Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Auteur Files #6: Gerd Oswald's SCREAMING MIMI (1958)

A few years ago, before cancelling my cable, I caught this 1958 film on Turner Classic Movies channel. Its director Gerd Oswald is a not particularly renowned figure who holds a special place for fans of classic TV (he directed a bunch of OUTER LIMITS episodes) and a certain small pocket of directorially focused and historically inclined film-nuts, most of them probably guided by the great Andrew Sarris, who wrote a wonderful tribute to him in his book THE AMERICAN CINEMA: DIRECTORS AND DIRECTIONS 1929-1968. That resource, which was pretty much ground-zero for English language auteurist film writing as well as a guide-source for movie-buff directors like Scorsese and Tarantino, was broken down into themed sections where Oswald fell under the group labeled as "Expressive Esoterica", and it was this corral to which I was attracted like a moth to an uncovered light bulb. Roughly half of this bunch toiled in the thankless landscape of the B-movie, a constant thread in the history of American film that wasn't really killed off until episodic television thoroughly entrenched itself as the way most people entertained themselves (the Grindhouse-era is the sometimes berserk and often sordid icing on this decades long cake), only to be resurrected in an inferior fashion with the largely undistinguished shelf-filling straight-to-video crap that appeared in the '80s "home-theatre"-period. Oswald was certainly a B director (the two exceptions to this were a film that featured Bob fucking Hope and a later '60s cash-in on the Bond craze called AGENT FOR H.A.R.M., two movies that Sarris calls "pre-doomed"), having to consistently deal with five to seven day shooting schedules and not particularly inspiring materials.

One of the great works of film scholarship

One of the first detectable qualities of MIMI is that its script is no great shakes. It's not "bad" (at least not in a groan or guffaw inspiring sense), but it is rather undistinguished in how it services the story. Oh yeah, the story. It's about a hubba-hubba blonde dancer named Virginia and as the film opens she gets attacked by a knife wielding psycho while taking an outdoor shower. The killer gets subdued by her shotgun toting relative (importantly, a sculptor) but Virginia is understadably traumatized and ends up in a sanitarium. While there, her doctor develops an attraction to her and his feelings take a left turn on the way to love and land smack dab in the territory of unhealthy and controlling obsession. Next thing we know, she's out of the hospital and working in a night club under the name Yolanda. A newspaper reporter falls into the story, and he's curious about this dancer's aloof personality and her possessive manager (yes, the doctor mentioned above). Then Yolanda finds herself attacked by another unknown manic with a knife, gets out of the hospital, engages in a brief tryst with the reporter, and starts acting more and more strange. Add in to the story these small sculptures of a stressed-out woman with flailing arms (I'll stop here for the spoiler averse), and you've got the basics for a no-reputation '50s-era suspense flick with some serious potential. The opening scene shows that at least some of that potential is going to be cashed in. It has a suitably rugged sensibility that's appropriate for a movie where the female lead gets attacked in the first few minutes by a man with a knife covered with the fresh blood of her dog (killed off-screen, natch). Additionally, this set up is also conceived with the dual intention of hooking the audience and withholding the fact that the pivotal character is played by a woman who wasn't cast for her acting abilities. Anita Ekberg was a European looker who is probably best remembered for appearing in Fellini's LA DOLCE VITA, but to be frank, she wasn't cast in that art-house staple for her thespian qualities, either.

It's in this movie's next scenes, which are full of crisp visuals and tight cutting, that Ekberg's deficiencies are gradually exposed. To expand and be fair, most of the acting is pretty bland, though Philip Carey as the reporter is solid and Harry Towne does achieve a mild level of Peter Lorre-ish strangeness. The movie's economy seems designed to create enough momentum to fend off viewers dwelling upon a flatly delivered line or a bland dialogue exchange. BAM, she sure is traumatized. BAM, that doctor sure likes her. BAM, she's getting better. BAM, Dr. Green is kind of a strange cat, and he's breaking at least one professional oath by messing around with his patient. BAM, she's out of the hospital, and dancing in a burlesque house under a different name. What's up with that? I didn't have my stopwatch handy, but all of this felt like it went down in under ten minutes. Along the way we get some nice camera movement and one notable little moment of Ekberg swaying around barefoot to some music that serves to establish that she's approaching some semblance of surface normalcy while simply upping the sexy quotient (sexy barefoot chicks being a staple of movies made under the production code. I find this to be one of the quirkier little elements of hommage in the cinema of obvious foot-man Quentin Tarantino). Next up was one of the more fractured scenes in the film, the extended establishment of the night-club where Virginia/Yolanda has landed a job. There are some seriously conflicting things going on: the club's band is played by Red Norvo's trio, and they lay down some nice '50s-era mainstream (not a putdown) jazz. It sounds cool, yet it feels a little off the mark to have a jazz group led by a double-mallet vibe player as the house band at an exotic dance club. Not exactly bump and grind material. But this really seems to feed into the atmosphere of this mythical joint. It's like a battle between shots that play up the "risqué" attributes of the place, and others that possess a blunt corniness (goofy dancing waiters, joke’s stale as a decade old bag of croutons).

It appears the intended effect is to land squarely between hipness and hokum. In the process, it becomes sort of an "unreal" location, not concerned with any kind of accuracy (at least to my perceived experience of what a dive like this, where scantily clad women dance "artfully" for the almost exclusive enjoyment of men [men who nearly all wear hats], circa 1950s America, should "really" "be"), instead existing as a motley mixture of elements that don't seem very compatible (the production code certainly played a part in this, and it could’ve also been designed by Oswald himself as a way to not offend some of the potentially fragile mindsets that could hypothetically inhabit theatre seats). I'm no stickler for realism, so I haven't the slightest beef with what's detailed above. Others might resort to mocking laughter or derision. Our personal mileage may vary, as they say.

As the scene unspools, the character of club owner and MC played by Gypsy Rose Lee is introduced. She delivers a not at all funny routine for the customers, and is obviously intended to add spice to the story, existing as a hard-as-nails, tough talking bird who just so happens to share her apartment with a young brunette with overt qualities of bohemianism, a pure hominahominahomina hottie who never utters a line but is almost always at Gypsy's side (even sitting beside her during a card game with the boys). I can't help but think that this girl exists to clue in the "knowing" to Gypsy's sexual preferences. There is one "red-herring" moment with this boho missy where she gives a meaningful head-turn as if she knows something to be revealed later, but all that adds up to is a hill of beans.

Dressed in black and digs records: My kind of gal

Shortly after Gypsy's introduction, we learn that Ekberg can't dance any better than she can act, which doesn't really seem so odd for an exotic dancer, but does create some dissonance when characters deliver subsequent lines about how great she is. Through this whole scene, the camerawork is rather nice, reinforcing the efficient assurance of the film up to this juncture. From a visual/thematic standpoint, things just get better in the next scene, which takes place in Yolanda's dressing room. In a word: mirrors. Characters have the opportunity to really see themselves, but nobody uses it. This theme is amplified by subsequent developments in the movie. We also get introduced to Devil, Yolanda's annoying as shit Great Dane. There is this wonderfully oddball reverse shot of a barking Devil that seems like it’s coming from another room entirely; it doesn't "fit" in the smooth manner that is the nearly all-encompassing standard for film's last few decades or so. Most will think this a positive development, but I for one love these brief flashes of shoe-string eccentrics. They’re like utilitarian hiccups, the tangible flare-ups that are sparked by the use of a more meager pallet.
But the true test of strong direction with little or no money is how complicated scenes are executed. The crowd scene here, the moment in the story where Yolanda gets stabbed by a mysterious, unseen serial killer, is certainly complex. It's set up to withhold essential information; we never see her get stabbed, the scene opens after the fact. When this is done, the complexities move away from showing the act convincingly, and head in a thornier direction, an area that's the opposite of the natural "less-is-more" tendencies of low-budget filmmakers. For a crowd scene that essentially functions to inform the viewer of what they've missed, you need to add characters, in this case bystanders and emergency personnel, who shape the scene. This means more shots, more continuity and more difficulties. Oswald does a fantastic job with this scene, and includes a bit of what I think is the movie's big underlying theme, for good measure. The ostensible good guy in the scheme of things is the reporter Bill Sweeney. He's at the scene, flanked by a cop with a pistol, and he's attempting to get the wounded Yolanda from the bottom of a basement stairwell. The only problem is Devil, who's in full protect mode, barking wildly. At one point, Oswald cuts to a close-up of Sweeney's face telling the cop to "shoot him, he's mad!" The look on his mug is an unflattering mix of coldness and menace. They do manage to get her out of the stairwell without offing Devil (he's needed for further story developments), and as the movie proceeds, Dr. Green gets more and more possessive, Yolanda becomes more and more disturbed, and she and Sweeney get down to some lovey-dovey business. The aforementioned underlying theme, delivered with a tasty ambiguity that's aided by the detached camera and cutting, is the suffering of Virginia/Yolanda under a group of male characters that inflict her with violence, selfishness, non-physical abusiveness, and a general inability to understand or care that the best thing for this particular woman at this specific time would be to get as far away from this fucked-up and foul group of heels as possible (in a nutshell: MALE OBSESSION. Where would the movies be without it?). Her brief affair with Sweeney is the icing on the cake. After a magnificently shot apartment scene that utilizes darkness and bursts of blinking light from outside the window, it becomes clear that Sweeney wants her to run off with him, even though her life is a borderline shambles that she can't remember large portions of. Oh, she was easy to convince. This is, until Dr. Green did some convincing of his own. From here the film heads with due speed to a tidy but in no way happy ending (nobody gets the girl). The story takes some far-fetched turns, but the unlikelihood is preferable to triteness.

My overall impression was that Oswald took the uninspiring materials he was handed and really made something worthwhile from it. The theme outlined above is penciled in (or "smuggled in", as Scorsese likes to say) so that some foggy nogoodnik in a wrinkled raincoat taking in a ten cent double bill in '58 could simply watch in obliviousness (a.k.a. what the studio wanted). Meanwhile, the no-flash mise-en-scene breathes life into the proceedings in much the same fashion.
The blunt delivery of movies like this, short sweet and self-effacing little "entertainments", at least from a surface glance, is a big part of their value. They are almost never included in the sporadic round-ups of "greatest films" or "best ever" lists, but are just as valuable as many canonical masterpieces. The perspective of the masterpiece is pretty much inappropriate for films like SCREAMING MIMI, anyway. Masterpieces are basically all-encompassing works that so often scream out that they are important and demand attention, that make clear that their existence has had a profound impact on the course of whatever form of art they inhabit (which is not exactly what the word masterpiece means [a piece that shows mastery, basically], but culture has taken this particular term and ran with it in the exact opposite direction from the word genius, which these days gets applied to chefs and football coaches). I'm cool with that: having my ass handed to me by Duchamp in a gallery to the point where I'm unconscious of strangers standing beside me is one hell of a feeling. But I'm just as clued in to a smaller scale scene, where I'm looking at (or hearing, or reading) a succession of less weighty productivity, all the while getting a little bit of impact from each example until at some point I'm just clobbered with the reality that a whole lot of so-called modest work has added up to a sum of something quietly unique and powerful. This is the domain of the pulp novelist, the minor poet, the garage band, and certainly the lowly "action-film" director circa 1958. That's where Gerd Oswald is at, plugging away in anonymity in a genre of his art form that got no respect while it was happening, only to find himself retroactively assessed as a small but significant part of a real golden age.

Gerd Oswald

Credit where it's due: most of the above screenshots were taken from the nifty beatniky-inspired blog Like...Dreamsville. Check it out:

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