Thursday, April 29, 2010

John Brahm and the Locket (and Nicholas Musuraca)

Ever since Cahiers du cinéma, Andrew Sarris and the auteur theory passed out of its heyday, it has been a not infrequent pastime of some to canonize overlooked directors and shoehorn them into the hallowed pantheon of the all-time greats. Among the frequent nominees is one John Brahm, who I am here to say is overrated and belongs just a notch outside the canon and is at best a serviceable mainstream director, a craftsman. The definition of an “auteur” in classical terms is someone who, despite working in the Hollywood studio system, exhibited a consistent and strong personal style and vision throughout their films. Directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.

The Locket (1946) has its moments, for sure. But what is missing is a compelling through-line from beginning to end of a deeply felt, intensely emotional personal involvement by the director in the story—and in this case it’s in a purportedly in-depth portrait of human psychology. Here the psychology of the femme fatale is merely a tool of the plot. The director is not interested one jot in the human syndrome that makes this lady tick (if it’s the writer’s fault, it seems the great auteurs managed to get what they needed out of the material, nine times out of ten). And it is in this fertile ground that greater auteurs would have found the real meat.

In fact, it is in comparison to Hitchcock that Brahm’s vision suffers the most in comparison. I felt a lack of dramatic excitement when Nancy and Dr. Blair come back from their restful visit in the country, and he suspects her of stealing a necklace. Dr. Blair tries furtively to look in her purse on the train, and then in the apartment. The “twist” is (for now) that he finds she has not stolen it, and he is crestfallen for having doubted her. But, boy, compare Brahm’s push in on the purse in the train scene to any dramatic push-in by Hitchcock, and you will feel a tremendous lack of excitement. (The close-ups to the money in Janet Leigh’s purse in Psycho, imbued with deep psychological and dramatic weight.) The push-in with Hitchcock occurs at moments of high drama, often when the audience is aware of some critically important information. Perhaps in Hitchcock we would have seen Nancy steal the necklace and winced with glee as Dr. Blair (unaware instead of suspicious) narrowly misses seeing it time after time. And instead Nancy is the one on pins and needles, desperate to avoid being caught, until..... In Hitchcock, the focus would have been on Nancy’s psychology—on the intense desire to cover up the guilt—a deep psychological guilt beyond the act itself (maybe I’m harping on Psycho). But in Brahm she’s la-di-da, a calm customer, and the scene is in the realm of Hollywood plotting and not deep auteurist psychology or human interest.

Despite this, the movie is entertaining and has moments where the plot winds its screws tightly and to good effect. The complex flashback structure is fun, and it’s not too often you see such a lengthy flashback within a flashback—within a flashback!—and so well done that you do not lose your place and are fully engrossed in each realm. Here the Hollywood craftsmanship is in full sail—but not the art, not the auteur. So in the end, the drama uncoils a bit and its hold on the viewer slackens. Lacking a strong underlying interest by the director in anything but the story—the plotted structure— I would imagine most discerning viewers will feel dissatisfied.

I think some who try to kickstart a new auteurist appreciation are perhaps imbuing the films with a deeper psychological interest than actually exists is in them. This may come from training in film school (or books), where it does take education and guidance to learn to interpret what lies beneath the surface of, for instance, a Hitchcock film. But it is possible to misapply those same analyses with a less careful eye to similar scenes and similar plotting and draw some lines between underlying points that aren’t really there if one is to be honest and look closely.

I felt a similar swell of auteurist anointing for Brahm I think from my friend Dennis and perhaps some American Cinemathèque programmers vis-à-vis Hangover Square, in which I had a similarly enjoyable time at the movies, but still felt this same lack mentioned above. Brahm just does not bear comparison to the great auteurs. (And dare I quote Dashiell Hammett: “Literature, as I see it, is good to the extent that it is art, and bad to the extent that it isn't, and I know of no other standard by which it may be judged.”)

Nicholas Musuraca’s (or is it Brahm’s—I haven’t seen enough of his yet) lens choice is claustrophobic. Bear with me, I’m new to focusing on lenses, and I’m taking a beginner cinematography class, but it seems the choices resulted in a narrower field of view, which I believe means they are in most cases longer lenses (not the longest, but longer than “normal” 50mm). One only has to look at the lighting to confirm this was a strategy. Characters, more than most movies are crowded in by sharp shadows, delicately placed at all points around their heads, frequently with shadows cutting into their faces. The film is frequently bathed in darkness, and a number of times it dips well below normal Hollywood standards (at least for scenes in drawing rooms and studio apartments). One might assume art class students need light to draw by, but here it is very dimly lit.

I wanted to write about Musuraca, since it’s the first time I’m watching with an eye towards learning cinematography. Just briefly, it was too dark—my VHS copy was murky, perhaps this is not fair—and I think this style choice went a few steps beyond the needs of the scenes. There were some beautiful shots—her final wedding walk close-up was great. But overall the film was too claustrophobic. There was not a good enough mix of wider shots, and I don’t think a closed-in style was called for here—or at least it could have been saved for the most critical scenes. The film doesn’t sit entirely comfortably in the realm of film noir, although it would be hard to designate it otherwise. But it almost seems that Musuraca was desperate to make it a noir against the needs of the scenes themselves. I think in better noirs, the lighting is justified by the locations (like in Asphalt Jungle). Nevertheless Musuraca is extremely creative, and the looks he got are pretty stunning and seemed difficult to achieve. And they were distinctive, not like any other cinematographer’s.

Last note, I’ve been reading about Method acting a tiny bit (and doing some acting myself), and Laraine Day’s performance left something to be desired. She was acting in a formally professional way, not in a deeply psychological way. Often she seemed to be acting without enough regard to her partner in the scene.

This film recently played at the American Cinemathèque's 12th Annual Film Noir festival, so perhaps some readers out there would care to share their two cents' worth.

(Thanks for bearing with this meandering review. I felt it was better to write something messy than nothing at all.)


Anonymous said...

I'm a passionate admirer of Hitchcock, but I think youre wrong to compare The Locket and Brahm so unfavorably to what can happen in a Hitchcock film. I agree that Hitchcock is very interested in especially female psychology, and that the Brahm film keeps a discreet distance from the character's inner life.

But we do get a long passage precisely about her childhood trauma,and, moreover, I think that it is very much the point of the film to present its femme fatale as a mystery that cannot be solved, even with this long childhood passage. The disjunct between her outward charm and secret penchant for perversity is the major theme--and pleasure--of the film.

--David Greven

The Mysterious Ad) B(e;ta[m.a.x. said...

Thanks for the comment! I haven't had one in a long time, so it's good to get one, and even better that it's offering an opposing viewpoint. Exciting!

I am inspired to post more items. I had been thinking about posting a paper I wrote (for a class) on Greenaway's Nightwatching... (hopefully followed by some regularly generated new material)...

I'll revisit my unfair comparisons to Hitchcock next time I see a Brahm movie (or this one again), although I vaguely recall a similar comparison occurring to me when watching Hangover Square... (but only vaguely, so I'll leave that one alone.)

Thanks for checking in, David, and especially for providing a substantive comment..!