Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti Charles Crichton Basil Dearden & Robert Hamer, 1945, UK) Part Two

Continued from Part 1

The sexual undertones present in Dead of Night‘s Christmas Party episode provide one of the many links to the following story, Robert Hamer’s superb “Haunted Mirror”. It too is a story about a violent death from the past returning to haunt characters in the present, though it is much less obviously a ghost story than the prior segment. The focus now is on the soon-to-be married Peter (Ralph Michael) and Joan Courtland (Googie Withers), quickly established as a shallow, vain couple whose life of surface appearances hides an undercurrent of mutual mistrust.

Joan’s buys Peter an antique mirror for his birthday, an act of no small irony given the couple’s apparent superficialness, but after positioning it in his bedroom he becomes distracted, convinced he is seeing things in it which aren’t there in reality. The story is allowed to develop slowly, Peter’s visions becoming ever stronger as he begins to make out in the reflection an alternate room to his own – in direct contrast to the functional, blandly angular décor of the Courtland’s, the mirror shows an ornate, lavishly decorated household – visions which cause him to become increasingly paranoid, mistrustful and ultimately violent.

Visually, the Haunted Mirror episode is the film’s most striking; the disparity between the blandness of the Courtland house compared with the decadent otherworldliness of the ‘other’ house is used to tremendously powerful effect, the viewer captivated as much as Peter by the seductive gothic-inspired image of a milieu far-removed from the drab reality of his everyday life. Strangely, the temperature dynamic is a reversal of that in the Christmas Party segment: here the supernatural is associated with warmth, the heat of the log fire in the room on the other side of the mirror proving more alluring than the sterile coldness of the ‘real’ room, though the long shadows still inevitably signify all that is mysterious and irrational.

Charles Barr, in his magnificent survey Ealing Studios, reads the story as a devastating critique of the type of superficial couple that the Courtlands represent. Their vanities (happily describing themselves as a“handsome couple”, who “dress up and spend a lot of money” as a matter of routine) and snobbish dismissals of other people (Joan appears entirely ungrateful for the “frightful presents” they receive; Peter marks Joan’s friend Guy as “hardly the big-game shooting type”) only serve to highlight their own shallow prejudices, and the mirror will come to reveal to them interior blemishes instead of exterior ones. Hamer’s repeated shots of Peter’s reflection framed in the mirror, significantly at times in a separate panel to that of his wife-to-be, seems to illustrate his isolation from the world around him, and even from the woman ostensibly closest to him.

Barr names the central themes as repression and complacency: Peter’s repressed frustration with the mundanity of his life coupled with his sneaking suspicion that his wife-to-be is unsatisfied in their relationship exposes the lack of trust between them and the blasé manner in which they disregard their true feelings, as well as explaining his increasingly extreme reactions to the vision in the mirror. He concludes that the segment’s conclusion is in effect a ‘lobotomy’ for the couple: they will learn nothing from the experience and go back to their bad old ways. I am not entirely sure whether it is as dire as Barr’s reading; after all, Joan has enough faith in her husband to find out about the mirror’s history, and her eventual solution to the problem illustrates her willingness to make a leap of faith for him. Interestingly, Hamer will come to use the motif of the mirror again to return to a similar theme in his later It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), again starring Googie Withers.

The following segment is the most controversial one of the film, since its lightly-comic tone is at odds with the other, more sinister tales which it rubs shoulders with. “Golfing Story”, directed by Charles Crichton, stars Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford who seven years earlier had stormed to popularity as Charters and Caldicott, the uproariously witty and irreverent cricket-obsessed passengers aboard the train in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938). The characters proved so popular that they would make cameos in a number of subsequent films, most significantly Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940).

Their appearance in Dead of Night is as a pair of very similar characters named Parratt and Potter, once again well-to-do Englishmen with the same penchants for sport and making double entendres with one another. Once again, though, sexual matters intrude, this time with the arrival at their golf club of the beautiful Mary; the pair are both instantly smitten with her, and unable to decide who should be allowed to court her, contrive to hold a golf play-off to decide the matter. Parratt wins, and in a pair of shots which strangely predict a similar scene in Mizoguchi’s Sanshō Dayu (1954), Potter solemnly trudges to his death in a nearby river. Parratt, though, has cheated, and soon becomes tormented by the ghost of his former buddy, both on and off the links.

Golfing Story comes as a moment of levity in what is otherwise a solemn film, but is its presence entirely necessary? Sandwiched between the harrowing Haunted Mirror and Ventriloquist’s Dummy segments it may seem an unwelcome distraction from the crescendoing sense of fear contained within the separate stories. One might conversely argue that it creates a chiaroscuro of tone which enhances the effectiveness of the other two stories; certainly in its place was a story of the lesser quality of, say, the Hearse Driver episode, one might suggest that the film as a whole might suffer more as a consequence. The story does also set up an ellipsis within the link-narrative, in which time Craig has decided not to leave Pilgrim’s Farm but instead to remain, the now-jovial atmosphere calming him his fears in time for the film’s final, most horrifying chapter.

Ventriloquist’s Dummy” is rightfully the film’s most well-remembered episode, and lasting more than 23 minutes it is by far its longest section. The key to its success lies perhaps not in the story itself but in what is invested into it by Michael Redgrave’s extraordinary central performance as Maxwell Frere, the ventriloquist apparently being tormented by his own dummy. In fact, to award him with just one acting credit seems woefully inadequate: it what is in effect his double-performance which leaves the viewer considering the possibility that he could be embodying two separate personae that makes the story so gripping and ultimately terrifying.

As the story begins, Frere is called into a noirishly lit police interrogation room by Dr Van Straaten, who is attempting to ascertain psychological reasons why he had attempted to murder his fellow ventriloquist Sylvester Kee; Frere refuses to cooperate, and insists that Hugo, his dummy, is the one who is to blame. In a flashback contained within the wider flashback of the segment as a whole we are transported to a Parisian club where we witness Maxwell and Hugo in action (the geographical setting seems to underline that Maxwell’s surname is very close to the French word for ‘brother’). We see the common dynamic of a ventriloquism act: Maxwell plays the straight-man to Hugo’s sharp-tongued witticisms and occasionally risqué comments. In the audience is an impressed Kee, who ‘Hugo’ invites to meet him backstage at the end of the performance.

Once backstage, the ambiguity of the situation arises: in the darkened room, Kee hears Hugo’s voice and chances upon the solitary puppet, whereupon Maxwell enters the room smoking a cigarette, apparently oblivious to what his puppet has been saying; can he have been speaking, or is Hugo a genuinely autonomous entity? The divide in their personalities seems an amplified version of their onstage ones: Maxwell is a nervous wreck, in diametric opposition to Hugo’s boastful charm. In the following scene, a group of women recognise Maxwell and Hugo at a bar, but when they approach them are drawn to the puppet and not his drunken master. Once again, doubts surface: how can this articulate puppet be being manipulated by someone who is clearly an inebriated wreck?

Alberto Cavalcanti’s previous film Champagne Charlie had been a light-hearted look at the world of entertainment, but Ventriloquist’s Dummy is its darkly sinister reflection, as if glimpsing itself in the mirror of the Hamer segment. A more straightforward parable about the nature of performance might have the off-stage entertainer unable to cope with everyday life away from the spotlight, but here the dynamic is subtly different: there is the possibility that Maxwell has repressed his own personality so much as part of his stage-persona that he is now unable to behave otherwise, but the nagging possibility that Hugo could indeed be a sentient, autonomous being pushes the story into the ambiguous and the supernatural, which is all-the-more frightening. The unsettling denouement pre-dates the strikingly-similar one used in Psycho (1960) by nearly two decades, though a shot containing a very disorientating Hitchcock-like rotation of the camera illustrates that more than likely the influence was mutual.

The film makes a final return to Pilgrim’s Farm and its gathered guests, and leads into what must rank as one of cinema’s greatest ever final reels. As Foley’s power generator fails, the house is thrown into long shadows reminiscent of those associated with the unreal in the film’s various chapters, signalling an entry into the fantasy realm that the stories themselves had. Like the recapitulation of a great symphony, the film’s various motifs begin to swarm around each other, in doing so forming unexpected patterns and resonances, and leading towards that famous montage exposing the full extent of Craig’s nightmare. As this closes, I am ever-reminded of a similar scene in Les Diaboliques (1955) when a character appears to do the impossible, and as with Clouzot’s film it is best not to spoil the big surprise for others.

Even Craig’s apparent demise does not constitute the ending of the film, and its final surprise turns the entire film on its head once again. The film’s lasting influence has perhaps diminished the shock of this device, its having been used – though never in an identical way, and more commonly for different effect – in films as diverse as Belle De Jour (1967), La Jetée (1962), Lost Highway (1997), Twelve Monkeys (1995), and most recently in Christopher Smith psychological thriller Triangle (2009); its philosophical implications may also have been explored more fully in Groundhog Day (1993), but with the element of surprise lessened, the modern viewer might more readily be able to reflect on the film’s structural perfection.

Focusing on this novel aspect of the film’s meta-structure is to downplay its bigger legacy which was the rise of the anthology horror film. It was not the first – a German film entitled Unheimliche Geschichten (1919) has the best claim to that particular title – but its quality and popular success gave rise to countless imitators, serving as a template for the cycle of Amicus anthologies, most obviously Freddie Francis’ Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) which closely mimics Dead of Night‘s framing story. Amicus producer Milton Subotsky described Dead of Night as “the greatest horror film ever”; it is not difficult to see why.

Dead of Night stands out as a curious anomaly in Ealing Studios’ roster, even though the diversity of its output is frequently underestimated in favour of the famous comedies it produced in that remarkable run of films in the decade after World War Two. While it is easy to look back fondly on those comedies for their quaintness and sense of an England (however false) of yesteryear, Dead of Night by contrast retains a freshness simply because its emphasis is entirely different; what is more timeless than a ghost story? Another useful comparison is with Hitchcock’s Spellbound, released the same year and also adapted by Angus MacPhail, but dated horribly by its reliance on quasi-Freudian pop psychology; Dead of Night‘s meditations on perception, reality, mortality, dreams and artistic sacrifice continue to make it as thrilling and disturbing a ride as it has ever been.

Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti Charles Crichton Basil Dearden & Robert Hamer, 1945, UK) Part One

Whilst it can be said that, in the more than a century of cinema, films have been able to inspire many kinds of ideas in viewers, theories about the nature of the cosmos can seldom have been frequently among them them. Yet this is what Dead of Night, the supernaturally-themed anthology film produced by Ealing Studios in 1945, is said to have done in the minds of physicists Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi, whose Steady State theory of the apparent expansion of the universe apparently derived from the film’s distinctive and much-imitated meta-structure. But whilst their theory has long since been refuted in favour of the Big Bang model, the film which inspired it continues to endure as one of the true classics of British horror.

It starts oddly cheerfully, and in a broad daylight seemingly at odds with the title. A car canters along a country lane, with Georges Auric’s breezy score betraying only a hint of the sinister through the brief shiver of strings which greets Walter Craig’s (Mervyn Johns) shake of the head as he appears to recognise his destination, a country manor aptly named Pilgrim’s House. On arrival, Eliot Foley (Roland Culver), model of stiff-upper-lip Englishness the kind of which Ealing’s output is more commonly identified with, greets the spooked Craig, who mysteriously seems to be already familiar with the details of his host’s house and his gathered houseguests. Unable to recall anything more than scant details, he remains convinced that he has had repeated dreams placing him in this same situation and with the same group of people; “It sounds like a sentimental song, doesn’t it? I’ve dreamed about you over and over again”, he exclaims with bemusement.

Prominent among the group is Dr Van Straaten (Frederick Valk), a psychologist who will cast his scholarly eye over proceedings, in a way a physical embodiment of the cognitive dissonance internal to Craig as he tries to rationalise why he is able to recall these surroundings which should be entirely unfamiliar to him. The other guests humour him, and one-by-one they take it in turns to recount their own personal encounters with the supernatural. This sets up the primary internal structure of the film, the now-familiar but then-relatively novel anthology format which in this case comprises five sub-stories chained together by the link-narrative of the house party.

The anthology or portmanteau film, a format which was popularized in the 1930s with the star-studded likes of Paramount’s If I Had a Million (1932) and MGM’s Grand Hotel (1932) but whose roots can arguable be traced back as far as D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), was a convenient way for a studio to showcase the talent it held on its roster. In the case of Dead of Night, four directors shared the directing duties of the six segments: the now poorly-regarded Basil Dearden handled the linking narrative as well as contributing first tale “Hearse Driver”; Alberto Cavalcanti, who had had enjoyed previous successes at the studio with Went the Day Well? (1942) and Champagne Charlie (1944), provided two segments, and future star directors Charles Crichton and Robert Hamer one apiece.

When considering its various episodes, the inevitable tendency has been to compare their respective qualities. This, to me, seems an erroneous approach, since the film works so successfully precisely because of their differences and their position within the film’s global narrative structure. Credit for this lies with Angus MacPhail, the veteran screenwriter and script doctor who had worked on Cavalcanti’s Champagne Charlie and adapted the Palmer and Saunders story The House of Dr. Edwardes into what would become Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). Notably, he is also generally considered to have coined the term ‘MacGuffin’ for Alfred Hitchcock, and as Charles Drazin argues in his book The Finest Years, McPhail was taken on at Ealing as something of a problem-solver; his input here was essential in helping to weave together the seemingly disparate stories of Dead of Night into a more homogeneous whole.

The first sub-story “Hearse Driver” – in which a man has a vision which appears to warn him of his impending death – is often cited as the weakest of the film’s segments, but though it lacks the both the visual imagination and psychological effectiveness of the other stories, it plays a key role in the wider story. Indeed, the very fact that the occupation of its main focus, Hugh Granger, is a racing driver can be interpreted to be emblematic of the film’s meta-structure: the film opens and closes with the same shot of a car driving along a road, in a sense signifying Craig’s completion of one ‘lap’ in an apparently endless race. The story, lasting a mere 6 minutes, serves as a gentle prelude for the longer, more developed stories to come, as well as acting as an introduction to several of the film’s main running themes. Most importantly, its position in the narrative comes between Craig’s presaging of the arrival of a sixth character – a “penniless brunette” – and her arrival in the link narrative. The short story of clairvoyance thus is bookended by a much longer one; this mirroring is reinforced by the presence in the story of Granger’s doctor, whose rational explanations are in agreement with Dr Van Straaten.

The lack of critical attention give to the Hearse Driver segment may mostly derive from Dearden’s unsubtle directing technique, in particular the way he over-emphasises key elements of the story through a series of clumsy zooms. The key central moment – a reveal from a darkened hospital room to daylight outside – lacks drama, and the sight of the horse-drawn hearse pales into insignificance when compared to the ethereal otherworldliness of Victor Sjöström’s Körkarlen (1921). The story is not entirely without visual merit: the shot of Granger emerging from his bed, casting a massive shadow on the curtain covering the hospital room’s window catches the eye, but there is too much that is forgettable in its short duration. Nevertheless, there are two items of note which will be echoed in later stories. Firstly, the sexual dynamic in the story: while in hospital Granger flirts with his nurse, a women who will later go on to marry. Secondly, the nature of his vision of the hearse, reality and unreality being separated by the frame of his hospital window. Both motifs will be repeated later.

The second tale, Alberto Cavalcanti’s “Christmas Party”, is the film’s most straightforward ghost story. Told by the Sally, the youngest present among Foley’s gathered guests, it begins in the opulent living room of what is evidently a spacious country mansion. The frame is filled with young children scurrying about, playing games with Sally and her friend Jimmy Watson, both visibly older than their playmates. The mise en scene is rich, lively and warm, but as a game of ‘Sardines’ begins and Sally runs upstairs to hide, the upper floors of the house are revealed to be cold and cloaked in menacing expressionistic shadows. There, Sally encounters a boy who she will discover afterwards to be the apparition of a child who was murdered by his older sister in the house many years beforehand.

Despite being only slightly longer in duration than the Hearse Driver segment, it feels a much more satisfying piece and of much greater depth, Cavalcanti evidently proving himself a much more inventive, imaginative director than Dearden. The disparity between the warmth and familiarity of the living room and the cold strangeness of the upper floors is beautifully evoked, the air of mystery teeing up the sense of the supernatural which the first story was lacking. As Sally pauses in the doorway to a spiral staircase there is even a fairytale-like sense of the ethereal, not too dissimilar to Belle’s entry into the Beast’s mansion in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946), surely a reflection of Cavalcanti’s association with the French avant-garde during the 1920s. The muffled, calamitous piano score as she ascends also helps to suggest entry into an off-kilter alternate world.

Once again, there is a sexual element to the story. Sally and Jimmy are noticeably older than the young children they play with, both evidently of pubescent age and already familiar with each other as evidenced by her blindfolded recognition of the shape of his ‘silly’ nose. Their exchanges illustrate a flirtatious, deprecatory fondness between the two of them, though one might advisedly not take too Freudian a reading of the mask he wears with its large protuberant nose. His persistently makes advances, taking advantage of the coldness of the house’s upper levels, though his attempts to kiss her ultimately lead Sally to her discovery of the ghost. On encountering the boy, her very maternal tending and singing to him further suggest her own burgeoning sexuality.

Continued in Part Two…

Russkiy kovcheg [Russian Ark] (Alexander Sokurov, 2002, Russia)

In purely formal terms, the lasting significance of Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark relates to how such a seemingly simple device – filming for 96 minutes in one unbroken shot – can call into question so many of the traditional tools of film studies. Granted, it is not quite so simple as this on closer inspection: the film’s complex temporal shifts, the ambiguous identities of both the film’s on-screen guide and unseen spectator and the strange relationship that begins to develop between them all create tensions which make a first viewing a bewildering enough experience had the film been composed in a traditional multi-shot manner. But there is something in the way these elements feed into each other, dancing around each other like the characters in the film’s spectacular closing ball scene, which somehow creates the elegant tapestry above what is a messy underweave.

The presence of two, rather than one, near-omnipresent travellers across the halls of the Hermitage museum and the history of Western civilization creates a formal tension between the idea of mimetic and diegetic narration. The guide, later identified as Marquis de Custine, appears able to interact with the rest of the cast of characters, and seems to be steering the direction of the narrative, ‘telling’ the story of the film. By contrast, the unseen character aligned with the camera seems to be invisible, at once an ideal spectator and a passive observer being ‘shown’ what is happening. Which of these is the audience to identify with, if either? The latter would be the conventional answer, given that the former is the ‘ghost’ of an identifiable historical character, yet within the diegetic world of the film, the real ‘ghost’ would appear to be the apparently unseeable one aligned with the camera.

Other well-defined tools of film theory either prove entirely inadequate or in need of some degree of modification. The concept of ellipsis, usually defined as a break in time occurring between shots, seems to struggle under the film’s temporal leaps within the same shot, and it seems to spit in the eye of the Bazin’s idea of real-time ‘duration’; relative to this, a temporally difficult film such as L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961) seems positively straightforward. And what of Jean-Luc Godard’s assertion that a tracking shot constitutes a moral statement? This seems to buckle considerably when stretched to a 90 minute duration. There also seems to be more than a little irony in the fact that it should be a Russian filmmaker’s work which calls into question many of the assumptions and aesthetic strategies laid down by the Soviet Montage directors and theorists, whose work came to define much of the first century of cinema.

Russian Ark may be a continuum, but it is a film of many moments, some of such beauty as to touch the Kantian notion of the sublime, heights which even many a great film fails to do. At times the cumulative effect is overwhelming, like trying to immerse one’s vision at the entirety of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is curious that the other notable film to attempt a similar technique, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), did so in order to derive dramatic tension, a feeling of claustrophobia and of no escape for its murderous protagonists. Here, Sokurov creates the very opposite,and as the camera glides and floats around the corridors of the Hermitage it seems only to obey the freewheeling logic of a dream.

Any analysis of film form necessarily asks if the film could have been improved by employing a different aesthetic approach. The answer? Sokurov’s philosophical aims are certainly achieved, hinting at the elasticity of time beyond our narrow perception of it, and that through art we are given the chance to be granted a kind-of eternal life. Is this enough to sustain a feature-length film? I would admit that I find there to be long stretches of the film which are bereft of any real interest aside from the innate splendour of the objects d’art on display; is the film’s duration entirely necessary, or merely a requirement for it to be viewed as a conventional film and thus reach the widest possible audience rather than be marginalised as a minor experimental piece? Or is it merely a piece of headline-grabbing directorial grandstanding?

There is no denying the spectacle of such an achievement. But the technical marvel at such an undertaking creates its own problems; unlike, say, Chris Marker’s La jetée (1963), another notable formal experiment in cinematic form, the technical virtuosity of Russian Ark seems at times to call attention to itself too much. As such, the lack of any cuts can actually have a counter-intuitive effect of rupturing the suturing of the viewer into the diegesis, and it is understandable that this has caused a distancing effect for some of its more severe critics (myself included). Is this a flaw? It seems one inherent in any similar undertaking. Given the presence of technology capable of doing it, a one-shot feature will almost certainly be attempted again, and it will no doubt raise these very same issues. Perhaps with hindsight after this, when an aesthetic framework capable of analysing it has been developed and when viewers are used to the technique, we will be able to see just how truly daring Russian Ark really is. As it is, it remains a grand, beautiful, challenging if problematic singularity.

This post originally appeared as a response to the screening of the film as part of the Watershed’s Decalogue season of significant films of the 2000s.

Great Films: Tystnaden [The Silence] (Ingmar Bergman, 1963, Sweden)

Of all of the dozen or so Ingmar Bergman films I have seen, The Silence is the one which I have revisited the most often, but not for the reasons one might expect. I certainly don’t consider it his most accomplished work, nor even his most thought-provoking or philosophically rewarding, usually the hallmarks of his finest films. Indeed, some 45 years after its initial release, some of the film’s psychoanalytical insight appears more than a little outmoded. Yet despite these apparent shortcomings, it stands out in the director’s canon as one of his most intriguing and mysterious, a sinister enigma whose chiaroscuro of contemplation and ferocious intensity renders it as something approaching a masterpiece of psychological horror.

The first lens through which to examine The Silence is seeing it as the final part of a wider cycle of works. The films of the so-called ‘Faith Trilogy’, also consisting of the earlier Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Winter Light (1962), all consider in different ways their characters’ reactions to the apparent silence of God in the face of suffering and doubt. In the first film, a daughter’s descent into madness prompts a reconciliation between father and brother, and strengthens the father’s hitherto waning religious faith. In the second, a priest suffering even greater doubts appears to find some solace in the presence of his parishioners rather than through God himself.

Silence was the key to the prior two films, but that the third film in the triptych makes direct reference to this is something of a misnomer, since it is marked not by characters entering into a one-way dialogue with their mute God, but by their entire lack of religious engagement – an absent God rather than a silent one. Yet silence manifests itself in different ways here. Firstly, it is an emotional one, the film populated with characters unable to speak their true feelings and desires for each other. Secondly, there is a linguistic silence, brought on by the film’s curious setting – displaced from the familiar surrounds of rural Sweden, Bergman and his characters inhabit an city in an unnamed country with an unfamiliar tongue.

Bergman, at this time heavily influenced by the minimalist economy of chamber music, had begun in his films to pare down his own artform to become something akin to a ‘chamber film’; both Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light featured only four central characters apiece, and focused on the interplay between their personalities and their unspoken repressed feelings. The Silence sees this stripped back to three – two sisters Anna and Ester, and Anna’s young son Jonas – but with a clear implication to a fourth, the sisters’ dead father. From the outset, the two women quarrel, and use the absent father as a weapon against each other, but as we shall see elsewhere in the film the exact nature of their relationships to him are never made abundantly clear.

From the very first scene, inside an oppressively hot train carriage, the differences between the two sisters are immediately apparent. Anna sits uncomfortably in the heat, sweating profusely, limbs spread wide apart, while by contrast Ester in the same conditions appears aloof to them, sitting deep in thought neatly across the carriage from her sister. As the film progresses the gap between their personalities will become more clearly defined. Anna is impulsive, sexually promiscuous and constantly fussing over her appearance; Ester, clearly disapproving of her sister’s behaviour prefers drinking and smoking in solitude, deeply engaged in the more cerebral activity of her job of literary translation. The voluptuousness and apparent rude health of Anna is contrasted in Ester’s increasing ill health; while the former fulfils her carnal desires, the latter struggles for life itself.

Of his many Bergman tributes, Woody Allen in Love and Death (1975) concludes that “human beings are divided into mind and body”, surely a direct reference to The Silence, since Ester and Anna are clearly somewhat artificially representative of these two sides of the metaphysical divide. Whether this is literal or metaphorical within the confines of the film is certainly debatable, particularly when considering how far Bergman will subsequently go to meld two personalities together in Persona (1966). There are cryptic visual and verbal clues to suggest alternative readings: sometimes the sisters are framed as distant to each other, yet other times their faces almost coincide. If they are the same person, what is the significance of Ester’s apparent lesbian attachment to her sister, often manifesting itself in physical jealousy and masturbation?

The Persona comparison, though, is not helpful, since it positions the women at the core of the film; as in Through a Glass Darkly, which is also frequently misread, it is in fact the son who acts as the fulcrum upon which the film tilts between its competing poles. The several times that Jonas can be seen to wind his watch during the film will remind us of the sound of ticking heard over the opening credits; this and the fact that the film opens and closes with the young boy aboard a moving train are clearly temporal and spatial signifiers of the moral journey he is undertaking here, torn between choosing to live his life according to his mother, and the Dionysian body, and his aunt, the Apollonian rational mind. The strange figure of the troupe of dwarves midway through the film highlight the boy’s apparent pre-sexual nature, yet the unmistakably Oedipal relation to his mother suggests approaching pubescent conflict.

The Silence was released in 1963, and Bergman must inevitably have been aware of recent developments in European cinema. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), for example, appears to share certain thematic concerns: the death of God, and the consequent resort to either hedonism or rationalist intellectualism as means to fill the ideological void left behind. And just as Fellini’s film operates under the spectre of nuclear annihilation, so too does Bergman’s: the presence in key moments of tanks and air-raid sirens imply some significant unseen or impending armed conflict. The Silence operates in the same weary post-war landscape of many a film of the previous decade, if not explicitly than tonally, a landscape later viewed in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), which operated its own post-apocalyptic dialectic between its intellectual Professor and artisan Writer.

These central concerns are at the core of the film intellectually, and a certain degree of its beguiling mystery is derived from this, yet more important to the tone of the piece is its oddly jarring visual style. Bergman had resumed his collaboration with cinematographer Sven Nykvist when commencing work on the Faith Trilogy, and it is in The Silence where the partnership became more experimental in terms of composition and framing. As a man equally of the theatre as of celluloid, there are times elsewhere in the trilogy where the director appears to be doing little more than effectively filming a stage.

Though outwardly dismissive of some of his contemporaries like Michelangelo Antonioni, there is a sense from this film onwards that the new dimensions of visual language being explored by other European directors had begun to rub off on him. The range of shots noticeably increases, making extensive use of both close-up and deep-focus. For an example of the former, see how he draws attention to Ester’s drinking and smoking as she fiddles with the radio she is listening to: the camera tracks her hand movements, and the scene becomes intensely subjectively hers, penetrating her psychological state. By contrast, other scenes frame the sisters in separate rooms, one glimpsing the other caught in deep-focus through the doorway, physically representing the mental distance between them. If Bergman is conducting a chamber quartet, then Nykvist is using the full orchestra. The use of diegetic music, sparing and always in some way interacting with the characters, also seems to be penetrating their psyches further.

I began by saying that The Silence is the most intriguing of Bergman’s films, and I think that the reason why lies somewhere between its psychological concerns and its strange aesthetic. The film seems to inhabit the same hellish outer/inner world that would be seen in much of horror cinema: the crazed post-traumatic mind of Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962), the Freudian infernos of Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and through to its mainstream apotheosis in The Shining (1980). And going back to The Silence, as the young Jonas wanders the corridors of the strange hotel where his mother and aunt have disembarked, is it so hard to imagine them as the same corridors the young Danny Torrance explores in his pedal car in Kubrick’s seventeen years later?

Great Films: Il gattopardo [The Leopard] (Luchino Visconti, 1963, Italy/France)

Luchino Visconti was a director whose career appeared to embrace many contradictions. How did the progenitor of Italian neorealism, with its emphasis on naturalistic mise en scene, eventually turn towards making grand, operatic costume dramas? Salvador Dali described him as “a Communist who only liked luxury”; how could a man who held strongly Marxist beliefs also so fervently defend his own aristocratic stock? And why were his films, whose adaptation from historical and literary sources might appear to be what Truffaut contemptuously labelled cinéma de papa, so praised by André Bazin and the Cahiers du cinéma crowd?

These questions are raised when watching The Leopard, but so too are they answered. In order to more fully understand why, though, we must tell not only the story of the film and its relationship to the director, but also the source novel, its author, and first to the political events which provide its backdrop. The historical period in question is the Risorgimento, the series of conflicts which led to the formation into a single political entity of the Italian peninsula, and specifically within this the events of 1860 which eventually saw Garibaldi’s army, aided by local militias rebelling against the ruling Bourbon monarchy, annex the island of Sicily, allowing them a march on Naples.

Author Giuseppe Tomasi was born in Sicily in 1896 into an aristocratic family, inheriting the title of Prince of Lampedusa on the death of his father some 36 years later. In 1958, a year after his death, what would be his only novel, Il Gattopardo, was published; in the book, a Sicilian prince not unlike the author but living some one hundred years earlier witnesses the profound political upheavals brought about by Garibaldi’s invasion with a mixture of sadness and bemused detachment. The book proved to be divisive: derided by the Left as an apology for imperialism, criticised by conservatives for its portrayal of a corrupt self-serving Church, but loved by just about everyone else for its sensuous, languorous prose, it went on to become an international bestseller.

Who better to adapt the novel for the screen than Luchino Visconti? Like Lampedusa, he had been brought up in a noble household, albeit at the northern end of the country in Milan, but one who could well empathise both with Lampedusa himself and his literary protagonist. True, he had made his cinematic name with the realist likes of Ossessione (1943), La Terra Trema (1950) and Rocco e i suoi fratelli (1960) but so too had he demonstrated his ability to stage opulent historical drama in the spectacular Senso (1954). In fact, in a similar way to how Ingmar Bergman is remembered in Sweden as equally for his theatre work as his film output, in his native country Visconti was just as noted a director of grand operas as man of realist cinema.

Opulent is something of an understatement in describing the film; The Leopard is firstly and most obviously a feast for the eyes. Shot by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, who would later go on to film Fellini’s kaleidoscopic masterpiece Amarcord (1973), the full splendour of the Prince of Salina’s many palazzi is brought dazzlingly to the screen: gold-lined interiors flanked by countless paintings, sculptures and ornate pieces of furniture, and the lavish feasts and ceremonies the populous court he holds partakes in, all rendered with Visconti’s famous visual perfectionism, and underpinned by Nino Rota’s sweeping score. A life of absolute luxury, but one is stark contrast to the brief glimpses of the poverty suffered by ordinary Sicilians, and one now under threat from the bands of revolutionary armies sweeping through the lands.

The threat is not just from below, but from a new estate, personified by the ambitious Don Calogero: nouveaux riches of less-than noble birth whose wealth threaten to eclipse and even to engulf those of the established landed gentry. The Prince seems aware of this decline in his prestige, but remains passive to them; his favourite nephew Tancredi, by contrast, is an active Garibaldini, more aware of which way the political winds are blowing. He and the Prince’s own daughter Concetta are expected to marry, but when Calogero’s beautiful daughter Angelica is introduced to Tancredi, the Leopard must decide whether to sacrifice his familial line and allow old prestige, modern politics and new money to be joined in order for all of them to survive.

While witnessing these profound changes, there is also perceptible an increasing awareness on the Don’s part of his old age and inevitable eventual death. What is so delicately explored is the correlation of his political and physical mortality, seemingly personified by Angelica: he is drawn to her beauty himself, yet while for a man of Tancredi’s generation to marry the daughter of a nouveau riche is a politically astute move, wedding a non-noble for one from the Prince’s previous generation would have been unthinkable. And so, the personal fate of one man is shown to be inextricably influenced by the wider historical circumstances, and even a man of the Don’s considerable power is helpless in such a situation.

The Leopard was released in 1963, at a time when European cinema was once again becoming explicitly politicized; not just the exploits of the nouvelle vague in France, but so too in Poland, Spain, the UK, and most significantly a crop of post-Neorealist Italian films by new directors: Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano (1961), Bernardo Bertolucci’s La commare secca (1962) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962). In this context, why was professed Marxist director Visconti making an historical epic, what looks to be misty-eyed nostalgia for his feudal ancestry, now something of a relic in the politically divisive scene of 1960s Italy? How does this fit in to his oeuvre of socially-committed films?

The answer is in the source novel as much as it is in the film. In Lampedusa, though significantly not filmed by Visconti, we flash forward in the final chapter fifty years to see the Salina household decades after the Prince’s death. The palace is a relic, haunted by its grandiose past, yet outside of it the ordinary people of Sicily are no better off than they were before. For many, the Risorgimento was a failed, compromised revolution, a triumph of the bourgeoisie, the third estate who would replace the aristocracy as the oppressors of the masses, a theme already explored by the director in Senso.

For dramatic flow, Visconti leaves this final chapter out of his film in order for it to concentrate more on the Prince’s view of his own mortality, but the politics are still there; in many ways the spectacular final ball sequence, lasting some 45 minutes, forms as political a denouement, where the demise of the aristocratic order, personified by the Prince, seems silently to unravel before our very eyes. At times both the novel and the film dare to suggest that the old feudal system was much better for ordinary folk than what followed – a position sure to infuriate professional intellectuals, and one which surely only the likes of Lampedusa and Visconti would try to defend. The over-the-top vulgarity of Don Calogero as played in the film shows that while Lampedusa may have a little respect for such a Machiavellian creature, Visconti has little but scorn.

Visconti, then, is politically engaged like his contemporaries, but so too in his own idiosyncratically contradictory way, much like Pasolini and Bertolucci were in their own ways. With Visconti there is something of a commonality with Jean Renoir, the great French director under whom he served his apprenticeship as directorial assistant on Toni (1935) and Partie de campagne (1936). Renoir’s twin masterpieces, La grande illusion (1937) and La règle du jeu (1939) both examined the mores of the higher classes with a certain degree of sympathy. So too is there an aesthetic debt to Renoir. Those interiors shot in deep-focus, those carefully controlled gliding camera moves, the painstaking attention to spatial arrangement of mises en scène all bear the hallmarks of the French master.

The interiors of the Prince’s world are more obviously lovingly rendered, but it must not be neglected how much the exteriors are too. Two years earlier, cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo had brought the stifling heat and beautiful if oppressive landscape of Sicily to life in the black and white of Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano, and here that is built upon in colour by Rotunno in a series of stunning outdoor scenes. In particular, the morning after the plebiscite on unification we see the island, so much a character in itself in the book, awakening under a literal new dawn, if not a metaphorical one.

That same day, the Prince and the accountant Don Ciccio, discuss the new political situation, all framed by the golden mountainous landscape stretching as far as the eye can see. “That America of antiquity” as Lampedusa describes it – do they not recall cinema’s similar renderings of the barren, hostile American West? Aptly, Sicily will later serve as such for the Andolinis and Corleones when Francis Ford Coppola films it in those greatest of American films, The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), films not by coincidence scored too by the peerless Nino Rota. Another Italian-American, Martin Scorsese, marvelled at Visconti’s use of colour, borrowing heavily from it for his own The Age of Innocence (1993). But as Peter Bondanella suggests, the lavish visuals are always in danger of overwhelming the film’s politics; perhaps this is why it is not embraced as widely as it should be.

The reason, for me, why The Leopard is so important to understanding Visconti as a director is illustrated by comparing it to his more internationally famous Morte a Venezia (1973). In that film too we have an ageing aristocrat in fin de siècle Italy, obsessed with beauty and his own decay; here Gustav von Aschenbach attempts to transpose this into his music, while Don Fabrizio seeks refuge through the lens of his telescope, observing the celestial motions above him which care not for trivial earthly matters. In the face of death, both men reject traditional religion for something other, a mathematical perfection of sound or light.

Like The Leopard, Morte a Venezia is beautiful to look at. But the later film is overly stylised, and an emotionally cold film, when by contrast, there is a warmth and pleasure in watching The Leopard, even amidst the introspection. Visconti’s class identification with the Prince, I think, is the key to this. The tragedy of Von Aschenbach’s demise when it comes is less than that of Don Fabrizio’s implied death because he is so detached a character, obsessive like the director, but remote from the world around him; Don Fabrizio, though, is aware of his situation but helpless to change it. The Leopard‘s marriage of the epic and the personal is what makes it Visconti’s most affecting work.