And while we wait, I have another piece of writing for those interested.
Breaking the Cycle: Two Film Noirs by Arthur Ripley
Arthur Ripley is a great example of a “what could have been” filmmaker. It’s perhaps an odd thing to say about a person who had a 40+ year career, working in films from 1914 to 1959. His silent day triumphs included his work with Harry Langdon, being the second major behind-the-scene force alongside Frank Capra, and being largely responsible for his dark edge. The thirties saw a steady decline into poverty row, but not before directing several of the W.C. Field shorts for Mack Sennett (he's even in the Collection!). Throughout the 50s, he seemed to have been prolific in television, and more importantly, academia: he was UCLA’s first Professor of Cinema Arts, and a major force in founding its Film Center. This despite being, by all accounts, an eccentric, a man who Edgar G. Ulmer described, not entirely jokingly, as being of unsound mind and body, but by other accounts knew everything there was to know about filmmaking.
Despite this prolific career, his dramatic feature-film career consists of only 4 1/3 films, all but one made in a brief burst in the 1940s. His first, Prisoner of Japan
, was a war-time propaganda film that is largely impossible to see. This despite being written and co-directed by Edgar Ulmer, making 18 times its budget, and which by most descriptions has more than a few auterist links with his later films, including a deep sense of sadism and tragedy which seems uncommon for simple gung-ho jingoism. His last, and most famous, film is Thunder Road
, a fine feature, not entirely lacking in the Ripley touch, but where its star-producer (Robert Mitchum) is as much an auteur. Beyond that, he did uncredited work (with fellow noir
stalwart John Brahm) on the Maria Montez vehicle Siren of Atlantis
, a deliciously campy, yet arty (so much so it was first rejected by its studio) slice of exotica which fits right in with his other films, even if its unclear where he was involved.
Standing at the center of this outburst are two bizarre, dreamlike and disjointed film noirs: Voice in the Wind
and The Chase
. Both were low-budget affairs, both were critically acclaimed… yet both failed with audiences, cutting short what could have been a fascinating directing career. An auteurist study is perhaps long overdue (the man was in fact mentioned in Sarris’s famed Film Culture #28 issue), but with so much of his work absent from view, I won’t attempt to make it. But by simply comparing these two films, one can already see signs of a clear distinctive voice. Both films take place in humid, exotic locales (the island of Guadalupe, Miami, Havana), with a strong emphasis on the nocturnal. Both have what I would call, for lack of a better term, a delirious and grotesque “funhouse” quality to them, which almost represents Ripley’s two conflicting impulses: one is a deliberate artiness, based in the popular art-house traditions of the period (Cocteau, Poetic Realism
, German Expressionism, the French Avant-Garde), a self-consciously European flair, a fixation on classical music; on the other hand, there is a picturesque, subversive element of black comedy, one would venture to guess rooted in his time in comic shorts, as if both films have a deep-seated vulgarity that threatens to break loose at any moment. Both films are deeply tragic in their trajectory, but also essentially romantic: they both concern a young, traumatized, passive male protagonist, psychologically damaged in both films by WWII. In both films, they fall in love with a quietly suffering female character. For this love, they attempt to shake off their passivity, but in both films, must journey across a cruel and violent world to be united with her, embodied by a similar pair of sadistic antagonists in both films: one is silent, serious, more physically menacing; the other is mischievous, humorous, almost playful. In both cases, it is the latter which surprisingly reveals a more shocking sadistic streak. Both romances end tragically, and are accompanied with a deep sense of predetermination: from the opening frame of Voice in the Wind
, it is clear that things will end badly, and The Chase
ingeniously and deceptively plays with the idea of fate.
Voice in the Wind (Arthur Ripley, 1944)
Voice in the Wind
is a hard film to write about. For starters is the matter of its obscurity; this is a film that barely anyone has seen since its initial release (and few watched it then), which for a while was impossible to find. As far as I am aware, there are only two 16mm prints of the film (one housed in the Cinematheque Francaise), and even my copy is truncated. As such, I will keep my comments brief, as I am more focused on the way this film informs The Chase
, a more widely available film, and a superior one. It’s a film ripe for discovery, but even then, one wonders whether it would rise above a poverty-row curio. The other problem in looking at the film is the obtuse, disjointed quality of it all. It is ostensibly what one could call a Refugee Noir
– that subgenre of wartime propaganda that dealt with the plight of civilians under Axis occupations, such as Andre De Toth’s searing None Shall Escape
, or William Cameron Menzie’s visually stunning Address Unknown
. Voice in the Wind
is the most noir
of them all, with its focus of the war as past
trauma, and its moody, personal fatalism. Yet, as a classic narrative, it is unsatisfying, frustrating, and at times seemingly inept. It’s central conflict between El Hombre and the two corrupt fisherman feels rushed, its WWII flashback never fully integrated and connected with the going-ons in Guadalupe. It’s difficult to get a finger on what the film is: Anti-Nazi propaganda? Homegrown poetic realism? A treatise on music as cultural identity? A tragic romance? There’s a hollow, incomplete feeling to the film, as if we’re not watching a finished film but the compiled fragments of an abandoned project.
But what haunting, evocative fragments! Michel Michelet’s operatic score, an eerie reworking of Smetana’s La Moldau
, establishes the tone early on, and holds the fragments together (how many poverty row films can claim an Oscar nominated score?). Francis Lederer’s El Hombre roams this world of eternal night and fog like a phantom, unable to die until he finds the woman and identity that he’s lost. His frightened eyes, his somnambulist silence, his absolute bewilderment at the world, all are much like the walking dead of the aforementioned Lewtons. Smetana’s music is the only link, the only clue, he has to the world of the living he’s left behind, that he’s abandoned and been abandoned by, both a symbol of the Europe he’s lost to the darkness of the war and the cause of his downfall. The film shoots the island of Guadalupe like some purgatory, some isle of the dead for those who have escaped Europe but await an uncertain, perhaps darker fate. We feel as if all these refugees are doomed. Alexander Granach’s Angelo is almost as captivating. It’s a performance that shouldn’t work; he’s loud, boisterous, over-the-top, saddled with a ridiculous ethnic accent. But his broadly comic, hammy demeanor is turned into a strength, as its always set against his behavior. He’ll go from cheating refugees out of thier only money in one scene, to having a touching homo-erotic moment with El Hombre in the next, to absolute sadism, all while retaining his over-the-top persona. Take this scene
, one that’s downright Lynchian in its oddness: a scene of broad, exaggerated slapstick which unsuspectingly becomes genuinely sadistic and misogynistic: a scorned woman attempts to shakedown Angelo's brother. He pays her off, all while trading quips and playful insults to the woman. It's all playful and broadly comic, but without changing his boisterous, over-the-top sense of humor, he reaches over, grabs the girl by the neck. He gives her one slap, then another, then another… until she’s been beaten unconscious, as he lets out one last obnoxious laugh, and everyone joins him. It’s an example of one of the fragments of the film that sticks with you, so unlike any other moment of screen violence of the period. And much like the fragmented narrative, Angelo remains an unresolved contradiction, going from moments of misogynistic violence to moments of true affection for El Hombre. All this is enhanced by the uncredited work of Eugene Schüfftan, that favorite cinematographer of Carné, Ophüls, and later Franju, who gives the film a true sense of poetic realism
While poetic realism certainly informs the film, one wonders what Ripley was looking at the aforementioned Val Lewton. Certainly, the Lewtons laid the groundwork for aspiring artists working at the lower end of the Hollywood system. And much as Lewton would refashion his pulp material around pieces of high-art – classic literature, poetry, painitings – so does this film build itself around pieces of high-culture. It does so less successfully, perhaps more pretentiously than the Lewtons, out of a stronger need for compensation, but it does so nonetheless. Take the aforementioned La Moldau
, which anchors the film. Even more importantly, is a later scene, an awkwardly placed flashback between El Hombre and Marya, before the war, which nonetheless stands as the key to the film. It is a dark, starry night, they sit on a bench, huddled close together, and read the preface to Percy Shelley’s “Alastor”:
They who, deluded by no generous error, instigated by no sacred thirst of doubtful knowledge... loving nothing on this earth, and cherishing no hopes beyond... rejoicing neither in human joy nor mourning with human grief; these, and such as they, have their apportioned curse... They are morally dead. They are neither friends, nor lovers, nor fathers, nor citizens of the world, nor benefactors of their country... Selfish, blind, and torpid, they constitute the lasting misery and loneliness of the world. Those who love not their fellow-beings live unfruitful lives, and prepare for their old age a miserable grave.
'The good die first,
And those whose hearts are dry as summer dust,
Burn to the socket!'
The film draws a line in the sand, between the lovers, the citizens of the world, like El Hombre and Marya, and the "the enemies, the philistines", like the thieves of the island, as well as the Nazis. "Shelley wrote that 120 years ago
," he exclaims, "they had them around then too... the world has always had them.
" Here, Ripley tries to raise this above simple propaganda. The fascists may have thrust the world into darkness, the infinite night and fog of Guadalupe standing in for the darkness that has consumed war-torn Europe, but its just a continuation of an eternal struggle. As the pair die in eachother’s arm, we're left with a last image, a dolly shot moving in a bed side candle, flickering in the darkness of the room. While I have found no proof, I have found accounts that the film (possibly abroad) was released as Candle in the Wind
, and it is perhaps a more appropriate title. While Voice in the Wind
may point the haunting persistence of La Moldau
, this final image is a perfect summation of the film’s modest powers. El Hombre and Mayra, all the "citizens of the world", are much like the candle; a small, flickering, faltering beacon of hope and love threatened by all consuming darkness, threatening to blow out any second. It is too disjointed a film to do these fragments justice, and perhaps its dark sense of tragedy isn’t always earned, sometimes forced and pretentious. But in this mess of a film exists a true sense of dark, romantic poetry, the raw material from which a truly great film could have been mined. It would take the next film to do just that.
The Chase (Arthur Ripley, 1946)
For those who have seen it, The Chase
has always been a source of great controversy. Daring in its narrative structure, people either find it courageous or a cop-out. Likewise, as a Woolrich adaptation, it’s equally audacious. It guts much of the novel, retaining only brief fragments, and then seemingly disregards them in its final third. Yet, beyond this, it comes closer than any film in catching the macabre, nightmare quality of Woolrich’s work. Controversy invites more controversy, and I have my own reading and opinion of the work that I hope to touch on here. It’s a reading that becomes especially clear once someone has seen Voice in the Wind
, and begins to see the clear connections between the two films. While it may use Woolrich as a source, its clearly an Arthur Ripley film, continuing the prior films struggle between the lovers of the world and the enemies. It is above all, a restaging of that film’s tragedy, but in its ingenious narrative structure, allowing Chuck Scott and Lorna Roman to redeem themselves, and the previous lovers by proxy. I highlighted some similarities above, but the most striking has to be its structure. Both films have what I would call a sandwich
structure: they roughly consist of three segments, the opening and closing one existing in a similar setting, but with the middle offering a sharp break. In Voice in the Wind
, the opening and closing segments unfold on Guadalupe, in the present day. The middle segment exists in the past, in Nazi-Occupied Czechoslovakia. Likewise, while the bookending segments exist in an “objective” world, the middle is “subjective”: the repressed, lost memories of El Hombre. The Chase
continues this, albeit in a different way. The opening and closing segments take place in Miami, the middle in Havana. Likewise, in the films controversial twist, we learn that the bookends took place in the “real” world, while the middle was seemingly a “nightmare”. In both films, the middle segments consists of a world that the protagonists forget in their amnesic illnesses, although the Voice
begins where the The Chase
third act does in relation to their amnesia. Other links are drawn: El Hombre’s only link to his repressed past is his piano-playing; here, when Chuck Scott finds romance, he suddenly rediscovers he can play the piano. Likewise, his room is adorned with a single, insistent candle which calls to mind to one that closes Voice in the Wind
. Here, Ripley refines some of the oddity of Voice
, of course: here the twin rivals are more clearly antagonistic, although they retain the same odd duality: Peter Lorre’s stern, silent hatchet-man; Steve Cochran’s misogynistic, joker. The greatest change is in the female love interest: she’s no longer a completely passive character, dying in a filthy bed. Lorna Roman is allowed some agency here, as is Chuck Scott/El Hombre, and as such given a shot at some redemption, although she is still suffering, this time under the control of Steve Cochran’s Eddie Roman. Still, essentially the film is a restaging of the liebestod
that befalls the leads of Voice in the Wind
. It is refined, more satisfying and coherent as a narrative, but the same trajectory remains. However, the films true genius comes through in the way it averts tragedy.
Whenever this film is theatrically shown, modern viewers have tendency to call it Lynchian. And while I’m not one to throw around the label easily, it’s perhaps a more fitting label than many people realize when using it. Just as the similar objective/subjective, reality/dream structures in Lost Highway
and Mulholland Dr.
are never clear-cut, so does The Chase
bends it structure in ways people don’t give it credit for. Fred Madison may escape the illusion of young Pete Dayton, but he’s still stuck in a purgatorial mobius strip; hardly reality. And many people still debate any easy Betty Elms / Diane Selwyn distinction in the latter film, as they probably should. The Chase
’s dream is likewise deceptive. Not only can its “trick” narrative be described as a prototype for the likes of Lost Highway
and Mulholland Dr.
, but it’s also a prototype for another completely different type of film: narrative games in the spirit of Celine & Julie Go Boating
and Three Resurrected Drunkards
. Much like the dreams of another Lynch project, Twin Peaks
, dreams can deliver exclusive knowledge not available elsewhere. Not only does the film replay the tragedy of Voice in the Wind
, but once it runs its course, it allows Chuck Scott the chance to play again. The nightmare gives him knowledge of the film’s narrative trajectory and his place in it, and with that knowledge he is able to seize control of the narrative. He conquers the predetermined tragedy of the film - in fact, the fatalistic spirit of film noir
– by becoming aware of that predetermination.
The biggest clue that all isn’t what it seems comes in the form of Chuck Scott’s awakening from his dream. It is the most trance like moment of the film. He doesn’t awaken in one clean start, or a drowsy coming-to. No, the film visualizes his awakening in a series of superimposed fades that establishes a disorientating sense of repetition. If one wants to give it a literal reading, one can easily do so: the repetition is a representation of the drowsiness that comes from awakening from such a stupor. Furthermore, it represents the way a memory can hid itself behind the haze of amnesia. Very well, but it ignore that the scene, and particularly its editing, has a precedent in the film. If we represent the nightmare as nightmare, and everything surrounding it as reality, then the logical place for this early repetitive edit would be sometime around when Chuck Scott goes to his apartment and falls asleep. But this preceding moment doesn’t occur there. Rather, in a much earlier scene (within the seeming reality) Chuck and Lorna stand on the coast. It’s a stormy night, and the waves whip across the rocky shore. Chuck stands a couple yards back, dressed in a black uniform, passive, detached. Lorna stands next to the water, in a white gown, distant, despondent. Chuck asks her, “Is there anything I can do?” “Yes, make it four years ago,” she responds, “if you can’t do that, just look the other way.” And, as in response, as if willing a change in his own narrative world, we cut to a similarly conspicuous series of superimposed fades, of the roaring waves. When we cut back, we meet the pair again, in the same setting. But it is calm. Chuck no longer seems passive and detached to Lorna, but close to her, standing right next to her this time. Lorna is no longer despondent, but almost happy. She’s even dressed in black, linking her with Chuck Scott. Their professional detachment seems to have given way to personal confidence. Lorna’s helplessness in the former scene has been replaced by a boldness; she devises their scheme to escape to Havana. Once again, one can read this literally, the series of waves being a simple passage of time. But both superimposed montages are so conspicuous, and conspicuously similar, that one can’t help but connect them. The earlier montage creates such a sharp break in the narrative trajectory and in the behavior of the characters, that it would seem the most logical place for a dream to begin, even as the latter montage says otherwise.
One of the major elements of the film is the extension of oneiric beyond the middle segment, the only place that should logically be oneiric. But the film isn’t simply fixated on the dream as a psychoanalytical phenomenon; it also takes up the dream as a metaphysical one. And if metaphysics considers time as a continuous loop, in the film, dreams are an embodiment of that loop. For the films other fixation is the predetermination of fate. This is clear from the opening scene, no less dreamy than what arrives later, where Chuck Scott passively follows a wallet in to the Roman mansion and a new career. Eddie Roman’s race with the train is another example of those trying to fight against and conquer an uncertain fate. If in the film noir
, the future is uncertain and unknown, here Ripley plays with the idea. It begins as such, but through the dream, Chuck Scott is made away of the trajectory of fate. Look at the later “replay” of the race against the train, the death of Eddie Roman and Gino: it is once again dreamlike, too convenient and unmotivated to seem like objective reality. Yet, Chuck Scott, having gained knowledge about the future, and aware of Eddie Roman’s continuous tempting of fate, almost wills the crash, just as he wills the transformation on the beach. With his knowledge, he begins reshaping the predetermined fate, that is, the predetermined narrative trajectory. His rescue of Lorna Roman continues this idea of persistent dreamlike atmosphere, so unabashedly romantic and operatic that it seems like the dream itself is continuing. And this becomes clear with its final scene, in front of the same Havana club, in the same carriage, which preceded Lorna’s death, and the consummation of the tragedy. We also have reached the point where, Eddie and Gino being dead, Chuck Scott’ knowledge of the predetermined future ends. With it, he has seized control of the narrative, but ultimately, was only able to make some minor changes, its basic trajectory repeating itself, the loop continuing on. The film ends just as Chuck and Lorna reenter the uncertainty of the future.
The aforementioned scene in Voice in the Wind
seemed to establish the struggle between El Hombre/Marya and the thieves/Nazi as one between lovers and enemies of the world, an eternal struggle as old as time. The Chase
continues this thought by representing Chuck/Lorna’s fight against Eddie/Gino as another chapter in this eternal struggle, so eternal that it continuously repeats itself within the film. Chuck Scott’s amnesia gives him the chance to walk away with a clean slate, but he decides to continue the loop, risking becoming one of the “good” of Shelley’s poem, who “die first.” Chuck Scott and Lorna manage to break the cycle of tragedy, but they reenter the Havana night with no knowledge of what’s to come. This new cycle will run its course, perhaps happily, perhaps tragically, but one sense’s they have gained enough experience to put up a fight. The Chase
is one of the great anomalies of film noir
: it traffics in a world of impending death, sexual guilt and paranoia that is of a piece with the darkest end of the genre. Yet, through this dark night of the soul travels an unabashedly romantic and anarchic spirit. This is Arthur Ripley’s spirit, and it should have had a long, brilliant career.