“How to Murder Your Wife” - Richard Quine (1965)

Film comedies, despite their high frequency at your local theaters, don’t appear much on listings of all-time greatest films, especially if you focus your coverage on the sound era.  Those that do appear on such listings often feature other dramatic elements in addition to comedy (such La Dolce Vita (1960) and My Fair Lady (1964)).  What about out-and-out farces?  Well, there is one film from that category that I would nominate  – How to Murder Your Wife (1965).

The film, directed by Richard Quine and based on a script by George Axelrod, is very much a showcase of Hollywood production values, featuring high-quality studio camera work, editorial pacing, and Neal Hefti’s lilting background music.  Although the excellence of such Hollywood films is often more attributable to the studio than to a single auteur, How to Murder Your Wife does carry the authorial stamp of script writer George Axelrod.  Axelrod wrote a number of energized and highly successful plays and film scripts during this period, including his play, The Seven Year Itch (1952), his 1961 adaptation of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), his adaptation of Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Lord Love a Duck (1966). 

In the case of How to Murder Your Wife, we have a broad satire on a male fantasy – how wonderful life would be if only men could avoid the fetters of married life.  In this story a wealthy bachelor who is a successful newspaper cartoonist finds himself unexpectedly married after a drunken carouse at a friend’s bachelor party.  His new wife is beautiful, but his old, carefree lifestyle has suddenly vanished.  He finds himself quickly descending into the life of a henpecked frump, American style.  His problem, then, is how to extricate himself from this disastrous situation.

Because of the film’s burlesque characterization of married life, it has naturally brought mixed reactions and accusations of misogyny [1,2].  You will need to suspend your political and cultural correctness meters for a bit in order to appreciate the farcical goings-on in this story.

One of the aspects of How to Murder Your Wife that makes it particularly interesting concerns the multiple-level narrative perspectives in the story.  And this comes about due to the main character’s occupation as a cartoonist. 

We can think of a normal play or story as having two narrative levels, which I will call Narrative-level-0 and Narrative-level-1:
  • Narrative-level-0 is what we might call the “real world” of the viewer.  Of course this real-world perspective is fashioned out of the viewer’s own narratives and all the shared narratives of his or her social environment.
  • Narrative-level-1 is the main narrative perspective presented in the story.
Narrative-level-1 and Narrative-level-0 can be relatively close, in which case we would consider the story to be highly “realistic”.  Or the two levels can be quite self-consciously separated from each other in terms of “reality’, such as when the Narrative-level-1 is a cartoon.  In that latter case the viewer is clearly aware that the story presented is a fantasy.

However, in How to Murder Your Wife, there are four narrative levels.  This is because the cartoonist, Stanley Ford (played by Jack Lemmon), always carries out (and has photographed) a mock staging of the narrative he is about to draw in his daily newspaper cartoon strip.  In these mock performances, Ford always plays the role of his cartoon protagonist, the secret agent Bash Brannigan.  And Ford’s many readers are aware of this.  As Ford reminds at one point his friend and lawyer Harold Lampson,
Bash Brannigan is enjoyed by millions, because my readers know it’s absolutely authentic. I’d never ask Brash to do anything I hadn’t already done, myself.”
So we have the following four narrative levels in How to Murder Your Wife:
  • Narrative-level-0.  Again, this is the real world of the viewer.
  • Narrative-level-1.  This is the narrative level of Stanley Ford, who suddenly finds himself married.
  • Narrative-level-2.  This is the mock staging of the Bash Brannigan cartoon strip by Ford and his hired actors.  We and Ford’s readers know that Ford is only playing the role of Bash Brannigan.
  • Narrative-level-3.  This is the narrative world of the heroic secret agent Bash Brannigan.  (Newspaper comic-strip narratives, such as Little Orphan Annie, Flash Gordon, and Dick Tracy, have long been popular in the US and offer an escapist fantasy world for readers looking for distraction.)
Note that here in How to Murder Your Wife, the realism separation between Narrative-level-0 and Narrative-level-1 is considerable, becausethe presentation of Narrative-level-1, even though it represents the film’s ground truth, is still very cartoon-like.  This brings the narrative levels 1, 2, and 3 closer together.

The story of How to Murder Your Wife moves through six phases that incorporate at various points these narrative levels.

1.  Stanley Ford’s Bachelor Paradise
The story opens with Stanley Ford’s loyal British valet, Charles Firbank (Terry-Thomas) directly addressing the camera (already there is a narrative-perspective confusion between Narrative-level-0 and Narrative-level-1) and telling the viewer about Ford’s blissful life.  Ford is rich, lives in a posh Manhattan townhouse, has many girlfriends, is attended to by his diligent butler, and always can do exactly what he wants.  Firbank is then shown photographing from a distance Ford staging one of his Bash Brannigan capers (Narrative-level-2) that will be made into a cartoon.

2.  Ford Gets a Wife
Ford attends a bachelor party for one of his friends and, in an inebriated state, he becomes enamored of a beautiful girl who emerges from a large papier-mâché cake that has been wheeled out.  The next morning he wakes up to discover that he married the girl that night and has brought her back to his townhouse.  The girl (Virna Lisi), whom we can call the Wife (she is never named), is extraordinarily beautiful, but is Italian and cannot speak English.

Ford immediately wants to annul his marriage and consults his lawyer, Harold Lampson (played by Eddie Mayehoff, who was famous for the TV series, That's My Boy (1954-55)).  Lampson informs him that now that Ford has sampled the goods, he cannot get an annulment and that a divorce won’t be easy, either.  Lampson, who has a nagging wife, Edna (Claire Trevor), represents the typical browbeaten chump that Ford doesn’t want himself to become.  Since Edna knows Italian, as soon as she meets the Wife, she starts privately counseling the young girl on how to manipulate her new husband and make him her pawn. 

3.  The Brannigans
But the Wife is not manipulative; she is innocent, affectionate, and loving.  However, her womanly ways and fattening recipes can’t help turning Ford’s life upside down.  Very soon the misogynistic Firbank walks out. Acknowledging his new circumstances, Ford changes his cartoon strip to The Brannigan – the Hilarious Misadventures of America’s Favorite Henpecked Boob and begins cartoons about his new circumscribed domestic life.  This turns out to be a big hit with his newspaper readers, especially from female readers. So at this point we have Narrative-level-3 directly connected to Narrative-level-1. 

Increasingly alarmed, Ford goes to his all-male club, his one masculine refuge from his connubial life, and talks to his male friends.  But his Wife, on the advice of the scheming Edna, innocently barges into the club, bringing about Ford’s loss of club membership.

4.  The Plan
Desperate, Ford decides to alter his comic strip and have Bash Brannigan murder his wife so that he can go back to being the heroic secret agent that he used to be.  Naturally, Ford has to photograph a mock staging of this murder in preparation for the drawing of the cartoon.  So we have narrative levels 1, 2, and 3 interlaced here.

However, when his Wife discovers the planned comic sequence, she is so offended that she departs from Ford’s townhouse and disappears.

5.  The Murder Trial
Because some people witnessed the mock staging of the latest Bash Brannigan comic strip (Narrative level 2), and now that it has been published (Narrative level 3), and with the Wife nowhere to be found (Narrative level 3 – the cartoon strip had a drugged Mrs. Brannigan being dumped into a huge cement mixer, and so no body could be found), Ford is quickly arrested on murder charges. 

At the ensuing trial, the circumstantial evidence against Ford is so great that a guilty verdict seems inevitable.  So Ford takes over his own defense from Lampson and falsely confesses to the all-male jury that he did indeed murder his wife.  But, he tells them, if the jury would free him on the grounds of justifiable homicide, it would send a message to all the nagging wives out there to give more scope to their husbands.  In a hilarious court scene, the jury and judge are quickly convinced by Ford’s impassioned argument and immediately declare him innocent.

6.  Coming Home
Ford comes home, with Firbank again onboard, but he misses his Wife.  He realizes that he really does love her. When he finds her waiting for him in his bed, we get the resolution that we all want, including something for his loyal valet, Firbank, too.


Throughout the course of How to Murder Your Wife, the film is invigorated by supportive production values.  There are musical leitmotifs for the main characters and also for the Bash Brannigan caper scenes that make the film almost a musical.  And the energetic performances of Jack Lemmon, Terry-Thomas, and Eddie Mayehoff push the cartoonish flavor without going too far.  Lemmon, in particular, was known for his exaggerated performances, and he enthusiastically, but dangerously, performed his own stunts on Narrative-level-2 [3]:
“Doing his own stunts, Lemmon narrowly avoided being killed when a pipe he was swinging on broke. As he plummeted toward the ground along a fire escape, Lemmon saw a pipe sticking out from the building and ‘I threw out my arm and hooked it right at the elbow. It stopped my descent and I just swung there like a pendulum.’" 
All the way along, narrative levels 1, 2, and 3 reflect a boyish self-centeredness that resists being reined in by womanhood.  This, of course, is what some political-correctness-oriented people object to.  But these kinds of things often come with the territory with bald satire.  Around this same time there were other excellent films that satirized male presumptions along these lines, such Dr. Strangelove (1964) and My Fair Lady (1964).

And we must remember that there is another, parallel theme that permeates Narrative-level-1 in the story besides boyish self-centeredness .  This is embodied by Stanley Ford’s Wife.  She is at all times a person enthusiastically offering unconditional and all-embracing love.  Of course her beauty is what originally attracted Ford.  But it was her love that gets him over his selfabsorbtion and wins him over in the end.  This is something that hopefully every boy learns at some point.  How to Murder Your Wife tells this story very well.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Bosley Crowther, “' How to Murder Wife' Opens at 2 Theaters”, “The New York Times”, (27 January 1965).   
  2. Tony Mastroianni, “Lemmon Effective in Marriage Spoof”, Cleveland Press (7 February 1965).  
  3. Bill Goodman, “How to Murder Your Wife”, Turner Classic Movies, (2015).   

“Prison” - Ingmar Bergman (1949)

Prison (Fängelse, also known in the US and UK as The Devil’s Wanton; 1949) was the earliest Ingmar Bergman film based on his own original screenplay and over which he had full control of all aspects of production.  Because in this instance Bergman was following his own artistic compass and eschewing box-office goals, the film’s independent producer restricted him to a very tight budget and a shooting schedule of only eighteen days [1].  Despite these limitations, though, the film’s production values are remarkably strong and polished, an accomplishment that was likely supported by Bergman’s experience in theatrical stage production.  In fact any weaknesses that one might identify in the film are not so much an outcome of Prison's tight shooting constraints and are more a matter of the film's schematic narrative structure.

Actually, as it turns out, the film’s narrative structure is an explicit issue that is held up to question in this story-within-a-story format.  In the film’s outer story, the prospective creators of a proposed film express doubts over whether the story they are thinking about (which is the subject of the film’s inner story) is even  possible to make into a film. This gives the film a self-reflective character that may appeal to the more philosophically inclined viewer. 

That philosophical question concerns the problem of evil: how can (or why would) an omnipotent creator of the world produce evil that preys on the innocent, who seek only love [2,3]?  And Prison explores, without answering, that insoluble conundrum, which has led to a variety of responses to the film [4,5,6,7].

The story proceeds through five phases, the first and last of which constitute the outer, encapsulating narrative.

1.  The Film Set 1
In the opening sequence Paul, an older man, comes to a film production set and is recognized as the former mathematics professor of the film director Martin (played by Hasse Ekman, who was at the time an even more well-known Swedish film director than Bergman).   Paul, who has recently been released from a mental hospital, has an idea for a film that he would like to propose to Martin. 

Paul’s idea is that in the proposed film the Devil has taken over the world.  Once doing so, he outlaws atomic weapons and punishes those who perpetrated the nuclear slaughter in Hiroshima, but otherwise allows things to carry on pretty much as before.  When Martin and his colleagues ask what is the Devil’s plan, Paul says,
“The devil does not have a plan.  That is the secret of his success.”
 . . .
“See how life hoods itself like a cruel and sensual arc, from birth to death. A great work of humorous art.  Beautiful and terrible at the same time, without mercy and meaning.”
Later Martin relates Paul’s crazy idea to his brother Tomas (Birger Malmsten) and Tomas’s wife Sofi (played by Eva Henning, who was Hasse Ekman’s wife at the time).  Tomas, who is a writer, thinks he can relate Paul’s idea of Hell on earth to an article he has been working on about a teenage prostitute, Birgitta Carolina (Doris Svedlund), whom he encountered recently.  He tells Peters, shown in a dramatized sequence, how innocent, carefree, and seductive the seventeen-year-old Birgitta is and how she guilelessly enjoys being a prostitute.

The rest of the film somewhat unexpectedly shifts away from Paul and Martin and now concerns itself with the inner-narrative – the lives of Tomas, Birgitta, and Sofi.

2.  Dissatisfaction
The film moves six months forward in time and shows Birgitta after giving birth to a child. Her lover Peter (Stig Olin), who is also her pimp, wants to do away with the baby, and he and his sister Linnea (Irma Christenson) force Birgitta to give in to their demands.  This is all shown in a fascinating moving-camera shot of 3:24 duration that is one of the film’s cinematic highlights.

Meanwhile Tomas is shown to be a troubled neurotic.  His marriage with Sofi is on the rocks, he has a serious drinking problem, and he is becoming suicidal.  He rhetorically talks to Sofi in Hamlet-like fashion about whether continued existence is worthwhile, and then he proposes that they both commit suicide.  The horrified Sofi knocks out Tomas with a bottle and runs away.

Back with Birgitta and Peter, the police come around to their place to investigate Birgitta’s reported prostitution.  Seeing the police, Birgitta runs off to hide in the cellar, where she encounters a young boy hiding a knife that he has acquired without permission. It is a seemingly minor event, but it shows up the film’s schematic narrative structure, because it is an artificial and unmotivated insertion into the story – we know that that knife will be come into play later on.

Eventually Peter and Birgitta are arrested, but Peter talks his way out their difficulties, and they begin walking home.  Along the way they encounter the disconsolate Tomas, and Birgitta takes advantage of a moment when Peter is off looking for a taxi to run away with Tomas.

3.  Birgitta and Tomas
Tomas and Birgitta run off to rent a cheap attic boarding room and begin an unlikely romance.  There are a number of interesting scenes in this section of the film, including one of them giddily watching a silent slapstick film that Tomas found in the attic.  After they kiss and make love, Birgitta falls asleep and has a moody, expressionistic nightmare.  This is probably the most memorable scene in the film and lasts more than four-and-a-half minutes.  In the dream she walks through a dark "forest" of static, standing people. Then she comes upon her late mother, who is shown giving her a precious jewel, which represents to Birgitta the mysterious secret of happiness.  Later she encounters Tomas, who is depressed about his damaged hobbyhorse, and she affirms her love for him.  Finally her nightmare brings her to Peter drowning her little baby, and she wakes up screaming in horror and implicit guilt.  However, Tomas soothes her and swears his love for her.

4.  Threats and Separation
Things now start to unwind.  The police discover the drowned infant and are looking for the culprit.  Peter and Linnea feel that if Birgitta doesn’t disavow Tomas, she will be accused of the murder.  Again Birgitta regretfully succumbs to their demands and has to pretend to reject her love.  Everything heads for a disturbing conclusion of the inner narrative, which I will leave to you to discover.

5.  Film Set 2
We return to the outer narrative, as Martin tells Paul that he has thought about his film proposal but must reject it since the idea is not possible to film.  He says that it would end with an impossible question about the world.  When Paul asks to whom would that impossible question be asked, Paul’s workmate Arne responds by saying that that second question is the macabre point – there is noone to ask.  Unless, of course, one believes in God.  Paul, Martin, and Arne nod their heads in gloomy agreement that they see no option in that direction.
  
 
Prison ends on a despairing note.  The central notion is that our lives are constituted by the narratives in which we become engaged.  The idea of God is simply one narrative that would be nice if it lived up to its promise.  But the God story cannot account for the cruelty and selfishness that dominates so many narratives, in particular Birgitta’s narrative shown here.  Birgitta is totally innocent, and she offers her love without reservation.  But she is surrounded by cruel hooligans and exploiters who are only governed by self-satisfaction.  Life is truly “beautiful and terrible at the same time, without mercy and meaning.”  We can only try to make the best of it, the doleful Bergman seems to be telling us.

As such, Prison is not a particularly uplifting experience, nor does it offer a compelling and organic narrative.  The cinematography is admittedly atmospheric and expressionistic (and includes some of Bergman’s preferred “mirror shots” [8]).  But many of the camera angles lack a focalizing perspective and motivation.  There is a saving grace, however.  Doris Svedlund’s emotive performance as Birgitta is so genuine and sympathetically energized that it almost on its own points us in the right direction.  We must remember that even in a seemingly meaningless world, love is the beacon we must follow.  Birgitta gave up, but we must not.
★★

Notes:
  1. “Prison”, IngmarBergman.se, (n.d.).    
  2. Michael Tooley, “The Problem of Evil”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (3 March 2015).   
  3. “Problem of evil”, Wikipedia, (14 May 2017).   
  4. “Fengelset (The Prison)”, Variety, (6 April 1949).  
  5. A. H. Weiler, “Screen: 'The Devil's Wanton' Opens: Ingmar Bergman Film Was Made in 1948 Movie Concerns Battle of Good and Evil”, The New York Times, (5 July 1962).  
  6. Noel Megahey, “Prison”, Film, The Digital Fix, (16 August 2006).  
  7. James Travers, “Prison (1949)”, FILMS de France, (2007).   
  8. For a further discussion of mirror shots, see my review of Torment (1944).   For a production that featured heaps of mirror shots, see the British television series Downton Abbey (2011 - 2016).

Robert Flaherty

Films of Robert Flaherty:

“Nanook of the North” - Robert Flaherty (1922)

Documentary films cover a vast range of subject matter, and the history of documentary films  is filled with masterpieces across this range, making them difficult to compare and rank.  And yet this history has one landmark film that makes it stand out among the others – Nanook of the North (1922).  Not only was this film probably the first feature-length documentary, it may still be the greatest documentary film ever made.

Certainly the making of this film about Eskimos in upper Canada must have been an extraordinary effort, and anyone who sees the film can’t help wondering how it was even done under what must have been severe shooting conditions of that environment.  Writer-director Robert Flaherty (1884-1951) was initially an explorer and prospector working in upper Canada and was at that time only a novice filmmaker.  In 1913 he had shot some film of the Inuit people (Eskimos of Quebec’s Nunavik region), but his negatives were subsequently lost in an editing-room fire.  It took him some years to get the financial backing to return to the area and make a new film, this time with a more clear idea of what his narrative should be. 

In fact Flaherty’s injection of narrative, which was facilitated by his showing developed film rushes to his Inuit subjects in order to get suggestions concerning how to accentuate the developing narrative, was both stylistically groundbreaking and controversial.  Many people over the years have criticized the film’s authenticity and have complained about artificially staged scenes in the film [1,2,3,4].  I will discuss briefly those criticisms below, but I do feel that the liberties taken by Flaherty on this occasion were well justified.  What Flaherty produced was more than an ethnographic account of some remote aboriginals; it was a poetic and universal tale about man’s struggle to be.  Indeed the movie’s subtitle was A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic.

The story of the film passes through five phases or acts, each of which depicts a struggle within an increasingly threatening environment.  This gives the film a melancholy flavor that highlights the main character Nanook’s intrepid determination to continue with life in “The North”.  Throughout these scenes there is shown the contrast between the harsh environmental circumstances and the positive spirit of Flaherty’s subjects:
“The most cheerful people in all the world – the fearless, lovable, happy-go-lucky Eskimo.”
This is highlighted by many editing cutaways showing Nanook’s children playing in the snow and his wives happily attending to their offspring and their chores.

1.  Introducing Nanook

In the opening sequences the Eskimo Allakariallak, who is known as “Nanook” (an honorific meaning a great polar bear but signifying a great hunter), is shown situated in his northern region, where only about 300 people live in an area the size of England.  These people live entirely off the wild animals in the area, which they kill for food, for their skins and furs, and for other elements of the animals' bodies.  Nanook travels by sled with his two wives and several young children to a coastal “white man’s” trading post where he swaps the furs he has obtained from his hunting for needed commodities.  This includes the furs from seven polar bears he has slain with his harpoon over the past year.  There is a famous scene of the trader showing Nanook a recently acquired novelty – a phonograph record player, which amazes the delighted Nanook.

2.  Nanook’s Hunting
Because of an iceberg blockage along the coast, normal fishing is blocked, and Nanook is forced to dart over the ice floes in order spearfish some salmon.  Later he and some mates learn of some walruses that have been spotted, and they go to hunt them.  Since a walrus weighs almost two tons, to kill one of them is a super haul.  Nanook and his companions do manage to harpoon one walrus that was snoozing on the shore, and then they all struggle to pull the frantic beast ashore as it tries to swim away.

Then the harsh winter sets in with its cold weather and brief hours of daylight.  Nanook goes looking for seals.  Along the way Nanook captures an arctic (white) fox.  Although the fox’s white fur means the animal is doomed, Flaherty has some shots here of Nanook’s son briefly playing with the animal.

3.  Camping

Since the family’s winter hunting expedition has entailed a long arduous journey over the snow-covered terrain, they need to camp somewhere.  So Nanook sets about quickly constructing an igloo out of the packed snow. It includes a window made of ice that enables them to see out side without subjecting them to cold drafts.  This is a famously fascinating scene, and it further depicts the cheerful industriousness of Nanook in the wild.  Even the husky puppies that are part of their family have their own little igloo built for them to protect them at night from the savagery of the older huskies that pull the family sled.  And while the amazingly resourceful father works on the igloo, the children are shown in cutaways playing in the snow.

In the morning one of Nanook’s wives, Nyla, is shown giving her infant an "Eskimo kiss" with her nose.  This was probably one of the first widely spread images of this famous custom. 
 
4. Seal Hunt
They are still searching for seals, and Nanook knows that the seals swimming under the frozen water need to come up and breathe air every twenty minutes.  So he looks for any small air holes in the ice that seals maintain for breathing.  He finally finds one tiny hole, and manages to hook  a submerged seal with his harpoon.  There then ensues a lengthy tug-of-war between Nanook and the massive seal that lasts 3:20 of screen time.  Finally, with his family’s help, Nanook hauls up the seal, and the hungry family immediately begin slaughtering it.  But their semi-savage dogs are hungry, too, and they become more snarlingly wild at the sight of the available flesh.  In fact the dogs are so ravenous over the few scraps of meet they are given that they start attacking each other.  This extended dogfight, we are told, dangerously delays the family’s progress toward shelter.

5.  The Journey
Now the family is just trying to find shelter as darkness falls and a threatening, windy snow storm arises.  They finally find an abandoned igloo and settle in for the night.  Far away from the safety of home and with the swirling snowstorm outside, Nanook and his family try to get some sleep as the film ends.  The final intertitle reads,
“The shrill piping of the wind, the rasp and hiss of driving snow, the mournful wolf howls of Nanook’s master dog typify the melancholy spirit of the North.”

Throughout Nanook of the North, things have been getting progressively darker and more threatening for our spirited and dauntless protagonists.  It is even more somber when we reflect on the fact that the real Allakariallak died shortly after the film was released, reportedly starving to death while out hunting for deer.  We see a picture of a grim, heartless world through which our intrepid hero is trying to make his lonely way.

Flaherty effectively colors this scheme by often cutting away to images of the husky dogs that  Nanook owns.  They are his companions, but they are also brutish and mysteriously “other”.  They represent the other, ultimately untamable aspect of nature, and their constant, contrasting  presence was a crucial part of Flaherty’s art.

Some people, though, have criticized Flaherty for his creativity and deviation from pure ethnographic objectivity [1,2,3,4]. For example,
  • Nanook’s family in the film was not his real family but were Inuits who were cast by Flaherty to play their roles.
  • Inuits were already using rifles for hunting in those days, but Flaherty wanted them to eschew such recent technology in the film and stick to their traditional hunting methods.
  • In order to film the interiors of the igloos, Flaherty had a part of the wall removed so that he could have camera room and adequate lighting.
  • Several events were staged; for example the seal hunt tug-of-war in Act 4 was artificially staged with offscreen assistance.
However, I believe that all of these creative decisions on the part of Flaherty were sound, and I am in agreement with Roger Ebert that they contributed to a higher level of narrative authenticity of the tale [5].  In this connection esteemed film critic Andrew Sarris, who ranked Flaherty in his "pantheon" of great film directors, commented [6] –
"One of the most beautiful moments in the history of the cinema was recorded when Nanook smilingly acknowledged the presence of Flaherty's camera in his igloo.  The director was not spying on Nanook or attempting to capture his life in the raw.  He was collaborating with Nanook on a representation rather than a simulation of existence."
The key thing about a film, whether fictional or documentary, is the degree to which it embodies a compelling and authentic visual narrative. That ultimate authenticity is there, in my opinion.

Flaherty used a number of cinematic techniques to achieve just that.  His use of parallel action showing Nanook’s kids being allowed to play while their parents toiled managed to cast a human, but still realistic, light on the family’s upbeat bearing towards a difficult world.  And Flaherty’s frequent use of cutaways to show storms and the desolate landscape were aesthetic gestures that helped establish and maintain the mood of lonely struggle in a hostile world.

But it was Flaherty’s orchestration of the grim counterpoint between the cheerily resourceful Nanook, the inhospitable environment, and the carnality of the dogs that make this film a work of art.
★★★★

Notes:
  1.  Dean W. Duncan, “Nanook of the North”, The Criterion Collection (11 January 1999).   
  2. “Nanook of the North”, Wikipedia, (5 May 2017).    
  3. “Robert J. Flaherty”, Wikipedia, (23 February 2017).   
  4. J. E. de Cockborne, “Nanook of the North (1922)”, A Cinema History, (October 2015).  
  5. Roger Ebert, “Nanook of the North”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (25 September 2005).  
  6. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, E. P. Dutton & Co. (1968), pp. 42-43.

“Sherlock Jr.” - Buster Keaton (1924)

Buster Keaton was, along with Charlie Chaplin, certainly one of the master auteurs of the silent film.  Indeed legendary film theorist Andrew Sarris included Keaton in his “pantheon” of greatest American directors, both silent and sound [1].  And when Sarris compared Keaton to Chaplin, he had this to say [2]:
“[Compared to Chaplin,] Keaton is now generally acknowledged as the superior director and inventor of visual forms.  There are those who would go further and claim Keaton as pure cinema as opposed to Chaplin’s essentially theatrical cinema.”
A signal ingenious creation of Keaton was his own screen persona: a modest, earnest, and innocent young man who never gives up, even in the face of the most daunting circumstances.  To highlight the contrast between his lone, unsupported innocence and the frighteningly hostile forces around him, Keaton subjected his screen character to an endless succession of pratfalls (he performed all his own, incredibly dangerous, stunts), which he had learned how to withstand as a child vaudeville stage performer.  These epic confrontations invariably had a magical attraction for his screen audiences.  From a larger perspective in fact, his survival in these tales seemed to represent a light-hearted cinematic embodiment of the optimistic American Dream [3].

One of Keaton’s most popular films was his early feature, Sherlock Jr. (1924), which prolific film critic Jeffrey Anderson has gone so far as to say is the greatest film ever made [4]. Like many of Keaton’s top films, it starts off with a string of more or less conventional slapstick sight gags and then gradually moves in to an increasingly dizzying and surreal comic mania.  It is this frenzied second stage of Keaton’s films that single his work out as ingenious creations.  In addition, Sherlock Jr.’s narrative has two other notable features:
  • Keaton tells his tale in a brisk 45 minutes.
  • The film explores the very nature of the film medium and how it relates to our conscious experience.
It is this latter point that intrigues many viewers.  Film was still a relatively new medium of expression in 1924, and filmmakers were still working out what was natural for film expression.  In particular, the editing cut, particularly the cut on action, was still a film narrative technique that had to be used with caution.

The story of Sherlock Jr. concerns a shy young man who works as a projectionist in a local cinema and who also dreams of being a detective.  He spends his spare time reading his instruction manual, How to be a Detective.  Over the course of the story’s several phases, the film moves increasingly into a Keatonian maelstrom of hysteria.

1.  The Young Projectionist Courts His Girl

This first section of the film shows the young projectionist (the “Boy”, played by Buster Keaton)  studying his detective book and then attempting to give the girl he likes (the “Girl”, Kathryn McGuire) a box of chocolates.  The problem is that he doesn’t have the money to buy the expensive box that he wants, and there are some gags here showing him trying to scrounge up the extra dollar he needs.  He finally buys the cheaper box and goes over to the Girl’s house and shyly gives it to her. 

Also at this time, his romantic competitor, the “Sheik” (Ward Crane), wants to buy the expensive chocolate box for the girl, too.  (Although the term “sheik” in the old days could mean a man who is romantically irresistible to women, it is not so commonly used now, so I will refer to him as the “Cad”.)  The Cad doesn’t have the money for the expensive chocolate, either.  So he goes to the Girl’s house, steals her father’s (Joe Keaton, Buster’s father) pocket watch, which he then pawns in order to purchase the expensive chocolate and give it to her.  He then manages to frame the Boy for the pocket-watch theft, which causes the Girl’s father to banish the Boy from their home.

The Boy, in ludicrously literal attempts to follow his detective manual’s instructions, then tries  to shadow the Cad in order to expose him of the crime.  There is an amazing scene here when the Boy is locked inside of a freight car and manages to get out as the train is pulling away by holding onto a water-tower spout.  When the spout is lowered by the Boy’s weight, a massive torrent of water comes out of the water tower, drenching the Boy. The force of this water apparently caught Keaton by surprise, and he fractured a neck vertebra and suffered a concussion while filming this scene.  This was one of the many times in Keaton’s career that he barely survived the screen stunts that he committed himself to [3].

Finally, one-third of the way into the film, the disconsolate Boy gives up and returns to work as a projectionist.  Up to this point what has been shown has been fairly conventional silent comedy stuff; but now things start to get interesting.

2.  The Dream Begins
In his projection booth, the Boy starts up a film and then begins to snooze and falls into a dream.  In his dream, the Boy is still in the projection booth, but when he looks at the film being shown, he sees that the main characters are the Cad and the Girl.  So he approaches the screen and manages to magically enter into the action being shown. 

But he has only part way entered into this new narrative level. We see the theater audience and the screen, with the Boy taking part in the action shown onscreen. There is now a spectacular series of cuts showing the background environment suddenly changing while the continuing  presence of the Boy is unchanged from shot to shot.  The Boy suddenly finds himself in new, unexpected surroundings every few seconds. 

Finally the camera zooms in, and we enter fully into the narrative world of the film being shown.  In this film-within-a-film, an expensive pearl necklace has been stolen by the Cad.  The rich owner of the necklace (Joe Keaton again) summons the world’s greatest detective, the super confidant Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton) to crack the case.  When Buster Keaton appears as Sherlock Jr., the Boy is now fully immersed in the new narrative.  The Cad and his accomplice, the rich man’s butler, now engage in a series of attempts to kill Sherlock Jr.  But they all come to nothing, primarily due to sheer happenstance, as shown in a set of sight gags,.

3.  Surreal Chases
The film now enters into its surreal progression, as Sherlock Jr. starts following the Cad to his gang hideout.  There are more spectacular stunts here, including one showing Sherlock Jr. escaping from the gang by leaping through a window and into a disguise costume all in one motion.  On another occasion he escapes from the gang by leaping into a box held by his loyal assistant and mysteriously disappearing.

Finally we come to the most spectacular chase, which involves Sherlock Jr. riding on the handlebars of a motorcycle being driven by his assistant.  After a pothole throws off the driver, Sherlock is shown riding on the handlebars of a driverless motorcycle as it careens through city traffic.

There are more chase scenes, as Sherlock Jr. rescues the Girl from the gang’s remote hideout and gets away from their pursuers.  After their car plunges into a lake, they end up swimming in the water, as the Boy finally wakes up from his dream.

4.  Reunion with the Girl

The Girl comes to the cinema projection booth and quietly informs the Boy that she has solved the crime of the stolen pocket watch, herself, and established his innocence.  She had gone to the pawnshop and determined that it was the Cad who had stolen the watch and pawned it.

Now is the time for them to kiss and make up, but the Boy is too shy and innocent about what to do.  So he peers through his projection booth at the cinema screen and takes cues from the film being shown in order to learn how to embrace and kiss a girl.  But after their kiss, he peers again at the screen and sees that the projected film has made a forward time-transition cut and left out a few things he may need to know.


There are several interesting aspects of film in Sherlock Jr.  One concerns the undeniable fact that most of us have taken cues concerning how to behave romantically towards the opposite sex by observing our role models in films.  Of course these cues were always available in literary fiction and stage plays, but the intimacy afforded by film enabled these gestures to be presented on more subtle levels.  The Boy in Sherlock Jr. exaggerates things by attempting to follow his instructions too literally, but the imitative possibilities offered by film were probably relatively new in the early 1920s and a subject of interest.

But the progression of film towards more emotionally expressive intimacy was a gradual process. And Keaton’s mise-en-scene is displayed mostly in long shots and extreme long shots that are only occasionally intercut with medium shots and medium closeups.  Over-the-shoulder shots affording more intimacy on the part of the camera as “invisible witness” were less common in those days.  And Keaton’s constant, unflappable gaze ensured that the viewer did not have to regularly monitor his facial expressions in order to discern any emotive subtleties.

Nevertheless, Keaton’s allusion to film as an example and an agent of dreams – in fact as a dream machine – is telling.  And those images of him riding alone on the motorcycle’s handlebars and careening headlong towards a likely disastrous fate are the most memorable moments of Sherlock Jr.  As film scholar Michael Goodwin remarked [5],
“The famous image of Keaton balancing on the handlebars of a riderless motorcycle, perfectly poised in a world of trouble, could be the central metaphor for his entire filmic career.”
★★★½ 

Notes:
  1. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, E. P. Dutton & Co. (1968).
  2. Ibid., p. 62.
  3. Roger Ebert, “The Films of Buster Keaton”, RogerEbert.com, (10 November 2002).   
  4. Jeffrey M. Anderson, “Super Snoop”, Combustible Celluloid, (n.d.).   
  5. Michael Goodwin, “Passing Through the Equal Sign: Fractal Mathematics in Sherlock Jr.”,  from Buster Keaton’s ‘Sherlock Jr.’, edited by Andrew Horton, Cambridge U Press (1997), quoted in Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Buster Keaton Sherlock Jr. and Steamboat Bill Jr. 1928”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (IX:), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (31 August 2004).

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