Film Review: Spirits of the Dead (Histoires extraordinaires, 1968)

One of many 1960s movies of its kind, Spirits of the Dead is a three-part anthology of Edgar Allan Poe´s lesser known short stories, each of them directed by a different European filmmaker – Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini.

Quoting Poe at the beginning (“Horror and fatality have been stalking abroad in all ages. Why then give a date to the story I have to tell?”), this movie set his stories in three different historical periods, from medieval times to then present day, in chronological order. More as two romantic mysterious melodramas and one sardonic satire than as horrors in a traditional sense, all three of these adaptations share a sense for visual beauty as well as attractive cast. However, in terms of an effective storytelling, their quality is uneven.

Metzengerstein

Let me introduce to you Barbare… eh, I mean baroness Metzengerstein (Jane Fonda). They just have the same tailor, I guess.

Directed by Roger Vadim, starring his then wife Jane Fonda and co-starring her brother Peter Fonda as her love interest, the adaptation of a first ever published story of Edgar Allan Poe could be easily described by only three words: visually stunning mess. If you previously saw some other films directed by this man, you probably know what I mean. Mr. Vadim could have been a great swinging sixties fashion guru. But as a filmmaker, he should be also a good storyteller, which he was not, I´m afraid.

So, based on its costumes, set designs and makeup, one could think that his segment is about Barbarella, mysteriously finding out her way to the past, where she pretends to be a bitchy baroness, secretly trying to influence the fashion trends of the medieval times. And, of course, to seduce some men along the way. But Jane Fonda actually plays a different character (or at least, desperately tries to) who just happens to share a similar taste in fashion and gender politics with the space heroine mentioned above.

Even if her baroness Metzengerstein is of an aristocratic origin and female sex, one can´t really use the word “noblewoman” in her case, because there is nothing noble about her. This is partly because of the character itself as she is – and is meant to be – a cruel, ruthless bitch torturing her fellows just for fun of it.

But partly also because Jane Fonda plays her as a redneck cowgirl who won some lottery and now gives everyone a big show of how much money and power she has. I believe Jeanne Moreau could be much better casting choice for this part, but I can understand the comercial motivations to make another Vadim-Fonda vehicle instead of a good movie.

So, this ovidian story about a man metamorphosed in a black horse after his accidental death, and a woman who then finally realizes how badly she behaved to him, was over fourty minutes long torture to watch for me. And the increasing stack of a shallow wannabe-freudian symbolism certainly did not help this.

William Wilson 

Alain Delon, the godfather of self-harming

Alain Delon, the godfather of self-harming

The second segment has its highs and lows, but generally, the result is much more coherent in each component. Directed by Louis Malle, the story focuses on a sociopathic young man (Alain Delon), who wants to confess a murder he commited. In an unevenly interesting line of flashbacks, he tells the priest about a mysterious man whose name is exactly the same as his – William Wilson – and who keeps following him since their childhood.

Whenever the original William Wilson commits something really bad (and, being an obvious sadist, he does such things on a daily basis), this second William Wilson shows up as some sort of a romantic hero from “cloak and dagger” genre, ready to rescue the victim and punish the offender. Both William Wilsons are played by Delon, except for shots in which they physically interact with each other. In order not to disturb the illusion of two Delons, the chivalrous Wilson wears a mask covering half of his face, so Delon´s double remains anonymous.

The longest part of this segment is devoted to a card game Wilson plays with some noblewoman, played by Brigitte Bardot. And even if a huge amount of money is at stake, as well as is their privilege to punish the other in case of win, it´s really, really long and I am convinced that this is only because of Brigitte Bardot was cast in the part. She´s beautiful (actually, wearing a black wig, she looks more like Claudia Cardinale) and unlike Fonda, she knew how to act impressively without any external manifestations of it.

However, the sadomasochistic tension in a subtext of their game can not be stretched indefinitely, and more cutting would be of great benefit to the result. Especially when you can see the denouement of the story from afar.

Toby Dammit

Terence Stamp as Toby Dammit. If Edgar Allan Poe and Betelgeuse could have a hypothetical son…

I am generally a fan of Anglo-Saxon concept of cinema rather than of the Italian one, so I was seriously surprised that it was Federico Fellini segment which I enjoyed the best. His very loose adaptation of Poe´s short story Never Bet the Devil Your Head, starring Terence Stamp, is clearly the winner here. The titular character is a British actor, asked to star in Italian film, whose producers proudly present it as “the first ever Catholic western“.

We never see anything from this prepared masterpiece, because the whole segment captures a time elapsing between Toby´s arrival to the Italian airport and his night after, spent out at some bizarre award ceremony. Fellini´s obsessive contempt for television is hugely present here, but it´s not as snobbish and annoying as in some of his later films. It definitely makes much more sense in a story about an actor, devastated by his profession.

The anxious hero, probably not coincidentally resembling Edgar Allan Poe in a way, seems to be completely exhausted and disgusted by everything and everyone around him, so what we see along through his eyes, is just a dellusional pulsating carneval of grotesque. Fellini managed to capture so many people, surroundings and situations, some of them just barely overlooked for a few seconds, that I believe his present-day segment could have cost more money than both previous period dramas altogether.

In Toby Dammit (and some may argue that also in Fellini´s work in general) all people look and behave like a bunch of variously shaped and coloured insects, buzzing around the hero´s head and slowly killing him with their stings of words, asks and wishes. With each camera flash irradiating his face and each spasmodic smile he receives, Toby is closer and closer to be done with this world. And more and more prepared to leave it soon.

Even if the source material could be only an obligatory excuse for something different, more “auteurish” in this case, I appreciate that Fellini took from Poe something what the majority of his adaptators usually ignore, and that´s his dark, misanthropic humour. If for nothing else, watch the Spirits of the Dead for this last segment.

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TV Review: Aksál (1969)

Josef Abrhám and Marie Drahokoupilová

Similarly to Milan Kundera and some other Czech writers of his generation, playwright Pavel Kohout went through a major personal development during his profesional life. Starting as a devoted communist, writing enthusiastic hymns on Stalin in the early 1950s, he ended up being a totalitarian regime´s worst enemy, expelled from Czechoslovakia by its government in the fall of the 1970s. I am far from being a fan of his work, which I see as more often just demonstrative and pretentious than really interesting or culturally relevant, but there are some exceptions.

Thirty minutes long TV short Aksál, directed by acclaimed stage and TV director Jiří Bělka, is one of them. One of the last Kohout´s work before his plays were banned by the government, Aksál concludes about five years long period of his interest in collaboration with Czech film industry and television. After his emigration, he tried to continue in German-speaking world (by, for example, directing a TV remake of then banned and later famous Karel Kachyňa´s political thriller The Ear), but as far as I know, none of these attempts received any significant response.

From the author whose work is most famous for a substantial political subtext in it, I would expect anything but a lyrical story about love. Surprisingly, exactly that Aksál is. Narrated in real time, Kohout´s play focuses on a thirty something woman Ema (Marie Drahokoupilová), who is married for twelve years to a considerably older doctor (Jiří Adamíra). Their marriage seems to be happy, as they talk it with a younger couple at the beginning of the story. But is it really?

During one afternoon at some holiday resort, the doctor is asked to take a look at some sick child, so his wife is left alone in an empty restaurant overlooking the lake. She decide to spend her spare time reading a book, but then a younger man (Josef Abrhám) shows up. He asks Ema various questions (as if she likes dogs and if so, why she hasn’t one), half-jokingly, half-seductively. What she sees as a rude intrusion at first, starts to interest and entertain her more and more.

The young man, who introduces himself as Aksál (which is a nonsencial word in Czech and its real meaning is not revealed until the end) obviously has an original sense of humour and a hyperactive imagination. Jumping from one topic to another, whether it is a possibility of tightrope walking without rope or a usefulness of hyenas, he also keeps asking Ema questions. These are more and more personal. Because their conversation seems to be a clash of two opposite philosophical approaches to life (imaginative and conservative), Ema answers even some uncomfortable questions (as why she has no child) in order to defense her way of life.

Yes, her marriage maybe is little bit worn-out. Yes, she even imagined to herself how it would be like to divorce with her husband. But after all, their marriage is relatively happy, with dog/kid or without it. However, with each of her answers, Ema seems to be less convinced. To her own surprise, after about twenty minutes of conversation with this stranger, she is determined to leave her husband and go away with Aksál. The story has a sort of twist-ending, which is tragic in a way, even if nobody dies. I don´t want to spoil it to anyone. So, if you believe you could watch this rare short someday, skip the following paragraph.

SPOILER There is a confrontation at the end, with Aksál informing Ema´s husband that she is leaving him. After a fist fight between the two of them, two hospital orderlies enter the restaurant, apparently relieved that they finally found their man. With a promise that they´ll let him try the tightrope walking without rope, they take away the lunatic asylum fugitive Aksál (which is “láska”, a Czech word for “love”, read backwards), leaving crying Ema alone in the restaurant with her husband, questioning her life. END OF SPOILER

When I was asking myself why such a little talky short film impressed me more than anything else that Pavel Kohout ever wrote, I have to come to three conclusions. First of all, it´s the topic of the play, which is sort of defense of imagination and freedom over the more conservative and uptight way of life, dictated by common social conventions. That is something I can easily identify with.

Secondly, the actors. Josef Abrhám´s filmography amounts to one hudred and twenty films and TV productions, with various leading parts in many of them. But Marie Drahokoupilová unfortunately wasn´t so lucky. Most of Czech directors used to cast her rather stereotypically as the “vamp woman” (in 1993 comedy The Vampire Wedding, she even literally played a woman who became a vampire), which is type not so often present in Czech films and TV dramas. So, she was more or less obliged to repeat one stereotype, mostly in supporting roles, and did not have much opportunities to play something more challenging and differentiated. Aksál is one of not so many exceptions and she is great in it.

The third thing is that Aksál shows some quite nontraditional formal aspects for a Czech TV production of its time, especially that the whole thing was shot in exteriors (including the restaurant scenes). This decision apparently faced some troubles (being shot against the daylight, the actors were surrounded by a slight blackish aura from time to time, also one particular shot seems to be shot in the studio and added in later, probably for that reason). But thanks to the “living” lake, woods and gusts of wind, Aksál has definitely more fluidum of something real and unrepeatable, which it wouldn´t have if it was filmed entirely in the studio.

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TV Review: A Dime a Dance (Síť na bludičku, 1983)

Dagmar Veškrnová

Of all Czech foreign crime fiction adptations, this one belongs among my personal favourites. It´s based on a short story called A Dime a Dance, written by Cornell Woolrich (under his pen name William Irish). Original Czech title of the play – Síť na bludičku – is derived from a title of a song which plays a key role in the story, and has a different meaning. But I think its English translation “The Net for a will-o’-the-wisp” sounds and even looks so clumsy and confusing, that it will be better to use the short story title.

Set in an American dance night club (with very obvious space limitations of a small Czech TV studio), the story focuses on a simple-minded, but good-hearted dancer Sandy (Dagmar Veškrnová-Havlová), whose best friend and fellow dancer Julie (Evelyna Steimarová) mysteriously disappears one day. Sandy knows that such a dissappearance without previous explanation is not usual for Julie and tries to find out what happened. She is even more worried when their boss Mr. Marino (Miloš Kopecký) claims angrily that after her unapologized absence Julie hasn’t to be bothered to come to the work anymore.

And she won´t. Unfortunatelly, a morbid forecast of the dancehall dressing lady Mrs. Henderson (Blanka Bohdanová), who loves to read newspaper columns about murders and accidents, was right. Julie was murdered in her flat by some unknown man, with whom she previously had a dance that night. The killer (whose at least third victim Julie was) seems to be some sort of a weirdo focused exclusively on dancers. Apparently, he likes to dance with their corpses after stabbing them to death. Of course the knowledge of this triggers a panic among the other girls. Whoever they dance with, they constantly ask themselves – could it be him?

As in most of effective crime thriller stories told from a viewpoint of a witness or possible victim, police is seen as completely useless in A Dime a Dance. Yes, there is some formal investigation, but detective Nick Ballestier (Jiří Kodet) seems to be interested in the case more as an excuse to repeatedly enter a dressing room full of half-naked girls, than for his ambition to catch the killer. His approach is more like – such things happens and dancers with a dubious reputation must take it as a common risk of their profession.

So, Sandy faces two goals – to find out the identity of the offender, and to convince the detective that she is not some dim-witted half-prostitute, and neither was Julie. There is also a third motivation – Julie was survived by her teenage son Danny, who was expelled from a boarding school and cannot get the insurance money until the circumstances of his mother´s death become clear. But I think this storyline (and the whole character of Danny) was little bit redundant for this adaptation.

Otherwise it´s a good job within the limitations of its TV play format. Writer Jana Dudková (who also adapted several Ed McBain and Boileau & Narcejac stories for Czech TV) had a lot of experiences with strenghts and weaknesses of this format, and so had director Jaroslav Dudek. I like their precise characterization of each important character, some of it subliminal. For example – we don´t know anything about Sandy´s family background, but we can guess it by her interaction with Mr. Marino and Mrs. Henderson, who are conceived as the parental figures here.

From this point of view, Dime a Dance could be seen as a story about a dysfunctional family and its reconciliation. At the beginning, Sandy is a rebellious daughter disrespecting her parents, who later will begin to appreciate the values they represent in her life and gain their respect in return. Mr. Marino is the breadwinner. Maybe too rigorous and too concerned on his business, but afterall, he´s a man who keeps Sandy´s life in a certain direction. His angry reaction to Julie´s absence is actually an expression of dissapointment of the fact that one of his “daughters” ungratefully left the family nest, and also a warning for the others, who might consider the same. And Sandy is certainly suspected of that. She obviously isn´t satisfied with her position and doesn´t want to become next Mrs. Henderson.

Which is probably my favourite character of the play. Mrs. Henderson is seemingly cynical raffish woman in her late fifties, whose only joy in life is booze. Roaming the club in her dressing gown, usually drunk and ceremoniously reading aloud newspaper articles about murders, she demonstrates to the girls (and to herself) how dangerous is the life out there and why the best thing one can do is to stay at home and drink. It´s sort of Bette Davis type of character and I absolutely adore the comical possibilities Blanka Bohdanová found in it. However, even Mrs. Henderson has some development as the story progresses. She becomes more active (and sober) once things start to be more serious.

Normally, I would be trying to avoid any spoilers in a case of murder mystery, but this one is not really about any surprising “it´s one of us!” sort of twist. No. As become clear right after the murder investigation, the offender was some random guest of the club and the main clue by which he should be identified in the future is a specifically shaped ring he´s wearing. So, as soon as actor František Husák wearing exactly that sort of ring shows up, there´s no doubt about a role he plays in the mystery. It´s quite surprising casting choice. And not only because this actor usually played mentally well-balanced and cultivated men like waiters, butlers, officials (or Sherlock Holmes).

It´s interesting for one more reason. František Husák shared his surname with then president of Czechoslovakia Gustáv Husák, who – as the highest representative of the communist regime – was generally hated by most people. They were not related, but even that surname was enough for the communist government to complicate the actor´s professional life. Some sort of regulation was issued about casting him only in smaller and preferably indifferent roles. Because in the case he would play some big role in some significant film or TV play, there should be a danger that people would be ineptly joking about Gustáv Husák, pretending they are actually talking about fictional František Husák´s character. Absurd, isn´t it?

So, that´s why it´s so surprising to see him playing such a negative role in A Dime a Dance.  But he was definitely a good choice. I remember seeing it for the first time as a kid and subsequently having nightmares from Husák´s scenes. There is actually a minimum of violence shown, but he plays his role in a very intense and disturbing way. No shouting, no tough words, nothing like that. He just keeps talking and the well-ballanced sound of his voice, that certainty of a man who decided long ago what he will do and now is going to do it smoothly no matter what. That was so disturbing.

Dáša Veškrnová (as we were used to call her before she was married to Václav Havel and become the first lady of the Czech Republic) is also great as Sandy. One thing I always liked about her was that unlike many other actresses, she was not so obsessively concerned on her looks, certainly not while playing some normal, ordinary woman, which is also the case of A Dime a Dance. Sandy´s job is to be attractive while dancing with male guests of the club (so she is), but inside her dressing room, she´s not pretending to be any diva or beauty queen. She acts naturally and doesn´t really care about her looks. I am not so sure whether another actress would be playing Sandy this way.

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Short film Review: Simon Simon (1970)

Graham Stark

Graham Stark is that kind of actor you certainly will recognize, but maybe not by his name. You may know him thanks to various episode roles he played in many British (and some American) comedies, most notably as a frequent partner of Peter Sellers. Short film Simon Simon, which he also directed and wrote the script, gives a rare opportunity to see this comedian in the starring part. Well, if it´s even possible to call a star somebody who appeared in virtually unknown silent short, playing a man who doesn´t even have a name.

Based on some interviews with Graham Stark in various documentaries focused on his more famous fellows, I don´t think he had any ambition to be a star. He seemed to be completely satisfied with his position of “the second one”, happy to be just one of the contributors to the whole result. And his quite enjoyable little debut as director gives the same feel of “let´s just do what we can and have fun together” enthusiasm.

It´s a simple story, set in the same parallel slapstick world as films of Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati. The world in which you can easily spot the greedy rich man solely based on his looks (he´s always fat, wearing a dark suit and pot-hat), and the hero by his clumsiness, shyness in front of women and in most of British cases, also by his working class jurisdiction. That´s the case of a man played by Stark, whose job is to stick posters on the walls, manage gutters and replace bulbs, among other things.

Because most of these activities require to soar up to heights, Stark´s boss (Paul Whitsun-Jones) buys a brand new hydraulic track platform called Simon. What follows, can be easily seen as sort of advertisement for this platform, because it´s just a string of more or less funny ideas of what it could be used for. Besides rescuing a helpless cat from the roof, Graham Stark also manages to attract atention of a pretty typist (Julia Foster), win her heart over cocky fireman (Norman Rossington) and appease his boss by catching a thief, who stole his briefcase.

To add some more atractivity to his film, Stark wisely asked some of his famous friends to accept a cameo roles. Or maybe I could call it “a driveo”, because most of them appeared as owners of luxury cars. Michael Caine can be spotted in the opening credits sequence, looking back at Stark, who just stuck one of his posters over the actor´s name on Play Dirty poster. David Hemmings pays him for some extra poster sticking, and Peter Sellers has an amusing little etude as a man whose car was scratched, so he clicks for another one, exactly the same.

Personally, I´m more a fan of darker and wilder side of British comedy. But if you like innocent situation comedies with Norman Wisdom or Eric Sykes, you might enjoy this one as well.

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Short Film Review: Thoughts of a crime fiction reader (Nápady čtenáře detektivek, 1966)

František Husák as Sherlock Holmes

During his long career, Czech writer Josef Škvorecký tried various genres and styles from poetry to memoir literature. But what he was most famous for among his readers, was a long line of affectionate parodies, pastiches, tributes to and deconstructions of a crime fiction genre. As rumor has it, his life-long admiration of this sort of literature started during four months in 1962, when he was hospitalized with an infectious jaundice. To kill the time of forced inaction, he reportedly managed to read about 150 crime fiction paperbacks. As he recalled it later, “All these murders helped me to survive.”

After becoming a sort of specialist on this topic, Škvorecký wrote an essay called Thoughts of a crime fiction reader, in which he summed up most of the genre rules and clichés, demonstrating them on various examples from Edgar Allan Poe´s short stories to current work of Agatha Christie or Rex Stout. The 1966 short film of the same name, directed by Václav Táborský, adapted some of this ironically recapitulated wisdom into a form of a simple parodic story with a traditional “old dark house” setting.

After an unnamed doctor (Jiří Bruder) arrives on the manor of a wealthy family of English aristocrats (some of them with bizarre names like sir Waterproof or sir Nevermore), he realizes that the only actual person in the house is butler James (Zdeněk Procházka). James tells the doctor that nobody is allowed to bother the family during their reading time. As soon becomes clear, reading of a detective literature is one of the biggest family obsessions, but not as big as practical implementation of all the murderous methods from the books on each other.

To see about twenty people being killed one by one, most of them in really bizarre ways, could be pretty morbid. But the funny twist is that all of the family members are portrayed by mannequins, with which the actors deal like if they were living (er… I mean, recently deceased) people. As the bodycount increases, another guest arrives the house. The detective (František Husák) also has no name. But based on his appearance, checkered suit and ability to play the violin, one can deduce that he can´t possibly be anyone else than Sherlock Holmes. Elementary, as he would say.

I like the mannequins idea. Not only because their body stillness and expressionless faces in the middle of such dramatic situations added some dadaistic quality to the film. But this idea also quite corresponds with the subject of a theoretical, invented murder as something different from real killings. It´s just a game, in which the goal is not to feel sorry for the victims and their wasted lives, but to use one´s intelligence for a murder invention and/or its solution.

Exactly as Sherlock Holmes does it with his wall diagram with names of all of the victims (as a nod to Agatha Christie, they are murdered in alphabetical order) and nice little pictograms, illustrating the methods by which each of them were or will be leaving this silly world. He does not even try to stop the killing spree, he just checks off the items on the list, apparently satisfied that everything goes as predicted. I like this dry kind of humour.

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