“Solaris” - Andrei Tarkovsky (1972)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s third feature film, Solaris (Solyaris, 1972), is by some accounts his most straightforward and accessible film and thus less encumbered by his usual brooding undercurrents of existentialist anxiety.   Based as it was on a 1961 novel of the same name by well-known Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem, the film took on the trappings of a standard science fiction piece, albeit with Tarkovsky’s signature mise-en-scene.  In fact it was seen by many as something of a Cold War Russian response to Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) [1,2].  But I would say Solaris is very much in line with Tarkovsky’s main themes, similar in some ways to his later Stalker (1979), and in fact it is one of the legendary filmmaker’s finest works [3,4].

As Tarkovsky himself remarked [5]:
“As for Solaris, my decision to adapt it to the screen is not at all a result of some fondness for the [science fiction] genre. The main thing is that in [the novel] Solaris, Lem presents a problem that is close to me: the problem of overcoming, of convictions, of moral transformation on the path of struggle within the limits of one’s own destiny. The depth and meaning of Lem’s novel are not at all dependent on the science fiction genre, and it’s not enough to appreciate his novel simply for the genre.”
This is not to suggest that Solaris and 2001 are not comparable.  Both films use the vastness of outer space and the confinement within a space capsule to evoke feelings of man’s existential loneliness and separation from ultimate fulfillment.  But Solaris focuses much more on the inner space of human consciousness – which is the primordial reality.  No matter how much modern science may help us build better models of and help us to understand the physical world, we must keep in mind that all of this is grounded on human consciousness.  Consciousness is not an epiphenomenon of neural activity  in the brain; it is the ground on which all understanding, including that of the brain and its neurons, is based [6].  Solaris raises this issue as a central theme.

Indeed how should one go about exploring this theme that transcends the logic of the written word?  Well, there is music and art.  But even better, there is film, whose narratives can comprise music, artistic expression, and words over temporal sequences.  Although sound films began as essentially recorded stage plays, which were mostly just words, modern filmmakers have gone well beyond that to incorporate other modes of expression.  This is what makes all of Tarkovsky’s work especially precious – the use of cinema’s unique modes of artistic presentation to conjure up conscious feelings that go well beyond what can be expressed by the written word or modeled by text-based logics.  He touched on this explicitly when he said [7]:
 "The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good."
And so his creative process in making a film did not start with a script, but more with a feeling or mood that he wanted to realize in cinematic form [8]:
“Directing starts not when the script is being discussed with the writer, not during work with the actor, or with the composer, but at the time when before the interior gaze of the person making the film and known as the director, there emerges an image of the film: this might be a series of episodes worked out in detail, or perhaps the consciousness of an aesthetic texture and emotional atmosphere, to be materialized on the screen.”
Tarkovsky’s cinematic expression featured a number of characteristic mechanisms to evoke the moods he wanted to convey. This often entailed the conveyance of the vital otherness of the natural world.  In Solaris this included long shots and sounds in natural settings of
  • a horse running through a wooded landscape
  • images of underwater reeds moving in the water flow
  • the natural sounds of running water
In addition, the action is variously presented in sequences that are colored, black-and-white, or sepia-tinted.  These color-tonal variations serve to shift things (when the move is to black-and-white or sepia) to a more introspective focus.  This was all reinforced by evocative music and even naturalistic expressionist paintings shown, such as Peter Bruegel the Elder’s atmospheric painting “Hunters in the Snow” (1565).

Also, in contrast to the theater, which does not normally have many sequences without words, Tarkovsky often reminds the viewer that our conscious experience of the world frequently encompasses extended passages without dialogue (with just ambient sounds present), during which we may reflect on our circumstances.  In fact we know that the authentic tempo of life is normally different from what we see on stage, films, and TV, and this is what Tarkovsky tries to capture.  This slowed-down Tarkovskian approach and narrative pacing can make some viewers impatient; but I find that once you settle into his moody narrative rhythm, everything proceeds organically.  In fact I am one of those people who find Tarkovsky’s atmospheric films improving on repeated viewings.

In addition, when Tarkovsky shoots conversations, they are often portrayed in long, carefully orchestrated moving-camera shots with the shifting subjects shown mostly in closeup.  This immerses the viewer in the conversation more naturally than the conventional manner of back-and-forth cuts to opposing over-the-shoulder perspectives.  Tarkovsky’s technique in this respect also has a claustrophobic effect that enhances the feeling of isolation and confinement in the Solaris’s satellite setting.

The story of Solaris concerns a trip sometime in the future that a cosmonaut psychologist, Kris Kelvin (played by Donatas Banionis), makes to a satellite laboratory orbiting the planet Solaris.  The planet  has been the subject of a decades-long study of its peculiar properties – it is completely covered by a turbulent, viscous ocean that seems to be a living organism.  The long study has made little progress, however, and the satellite laboratory that was built to accommodate 85 personnel now has only three remaining scientists, who have not communicated useful findings for some time.  Kelvin’s mission is to go there and see if the scientific mission should finally be terminated.

Although the nature of Solaris’s ocean is ultimately beyond human comprehension, we learn that the ocean has the power to read the minds of the scientists within its field of influence and then construct embodied people based on how they are understood in the minds of those scientists.  In particular the mental material that is mined always concerns people who weigh on the subjects’ consciences.  Since these embodied presences suddenly appear as new inhabitants of the satellite, they are referred to by the scientists as “guests”.  These guests are associated with people who persist in a person’s memory due to issues of conscience.  And so this identifies a key perspective concerning the nature of consciousness that is covered in this film – that the concerns and feelings of guilt that we may have in our memories seem to lie at the heart of who we really are.

The logical nature of conscience has been widely discussed in terms of the theoretical structure it may have [9], but the nature of the experiential phenomenon of conscience, as an important aspect of consciousness, is not so well covered.  This film explores that neglected but profoundly important territory.

Thus we can say at the core of Solaris are two key themes:
  • The contrasting perspectives offered by (a) the Objectivist view of reality that is grounded on the modern physical sciences, in which the potentially prejudiced views of a subjective observer are excluded, and (b) the Interactionist view that is grounded on human consciousness (and thus subjective observation) [10].  The Objectivist view cannot find human consciousness within its purview, because it is looking for an objective mechanism that could generate it [6].  On the other hand, the Interactionist view sees human consciousness, not as a byproduct of some objective agency but as the primordial phenomenon. According to this view, human agency is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being” [11].
     
  • The degree to which conscience and concern for others are important core elements of consciousness and help characterize human existence. 
Solaris’s narrative can be considered to progress through four main phases.

1.  On Earth, before the mission

The opening 43 minutes of this 2-hour-and-46-minute film contain material not present in Stanislaw Lem’s novel and represent something of a prologue.  They show Kris Kelvin’s visit to the country home of his estranged father (Nikolai Grinko) on the day before his trip to Solaris. The opening shots show Kelvin contemplatively walking in the sylvan natural environment outside the home, and this will contrast later with the mechanical and claustrophobic confines of the Solaris space station.  His father has also invited on this occasion a visit from his old friend, the former cosmonaut Henri Berton (Vladislav Dvorjetzki), who many years ago visited Solaris and witnessed some bizarre phenomena on the planet which he wants to discuss with Kelvin. They watch an old videotape of Berton’s testimony to the government authorities, where his account was dismissed as hallucinatory.  Berton insists to Kelvin that there is something important going on at Solaris and that the scientific mission there should be continued.  But Kelvin, who is an Objectivist cynic, thinks it likely that the remaining Solaristic scientists there are only engaged in irresponsible daydreaming.  It is clear during this sequence that Kelvin and his father are barely on speaking terms and that Kelvin wants to cut himself off from his past.

It should be mentioned that there is very little futuristic paraphernalia shown in this film.  People are shown using equipment and driving cars characteristic of 1970.  Perhaps the most futuristic environment visually evoked is when Berton is shown driving through a vast superhighway complex, which consisted of shots of an actual freeway in contemporary Tokyo.

2.  Arrival at the Solaris space station

When Kelvin arrives at the disheveled and cluttered space station, the three reclusive inhabitants do not greet him, and he has to seek them out in their separate quarters.  He learns that one of the three, his old friend Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sarkisyan), has already committed suicide.  So now there are only two people left, Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet) and Dr. Sartorius (Anatoli Solonitsyn).  Sartorius proves to be a hardcore and exploitative Objectivist.  Snaut, on the other hand, is a little more open-minded and curious.

In Gibarian’s old room, Kelvin watches a video that was prepared for him by Gibarian just before his suicide to warn Kelvin about strange phenomena on the satellite and telling him they are all about conscience. Then Kelvin gets occasional glimpses of other people on the satellite – a momentary glimpse of a young woman disappearing down a corridor, for instance.

The next morning Kelvin awakens in his room to see his wife Hari (movingly played by the beautiful Natalya Bondarchuk), who had committed suicide ten years earlier.  Hari is totally loving and affectionate, but Kelvin is in a state of shock.  He knows that this is one of the bizarre phenomena.  Hari seems to know some things about her past, but not everything.  Almost in a disturbed trance, Kelvin bundles his trusting wife into a space shuttle and has her rocketed off into outer space.  Now he is presumably rid of this apparition.

Later, in a single Tarskovskian four-minute take, Sartorius explains to Kelvin that after the scientists had bombarded the Solaris ocean with exploratory x-rays, the ocean seemed to have responded by extracting “islands” from the satellite inhabitants’ memories and creating the human-like phenomena onboard in order to haunt them.  These human forms are not apparitions; they have real physicality.  Sartorius, Snaut, and Gibarian all have, or have had, their own guests, although we only get brief glimpses of them.

3.  Kelvin and Hari
Later Kelvin sees Hari again, lovingly getting into bed with him.  It seems that the Solaris ocean has created another Hari for him.  These “guests” also have unusual properties.  When the distraught Hari, not wanting to be left alone without Kelvin, tears through a metal door to follow him, she appears to get severe injuries.  But before Kelvin can rush to her aid, she miraculously self-repairs and recovers from her wounds.

In another meeting, the dour Sartorius explains to Kelvin that the Solaris guests are not constructed out of ordinary matter.  Instead they are constructed out of neutrinos and can only exist in stable form when they are within the influence of the planet’s force fields.

Gradually Kelvin finds himself irresistibly drawn to the beautiful and loving Hari.  Although his own indifference and negligence had led to her suicide ten years earlier, he is now falling in love with this woman guest. Sartorius dismisses her as an artificial construction, but Kelvin finds her becoming increasingly developed as a full-fledged person the more she interacts with him.

But Sartorius and Snaut have disruptive plans.  They plan to bombard the Solaris ocean with an x-ray image of Kelvin’s own neural encephalogram in the hopes that that will mollify the mysterious being.  Also Sartorius has been working on some unseen equipment he calls “the annihilator”, which is to be used to permanently destroy all the guests.

Then there is an interesting birthday party for Snaut held in the satellite’s ornately decorated lounge and which Sartorius, Kelvin, and Hari attend.  Snaut arrives late and inebriated, whereupon they launch into a discussion ranging over issues concerning the pursuit of physical knowledge and the neglect of the human “inter-being” existence.  Along the way, these scientists cite and quote from the works of Cervantes, Goethe, and Dostoyevsky. Sartorius insults Hari to her face by telling her she is a manufactured thing, not a person. But with Hari progressively learning about herself and the world around her and thereby becoming more human, the viewer is likely to conclude that she is more of a person than Sartorius is.   Moreover, Kelvin is now fully involved with Hari and assures her that he will never go back to Earth and leave her alone.

4.  Return
Kelvin becomes weak and is taken to bed, where he has haunting dreams of his mother and the original Hari, during which he merges their images.  When he recovers, Snaut informs him that Hari voluntarily submitted herself to the annihilator so that her sacrifice would enable her love to return to Earth [12]. Snaut also tells him that he and Sartorius transmitted the encephalogram to the Solaris ocean, and since then no “guests” have appeared in the space station. Instead the ocean seemed to be creating small islands on its surface.  Kelvin becomes resigned to these developments and agrees to return to Earth.

In the final scenes, Kelvin is apparently back on Earth and again visiting his father’s country home.  When he sees his father, he bows down in a humble embrace, seeking reconciliation.  But as the camera pulls back we see that this scene takes place on an island in the Solaris ocean.  


There have been several suggested interpretations of that final scene.  One is that the planet’s ocean, which is now equipped with a full encephalogram of Kelvin’s brain, has been able to construct a physical replica of Kelvin’s entire mental world, including a “guest” realization of Kelvin, himself.  Under this interpretation, the real Kelvin is somewhere else (perhaps now back on the real Earth), and a full guest realization of Kelvin and his world reside on an island in the Solaris ocean.  A second interpretation would have the real Kelvin ensnared in a guest realization of his home life on the island in the ocean.  You may have other suggestions.

Although the principal character and center of focalization is Kris Kelvin, the most compelling character in the story is his wife Hari.  Natalya Bondarchuk’s performance in this role is sensitive and convincing.  She portrays a woman whose initial self-understanding is limited because it has been constructed only out of her husband’s memories of her.  Thus in the early stages she is not even aware of her own earlier suicide, because that was not part of Kris’s direct experience.  In fact in the beginning is she is seen only as a clinging, desperately in love marriage partner.  But as the story progresses, she learns more about herself and develops more as a person.  This development in fact worries Kris, because as she becomes more sophisticated, he wonders if they will have more arguments and grow further apart.  But Hari is not becoming more argumentative; rather, a key aspect of Hari’s progressing humanity is the development of her conscience.  In fact her voluntary “self-annihilation” at the end is directed by her developed conscience: she wants to free Kris from a potentially imprisoned life on the satellite space station.

In any case, we know that conscience is a crucial aspect of our own identities.  When we truly love, it involves a fundamental interaction of our inner being.  So, too, is the case when we feel true compassion for our dear ones.  And many of us are lastingly haunted by memories of occasions when we failed to respond fully to the call of love from dear ones. These were missed opportunities for full self-realization, and we may still wonder how we can reconcile what happened and our actions back then with our true selves – and how those events ultimately changed ourselves.


Notes:
  1. Phillip Lopate, “Solaris: Inner Space”, The Criterion Collection, (24 May 2011).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “Solaris”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (19 January 2003).   
  3. Richard Eder, “Film::'Solaris,' Russians in Space A Science-Fiction Parable on the Nature of Mankind”, The New York Times, (7 October 1976).   
  4. Acquarello, “Solaris: Exploring the Frontier of the Subconscious”, Cinémathèque Annotations on Film, Issue 4, Senses of Cinema, (March 2000).   
  5. Andrei Tarkovsky, “Dialogue with Andrei Tarkovsky about Science-Fiction on the Screen. Naum Abramov / 1970”, from The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky A Visual Fugue”, Vida T. Johnson & Graham Petric. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis, 1994, quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky Solaris 1972”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XIX:11), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (9 November 2009).   
  6. Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, Oxford University Press, (2012).
  7. Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema,  University of Texas Press Austin (1986, 2000), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky The Mirror 1974”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (IX:13), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (16 November 2004).      
  8. Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time Reflections on the Cinema, University of Texas Press Austin, (1986), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Andrei Tarkovsky Solaris 1972”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XIX:11), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (9 November 2009).    
  9. Alberto Giubilini, “Conscience”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (14 March 2016).   
  10. For more discussion on Interactionism vs. Objectivisim, see my reviews of:
  11. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Living, HarperOne (2017).
  12. We assume here that Snaut is telling the truth and that the good-bye letter from Hari that he reads to Kelvin is authentic.  An alternative hypothesis would be that Sartorius and Snaut selfishly coerced Hari into the annihilator.

“Consider Her Ways”, TAHH, Season Three: Ep.11 - Robert Stevens (1964)

“Consider Her Ways” (1964) was an episode (Season 3,Episode 11) of the popular TV anthology series The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65).  It was directed by Robert Stevens and scripted by Oscar Millard, based on a story by John Wyndham.  Wyndham was a famous British science fiction writer, his most notable work being The Day of the Triffids.  The musical score was provided by Bernard Herrmann. 

In this story a woman wakes up in a hospital maternity ward and discovers she has been transported to a dystopian nightmare.  She, like other patients in the ward, has an enormously bloated body and is treated as a human cow – permanently assigned to continually giving birth to human babies, none of whom she is given a chance to mother.  In this regimented world, there are no men, only women, who are divided up into strict classes, like an ant colony.  The woman (played by Barbara Barrie) is called “Mother Orchid” and is not allowed to read and write – that activity is restricted to another class. But Mother Orchid knows that her real name is Dr. Jane Waterleigh and that she was a successful doctor in our ordinary world.

When Waterleigh proves to be uncooperative, she is threatened by the authorities and eventually introduced to an elderly historian, Laura (Gladys Cooper), to explain things to her.  Laura tells her that several generations ago all the males on Earth were killed by the mutation of a virus developed by a Doctor Perrigan that had been intended to kill rats.  Women were naturally immune to the virus and had learned to survive by the development of “test tube baby” technology.  Laura assures her that their “modern” world is much better than the old days when women were dominated by brutish males.

The medical staff then try to administer a mind-altering drug to Mother Orchis, but she resists and becomes hysterical.  When she comes to, she is back in the real world and is Dr. Waterleigh again.  She is reminded that she had volunteered to take a hallucinatory drug, which had induced her dystopian nightmare.

But Waterleigh soon learns of a Doctor Perrigan (Robert H. Harris) who is currently working to develop a viral strain to kill rats.  She realizes that she has to thwart Perrigan’s world-destroying activities, and she tries to convince him to abandon his work in this area.  When Perrigan refuses to desist, Waterleigh feels she has to take desperate measures.  She pulls out a gun and kills Perrigan and then burns up his laboratory.

When Waterleigh is arrested, she is not remorseful; she did it to save the world.  When a colleague counters that you cannot alter an already-existing future, Waterleigh responds by invoking a multiverse hypothesis.  She claims that at every moment the world is branching into a near-infinite number of parallel future states.  Each of those state will similarly branch into a vast number of states a moment later.  There are innumerable trajectories through this parallel state-space, and “we” just happen to be on one of them.  By committing her act, she claims, she has assured that “our” particular path through the state-space will not land us in a state where all the males have been exterminated.     

An interesting argument, but of course with Hitchcock there is always likely to be a twist at the end of the tale.  And this episode is no exception.  You will have to watch it yourself to see what that twist is.

This is a well-made and thought-provoking tale that was well-suited to be an episode of the contemporary The Twilight Zone (1959-64).

“Le Sourire” - Serge Bourguignon (1960)

Prior to making his sublime feature film debut, Sundays and Cybele (Les Dimanches de Ville d'Avray, 1962), Serge Bourguignon made documentary films in East Asia.  The most celebrated of these was his short "documentary" about a young novice Buddhist monk in Burma, Le Sourire (The Smile, 1960), which won the Short Film Palme d'Or at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival.

This 22-minute film follows an afternoon’s journey by two Buddhist monks, an elderly monk and a ten-year-old novitiate, as they travel on foot from their monastery to a great holy pagoda in Rangoon (Yangon). There is no dialogue in the film, just some atmospheric music by Georges Delerue and some brief voiceover by Michel Bouquet. Although the film has the character of a documentary account, it is clear that the scenes are carefully staged by Bourguignon and cinematographer Louis Miaille, with smoothly edited closeups where appropriate.

With respect to the two monks presented in the film, they offer contrasting profiles:
  • U Narada is the elderly “monk who in the evening of his life advances on the path of peace and silent wisdom”.  He is disciplined, calm, and peaceful.  In voiceover he recites:
    “I am nobody’s master, I am nobody’s servant.  He who has riches grieves over his riches.  He who has water buffalo grieves over his water buffalo.  He who has sons grieves over his sons. . . . But he who has wisdom rejoices in peace.”
  • Aung, the young novice on whom the film is primarily focalized, strives to evince monastic solemnity like that of U Narada.  But, of course, he is an innocent young boy full of the wonder of life. 
Initially Aung and U are separately seen at a local market presenting their alms bowls to market stall attendants. In imitation of senior monks like U Narada, Aung adopts a frowning countenance, which he presumably feels is a required demonstration of detachment. Then U and Aung head off together on their journey  to Rangoon. Along the way, Aung stops for distractions he sees, and he keeps falling behind U’s disciplined pace. But these distracting encounters, which can be taken as metaphors about nature and life, make up the core of the film. Most of them wind up eliciting smiles from the curious boy.
  • Distractions in Nature 1
    Running along to catch up to U, Aung stops to avoid stepping on a large beetle, which he picks up and safely deposits in a bush.  Then he is further distracted by the sight of a water buffalo, and he crawls up to it so he can pet its horns.  This encounter makes him smile, and then he rushes off to catch up with U.
     
  • Distractions in Nature 2 
    Aung is distracted by a colorful butterfly and then by the pattern of a large leaf.  He takes out part of the leaf’s inner sections in order to form an interesting branched pattern, whose resulting branched structure he likens to that of a large tree that he sees in front of him. This also makes him smile.
     
  • Village Distractions 1
    Up ahead, U impassively strides past a village jujutsu-like wrestling match. But Aung following along is fascinated and briefly stops to watch.  Aung is also fascinated and smiles when he sees some young women at a water well playfully throwing water at each other.
     
  • Village Distractions 2 
    Later an older women smoking under a tree beside the road ignores U as he strides past, but she offers some food as alms to Aung when he runs by a bit later. Again Aung smiles.  Then Aung is fascinated to see some carnival performers practicing with their marionettes.  They playfully perform for Aung, and the boy smiles.
Finally, Aung catches up with U, and they both arrive at the great pagoda in Rangoon. Here the variegated vitality of the outer world is replaced by the orderly ritual of the monastic order. The monks are all seen marching in a line and ritualistically bowing down to pray in unison. Aung, too, resumes his serious countenance and prays in unison with the other novitiates.  On voiceover the sermonizing words of the Buddha recite:
          “He who desires nothing is at peace.
            He who possesses nothing is at peace. 
            He who lives on alms is at peace. 
            He who radiates love to all creatures that breathe
            . . . no insect will sting him. . .no serpent will bite him. 
            Give the love in your heart to creatures with no legs. 
            Give the love in your heart to creatures with two legs.
            Give the love in your heart to creatures with four legs. 
            . . . to every living creature, to plants and rocks,
            . . . to fire and air give the love in your heart. . . .
            and you will possess the consciousness that has no name.”
In the end Aung, with a serious expression now on his face, bows down to U and offers his cup  to him. This time, though, they both break out into irrepressible smiles, in a harmonious exchange of benignity.

Le Sourire is a contemplative film that avoids dogma and is open to your interpretation.  To me the two perspectives of U Narada and Aung are complementary. U Narada embodies the peaceful serenity of nonjudgmental and compassionate acceptance. But Aung embodies an equally important perspective – the innocent joie de vivre that promises benevolent engagement. It is positive engagement, not withdrawal, that raises us up to enlightened existence. This is signaled throughout the film by Aung’s infectious smile.

Serge Bourguignon’s filmmaking career was just taking off with this film, but unfortunately it soon stalled.  Despite the greatness of his subsequent work, Sundays and Cybele, which led to an invitation to direct films in Hollywood, he was only able to make a few modestly received films after that resounding success.  But Le Sourire is still a compelling and interesting achievement, and we can be thankful that it served as a doorway to the making of Sundays and Cybele.

“Enough Rope for Two”, AHP, Season Three: Ep. 7 - Paul Henreid (1957)

“Enough Rope for Two”, an episode on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television anthology series (Season 3, Episode 7), is another tale of unscrupulous people consumed by greed.  Scripted by Joel Murcott and based on Clark Howard’s story, the episode was directed by well-known actor-director Paul Henreid.  In many ways it is similar to the subsequent episode, “Water’s Edge” (1965) that appeared later on the The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (Season Three, Episode 3).  Both tales concern someone getting out of prison and seeking to recover lost stolen loot that the police had never found.  But both episodes suffer from the same deficiency: all of the principal characters are so dishonest and reprehensible that the viewer is unlikely to have a vicarious engagement with any of them.  Nevertheless, a feature of this episode is the number of double-crossings (DXs) that take place among those teaming up to steal the loot.

The story begins with Joe Kedzie (played by Steven Hill) getting out of prison after serving a ten-year sentence for stealing $100,000.  The backstory is revealed that Joe’s criminal partner, Maxie (Steve Brodie) had secretly conspired with Joe’s girlfriend Madge (Jean Hagen) to have Joe arrested for the crime so that they could have all the $!00,000 to themselves.   We can call that double-crossing #1 (DX1).   But Joe had been suspicious about his partners and had secretly stashed the loot out in the Mojave Desert before his arrest (double-crossing #2 – DX2).

Now they all meet again in Madge’s apartment and feign camaraderie, but their mutual hostility is barely concealed.  They go to a hardware supply store to buy the shovels, gear, and 50 feet of rope, that they will need to dig up the loot that Joe had hidden at the bottom of an abandoned mine shaft that is 100 miles out in the barren Mojave Desert.  At the store Joe secretly buys a pistol and bullets that he apparently intends to use to kill Maxie (DX3).  But Maxie happens to see this transaction in a mirror, and so he surreptitiously gives Madge a knife that he wants her to use to kill Joe (DX4).

When they get to the abandoned mine shaft out in the searing desert, Joe reveals that he knows that Maxie and Madge had cheated on him.  He quickly shoots Maxie dead (and accidentally in the process puts a bullet hole in their water canteen), and then he slaps Madge to the ground.  Then Joe lowers himself down the narrow mine shaft using the rope tied at one end to the tow hitch of their rented jeep. 

At the bottom of the mine shaft, Joe digs up the parceled cash and has Madge lower a string so she can pull it up out of the shaft.  Once Madge has the cash in her hands and with Joe now  climbing up on the rope, she starts thinking she can keep all the loot for herself.  So she cuts the rope with her knife, and Joe crashes down to the bottom (DX5).  But when she gets into the jeep to make her getaway, she realizes that the key to the jeep is with Joe down in the mine shaft.

So Madge calls down to Joe and tells him that the rope broke and now that the remaining rope is too short, she needs the key to the jeep in order to move the jeep closer to the shaft so that the rope will be long enough to reach Joe.  She tells him to place the key on the string she will lower.  Joe doesn’t trust her, but Madge says she will lower the cash parcel back down on the string to guarantee that she won’t run off with the money this time (DX6).

Joe still doesn’t trust her, but if he doesn’t agree to Madge’s request, they will both die of thirst out in the desert wasteland.  Will there be one more double-crossing?  You will have to watch this episode to find out what happens in the end.

Overall, this episode is well produced, with very effective acting on the part of the three principals.  Although the performances are very emphatic, they go well with the overheated dramatics associated with all the double-crossings.  The only drawback, as mentioned above, is  that there are no characters with whom the viewer can sympathize in this tale.  They are all just too malicious.
★★★

Rob Marshall

Films of Rob Marshall: