Saturday, August 23, 2014

Spielberg Blogathon: Something Evil (1972)

It certainly seems to me that the magical alchemy of good made-for-tv horror movies involves one particular equation above all others: accomplishing a lot with very little. 

Exhibit A: the most memorable horror TV-movies of yesteryear, such as Duel (1971) Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), Trilogy of Terror (1975), and Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) create moods of suffocating, overwhelming terror without necessarily showing viewers much by way of monsters, blood or other visual effects. 

Instead, in each of these productions the audience is strongly encouraged to identify with one "everyman" (or every-woman) character, and then watch as reality seems to slip further away from that protagonist and they descend into situations of the surreal or nightmarish.

A salesman experiences supernatural road rage.  A woman battles a Zuni Fetish doll come inexplicably to life, and so forth.

These stories are models of simplicity and efficiency, but each effort also boasts unexpected high impact due to brawny, virtuoso directorial flourishes.

Yet another TV-movie that epitomizes this brand of low-budget ingenuity and inventive spirit is 1972's Something Evil, directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Robert Clouse.

This tele-film was made during the rise of Exorcist fever in the United States -- after the book's release and before the premiere of the movie -- and the plot line indeed seems familiar to fans of the Friedkin venture. 

But the point here isn't necessarily the originality of any specific narrative details. Rather, the point is how ably Spielberg manipulates film grammar to forge an overarching atmosphere of free-floating, amorphous dread.  There is something at evil at work in the film all right, but at various times, one might suggest that the "something evil" of the title is madness, family dysfunction, or demonic possession.

First aired in prime time on CBS in 1972, Something Evil concerns the Worden family as it moves into an old, recently vacated farmhouse in Pennsylvania Dutch country.  The patriarch of the family, Paul (Darren McGavin) is a TV ad-man and producer, who is often away in New York City.  His wife, Margery (Dennis) is an artist who stays at home and cares for the family's two children, Stevie (Johnny Whitaker) and young Laurie (Debbie and Sandy Lampert).

After the Wordens purchase the country home -- which is suspiciously decorated with supernatural pentacles -- Sandy begins to experience regrets about their move.  For one thing, a surly neighbor, Gehrmann (Jeff Corey) keeps ritualistically killing chickens in plain view of her bedroom window.  For another, Sandy frequently awakens in the night to the terrible sounds of a child crying.   

Another local, Harry Lincoln (Ralph Bellamy) informs Sandy that pentacles represent a form of protection against devils and demons, and that he himself believes in such devils.  In fact, Lincoln has made a study of them his hobby.  With Paul away in the city for longer and longer intervals, Sandy grows increasingly paranoid about the house, especially when two of Paul's employees die in a car "accident" after filming a commercial on the premises. 

Convinced she is becoming spiritually possessed, Sandy locks herself off from her children, only to realize -- at long last -- that she is not the target of the Devil's attacks at all...

Again, the story in Something Evil is one we've all likely seen before. A lonely housewife believes in the supernatural and insists on the supernatural while her "rational" husband refuses to join in and share a meaningful dialogue about it.    He's just worried about money.  "If we sell this house now, I'd take a terrible loss," he states at one point.   On a (very) superficial level, the narrative is similar to Rosemary's Baby, for instance.

Then, of course, there are the young children imperiled by demonic possession, and  local experts warning of a house's dark history with the mystical and supernatural.  These plot details suggest The Exorcist, The Haunting and other horror tales we all know and love.

Yet Something Evil is perfectly titled. There is indeed "something evil" at work in this horror story, some amorphous aspect of the diabolical, and Spielberg carefully refrains from showing the Evil Thing's presence or even its shape on Earth throughout the film.  Rather, the director rigorously crafts unsettling, almost surreal set-pieces that effectively tap into our shared, subconscious language of nightmares. 

For instance, twice in the tele-film Sandy detects a strange noise in the thick of the night.  Both times, the noise sounds like a cat crying at first.  Then, as it continues more loudly, we can discern it is the voice of a terrified human child, crying and whimpering incessantly.  Sandy follows this unnerving voice down a dark staircase, out into the night, and into an outbuilding, a garden shed.  She can find no source for the cries, and returns to bed.

The second night that Marge hears the sound, something more terrifying occurs.  She follows it to the garden shed a second time, and this time the voice appears to be emanating from a mason's jar filled with a thick red, gelatinous substance.

The substance moves in the jar as if it is alive, as if the child's essence or soul is trapped inside.  Now, pretty clearly, this doesn't make a lot of "awake" or conscious sense, but it makes perfect nightmare sense.  It's irrational and yet wholly terrifying.  Amazing what a little food coloring and a mason's jar can achieve when utilized thoughtfully, isn't it? The discovery of the mason jar is just so weird, incongruous and unsettling that you can't quite shake the imagery.

To augment the idea of the shed as a source of something unspeakably evil, Spielberg often films his exterior sequences from a vantage point inside the structure, looking out into the surrounding yard.  This perspective accomplishes two things of consequence.  First, it restricts the available space of the characters visible in the frame.  The children are seen playing in the yard, but they are bracketed -- trapped, essentially -- by the arch of the doorway.

Secondly, and perhaps even more significantly, this perspective suggests the notion that something is alive in the shed, and gazing out from inside it.  This could be the point-of-view shot of a devil or demon. The demonic jar and its contents, perhaps?

Another, almost throwaway moment is nearly as unnerving as these canny visual perspectives.  Late in the film, Paul is at work in the city, reviewing the commercial footage he shot at his home.  A technician enters his office only to show him something weird that inexplicably appears on the film, even on the negative.  It's a set of red, glowing eyes...inside one window frame.

Again, we're not seeing a CGI demon, or even a man in a costume.  We're just seeing a phtographic still of eyes where none should be, and the effect is pretty shocking.

Finally, during the climax of Something Evil, Margery must reclaim the soul of her son, Stevie, who has become possessed.  Again, Spielberg selects a simple but effective shot to convey the demon's sense of power.  He positions the child in the center of the room -- but higher than any child could possibly stand -- and lets all hell break loose around this stationary force, meaning demonic wind, doors swinging open, etc.  The child's back is to the camera, so we can't see his face; can;t see what he actually looks like as an instrument of the Devil.

Again, when we think of demonic possession we remember the incredible visual effects of The Exorcist: twisted heads and pea soup, namely.  With little budget to speak of, Spielberg instead implies the demon's power by positioning him like a pillar -- unmoving --- in the center of the frame; letting others react to his powerful presence.  Low-budget filmmakers today really ought to study Spielberg's excellent staging.  It's a virtual master's thesis in attaining high impact sans major special effects.  Instead, every really chilling moment in Something Evil is achieved through applied film grammar; through positional intimation, to coin a phrase.

In narrative terms Something Evil might be  interpreted as a story in which a  family is torn apart by a sensitive mother's increasing sense of alienation and isolation.  Margery physically strikes Stevie at one point, and then delivers a heart-wrenching speech in which she says, essentially, that she is leaving the family (children included), because she no longer trusts herself.  She might as well be an alcoholic, given the particulars of her dialogue, and her actions.

Conjuring an evil force as the motivation for Mommy's bad behavior seems a perfect metaphor for childhood logic.  Mommy isn't herself.  There's "something evil" at work inside her.  Similarly, Stevie becomes "possessed" by something evil when Mother's love is no longer available.  Something else...something of a more sinister shade, steps in to fill that void.  Finally, Mom is told that "love is a powerful force" and re-asserts her role in the family.  But in some ways, the damage is already done.

Though in horror terms, Something Evil offers a pretty hoary, familiar storyline, it succeeds mainly because of Spielberg's staging.  By the time audiences get to Marge's second nocturnal visit to the garden shed -- and the sight of that oozing red gelatin in the mason jar -- Spielberg has us by the throat.  Then, the TV movie reaches a fever pitch of terror before ending on another unsettling visual:  The family car pulls away from the house of evil, but Stevie -- now free again -- sits backwards in the car, peering towards the camera (and the house), out the back window.

If not demonic, Stevie's eyes certainly appear traumatized.  His positioning  (backwards, essentially, intimating the opposite of order) denies the film a clean restoration of  balance and of the natural world, and suggests that Stevie's family problems may just be beginning.  In other words, what's encoded here  under the supernatural veneer of Something Evil is the idea of how a family's dysfunction damages and destroys children.   Something evil happens to the Wordens.   Is it demons, or the specter of looming divorce?

I often wonder what networks executives were thinking about, green lighting such terrifying tv-movies for family audiences in the 1970s.  And then I realize that on paper, Something Evil probably didn't appear too traumatic.  Just another, run-of-the-mill demon possession story.  But when Steven Spielberg entered the picture, the director lifted the material.  He took Something Evil from the realm of the routine and the familiar to the plateau of trauma.

And we should really thank him for a job extraordinarily well done.

This post is part of the SPIELBERG BLOGATHON hosted by Outspoken & Freckled, It Rains… You Get Wet, and Once Upon A Screen taking place August 23-24. Please visit these host blogs for a full list of participating blogs.

Spielberg Blogathon: Duel (1971)

In 1971, a promising young director named Steven Spielberg was locked into a seven year contract with Universal Studios and likely chafing at the limitations.   Then, his secretary handed Spielberg an issue of Playboy Magazine featuring the Richard Matheson short story of highway terror, "Duel."

The rest is film history. 

Spielberg shot the TV-movie adaptation of Matheson's classic tale in something like sixteen days (though some sources indicate twelve), on a budget of approximately 425,000 dollars.  The 73-minute version of the film aired on ABC for the first time November 13, 1971, and won the accolades of major national critics. 

Even more impressively, a 90-minute version of Duel played theatrically in Europe, and won the grand prize at the Festival de Cinema Fantastique in Avoriaz, France. 

Thanks to Duel, Spielberg's film career soon achieved escape velocity (at least after the relative hiccup of The Sugarland Express [1974]). 

In fact, Spielberg has always been the first to person to point out the many intriguing similarities between Duel and his first blockbuster hit, Jaws (1975). Both efforts  pit man against implacable, larger-than-life foes, either mechanical or natural, and both efforts also hint -- ever so subtly -- that the supernatural may even be involved in the clash. 

Less than a year from today, Spielberg's Duel will celebrate its fortieth anniversary.   Yet the mean, lean horror  film doesn't feel old or dated on a re-watch today.  On the contrary, it remains compelling and suspenseful; a veritable model of genre efficiency.

As New York Times critic Janet Maslin opined on the event of Duel's American theatrical release in 1983 (on the same day, actually, that Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead bowed...)  these early Spielberg effort "took advantage of the very narrowness of its premise, building excitement from the most minimal ingredients and the simplest of situations."

What this means in action is that Duel accelerates quickly from its first frame to its last, highlights only a few main characters, and showcases little dialogue.  The film is precisely what the title promises: a  "clash" between two dedicated combatants (a man driving a car and an unseen person manning the evil truck), with Spielberg's  splendid sense of visual metaphor carrying the day.

Much like Carpenter's brilliant Halloween (1978), the pure simplicity of Duel's structure and presentation permits the engaged viewer to layer on additional meanings and connections; to see more lurking beneath the hood, as it were, than the elegant screenplay literally expresses on the surface.  In this manner, Duel goes from being a basic tale of inexplicable road rage and survival to something infinitely more symbolic; a meditation on fate, and on Evil itself. 

European critics actually read Duel as a Marxist commentary on class warfare and capitalism in America, with the blue-class trucker pressing the gas hard as revenge against the entitled white-collar David Mann.  This is an interpretation which Spielberg famously and publicly resisted. 

Yet, as other critics have rightly pointed out there does seem to be a powerful subtext here about the state of masculinity in 1970s America, at the rise of the nascent women's liberation movement.

However, what makes Duel endlessly suspenseful and scary is not this admittedly-interesting social commentary, but rather Spielberg's canny visualizations of the sustained road battle.  In particular, he often frames the attacking truck as an invader in the frame itself; one that consumes and devours space and literally squeezes out [poor David Mann, "the little guy."  The impression given the audience is a world out-of-order, and of an over-sized, overpowered nemesis.

Late in the film, the beleaguered Valiant driver wonders how the malevolent, steam-belching truck can drive so fast, and in that one little moment the specter of the supernatural is appropriately raised.  Is the truck driven by the Devil?  Is it purely and simply Evil on 18-wheels?  This bit of dialogue is just a welcome implication -- the icing on the cake as it were -- but it contributes infinitely to the mythic and scary qualities of the 1971 film.

If you remember such films as The Car (1977), Christine (1983),  or the vignette in Nightmares (1983) starring Lance Henriksen, you can begin to understand the thematic and visual impact and influence of Spielberg's sterling adaptation of Duel. 

"Come on you miserable fat-head, get that fat-ass truck outta my way!"
David Mann (Dennis Weaver) calls for police help, while his 18-wheel nemesis barrels unexpectedly into frame.
Duel depicts a harrowing interlude in the life of a put-upon business man, David Mann (Dennis Weaver).  He departs for work in his red, 1970 Plymouth Valiant and -- on the open road -- ends up behind a filthy, smog-spewing Peterbilt truck.  Running late for a business appointment, David passes the truck on the road, crossing the lane into approaching traffic to do so.

Soon, the truck passes David, and he finds himself in the same predicament...choking down diesel fumes.  So David passes the big rig a second time, only, apparently, to spawn the enduring rage of the unseen driver.  Before long, the truck driver knowingly gestures David into the path of an oncoming car.  Then, the driver begins a relentless high-speed pursuit, attempting to run David off the road.

After slamming into a split rail fence, David stops at Chuck's Cafe.  There, he discovers -- to his horror -- that the offending truck has also arrived.  David attempts to ferret out the identity of the mysterious driver from the local diners, but only succeeds in making a scene with an innocent patron.

All day, the game of cat and mouse on the desert highway continues, escalating to pure terror.  The truck attempts to nudge David's Valiant onto railroad tracks as a locomotive crosses at full speed.  Finally, the implacable truck pursues David's out-matched Valiant up a treacherous mountainside.

When the Valiant's radiator hose breaks, and the car comes to a dead end at the mountain's apex, David must turn and face his oncoming enemy one last time...

"There you are, right back in the jungle again..."
David strikes a macho pose; but the specter of mechanical domesticity (a laundry dryer...) still looms over him.

On the surface, Duel is clearly a case of Man vs. Machine (or Mann vs. Machine), but roiling underneath the surface of this perfectly composed horror/action piece is an interesting  and unsettling commentary about masculinity in America circa 1970. 

A bit of history: Duel was crafted during the dawn of the "New Feminism" in this country.  The National Organization for Women, for instance, saw its ranks swell from 1,200 to 48,000 in the span from 1967 and 1970 alone.   

And in Spring of 1972, just a few months after Duel premiered, Time Magazine devoted an entire issue (March, 1972) to the subject of the Women's Liberation Movement.  The editors memorably termed the age a "time that tries men's souls." 

What that description indicates is that as much as women were fighting for an equal share of the pie at home in the work-place, some disco decade men felt, simultaneously...lost at sea.  

In the article "Women's Liberation Re-Visited," University of Michigan Psychologist Joseph Adelson was quoted as saying this:  "As any clinician knows, these days the problem in male sexuality lies in the opposite direction, not in phallic megalomania but rather in sexual diffidence and self-doubt,"  

It is in this cloud of "sexual diffidence and self-doubt" that Duel dwells.  This is where Dennis Weaver's protagonist -- and America too -- are living at the particular moment of the encounter with the evil rig.  "The concept of man as hunter and woman as keeper of the hearth, these feminists declare, is obsolete and destructive for both sexes," wrote Time Magazine.

But what ideal or order fills that void?  That's where the confusion rested for some men and some women, too, in determining what the new "role" for each sex was to be.

Early in Duel, this dissonance between "obsolete and destructive" tradition (patriarchy) and the new equality is evident.  When David Mann stops at a gas station, the attendant there tells him that "he is the boss."  David's response is simple, terse and telling: "Not in my house I'm not."  

This idea of a new sense of order is also reflected back at him by the attendant.  "Fill it with Ethel," says Mann.  "As long as Ethel doesn't mind," the attendant replies.  Encoded in that funny back-and-forth is the fear of offending an empowered woman; already the "the boss" in David's household.

A moment later, Mann enters the gas station to call his wife at home, and strikes "an exaggeratedly masculine posture" (pictured above), according to film scholar and biographer Nigel Morris in The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light (Wallflower Press, 2007, page 24). 

Mann strikes this pose, however, in an emasculating long shot, a directorial selection which actually distances us from the character, and makes him seem small and silly rather than large and powerful (as a low angle shot might have accomplished).

During that phone conversation, Spielberg cross-cuts to Mann's wife at home, where she is dusting and cleaning the living room (stereotypical "women's work") while two children play on the carpet around her, oblivious to their parents. 

But Mann's wife is very angry with David because at an office event the previous night, a co-worker "practically raped" her, and David did nothing about it.  Mrs. Mann pushes and prods her husband again and again, saying that he should at least "say something" (in other words, stand up for her honor; he thinks she means "punch the guy out.")

As this contentious conversation lingers, Mann's exaggeratedly masculine pose is  suddenly and totally eclipsed by a symbol of domesticity (and again, stereotypical "women's work)".  To wit: a woman's hand opens a laundry dryer door in the foreground of the shot; and David is essentially caged inside that transparent bubble. 

As Morris wrote on this topic:  "Mann literally is viewed through the female lens, this film repeatedly associating women, at the height of second wave feminism, with household labor." (Empire of Light; page 24)

At another point in the film, during David Mann's drive, the subject of endangered, confused (and diffident...) masculinity again arises. On the radio, Mann listens to a call-in program in which a confused man asks an important tax question (of a woman employee of the Federal government, importantly).  He is confused about filing his taxes because he is "the man of the family" but not "head of family."  He stays home and cooks and cleans; and his wife goes to work, so she is -- technically -- "head of household."  The caller seems abundantly confused about this upturning of the familiar social order, and even somewhat depressed by it.

Again, this particular radio show dialogue -- like the telephone conversation with Mann's wife, like the conversation with the gas station attendant -- harks back to the American crisis in masculinity during the rise of Second Wave Feminism.

Finally, Mann's masculinity is overtly threatened by the appearance on the road of a much larger vehicle (a phallic symbol?);  one ostensibly driven by a long-standing American representation of traditional masculinity: a cowboy, right down to his cowboy boots.  

This "real man" - a truck-driving cowboy 'merican -- plays for keeps, and is not at all henpecked, confused or diffident.  When this nemesis takes offense at another's actions, he doesn't apologize or choke down his emotions.  He doesn't "talk about it," as the effete Mann attempts to do with the wrong man in Chuck's diner.  No, he seeks revenge, pure and simple; he seeks to best his opponent, scorched Earth-style.  This is mankind at his most overtly,  confidently masculine, and paradoxically, at his most brutal and frightening.

So, finally, Duel becomes what author Andrew Gordon in Empire of Dreams called an "exercise in paranoia" in which "the hero is stripped of his secure, everyday identity and must prove his manhood [italics mine] by tapping hidden resources of endurance, resourcefulness, and courage." (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003, page 15).

That assessment puts a fine point on it.  In the Age of Second Wave Feminism, a time that "tried men's souls," this guy needs to -- in the modern vernacular of Sharron Angle - "man-up" and slay the technological dragon.

During one of Mann's interior dialogues, he seems to recognize the fact that he must call upon the atavistic qualities of his sex (as hunter, and as warrior),  Specifically, he notes that he is"right back in the jungle now."   That may be a more dangerous place than mechanized, domesticated modern society, but at least Mann understands the rules of the jungle: kill or be killed.

And indeed, Mann only beats the evil trucker when he forgoes help from outside forces (like the police), and stops asking others for assistance.  In fact, he is denied assistance from another henpecked man, a senior citizen who comes across him on the road and -- at his wife's insistence -- refuses to call the police for Mann. 

Amazingly, the Trucker won't even let Mann surrender. "The highway's all yours Jack... I'm not budging for at least an hour," Mann says, deciding to hide in a cul-de-sac.  But the truck finds him.  Again and again. 

So it's  literally a case of Mann up or die. 

Finally, having exhausted his other options (including total capitulation of the road), that's precisely what Mann does.  And the film cuts to a sort of Western or action-hero styled "suit-up scene" in which Mann settles into his seat, affixes his seat belt, puts on his gold-tinted sun glasses, and takes the Valiant into battle.

"Looked like a big complication to me!"

The giant truck dominates the frame in Duel; again and again
In my estimation, there are some rare genre films that are literally perfectly composed; visualized with such skill, flair and talent that they simply can't be improved upon.  I count Carpenter's Halloween and Spielberg's Duel among these rare titles.  In the case of the latter, Spielberg brilliantly and elegantly makes the film's form imaginatively reflect its content.

Above, I noted how Mann is lost in the world of the 1970s: deflated and diffident about his place.  He's henpecked by his wife, and the film also suggests he's saddled with an overbearing mother.  Other men (on the job...) seem to take advantage of him, and his overall wimpiness, too. 

The bulk of the film involves Mann pitted against the ultimate enemy, a truck that literally wants to take his space in the world and squeeze him right out of creation.   The truck is thus literally a road hog of the existential variety. 

In the early scene wherein Mann parks his Valiant at a gas pump, Spielberg's camera is positioned in front of the approaching vehicle.  The Valiant stops close-by, but there is still some distance remaining in the frame between the camera and the  Plymouth's front end.  The shot feels appropriate to convention; not exaggerated or heightened.

But suddenly, the giant rig pulls into the parallel pump lane, and it immediately  traverses that remaining distance, virtually pulling right up to the lens.  This is an invasion, a usurpation of frame space, and it is a filmic metaphor for the truck's malevolent purpose in the screenplay.

Mann's space is again tread upon, here by the over-sized truck.
Later, there's another gorgeous shot in which Spielberg gives us a full view of the landscape, a long shot. 

In the foreground, bigger than everything (even mountains) is the giant truck, and small -- almost ant-like -- is Mann.  Our hero stands isolated in the middle of the road, outside his suit of armor (his car; the Valiant), metaphorically naked and unprotected.   

Even in this shot (pictured to the left), you can immediately see how the truck's position occludes spectatorship; how the giant truck overwhelms everything else, cutting into Mann's space in the center of the frame. 

In other words, the frame consists of a kind of symmetry: truck on the left; Mann in frame center; and the Valiant positioned on the far right.  But just look at how far into Mann's "middle" terrain the truck invades.  This is a deliberate usurpation of symmetry, of shot space, and again, it visually reinforces the narrative.

Another example of order overturned involves a phone booth in the desert (another shot pictured above).  Mann believes he is safe and secure in the phone booth as he calls the police for assistance, but in fact the booth is just another cage that traps him.  And, deliberately sowing disorder, the truck juts into frame and barrels through the booth at near warp-speed.  Mann escapes in the nick-of-time, but order and civilization are destroyed.

Again and again, Spielberg deploys gorgeous and contextually-appropriate mise-en-scene to express the movie's themes and central oppositional relationship; that of a man who feels small and diffident battling an unnaturally big and perhaps supernatural opponent.

Except for some great, paranoid interior monologues, Duel mostly eschews explanation and dialogue.  Instead, Spielberg makes the visuals dictate the shape of his narrative.  Sometimes these visuals are of road signs or other symbolic indicators.  A sign reading STOP appears at a pertinent moment, for example, and the legend on the back of the devil truck reads FLAMMABLE.  That's a nice way of saying the driver has a really bad temper: mess with him and he'll explode, literally.

At other instances in Duel, extreme close-ups of the odometer needle -- leaning right into the danger zone of "100 milers per hour" --  tell us what we need to know in any given moment.    These insert shots, like the "information overload" close-ups of shark books, police reports and  even doodles, etc, in Jaws, make us feel a sense of heightened immediacy.  It's as if we're driving the car in this case; or peering into the rear view with our own eyes.

To further heighten this sense of immediacy, the interlude in Chuck's Cafe is shot hand-held, almost jerky, as if we -- like Mann -- have become untethered from the natural order and are taking tentative steps into new, possibly dangerous territory.  We don't know where we stand in this place; and neither does Mann.

Finally, I love the metaphor of the finale: Mann literally "reaches the mountaintop" and destroys his enemy.  The battle royal is the summit of the extended duel; at a geographical apex of the landscape, and also the apotheosis of the character who -- appropriately suited-up -- finally beats his never-seen but intractable opponent. He has achieved his destiny as knight (a destiny suggested by the film's title; and the name of his car, Valiant.) 

In this instance, everyday, ordinary Mann has recovered and reclaimed his masculinity.

There's just no two ways about it.  Duel works on all kinds of levels: as straight, terrifying horror film, and as a loaded commentary on its time and the crisis in masculinity that accompanied the New Feminism of the early 1970s.   In later years, Spielberg has often lapsed into overt sentimentality  and schmaltz in some of his more popular cinematic works, but Duel remains-- wonderfully -- Spielberg at his nastiest and most efficient.  

Honk if you love Duel...

“This post is part of the SPIELBERG BLOGATHON hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, It Rains… You Get Wet, and Once Upon A Screen taking place August 23-24. Please visit these host blogs for a full list of participating blogs.

Spielberg Blogathon: The Name of the Game: "L.A. 2017" (1971)

" L.A. 2017" is a uniquely dystopian episode of the wheel TV series The Name of the Game (1968-1971) and one directed by none other than movie legend Steven Spielberg.

Networks don't present so-called wheel series these days, but The Name of the Game filled a ninety-minute slot each week of its 76-episode run on NBC, with three rotating lead actors (Gene Barry, Tony Franciosa and Robert Stack) vetting different story lines. 

In this case, all the adventures portrayed on The Name of the Game centered around Howard Publishing.  Franciosa played an investigative reporter, Stack a crime magazine editor, and Gene Barry was Glenn Howard, the publisher-and-chief.

Created near the end of The Name of the Game's three year run, on the then-considerable budget of $375,000 dollars, "L.A. 2017" features Gene Barry's character, and sends him off in an unexpected and frightening science fiction adventure.

As "L.A. 2017" (written by Philip Wylie) commences, Glenn Howard is on his way back to Los Angeles from the Sierra Pines Conference on Ecology. 

As he drives on a windy mountain road, Glenn dictates a private memo to the President of the United States about what he has seen and heard at the conference.  He suggests that "the destruction of the environment" is imminent unless someone begins to demonstrate real leadership on the issue.

While steering and dictating the memo, Glenn suddenly falls unconscious and drives his car off the road. When he awakes, he is being tended to by two emergency workers in red jumpsuits and protective gas masks. 

These men escort him through the "Los Angeles Portal" to the city.  But it's not the same city it once was, as Glenn quickly learns.  The year is now 2017, and the surface of the planet Earth is uninhabitable.  Mankind has moved underground to a series of overcrowded subterranean complexes.

While Glenn tries to figure out how he traveled into his own future, the authorities of 2017 interrogate him.  Cameron (Severn Darden) is a psychiatrist and chief-of-police, and is suspicious of the stranger.  Cameron fears Glenn might be part of a violent underground movement seeking to destroy the cities.  "I can get anything I want out of you, electronically," he confides in his ward.   Soon, Cameron diagnoses Glenn as either "schizoid" or telling the truth about his time travels.

In short order, Glenn is introduced to the amiable Vice-President of Los Angeles, Dane Bigelow (Barry Sullivan).  Dane further explains the nature of this terrifying future.  He describes how mankind has been underground since 1989, when the atmosphere grew "toxic" after the growth of poisonous algae in the Indian Ocean.   Because "science and government stood by while everything died," the business community of the United States took over control of the country, drafting a "Corporate Constitution" that gave all surviving citizens shares in America, Inc.  Supposedly, this is a more "efficient" system of government, than before.  At least according to Bigelow and the Chairman of America Inc.

A beautiful young woman, Sandrette (Sharon Farrell) gives Glenn a tour of the underground city, home to 11,000 survivors.  She introduces herself by informing Glenn is she is "thirty, sterile and a sex education major."  Sandrette then takes Glenn to church where computers have taken the place of priests.  You can type your spiritual question on a keyboard, and the computer will answer it.  Example: Q: "How do I find the truth?"  A: "It will find you." 

The more Glenn learns of life in LA in 2017, the less he likes it.  America is at war with England over a jurisdictional matter, and many of the poor citizens are assigned to public housing, five or six people to a single room.  Worse, these homes often show seepage from the surface, and the air is becoming unbreathable.  Other people are exploited as workers on the poisonous surface, an occupation with a 20 percent death rate. 

Milk is the drink of the rich, because there's only one cow, and it is "privately owned."

The state also constantly monitors all citizens, making privacy a thing of the past. 

"If there's no privacy, there can't be any invasion of privacy," Sandrette cheerily informs the visitor from the 20th century.  When Glenn asks her if there is any freedom in the city at all, Sandrette's response is similarly vacant: "Freedom is always relative to the needs of the community."

In the final moments of "L.A. 2017," Glenn escapes the city, where the Vice-President has plans to install him as the head of a state-sponsored press/propaganda outfit, and tries to make it back to his car, and hopefully, back to his time...

Although "L.A. 2017" features the dreaded "it was all a dream," dramatic cheat at the end, it nonetheless makes for a remarkably powerful program, forecasting ably the growing power and influence of corporations in America, as well as a technological surveillance state.  The movie boasts many great, almost throwaway moments involving the city's official announcements over loudspeakers, for instance.  One such advertisement encourages citizens to "borrow against their shares at an interest rate of just 35 percent,"  a concept that is not at all foreign to our contemporary country, post Great Recession. 

This episode of The Name of the Game is veritably filled with brilliant little asides like that, such as the surprise announcement in a control room that "there are unconfirmed reports of a Negro(!) in Cleveland," meaning, apparently that most African-Americans did not live to survive the new Corporate America.  Another interesting touch: parenthood is "no longer for amateurs."  On the contrary, the State has "professionals" do it now; professionals who have removed the words "mother" and "father" from society all together. So the episode also reflects the growth of the so-called "Nanny State."

I also enjoyed the way the episode blends psychiatrists with law-enforcers; these fearsome men are -- quite literally -- thought-police (and armed with weapon cylinders which fire injections of "counter-productive" drugs.)

But the episode's finest and most telling moment arises in the last act.  Glenn visits Vice-President Bigelow and upbraids him for maintaining and nourishing a "totalitarian state." 

At first, Bigelow responds that "survival justifies anything" in 2017, but then he changes his tact. 

He turns Glenn's self-righteousness around on the man from the 20th century.  If Glenn hates this "future" so much, why didn't he do something about the environment when he had money, fame and power, back in 1971?  Who is he to judge the future if he didn't take responsibility for building it in the first place? 

This is a really clever narrative angle, because it asks the audience, rather bluntly, to take just such responsibility for our shared tomorrows.   Why aren't we complaining more loudly that some people -- in the thrall of big business -- want to gut rules and regulations that keep our water clean, our food safe, and our air breathable? 

Director Steven Spielberg does a solid, highly-effective job creating and charting this dystopian future of the year 2017.  He sometimes sets his camera high--up (pointed down) to catch an angled-perspective of the various rooms; presenting the appearance of being a surveillance camera view.   On other occasions, he uses extreme low angles looking up to present us multiple levels of surveillance, a visual cue that the upper class is always looking down on the rest of the populace.

Otherwise, Spielberg gets the absolute most out of the tunnels and corridors of the city, fostering memorable visions of a claustrophobic world.  In the episode's final road chase -- an ambulance versus a police car with a hood-mounted machine gun -- he deploys many of the same expressive angles he used in Duel (1971). 

Finally, Spielberg's last shot -- a shift in focus from a "rescued" Glenn in 1971 to a dead bird on a bare tree branch in the foreground -- proves a nice way of undercutting the facile "it was all a dream" ending.  Instead, Spielberg puts the valedictory focus of this piece on the environment, leaving us no choice but to consider its importance.

What surprised me a great deal about this long-ago production was -- to take a page from Glenn's dialogue -- "how it's all remarkably consistent."

The episode is filled with odd touches (like a rock-and-roll club for senior citizens), affecting touches (a painted skyline is all that's left of surface life...), and moments of authentic pathos (the death of one of the four last fish in the world...).   There's not one moment of empty air in this TV show from forty-two years ago; not one wasted breath.

Instead, Spielberg and writer Wylie fill in every inch of the movie with terrifying and memorable detail.

“This post is part of the SPIELBERG BLOGATHON hosted by Outspoken and Freckled, It Rains… You Get Wet, and Once Upon A Screen taking place August 23-24. Please visit these host blogs for a full list of participating blogs.”

Friday, August 22, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: The World, The Flesh, and The Devil (1959)

Directed by Ranald MacDougall, The World, the Flesh and The Devil (1959) commences with the end of the world itself. 

An African-American miner named Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte), survives the widespread effects of "atomic poison" in the atmosphere because he is trapped in a cave-in beneath the Earth's surface when the war occurs. After Ralph discovers a path to the surface, he learns from newspaper headlines that nuclear war has wiped out almost all animal life on the planet.  He is alone. 

The early portions of The World, The Flesh and The Devil remain staggeringly beautiful, not to mention eerie, as the solitary Ralph makes his way to New York City, avoiding bridges and tunnels crowded with abandoned cars.

Once in Manhattan, Ralph calls out for help -- for any sign of life -- and editor Harold Kress cuts to a visually-dramatic montage of empty city streets near the Empire State Building. 

These scenes, lensed in the early mornings and in extreme long shot are completely convincing and discomforting. 

In particular, they create this overwhelming feeling of a hustling-and-bustling modern world transformed instantaneously into a relic; one of eternal silence and isolation. 

Dwarfed by the ubiquitous 20th century urban architecture of the Big Apple -- and with no other people around -- Ralph truly seems vulnerable; a man trapped in a very large cage.  Around him are all the sights of the old world; all the shapes and forms, but nothing else. It's like Hell on Earth, after a fashion, being able to see and touch everything that you loved...except for the very people who made life special.

Despite such impressive and affecting end-of-the-world vistas, however, The World, The Flesh and The Devil remains most famous for its controversial narrative, which in very blunt fashion revolves around racism and even, to a surprising degree, monogamy.

As much as Ralph stands beneath the shadows of a vast, dead, technological metropolis, it's clear he also lives under the shadow of a dead and corrosive world view. One that dictated he was less valuable than white people because of the color of his skin.

In short order, the three human survivors of The World, The Flesh and The Devil must make a choice about what kind of new world they hope to dwell in. 

Specifically, the plot revolves around a black man, Ralph, a white woman named Sarah (Inger Stevens), and a white man named Ben (Mel Ferrer). And they all keep circling around one inevitable, inescapable conclusion.  If the "old" and traditional ways are to be respected and followed, Sarah can only be with one man; and she can never be with a black man.  Even if she prefers Ralph to Ben.  

In the end, the white man, Ben, is even willing to launch what he callously terms "World War IV" to re-establish the rules of yesteryear; threatening to murder Ralph if he doesn't flee town and leave Ben to his would-be bride. 

The film ultimately walks back from such a violent precipice in a way that is surprisingly hopeful and also  -- let's not be coy about it -- revolutionary. 

The World, The Flesh and The Devil's  notorious valedictory shot consists of a black man, white woman and white man holding hands together -- a threesome -- as they walk off into the sunset to the superimposed words "The Beginning.

This visual conclusion is wholly suggestive, as many critics have noted, of a new world order that eschews violence, war, and racism and encourages...polygamy. 

That's something you don't see everyday in the cinema of the 1950s, post-apocalyptic or not, and The World, The Flesh and The Devil is truly like few post-apocalyptic films you've ever seen. There's no overt, walking "outside" menace (zombies, mutants, giant scorpions etc.) for the characters to battle against.

Rather, they must each confront their own belief systems and relationships.

Do you know what it means to be sick in your heart from loneliness?

The inaugural portions of The World, The Flesh and The Devil deal explicitly with Ralph's sense of utter loneliness when he believes he is the last man alive on Earth.

Desperate for company, he brings two department store mannequins back to his apartment in the city, and promptly names them Snodgrass and Betsy. 

Both mannequins are white and Ralph quickly develops a kind of love-hate relationship with Snodgrass (the male mannequin) over his (imaginary) treatment of Betsy.  After one especially contentious conversation Ralph has had enough of Snodgrass, and actually throws the mannequin over the ledge in his apartment.  The mannequin crashes to the street below and is destroyed. 

It is neither difficult, nor inappropriate to read the sequence with the mannequins as one that deliberately foreshadows Ralph's experience with Sarah and Ben.  He literally "kills" Snodgrass in defense of Betsy's honor, and later almost succumbs to Ben's war-to-the-death over "possession" of Sarah. 

But in some way, Ralph manages to make a different choice in that real-life, climactic scenario; impelled in part, perhaps, by his reading of an inspirational quote in United Nations Plaza. Ralph throws down his rifle and refuses to kill  Ben -- the real life Snodgrass -- lest he repeat the mistakes of the world, and, finally, Sarah brings the two men together.

But the important thing to consider here is that Ralph is able, at least in some way, to release his built-up sense of hatred and oppression on the inanimate Snodgrass, not on the living, breathing Ben.

And that hatred is a result -- without mincing words -- of the racism of the culture.

Ralph is acutely conscious of matters of race, and keeps bringing race up to Sarah even as they become friends. After her first, hostile words -- "don't touch me," the couple nonetheless builds a bond of real friendship, but Ralph always, very carefully monitors his "place" in relationship to her. On Sarah's birthday, for instance, Ralph fixes a fancy dinner for her at a chic restaurant...but then notes that the help doesn't dine with the patrons. You can see that this comment breaks her heart.

Interestingly then, Ralph -- a victim of the old social construct --- remains trapped in that construct to a much more significant degree than Sarah does. She is occasionally insensitive about matters of race, at one point noting arrogantly that she is "free, white and 21." But Sarah also admonishes Ralph to be "bold" when cutting her hair, a line that clearly holds a double meaning for her. What Sarah is saying is that she wants and desires Ralph to make the first move.

When Ralph reminds Sarah that he is "colored," Sarah's encouraging response is "You're a fine, decent man and that's all I need to know." Although Sarah often appears weak and frail in the early portions of the film, she is actually stronger than Ralph in one critical sense. She is ready to lay down the past (and old traditions) to live happily in the present with the man she loves.This is something that Ralph, for the longest time can't seem to do.

Really, Ralph is caught in a terrible bind. The way he deals with the death of the world at large is trying to re-build it.  We witness him making a radio station operational, and restoring power to various apartment buildings with a portable generator. Ralph also collects books and paintings in his apartment, so that the beauty of the old world is not lost. 

In other words, Ralph keeps attempting to deny the new world order and restore the old one. But this is strangely unproductive in a personal sense. For if Ralph restores the old world -- the world he lived in before the bombs fell -- than he must also restore the old, racist ways and ultimately lose Sarah to Ben.

Ralph can't rebuild the old world and make a new world with Sarah.  He has to choose one or the other.

The least developed character in the film is likely Mel Ferrer's Ben, who arrives in the late second act, just when Sarah and Ralph are finally growing close. 

Ben rather blatantly represents the old world social constructs in that he immediately resorts to violence and killing; the very things that turned our planet to a cemetery. Unlike Ralph, Ben does not take his anger out on inanimate though symbolic objects of his hatred like the mannequins, but upon Ralph himself.  He takes up a rifle and nearly kills Ralph.

If Ralph represents "the world;" man's indomitable drive to bring civilization back from the precipice and wilderness, and Sarah -- with her longing for Ralph and human intimacy -- represents "the flesh," then certainly, in some fashion, Ben is definitively "The Devil" of the film's title.  He sees only what he wants: -- Sarah -- and his obstacles to possessing her, namely Ralph. 

And Ben is willing to wage bloody war when the world has seen enough of war for five billion lifetimes. 

Again, consider the audacity of such a characterization in 1959 America for just a moment.

Ben -- a symbol for the prevailing social order -- is portrayed not as a great hope, but as sinister; as the Devil culpable for the state-of-the-world itself.  Again, this is an idea that very much escapes most post-apocalyptic films. In Damnation Alley (1977), for instance, we are asked to root for the very men (Peppard and Jan Michael Vincent) who unquestioningly "pushed the button" in a nuclear exchange.

Sooner or later, someone will ask me what I want...

As progressive as The World, The Flesh and The Devil remains in terms of dealing with matters of racial equality, it is perhaps even more so in terms of sex roles. 

The action in the film resolves not when the well-armed white man says it should; not even when another man, Ralph, refuses to kill Ben (having acted out his murderous urges on Snodgrass). Rather, the action resolves in the film when Sarah, a woman, steps up and asserts her choice.

Her choice is -- shockingly -- that she will not settle for either/or, for either Ralph or Ben. 

Rather, she will take both of them.

Sarah takes both men's hands and marches them out of their self-established war zone, into what a title card reveals is "the beginning."

She positions herself as peace-maker and power player in the triumvirate, a latter-day Lysistrata, forcing those who would fight and kill to bend to her will. Certainly, it takes her a while to get to this point; of being treated like the property of either man. But eventually Sarah realizes her power over both men, and uses that power to unite all factions. This is the Biblical creation story re-told, but in this case, Eve has two Adams.

One should not make the mistake of thinking that because The World, The Flesh and The Devil was produced in the late 1950s it avoids matters of sex. At one point, a frustrated (with Ralph) Sarah begs Ben to make love to her, for instance. 

And Belafonte and Stevens share a potent sexual chemistry throughout the film. The scene in which Sarah implores Ralph to be "bold" while cutting her hair isn't just about a hair cut.  It's about intimacy, about sexuality, about physical contact.

And in such a clear-cut situation --- when only a few humans remain on Earth -- it plays as completely natural and right.  That's (one) point of the film: that the old social construct -- which forbade love between blacks and whites -- was the unnatural order. It's just a shame it takes the death of nine-tenths of the Earth's population for that fact to become obvious, right?

The danger when interpreting a film as intriguing The World, The Flesh and the Devil is that by excavating these unique aspects of theme and narrative, I end up making the film sound like some dull polemic on race relations, politics and women's rights. 

I want to clear about this: the film's not like that at all. It's a movie about three charismatic and interesting people who survive the end of the world, and then have to find their way to a new order, a new peace, and a new sense of individual happiness. 

What remains so beautiful about the film today is that despite the end-of-the-world scenario, the movie never forsakes the hope that people -- and the systems people make -- can change for the better.

That hope is the necessary prerequisite, perhaps, for human civilization to continue in the face of disaster, apocalypse, or even just bad days. I can't imagine this film being re-made in the same fashion  today. Today, we would demand that Ralph kill Ben, and walk off into the sunset with Sarah alone.  No mercy, no forgiveness, simply violence and reward for violence. The World, The Flesh and the Devil goes out of its way to avoid so simplistic and banal a resolution of the drama.

As The World, The Flesh and the Devil moves into its third and final act, natural life slowly begins to return to New York City. Flowers once more bloom again as the atomic poison dissipates. It's in this environment of re-birth that "the Beginning" commences for Ralph, Sarah and Ben, and for the human race. 

It's a beautiful and hopeful grace note -- the return of nature -- to go alongside the latest development in human nature, including an end to racial prejudice. Today, we might dismiss a film like this as recklessly optimistic or idealistic, but The World, The Flesh and the Devil's genetic equation is unique and admirable. 

It's a movie about mankind finally flexing the better angels in his nature, after for so long vigorously exercising his worst.