Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Freeform Phantom

The Phantom of Crestwood (J. Walter Ruben, 1932)

First, history: In 1932, NBC radio broadcast a six part murder mystery serial, entitled The Phantom of Crestwood, that deliberately elided its final chapter. Listeners were solicited to send in their own endings, with the winning selection receiving both a cash prize as well as on-screen realization in the form of an RKO motion picture.

It is interesting to note then, in a day and age where it's become, it seems, the rule rather than the exception for television series on all ends of the popularity scale to pin their hopes for one degree or another of resolution or perpetuation to resurrection via the big screen, that this idea of resolving the tensions of a narrative through intermedia mingling was not only occurring in 1932, but was in fact being openly embraced and factored into the total vision of productions. "The history of film is in some ways also a history of the repression of emotion" said critic Dave Kehr in his piece on Cassavetes' Love Streams; learning about the existence of projects like The Phantom of Crestwood, of figures like William Castle, tempts one with thoughts of the history of the American film industry also in some ways being the history of the repression of experimentation with interactivity. Far from being simply a "gimmick", the act of Crestwood is a boldly populist gesture, a version of the surrealists Exquisite Corpse game (I start it, you finish it...) played out between those behind the microphone and screen and those in the front and back rows.

In today's television landscape, with "spoilers" at their height of commodification and invitations for interaction not extending much beyond voting for your favorite talent act, it seems something close to unthinkable that a piece of fiction might be devised for the purposes of handing it over to and creating a dialogue with the viewers. Lost, just to name one recent show that constructed an intricate, detail-oriented mythology that viewers eventually seemed to bear just as much if not moreso a grip on than its creators, seemed a natural example that could have greatly benefited from this method of idea-exchanging with the viewership and cross-media exhibition. While I don't read fanfiction, I find it tough to fathom that there weren't a deluge of fan-penned resolutions to the series that were more intelligently crafted and emotionally coherent - particularly with regard to the thousand plot strands left blowing in the wind - than the grand wipe-away of a finale that the show eventually delivered. And seeing as how Lost was one of the more sheerly cinematic of recent American television concoctions, it would have made plenty of sense for its final episodes to have been made available for experience in theaters - as much for the fans' accompanying sense of emotional culmination as for the size of its visual spectacles.

So, The Phantom of Crestwood as translated to and concluded on screen (plot: Jenny Wren (Karen Morley), a high society vamp, arranges a secluded dinner party where she plans to blackmail current and former lovers in order to accumulate a quick fortune and flee to Europe. She's murdered in the middle of the night, and with nearly everyone having a motive, it's up to Ricardo Cortez to crack the case) is a brutal and elegant precoder poised between two traditions: that of the Feuilladian serial depictions of clandestine criminality with its secret passageways and disguises, and that of the gothic "dark house" horror-thriller and its hermetic delineations of shadowy mystery and atmosphere (for which James Whale's The Old Dark House from the same year continues to be maybe the most obvious cornerstone.) It's entirely appropriate then that the movie, itself on a constant teeter between two modes, deploys its central murder as the nexus point of a series of bridged dichotomies: from the sexual (the Jenny Wren character - a typically flamboyant embodiment of precode femininity - and her murderer, another female who early on proclaims "My grandfather said I should have been a man, and raised me as one") to the professional (the Cortez character, a criminal who, solely for the sake of saving his own hide, tasks himself with investigative duties and effectively becomes a law enforcement figure) as well as the textures of tone and atmosphere.

In the latter regard, the dinner party sequence stands as probably the most impressive piece of filmmaking in Crestwood, a deft blend of fond reminiscing and self-mutilation; of joyful faces framed amidst candelabra, and vacant gazes at enemy offscreen space; of lush romantic music harmonizing with thunder and lightning. A notion of the sensual existing alongside the horrific insists itself repeatedly throughout, and is probably most starkly represented in the two key scenes for the Jenny Wren character: the first, where she stands framed in a doorway with the wind whipping her into a kind of intoxicated state of anguish before glimpsing what she believes to be the ghost of a dead loved one; the second beginning as a slow track through the latenight darkness of the house, at first appearing to be a study in candle flickers, fireplace flames and flashlight beams before arriving at a bloodcurdling scream and the image of Jenny stumbling down a flight of stairs with an oversized dart buried into her skull.

Technique reaching across the decades and brushing fingersCrestwood utilizes a repeating flashback pattern in its middle stretches as a way of both fleshing out the gaps in and linking the characters' individual experiences that evening, as well as charting the intricate physical spaces of the house. These flashback moments are achieved technically by a zoom into the relevant characters mid-dialogue, before a zoom out and quick 360-degree whip around with the camera designed to transport us into the realm of memory. Occasionally here the pre-flashback zoom is performed prematurely, with the closeness held for an inordinate duration, lending the sense of a guiding hand and a heightened air to these brief moments that continued to recall for me the trademark zooms found in the work of Hong Sang-soo:

Then there is this...

...and also, as with so many other movies, the ghost of Vertigo, in the form of a suicidal plunge to death right around the midway point, and its almost preordained reprisal in the final moments of the film:

 (The Phantom of Crestwood was released on DVD for the first time earlier this year by Warner Bros. as part of their Archive Collection)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Images of the day (9/13/12)

Top: Lewisian overlapping in Which Way to the Front? (1970)

Bottom: The first frame of the opening credits sequence from Which Way to the Front? - occurring at just over the 18 minute mark.