Saturday, January 29, 2011

Five From A Favorite - I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)


As essential a horror film as there could ever be, I Walked with a Zombie is the finest achievement from both legendary producer Val Lewton - whose crop of creepy, atmospheric horror movies produced for RKO Pictures in the 40's have made him an unlikely but enduring icon of the genre - and the great maverick director Jacques Tourneur, whose multi-genre flexibility and impeccable sense of style left behind one of the most overlooked and important bodies of work to come out of the studio system.

Zombie is a rousing triumph in many ways, but perhaps what amazes me most about it is how the elusive nature of the story - which picks up after the most pivotal events have already occurred - is so perfectly mirrored by its pervading atmosphere of heavy gusts and gloomy dimness, remote drums and skies that crackle with that special electricity of a calm before the storm. Narrative and ambience coalesce in a rare way, both elements keeping the viewer at bay from the main event, providing not much more than whipping winds and wisps of suggestion while Tourneur's sublime shadow language and mastery of mood and detail fill in the blanks with pure, poetic dread.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

In the Shadows


Fuller loved his shadows. Here are two men from two masterpieces - Richard Kiley as the scheming communist boyfriend Joey in Pickup on South Street (1953) and Paul Winfield as the dog trainer Keys in White Dog (1982) - sitting in silence, faces half obscured, riding out the calm before their respective storms.

Monday, January 3, 2011

An Index of Primary Colors in Polanski's The Ninth Gate

The Ninth Gate isn't Roman Polanski's greatest film by any means, but it's certainly one of his most fascinating. Adapted from the novel The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Polanski's film tells the story of duplicitous rare-book dealer Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), who is slowly drawn into a dangerous conspiracy involving multiple shadowy parties attempts at recovering the three known copies of Aristide Torchia's book The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, books reputedly authored by the Devil himself that contain the power to summon the supernatural entity when used properly. Not exactly new territory for Polanski, whose previous classics Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant played with similar themes of conspiracy and Devil cults. Gate is for the most part stubbornly ambiguous with its plot and chock full of thoroughly detestable characters, and seemed to turn off most critics and admirers of Polanski, who are content nowadays shrugging off the movie entirely and relegating it to minor status at best.

I have not much interest at this point in defending The Ninth Gate from its detractors; if you buy into the hokum and get on the movie's wavelength, its an enormously fun, sinister, well constructed thriller. But it's quite easy to see how it wouldn't be someones cup of tea, and the fact remains that in some notable respects it doesn't quite stand up to Polanski's more regarded work. What I do want to do here is point out and present (in an admittedly haphazard manner) the movie's most intriguing aspect: Polanski's persistent use of primary colors - those being red, blue, yellow and green - within the context of the rest of the film's dingy, earthy, dry color pallete. To what end are these colors used? Is it simply meaningless stylistic twaddle? Could be, but I doubt it. For a director as compositionally deliberate as Polanski, the colors feel important and thoughtfully placed, and so frequently pop out amongst the typically bland look of the film as to almost beg for further examination. Could the use of these colors be evidence of some deeply encoded aesthetic, a visual skeleton key to be used towards unlocking some of the narrative ambiguities? I would lean more in this direction then towards them being meaningless. Some of the colors are clearly more bound to specific characters/causes, but they also present themselves in entirely discordant manners at times. In short, I don't know what's going on here or what in the world Polanski is up to, but I find it all fascinating and feel compelled to lay it out, unformed thesis and all. So here it is, an index of primary colors used in Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate (it should go without saying that major spoilers abound) :

Examples of the predominant, earthy color pallete of The Ninth Gate:

The primary colors Blue, Yellow and Red begin sneaking their way into the frames:

Product placement even gets in on the action:

Notice the sandwich of Yellow and Blue directories on the right of the window sill that sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the abundance of dingy, old-fashioned tomes that make up 'Bernie's Rare Books' :

A close-up a little later:

An echo of the above image, this with time Depp holding a copy of The Nine Gates wrapped in a Yellow cloth, positioned between two earth Blue airplane windows:

Our introduction to Boris Balkan - evil bibliophile and driving force behind Corso's quest to track down all copies of The Nine Gates - begins here in his Blue lecture room . Balkan will be closely linked to the color Blue throughout the movie. An agent of Blue, if you will:

Corso first catches sight of the mysterious character played by Emmanuelle Seigner in Balkan's room, and gets a glimpse of her appropriately Blue socks:

Corso later runs into the Seinger character on a train, and feeling like he's being followed, has a brief exchange with this mysterious, vaguely supernatural person (entity?) of ambiguous origin, who is credited in the movie only as The Girl. The Girl, while physically adorning each notable color at one point or another, is inexorably linked to Green throughout, both in her ever-present green jacket, and her piercing green eyes. "What's your name?" "Guess." "Green eyes?" "That'll do."

Fun with Blue, Red, Lucifer, Death, Fish, Pencils and Sleep:

Corso is trapped in Blue. The Girl's socks are now Red and Green:

Remember what Godard said about there being no blood in his movies, only red? One gets the sense while watching The Ninth Gate that a similar mentality is at work. Since colors exist as an elemental force as much as anything else in this movie, there is no smearing of blood, only the transference of Red:

Shortly after, Corso is nearly run over by a Blue car...

...before The Girl swings by in a bright Red Viper to escort Corso to his next destination...

...a mansion where Liana Telfer (Lena Olin) is heading a satanic ritual using one of the Nine Gate books. Corso observes the Red curtains from the outside before infiltrating the ceremony.

Corso snatches a glance at The Girl, who appropriately enough has located herself near what appears to be the only hint of non-Red decor in the whole joint. Of course it's Green:

Agent of Blue, Boris Balkan (note the dark blue tie, pale blue shirt), breaks up the proceedings, murders Liana, and retrieves his lost book...

...and exits back into the currently Blue-tinged world of the early morning:

Corso, chasing down Balkan, hops on board a livestock vehicle, and though there has been no trace of rain, is met with a perfectly axiomatic rainbow of vibrant primary colors hanging above. The image explains itself better than I ever could:

Corso tracks down Balkan in a secret keep where the Nine Gates must be assembled. The building tinted Blue to reflect its occupant:

That occupancy doesn't last particularly long:

Corso has sex with The Girl, or gives himself to Green:

No escaping now, a quick stop at a gas station proves...

...before walking into, well what exactly? His destiny? His doom? Who's to know. Corso is enveloped by the Golden-Green burst of light. Color as journey. Color as destination. The answer is in the colors: