Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Further Adventures of a Conrad Veidt Devotee: Contraband

Contraband (1940) was the first movie Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger fully collaborated on after making The Spy in Black the year before. A comic thriller set in a London blackout, Conrad Veidt plays Captain Andersen, a stern, imposing man who has a taste for adventure and a liking for smart, “troublesome” women. Captain Andersen commands the Helvig, a Danish freighter that's been delayed in port by British customs agents on the lookout for military contraband. While the ship is docked, two passengers slip ashore, though they've been ordered to stay aboard, Mrs. Sorensen (Valerie Hobson) and Mr. Pidgeon (Esmond Knight). The Captain has already had trouble from Mrs. Sorenson, a willful Englishwoman who believes that rules are made for other people, and his blood is up. Affronted by his passengers’ disobedience and, by law, responsible for his passengers while in port, Captain Andersen goes ashore to find them. After catching up with Mrs. Sorenson in London, circumstances reveal that she’s a British spy who, with Andersen, falls into the hands of a Nazi cell operating out of the basement of a Soho nightclub.

While the plot is reminiscent of early Hitchcock, the style and tone of the film is pure Powell. Rather than take itself seriously, Contraband’s thriller plot is constantly lightened up by tongue-in-cheek humor and romantic badinage (as well as a fair amount of what Ken Russell has called "bondage overtones"). Though it's not as developed visually as some of his later films, you can see the beginnings of certain stylistic tendencies in the film. Contraband contains several shots and sequences that appear in his later films, such as the eerie, fog enveloped men working on ships in the harbor, for instance, and the combination of a rapid close up of a clock face and the blaring of a train whistle from I Know Where I'm Going!.

Contraband seems to be overlooked by most viewers, even fans of Powell and Pressburger, as a pale imitation of a 1930s era Hitchcock thriller, but though it may be one of their lesser films, I thoroughly enjoyed its humor and felt it had all of the elements, whether fully developed or not, that one expects of an Archers film.

Senses of Cinema Review by Alexander C. Ives

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Get Your Art House On: Fifty Years of Janus Films at LACMA

From March 2 to April 7 LACMA will be showing new 35 mm prints of 23 of Janus Films' essential art house collection. All your favorites from film studies are here: Rashomon, The 400 Blows, The Seventh Seal, L'Avventura, and Knife in the Water as well as some films you may have missed. The selection focuses mainly on films from the 1950s and 60s, but also includes films from beyond, such as The Rules of the Game and, oddly, Pygmalion. Double Features on Friday and Saturday evenings start at 7:30 pm at LACMA's Leo S. Bing Theatre.

Tickets & Information
$9; $6 for museum and AFI members, seniors (62+), and students with valid ID. Price includes both films in a double bill, except where noted. $5 for the second film only with no advance purchase.

Please note: many programs sell out. Tickets are on sale now and may be purchased at the museum box office. For information call the box office at (323) 857-6010. Purchase of a film ticket includes entrance to the galleries.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Conrad Veidt in The Indian Tomb

In answer to your question...No, I haven't tired of Conrad Veidt yet. I'm still enthralled. My most recent experience was the 1921 epic The Indian Tomb written by Fritz Lang, but directed by Joe May. Conrad Veidt stars as the vengeful but brooding Ayan III, the Maharajah of Bengal, who has a diabolical plot against his unfaithful wife (Erna Morena) and her British lover (Paul Richter). Ayan vows to build a tomb to his dead love and hires English architect Herbert Rowland (Olaf Fonss) to build it for him. Sworn to secrecy Rowland leaves abruptly, but his fiancee Irene (Mia May) follows him to India where danger and adventure begin.

At 3 1/2 hours long, I was somewhat hesitant to start watching this film, but it's like a good, old fashioned serial full of chases, danger, and women in distress and since it's set in India tigers, pythons, and yogis. And the key here is to treat it like a serial and watch it over a period of days. There is simply no way to watch it all at one sitting, you'll go mad. That being said, once you get used to the tempo and style of the film it really draws you in. One of the most expensive films of the 1920s, The Indian Tomb has impressive special effects and elaborate and beautiful sets that seem to go on forever.

The best thing about The Indian Tomb, however, is Conrad Veidt. Easily the best actor in the film, his portrayal of Ayan is fascinating and complex. Though clearly the "villain," Veidt imbues his character with pathos, eliciting our sympathy and our interest. Veidt's performance is highly stylized, using slow, almost dance-like movements, making him mysterious and otherworldly in comparison to those around him. With his piercing eyes, almost skeletal frame, jewels, velvet and satin clothes, Veidt portrays Ayan as the western image of a feminized oriental, emotional and irrational, and subject to cruel whims and desires. Though Ayan is never "manly" in the western sense, the scene where he suddenly appears masquerading as an androgynous temple deity emphasizes this representation.

Some reading to complicate your fun:
Orientalism by Edward Said
The Location of Culture by Homi Bhabha