair—had been seen in films prior, most notably in Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (1928), but it was in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (both released in 1929) that this embodiment of tumultuous 1920s mores struck a strong and enduring chord.

Brooks in these two Pabst features could not be more dissimilar, however. Lulu, the freewheeling temptress of Pandora’s Box, is miles away from Thymian, the young, naive innocent of Diary of a Lost Girl. As this latter feature begins, Thymian enters the picture all in white, in accordance with her recent confirmation. She is a virginal image standing in sharp contrast to the enveloping immorality that surrounds her; the flowers in her hair point toward a natural purity that is repeatedly offended by the modern world and all its brutality.

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For Thymian Henning, this brutality comes in many forms. There is her father’s assistant, Meinert (Fritz Rasp), who sexually assaults the adolescent girl resulting in their illegitimate child. Then there is Meta (Franziska Kinz), the family’s new housekeeper, who arrives after Thymian’s father, Robert (Josef Rovenský), impregnates the previous one, something he is apparently wont to do; the attractive Meta’s appearance causes shrewd grins from the men and disdainful glances from the women. Assuming the role of Thymian’s primary nemesis, the conniving Meta discloses to the Henning family that Meinert is the father of the baby. After refusing to marry the deviant, Thymian is subsequently sent to a girl’s reformatory while her daughter is given to a midwife. At the reformatory, Thymian and the other young women are subjected to an assortment of abuses. This institution where uniformity and regimentation rule supreme is also a twisted haven of unwelcome lesbian advances (conveyed most disturbingly when the headmistress leers with perverse orgiastic ecstasy at the exercising girls).

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Managing to escape with the assistance of family friend Count Osdorff (André Roanne), Thymian joins fellow reformatory inmate Erika (Edith Meinhard) at a brothel. Thymian thinks she can work by simply giving dance lessons, but in her ignorance, she is quickly in for more than she bargains for. It briefly appears the once prosperous Osdorff could come to the rescue of Thymian, but having been disowned by his wealthy uncle he is now a penniless wastrel. Together, the two comprise what Meta refers to as “the vagabond and the lost girl.” Thymian is obviously falling in with the wrong crowd, but with nowhere else to go, it is better than the alternative, even if still not the best.

Some time later, Robert and Meta visit a nightclub where Thymian happens to be “entertaining,” and her father discovers just what his little girl has been up to; that he would be bothered by her lifestyle is, of course, the height of hypocrisy. Having left his wife, Robert is soon in debt to Meinert and Meta is soon with child. Not long after, he dies, and the disclosing of his will intensifies the animosity between all involved.

Still, despite all the wrong she has been victim to, Thymian nevertheless attempts to do the right thing. There are moments toward the end of Diary of a Lost Girl when the potential for contentment seems imminent, but no sooner do these glimmers of optimism occur than they are quickly upset by a world that remains marred by suicide, exploitation, deceitfulness, and contemptuousness. And it’s a pervasive and wide-ranging world of despair. Once it becomes clear that Thymian is fully lodged in a life of ill repute, a dissenting club patron says she is now truly lost, “just like the rest of us.”

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Thymian is a perpetual victim of circumstance, the byproduct of poor luck and her generally harsh environment, particularly her familial upbringing. Mother Henning sits idly by in the face of her philandering husband but is quick to scold Thymian. Her father, meanwhile, does express a degree of sympathy toward his daughter’s predicament, even though it’s clear what kind of a man he is (perhaps that is why he is less quick to judge). As legendary German film scholar Siegfried Kracauer states, “Pabst harps on the immorality of her middle-class environment, so that the brothel almost appears to be a health resort.” Here, as in the so-called “street films” that were prevalent in Germany during the period, Kracauer writes that, “[T]he prostitute with the heart of gold testifies against the bourgeois decadence.” Thymian lives a life spoiled by those who take advantage of her ingenuousness and by those whose selfishness and unfeeling apathy leaves them bitter and cold. The midwife exemplifies this callous, casual cruelty. When Thymian goes to retrieve her daughter, the woman smugly shrugs her shoulders and simply states, “She just died,” which we assumed when Thymian passes a man carrying a child-sized casket. If the final lines of the film— “With a little more love, no one on this earth would ever be lost!” —ring a little false and hokey, it is because of the all the nastiness we have bore witness to for the previous 112 minutes. It will take more than a little love to save this world.

To be sure, Diary of a Lost Girl is a real downer. Based on the novel by Margarete Böhme and with a script by Rudolf Leonhardt, who also wrote Pabst’s The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), the film is an excellent example of the type of social realism that surpassed Expressionism as the key German cinematic export. Befitting the categorization of New Objectivity, camera movement is largely limited (though there are some impressive exceptions), compositions are sparse and deliberate, and the flat staging clears the way for a population of frosty, pitiless faces, most of whom contrast sharply with the radiance of Brooks but do match the equally unforgiving settings. This film, writes Lotte Eisner, another major figure in the chronicling of German film history, “displays a new, almost documentary restraint. Pabst now seeks neither Expressionistic chiaroscuro nor Impressionistic glitter.” As a stylistic counterpoint, see Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Spies (1928), both from around the same period. Pabst not only stresses a more pronounced naturalness in the performances, but he also prefers the forcefulness of intense shot selection resulting from confrontational and revealing close-ups, rather than dynamic montage or intricate mise-en-scène.

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The reconstruction and restoration for the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray of Diary of a Lost Girl was performed by several institutions, most prominently Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung. Not only were a range of technical issues rectified and repaired, but the release also emphasizes the efforts made to reinstate sections omitted or revised due to the censorship of the time. Diary of a Lost Girl is surely a surprisingly risqué film, further contributing to the sexual connotations of Brooks’ persona. Nothing explicit is shown, but plenty is daringly implied. For all of her present fame, however, Brooks was actually billed second, below Rovenský, who had more than 30 films to his credit by this point. But today, it is she who stands out. Eisner at one point wondered if Brooks was, “a great artist or only a dazzling creature whose beauty leads the spectator to endow her with complexities of which she herself was unaware?” As she later concluded, quite rightly, Brooks was both. Though she would only do another five features or so, and within 10 years, her acting career would be over, without her extraordinary charm and versatility, it’s hard to imagine that this film, like Pandora’s Box, would remain so emotionally engaging.


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There is a lot to sift through when it comes to Spartacus, before even getting to the film itself. There is the controversial credit bestowed to previously blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. There is the firing of original director Anthony Mann about three weeks into the shoot (some say he asked to leave), followed by the subsequently hasty hiring of Stanley Kubrick over the course of a weekend. There is then the ensuing animosity between the obstinate Kubrick and the headstrong star/producer Kirk Douglas. Finally, there is the film’s placement in popular culture, with ubiquitous spoofs and spinoffs. If one is able to look beyond the noise of its tumultuous production, however, Spartacus remains one of the finest epics to ever emerge from the Hollywood studio system.

Available now on a newly remastered Blu-ray from Universal, this latest home video version of Spartacus is sourced from a 4K restoration and features a conversation with Douglas, a segment on the restoration process, and various holdovers from the prior Criterion Collection DVD, such as deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes footage, newsreels, interviews and more. Even with this restoration, though, the Criterion two-disc DVD is still the release to have.

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Following credits created by the renowned Saul Bass, the film picks up in Lybia circa 73 BC. This is an era when Rome rules supreme, doing so on the backs of slaves. This, as the narrator states, is the “age of the dictator,” where men, like Spartacus (Douglas), have been “sold to living death.” Living, of course, being the ironically operative word. When we first see Spartacus, he instantly makes an impression by swiftly helping a fallen fellow slave, and in doing so shows an utter disregard for the valuable salt mine payload they both carry. When reprimanded by one of the Roman soldiers, Spartacus bites the man in the leg, a telling reaction. That he would instinctively chomp on the soldier before he would hit him clearly suggests that Spartacus, in this current state at least, is like a rabid animal, disheveled and carnal, thus setting up his transition into the more estimable leader to be all the more pronounced. When Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) arrives in search of a prospective acquisition, Spartacus is essentially purchased for this very defiance and ferocity. These opening sequences are the sole surviving scenes directed by Mann.

It is at the following gladiator school where the first inkling of classically Kubrickian themes become evident. While Trumbo wrote the screenplay based on Howard Fast’s novel (Fast himself a member of the “Hollywood Ten”), and Kubrick does not receive even uncredited script acknowledgment, familiar features synonymous with the director are nonetheless prevalent throughout Spartacus, primarily the dehumanization of man and the ongoing struggle between those in authority and those who defy the controlling powers. It is also at the school where Spartacus, but more importantly, Douglas, is now clean-shaven and groomed. It is easy to see why Douglas fought so hard for Spartacus. With (frequently bare) chest out and head high, this is the actor is in his prime as a chiseled powerhouse of ubermasculine bravado (Fast has actually questioned the casting of Douglas, labeling the actor an “exhibitionist”).

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Through his confidence and natural leadership, Spartacus the soon to be rabble-rouser establishes an instant camaraderie with most of the men, establishing a permanent bond. He also proves to be a morally upstanding hero, as he refuses to defile the sex slave Varinia (Jean Simmons), with whom he instantly falls in love. Spartacus innately inspires devotion, so when the final straw of seeing his beloved whisked away creates a revolt in the mess hall, the result is a profound, if momentary, slave rebellion.

Easing into the leadership role, Spartacus assumes a position of authority and responsibility. Part of what distinguishes him is his capacity for cool, level headedness. He sees the big picture and wants the slaves to be more than just a ragtag group of drunken rebels; with all neighboring slaves free, there exists the potential for an army. The loyalty he inspires frustrates Crassus (Laurence Olivier), essentially Spartacus’ arch-nemesis, who later mocks the “myth of slave brotherhood.” The most illustrative example of this felloweship is, of course, the famous collective call of “I am Spartacus,” as all captured slaves stand up to protect their leader. Even though Spartacus is himself doomed, what he inspired lingers on, so it is therefore not enough for Crassus to abolish the man; he also wants to “kill the legend of Spartacus.” But this is not possible, and thus the film ends with what is a rather optimistic conclusion.

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Against all of the above is the backdrop of Roman movers and shakers and the corresponding political upheaval of the time. This, along with the training procedures of the slave school, which Kubrick depicts in fascinating detail, and the warm communal freed slave encampments, are three sections of Spartacus that could warrant a decently interesting film in their own right. Assembled, they make the film one sprawling, multifaceted, three-hour-plus saga.

Beyond Douglas, this cast is one for the ages, boasting a roster of stars that include Olivier, Simmons, Ustinov, Charles Laughton, John Gavin, John Ireland, Tony Curtis, and Woody Strode. While Ustinov came away with the Oscar, it is Laughton who gives Douglas a run for his scene-chewing money. As the scheming, sleazy, and charismatically ruthless Gracchus, he is a captivatingly ambiguous antagonist.
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Everything about Spartacus is extremely well arranged and presented. Russell Metty may have decried Kubrick’s obtrusiveness and oversight on what he considered to be “his” cinematography, but the sharply tuned imagery deservedly won an Oscar (presumably there were no complaints after that). As great as Spartacus looks, though, few scenes give the impression of Kubrick’s distinct style, save for a few observationally detached tracking shots, which are quite remarkable. Most astonishing, thanks to Kubrick’s pictorial sense of spectacle and Bass’ storyboard contributions, are the impressive wide shots of slaves making their way over the mountainside and the massive showdown between the slaves and the Roman army. To see this kind of scope, with thousands of real people, shot on 70mm Super Technirama, is quite a sight in this age of digitally produced locations and populations. Spartacus is also noteworthy for its considerably daring content, such as a fair amount of bloodshed (by 1960 standards) and the notorious homoerotic exchange between Crassus and Antoninus (Curtis), which was initially cut for the film’s theatrical release. Today, the encounter seems rather hackneyed, but that dialogue is priceless:
Crassus: Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral?
Antoninus: No, master.
Crassus: Of course not. It is all a matter of taste, isn’t it?
Antoninus: Yes, master.
Crassus: And taste is not the same as appetite, and therefore not a question of morals.
Antoninus: It could be argued so, master.
Crassus: My taste includes both snails and oysters.
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There is documented history about the real Spartacus and the period depicted in this film, but if one is watching a Hollywood epic for its historical accuracy, there is bound to be disappointment. Spartacus is far more enjoyable and engaging if one approaches it for the entertaining and inspiring, if occasionally hokey, show that it is. This is studio craftsmanship at its finest, with a number of famous faces, a rousing, Oscar-nominated score by Alex North, Oscar-winning costumes and sets, and the finances to give it all a pronounced polish. True, for most Kubrick admirers the film is bittersweet and ranks low in the master’s canon. But if this is Kubrick when he was not totally immersed in a project and lacked his requisite control, it does a good deal to explain why his more personal movies are the exceptional works that they are. Even second-rate Kubrick is still first-rate filmmaking.

In praise of Christina Lindberg, goddess of Swedish sexploitation


It all started with Exposed. I’m not sure what brought this 1971 Swedish sexploitation film to the suggestion portion of my Netflix account (presumably the roster of Jess Franco films recently added), but after reading the description, I figured it was worth a shot: “A pretty young teen finds her innocence lost when an unguarded night of revelry yields shameful secrets, and a stack of nude pictures that could ruin her life. But to get her hands on the negatives, she’ll have to expose herself even further.” That is indeed the basic plot of the film, which plays out exactly as one would expect for such fare. But what was unexpected while watching Exposed (also known as the much less enticing Diary of a Rape), was the 21-year-old star of the film. Her name is Christina Lindberg.

Exposed, for lack of a better phrase, is what it is. It delivers on everything its suggestive promotional material promises, namely nudity. While not exactly enraptured by its narrative (though I have certainly seen many a more flimsy premise), I nevertheless came away absolutely infatuated. Not by the story, not by the genre, not by the era or country in which the film was made. It was this Christina Lindberg. Now of course, I must confess she is a knockout, a stunning beauty who combines the most erotic of allure with the most innocent of charms. Yet there is something more. Those who are familiar with Lindberg only in passing may dismiss this, knowing her simply as the often-nude sexpot—looking back on these films, she said she had a “natural way to cope with no clothes”—but there is genuinely something captivating in her performance. Her presence frequently gave even the most sub-standard film a surprising degree of watchablity.

Lindberg was born Dec. 6 1950 in Gothenburg, Sweden. She began modeling in the late 1960s, while still in high school, first in publications relatively innocuous, then in the more scandalous likes of Playboy, Penthouse, and others. This led to her first acting role in Maid in Sweden (1971), also while she was still in school (though she was 18), followed by Rötmånad (AKA Dog Days and What Are You Doing After the Orgy?, 1970), which was actually released prior to her debut. About two dozen films followed, 17 just in the 1970s, and six released in 1973 alone. While some of the movies were barely better than atrocious, when Christina Lindberg appears, all is forgiven.

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As a whole, Maid in Sweden isn’t bad. It’s a standard coming of age tale (a premise that figured into many similar sexploitation movies), and as such, it gives Lindberg a chance to play up her expressive naiveté. Anyone familiar with Lindberg and her film or modeling work would probably find it amusing that she plays a chaste young girl unwise in the ways of sex, but that was, of course, the point: all the better to make her sexual awakening that much more, well, sexual. In one of several English-speaking roles, the pig-tailed Lindberg plays bewildered timidity extremely well. Ironically, though befitting the youthful lark’s titillating aspiration, Maid in Sweden takes her innocence and packages it in the most suggestive of apparel, as when on a date she wears a white dress that is comically revealing given her supposed purity (the evening ends with a sexual assault that strangely leads to mini-romance).

Maid in Sweden has several similar scenes that display the dual nature of Lindberg’s recurring screen persona. One prolonged sequence, for example, has her Inga character masturbating to the sounds of her sister and her boyfriend having sex (played by real life husband and wife Krister and Monica Ekman). The next scene then has the trio merrily ice skating, with Lindberg looking like a wounded puppy when she is tripped up. This back-to-back balance of blatant sexuality and childlike disorientation is an exemplary Lindberg trait. Off screen, she herself embodied this juxtaposition of being withdrawn and flamboyant. “I was very shy,” she has stated. “I was very shy and it seems a little bit odd when I take off my clothes and such, but I was very shy.”

Just after Maid in Sweden, Lindberg worked with the (in)famous American director Joseph Sarno on two films. She hardly appears in Swedish Wildcats (1972), but she is far more prominent in Young Playthings (1972), where she hardly appears clothed. In this rather odd film, her character, Gunilla, is unknowingly being primed for a threesome consisting of her, her boyfriend, and her best friend (the latter two of whom have already been having an affair). Gunilla, however, becomes far more intrigued by a woman who collects and repairs old toys. This woman, as Gunilla soon finds out, also hosts elaborate costume parties where attendees don make-up and various outfits then act out a variety of erotic folk tales…or something to that effect. Either way, while it takes some work to coerce Gunilla into the ménage à trois, her initial reticence toward that, and the sexually charged routines, is quickly lessened. Echoing the above point about thematic virtue in order to stress the sexuality, at one point she bashfully states, “I’m much too self-conscious.” This despite the fact she is frequently and unashamedly nude throughout the film.

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While not the star of the show, Lindberg has a supremely notable role in Sex and Fury (1973), where she plays opposite the first-billed Reiko Ike, quite the sexploitation icon herself. Overall, this might be the best film to feature Lindberg. Some may make a case for the cult classic Thriller (more on that later), but if one looks strictly for an interesting story, decent action, stylistic dynamism, better than average production values, and yes, sex, this hits more high notes than most. Even with Lindberg in a secondary role, her appearance is intoxicating. The film has one of her best entrances, as she descends a lavish staircase under spotlight, her face partly concealed by a mask, which she then removes to dramatic effect.

Sex and Fury is a wildly entertaining conglomeration of glorious bloodletting, a decently engaging revenge plot, political corruption and social upheaval, knife-wielding nuns, Lindberg dressed like Pocahontas whipping Reiko (seriously), fighting, nakedness, and nakedness while fighting. Lindberg’s character, an English woman fluent in Japanese—played by a Swede—is likewise a multifaceted individual. She is a sharp-shooting, ace gambler who has taken on the occupation of British secret agent in order to see her Japanese boyfriend. And of course, she often has to sleep with both men and women in order to sustain her cover. Still, while hers is not the primary story of the film, her romantic subplot is actually quite touching, a rarity in her work.

Making the most of her Japanese stopover, Lindberg followed Sex and Fury with The Kyoto Connection (1973). Like Dog Days, this is a Lindberg film I have so far only been able to view sans subtitles. Unlike Dog Days, the story here is pretty straightforward, negating any need for explanatory dialogue anyway. Lindberg’s character arrives in Japan and is abruptly kidnapped, raped, and held hostage. Through her sexual wiles, which need no translation, she eventually manages to break fee. That’s about it.

Though her films by no means count as “roughies,” certainly not in the pornographic sense, Lindberg, for whatever reason, often found herself on the brutal end of various physical encounters. Even in Maid in Sweden, her very first film, Lindberg’s character suffers the fate of degradation, there at the hands of her sister’s boyfriend, who mocks her backwardness but nevertheless pounces on her in the bathtub before the film’s conclusion. Lindberg acknowledges this as something of a theme in her work—the beautiful innocent girl abused in one way or another. Not really looking Swedish, the small, dark-haired Lindberg had an international appeal, so as for the recurrence of this harsh scenario, she attributes the frequency to the intercontinental financing of her films. Similar themes and characters were desired as producers from around the world put up money on the basis of a specific type of repeated character in a specific situation, however brutal it may be.

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And speaking of brutal. In 1973 came Thriller: A Cruel Picture, probably Lindberg’s most famous film, the one film of hers most people are at least somewhat aware of even if they don’t know who she is, and one of the most controversial films ever made. It is also somewhat complicated in terms of Lindberg’s filmography. On the one hand, the film is, as its title states, quite the cruel picture. The inserted shots of graphic sex surely stand out, as does some of the violence, the most cringe-worthy example being the on-screen piercing and off-screen removal of Lindberg’s character’s eye (the filmmakers actually used the real eye of a corpse). It should be pointed out, however, that the hard-core shots do not involve Lindberg. Contributing to her move away from acting toward the end of the 1970s was her rather admirable refusal to partake in straight pornography. Full frontal nudity was one thing, explicit sex was another, so stand-ins were used for the close-ups (and they are close up).

Thriller really stands alone in Lindberg’s body of work. If one can get by the unnecessary explicitness of these pornographic inserts, this is a classic 1970s revenge film, one of the best. Part of the reason it is so memorable is that Lindberg’s Frigga is horribly brutalized in just about every way imaginable, so by the time she does enact her sweet retribution, a lot of people have a lot coming to them. Frigga is first raped as a child, the trauma of which leaves her mute. She is then drugged, given heroin to the point of dependency, held hostage, forced into sex-slave labor, physically abused, and emotionally tormented. When she is eventually able to leave for a few hours, she secretly trains in hand-to-hand combat, firearms, and race car driving (Lindberg really did learn karate for the role, and as she did not have a driver’s license, she had to learn how to do that, too). Finally, the time comes. Frigga assembles a stockpile of weaponry, dresses in black from head to toe (including eye-patch), and embarks on a rigorous, blood-spattered rampage. The low angle shot of this angelic beauty turned kill-crazy vehicle for vengeance—adorned in a flowing black trench coat, guns in hand, leaves falling around her—is one of the greatest single images in all of Lindberg’s work. Hell, in all of cinema.

Thriller was actually the first Christina Lindberg film I had ever seen, about 10 years ago. I had no idea at the time who she was and only watched the film because of its reputation and because Lindberg’s patched eye was an inspiration for Daryl Hannah’s character in Kill Bill. Seeing it now as a showcase for one of Lindberg’s most complex performances, and one of her most enjoyable, all those other elements fade away. Its Tarantino-approved popularity is partly why it is also hands-down the Lindberg film in the best condition. No other DVD of her movies looks or sounds this good.

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In films like Schoolgirl Report Vol. 4 and Secrets of Sweet Sixteen (1973), Lindberg had relatively smaller roles in multi-part compendium features, which told a variety of sexy stories usually dealing with promiscuous young nubiles. Full disclaimer, I have not watched any of the segments of any of these films if they did not contain Lindberg, and therefore can’t judge any of these titles as a whole. In terms of what I look for and enjoy in a Chistina Lindberg movie, however, Secrets of Sweet Sixteen is just so-so (Lindberg is there, looking great, but the film and her specific character aren’t terribly interesting), but Schoolgirl Report certainly has its moments. There she looks even better, and while the story of her character’s incestuous relationship with her brother may be a bit off-putting, it’s a reasonably entertaining segment. Besides, if nothing else, as the DVD proclaims, it also has “psychedelic dreams with bloody naked nuns and a firing squad.” So, there’s that.

Lindberg’s last great featured role was in Anita: Swedish Nymphet (1973). Not quite to the violent degree of Thriller, Anita still has one of her darker characterizations. Interesting about this film is that it is one where her sexuality figures into the essential plot of the film; rather than just being a film that features a lot of sex, this film is actually about sex. Lindberg plays, as the title suggests, a 17-year-old nymphomaniac. Her insatiable sexual quest leads her down a dark road of despair where she is ostracized and tormented by a lack of self-worth. Somewhat in opposition to those films where Lindberg is the submissive, mistreated girl, here she has an aggressive sexuality that leaves her on the comparatively forceful end of her amorous meetings. Yet through it all, she remains pathetic and psychologically weak, chiefly because she is burdened by an inner turmoil that does not, in most cases, make the sex pleasurable. It is more a stolid routine that corresponds to the nature of addiction.

Certainly, Anita’s sexual promiscuity is exploited in the film, but only to a degree (like when she performs a striptease in front of her parents and their dignified houseguests, many of whom encourage the routine—“It’s not as bad as it looks,” her father assures her stunned mother). As often as not, the affliction is actually treated with a reasonable seriousness, especially as Anita’s sole friend, Erik (a young Stellan Skarsgård), tries to explain and “cure” her illness, approaching her with sympathy and understanding. As far as Lindberg’s performance is concerned, her expressed nymphomania, as dismissive as one might be to the malady, gives her some psychological complexity to work with, further proving there is genuine talent behind the doe-eyed beauty. She quite capably conveys Anita’s desperation with a pitiable quality reflected by the film itself, which is gloomy and generally joyless. Anita, like the movie, has the look of a cold morning after. What this does, and one sees this is several Lindberg films, especially those where she is treated poorly, is it creates a sense of viewer engagement beyond the frivolity of the film’s nature. One sees this poor girl, this small, cute, seemingly helpless individual, and one can’t help but want to comfort her.

Of everything that came after this for Lindberg, I have only seen Around the World with Fanny Hill and Sängkamrater (Wide Open), both released in 1974. There isn’t a whole lot to say about these two films, as Lindberg does not have much of a presence in the former and only first appears 20 minutes into the latter, popping up infrequently and marginally thereafter (though her first big scene is definitely striking, by which I mean she gets very naked). In any case, for the last two major films of Lindberg’s career, both are unfortunately rather unremarkable.

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Christina Lindberg was the perfect actress at the right time for a certain kind of movie. While this helped give her a briefly noteworthy career in the 1970s and she is something of a cult figure today, I can’t help but feel her status in her respective field was and remains a hindrance. In most sexploitation fare, the actors are there to do what they do and to do little else, which is fine. Those movies and those performers have their place in cinema history and this isn’t to belittle the work. But many of these actors are seldom able to rise above the common filmic territory (save for someone like Skarsgård). When watching Lindberg, there appears to be a sincerity running counter to the triviality of the films, and a talent, or at least the potential for talent, that has been left underexplored and underrated because of the type of movies in which she appeared. Her films are not “great” by any means, and I definitely would not suggest her acting range was in any way overwhelming. But if qualifications for being a memorable and enjoyable star include leaving a strong impression no matter the size of the role and making even a lesser movie better, she more than fits the bill.

Still, her acting isn’t terrible, especially for what she has to do and what she had to work with. One of the defining traits of Lindberg’s work is the impression that even she knows she is better than what she’s dealing with. While most everyone else in these films seem to be phoning in their performances, not trying too hard, perhaps knowing what type of movie they’re making after all, Lindberg acts with an earnestness that transcends her role and the material. This even seems to be the case with her bigger-name co-stars, like Ulla Sjöblom, who in 1958 starred in Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician, and Heinz Hopf, who had quite the television career before starring as villainous characters in Exposed and Thriller (and later also working with Bergman on Fanny and Alexander). “When I worked I was very serious,” Lindberg said. “I tried to do my best.”

For all intents and purposes, Lindberg’s short-lived acting career was nearing its end before she was 30 years old (an even shorter singing career yielded just two songs). She started studying journalism soon thereafter, wrote a number of articles for several publications, and began working for her soon-to-be fiancé Bo Sehlberg at his aviation magazine Flygrevyn, which she took over as owner and editor-in-chief following his death in 2004. As her IMDb biography sums up, she is today “a keen mushroom picker… an animal rights activist, an environmentalist, and a vegetarian.”

During a few glorious years in the 1970s, though, Christina Lindberg was really something else.

‘Blind Chance’

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Blind Chance could very well be the title of nearly every Krzysztof Kieslowski film. Throughout his relatively brief but nonetheless extraordinary career, a number of his films—some connected in a larger opus, some standalone titles—would explore the ways in which our lives intertwine with, or run parallel to, those around us: those we encounter, those we elude, those we know intimately, and those we have never met. Witek (Boguslaw Linda), the main character of Blind Chance, is like so many Kieslowski protagonists; he is, in fact, like so many of all of us. He is variably in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time, and that contingency ultimately determines, one way or another, the precariously irreversible actions that dictate the direction of his life. How much of that, the film then questions, is mere chance?

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The making and distribution of Blind Chance is itself a case of happenstantial conditions influencing an outcome. Production started in 1981 during a period free of censorship in Poland, but it was completed under newly instituted martial law. As a result, and due to the film’s politically contentious content, it was subsequently shelved for six years and only distributed in a censored form. What The Criterion Collection has recently released on Blu-ray is the original 1981 version of the film, with, according to an opening note, the censored fragments restored (there is still one scene where the excised material was not retrieved).

“Fragments” is a key term here. It obviously refers to the fact that entire scenes did not necessarily bear the brunt of the censorship; rather, there were mostly shots and snippets of dialogue omitted. But “fragments” is also a fitting term to describe the opening of Blind Chance, where Kieslowski presents a series of seemingly unrelated imagery: a close up of Witek screaming, a blood streaked hospital hallway, a young boy working on a math problem, another young boy bidding farewell to an off-screen friend. From there, as these assorted images extend into a series of similarly disconnected complete sequences, Kieslowski employs a perspectival strategy where the camera adopts a false point of view, which plays out to reveal not a character’s subjective viewpoint but simply an impersonal angle on the drama. It is not exactly clear why Kieslowski would choose to start the film in such a disjointed form, where our grounding for association is continually challenged, but as these opening sequences gradually make sense and their relevance becomes clearer, it does allude to the wider implications of the film. Kieslowski’s cinema, here and elsewhere, is frequently comprised of interrelated or unrelated incidents and accidents (to quote Paul Simon’s equally random “You Can Call Me Al”), which do not always yield the initial meaning we assume. His cinema is also a cinema of solace, though, in that nothing is meaningless, that whatever one’s actions, there is some impact left on someone, somewhere, in some way, even in a film like Blind Chance where the end isn’t always happy.

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Each of the three stories presented in Blind Chance, what critic Tadeusz Sobolewski calls “hypothetical variants,” pick up as Witek has quit medical school and sets off to Warsaw following the death of his father. On his way to catch the train he, first, reaches it and begins a life of temporary political duty; second, misses the train, is arrested, and seeks a life of rebellious activism; and, third, misses the train, returns to school, builds a career, marries, and has a child.

As these variants play out, Witek struggles to find that which he can delve fully and passionately into, be it politically, professionally, or personally. He earnestly tows the line of the governmental agenda, but that aim is soon met by counter upheaval, with which he also sympathizes. Acting as something of a mediator, he attempts to please and equally comprehend both sides of the spectrum, but that proves to be an impossibility. Swaying first this way then that, he ultimately becomes evasive toward either side. This is even more the case in the third and final section of the film where, now primarily concerned with his job and his family, Witek declares his preference to keep entirely removed from sociopolitical contention. When he says at one point he is “all mixed up,” he isn’t joking. In each portion of the film, while his character essentially remains the same, and though those around him change, and as a result his actions differ, he is continually trying to reconcile his ideals and his wavering engagement.

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Witek is told it is not just chance the way things work out, but echoing the primary theme of Blind Chance itself, he argues, “Sometimes I think it is.” He is acknowledging what we have seen but he is, of course, unaware of, and that is just how unstable his path has been. Kieslowski is concerned with commonplace yet perilously volatile actions like catching a train or missing a bus, and where those actions then take (or don’t take) a given character. The recurrent close-up of Witek’s outstretched hand reaching for the train visually hammers the point home, making clear that what lay ahead for him is reliant on mere seconds and inches, the smallest of details and events that can determine a life.

Before the formally exquisite The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and his “Three Colors Trilogy” (1993-94), Kieslowski worked in a more unromantic, understated fashion, a form evident in films such as The Scar (1981), A Short Film About Love, and A Short Film About Killing (both 1988), and lasting through his astonishing The Decalogue (1989-90). Though the settings for Blind Chance are generally old, cold, and worn and therefore likewise befit this approach, Kieslowski and cinematographer Krzysztof Pakulski shoot everything beautifully, giving even the simplistic natural images of Blind Chance a distinctive illustration. When often at the same time having some sort of foreground element obstructing a portion of the central focus, the entire composition becomes artfully and pleasingly designed.

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That the Polish government saw Blind Chance, or at least portions of it, unfavorably should not be surprising. The is plenty of anti-Communist sentiment, and lines like, “screw your Party loyalty” most certainly did not sit well with the powers that be. Still, Sobolewski argues that Blind Chance is not a political film, and he proceeds to give his reasons (most of which sound frankly political). He is right, though, but for another reason. Blind Chance is not a political film because when everything is said and done, in all three takes on what might have been, there is no obvious message to get across or side to be argued. The focus is on the individual, not the opposing ideologies. “In keeping with Kieslowski’s earliest fiction films,” writes Dennis Lim in his essay on the film, “the failures of the system remain secondary to the human-scale dilemmas of the individuals trapped within it.” There is an unavoidable depiction of a politically charged time and place, and the resulting benefits and drawbacks derived from each position are shown and sometimes voiced outright. Certainly, too, there are some drastically negative elements concerning either side of the spectrum. But with all things considered, Kieslowski, the “pessimistic humanist,” as Lim calls the director, presents everything with an evenhanded balance—kidnapping and arson are no more the way to go than strict suppression and violent brutality.

As Sobolewski points out, Blind Chance is in its own way as autobiographical as Camera Buff, Kieslowski’s 1979 film about a man who discovers the power of his 8mm movie camera. Kieslowski and Witek possess an observational, ultimately disheartened detachment to their sociopolitical surroundings. While Kieslowski was generally content to remain politically ambiguous, Witek displays a fluidity of allegiance. Sobolewski says the film is also both Kieslowski’s “last will” and a “turning point,” two descriptions that seem to suggest divergent significance but do, in fact, point to how this film represents so much of what Kieslowski spent his entire career trying to convey, while also being the film that led to these recurrent thematic variations.

‘The Brood’

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Inspired by his own unpleasant divorce, and the subsequent liberation of his daughter just before his ex-wife was able to take the girl to a California cult, David Cronenberg’s The Brood is essentially an ugly, highly unorthodox custody battle. As the great Canadian filmmaker famously quipped, “The Brood is my version of Kramer vs. Kramer [also released in 1979], but more realistic.”
The Brood is Cronenberg’s sixth feature, coming just after the seemingly out of place Fast Company (1979)—not so very odd given the director’s love for automobile racing—and just before his more exemplary breakthrough, Scanners (1981). It is consummate Cronenberg, with a heady mixture of clinically twisted science and the deep psychological strain that inevitably mars said science with corporeal disfigurement.

With his wife, Nola (Samantha Eggar), undergoing treatment at a facility known as the Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics (a Cronenbergian term if there ever was one), Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) discovers his daughter, Candice (Cindy Hinds), is returning from visitations with her mother bruised and scarred. Given his estranged wife’s instability, as well as the dubious nature of the institute, Frank naturally assumes Nola is behind the abuse. She is in therapy of some sort, under the psychiatric care of the unconventional Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), author of “The Shape of Rage.” It is clear there is more than a doctor/patient association with Raglan and Nola; it would seem there is more than even a sexual male/female relationship. There is something far more devious at play.

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It is suggested Nola may have suffered past abuse at the hands of her own mother, Juliana Kelly (Nuala Fitzgerald), who tells Candice her mom would sometimes wake up covered in big, ugly bumps when she was little. Was Juliana then, or is she perhaps now, a partial catalyst for the bizarre events that transpire? Certainly, some type of hereditary malice is presumed, something even more pronounced by the film’s end. Perhaps invoking his own personal concerns at the time, Cronenberg appears to posit that women in general, from one to the next, possess the capacity for manipulation and destruction. “Mommies don’t hurt their own children,” says Nola at one point, quickly adding that maybe sometimes they do. This is not to suggest any type of misogyny on Cronenberg’s part, though many have. As Carrie Rickey points out in her essay, “The Brood: Separation Trials,” “In the judgment of film historian Robin Wood, his most outspoken critic, Cronenberg consistently exhibited his dread of women by creating monstrous, voracious, and repellent female characters.” While this may go to the extreme, phrases such as Raglan’s declaration that, “The law believes in motherhood,” singe with bitterness, no doubt stemming from Cronenberg’s own predicament.

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Nevertheless, just as suspicions are aroused concerning Juliana’s potential culpability, she is brutally attacked. It’s not clear by who, or what, but the assailant is a little child-sized creature emitting ferociously guttural growls. For a time, The Brood then takes on the basic form of a police procedural, as an investigation into the murder ensues. But things change when Frank hears testimony and sees evidence of the physiological damage inflicted at the hands of Raglan and his disreputable procedures. According to one tormented patient, the doctor encouraged his own body to revolt against him through a type of mind control, a mentally induced malevolence.

Nola’s father, Barton Kelly (Henry Beckman) enters the picture and briefly brings with him his own emotional baggage—he has been separated from the departed Juliana for some time (marital troubles run rampant on screen and off). And Candice’s teacher, Ruth (Susan Hogan), likewise gets unknowingly involved, even though she makes an effort to remove herself from the situation, telling Frank his life is “just a little too complicated.” She has no idea.

As the film proceeds, and recalling Raglan’s famous text noted above, it becomes evident just what shape Nola’s rage can indeed form, as she produce the literal, physical manifestation of her anger. The Brood expresses a perfect Cronenberg union of the psychological and the physical, a conglomeration that generates any number of gruesome effects, primarily, in this case, the gestation of Nola’s organic spawn, little people called at various times “deformed children,” “monsters,” or, most portentously of all, the “disturbed kids in the work shed.”

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As part of a documentary included on the newly released Criterion Collection Blu-ray of The Brood, Eggar says the part of Nola was “Shakespearian,” and hers is definitely the standout performance of the film. She is mostly seen seated, in the same setting, in basically the same position. Yet within this physical constraint, she demonstrates an oftentimes hysterical range of emotion. When Nola is referred to as the “queen bee,” it’s an acute analogy to what exactly her maternal role has involved. The reveal at the end of the film, and what follows, is a classically creepy Cronenberg climax that ranks among his most intensely shocking and brilliantly realized.

The others featured in this documentary, including producer Pierre David, cinematographer Mark Irwin, assistant director John Board, and makeup effects artists Rick Baker and Joe Blasco, all spend a fair amount of time quite rightly touting the exceptional artisanal effects of The Brood and other Cronenberg films, the make-up, prosthetics, and puppet designs that distinguish much of his early work. They also speak of the film in terms of its unique standing as a Canadian production. To hear these individuals discuss such an isolated and insular film industry truly does emphasize just what a phenomenal jolt of distinctive creativity Cronenberg was (and still is).

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Irwin also hits on something else that comes through in many of Cronenberg’s films, but especially so with The Brood, and that is the oscillation between brightness and darkness to create suspense. As he points out, it is one thing to go from a reasonably dark location to an only somewhat darker site; the horror is there in the visual shift, though markedly less evident. But to go from someplace bright and clear into the darkness—literally and figuratively—makes the effect more pronounced. With The Brood, part of what gives certain scenes an unsettling undercurrent, resulting in a thematic continuation of domesticity torn asunder, is that well-lit, impeccably homey interiors, all ensconced in wintertime tranquility, can breed the most hostile actions. After Juliana is attacked, an officer suggests the assailant may have been in the house all the time, the implication being that home is where the horror is.

Cronenberg’s sophomore effort Crimes of the Future (1970) is also included on the Criterion release. While the availability of this generally obscure title is a major plus, and is an excellent addition to what is already a well-stocked disc, the film itself is not very good, though it is apropos to the themes of The Brood. If not for what is necessarily seen, much of what is discussed in this early feature does reemerge in later Cronenberg titles. Making up the rest of the disc is a delightfully informal interview with Hindle and Hinds conducted by Fangoria editor in chief Chris Alexander, and a 1980 episode of The Merv Griffin Show, featuring the notoriously rambunctious Reed, a rotund and ever captivating Orson Welles, and Charo, who mostly just leaves the three men baffled.

Couple the recurrent Cronenberg motif of transformative physiological processes with the director’s private demons at the time of production, and the offspring is The Brood, one of his finest films. It is a stunning testament to Cronenberg’s ability to allegorically expose and explore real world traumas, such as death and divorce, via an extraordinarily unique vision. One thing also remains certain: children’s snowsuits never looked so menacing.

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‘Fellini’s Casanova’

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Depending on where one draws the line in his filmography, Fellini’s Casanova may be the best film of Federico Fellini’s late period (I would argue it ushers in that era). Of any period, it’s certainly one of his most underrated. It was, according to Fellini biographer John Baxter, the most complex project of the director’s career, ultimately costing $10 million, making it also the most expensive.

Though a commercial failure, which greatly disappointed Fellini, Casanova follows a thematic line extending throughout the maestro’s 40-years of filmmaking. From the drifting layabouts of I Vitelloni (1953) to the hollow wanderings and shallow encounters of Marcello in La Dolce Vita (1960), to Donald Sutherland’s titular role in this 1976 feature, Fellini’s focus on an alienated, superficial existence repeatedly found new and unique manifestations. Such a pattern continues here, as the legendary Casanova emerges to be a lonely figure, one who fancies himself a “man of letters” and yet is nevertheless known only for his ability to have sex … really well, apparently.

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Fellini’s Casanova is very loosely based on Giacomo Casanova’s autobiography (as much as any Fellini film could ever be based on anything), and it opens in the midst of a celebratory carnival, a frenzied gathering that bursts with lights, color, fire, spectacle, music (or rather, sounds), and a horde of clamoring people. Early on, we see Fellini’s representation of this world is going to be a largely fabricated and exaggerated one, where over the top is just the beginning. The fantastically illusory nature of the film is made evident in such setting details as illuminated plastic bag ripples standing in for water waves and, later, some obviously staged stationary shots of supposed vehicular mobility. With this combination of pageantry and artificiality, Fellini’s film plays out as each passing scene maintains a continued preoccupation with performance and deception.

It seems Fellini’s depiction of Casanova was to be far more scathing than it finally became. Indeed, it is now quite the opposite. While he isn’t exactly an admirable figure, and Fellini frequently voiced a dislike of his behavior and his ego, Casanova is an unexpectedly tragic one. Given the film’s source and subject, sex is predictably prevalent, from graphically illustrative murals to wardrobe replete with suggestive, and quite sexually accommodating, attire. Yet as Casanova travels country to country, embarking on what is essentially an episodic series of sexual escapades, he continually likes to profess his wit and his cunning, and he would rather speak of his wealth and his experience in commerce than his prodigious sexual abilities. But while he is touting his intellectual accomplishments, others couldn’t care less. They just want to see him do it. He even attempts to intellectualize his sexual prowess, discussing the various scientific reasons why he performs better than others do. Nobody cares. His amorous reputation precedes him wherever he goes, and it far outweighs his own philosophical pronouncements. Everyone sees his proficiency merely as grounds for a contest of sexual stamina. Who cares about the why or the how? In the end, his experiences are ultimately empty (like Marcello and the boys from I Vitelloni), so much so that one of his most satisfying sexual encounters is with an automaton.

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Now this is not to say Casanova doesn’t like sex. As frivolous as parts of his life are, he does at least appear to approach sex with a genuine verve and passion. When it is time to get busy, he does so with a wild abandon, frequently accompanied by the bleep, bleep, bleep of some sort of phallic mechanical bird contraption somehow connected to his lovemaking. And that bird is just one element of what are some of the most bizarre sex scenes ever committed to celluloid. Notably though, these sex scenes are ridiculously hysterical, clearly synthetic, and not the least bit arousing (curiously, there is also little to no nudity). So again, there is this combination of showmanship and simulation.

Despite some initial difficulties while shooting (as much a result of the language barrier as Fellini’s unorthodox directing style), Sutherland shows quite the range here, going from the flamboyantly extreme, carousing with great gusto, to the potently somber, as he expresses apparent disillusionment and silently reflects during moments of pause. Two things appear to affect Casanova most. First, while he clearly loves women in general, and has no trouble making love to all sorts, his trouble is finding that one single woman to love. For all his trysts, he lacks the capacity to form a durable relationship. Second, while he does meet diverse political and social figures through the course of his travels, he winds up looking for sophistication in all the wrong places. In many of the locations where he ends up, he finds only debauchery, chaos, and foolishness, and is almost always intellectually dissatisfied, if not physically.

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Fellini’s Casanova concludes with a dream sequence, which though certainly peculiar is really nothing so very out of the ordinary within the context of the film, where the entirety of the picture to this point likewise took the form of a surreal exhibition. The ending is, however, a rather beautiful and peaceful conclusion to what had otherwise been a generally manic adventure.

In typically ambiguous fashion, Fellini has called the film the worst he ever made, yet he also stated it seems to be his “most complete, expressive, [and] courageous.” It would make sense that Fellini cared a great deal for the film. There are times when it truly feels like his invigorating life force seeped into the production and reveals itself in the finished product. A giddy vibrancy runs throughout the movie, as if he reached into his distinctive bag of cinematic tricks and pulled out his entire arsenal. If Fellini’s Casanova does lag at times, as during Casanova’s brief stopover in Switzerland, the slower moments only really stand out in comparison to the vitality of the surrounding sequences; on their own, or in another film, there would be nothing so terribly sluggish about these more sedate moments.

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Fellini’s Casanova contains an unmistakably Fellini blend of the fantastical and the grotesque, all enhanced by frequent cinematographic, editorial, and musical collaborators (Giuseppe Rotunno, Ruggero Mastroianni, and Nino Rota, respectively). Amazingly, Fellini’s script, written with Bernardino Zapponi (who had just the year prior penned Dario Argento’s fabulous Deep Red), was even nominated for an Academy Award. Populating the picture are classic Fellini characters and caricatures, his “landscape of faces,” all mixing and mingling in an eccentric concoction of abnormal bodies and faces and perverse behavior. Moreover, as with several of his films, particularly during the years around Fellini’s Casanova, there is also the inventive costume design further endowing these individuals with their striking presence (Danilo Donati won an Oscar for his creative outfitting). Taken together, Fellini orchestrates a visual delight of eccentric individuals, vibrant colors, shifting light design, and a detailed, expansive, and astonishingly complex set construction, all at the renowned Cinecittà studios, by now well-tread ground for Fellini.

Fellini’s Casanova boasts an assortment of people, locations, and entire sequences that are created and realized in a way that can only be called “Felliniesque.” Clichéd though it may be, there is simply no other adequate description.

‘Dressed to Kill’

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Whether one loves or hates his work, Dressed to Kill is a quintessential Brian De Palma film. It is a tour de force of his trademark flourish, with long takes, flowing camera movements, and a superbly stylized sense of composition, particularly his integration of split-screens and split-diopter shots (nobody does either quite as well). It also encompasses a number of his most frequent thematic fixations, namely voyeurism, deceptive perception, and the commingling of a consuming obsession with an equally charged aggression. Now, that is all for those who like his movies. For those who do not, there is the contentious misogyny, the abundant allusions to Hitchcock (detractors would say blatant rip-offs), and the lingeringly gratuitous sex and violence. As a dedicated De Palma devotee, I am much more likely to side with those in the former camp, but I can see in Dressed to Kill some of the better arguments concerning the latter. Still, even with this possible—though admittedly flimsy—concession, I hold this 1980 film up as a classic. It is the first of three fantastic features in a row (with Blow Out [1981] and Scarface [1983] next in line) for a director who remains one of the most underrated in American cinema.

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A repressed, unsatisfied sexuality gets Dressed to Kill on its way, as Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) departs her house following a hurried and unfulfilling early morning romp with her husband. After a visit with her psychiatrist, Doctor Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), to whom she voices her troubles, she stops off at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (only on the outside; interiors were shot at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), where she finds herself enamored by a stranger, a stranger who seems to be enticing her along. Sure enough, they wind up back at his room for an anonymous rendezvous. Later that evening, she dresses and heads back home, shaken to her core when she discovers the stranger has been diagnosed with a venereal disease. Before she can make it out of the apartment building—spoiler alert—she is slashed to death with a straight razor, her blonde-haired, female assailant unclear save for a few distinguishing features, notably dark sunglasses and a dark trench coat; key accessories and articles of clothing (however minimally they clothe) are a prominent motif throughout Dressed to Kill and more than once they play a crucial role in the narrative. As crafted by De Palma, this murder is an expertly arranged orchestration of camera angles, make-up effects, multiple points of view, and shockingly bloody violence, and Kate’s brutal, seemingly random death rouses the suspicion of her son, Peter (Keith Gordon), who with prostitute Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), a witness to the gruesome scene, begins an investigation into the attack.

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In one of several interviews included on the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of the film, De Palma speaks of the genesis for Dressed to Kill and discusses how it, like much of his work, was born from “visual ideas.” Like those other titles, this is indeed a very visual film, with an oftentimes airy, luminous luster and some truly extraordinary sequences of prolonged tension (it is amazing how long De Palma will let a suspense scene play out), all of which is heightened by his balance of movement and montage. But he is also quick to likewise argue for the necessity of a good story and relatable characters, another area where Dressed to Kill excels. Though Kate is essentially only the subject of the film for about 30 minutes or so (and with her gone also goes what seemed to be the primary plot of the film), her character’s initial importance never wanes, not only because of Peter’s familial motivation, but because she was such a pronounced individual (Dickinson, in fact, considers the role the best work she has ever done). The same sort of immediate and lasting impression is felt with the entire primary cast and their respective characters. From the likable Allen and Gordon as an efficient, if improbable, duo, to Caine, always a first-rate actor, who whether we know it or not embodies the most complex character in the film, to even the bit players, like Dennis Franz as the tough-talking, wise-ass Detective Marino, by the film’s conclusion, we have invested a good deal in these few individuals, and in a relatively short period of time.

De Palma also stresses the importance of sound design for his films, comparing the right sound to hear at any given moment with the most effective color on a canvas. This type of careful selection is clear when most diagetic sounds drop out during the famous museum courtship, one of several wordless sequences where only very specific points of aural focus are cued up, or when Peter uses his techno-sleuthing skills to eavesdrop on the conversation between Marino and Elliott, where De Palma isolates the dialogue and similarly obscures the background noise.

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Nevertheless, that Dressed to Kill is a visual film first and foremost is evidenced by some distinctly De Palma formal strategies. The careful placement of mirrors, windows, and other screens within screens give the film a dense layering of multiple planes, which coincides with the recurrent shots of people watching others by way of these various features, and which is further significant thematically, as we then become the ones watching someone watching someone. It is all about looking with De Palma: us at them, them at each other, both with a voyeuristic secrecy. This particular facet of the director’s work was by 1980 par for the course.

Working in aesthetic harmony, the audiovisual union of Dressed to Kill is thus exceptional. As Michael Koresky notes in his excellent essay on the picture, “De Palma’s film, thanks in part to Ralf Bode’s sensuous, soft-lens camera work and Pino Donaggio’s ecstatic, romantic score, is a work of baroque, intensely cinematic horror.” The sense of luxurious romanticism that therefore results lulls one into a sedate yet engrossing atmosphere, only to be spoiled abruptly and effectively by the sudden violence. It is a genuine cinematic seduction every bit as potent as the fictional ones taking place on screen.

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Dressed to Kill’s reception is mentioned in several of the interviews included on the Criterion disc, but there are also separate features examining in detail the different versions of the film and how it was re-cut in order to obtain an R rating. Even still, the final version managed to ruffle more than a few feathers (albeit nothing quite like what De Palma encountered four years later with Body Double). “This film is a minefield of potential offense,” writes Koresky, “with its horrific butchery of a middle-aged woman and its full-frontal images of naked women shot like soft-core pornography…. it was bound to incite some anger.” In De Palma’s twisted spin on transexuality, he likens the identity confusion and subsequent materialization of latent desires and volatile behavior to something akin to a Jekyll and Hyde transition (with connotations that probably would not sit lightly these days). And in a making-of documentary, a number of preproduction changes are also mentioned, like the removal of Kate’s voiceover narration. More prominent, however, was De Palma’s decision not to shoot his original opening of a transsexual (presumably Elliott) performing a self-penectomy. One can only imagine how that would have gone over.

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All controversy aside, Dressed to Kill has a perfect blend of De Palma story with De Palma style, where each is equally in the service of the other. Unlike some of his films, where the technique trumps the plot (Snake Eyes [1998], Passion [2012]), or where the narrative, either convoluted or ridiculous, burdens the form (Wise Guys [1986], The Bonfire of the Vanities [1990]), Dressed to Kill gets the balance perfect, and as such showcases why those who are fond of De Palma frequently count the film among his best.


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The moral furor that erupted when Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman began their much-condemned affair in 1950 did not, thankfully, hinder their productivity or their creativity. Despite the outrage, the two embarked on a cinematic collaboration that produced a series of excellent films in a relatively short period of time. While their marriage lasted until 1957, their final feature together was Fear (1954), out now on a new DVD from the British Film Institute. Though the film’s home video release is a welcome one—any Rossellini film made available is a good thing—the film itself pales in comparison to their earlier efforts.

Just as he had on many of his brother’s films, Renzo Rossellini provides the score, which here is instantly redolent with the sounds of a thriller. The opening likewise looks as if it’s a standard film noir, with a menacing city at night and headlights piercing through the at times barely visible surroundings. Fear begins with two different confrontations. Though left somewhat vague in terms of complete detail, trouble is evident right away as Irene Wagner (Bergman) and Erich Baumann (Kurt Kreuger) meet under what are clearly unnerving circumstances. Their relationship seems to be at an end, yet it remains passionate even in its dissolution, hinting at the love that once was and still may be. Not long after that, further tension is added in what is also noirish fashion, as Luisa Vidor, AKA Johann Schultze (Renate Mannhardt), emerges ominously from the shadows outside Irene’s home. She accosts Irene, who does her best to abolish the young woman by throwing some money at her, presuming her to be a beggar. Irene then enters her house where she encounters her husband, Professor Albert Wagner (Mathias Wieman), who is still awake working. So she is married … the plot thickens. The next day, Luisa shows up to the laboratory where Irene and Albert work (so much seemingly unnecessary attention is given to the poison he is toiling with that it can’t help but reemerge). Luisa, who turns out to be Erich’s jaded ex-lover, is aware of Irene’s affair. As she demands more money to keep quiet, the inescapable blackmail begins. Soon she is following Irene with a harassing insistence.

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Everything is essentially set up by this point: Fear is to be a story of secrets and lies within a gradually evolving web of deceit, which is itself melodramatically merged together in a suspenseful fusion. The problem is most of these narrative checkpoints are not particularly unique, and for much of the film, Fear displays little of the hallmarks that distinguish Rossellini’s better productions. There is, in the end, little to distinguish the film at all.

The other features Rossellini made with Bergman—especially the big three of Stromboli (1950), Europa ’51 (1952) and their best collaboration, Journey to Italy (1954)—all bore something exceptional, if not in their literal, superficial plot, than in their emotional weight, their complex themes, and their contemplative, existential tone. Some of this introspection is seen in Fear, by way of Bergman’s despair and dire confusion; she is exhausted, in a state of panic, and obviously at a crucial crossroads in her life. And it must be said that her performance does get better toward the end of the film, as her past and her now threatening present collide. Yet even with the twist near the film’s conclusion, which leaves us to question the motivations of several involved, certain sections of the film come on overly strong in their obvious attempts to instill various scenes with the underlying subject of the film, principally honesty. “Everyone in our house is honest,” says Albert after he discovers their daughter stole from their son. He and Irene then discuss the girl’s lack of courage to admit she did something wrong. Irene wonders if maybe she was ashamed. “I don’t want you to think I don’t know how to forgive,” reassures Albert. It’s so blatant that the theft is not the true topic under discussion that it all becomes a little heavy handed. Having seen the sublime subtlety of his prior works with Bergman, we know Rossellini can do better than this.

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Though the reveal at the end is admittedly somewhat surprising, the real question is, does it do enough to make what had transpired more interesting, or, most importantly, does it elevate the film as a whole? While it contributes to the former, it does not result in the latter. By the time it’s all over, we feel the wrong person is happy, the wrong person is sad, the wrong one relieved, and the wrong one guilt-ridden. The film’s conclusion, as Tag Gallagher puts it, leaves moral conflicts “glaringly unresolved.”

There are also errors in terms of practical detail, as when a scene begins while Bergman sits in her car: there is a brief beat while she is immobile for no apparent reason (presumably waiting for a call to “action”), then she suddenly drives forward, only to come to a stop a few feet away. This jerky type of discontinuity is not unheard of for Rossellini. In fact, there are several similar examples in his neorealist masterworks. But in their defense, Rossellini’s filmmaking methods and production capacities then were far different than they were by 1954, and one could even argue that such lapses in editorial smoothness worked in the service of his quest for an unaltered, unbridled realism. With Fear, it sometimes just seems sloppy.

Where Fear does stand out is in its imagery, thanks chiefly to the versatile cinematographer Carlo Carlini, here working with the German Heinz Schnackertz. From the opening night in the city to the sequences in the tranquil countryside, there are few moments when the film doesn’t at least look impressive. There are times, too, when Rossellini integrates some unexpected camera movement, giving the film a few brief, though notable, bursts of stylistic vitality.

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As is detailed in the booklet accompanying the BFI release, Rossellini shot two versions of Fear, a German version (known as Angst, maintaining the title of the Stefan Zweig source novel), and an international version, which is what is contained on this disc. Shots and editing patterns differ between the two, and the first Italian version (known as La Paura) corresponds to the international release. Rossellini left the film’s post-production to his assistants, and once released, it was severely panned by critics and played in Rome for just three days. Further complicating matters, the film was later cut and released, without Rossellini’s consent, into a shorter version called Non credo più all’amore (I No Longer Believe in Love), then into a version called Incubo (Nightmare). This multifaceted back-story in many ways mirrors the resulting film, which is also a composite of features not always working together in successful unity.

Fear is an excellent example of a filmmaker done in by their prior, far superior work. Rightly or wrongly, it’s difficult not to judge the film based on what we know Rossellini and Bergman could accomplish, and fortunately, better films were still to follow for both, even as they went their separate ways. So while Fear is worth taking a look at, it is not representative of the best the two had to offer, and it generally exists as work primarily for Rossellini or Bergman completists.

‘Night and the City’

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Harry Fabian is probably the best at what he does, even if he is never very successful. Richard Widmark’s character in Night and the City, out now on a gorgeous new Criterion Collection Blu-ray, is a low-level con who works wherever he can, however he can, doing whatever he can to make a buck. He enters Jules Dassin’s 1950 film noir classic on the run; he will always be on the run: always hustling, always running. Sincere though his half-baked plans may be, he is perpetually—pathetically—down on his luck. He has the ambition, there’s no doubt about that, and as he shrewdly stumbles past one obstacle after another, it becomes almost humorous in the way he manages to charm his way through life, always just by the skin of his teeth. He cooks up a new scheme like other people change clothes, continually insistent that he can’t lose. But such a heedless methodology, damning the consequences of his actions and the impact on those around him, leads to a personality torn by conflicts of self-preservation, self-destruction, and self-deception. Harry incessantly lies to others, but even more frequently, he deludes himself at every turn.

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Still, he never gives up or gives in. He proceeds forward, certain of his objectives and his abilities. In this unwavering perseverance, Harry is indeed without equal. His optimism and blind determination enable him to spin almost anything in his favor, even the most seemingly hopeless and useless. What’s more is that his excitement is oftentimes contagious. That’s one reason Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney) keeps hanging around, entertaining Harry’s wildly fluctuating notions and routinely bailing him out of trouble: for all of his faults, there’s still something likable about the guy.

Happening upon a wrestling match and overhearing the contemptuous comments by wrestling legend Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko), who condemns the state of the sport as being beneath his protégé Nikolas (Ken Richmond), Harry finds an opening and jumps right in. Without so much as a moment’s hesitation, Harry feigns interest and knowledge in wrestling and approaches Gregorius with the prospect of entering into a business venture together, ostensibly to return wrestling to a more respectable standing (seriously). As this plays out, Harry finds himself in the midst of not just competing wrestling campaigns but a corresponding family feud. Currently ruling the business of wrestling promotion in London is Kristo (Herbert Lom), Gregorius’ son, who is himself touting his main attraction, The Strangler (Mike Mazurki). With different strategies and ideologies, Gregorius and Kristo butt heads—and Harry is always there to make the most of it.

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In order to embark on his new Fabian Promotions undertaking, Harry needs financial backing. And so, while all of this wrestling/family drama is happening, Harry also gets in the middle of Helen (Googie Withers) and Philip Nosseross (Francis L. Sullivan), husband and wife owners of a “naughty” nightclub who have their own fair share of domestic issues.

As Night and the City progresses, jealously runs into greed, ambition meets deception, and one double-dealing move encounters a newly revealed double cross. Before he knows it, Harry is in over his head on any number of different fronts.

For a while though, when the wrestling project seems to take off, Harry wastes no time in gaining a cocky swagger, waltzing around as the newly minted expert on the sport and gazing lovingly at his nameplate stating “Managing Director.” Just as he always wanted, Harry has become somebody, if just in title only. As this is textbook film noir, however, it quickly becomes clear he can’t stay at the top for long. Desperation sets in and in the very individuals whom he had previously found a degree of sympathy and tolerance, he now finds impartial cons who are preoccupied by their own similarly shady wheeling and dealing.

As integral as it is to the plot of the film (and it’s an oddly unique narrative strand to be sure), wresting is really just incidental. Harry’s headlong approach toward this endeavor could have easily been replicated anywhere else in any number of undertakings. The wrestling scenes and the associated family squabbles are undeniably necessary to what transpires in the film, but that side-story, however impactful, is nonetheless the least interesting aspect of the movie, especially when compared to Harry’s more personal demons and dilemmas.

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Gene Tierney, who from Laura (1944) to Leave Her to Heaven (1945) to Whirlpool (1949) had made her presence known in a string of excellent, penetrating performances, is tragically underused here. While a relatively minor character, her Mary undoubtedly still emerges as the most sympathetic. Her relationship with Harry is complex and coarse, and it’s truly painful to watch as he violently dismisses her and steals from her with an utter disregard, scorning the one person who genuinely cares for him. He attempts a degree of redemption at the film’s conclusion, but it’s too little, too late.

Widmark, on the other hand, was really just getting started with his career, and he goes all out in Night and the City. He’s working very hard here. His physically and mentally exhausting quest for “a life of ease and plenty” takes its toll (evidently so on this new Blu-ray, where the 4K restoration is so detailed that the glistening sweat on Widmark’s face is shown to be persistently streaming). Widmark is manically go go go from start to finish: excited, energetic, anxious, and expressive. Yet despite his outward confidence, his vulnerability shows through as others mock his pipe dreams that never come to fruition, and at certain points, he nearly breaks down in tears when confronted by their cruel dismissal. Everything for Harry culminates in a beautifully lit and arranged final sequence, where he is literally like a deer in the headlights as his world comes closing in.

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Under suspicion during the communist witch-hunts at the time, director Jules Dassin shot Night and the City in London at the behest of Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Fox studios. Aside from being part of an international post-war deal that Hollywood had with English corporations, this was also so that Dassin could work away from the dramatics (and theatrics) of McCarthyism while still being employed by Fox. Though the postponement of personal tribulation for Dassin was in vain, Night and the City’s nontraditional film noir setting in London turned out to be ideal for the director, who had in films such as Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948) exhibited a comparably concentrated use of location. Here, the noirish London alleyways are as confining as their American counterparts, the nights as menacing, lights as luminous, shadows as absorptive, the towering buildings as encroaching, and the nightclubs every bit as disreputable. Deep focus photography opens up this nocturnal world, with treachery and violence lurking behind every concealed corner. In their international application of noir imagery and themes, Dassin and German cinematographer Mutz Greenbaum compose a textured visualization of a dangerous, vibrant cityscape, and Franz Waxman’s pounding score further heightens the intensity.

That score, however, is just one element of Night and the City’s complicated post-production and distribution. Because of the aforementioned agreement between Fox and their British counterparts, two versions of the film were released, the 95-minute American version (which all of the above refers to) and the 101-minute British version, which Criterion also includes on this disc. Among the differences is a wholly distinct score for the UK cut, composed by Benjamin Frankel. There are other alterations as well: dialogue, shot design, structure, and even some character development. No matter which version you look at though, as Paul Arthur states at the opening of his essay, “Night and the City: In the Labyrinth,” “On film noir’s unparalleled roster of resonant titles—Kiss of Death, Out of the Past, and Where Danger Lives, to name three—none is more emblematic or iconographically cogent than Night and the City.”