This years’s Chichester International Film Festival – the 24th – runs from 13th to 30th August and is a prestigious affair, with over 120 films being screened and special guests including Carl Davis, John Lithgow and Ian Christie. Several of these films are being shown in this country for the first time, and today I wanted to post a review of Fever (Raphaël Neal, 2014), which received its UK premiere at Chichester on Wednesday 26 August.
The plot of Fever is simple to summarise. Two intelligent and privileged philosophy students, Damien (Martin Loizillon) and Pierre (Pierre Moure) carry out what they believe to be the ‘perfect crime’ – the random, motiveless murder of a woman they have only seen once before. The murder itself occurs offscreen in the opening frames – the first hint the audience has that the crime itself is not the real focus of the film. To describe Fever as a meditation on the ‘banality of evil’ might suggest it’s a dry, intellectual exercise – but it is anything but. Filmed with panache and visual flair, Fever’s stylish appearance is enlivened by superb performances from its young actors, bringing just the right amount of poignant vulnerability to the layers of literary and historical texts.
Deadly duo: the confident and charismatic Damien (Martin Loizillon, left) and sensitive Pierre (Pierre Moure, right)
Texts form an important part of the film. As part of their philosophy class Damien and Pierre are studying Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil (1963); the Nazi’s defence that he was only ‘obeying orders’ is seen by them as a reflection of their own principle that in order for murder to be a crime, there must be a personal motive. Similar themes had of course already been considered in Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel Crime and Punishment.
The events depicted here are no philosophical fantasy however, but are rooted in historical fact. Adapted from Leslie Kaplan’s 2005 novel Fever, the story is inspired by the 1924 murder in Chicago of 14 year old Bobby Franks, which was carried out by two wealthy students, Nathaniel Leopold and Richard Loeb, in order to demonstrate their intellectual superiority. This crime provided the inspiration for the Rope (1929), by Patrick Hamilton (who also wrote Gaslight) – the play was adapted for the screen in 1948 by Alfred Hitchcock. Further layers of historical parallels are woven into the story as the boys grow increasingly anxious and paranoid in the wake of the crime, turning to their grandparents for reassurance while trying to exculpate themselves by reading up on France’s Vichy past. Narratives of personal and national guilt become intertwined with the students’ erratic behaviour. No-one is portrayed in isolation, and by exploring matters such as family dynamics and ancestral roots, the characters are fleshed out in a depth rarely found in contemporary crime thrillers.
Unsurprisingly, the police are baffled by the motiveless crime, but one person seems likely to discover their guilt: young optician Zoé who saw the boys leave the murder scene and picked up a black glove dropped by Pierre. Her suspicions are heightened by Pierre’s nervous reaction when she sees him again, and she begins following the duo, doing her own investigations, even posing as a potential tenant to gain entrance to the apartment in which the murder took place. In contrast to this dark and dangerous world, Zoé lives with her boyfriend Sacha in an idyll of perfect contentment and stability – but one that is devoid of passion. Gradually it becomes clear that her fascination with the murder provides an illicit thrill that is entirely absent from her dull homelife. In counterpoint to the ‘banality of evil’, Zoé’s attraction towards the killers is driven by the monotony of the familiar. Her job as an optician underscores the significance of vision, the temptations of scopophilia – there are echoes here of Rear Window and Blue Velvet.
Dangerous fascination: Zoé (an exquisite performance from Julie-Marie Parmentier)
The nature of Zoé’s desire is not the only erotic element in the film. The relationships between the main characters are complex and ever-shifting, signified not only by the actors’ sensitive performances but also by a rich backdrop of visual and musical motifs. As I mentioned in a recent post on the noir film While the City Sleeps, unhealthy relationships with one’s mother often feature in movie portrayals of murderers, and there are strong hints here that Damien and his mother are rather more intimate than is appropriate. While there is also a definite homoerotic element in the relationship between Damien and Pierre, we see several shifts in their attitude to the women around them – such as their philosophy tutor Rosine, fellow students and Zoé herself. The alternation between desire, fear, misogynistic contempt and nervous embarrassment represents realistically the confused world of the adolescent. Many of these scenes take place with Peggy Lee’s 1958 hit ‘Fever’ playing in the background, various renditions of the song being performed by fictitious chanteuse ‘Alice Snow’ (actually the singer Camille) – including a striking concert sequence attended by Zoé and an equally memorable dance routine involving Damien and his mother.
Given Raphaël Neal’s background as a professional art photographer, the careful attention given to matters of lighting, pictorial composition and visual iconography is no surprise. As well as allusions to other films – the close-ups of feet descending a spiral staircase recalls Moira Shearer’s frenetic descent in The Red Shoes – there are nods to the work of Irina Ionesco, Peter Weir and Catherine Breillat, amongst others. This is a film that will reveal further riches with repeated viewing. The effective use of outside locations around Montparnasse, including the vast cemetery, provide a lively sense of edgy authenticity. Since making his screen debut as an actor in 2001 Neal has worked with the likes of Claire Denis, Claude Chabrol, Alexander Sokurov and Sofia Coppola, and opportunities to observe these great directors at work have clearly not been wasted. His debut as a director suggests he may have an equally distinguished career ahead.
Although John Barrymore Jr. (1932-2004) – also known as John Drew Barrymore – was the son of John Barrymore and Dolores Costello, his thespian parents did not provide him with an easy start in the acting profession. His mother and father separated when he was only eighteen months old, and Dolores sent him to St John’s Military Academy when he was seventeen, determined to steer him away from acting.
Undeterred, he made his film debut in the western Sundowners (George Templeton, 1950) and took many roles – most of them forgettable – on both stage and screen over the next few years. Of these, only the part of troubled teenager George in The Big Night (Joseph Losey, 1951) stands out. A slightly noirish movie, it contains hints of the simmering yet sympathetic darkness that Barrymore would bring to While the City Sleeps.
Losey was a great director but a comparative newcomer to film in comparison with Lang, who began making silent films just after the end of WWI. After directing classics such as Dr Mabuse, der Spieler (1922), Metropolis (1927), M (1931) and the (possibly) anti-Nazi Das Testament des Dr Mabuse (1933) Lang left Nazi Germany, arriving in Hollywood in 1936. His American output included westerns and a series of superb film noirs including Scarlet Street (1945), The Secret behind the Door (1948) and The Big Heat (1953.) It is interesting to note that in 1951 Joseph Losey made a remake of Lang’s M – a film that provided some of the inspiration for When the City Sleeps. This was Lang’s penultimate American film before he returned to Germany.
In a previous post I explained a little about film noir including how the effect created by the deep shadows and dark fog of classic noir is typically a metaphor for the impaired moral vision of the characters: most of the time they are literally ‘in the dark’ about the wider picture, unable to discern what distinguishes the villains from the victims. While the City Sleeps breaks with this tradition: the film is brightly lit throughout, lacking Lang’s trademark chiaroscuro, and from the outset we know that John Barrymore’s character – John Manners – is the killer. So what, then, is the film about?
Ostensibly, it is about the hunt to catch a killer who has been murdering women in New York, and who has been dubbed ‘the lipstick killer’ after leaving the words ‘Ask mother’ scrawled in lipstick on the wall at the scene of his first murder. The story was based on a real case – that of William Heirens, who was convicted (perhaps unjustly) of multiple murders in Chicago in 1946. A journalist of that city, Charles Einsten, adapted the story into a novel entitled The Bloody Spur (1953), on which Casey Robinson based his screenplay.
There are many differences between the film and the Heirens murders, but Barrymore’s performance draws heavily on one key element – the cry for help written by Heirens wrote in lipstick on his victim’s mirror: ‘For heaven’s sake, catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.’
This notion that the killer is driven by an irresistible compulsion that he himself detests, was integral to Lang’s original M, in which Peter Lorre played disturbed child-killer Hans Beckert. Finally cornered by the city’s criminals that have hunted him down, Beckert empties his soul in an astonishing monologue that (thanks to Lorre’s extraordinary performance) actually elicits some sympathy: ‘I can’t help myself, I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me – the fire, the voices the torment! It’s there all the time, driving me out to wander the streets, following me silently, but I can feel it there – it’s me, pursuing myself.’ This blurring of moral boundaries between law-breakers and law-enforcers is, of course, a recurring theme in film noir, and While the City Sleeps is no exception, even if Barrymore’s performance fails to match that of Lorre.
As the above poster reveals, the ‘law-enforcers’ in the film are not the police (again, a common noir trait) but ‘newsmen’ – senior staff of the Kyne Inc. media empire – who have their own motives for hunting down the killer. The film’s original title was The News is Made at Night – a clever phrase that links media activities with deeds done under the cover of darkness. Parallels are constantly drawn between the motives and actions of the killer and the media men, with a strong hint that the latter are even more reprehensible in their morals. Beckert made the same point when confronted by the criminals who – repelled by his murders and resentful of the extra police attention they had attracted – succeeded in hunting him down to enforce their own form of vigilante justice. His crimes were the result of compulsion, while theirs were choices born of financial greed and laziness.
Similarly, the Kyne agency’s interest in the murderer has less to do with justice and relates more to the desire for an exclusive story to trump their competitors. Just after the story breaks on the news, Amos Kyne – the elderly head of themedia empire, dies before he can appoint a successor. (His nurse, by the way, is played by Celia Lovsky, Peter Lorre’s former wife who was responsible for his casting in M.) This opens the way for a power struggle between three senior executives: Jon Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell), editor of the Sentinel newspaper, Mark Loving (George Sanders) head of news wire service and Harry Kritzer (James Craig) manager of the picture agency. Kyne’s sleazy son Walter – played with relish by Vincent Price – knows nothing about what is required for the job and so offers the post as a prize: the first of the three men to identify the killer will get the coveted job. Like his father, who wanted to sensationalise news reports of the murders in order to ‘scare silly’ every woman in the country – Kyne is interested in the murder story because of its potential for media sales rather than for any concern for moral justice or sympathy for the victims. While Griffith and Loving use all their respective resources to unmask the killer (and sabotage each other’s efforts in the process), Kritzer pursues another strategy. He has been having an affair with Walter Kyne’s wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming) and seeks to use her influence to secure himself the job.
Director Fritz Lang with Rhonda Fleming on the set of ‘While the City Sleeps,’ filmed during the summer of 1955. One of her most memorable performances was as the double-crossing Meta in the classic film noir ‘Out of the Past’ (Jacques Tourneur, 1947.)
So what then of Ed Mobley (Dana Andrews), the anchorman on the Kyne television channel? At first sight he looks likely to be the film’s hero: a Pulitzer Prize-winner, he is engaged to Loving’s secretary, the sweet and wholesome Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest), and disappoints both Amos and Walter Kyne in refusing to run for the boss’s job because of his apparent lack of ambition. As the movie proceeds, however, it becomes increasingly clear that Mobley and Manners have much in common.
To show the parallels, we must return to the opening scenes when we first see John Barrymore in action. He appears on the screen dressed in a black leather outfit that was evidently inspired by Marlon Brando’s biker garb from The Wild One (László Benedek, 1953.)
Brando in iconic biker’s leathers. ‘
In his guise as a delivery man, Manners gains entrance to the girl’s flat by secretly placing her door on the catch as he hands over the parcel, then returning a few moments later to let himself in.
This same trick is employed by Mobley in an (unsuccessful) attempt to seduce Sally – but it at once alerts the audience to a connection between the two men. This is underlined again when Nancy hears the killer described as ‘a real nut on dames’ and responds ‘this description begins to fit Mobley.’
The truth is that – whatever their motives or justifications – all these men indulge equally in a world of voyeurism, surveillance and misogyny. Manners’ first murder begins (and is possibly provoked) when he spies on his victim in her bathroom. The next sequence introduces us to the glass-walled offices of the Kyne building, where Mobley is spying on Nancy as she resists the advances of her boss. Soon everyone in the office is watching everyone else as the power struggle escalates, and when Kritzer visits his lover Dorothy at her husband’s home, he expresses fears about sliding panels in walls and microphones hidden behind the pictures. Columnist Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino) makes a mockery of the male gaze when she teases Mobley with a slide that she suggests is a nude photograph of her, but is revealed to be a baby portrait (bottom right). Even the viewer becomes complicit in this voyeurism when the shapely Dorothy Kyne is shown in silhouette as she exercises behind a transparent screen (below), and the camera moves – at a tantalising slow speed – around the side of the screen. As the film nears its end, Manners is incited to another attack after he catches sight of Dorothy Kyne’s reflection in a mirror as she hitches up her skirt to adjust a stocking (bottom left). Rather like Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960), this is a film about scopophilia.
If all the characters are equally tainted with voyeurism, then why is only Manners compelled to murder? After a criminologist provides him with some clues about the murderer’s likely profile, Mobley takes a gamble and arranges a television broadcast in which he addresses the killer directly, listing all that he knows: ‘Item 4, You read the so-called comic books…Item 7. You’re a mama’s boy.’ As the broadcast proceeds, we see Manners reading comics in front of the television; he recoils in panic, almost as if the media’s insights into his private world are proof that he is actually being watched through the screen.
The comic found at the murder scene (left) and read by Manners as he watches Mobley’s broadcast (right.)
This anxiety about the harmful effect of comic books was much in the air at the time, following the recent publication of The Seduction of the Innocent (1954) by Dr Frederick Wertham, which argued that EC crime comics such as Vault of Horror, Crime Suspense and Tales from the Crypt were a factor in rising juvenile delinquency. Wertham’s study was hugely influential at this time, resulting in widespread suspicion of comic book culture. Einstein’s novel predated this hysteria and hints instead at religious fanaticism being the driving force behind the killer’s actions. The film’s portrayal of a killer with a mother fixation anticipated Psycho by four years, but had already been explored in the character of Bruno Anthony in Strangers in a Train (Hitchcock, 1950)
Kyne’s media men have no real interest in Manners’ motives of course, and only seek his capture to better their own position. The lack of moral integrity on the part of vigilantes is a theme that Lang explored in his westerns The Return of Frank James(1940) and Rancho Notorious (1952) where victims of crime struggle to reconcile their desire for revenge with the qualities of justice and mercy. In fact a great deal of Lang’s movies portray muddied distinctions between criminals, victims and the representatives of institutional justice – fromThe Woman in the Window (1944) in which Edward G Robinson kills someone by accident then sinks deeper into deceit trying to conceal the death – to The Big Heat(1953) which shows detective Glenn Ford struggling to stay within the law after leaving the police force to pursue his wife’s killer.
In all these films there comes a point when the protagonist’s actions reveal their true nature, and perhaps the pivotal moment in this movie is when we realise that Mobley is essentially using his fiancée Nancy as bait to catch the killer. Having goaded Manners by taunting him about his comic books and domineering mother, Mobley then announces his engagement on television, suspecting (quite correctly) that the killer will seek revenge by attacking Nancy. All they have to do is watch her closely, and the ‘lipstick killer’ will fall into the trap.
This is a fairly despicable way to treat one’s fiancée, and is made worse by the fact that we have seen Mobley’s drunken pursuit of Mildred, the seductive and highly desirable columnist who presents such a contrast to the prim and virginal Nancy. As viewers were warned earlier, Mobley and Manners – like Guy and Bruno in Strangers in a Strain – are really two peas in a pod, with one man acting as an alter ego, carrying out real crimes that represent the repressed desires of the other.
Read all about it! In Lang’s portrayal of the complex relationship between the murderer and the media, no one is innocent.
The net begins to close however, and the film climaxes in a hectic subterranean chase as Manners is pursued through subway tunnels. Although most of the film has used brightly-lit daytime interiors, this sequence returns to the dark, noirish feel of the movie’s opening frames.
In scenes reminiscent of the pursuit of Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man’, the viewer can hardly help feel sympathy for Barrymore’s character as he is hunted down like a rat
Barrymore changed his name to John Drew Barrymore in 1958 and the following year divorced his first wife, Cara Williams, by whom he had a son, the actor John Blyth Barrymore (born 1954.) He married his second wife, Italian actress Gabriella Palazzoli, in 1960, ushering in a period making historical films in Italy such as The Night They Killed Rasputin (1960), The Trojan Horse (1961) and Arms of the Avenger (1963). He returned to America in 1964 but his marriage ended in 1970. His third wife Jaid was the mother of Drew Barrymore, born in 1975, by which time his acting career had ended, his talent ruined by excessive drinking and drug-taking. While the City Sleeps remains one of his best performances, and a frustrating hint of a potential that was never fully realised.
John Barrymore with his daughter Drew
This post is part of the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, celebrating the ‘royal family’ of Hollywood. Details of all the other posts in the blogathon can be found here
Portrait of AW, from ‘Duett im Zwielicht’ theatre programme, 1966
AW died on 9 August 1967 at the home of his old friend Hansi Burg, where he was convalescing after a heart attack suffered on stage some four months earlier. Although the play, Noel Coward’s Duett im Zwielicht (Song at Twilight) was then running at the Kleine-Komödie in Munich, it had actually opened in December 1966 at the Renaissance-Theater in Berlin, so today I am posting a couple of photographs from the original theatre programme and some contemporary press cuttings.
This caricature shows the three lead actors – AW (Sir Noel Latymer, a famous writer nearing the end of his life), Heli Finkenzeller (Hilde Latymer, his wife) and Friedel Schuster (Carlotta Gray, a former lover.) The play was first produced in London in April 1966, with AW’s roles performed by Noel Coward himself, and Hilde and Carlotta played by Irene Worth and Lilli Palmer respectively. The play had been translated into German by Martin Dongen and was directed by Viktor de Kowa – who had co-starred with AW and Hansi Burg’s father, Eugen Burg, in Der Stolz der 3 Kompanie (Fred Sauer, 1932.)
The distinctive art deco frontage of the Renaissance Theater, a former club and cinema, it opened as a theatre in 1922.
Among the press-cuttings I have reviewing the opening night of Duett im Zwielicht at the Renaissance Theater is a favourable one by Dora Fehling in Der Telegraf , who was impressed by AW’s ability to elicit sympathy for Latymer’s unattractive character: a difficult task, she admitted, but on in which the actor succeeded. Heinz Ritter went further, describing AW’s distinguished appearance in his green smoking jacket, and praising his ability to soften Latymer’s abrasive nature with an air of Schnitzler-like resignation, making the character understandable to the audience and providing him with a poignant sense of tragedy. Ilse Urbach was less impressed by AW’s performance, however, finding too much of the grand old silent-film star about him. Perhaps she would have been kinder had she realised that this grand old man had only a few months left to live. May he rest in peace.