Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Noir City XVI #4: Help, I'm Stepping Into the Twilight Zone

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson
(for all dispatches, go here)

I'm a sucker for anthology movies. They're a lot of fun and usually full of stars or character actors earning their keep in the equivalent of a one-act play. But the problem with most of these movies is that they're hit or miss by nature. There's always one story that throws off the overall quality of the feature. And onscreen anthologies are best suited for science fiction, horror, fantasy or as a television series like Rod Serling's masterful The Twilight Zone.

So it was a bit of a surprise to find an anthology film gracing the screen at the Castro on Sunday. It was even more surprising to learn that the second feature on the bill was originally another story in that anthology. Universal Studios, home of monsters in the '30s and unforgettable trash in the '70s, separated the first story of Flesh and Fantasy and padded it out to a separate 65-minute feature. This was a major faux pas by the skittish studio, who thought legendary French director Julien Duvivier's dreamlike tales were far too surrealistic for mainstream audiences. So they added 28 minutes of backstory and a hideous fake ending to Duvivier's first tale and called the result Destiny. Universal also added some very clunky wraparound introductory segments to Flesh and Fantasy that so angered Duvivier that he never made another Hollywood movie.

Faced with all these unnecessary extras, we denizens of Noir City had to do some judicious editing in our heads to imagine what Duvivier's original vision would have looked like sans studio interference. One could see the exact moment in Flesh and Fantasy where Duvivier's section of Destiny would have been attached. Czar of Noir Eddie Muller gave us hope that, with the Film Noir Foundation's help, we might one day get to see these four tales as Duvivier intended. For now, however, I must play the hand I've been dealt.

Destiny stars Gloria Jean as a blind woman and Alan Curtis as the fugitive who enters her orbit while on the lam. Curtis' intentions are far from noble. Once he gets her father out of the way, Curtis plans to have his way with what he thinks is a helpless victim. But it's hinted that Jean's blindness gives her mysterious powers. She interacts with friendly animals as if she were a Disney princess. She is preternaturally attuned to where people are in the room. And she may or may not be able to control the weather, including lightning and rain. That last thing dooms Curtis, whose body is fished out of a river at the beginning of Flesh and Fantasy

Sounds great, n'est-ce pas? Well, I've only described the part of Destiny directed by Julien Duvivier. We still have to contend with the parts directed by Reginald LeBorg. There's a 28-minute backstory for Curtis' felon. He's fresh out of jail for a crime he committed. He soon becomes the innocent fall guy in a bank robbery committed by his former partner. The dialogue and direction in this section is rather terrible, so when the Duvivier section kicks in, it's like night and day.

Making matters worse, Destiny is so adamant about redeeming Curtis that it tacks an unbelievable romantic ending on the film, not only resurrecting the dead but conveniently forgetting that the deceased attempted to rape a blind woman. Jean is clearly older in this section, a continuity error LeBorg doesn't even try to fix. The best thing I can say about Destiny, besides championing the great Duvivier section, is that it was presented to us in a welcome 35mm print.

Universal's tampering with Flesh and Fantasy is far less intrusive than in Destiny, but equally as unwelcome. Robert Benchley stars in the introductions to the film's stories, and though I love Benchley, Rod Serling he ain't. Thankfully, Duvivier's vision isn't diluted by these intrusions. His three tales are star-filled affairs teeming with great, imaginative visuals by the legendary Stanley Cortez and Paul Ivano. This hat trick pairs Charles Boyer with Barbara Stanwyck, the gorgeous Betty Field with ugly makeup and a beautiful mask and Edward G. Robinson with Thomas Mitchell and an evil version of himself who shows up in reflections imploring him to kill!

The most interesting of the three tales is Eddie G's. Based on an Oscar Wilde story, Mitchell plays a mysterious fortune teller whose soothsaying is very, very accurate. When skeptic Robinson has his palm read, Mitchell recoils from what he sees and attempts to lie his way out of the reading. Robinson persists, and is told that he's going to kill someone. Mitchell relishes playing this part, and his giddy touches are infectious.

But is Mitchell right? Slowly, Robinson starts to go insane, talking to himself via clever visual motifs. His attempts to rid himself of the nightmare are morbidly amusing in an Ealing comedy sort of way. I wouldn't dream of telling you the outcome, except to say it's as predictable as it is satisfying.

Since I'm such a big stan for Stany, I thought the best tale was the one with her and Boyer. Boyer is an acrobat whose tightrope act is dangerous and performed without a net. One night, he dreams that he falls off the rope, and as he falls, he sees Stanwyck in the audience screaming. She has on a distinctive pair of earrings, a detail that Boyer can't get out of his mind. The resulting dream causes him to chicken out  of his act on the circus' last night in town.

En route to America by ship, Boyer encounters Stanwyck. He's freaked out, as he's never seen her before outside of his dream. She even has the earrings he saw in his vision. He's honest with her about everything, and though she warns him to stay away from her lest the dream become real, the chemistry is too strong for either to resist. Plus, Boyer has another dream about Stanwyck that doesn't come true, so he believes they're in the clear to be together. Unbeknownst to him, we see the second dream play out in real life, which only heightens the suspense when Boyer takes to the tightrope.

Duvivier makes this section an acrophobic's nightmare. Boyer wobbles ominously on a tightrope that seems a thousand feet in the air. The director wrings so much suspense out of this that the audience in the Castro audibly gasped at one point. Does Boyer go splat? I'll never tell.

The Betty Field segment is as visually stunning as the rest of the film but feels the most slight out of the three. It's still very good, and the only tale that has a bonafide happy ending. Those types of endings are in short supply here in Noir City, so we'll take 'em wherever we can get 'em.


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