Sunday, May 04, 2008

"Underworld" with the Alloy Orchestra

I just got back from the annual silent film screening at the Maryland Film Festival, held at the Charles Theatre in Baltimore. This year's film was "Underworld", accompanied with an excellent score by the Alloy Orchestra.

Josef von Sternberg's career was launched, after one or two false starts, with the splendid gangster film, "Underworld", produced at Paramount Pictures in 1927. The film is the prototypical gangster film, spawning a whole series of pictures that would really flourish in the early years of the following decade, when the technological introduction of sound in film gave whole new possibilities to the genre.

Watching a silent gangster film such as this one, or Lewis Milestone's The Racket from the following year, it can be difficult to remember that at the time, audiences didn't have films like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy to compare it against. Those films so completely formed the gangster film, with the gangster-slang dialog, machine gun rattle and police sirens on the soundtrack. Watching Underworld, it's easy to imagine it as a sound film. In fact, this is a criticism of Sternberg's silent work in general that I've read in several different sources. Ironically, his sound films, especially The Scarlet Empress, had an amazingly fluid camera style and stylized design that link them with the best techniques of the silent era.

It's also a good example of how a completely routine story can be greatly enhanced by the style and visual flourishes of the director. There was one bit in particular that stood out to me. Just after the main gangster, Bull Weed (played by George Bancroft) has gone on a rampage, he holes up in his apartment, trying to decide what to do next, and as he is thinking, gently feeds a stray kitten some milk that has just been delivered. It's a seemingly minor touch, but is a great, subtle character moment in the middle of the film that allows the audience to feel sympathy for him.

The performances were quite good, particularly Clive Brook, who delivered an incredible performance in Cavalcade, one of my very favorite films. It was also a treat to see silent screen comedian Larry Semon in a rare, semi-dramatic supporting role.

There were moments of the film that really stood out as examples of silent film technique at its finest: the opening shot, of a clock reading "2:00 am" superimposed over a giant skyscraper and the camera moves during the scene in which the two gangsters confront eachother at the nightclub. There was also an interesting but brief montage of the various underworld characters gathered at the annual party, with the shots growing increasingly frantic and more chaotic.

The score was provided by the Alloy Orchestra, who always provide fine accompaniment to the silent films shown at the Maryland Film Festival, and this was no exception. The score really captured the energy of the film without being overpowering, and also captured the lighter moments quite well.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Last House on the Left

I am not normally a fan of the horror genre. My favorite works in the genre tend to come from the silent era, and from the filmmaking school of German Expressionism in particular. I admire the stylistic boldness of the Universal horror films that came out of Hollywood in the 1930s, and of course the atmospheric brilliance of the Val Lewton pictures.

Perhaps because I am so hard to please when it comes to horror films, I feel a certain heightened appreciation for those that do move me. George Romero's work, particularly "Night of the Living Dead", is one such film, as is Tobe Hooper's "Texas Chain Saw Massacre". While I hardly make a case for these films as much more than well-made entertainment, they at least hold up as that.

I recently sought out Wes Craven's "Last House on the Left", after hearing that it was inspired by one of my favorite films, "The Virgin Spring" by Ingmar Bergman. I found this fascinating, not just to see what a master of the horror genre such as Craven would do with the story, but also because it serves as a great reminder how in the early 70s, directors like Craven weren't ripping off Hollywood hits in an attempt to imitate what sold at the mall cinemas. Instead, they turned to the exciting work coming out of Europe, and applied it to uniquely American genres such as the slasher film (a term which, while it didn't exist at the time as a genre label, could certainly describe the early films of Craven, Hooper, etc.)

I didn't quite know what to expect, but I was quite affected by the horrific images in this film. The plot involves two girls on their way to a concert in Manhattan, and get kidnapped by a gang of truly vicious and sick killers. They torture, rape and murder the girls, and fleeing the scene of their crime, just happen to come across the home where the parents of one of the girls live. When the parents realize who their house guests are, they go about seeking the most brutal revenge possible.

What automatically struck me about the film was its grainy, documentary look. This adds tremendously to the sense of genuine panic which sets in quite early on in this film. There are numerous scenes that cross all boundaries of what one would expect to be the limit of graphic violence, even in a film like this. It's difficult to imagine a film even remotely like this being made today. Sure, there would be a few moments of gruesomeness like we see here, but it would contain nowhere near the sheer pervasiveness of grotesqueness through the entire film.

Like many independent films of this period, the filmmaking style is naturally quite rough. It's important to remember just how much money a film like this cost to make in 1972. With digital equipment, it would be quite easy, in the purely technical sense, today. But it was the vision of directors like Craven, Carpenter, Hooper, Romero and Cronenberg (in Canada) that led to huge strides made in genre throughout the next decade. The rough filmmaking technique works to the advantage of this film.

Interestingly, the film was financed by the distributor who needed a second feature to play with the more expensive "A" picture in Manhattan grindhouses. When you think of the opportunity that directors like Craven had to get their films made and distributed, it's really quite remarkable.