Saturday, December 31, 2011
The Siren didn't get you a Christmas present. Or a Hanukkah gift, or a Kwanzaa offering, or anything else, and she's sorry, because she loves you all, she does. So here's her gift to you, for New Year's: a link. Click right here and watch the 1956 British noir/social drama, Yield to the Night, in its entirety. The movie stars Diana Dors and was directed by J. Lee Thompson, who went on to helm Ice Cold in Alex, Cape Fear and Guns of Navarone. It's on Region 2 (and was screened a couple of years ago at the Film Forum) but isn't available on DVD here in the U.S. The link was given to the Siren by the generous gentleman named Dan Leo. And now she passes it along.
The Siren warns you, because she can’t deal with the guilt if she doesn’t, that this downbeat movie will not have anyone clinking the champagne glasses. Still, it does have a New Year’s Eve angle--basically, a PSA--which the Siren will note in due course. But at some point soon, please, carve 90-some-odd minutes out of your schedule and watch. Then come back and read this post.
Did you do it? Good. If you didn't, oh, what the hell; this movie is not about plot twists.
Whoever programmed for the PBS Alabama affiliate during the Siren’s girlhood had a raging obsession with a children’s movie called The Amazing Mr. Blunden, or perhaps had acquired a royalty-paying interest in it. Whatever, the (wo)man threw Blunden on the schedule on a regular basis. The Siren and her sister saw Mr. Blunden so many times we'd talk back to the screen in Bama-bred British that would have had Tom Shone grimacing in pain: "Tew layte, Mistah Blunden! Yew're awwlways tew layte!"
The Amazing Mr. Blunden meant Young Siren thought Diana Dors was a character actress who looked like this
and it was a few years before she found out that au contraire, Dors spent her time at the top looking like this:
Dors has a small part in David Lean's towering version of Oliver Twist and a larger one in A Kid for Two Farthings, Carol Reed's entry in that great genre, "Cry Your Eyes Out Over an Animal.” Neither movie prepared the Siren for Yield to the Night. It was Dors' big acting break and, despite the way her career played out, melancholy proof that she deserved other parts as good as this one.
Yield to the Night boasts a pre-credits opening that starts with a shot of a woman’s feet, surrounded by pigeons, seamed stockings tapering down into high heels. We follow her as though spying, the camera crouching and peering from behind fountains, through banisters and gates. She gets into a taxi and when she emerges we see the back of her platinum head and the sway of her coat with each step. Her black-gloved hand tries a key in an ornate door as a chrome-trimmed car pulls up. The ominous, drumming soundtrack gives way to the cocktail-ready music on the car’s radio as this mink-clad woman’s foot is shown, shoeless on the gas pedal. She slides her elegant pump back on and walks around the front of the car. Through the windows of another parked car, we watch her lean through the open window to gather her packages from the day’s shopping. The mink lady opens her front door, the one we just saw. The blonde’s feet are reflected in a hubcab before we move up to her little cloth clutch, and she takes out what we’ve surely been expecting--a gun. The mink lady reaches through the car window for more packages, and the blonde fires into her back. Then, finally, we get a good look at the face of the blonde as she continues to fire and the victim collapses.
And what do you know--the blonde is Diana Dors, tossing the gun pointedly between the mink lady’s prostrate legs. As people rush to the scene, there’s a zoom to that sensual face as Dors savors the one moment of heavily qualified triumph this character is ever going to get. The expression begins to dissolve into apprehension almost right away, as a man looks up at her in bewilderment.
A socko opening, worthy of being compared to Wyler’s version of The Letter.
As soon as the credits are over, here’s our blonde in prison. No trial scenes--they would be silly anyway, since Mary Hilton (Dors) didn’t exactly try to commit the perfect murder. Yield to the Night is not a whodunit, but on one level a whydunit, Hilton’s time on the British Death Row alternating with flashbacks to show How She Came to This, a noirish backstory combined with chilling prison scenes.
The film quickly establishes prison’s relentless infantilization of the condemned woman. The male chaplain and lawyer call the prisoner “Mrs. Hilton” and talk to her in an optimistic head-patting way that they clearly don’t even buy themselves. But to the women who guard her, Mary is “Hilton,” like a schoolgirl. Regal-featured Yvonne Mitchell plays the guard, Hilda MacFarlane, who forms the closest bond with Mary. In her first scene, MacFarlane fetches sleeping tablets, prescribed to get Hilton through the first night of knowing she’ll be hanged in less than three weeks. Then she lays a black cloth across Mary’s eyes; the lights in the cell are always on, probably to prevent Hilton from using darkness to cheat the hangman.
Hilton can’t choose her books or her pastimes, she can’t even cut her own nails. The guards do it for her while she sits in the bath, perfect skin gleaming with water, arm passively outstretched, in a recurring image that evokes both the birth of Venus and the death of Marat. Yet Hilton still tries to claw back life’s decisions; one of the first things she says to the guards is a peevish, “I don’t want any cocoa.” She demands to go to bed early, she sweeps chess pieces onto the floor, she must be coaxed to eat. Hilton can flash resentment at reminders of her fate, such as late in the movie, when a hapless substitute guard tries to go through the door--always shut and elaborately ignored--that leads to the execution chamber. Dors’ expression and her acid “Not that one” are more frightening than her demeanor when committing murder. Other times, she relishes reminding the guards of their ghoulish duties, telling MacFarlane that a black cloth over the eyes is what you’d put on someone facing a firing squad. The guards fuss over Hilton, making sure she wears her cloak on cold walks, keeping her inside during inclement weather, cleaning and bandaging her blistered heel; it’s an all-female world of denial and futility.
The flashbacks show Mary as a white-hot beauty who asserts herself less than does Hilton, the bare-faced, straw-haired, sullen prisoner. She meets the agent of her doom, the feckless, handsome Jim (Michael Craig), and falls in love with him almost immediately. Mary doesn’t care that at their first encounter, Jim is selecting a bottle of her favorite perfume (“Christmas Rose”) as a gift for another woman. As her affection for Jim grows, his interest wanes, as it always does with such men. All he wants is an easy road to an easy life. Mary--already married and stuck with a dead-end job in a dead-end postwar Britain--can’t give it to him.
The attempts to hold him become frantic after he dumps Mary for the rich woman she’ll eventually shoot dead in the street. Despite his essential worthlessness, Jim is educated, a piano player with copies of poetry lying around his dingy flat. He pretends the books are leftovers from school, but Mary doesn’t believe him. There is, in this wastrel, a thread that she could pick up to a life that isn’t just days behind a counter and evenings with panting men. Those loud, vulgar suitors aren’t altogether bad sorts; they treat her with some kindness, certainly more than she receives from Jim. But Dors’ face as she looks at her lover shows yearning not just for him, but for something beyond the seediness.
At the time she made Yield to the Night, Dors herself was married to a man who could be charitably described as not worth the trouble. The Siren wonders if that parallel ever crossed the actress’s mind, or if she was too in thrall to her husband to note the coincidence. Dors’ looks were extraordinary, a boneless oval face dominated by extravagant lips that today’s actresses spend thousands failing to achieve. And her figure, mamma mia; not to mention that the fashion in British underpinnings was evidently less confining than on our side of the Atlantic. In any event, the Siren finds Dors as strong in the flashbacks as she is in the harsher prison scenes, because Dors makes you believe that a woman who looks like that would still obsess over a man who doesn’t want her. Now of course, this happens in real life all the time; but on screen, many’s the sex symbol who would have a hard time selling that kind of self-abnegation.
The climax of the flashbacks comes on New Year’s Eve, as Mary, ravishing in a white lace dress that she spent her last cent on, waits by the telephone for Jim’s call. And here is the New Year’s PSA: if you are thinking of standing someone up for the first time in 2012, watch this scene and repent. If at some point in your dissipated existence, you already stood up someone, watch this scene, then go to your room and think about what you did.
Movies that stack the deck in favor of an obvious social message seem to fare badly with critics these days, but the Siren simply doesn’t care as long as the drama works; and Yield to the Night is a striking movie whatever your beliefs. In 2006 film scholar Melanie Williams paid tribute in The Independent; she quoted director Thompson: "For capital punishment you must take somebody who deserves to die, and then feel sorry for them and say this is wrong. We did that in Yield to the Night: we made it a ruthless, premeditated murder." The filmmakers were aided by real life; the release of the movie came shortly after the execution of Ruth Ellis, a case later dramatized in Dance With a Stranger. (If you scroll down, there is a good account of the Ellis case at this marvelous London history blog, including an ineffably creepy photo of the bullet holes she left, visible to this day on the wall of a Hampstead pub.)
Yield to the Night is often described as a fictionalized account of the Ellis case, but that isn’t correct. Joan Henry wrote the book and screen treatment several years before Ellis committed murder. Henry herself had served eight months in two prisons for unknowingly passing a bad check, and she spent years afterward campaigning for prison reform, even making an earlier movie with Thompson, The Weak and the Wicked. That film also starred Dors. In a final, cold coincidence, Ellis and Dors knew each other from Ellis’ brief work on a more typical Dors vehicle, Lady Godiva Rides Again.
Life, then, conspired at the time to give Yield to the Night a ghastly relevance. Williams compares its effect to Orwell’s essay on witnessing a hanging, where “it's only when he sees the condemned man do something as simple as walk around a puddle to avoid getting his feet wet on the way to the scaffold, a tiny, futile gesture of self-preservation on the brink of death, that Orwell is struck by the ‘unspeakable wrongness’ of what is about to happen.” More than fifty years on, watching Diana Dors’ last bits of physical affection--a few seconds spent picking up a cat in a prison yard--the Siren still found the movie relevant. She wishes it weren’t.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
The holidays are upon us, and it is time for the Siren's annual rituals. These include, but are not limited to:
1. Preparing to bake, the Siren's annual substitute for baking.
2. Cleaning out rooms in a frenzy that would do the Clean House crowd proud.
3. Forgetting one key Christmas present until the very last minute.
4. Tuning in to TCM to watching holiday movies that she's already seen. This year's selections include The Man Who Came to Dinner, because Ann Sheridan steals a couple of scenes from Bette Davis, and people stole scenes from Davis about once every leap year; It Happened on Fifth Avenue, because of all the character actors and the post-war jokes about not being able to find an apartment in New York; and the really not-very-good-at-all MGM Christmas Carol, viewed because
5. Charles Dickens is the Siren's favorite novelist and everything he ever touched spells Christmas to her, a fact that TCM is acknowledging this month, although technically their tribute is tied to his birthday.
6. Getting weepy over Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," which makes the Siren think of people listening to it during World War II.
That last has particular force this year due to the Siren's new Twitter addiction, which dependency she happily passes on to you: Real Time World War II, tweets from an Oxford history graduate, Alwyn Collinson, about what was happening on that day in World War II. (You don't have to join Twitter to read it, by the way, although it's worth the trouble.) The feed made its debut on Aug. 31, on the eve of the war's beginning, so we are in 1939. In the past months, the Siren has learned about Bernard Montgomery's short-lived campaign to get his men to use condoms with hookers, an idea that did not sit well with his superiors; the birth of the Molotov cocktail during the Soviet invasion of Finland; and that the most popular Christmas dolls in London in 1939 were Hitler and Neville Chamberlain. Though there's the occasional bit of comic relief, most of the tweets are as dark as you'd expect.
Still, given that the Siren loves movies from that era so much, it's an incredible thing to see the onslaught of news that was accompanying what some say was the greatest year in Hollywood history, Gone With the Wind premiering in Atlanta even as Finland fought desperately for its life.
Naturally, all this is leading up to an anecdote, from Rosalind Russell's autobiography, Life Is a Banquet. As Christmas 1942 approached, Russell was about five months pregnant with her only child, Lance. Her brother George was in California, training to drive tanks with George S. Patton's Sixth Armored Division. Russell went to visit him earlier that month and found him eating a mixture of meat, grease and blowing sand as he sat on the ground in the freezing desert wind. Instead of indulging in the Siren's routine at five months into a pregnancy, which included strenuous activities such as reheating leftovers and elevating her feet, Russell went to her brother's commanding officer and said she wanted to organize a Christmas party for the men. She went back to RKO, where she was making Flight for Freedom, and got the money from the studio.
When I think of the logistics involved in that party, I shudder. I was even more nuts than I generally am, because you are more nuts when you're carrying a child. I hired buses. I enlisted hundreds of women--starlets, secretaries, stenographers, pals.
We had a meeting on an RKO sound stage, and I told the girls what I wanted them to wear. Flat heels and warm clothes. Not one of them paid any attention; they came with the tall spike heels and the short flimsy dresses and nearly froze to death.
We had to figure out where the buses could stop so the girls could use the facilities, and we loaded the buses with coffee and Danish pastries. We sent a truck ahead with a portable dance floor and a Christmas tree. We took a whole show with us, orchestra and all. (Red Skelton came and played Santa Claus.)
The Siren pauses to let everyone digest that last image. Informed by George's CO that she couldn't invite one division and just leave out the other, Russell found herself arranging a Christmas party for two armored divisions. George, meanwhile, had been persuaded to go to officers' training camp and departed already. The Siren ponders the fact that it's Dec. 21 and she still hasn't decided what we're having for Christmas dinner, and continues.
Arriving at the base, we got out of our buses and beheld an astonishing sight. The dance floor had been put down, and it was surrounded by great M-4 tanks. The soldiers were studded on the tanks like flies on flypaper…
We roped off the dance floor and gave the boys tickets, like movie tickets. Each fellow had four or five, good for a dance apiece. The girls all stood in the middle of the dance floor, and three or four hundred soldiers were allowed on at one time, and they and the girls jitterbugged together. Then those boys would go off and three or four hundred more boys would come on. The girls really had to dance, and they were absolutely wonderful. The boys were, too. We didn't have a single untoward incident. I'd been very worried that if we got some dingalings in there, we'd be hearing screams from underneath the cactuses, but nothing like that happened….
I was the M.C. (I wore a fur coat, party because it got so cold in the desert at night, partly because I was trying to cover my pregnancy.) We had brought spotlights with us, and in the spillover from the lights you could pick out boys sitting all over the dance floor, and other boys piled up on those tanks. Some chairs had been set down in front for the brass, and before General Woods took his, he called for a lot of the soldiers who were stuck way in back to come closer. I remember a boy plumped down right in front of him. There was the general sitting, watching the show, and this kid leaned his head right back against the general's knees. It was very sweet, and I thought, only in the good old U.S.A. A kid couldn't lean against Hermann Goering's knees in Nazi Germany, he'd get killed.
Later Santa Claus handed out surprises, and there was more music. It was a great party.
On the way home we fed the girls again, at about three o'clock in the morning, in Palm Springs. They'd worked for forty-eight hours without an ounce of sleep. And those boys had been so glad to see something dainty and pretty. They were on their way overseas, and one knew some of them would never come home again.
(In 1974, I was named 'Sweetheart of the Super Sixth' and invited to a reunion that was being held down in Disneyland. I went, and there in the convention hall I looked around at all the men with their bald heads and their paunches and their wives, and it struck me with a shock that the Christmas party had been thirty years ago. If a young man had gone into the army at thirty, he'd be sixty now; if he'd gone in at twenty-five, he'd be fifty-five…
Now the children of Patton's army smiled up at me with their shiny, untroubled faces. I told them that they must think about some of the men who hadn't come back, but I knew there was no way for them to feel what I was feeling.)
In the holiday spirit of gift-giving, the Siren now shares some of what she's been reading about the blogosphere lately.
David Cairns' Late Films blogathon was splendid, and you should read the full lineup. But the Siren is going to point out two in particular, starting with David's analysis of Roscoe Arbuckle's last film. Then, to get all the Christmas weepies out of the way, do read this beautiful post at a blog that is new to the Siren, Robert Donat, written by Gill Fraser Lee. The post is about the great actor's last role, in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.
Now that she has reduced everyone's stash of Kleenex by a factor of five, the Siren turns to more cheery links...or, er, OK, this could be cheery, depending on your mood. One of Kim Morgan's festive obsessions this month is the original (in the Siren's mind, at least) madman-in-a-sorority-house epic, Black Christmas. The Siren has seen and very much liked Black Christmas, and while it doesn't exactly make you want to run out and sing Christmas carols to strangers, it could be a real pick-me-up for the day when you've been at the mall, you heard Wings' "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime" for the 217th time and you have some serious aggression to work out.
Once you are feeling better, catch up with the TCM festival coverage of the dauntless Dennis Cozzalio, at Slant Magazine's House Next Door blog. If you missed the fest, you won't feel as though you did after you read Dennis' epic tribute.
In preparation for holiday dissipation, Peter Nelhaus, at the Siren's request, posted his reminiscences about the Night He Got Drunk With Nicholas Ray. You will definitely want to read.
Raquelle of Out of the Past has a review of Piper Laurie's new autobiography that makes the Siren want to read the book, even if Ms Laurie, oddly, does not seem to hold Son of Ali Baba in the same fond regard as does the Siren.
At Silent Volume, Chris Edwards has The Wildcat (1921), from Ernst Lubitsch. Not exactly a Christmas movie, evidently, but it has snowmen, and Pola Negri, so, good enough. The Siren particularly loves Chris' description of Paul Heidemann's peculiar smile: "Think of the smile you might put on if your wife ran into your girlfriend at the king’s dinner party, and no one could really afford to look bad, and so things are a little strained, but really, you suspect, you’ll be scoring a three-way out of it later." Ah yes, we all need a specific smile for an occasion like that.
The Siren's eternal favorite screen-cap blog (and she loves them all, as a general rule) continues to be Six Martinis and the Seventh Art, from which this year's Christmas banner (any guesses as to the movie?) is shamelessly borrowed. Want some snow scenes? You got 'em.
Rachel, who graces the comments section here from time to time, has a great blog: The Girl With the White Parasol, which title alone the Siren loves for reasons she need not explain to her patient readers. Latest post is on The Wicked Lady, the number-one box office hit in 1946 Britain, because it gave the people what they wanted: "...kinky sex. Lots of kink. They wanted to see Margaret Lockwood in corsets so tight they had to be censored for U.S. audiences. They wanted to watch her do wicked, awful things like shooting people and poisoning them and sleeping with James Mason outside on the grass. They wanted to see Patricia Roc and Margaret Lockwood get into a slap-fight. They wanted to see cross-dressing and secret passages and noblewomen seducing robbers." Wait, what? Surely the great British public still wants all that? Well, the Siren does, in any event.
The delightful Caftan Woman's choice for Christmas Eve viewing is the same as the Siren's.
Finally, should you be interested, the Siren contributed a year-end Top Ten list to Indiewire. Her list is right here and the full lists from 162 critics are here.
Now, a Christmas gospel interlude, because the Siren doesn't know when her next opportunity to bring up Mahalia Jackson will arise.
This marks the Siren's sixth Christmas at her old building-and-loan-blog. May the Siren's patient readers all have a holiday season that is even merrier, and brighter, than Technicolor.
Wednesday, December 07, 2011
The death of Harry Morgan, age 96, brings one movie immediately to the Siren's mind, and it was only his sixth role, made when he was 28, so early in his career he was still billed as Henry.
In The Ox-Bow Incident, from 1943, he plays a Western drifter who blows into town with Fonda, and they are both caught up in a posse that ends by hanging Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford, for the crime of stealing cattle. The men they lynched didn't do it. At the end of the film, Fonda and Morgan stand at the bar of a saloon with the guilt-wracked men from the posse. Neither Fonda nor Morgan participated in the killing--they voted to stop it--but they were there, and they feel complicit. Fonda begins to speak about Andrews, in a quiet voice that he knows is carrying all over the silent room. Morgan's face is morose, but his body language fights to be casual, as he hunches his shoulders around his whiskey. After all, he didn't hang the men himself. When Fonda brings up the $500 he's collected for Andrews' widow, Morgan makes a crack, his face trying to relax, one shoulder almost miming the slightest of shrugs: "Not bad for a husband who don't know any better than to buy cattle in the spring without a bill of sale."
The other men shift their eyes to Morgan, almost hopefully--someone whose callousness they can feel superior to. Fonda nudges Morgan with his elbow, then straightens up; he won't let him get away with that. "You should read this letter too," he says, referring to the letter Andrews wrote to his wife just before he died. "You know I can't read," snaps Morgan.
So Fonda reads, his eyes hidden by the brim of Morgan's hat. It's one of the finest scenes of Fonda's career, but Morgan is in the foreground, with only the top of his head and his eyes in the frame. He doesn't move, his expression doesn't seem to shift at all, and yet he is changing before our eyes.
At the end of the letter, the scene cuts to show the opposite side of Fonda. Morgan is off to the left, only a sliver of the back of his head showing. His illiterate character has understood the words as fully as anyone else in that saloon, and we know it from the brim of his hat, as it drops with his head in a gesture that isn't only respect for the dead. Andrews' character spent the last hour of his life knowing he was innocent and he was going to die, and then he did die, strangled at the end of a rope. From the back of Morgan's head, barely in frame, we know the drifter won't ever be able to defend himself from his memories by saying the dead man was a fool. Then the camera, after seeking out the men from the posse once more, moves higher to show the length of the bar and Morgan in the middle. His one good hand is still wrapped around his glass, he still looks in the same direction, but he stands straighter. Then Morgan turns to follow Fonda with a slightly saddle-weary gait.
It was an uncommonly auspicious start to Morgan's career--a great Western for the great William Wellman, playing his best scenes with Fonda, in the same cast with character actors like Jane Darwell and Henry Davenport. With the benefit of hindsight, you can look at this scene and see a gift that was going to mark Harry Morgan's acting, whether he was wordlessly menacing in The Big Clock, having his cozy assumptions worn away in Inherit the Wind, or, year after year, trying to fight insanity armed only with common sense in M*A*S*H.
Monday, December 05, 2011
(Note: The Siren herein discusses Hugo in great detail, so if you haven't seen it yet, you are warned.)
Certain superficial elements of a film can predispose you in its favor, and so it was for the Siren and Hugo. She hasn’t read Brian Selznick’s graphic novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. But Mr. Selznick is first cousin (twice removed) to the great David O. And because the Siren has an overactive fantasy life, she can daydream of playing that Selznick opposite a contract director named Martin Scorsese, or Marty as she would never have the nerve to call him: “I want two children just like my twins--a gentle, sensitive boy and a girl who’s book-addicted and loves to try out big words. I want an old-movie theme and an impassioned plea for film preservation...Got all that? Because I can send a memo...OK then. Paris, snow, trains, cafes, late 1920s fashion, croissants, a good look at Johnny Depp without any fright makeup, an old-fashioned soundtrack and a bookstore with leather-bound books and a sliding ladder...I think that’s it...No, I guess I can live without a production number or an ocean liner, thanks for asking...WAIT! Don’t go! I forgot. Dachshunds. My favorite dog breed. See what you can do.”
Given all these elements, Scorsese would have had to put conscious effort into making a film that didn’t appeal to the Siren. Thanks be to Thalia, he did no such thing. Instead, Hugo is a gorgeous example of a Late Film, which is why the Siren is writing it up for the Late Films blogathon conducted by that magnificent classic-film blogger, David Cairns of Shadowplay.
Scorsese has just turned 69 years old, which means he’s about to kiss 70 right on the mouth. Age 70 is big stuff, your Biblical allotment “all used up,” as the Gypsy Tanya would say. Though Manuel de Oliveira inspires us all, there is no kidding yourself about 70. Two years ago, when the Siren was having the conversation with David that prompted the Late Films blogathon, one question that came up was that of how a filmmaker approaches advancing age. They often seem to go one of two ways. Option One: Sour. Let all the old preoccupations come storming back in a torrent of pent-up bile. The ne plus ultra of that approach would be Frenzy. Option Two: Mellow out, at least a bit. Realize that while people are no damn good, hey, you’re a director, and you can make them act any way you want in your movie. As Glenn Kenny observed after seeing Le Havre, “Aki Kaurismaki’s transformation into an old softy is a wonderful thing.”
Scorsese is still Scorsese, and he hasn’t become an old softy. Still, Hugo glows with the deep love that comes from cherishing one thing or one person over the lengthening years. More than that, it’s about age and youth reaching out to each other. The film flatly rejects the notion that movies cease to speak to us after the passage of too much time, even after more than 100 years. In doing so, Scorsese also answers anyone who was wondering why, after making so many films depicting adults at their harshest, he would suddenly tackle a kiddie movie.
The orphaned Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) leads a precarious life in a Paris train station, tending the clock, stealing food and trying to stay one step ahead of the stationmaster (Sacha Baron Cohen) who would send him to an orphanage. Hugo’s sole legacy from his clockmaker father (Jude Law) is an automaton, and Hugo has been trying to repair it with parts stolen from an embittered old man (Ben Kingsley) who runs a toy shop in the station. In doing so, the boy befriends the old man’s chatterbox niece, Isabelle (Chloë Moretz). What neither child realizes is that her Uncle Georges is actually film pioneer Georges Méliès, broken and forgotten, convinced that the movies he made with such joy are gone forever, melted into chemicals and turned into shoe heels.
The Siren is no great fan of 3D. She doesn’t actively hate it, but up to now she just hasn’t seen the point. Wall*E and Up, two of the best movies of the past five years, are not much diminished, if at all, by 2D. She appreciated Avatar for reasons that had little to do with the 3D effects. The Siren dislikes the way 3D privileges the foreground of a shot, making whatever happens to be in your lap the thing that you’re focusing on. 3D, in terms of offering the rich, multiple details of a scene and letting the eye discover some brilliant piece of marginal business, hasn’t been a patch on what Gregg Toland or Rudolph Maté could do on an average day on the backlot.
Comes now Scorsese (and cinematographer Robert Richardson) to take 3D’s oddities, laugh at them, and use them more intelligently than ever before. There’s such mischief in fitting a newfangled technique to a movie that pays tribute to the earliest days of film; it’s on a level with Billy Wilder, assigned to write a vehicle for Gary Cooper, the most notoriously laconic actor in Hollywood, and making him a professor of linguistics in Ball of Fire. Scorsese frequently sticks something in front that’s cute but irrelevant, like the camera crew at the Méliès studio who barely distract from the Andy Hardy energy of the people putting on the show in the back of the shot. Dave Kehr said something about Raoul Walsh that stayed with the Siren--that Walsh was a master of suggesting there could be a whole different movie going on in just one corner of his frame. So Scorsese’s camera dances around designer Dante Ferretti's vast train station and the 3D, for once, adds to the sense of all the corners of the shot, as the passengers and the workers merrily play in their own movies.
And the fullness of the images fleshes out the themes as well. Hugo scurries around the station and maintains the clock that keeps everyone on the hop, but he’s apart from it all, a fact thrown into vivid relief when the film shifts from the yearning gaze of Butterfield and his ghostly blue eyes, to what he yearns for: the world as expressed in a panoramic shot of midwinter Paris at night. The city looks so beautiful in that moment that the Siren felt bereft when the camera cut away. But Hugo is as isolated from Paris as a prince in a tower; or, say, as isolated as a boy in bed with asthma while his schoolmates play in the street. His drunken uncle drops him off at the station and goes out on a permanent bender; no truant officer comes to see why Hugo isn’t in school, no station worker knows Hugo also labors there, let alone tries to feed or shelter him. Scorsese knows that a child’s fears of abandonment, the reality of his neglect, are close kin to the fears of age--that no one cares anymore, that your accomplishments won’t even survive as long as you do.
Hugo returns again and again to impermanence and loss, and yet it uses 3D to show delight in the solid, tactile feel of physical objects. The Siren has seldom seen a film that takes such relish in filmmaking’s paraphenalia, the reels, the canisters, the props, the camera. “I would recognize the sound of a film projector anywhere,” says Méliès.
As omnipresent as the stuff of movies is, though, there is a secondary presence almost as important, that of books. Words are Isabelle’s favorite toys, her refuge and her first resort in trouble, as when she staves off the stationmaster with a determined recital of Christina Rossetti. And Hugo mourns his separation from books too; witness his pained reaction when they visit that gorgeous bookstore and its benevolent monarch of a proprietor (Christopher Lee). Later, when the bookseller gravely hands a beautiful copy of Robin Hood to Hugo, and tells the boy that the book is meant to be his, that’s the moment that reconnects Hugo to humanity, the thing that prepares him to perform the same service for Méliès.
It’s all storytelling in this movie, you see. There is so much insistence nowadays on the primacy of form, the constant reaffirmation that film is a visual medium. Yes, yes, yes--no one needs to remind Martin Scorsese of that. Hugo is as lushly visual a picture as any he’s ever made, and it isn’t as though he had been in the habit of neglecting the look of a film before. But story counts, too. Audiences hunger for it, they try to construct one even when the film insists on withholding it. Méliès’ movies told fanciful whirligigs of stories, and Hugo says that is a fine and noble thing.
Scorsese, it’s always said, obsesses over sin and salvation, though his characters indulge in the former far more than they receive the latter. Redemption is Pyrrhic for Travis Bickle. It stays out of reach for Jake La Motta, is never even sought by Henry Hill, is thrown away with both hands by Newland Archer. Even in the warmly affectionate Hugo, the happy ending comes with qualifiers. Isabelle’s parents are still dead. Hugo’s father still died horribly. And Méliès has had 80 films come back from the dead, but 420 are gone for good. Yet it’s surely no coincidence that when Scorsese makes a movie about the love of film, it’s then that he tells us that the imperfect can still be quite, quite beautiful.