Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Fascination Films

On my list of Indispensable Bloggers, there would be a place of honor for Greg Ferrara, who always manages to stir up the most thought-provoking film discussions. Just a casual glance at his posts for Movie Morlocks and I guarantee you'll find something to jolt your movie-lover's brain. Anyway, Greg's latest topic for Movie Morlocks is "I Half-Heartedly Recommend This Movie," about the films we sorta-kinda-maybe want our friends to see except for the fact that the good is matched with just enough bad to make it a little embarrassing. We all have movies like that.

But Greg's post got me thinking, not so much about mediocre films, but about what I think of as my "fascination films." Have you ever had that moment of walking down a street and suddenly swiveling your head to stare at someone, thinking, "Huh, they're not my type, maybe they're not even that attractive, but there's something there?" Some films I don't consider great, hell maybe I don't even like them all that much, but they fascinate me.

I'm not talking about the feeling of guilty pleasure as in, "Holy shit, guys, I'm starting to find myself actually invested in the love story of Samson and Delilah. Hold me." Nor am I talking about the nostalgia you feel for much-flawed, much-loved films of your childhood (which is where I'd put something like Desiree). I'm talking about the films that I find myself thinking about, weeks, even years afterward, possibly more than I think about genuinely better films. For example, The Ox-Bow Incident is a fantastic film, but I don't think I've given it half the mental space I've given to the muddled, murky Pursued.

What is it about these films that intrigues me? Do they hit some kind of emotional trigger? Am I drawn by their tantalizing possibilities or by their grating flaws? Well, before this post is lost in a sea of rhetorical questions, here's a look at some films I can't help but find...fascinating.

The Collector (1965)

I'll be tackling this one for an upcoming blogathon. The Collector is William Wyler's adaptation of the classic John Fowles novel about an insane, working-class butterfly collector and the beautiful posh girl he captures to make his own. It's got Terence Stamp  in a frightening performance as the creepy collector (the fact that Stamp can look so genuinely repulsive while at the height of his beauty is a feat in and of itself) and Samantha Eggar was never better. And of course it has Wyler, probably one of the greatest "actor's directors" that ever lived. But somehow, The Collector ends up stranded somewhere between a polished but airless film translation and a brilliant, gripping thriller. It's got far more subtlety and nuance than your average thriller yet, watching it, I can't help thinking that the film needed a director with more willingness to be lurid and animalistic and sexual. More like Nicholas Ray or Samuel Fuller. Something in Fowles' harsh, class-conscious novel doesn't translate to Wyler's reasoned, reserved style. And Maurice Jarre's goofy score just tears a gaping hole through the film's mood. And yet, I find this movie so compulsively watchable. If it only took that one step forward into being truly twisted, it would be a genuine classic.

Pursued (1947)

It's not every day you get to watch a Freudian Western noir. Not to mention one with Robert Mitchum as an amnesiac hero, Teresa Wright as his semi-incestuous love interest, and Judith Anderson as the stoic homesteader who adopts Mitchum. Hell, just trying to wrap your head around the idea of Judith Anderson in a Western is hard enough. The film's plot is so bizarre I don't dare summarize it (go watch it yourselves), but it is an oddly enjoyable film. Give credit to director Raoul Walsh and cinematographer James Wong Howe for making such an incredible mishmash of ideas into a coherent film. Howe's cinematography in particular; he manages to make the wide open vistas of New Mexico into a space as dark and cramped as any film noir alleyway. And I have to admit, I'm a sucker for Teresa Wright and watching my favorite cinematic good girl get all vengeful and seductive is a real treat. True, the Niven Busch script stumbles pretty badly at times, as if Busch really, really wanted to make this another Duel in the Sun and had to be forcibly restrained. But man, this film is a trip. If nothing else, it proves my theory that film noir and Westerns have always really been two sides of the same coin.

Stella Dallas (1937)

Ah, Stella Dallas. The film that's essentially required watching for any Barbara Stanwyck fan. I have to admit though, even as a Stanwyck fan, that this movie pisses me off. I don't like how ridiculously manipulative it is. I don't like the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of Stanwyck's Stella (who is poised and attractive enough to charm a rich man into marrying her, but suddenly displays the taste and subtlety of a circus clown whenever the film wants her to be embarrassing). I don't like the way the film asks me to believe in the beauty and selflessness of the love between Stella and her daughter Laurel and then tries to tell me that Laurel could be so easily tricked into believing that her mother doesn't love her. Even Laurel's actress, Anne Shirley, said this was a load of crock and she had no sympathy for this ninny she was playing.

However, and I hate to admit it, there is a great deal of truth in Stella Dallas. There's Stella's anguish as she slowly comes to see herself as a burden. There's Laurel's teenage desperation as she practically hurls her long limbs off a stool in an attempt to keep her mother away from the boy she likes. There's the brittle condescension and forced "understanding" of the upper classes, when faced with their raucous inferiors. Unlike many critics, I don't think the film agrees with Stella's decision to abandon her daughter to a better life. I don't think this film even likes rich people that much. The movie looks at the American cultural divide of the time and sees it as a self-perpetuating tragedy. When it focuses on that and Stanwyck's performance, it's a sharp and heartbreaking film. If only the film didn't take such ham-handed methods to get us there.

Peter Ibbetson (1935)

Peter Ibbetson is that rarest of cinematic unicorns, a unique film. Peter Ibbetson (Gary Cooper) fell hopelessly in love with Mary (Ann Harding) when they were children and when they reunite, circumstances force them apart. Yet, through some kind of miracle, they find that they can meet together in each other's dreams, living out their pure, deathless love in their minds even as their bodies age. There was a flood of romantic fantasy film in the 40s (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Portrait of Jennie, A Matter of Life and Death, etc) that handled this kind of material with humor and longing and sophistication. But Peter Ibbetson, especially compared to other 30s films, is like a Victorian aunt that suddenly wandered out into a crowd of wisecracking showgirls. Mary becomes Peter's spiritual guide,  the symbol of absolute purity and devotion, essentially the Beatrice to his Dante. It's the kind of romantic ideal that's been pretty much killed stone-dead for the past century or so; nowadays we like our romances a little more human. And I can't really say I like Peter Ibbetson. Cooper and Harding are stiff as boards, the child actors are dreadful (and they call each other Gogo and Mimsey, no really) and outside of the dream sequences, the film doesn't really convey any kind of otherworldly charm. But it's the kind of film which compels me to ask people, "Have you seen it? What did you think?"

Marnie (1964)

Well, you all knew by my intro picture that this one was coming. A lot of critics like to call Vertigo Hitchcock's most personal film. But for me, this is the one that feels like it sprang fully forth from somebody's Id. All of the Hitchcock obsessions are here: blondes, Tippi Hedren, sadism, rape, traumatic memories, flashing colors, bad matte paintings, and a suspense plot that's more about attraction and repulsion than whether anyone actually commits evil. It's like Hitchcock had so much he wanted to say that he no longer cared whether his audience would follow his lead. The first time I saw Marnie, as a middle-schooler speeding my way through every Hitchcock film, I thought it was okay but a little off. The next time, I saw Marnie, I thought it was dreadful. And then the next time I saw it, I was completely enthralled. It's just that kind of film. Half the time I don't know whether I should be giggling or shuddering.

Robin Wood's famous salvo ("If you don't love Marnie, you don't love cinema") doesn't do the film any favors and my opinion of Hedren's performance sways with every passing breeze. And all that "red is the color of blood" imagery is even worse than the matte paintings. But even so, the film's incoherent passion and darkness and cruelty still give it the power to draw you in. The relationship between Marnie and Mark is one of the most fascinating in all of Hitchcock. And the character of Marnie herself, childish, sarcastic, cold and tormented, is compelling enough to defy any schlock psychology about frigid females. She's more interesting perhaps, than even Hitchcock knew.

While writing this post, I struck up a conversation with one of my co-workers and, hoping to get some inspiration from her, asked her if there were any films she found, not just good, not just bad, but fascinating. With a puzzled smile, she told me, "I don't feel that way about moves." To which I can only respond, like Barbara Stanwyck, "What a life!"


  1. Rachel, that was a lovely and interesting post- I would probably put Resnais' Wild Grass Oliveira's Strange Case of Angelica into this category.

    Oddly, I too had first seen Marnie in my mid-teens, but I've always loved its lurid colours and tense sexual unease- even in subsequent viewings. For me it's up there with Vertigo.

    One more thing: Judith Anderson does appear in at least one other Western which was also written by Niven Busch: Anthony Mann's The Furies. A damn good film, by the way, and with more than a, uh, smidgen of incest: what seems to be the Busch fingerprint).

  2. Shamus: So glad to get a response from you...and to know that at least one of my fellow film obsessives knows what I'm talking about. It's funny. I saw The Birds around about the same time as Marnie and thought it was brilliant and Marnie was just okay. Nowadays, it's Marnie that's the compulsively watchable one for me and The Birds that seems less interesting. Not that The Birds isn't a deserved classic, but I'm not fond of Evan Hunter's rambling, overwritten dialogue and Rod Taylor isn't a patch on Connery.

    Ah yes, I forgot about The Furies--mostly because I haven't seen it yet. Your comment about Busch's fingerprints gave me a chuckle. Mainly because I was thinking that Teresa Wright was looking oddly...Jennifer Jones-ish in certain stretches of Pursued. Compare their "seductress" expressions and tell me there isn't a resemblance. Maybe Busch deserves more credit as an auteur than I thought...or he was giving his wife some harmful acting advice since those moments in Pursued are also the scenes where even the divine Ms. Wright feels a little false.

  3. I love this post, and yeah, totally know what you mean. Marnie is definitely on my "fascination movie" list. I think I saw it for the first time in high school and while I was thinking at the time that I didn't like it, it wouldn't let go. I was just fascinated by Tippi's character and all the rest.

  4. Rachel: Now, you see, I'd no idea Busch was married to Wright: and she does look quite a bit like Jones, even if Jones is the more feline and sexual.

    It's been years and years since I saw The Birds, which should be about the time I first saw Marnie... Somehow, I never got around to it again and I always had others movies to watch. My dirty secret, frankly, (apart from not having watched Stella Dallas yet), is that I'm not that crazy about non-schzoid-Hitchcock.

    I've been trying and failing to think up more movies of the past that merited such complex responses: probably means that I need to watch the weird, really avant-garde stuff like Duras and Warhol and Snow and the rest. But another recent movie (does it count?) which left me bewildered (and, at times, gaping in admiration) was Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty. Not that I recommend it, necessarily.

  5. Don't laugh, but the ultimate fascination film for me is "Beach Party". I know!! Ridiculous! "Beach Party" is everything I claim to abhor in a movie, yet I've seen it 3 times and I'll see it again the next time it's on TCM. (Insert head shaking here.) For me, this movie goes waaaay beyond guilty pleasure. I marvel at the mix of the talented and less-than talented, and the real originality that went into it.

  6. Eerie timing, I saw Marnie for the first time last weekend! And I agree with your assessment absolutely. At one moment Hedren is wooden and brittle, the next she's compelling and you can see why Mark falls for her hard. You could argue that's the point of her character to be so changeful, except that in her wooden and brittle scenes I find her painfully unappealing. But is the movie fascinating and compulsively watchable in all its fetishistic glory? Oh brother, you better believe it.

    One of my top fascination films is Love Me or Leave Me with James Cagney and Doris Day. I was almost obsessed with that one for awhile. On the one hand there's Doris Day trying to be sultry (eek), but on the other there's freaking James Cagney chewing the hell out of the scenery, and stealing the movie. His character is repulsive, no doubt, but due to the fact his is really the only good performance, he's the only one you sympathize, feel for.

    Oh, also, "displays the taste and subtlety of a circus clown whenever the film wants her to be embarrassing" is total win, by the way. Just thought you should know.

  7. Rachel -- What an outstanding post! Of the films you covered, I've only seen Stella Dallas, and you definitely make me want to check them out, especially Pursued and Peter Ibbetson. Your writing is sheer poetry and this line, in particular, will stay with me for the rest of the day: "But Peter Ibbetson, especially compared to other 30s films, is like a Victorian aunt that suddenly wandered out into a crowd of wisecracking showgirls." Love it, love it, love it.

  8. "it proves my theory that film noir and Westerns have always really been two sides of the same coin."

    I love (adore, worship, etc) westerns, and I love film noir, but this had never occurred to me. And now that you've mentioned it, my brain insists I think about THIS and not finish blogging about "Death Takes a Holiday." Because I think you're absolutely right, I just need to figure out how and why...

  9. Wow you guys, great comments all around!

    Dkoren: Judging by what others have said, Marnie may be the ultimate fascination film, if anyone ever took a poll on the subject.

    Shamus: I think you're onto something when you suggest that it's easier to think of modern films that have that compelling strangeness about them than the old studio classics. But then, I'm not sure I would call Stella Dallas strange. Sometimes I'm fascinated just by a potent combination of greatness and badness.

    Silverscreenings: Haven't seen Beach Party sadly, but now I'm definitely sticking it on my list. I like your comment that some movies go way beyond guilty pleasure.

  10. Laura: I remember seeing Love Me or Leave Me a few years back and I see what you mean. I admire the film for the way it tries to approach such a complex relationship between the two leads. And the story itself is pretty compelling. I think my main complaints were a)Cameron Mitchell is a walking bit of beige stationary and b)Day seems almost nothing like the real Etting.

    Karen: If you do get around to Peter Ibbetson, you'll see what I mean. Off hand, I can't think of another 30s film even remotely like it.

    Hamlette: Ooh, I'll want to know what you think of Death Takes a Holiday. One of these days, I really should write down my thoughts on noir/Westerns. It's just that there's so much to take in.

  11. Truly marvelous post, Rachel. I'd say a lot of the films I like best are "fascination films," with my favorite movie, 1932's Freaks, absolutely topping the list. I could go on about it forever, but if someone asked me to sit down and put a rating on the thing, it'd probably get 2/5 stars. I'm sure I can think of plenty of other examples. You've really got me thinking!

  12. Rachel, I am so with you on MARNIE! As I written before on my blog, it made no impression with it the first two times I saw it. Then, on the third viewing, it was like: "Wow, what an interesting film! How could I have been missing all this?" Today, I can view it yearly, rank it as my third fave Hitch pic, and don't even mind the horrible backdrops (especially the shipyard) and the awful shots of Tippi on rear screen horseback.

  13. Caroline: Freaks is a good choice. And if you do come up with a list, I'd love to read it.

    Rick29: Yeah, I don't know as I mind the bad effects in Marnie that much. I dwell on them more because Robin Wood makes such a fuss over how they're really symbolic and precisely calculated and I'm more of the opinion that a)Hitchcock knew they were bad and b)he didn't think the audience would notice or care.

  14. I've more than used up my quota of comments in this thread, Rachel, so apologies for another intrusion but I must add that Hitchcock is still the director who re-shot the second half of Rope because "he was not satisfied with the colour of the sunset." Whether the audience noticed it or no, Hitch was a uncompromising aesthete- I'm not sure that he would have been so sloppy or indifferent. Besides, given that everything in Marnie is so flagrantly stylized, I'm fairly certain it was a deliberate choice a la Murnau. It is a subjective sexual nightmare, after all, not a naturalistic drama.

  15. Shamus: Quota of comments? Shamus, your intrusions are always welcome. Hmm, I definitely agree with you on Hitchcock's standards and I would never purposely suggest that Hitchcock would get sloppy on his visuals. This was a man who had the whole movie inside his head, a man who storyboarded everything down to the last detail.

    Let me try to clarify and strike a balance between our two comments. I certainly believe that Hitchcock cared very deeply about the look of Marnie as well as his other films. However, looking not just at this film but at Hitchcock's work as a whole, I think he did have a decided preference for the unapologetically studio-bound film, complete with shaky (even for the time) rear projection and matte paintings. I can't claim to know what was in his head, but from his interviews I would guess that Hitchcock believed his audience knew damn well it was a movie and was more interested in the characters, the suspense, and the imagery than in why Tippi looked so awkward on that damn horse. Not exactly Brechtian but stylized certainly.

    Of course, Hitchcock could pull off some extraordinary special effects when he so desired. I just believe he had certain priorities and long-term habits as a filmmaker.

  16. What a great post! I agree with you on Stella Dallas. The first time I saw it I was virtually hypnotized by it. At the time I was still in high school I'd only ever seen Stanwyck in The Big Valley and Double Indemnity. Stella was a completely new facet. But the movie is so drippy and maudlin! Up until your post I'd never heard of Pursued. I'm not a big fan of Mitchum's but I'll look for it. Teresa Wright and Judith Anderson in a Western!

    Now I've got to compose my own response to your prompt -- a movie I don't like or love but am *fascinated* by.

  17. I'm with you on 'Peter Ibettson.' The kids are simply awful, the plot is strange, the sets and costumes have that too-many-flounces-and-whalebone look of 30s costume drama, and the only historical pieces that Cooper should be in should have him in chaps and spurs and with horses for company. But the film is mesmerizing, even moving to watch. And I adore Ann Harding, a great, underappreciated actress. The film, however clumsily, speaks to the idea of the value of the inner life, of the treasures to be found, not in life's outer hurly-burly, but within our own souls.

  18. The Gal Herself: Stella Dallas is sort of mesmerizing. Love it or hate it, I defy anyone to find it boring. And I'd love to read your post.

    Grandoldmovies: Finally, someone else who's seen Peter Ibbetson! Yeah I didn't even mention how uncomfortable Cooper looks in his costumes, with that ratty little mustache. But like you, I'm sort of drawn in by the film's straight-faced depiction of two souls bound together, without even the slightest hint of irony or distance. The closest cinematic cousin I can think of is Portrait of Jennie.

  19. Rachel, you've actually got me kinda intrigued about PURSUED now! :-) In any case, I certainly understand why you've dubbed these particular movies "fascination films," because I also have films like that: they've got just enough intriguing elements to keep my attention, yet there are always aspects of them that somehow seem to go off the rails and feel like they were hijacked by some entirely different movie! In the case of MARNIE, however, judging from the film and the research I've done on it out of sheer curiosity, I've always gotten the impression that MARNIE got so wonky because the relationship between Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock began to disintegrate, supposedly because Hitch made unwanted romantic advances to her.

    In my early TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED blog posts, I wrote about a couple of my own "fascination films," STILL OF THE NIGHT and LAST EMBRACE. If you're interested in checking them out, here are the links:

    STILL OF THE NIGHT (a two-parter, no less! :-))


    Rachel, your post is -- dare I say it? -- fascinating! :-)

  20. DorianTB: Yeah, I just had to come up with a category for these films...and why I find them so very interesting. I like your two choices (I was intrigued by Still of the Night during a channel-surfing spree but my companions nixed it). Now I'm off to read the reviews.