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It’s easy to see why Ninotchka works as well as it does, and why it’s one of the best films from Hollywood’s golden age and of arguably Hollywood’s greatest year. Just look at the talent involved. Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, and Walter Reisch were all seasoned writers, though with their best work admittedly still to come. Ernst Lubitsch had directed a number of excellent silent films in Germany, had hit the ground running once in Hollywood, making his first American film with no less a star than Mary Pickford (Rosita [1923]), and after a series of charming musical comedies, many with Maurice Chevalier, directed the more sublime and sophisticated comedies for which he now best known, films like Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933). While this was happening, Greta Garbo was working her way through Swedish cinema under the tutelage of director Mauritz Stiller. Her first American feature,Torrent (1926), was followed by a variety of films, each garnering her a steady degree of admiration that would culminate with Anna Christie (1930), her first sound film and one of two films that year for which she would be nominated for her first Academy Awards (the other was Romance). And then there’s Melvyn Douglas, who had by this point more than 30 films to his credit…and he had only just started acting eight years prior. In his future lay Emmy, Tony, Golden Globe, and Oscar wins. Suffice it to say, Ninotchka had a lot going for it.

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Just as Anna Christie was sold as the film where Garbo, the enigmatic Scandinavian beauty, finally talked, and bearing in mind the generally somber pictures she seemed to be drawn to, it was brilliantly decided to market Ninotchka as not the film where Garbo talks, but the film where she finally laughs. Apparently, even the idea of the film was built from this very promotion. Of course, there were several Garbo films prior to this that had their fair share of comedy (certainly Queen Christina [1933] is amusing for much of its duration), but the gimmick was effective and worked well to not only tout Garbo the performer, but to also mirror the narrative of Ninotchka itself.

The romantic comedy of Ninotchka somewhat overshadows its driving narrative, which though significant in terms of subject matter and though a vital catalyst for said romantic comedy, becomes nevertheless secondary. But to get everything rolling, three hapless Russians arrive in Paris to sell the jewels of an ousted grand duchess. These men are comrades Iranoff (Sig Ruman), Kopalski (Alexander Granach), and Buljanoff (Felix Bressart, looking reminiscent of Marx, but more Groucho than Karl). The Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) learns that her jewels are in town and so sends her lover, the slick Count Leon d’Algout (Douglas), to distract the Russians just long enough to take legal action and reclaim pre-revolutionary ownership of the property. After the prolonged delay becomes more than those in Mother Russia can allow, a stern envoy, Nina “Ninotchka” Ivanovna Yakushova (Garbo), is sent to get the arrangement back on track. At first unaware that they are on ostensibly opposing sides, Leon and Ninotchka fall in love and are soon left with conflicts of personal passion and professional duty.

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Everyone involved—from Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski to Ninotchka and Leon—enters with a job to do; there is a scheme to hatch, an order to follow, a responsibility to uphold. “We’re here to work, all of us,” states Ninotchka at the start (that’s what she thinks). Something inevitably gets in the way of the best-laid plans, namely, love, which thwarts the goals of all. The relationship between Ninotchka and Leon takes a little effort by the charismatic count, who is equipped with an arsenal of romantic repartee, but he is as smooth as smooth can be and is able to sweet talk his way into anything, with anybody. Ninotchka, on the other hand, could use some work in the romance department, going from saying Leon might be an interesting object of study, to concluding that his “general appearance is not distasteful,” to admiring his corneas. This comically strained courtship is fantastic under Lubitsch’s direction. He was a master at sly, subtle sexual tension, but things are even better when both parties aren’t entirely enthusiastic, at least not at first. So often in his films, there is something of a mutual flirtatiousness between the male and female leads, even if the odds are against them for one reason or another. Here, it’s entirely one-sided in the beginning, and the comedy is inherent in her resolute reluctance and his natural, perpetual flirtatiousness.

While Ninotchka is on the straight and narrow at the start of the film, Leon is perfectly happy to have as much fun as possible, whenever possible, as are his three newfound associates; that is, once they’re under his influence. They’re never quite besotted by overpowering communist devotion, making with little effort excuses to stay in the royal suite of a luxurious hotel, for instance. Less apt to change, or so it would seem, is Ninotchka, who is steadfast in her determination and her ideology.

Douglas appears throughout Ninotchka as the one making most of the jokes, or at least the one looking like he’s constantly in on a joke. Garbo, however, plays the early sequences with such an exaggerated deadpan seriousness that her blank, emotionless expression becomes an essential part of the evolving humor. It’s a comedy of embellished contrast, and so once the façade is broken, it’s a welcome and hilarious release for the characters and the audience. What does it, what gets Ninotchka to give Leon a chance and to finally laugh, is ironically not the jokes that Leon tells—that is, it’s not the verbal comedy, which is what predominantly makes Ninotchka such a funny movie—rather, it’s a basic display of physical slapstick, the primitive, not at all sophisticated sight of someone falling down and looking like a fool.

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If the political comedy of Ninotchka plays a secondary role to its more romantic moments, one still can’t deny the existence of this more prescient humor. The amusing scrawl at the start of the film alludes toNinotchka’s pre- and post-war placement: “This picture takes place in Paris in those wonderful days when a siren was a brunette and not an alarm – and if a Frenchman turned out the light it was not on account of an air raid!” Released in America just after the start of World War II, but two years before US involvement, therefore in between the conflicts as far as Hollywood was concerned, Lubitsch, Wilder, et al had some relative leniency in terms of what they could get away with. Ninotchka is therefore a film equal parts romantic comedy, on the surface, and biting political satire, at its core.

In this, Ninotchka is quite unexpected in its audaciousness (though perhaps it shouldn’t be all that surprising when one considers those controversially provocative figures behind the film). What strikes one most now, looking at the picture with decades worth of retrospect, are the conflict related jokes, as when Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski conclude that a man looks like a comrade, only to see him greet a woman with a hearty Heil Hitler! Or when, not long after, Ninotchka delivers one of the best lines in the film as she reflects on the recently successful mass trials, which have resulted in “fewer but better Russians.” We’re somewhat stunned: 1) by the fact that someone back then dared make jokes about such things, and 2) that we’re still laughing at them today.

Without downplaying or debating the actual calamities one associates with capitalism or communism, Ninotchka does manage to poke some fun at the defining foibles of each social system. True, communism undeniably bares the brunt of the jokes, with quips that ridicule the rigors of such an organization, as well as its apparently apathetic, oppressive, and bland mindset embodied by the initial Ninotchka, but there are more than a few laughs to be had at the expense of capitalist frivolity. The primary difference between the two, as is personified by the Leon/Ninotchka disparity at the start of the picture, is that while one group of individuals may have the high-minded ideals, one group seems to be having more fun. Melchior Lengyel, who came up with the original story of the film, summarizes the picture like this: “Russian girl saturated with Bolshevist ideals goes to fearful, Capitalistic, monopolistic Paris. She meets romance and has an uproarious good time. Capitalism not so bad after all.”

As much as the dialogue in Ninotchka is unmistakably the work of the like-minded collaborators Brackett and Wilder—probably less so the Vienna-born Reisch—so too are many of the visual touches clear signifiers of the cinema of Ernst Lubitsch (who also contributed, uncredited, to the screenplay). From the sequence with the cute cigarette girls entering the room of Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski to incrementally more boisterous approval, humorously and teasingly shot from the hallway, to the subtle transition of ragged and worn caps dissolving into top hats and bowlers, Lubitsch enjoys the steady breakdown of supposedly stalwart standards in the face of sex, class transition, and basic pleasure. Ninotchka is also a perfect example of why Hollywood endings are still so satisfying, as cliché as they may sometimes seem in our jaded age. We know with a general certainty that Ninotchka and Leon will end up together; for a classic romantic comedy like this, it’s a rule with few exceptions. So in knowing this, we’re content to play the game, to go along for the ride, remaining happily confident and comfortable in the conventional.

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At the 1940 Academy Awards,Ninotchka received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Writing, Original Story, and Best Writing, Screenplay. Of course, the big winner that year was Gone with the Wind (on which, interestingly enough, Ninotchka’s original director, George Cukor, briefly worked, before being replaced by Victor Fleming, who would win Best Director). In any event,Ninotchka was a widely enjoyed success. Not at all surprisingly though, one place where the film did not go over well was in the Soviet Union, where it was promptly banned.

While all the above may contribute to the quality and enjoyment ofNinotchka, for many, the film is all about Greta Garbo. One of the best and most accurate quotes about a movie star, and movie star allure in general, is Kenneth Tynan’s 1954 comment that, “What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober.” The essence of Greta Garbo’s screen presence is truly something magical: a mysterious, unidentifiable attraction, a breathtaking persona of utter captivation. Garbo was more than just looks though. She was a great performer with a powerful command of every frame she occupied. Her follow-up to Ninotchka was the 1941 feature, Two-Faced Woman, again with Melvyn Douglas. Though she lived to the ripe old age of 84, passing away April 15, 1990, it would sadly be her final film.


Pam Grier in ‘Coffy,’ ‘Foxy Brown’ and ‘Friday Foster’

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Olive Films recently released several Blaxploitation titles on Blu-ray for the first time, all on the same day. This included the Fred Williamson-starring Hammer, from 1972, as well as three Pam Grier films: Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), and Friday Foster (1975). Hammer isn’t a particular favorite, but these latter three were most welcome, especially Coffy, which is quite possibly the greatest of all Blaxploitation features, even better than the more popular Shaft (1971) and Super Fly (1972). As much as anything, these three releases are notable for showcasing Grier at her finest during a period of immensely enjoyable work and exceptional productivity—15 films from her minor debut in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) to Friday Foster. Around these films, she also starred in several other classics of 1970s exploitation cinema: Black Mama White Mama (1973), Scream Blacula Scream (1973), The Arena (1974), Sheba, Baby (1975), and Bucktown (1975).

“If I say she’s something special, she’s something special.” So declares a young hood at the start of Coffy, enticing a drug kingpin to check out Pam Grier’s titular character as she waits for him in a car. She’s pretending to be a junkie in need of a fix, hoping the ruse will get her closer to finding out who has been selling heroin to, among other people, her pre-teen sister. Before Grier appears on screen though, she is built up to be one phenomenal woman, one this man has to see to believe. It’s not quite the entrance of Orson Welles in The Third Man or John Wayne in Stagecoach, but when Grier does make her first appearance, the hype is justified. This Coffy is something else, and as the film progresses, she becomes something even better.

Coffy is a nurse by trade, but she’s a nurse who doesn’t hesitate to blow a man’s head off with a shotgun. During her off hours, she is a determined vigilante, out to punish the drug-dealers and gangsters who have been plaguing her city and her own family. Coffy has vengeance on her mind, and seeing the conflict of interest between the police and local politicians, she knows there’s more to the shady goings on than just the usual criminal exploits. Carter (William Elliott), Coffy’s old flame and seemingly the one cop who refuses to play ball with the generally corrupt police force, pays for his decency and winds up in the hospital. So with her only hope of collaboration out of commission, it’s an uphill battle for Coffy. Her vengeful side doesn’t always come easy—she knows it’s not good, or at any rate, it’s not legal—but what she has seen, like her sister LuBelle’s tragic condition and Carter’s injuries, continue to haunt her and keep her moving forward.

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Originally intended as a sequel to Coffy, revenge figures into Foxy Brown’s narrative as well. This time, Grier’s title character is after those who killed her boyfriend, Michael Anderson (Terry Carter), an undercover narcotics agent who fakes his death, undergoes plastic surgery to alter his appearance, and attempts to start anew with Foxy. To make matters worse, her brother, an irresponsible coke dealer whom Foxy kindly takes in when he needs help, is the one who drops the dime about Michael’s true identity. Though she has a gun on her bedside table—at the suggestion of Michael—her capacity for violence is initially less pronounced than Coffy’s. But make no mistake, she can most certainly be violent. And while Michael has his doubts about vigilante justice, Foxy contends it’s “as American as apple pie.”

This time, in charge of the whole operation, and the final boss to take down, is another woman, making the progressive notion of strong female leaders (even if they’re a criminal) all the more prevalent. The explicit female empowerment of Coffyand Foxy Brown is clear and present throughout, and no doubt helped give these types of films a broader audience across the gender aisle. Someone in Foxy Brownasks just who Foxy thinks she is. As her brother responds, “That’s my sister … and she’s a whole lotta woman.” Or later in the film, when one character inquires as to whether or not Foxy is crazy, and another counters with, “She’s just all woman.” A woman being not only powerful, but innately powerful because of her sex, is part of what makes Grier’s characters so memorable and so stirring. Yet as tough and aggressive as she often is, Grier in these films is still a women after all. In Coffy, for example, she yearns for romantic getaways and enjoys passionate activities like sipping wine, naked, by the fire. That’s another thing Grier does very well: balancing the woman as action hero with the woman as sensitive individual, proving that they need not be mutually exclusive.

Jack Hill directed Coffy and Foxy Brown, as well as The Big Doll House (1971) andThe Big Bird Cage (1972), two pillars of the surprisingly entertaining “women in prison” movie cycle from the 1970s, both of which also featured Grier. With Coffy in particular, Hill basks in the conventions of Blaxploitation. It has great music courtesy of Roy Ayers—maybe the best from any Blaxploitation film, save for Curtis Mayfield’s excellent work on Super Fly and possibly Earth, Wind & Fire’s music from Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). And in the best unabashed exploitation style, Hill throws in plenty of sex and violence, punctuating it all with big, bold colors and characters who are equally audacious, like the requisite pimp with his own theme song, King George (Robert DoQui).

Having worked with Hill and Grier on The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, Sid Haig, an icon of the era and of these exploitation films in particular, pops up in both Coffy and Foxy Brown. He’s a pretty typical thug in Coffy, but in Foxy Brown, he briefly appears as one of his classic characterizations: goofy, humorous, almost charismatic in a way, and happily residing on the wrong side of the law without necessarily being a “bad guy.”

Foxy Brown contains many Blaxploitation staples and is one of the most famous films of the genre, if for no other reason than Quentin Tarantino’s riff on the title with the Pam Grier-starring Jackie Brown (1997), which, incidentally, also references Hill, features Haig in a cameo, contains music from Coffy, has a song by rap artist Foxy Brown, and includes the track “Long Time Woman,” which Grier sings during the opening credits of The Big Doll House—all of this par for the film reference course when it comes to Tarantino (and there’s even more at that). In any case, Foxy Brown is considerably less flashy than Coffy, in its visuals and its more restrained characters, but it’s still got everything a fan of these films could want.

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Arthur Marks directs Friday Foster, and the film’s roster of stars boast more recognizable names than these prior two entries, among them Eartha Kitt, Carl Weathers, and Scatman Crothers, who plays a preacher, just like he did in the Detroit 9000 (1973), another very good title from the period also directed by Marks. Based on a comic strip character of the same name, Friday Foster is a photojournalist who witnesses an apparent assassination attempt and is promptly and unwittingly in over her head. A friend of Friday’s is also eventually killed, and that serves as part of her motivation for investigating the incident, but Friday Fosterisn’t necessarily a revenge film per se. Though to be quite honest, the somewhat convoluted plot of intrigue and multi-leveled manipulation really doesn’t make much difference anyway.

Like Coffy and Foxy, Friday gets frustrated with the lack of support from law enforcement, a fairly common theme in Blaxploitation films, except when, as in the case of Shaft for example, the heroes are themselves cops or detectives (even then though, said individuals often have to buck an incompetent system to get the job done). In any case, Friday confidently uses her investigative instincts and takes initiative herself. Unlike Coffy and Foxy, though, Friday isn’t entirely on her own. Yaphet Kotto plays Colt Hawkins, a good-natured private investigator who emerges as Friday’s somewhat reluctant partner in crime fighting. Their flirtatious, amusing interaction is probably the best part of the film.

Friday may have had some contact with the underworld as part of her work, but as opposed to Coffy or Foxy, she has no direct prior experience with such disreputable lifestyles; we sense that Friday is more comfortable moving in high-class circles, at least more so than these earlier Grier characters. Though she used to be a model, Friday also doesn’t possess anywhere near the blatant physical exhibitionism of Coffy and Friday. That’s not to say she isn’t a smooth operator—Friday knows what works and what’s going to get her where she wants to go. But more than her attractiveness, it’s her journalistic savvy and intrepid spirit that gets her the scoop of her career, even if it just might cost her life.

Friday Foster itself definitely isn’t as sordid as the other two features, and it actually comes across as more of a detective film than a straightforward Blaxploitation movie; there’s undeniably less of an exploitation flair, with no gratuitous nudity or graphic violence, as well as fewer “types”, rather than developed “characters.”

Both Coffy and Foxy Brown are adamantly anti-drug, in their verbal condemnation and in their depiction of the types of people who deal in illicit substances. The more overt social commentary, however, is noted in Foxy Brown, both from Foxy’s brother, who passionately states the struggles for black opportunity, and a prostitute, who comments on her inability to emancipate herself from such a lifestyle. Though in a different way than the grittier Coffy, this gives Foxy Brown something of an increased realism, or at least a real-world grounding. Other topical subjects are peppered throughout these films: the presence of armed black militants in Foxy Brown; Friday’s young brother stealing her gifts with the intent of selling them off himself—”black capitalism” he calls his makeshift enterprise; and police and political corruption running rampant. Some may decry these films as silly, or even racist to a certain extent, but few American movies playing to wide audiences were broaching these issues as they affected the African American community in particular, and they certainly weren’t doing so this frequently.

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In all three of these films, Grier uses what she has in terms of sexual prowess and feminine wiles, but she has more than just looks. She’s caring, competent, independent, strong, and driven. She’s inventive too. See Coffy, for example, when prior to fighting a handful of prostitutes, she embeds razor blades in her curly locks, apparently anticipating the cliché female fight response to pull hair (and she has a gun stashed away in her afro in Foxy Brown!). Also in Coffy, she cleverly starts infighting amongst the various factions, so while she pursues her own goals, the opposing groups begin taking each other down as well. One additional trait that Coffy and Foxy share is a fondness for adopting undercover personalities; curiously, the names of these pretend characterizations are strikingly similar: the Jamaican “Mystique” in Coffy and “Misty” in Foxy Brown.

Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Friday Foster are all perfect vehicles for Grier, especially during this time. While one may argue her acting isn’t the best thing in the world, and the characters in these movies aren’t quite as politically correct as some would prefer today, Pam Grier is excellent playing these parts. Even in just the three titles here, one sees a steady development of personality, from an instrument of badass retribution to serious, efficient pro. Standing up for the weak, taking down the corrupt, and seeking justice for all, Pam Grier in these films is the ultimate lone hero, fighting the good fight and looking great while doing it.


‘The Merchant of Four Seasons’

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder had a true talent for probing insights into the deep despair and disenchantment of the human condition. His characters were doomed people, ones fellow German New Waver Wim Wenders speaks of as helpless and hopeless. Such descriptions perfectly suit those in Fassbinder’s 1971 film,The Merchant of Four Seasons, which is out now on a new Criterion Collection Blu-ray. Here, Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmüller) has just returned from duty with the French Foreign Legion. Home in Munich after being gone about a year, he is first greeted with a less than enthusiastic reception from his mother (Gusti Kreissl). As he tells of friends lost in the fighting, she counters with, “The best are left behind while people like you come home.” This is just the tip of the iceberg for what Wenders says is a “lack of love and warmth” that surrounds and afflicts Hans, and it’s what leads to his downfall. The Merchant of Four Seasons thus immediately starts to chart Hans’ steady disintegration, as his world emotionally and psychologically assaults him.

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In flashbacks and in the present-day, positive moments are fleeting for Hans. We find out he was at one point a police officer, but was ousted when caught in the midst of some licentious interactions while on the job, in his office no less. Now he peddles produce under the supervision of his wife, Irmgard (Irm Hermann). Our first impressions of her are that she is domineering and prone to jealously, but her character changes a good deal. First of all, she cares far less for Hans than her apparent jealously would suggest, and she’s not quite as overbearing as Fassbinder would have us believe, particularly when we’re confronted by Hans’ own flaws. He is a little hard to handle himself. Early on, he takes his frustrations straight to the bar, with alcohol becoming a recurrent remedy for his depression and anger, ultimately to his fatal detriment. Our hero, Hans, is no saint, but who ever is in a Fassbinder film?

There is, as time goes on and premature judgments and assumptions subside, a mutual defiance in this most unhappy marriage. Irmgard is also unfaithful. As initially taken aback by sexual advancement as she sometimes appears, like when she’s accosted by a man who assumes her to be a prostitute, she, too, is apparently after everyone, making enticing eyes at nearly every male she meets. After Hans drunkenly abuses her in full view of their young daughter, Renate (Andrea Schober), his family, if not fully defending his behavior, generally attempts to understand his actions. Yet make no mistake, they never hide their distain for this black sheep. Only his sister, Anna (Hanna Schygulla), possesses what could be genuine sympathy, though it, too, is unreliable. Following this episode, Hans is hospitalized and is left unable to work in the same physically demanding capacity. He and Irmgard bring on an employee (which doesn’t end well), and for a time, as their business collaboration is revitalized, the two genuinely seem content and happy with one another. Business is booming, and during a family dinner where Hans’ success is touted, he is granted an approving acknowledgement from his mother as now having a “proper enterprise.”

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Seldom is anything this sweet in a Fassbinder film not followed by the sour soon thereafter. An inexplicable and profound depression sets in on Hans, just as things are starting to go right. Judging from the flashbacks interspersed throughout the film, Hans seems almost destined to be sad. Perhaps it’s that a lifetime of struggle leaves him inept when faced with sudden success. With the severe anguish is an accompanying anxiety. Hans is clearly at a turning point, and Hirschmüller, whose performance becomes anesthetized and stoic, expresses the shift in behavior perfectly. Out drinking with his buddies, Hans holds court as he’s seated at the head of the table, rambling incessantly. It calls to mind a quote by Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965): “A man alone always talks too much.”

Only when Hans runs into a former comrade in arms does he find an acquaintance who seems, for the most part, dependable. Harry Radek (Klaus Löwitsch) is brought on to work for, and live with, the family, a most certain recipe for disaster.

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Hans’ path toward self-destruction moves forward at full-speed, finally concluding with a gathering where he literally drinks himself to death in real-time. “You’re going to die, Hans,” Irmgard says with tears in her eyes. Yet she is unmoving, her apparent emotion is paradoxically impassive. Similarly, as Hans downs shot after shot, each liquid nail in the coffin assigned the name of someone who has wronged him, even his friends simply look on, shockingly with no interference. It is an utter helplessness, in that Hans can’t help himself at this point, and that no one else seems willing or able to step in. Irmgard and several of Hans’ fiends are seated at the table, and in wide shot we see their proximity. But when Fassbinder cuts in close to any one of them, their immobility and lack of action make them a million miles away.

In the audio commentary he provides for The Merchant of Four Seasons, Wim Wenders says this is the Fassbinder film he likes best. It’s also the movie where he says he started to understand Fassbinder’s films better, noting that it situates itself at a point when the director’s style and themes started to change. In this “film of transition,” as Wenders puts it, Fassbinder simultaneously incorporates, leaves behind, and evolves his penchant for performances that are postured, static, and wooden, to use some of Wenders’ terms, and which are now intersecting with elements of Douglas Sirk-inspired melodrama. It’s an unusual mixture of theatrically operatic overacting—with hysterical tears and screams, overly dramatic fainting, and almost hackneyed expressions of lustful yearning—and an organic, sometimes fierce emotion. In other words, it’s a strange combination that scholar Eric Rentschler, who is interviewed for the Criterion disc, calls both artificial and expressive.

Wenders, Rentschler, Hermann and Hirschmüller all discuss Sirk’s intense influence on Fassbinder. And as Thomas Elsaesser also writes in a brilliant essay on the film, “Inspired by Sirk, Fassbinder conceived a cycle of films centered on the impossibility of love or trust within (homo- and heterosexual) couples, or of finding happiness in family bonds. Transferred to very diverse but nonetheless typically West German milieus, Sirkian melodrama proved a winning formula for Fassbinder, informing some of his best-known films. … The most astonishing, however, because possibly the most sharply etched, remains the first of these, The Merchant of Four Seasons.” Such idolatry has been well documented and is clearly evident in much of Fassbinder’s work. In many ways, The Merchant of Four Seasons is a prime example. But the degree in which the influence is manifest in this particular picture is perhaps less than these individuals contend.

To begin with, Sirk was never this abrasive (of course, he couldn’t be when and where he was making his best movies), but compare this film to even Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), arguably Fassbinder’s most direct homage to Sirk, and it’s obvious thatThe Merchant of Four Seasons is a film far more raw than anything Sirk would have dared. Fassbinder, during the disturbing scene of Hans’ attack on Irmgard, sustains an exhausting long take of the assault, and in some of the less violent though nonetheless troubling scenes, he shoots from a direct, frontal angle, in a painfully stunning refusal to flinch or look away. In this film, with frequent cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann, Fassbinder’s style is generally straightforward. There are only occasionally showy camera angles or movements (some tracks and pans), but he basically maintains a static focus on rigid composition. Even the moments of sexual intimacy are awkward at best, shot as they are in tight, abstract close-ups, with little motion or sense of eroticism.

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Irm, who touchingly says Fassbinder is the magic word in her life, speaks of the Sirk-inspired Hollywood close-ups with which Fassbinder shot her in this film. True, they are intense framings, and Irm’s face is striking, but there is no Hollywood glamour here. This is a closeness that almost seems to drain the characters’ faces, taking out the emotion and replacing it with some sort of unflappable, unknown contemplation. In his commentary, Wenders spends a good deal of time praising Irm, Schygulla, and Hirschmüller, all of whom do turn in great performances, as they would often do for Fassbinder, yet one can’t help but note the occasionally impassive quality of their presentation.

Likewise, the domestic settings of The Merchant of Four Seasons are never stylized as in Sirk’s pictures, nor are they in any way suggestive of a larger sociocultural meaning: suburban banality, empty spiritual fulfillment, the excesses of the wealth, etc. Here, the homes are just dwellings, or containers, cages even. The apartments are not unlike the sparse enclosed courtyards where Hans sells his fruit. They simply form an area where the drama unfolds without background interference.

Wenders does bring up one Sirk connection that seems more appropriate and apparent, especially with regards to The Merchant of Four Seasons. That is in the way both he and Fassbinder convey a sympathetic and objective consideration of their troubled characters. As Elsaesser further notes, “Sirk’s work also taught Fassbinder how to carry an audience into the more mixed emotional responses that these characters, who seem so unlikable, are able to elicit.” Even in this, though, Fassbinder’s depiction of suffering individuals is more acerbic and brutal, and our capacity for empathy is therefore more drastically challenged.

So in many respects, here and elsewhere, and again, it does admittedly come down to what could be done in the 1950s versus the 1970s, Rainer Werner Fassbinder is indeed like Douglas Sirk, but like Douglas Sirk turned up to 11.



Sold with fantastic taglines like “Today—the pond. Tomorrow—the world,” “Cold green skin against soft warm flesh…a croak…a scream,” and “A tidal wave of slithering, slimy horror devouring, destroying all in its path!,” the horror/sci-fi film Frogs, from 1972, is among the best of the “when-nature-attacks” movies released from that decade or any other. And it’s out now with another of the sub-genre, The Food of the Gods (1976), part of a Blu-ray double feature from Shout Factory.

When Frogs starts, the hero of the film, Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott, in his first leading role), is floating on a Florida river in his canoe, serenely taking pictures under the opening credits. He’s in the area to do a pollution layout for an ecology publication, and with each shutter click, the image freezes on assorted animals like mug shots of future offenders. He also photographs trash by the riverbank and some sort of foamy brown contamination pouring into the water. Put the two together, and we understand why these creatures look so pissed.

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Our introduction to Clint Crockett (Adam Roarke), out on a motor boat with his sister, Karen (Joan Van Ark), is a less tranquil debut. He is recklessly speeding along as he downs a can of beer. Apparently wanting just to mess with Pickett, he cruises the boat too close to the photographer, tipping over his canoe and sending him into the drink. It’s an aggressive meeting, and certainly Pickett isn’t happy, but Clint and, more earnestly, Karen, do apologize and bring Pickett back to their family’s large estate for dry clothes and food.

There we meet Jason Crockett (Ray Milland), the classically southern patriarch of the family, overseeing all and barking orders from his wheelchair. If he seems exasperated, we soon see why. Gathered as they do every year for a joint birthday party and Fourth of July celebration is a house full of family, friends, and servants, and most of them are a little maddening, especially to the aged and annoyed grandfather. In general, though, despite some relatively trivial family squabbles, everyone here is friendly enough, with no major antagonist. Clint might be a drunken idiot, his wife, Jenny (Lynn Borden), is a bit of a drama queen, and Jason is an angry, crotchety old man, but even among “the ugly rich,” as Jason dubs the group, everyone is essentially hospitable.

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Instantly at the start, frogs already seem to be everywhere—it sure sounds like they are anyway (their incessant croaking is keeping Jenny up at night, as she frequently complains). And quite quickly, more than mere ribbits are infringing on the residence. To the credit of writers Robert Hutchison and Robert Blees, and director George McCowan, we efficiently get a thorough lay of the land and all major characters are introduced by about 15 minutes in. Keeping the film moving along at an exceptional tempo, things turn deadly by the 22-minute mark and the creatures have taken on the house at 30. Jason is quick to dismiss the implications of the animal-related incidents, but Pickett sees everything for just what it is: nature is getting back at us. Only in passing is it revealed that the Crockett family’s paper mill has been spewing forth pollution and is thus at least partly responsible for the vengeful destruction to come. Pickett even suggests that Jason and his family have contributed to the calamity more directly, overdoing it with pesticides and poison on their property.

There’s an undeniably high quantity of animals around the house, especially the frogs, but Jason states—in a prophetic horror film declaration if ever there was one — “it’s not the end of the world.” Nevertheless, it doesn’t take long before all elements are in place for an accelerated, well paced, and entertaining third act. As hysterics spread amongst the guests, the pandemonium only adds to the terror. While others are keen to make a break for it and get out while the getting is good, Jason is stubbornly set in his ways and refuses to have this carnage ruin his annual festivities, however pathetic they may be (before the full devastation, everyone is basically just sitting around or milling aimlessly about, with Jason stoically positioned by a record player as it pumps out patriotic tunes).

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Interestingly, compared to the leeches, scorpions, spiders, and rattlesnakes, the frogs themselves, while plentiful, appear rather docile, though some shots do imply it is they who are in charge, as if they’re the ones leading the crusade, surveying the attack approvingly. Of course, McCowan et al are playing on the inherent creepiness of the slimy, slithering, stalking creatures. But at the same time, in many of the shots, these creatures aren’t really doing anything. More often than not, McCowan simply shoots close-ups of the various species as they sit still or go about their business (though every now and then, we do get what is presumably a distorted point of view shot taken from the vantage of one of the these animals). It’s almost like an exercise in Soviet montage theory, whereby the impact of a given shot is only achieved within the context formulated by the spectator. The terror, in other words, is often only perceived as such when it’s based on adjacent images and the suggestions of the narrative. Isolated from this context, these critters are mostly just hanging around.

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The animals, it seems, are also apt to make not so subtle statements. There’s the snake entwined on the chandelier, clearly suggesting the class-consciousness of the creatures and their desire to violate upper crust society. Then there’s the frog that plops down on the American flag cake, trampling over the stars and stripes and obviously demonstrating their anti-American political agenda. Yes, I’m sure the filmmakers intended all of this, and no, of course, I’m not being serious. The animals are creative and resourceful, too. One lizard snuffs out a character by knocking over jars of poison (apparently smiling as it does so?), gradually asphyxiating the man. And they’re not without a sense of irony either: a gator kills an uncle in the very oil the character had previously dumped.

Though Frogs was produced on a miniscule budget, the cinematography by Mario Tosi is lush, textured, and layered, taking full advantage of the natural environment of Florida’s Eden Gardens State Park. Similarly, McCowan has certain compositions frequently framed (perhaps unavoidably so) by enveloping foliage, a persistent reminder that nature, now suddenly hazardous, spawning a steady barrage of hostile animals, is a pervasive and surrounding force.

Frogs is pretty ridiculous—there’s no doubt about that. But for 91 minutes, it’s a cheesy, amusing, sometimes squirm-inducing, and generally enjoyable entry in the natural horror film cycle of the 1970s.