Everything Old Is New Again
The reviewers are in agreement on Shadow of the Vampire: The 1922 German movie of which it's a takeoff is great, a masterpiece. You won't read different here -- F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, on the set of which the rather roguishly conceived premise of Shadow unfolds, is a must-see. If you've never gotten around to it, find it at once on video and watch, if possible, before you see Shadow. The cinema's first exploration of the Dracula myth is also quite possibly the most visually beautiful horror movie ever made. The plot is a compressed retelling of Bram Stoker's novel, reset in Germany and given a new ending, an appropriately Romanticist love-sacrifice. The characters are renamed -- the Count is here called Orlock; the mad Renfield is redubbed Knock, and so forth. This wasn't merely because of the change in setting. The film had been adapted from Dracula with no payment to Stoker's widow, then in her 60s and financially dependent on the novel's royalties. She spent years in a frustrating and fruitless legal wrangle, and eventually even tried to have all prints of the film destroyed.
However outrageously Mrs. Stoker was treated, it's world cinema's good fortune that her attempt to squelch Nosferatu was a failure. Murnau's exquisitely composed images of the bald, blazing-eyed, pointy-eared, rodent-toothed goblin Count Orlock stalking about with plague rats in his wake can be genuinely unsettling even to a jaded contemporary viewer. No less a hipster than Jack Kerouac himself was moved to write, in his customary reserved style, of the Count's ". . . long horsey mouth looking like it's full of W-shaped cusps with muggly pectinated teeth and molars and incisors like Desmondontae vampire bats with a front tooth missing the better to suck the blood, maybe with the long brush-tipped tongue of the sanguisuga so sanguine."
Uh . . . yeah. Just what I was thinking.
Murnau's Nosferatu is available on video from various companies, including Kino and Video Yesteryear, in various cuts. Werner Herzog made a sound and color version, called Nosferatu the Vampyre, in 1979. It isn't remotely as haunting as Murnau's film, but it's not without power; Klaus Kinski brings his own brand of bleak, poignant freakiness to the title role, and Isabelle Adjani is impossibly ravishing as his victim/nemesis. Two versions, one in English, one in subtitled German, are available from Anchor Bay Entertainment. By the way, E. Elias Merhige, director of Shadow of the Vampire, is also famous for a freaky primal-surreal black-and-white shocker of his own, 1991's Begotten, in which God cuts open his belly and gives birth to Mother Earth. It's available on video from World Artists Home Video; a DVD release is set for the end of January.
Movies seem to have gone into an in-joke mode these days. Merhige and screenwriter Steven Katz spin a tall tale on the margins of Murnau's classic, and the Coen Brothers title their goofy Depression-era period comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? after a fictitious movie project in the 1941 Preston Sturges comedy Sullivan's Travels. Like Nosferatu, this "source" movie is still very much worth seeing.
The title character, well-played by Joel McCrea, is a successful, pampered young film director who's built his career on fluffy musicals and comedies but is frantic to do the screen version of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a "socially conscious" muckraking novel by "Sinclair Beckstein." Convinced that he doesn't know enough about the hardships that the Depression-wracked poor are suffering, he tries to go on the road, incognito, as a down-on-his-luck bum. But he can't quite turn off his luck -- he keeps getting deposited back in the lap of luxury, and along the way he meets a likable good egg of a dame (Veronica Lake, at her sexy best), a struggling actress who takes a shine to him even before she knows he can help her.
The plot is frothy, at least in its first half, and Sturges serves up chases and pratfalls that feel dated. But there's a darker tone underlying the picture that doesn't feel dated at all -- the warnings Sullivan receives against this adventure from associates and employees who have known poverty firsthand are impassioned and subtle. When we finally do see the poor, they're at least as convincing as the poor in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath. Even though Sullivan must, to some extent, be a self-parody of Sturges, who had a privileged boarding-school upbringing, there's no sentiment in Sturges' depiction of the lower depths. Sullivan meets with occasional kindnesses along his way, but he meets with even more suspicion, aloofness and violence.
In the second half of the film, the slumming Sullivan gets more than he bargained for -- believed dead by his friends, he ends up convicted of a crime and sentenced to hard labor on a chain gang. As in the Coen Brothers film, the chain gang is treated to a "picture show," and it's here, laughing with pleasure at a Pluto cartoon, that Sullivan realizes the irony that his associates, and we in the audience, have known from the start.
Sturges' big point -- that there may be no gift an entertainer can give his audience more precious than a good laugh -- rings true, perhaps, but there's also a touch of patness in the way it's presented (McCrea's schmaltzy final speech on the subject is regrettable). Laughter is one of the great blessings of life, no question, but laughter in the face of hardship is also often hysterical and scary, and that's sort of how it feels in the climactic moments of Sullivan's Travels. It may be that these scenes have a harsher, more tragic power than Sturges intended. In any case, the suggestion that escapist comedy is an artist's best aim is belied by the social content in Sullivan's Travels itself.
All the same, Sullivan's Travels holds up, and is a better way to spend an hour and a half than the vast majority of what's in the multiplexes right now. Check it out; it's available on MCA/Universal Home Video.
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