Archive for the Criterion After Dark Category

CRITERION AFTER DARK: THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961)

Posted in 2013, 60s Movies, Art Movies, Classic Films, Criterion After Dark, Enigmatic Films, Family Secrets, Foreign Films, Garrett Cook Articles, Lovecraftian Horror, Madness with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2013 by knifefighter

CRITERION AFTER DARK
THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY: ELDER GODS WHERE YOU LEAST EXPECT THEM
By Garrett Cook

throughaglassdarkly

It’s been forever since I’ve written one of these columns. People and cities and ideas and lives change and mine did in several big ways in the last year. I missed writing for Cinema Knife Fight, and now I’m gonna do it again. I thought maybe I would start by finding a weird, shocking, filthy, perverse Criterion film. Something that would blow your mind and take you to the very edge of perception. And I did. Did I ever.

Cronenberg? Bunuel? Malle? Nope. Asian horror? Nope. Some kind of Swedish erotic art film? A little warmer. Imagine if Tennessee Williams and H.P. Lovecraft collaborated on a family drama set on an isolated island, a place tinged with madness, with the stench of malevolent cosmology hanging in the air. And there’s sin and sexual dysfunction and a sinister play with a dark truth at its core. So let’s add a little Robert “The King in Yellow” Chambers to the mix. Moody black and white cosmic horror. Yeah, that’s the stuff. So, who pray tell is the twisted mind behind this?

The man whose work inspired Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) and who had a knight in plague-stricken medieval Europe confront the grim reaper himself. A true master of the horror genre. Who knows terror like…Ingmar Bergman? That can’t be right. But it is. Bergman is the genius behind THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960), which was later remade (reimagined?) as THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and pitted a knight in a chess game against death in THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957). His film THE MAGICIAN (1958) had all of the elements of one of Val Lewton’s classics of psychological horror: from a man terrorized by doubts in his psyche to a murder that may or may not have been in the province of the supernatural. THE MAGICIAN is, as well as being a period piece and an excellent story about the power of art, a masterpiece of quiet horror.

And so is THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961).

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY is one of those movies that defines in people’s mind what an art film is, or what a drama is. It looks on the surface to just be a story about a disintegrating family. The setup is not particularly horrific: a novelist takes his son, his daughter and her husband on vacation. His daughter is schizophrenic. She finds out his novel is about her and gets upset. Why is this of interest to a column on horror culture and filth in the Criterion Collection?

Because as I said, there are traces of cosmic horror and weird fiction here that are hard to ignore, but enjoyable to savor, as they seem to be in the wrong place. Near the beginning of the film, the son puts on a play starring the daughter, involving a knight’s strange relationship with a ghost. It’s cool that it calls back to the questing knight facing death in THE SEVENTH SEAL, but fans of vintage weird fiction might see another connection, another great “Death and the Maiden” play, embedded in a narrative: Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow centers around an ominous play where the heroine’s sad song freezes the heart of the viewer. This play hints at love and death interweaving on a cosmic level, and at there being something deeply wrong in this family and on this island. The King in Yellow terrorizes you with evil in the walls of a metanarrative, and THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY does the same. Something is wrong with this play. Something is wrong with reality. Something is loose in the theater.

Karin comes to a realization in Bergman's THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY.

Karin (Harriet Andersson) comes to a realization in Ingmar Bergman’s THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY.

Although her father feels Karin is incurable, Karin’s husband is trying to remain optimistic. He does not believe her condition will have to eat away her life. And it doesn’t seem to, until Karin finds her father’s manuscript. In her father’s manuscript, the heroine is an incurable schizophrenic, in her father’s manuscript, Karin his hopeless. When Karin reads this, she is naturally upset, but it seems to go beyond that and once again into the realm of weird fiction and magic. The fictional Karin is sick, so the real Karin becomes sick. The fictional Karin is too crazy to heal, so the real one must be as well. It works like a voodoo doll and warps the world like the sinister play in Chambers’ story. It has even, in some ways, turned into a grimoire like the Necronomicon from Lovecraft’s books.

Karin begins describing her hallucinations about people behind the walls watching her, judging her. She seems to have a strange sixth sense that she’s not just the protagonist of a novel, but that of a movie as well. She seems to see the framework and that there’s no difference between life and art and reality and fantasy. She faces the realization of the protagonist of Lovecraft’s story Pickman’s Model, who discovers that the hideous paintings of his friend Pickman were modeled after a photograph from life. So the movie returns to the Pickman’s Model/King in Yellow delusion, the stuff that Lucio Fulci’s A CAT IN THE BRAIN (1990) and John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994) deal with, along with Stephen King’s THE DARK HALF (made into a film by George Romero in 1993). The reality-warping power of madness shines in Karin’s dialogue, because Bergman has isolated the movie from the rest of reality. On this little island, all we have are people’s opinions on Karin’s madness, and Karin’s madness itself. Like Shakespeare’s power to conjure images, Karin’s makes things happen in your head, turning words into imagery, and therefore turning her words into reality.

Karin succumbs not just to insanity, but to her worst urges, performing an act of incest. Her behavior has gone from simply crazy to truly aberrant, committing on of the worst sins imaginable. This is a pretty sordid world Bergman has created, one without hope or moral high ground or a chance to gain rectitude, a world ruled over by a force that is less than benevolent. Without a single tentacle, we have the feelings Lovecraft sought to convey of smallness, depravity, insanity and isolation. And the feeling that Karin’s visions are right. There are people outside the screen watching and judging her and waiting for her to fall apart on both sides of these realities. And she is under the power of a man behind a camera who is frankly not going to be very nice to her.

As Karin finally cracks, she does so in fine Lovecraftian form, terrified by confronting the image of God. Creatures like Nyarlathotep and Cthulhu appear before the eyes of Lovecraft’s heroes to shatter their minds or prove that the minds of the hero have been shattered.

“God is a spider,” Karin says.

And while Bergman does not show the spider, we have now gotten the idea in our imagination that Karin has seen some dark god. Does it matter that she is crazy? Has this god driven her crazy? We can’t say definitively that Lovecraft’s protagonists have seen the Elder Gods, and we can’t say with any certainty that Karin doesn’t know something in this Swedish art-house gothic that shows no monster at all, THROUGH THE GLASS DARKLY has as much in common with Val Lewton’s deep psychological thrillers for RKO in the 40s, in fact sharing a lot of themes with CAT PEOPLE (1942), THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943),. and other films of their ilk. And all leave you with the same horrendous impression that something is out there and that mad and malformed as the human mind can get, there is a grain of truth to all of the hallucinations and all of the cosmic horror.

The discriminating viewer is not just one who finds meaning in the depraved and the weird and the horrific, but also one who finds the depraved, the weird and the horrific in the things that academics and squares and stuffed shirts say are meaningful and THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY has that stuff in spades. So, if you like Lovecraft, Hitchcock or Lewton—or just an uncomfortable chill and a lump in your throat—Ingmar Bergman might be the scare you need.

© Copyright 2013 by Garrett Cook

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Criterion After Dark: GODZILLA (1954)

Posted in 1950s Movies, 2012, Classic Films, Criterion After Dark, DVD Review, Garrett Cook Articles, Godzilla, Japanese Cinema with tags , , , , on February 14, 2012 by knifefighter

CRITERION AFTER DARK: GODZILLA (AKA GOJIRA) (1954)
Review by Garrett Cook

Art snobs and Ebert acolytes were recently given what, for them, must have been a nasty shock. The company from which they bought their treasured Goddard Blu-rays had betrayed them. The chilled, sacred quiet of Bergman country had been broken by the sound of thundering pop culture stomping over their fantasy world of cinema segregation. Begging Jim Jarmusch to intervene with his newly constructed superbanality ray, they watched as their notions of cinematic purity came crumbling to the ground like so many Tokyo office buildings. Riding on the back of my childhood messiah, Godzilla, I laughed and laughed and laughed. And I know that a fair share of Criterion fans, horror buffs and geeks laughed with me.

The induction of Ishiro Honda’s  GODZILLA (1954) into the Criterion Collection seems like a strange decision. Some might think it was to pander to the mainstream or to get genre fans to start buying Criterion DVDs. Others may see it as a decision similar to Criterion’s choice to induct Michael Bay’s ARMAGEDDON (1998), as a chance to show them the rampant absurdity and kitschiness of a silly, silly genre. And what sillier genre is there than the Japanese giant monster movie? This is a film genre that brought us a towering Frankenstein monster tossing rocks at a triceratops/puppy hybrid, sasquatches wrestling in the sea with a running commentary by Nick Adams, and a fire-breathing turtle fighting a talking shark submarine. Putting one of these films on the same shelf as  8 ½ (1963) or PIERROT LE FOU (1965) is going to make some cinephiles cringe. Particularly those who instinctually check Roger Ebert’s website to find out if movies are any good. Ebert has led me to some fine films, and, during his Amazon Associate Days, my favorite brand of oatmeal, but those who read his 1 and a half star tirade against the film will be incredulous about its Criterion status and its merits.

GODZILLA is my idea of an art film. Crisp black and white, strong message, transgressive politics, mutable reality and moments of deep visual poetry. When a lot of us think of Godzilla, we think Technicolor stomping and giant spider wrestling. We think flying through the air on a cloud of radioactive fire toward a sentient Lovecraftian slag heap from space. But this is not where Godzilla came from. Godzilla, (or as I prefer to call it, GOJIRA, its proper Japanese title) is a film about impossible choices, forbidden love, social responsibility and questions of divine forgiveness.

The film begins on a shining sea, bathed in shadows. The sailors on a fishing boat gather around and listen to a melancholy tune played on harmonica. There is a flash of light and the boat is aflame. And lives are over. And nobody knows why. The opening goes beyond being an expressionistic portrayal of a fishing boat destroyed by bomb tests (one of the catalysts for the film), but a suitable metaphor for any number of the victims of war. Even soldiers find their lives snuffed out in short order—lightning-quick explosions of mines or IEDs ending their existence in the blink of an eye. The terms are clear; this is not a movie about a man in a rubber suit. Though when you finally get a look at Godzilla, you can see how it could be.

Godzilla himself looks nothing like most viewers will remember him. The creature is truly menacing in black and white, facial features vague, texture and topography cancerous, a creature of spikes and bumps and deformities. It is not dinosaurian, draconic or friendly or cute; it’s an abomination, a demon whose motives cannot be fathomed and whose primitive mind will not accept reason or compassion. The more I look at this creature, the more amazed I am that it became the kid-friendly critter I grew up with. The transition is something like Karloff’s creature’s evolution into Herman Munster. He looks as much like an irradiated dinosaur pissed off at being awakened by atomic tests as he could. It seems unlikely that this creature could be stopped by anyone, especially the film’s reluctant and traumatized heroes.

The film’s protagonists all have relatable real world problems. Doctor Yamane, the paleontologist (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura, who was sensational in 1952’s IKIRU) has to choose between knowledge and helping to keep his country safe. His greatest discovery is something unfathomably terrible and a threat to mankind itself and he goes through a great deal of anguish. His daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) is in love with sailor Ogata (Akira Takarada), but engaged to brooding one-eyed scientist Doctor Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who has drifted away from her, consumed with guilt over the military applications of his invention. Even with the apocalyptic threat outside, the love triangle manages to hurt, the ethical conundrums of the scientists seem meaningful.

Hirata’s performance as Dr. Serizawa has always been one of the most appealing aspects of this movie for me. A sad, Byronic, but loveable character—a Victor Laszlo with the finer points of Rick Blaine—Serizawa  has the weapon that can destroy the monster but hates himself too much to use it and hates what the world could do with a weapon like this. His concern is a valid one. If the atomic bomb could wake up and mutate a monster like Godzilla, then what could his more powerful weapon do? He’s terrific. It’s the kind of acting one would think wasn’t necessary in a giant monster movie, but the kind of acting that really makes it work.

GOJIRA stands out for showing the human costs of this devastation. Not just in the anguish of Serizawa, but in the damage caused by the monster. You see mothers clinging to their children, telling them it’s all right because “they’ll be with daddy now,” you see victims in a hospital, mutated, burning and dying. You see the land scorched and the city ruined. In most giant monster movies, you watch the creature stomp around awhile until somebody comes up with a clever idea and kills it. GOJIRA isn’t like that. The creature ruins a city until a ruined man can find the courage to fight it. It’s great horror and it hurts like hell.

You want to see the movie in the cleanest, best format possible. You want to get the full effect of Akira Ifukube’s iconic music with great sound. You want it to look as good on your shelf as a movie of this caliber can look. Sony’s previous release of GOJIRA and its American counterpart, GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (the bastardized version we first saw in the U.S., with added scenes featuring Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin~ your intrepid editor), had good commentaries, slick packaging and good special features. If you have it or you would like a cheaper alternative to Criterion’s version, you may not feel inclined to purchase The Criterion Edition. But, Criterion provides great features, a no doubt beautiful transfer and cover art by Bill Sienkewicz.  This is very much on my list for the next 50% off sale. If you don’t have this movie and you want to see it the best way you can, get The Criterion Edition. The DVD version is only $23.98 at the Criterion Store and the Blu-ray not much more. This is geek culture history, a film that crosses the line between sci fi and art film, really getting the treatment it deserves. Criterion has done a great thing.

© Copyright 2012 by Garrett Cook

The original Godzilla (1954) may not be as cuddly and kid-friendly as you remember.

Criterion After Dark: HAUSU (1977)

Posted in 1970s Movies, 2011, Asian Horror, Classic Films, Criterion After Dark, Garrett Cook Articles, Ghosts!, Haunted Houses, Japanese Cinema, Strange Cinema with tags , , , , on October 26, 2011 by knifefighter

Criterion After Dark: HAUSU (1977)
DVD Review by Garrett Cook

The Haunted House story is one of the oldest, most archetypal horror narratives. We’ve always felt certain places are weird, or frightening, or that history has not yet cleaned up the ground on which we’re treading. This narrative has been used to great effect many times, in Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” in Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” in Robert Marasco’s “Burnt Offerings,” in Stephen King’s “The Shining,” and in too many other horror novels for me to list. The Haunted House is a cliché environment that nonetheless encourages writers and filmmakers alike to innovate. Interesting how an old, hokey, primal story has given birth to so much creativity and can always find new ways to generate fright and shock.

And although there have been more than enough duds in the genre, such as the atrocious NINE LIVES (2002) starring Paris Hilton and the rather dull TV mini-series, ROSE RED (2002), I personally am always excited when I get a chance to see a new, unique Haunted House story. Hearkens back to the first shudder-inducing time I saw POLTERGEIST (1982), or the first time when I stared in wide-eyed awe as Robert Wise reminded me just how beautiful a horror film can be when I first saw THE HAUNTING (1963) on TV. You too should be excited. Because the haunted house movie I’m going to discuss here is a fresh take among fresh takes, a film that holds the distinction of not only being an innovation in Haunted House narratives, but one of the weirdest damn cult movies in history.

Nobuhiko Ohbyashi’s HAUSU starts with the Haunted House narrative. Seven plucky teenage girls go on a trip to the country to visit one girl’s aunt. The house is not what it seems to be. The aunt is not what she seems to be. And maybe the girl is not what she seems to be. Not a bad start. It’s a movie most horror fans would shell out to see around Halloween. It doesn’t necessarily scream “Criterion Material” though. As with THE HAUNTING (1963), THE INNOCENTS (1961) and THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL(1959), HAUSU only starts there, at a place where too many horror movies are content to stop.

From the moment HAUSU begins, you know you’re not going to get what the film’s premise says you’re going to. The eccentric sequence coupled with a cryptic flashback should be a hint.  This, coupled with the  overly schmaltzy music and the ridiculously caricatured girls make you immediately wonder what’s going on. The tone is confusing. And also quite disquieting. If this isn’t a put-on of some kind, then Ohbyashi has not seen a horror film before, or for that matter, has not seen high school girls. These girls and their school are a cartoon, a sanitized, simplified, padded version of reality meant for children.

When Gorgeous, the protagonist, goes to see her father, you really get a sense that something is not right. For one thing, the view outside his window is a blatant matte painting, a bright, cheery falsehood that makes no pretense of being real. But things start going south for gorgeous immediately. Although her  new stepmother looks angelic, Gorgeous has been living in a fairy tale and stepmothers get the short end of the stick in fairy tales. Gorgeous  flees to return to her creepy shrine of a room to bathe in the idyllic light of her memories and talk to her dead mother’s photo. And she decides to inquire after her aunt.

Her aunt okays the visit, so she heads out to the country, with her teenage friends Sweet, Fantasy, Mac, Kung Fu, Prof and Melody, each one named for a single prominent characteristic that defines their character. Their journey is cloaked in mellow saccharine rock, a la Scooby Doo or The Banana Splits. They’re also treated to a black and white flashback…for which the girls provide running commentary. The flashback goes on right outside the bus windows, which is an unlikely place for a flashback. Of course, haunted houses are all about those stuck in the past. Like Gorgeous. You’re left wondering, are they heading for a country house or heading into the heart of her memory? Regardless of what goes on, you can be certain this is not a movie about creaking Gothic mansions, or about teenage girls roaming around having fun. While HAUSU engages the core of the haunted house movie and the core of the Saturday morning cartoon and the teen comedy, it is completely different from any of these genres and something sinister is floating around in it.

At the house they meet Gorgeous’ sinister witchy aunt. And from here things go madder. A weirder film unfolds. A film that’s actually something of a horror film. Not a horror film that will meet any kind of expectations you would have of a horror film, but a horror film nonetheless. It’s funny, scary, eerie and wildly unpredictable. The transition occurs when the perpetually hungry Mac’s head comes out of a well to try and eat the supposedly over imaginative Fantasy. How someone’s imagination can be overactive in a world as strange as that of HAUSU is a baffling question, but nonetheless, the girls simply assume that Fantasy is hallucinating, having an acid trip within this acid trip.

HAUSU’s transformation is similar to that which occurs in Takashi Miike’s AUDITION (1999). AUDITION starts off as a romantic comedy and then transforms into brutal torture porn. HAUSU starts off as a cartoon and turns into something that defies description, a movie composed almost entirely of surprises, with a resolution as surprising as it is cryptic. You watch these very pleasant girls faced with many ironic but weird perils that will surely kill them all. The movie has, by this point already made you forget what you signed on for. If AUDITION’s genre-bending ways did not offend or annoy you, then you’re probably sharp enough to play along with HAUSU. HAUSU is one of those movies where you might as well be staring at static if you’re not willing to play its game, accept the mutability of reality and genre and the lack of convention. If you’ve got smart, adventurous friends, it could be a nice addition to your Halloween party.

HAUSU brings out truths about films, artifice, memory, growing up and the horror genre. It reveals a lot about Haunted Houses and the Haunted House narrative without pandering, without characters openly discussing the movie’s themes, which is something that happens a little bit too often in Haunted House narratives. As great as Elisha Cook’s introduction to William Castle’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is, it could be argued that it’s a bit preachy and smacks you in the face with the movie’s message. As great as THE HAUNTING is, the handy dandy parapsychologist somewhat spoils things. HAUSU has no handy dandy parapsychologist. Only very confrontational expressionism.

Ghosts in the HOUSE (HAUSU) make for a wild time.

Criterion has given this movie the DVD release it deserves. Its menu, packaging and booklet are attractive and contribute to the movie’s cult mystique. It’s something you should be proud of owning and a badge of honor for the weird film buff. Included on the disc is a “Making of” type special that includes an interview with the director and a short film. For those of you who own Blu-ray players, this bright, colorful explosion of art horror chaos would be a nice thing to own. I’m sure it looks fantastic. This cult classic does not disappoint, especially if you’re some kind of freak. It haunts my DVD shelf and should have a chance to haunt yours as well.

© Copyright 2011 by Garrett Cook

New Staff Member: GARRETT COOK

Posted in 2011, Criterion After Dark, Garrett Cook Articles, News, Staff Writers with tags , , , , , on September 7, 2011 by knifefighter

Well, CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT continues to grow, and we’ve got yet another new staff writer debuting a column today. His name is Garrett Cook, and he’ll be examining the more twisted titles of the renowned CRITERION COLLECTION for this site. Here’s more about Garrett, in his own words:

GARRETT COOK’s first experiences with cult cinema began at a very young age, thanks to a multitude of bootleg videos that his grandfather kept in the basement, some very good local TV stations and a gigantic book on monster movies. Godzilla was just as much a part of his childhood as Dr. Seuss. As his passion for great literature grew, so too did his passion for horror films, art films and grindhouse trash. With these influences, he started creating some pretty unusual fiction, stories where pulp and art get blurred and virtually anything can happen.

The first of these books, MURDERLAND PART 1:h8 was published in 2008. It led to him meeting and finding kindred spirits in the “Bizarro fiction” community. His first year at BizarroCon, the annual gathering of these weird cult authors, Cook won the Ultimate Bizarro Showdown.  Bizarro fiction has been called “the literary equivalent of the cult section of the video store” so his work fit right in and Bizarro has only encouraged his curiosity when it comes to weird, dark and demented cinema, which he writes about and reviews often. Garrett, his girlfriend Leza Cantoral, and a revolving cast of Bizarro writers discuss weird, obscure and violent cinema at http://dollarbinmassacre.blogspot.com

His most recent book, JIMMY PLUSH, TEDDY BEAR DETECTIVE, from Eraserhead Press, combines the influences of film noir, detective serials, comics, pulp fiction and vintage horror.

He is proud to be part of Cinema Knife Fight, exploring the gritty, the sick and the off-the-wall side of The Criterion Collection, the renowned and respected company that puts out definitive versions of classic films on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Criterion After Dark: THE NIGHT PORTER (1974)

Posted in 1970s Movies, 2011, Art Movies, Criterion After Dark, DVD Review, Garrett Cook Articles, Twisted with tags , , , , , on September 7, 2011 by knifefighter

CRITERION AFTER DARK
THE NIGHT PORTER (1974) Directed by Liliana Cavani
DVD Review by Garrett Cook

The Criterion Collection has gathered together some of the greatest films in history, movies ranging from Fellini’s 8 ½ to Kurosawa’s RASHOMON to Richard Linklater’s SLACKER. These are the kinds of films that are essential to most any film buff, movies that transcend genre, time and place to reach a new realm of relevance. There is a vast variety of things to choose from.

In this column, I plan on exploring some of the darker, weirder, more violent and sexually exploitative films in the collection: the more risqué selections. One week I might discuss a grim, gritty noir, the next a trippy art film, the next something deeply shocking and transgressive. I’m starting with Liliana Cavani’s THE NIGHT PORTER, a movie that marries the art film and film noir. ~Garrett Cook

There isn’t much one can depend on in film noir. There aren’t many people to trust, the protagonist can be as much of a heel as the antagonists, and nothing seems to be the way you think it is. But one thing you can count on more often than not is that somebody will fall for The Wrong Man or The Wrong Woman. Or maybe The Wrong Man will fall for The Wrong Woman. And if that happens, there’s gonna be real trouble. As the noir genre stretched out and expanded, it decided to test out just how wrong a man or a woman can be. The relationship in THE NIGHT PORTER (1974) is a nasty example of this, and one of the best ones out there.

In a cold, whitewashed vision of 1957 Berlin, Max (Dirk Bogarde) is a porter at a cold, whitewashed hotel that could be perceived as a microcosm of postwar Europe. In his day-to-day life, he deals with a sexually insatiable countess, the house gigolo and a male ballet dancer who performs nightly in front of a spotlight for absolutely nobody, like Norma Desmond with PTSD. His life is a hell of sorts, haunted by shadows of his past. His Nazi past.

Max posed as a doctor, presided over demeaning inspections, shined lights on concentration camp prisoners and performed jobs surprisingly similar in a morbid way to his work as a porter. He watched the ballet dancer perform for the Nazis back then, instead of for nobody. Max is methodical and monotonous, but also seedy and perverse. The same steely detachment follows him into his day-to-day tasks, performed occasionally with smug superiority, but never with genuine joy. It seems as if there was only one thing that ever brought him a degree of joy, and that was during his days as a Nazi.

That was The Wrong Woman; the woman for whom he was The Wrong Man. And of course, she walks into this cold, tragic hotel. Her name is Lucia now. She’s an opera singer. A model of elegance and composure. A performer, like the ballet dancer. And, like the ballet dancer, she had once been a prisoner under Max’s supervision. One of the filthiest, most provocative dances ever put to film is viewed through flashback. A teenage Jewish concentration camp prisoner humiliated by her Nazi captors, but spellbound by one of them. Dressed in military fashion and moving like Marlene Dietrich possessed, it’s uncomfortable. Sexy, tragic, confusing and wrong, just plain wrong. All adjectives that could be used to describe this movie, a film that will play with your heart, your ethics and your sense of decency.

The Wrong Woman and The Wrong Man, they love each other. She’s traumatized, and wants to stay away from him. His former superiors are concerned with getting caught and she’s a witness. He wants to stay away from her. But of course, The Wrong Man and The Wrong Woman can’t stay away from one another for long. Noir wouldn’t happen if that were the case. Max has done a lot of awful things and he probably deserves to get caught, but this movie, in these circumstances, turns him into a sad, icy man whose heart might be melted just a little by love.

Initially, he fears she will turn him in. He meets her with violence. She meets him with passion. The scene is akin to Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rosselini’s love scene in BLUE VELVET (1986)….if Dorothy were crazy about Frank. Mad love. bad love, Wrong Man/Wrong Woman love. The lines between dysfunctional romance and just plain dysfunction grow blurry, maybe even fade. And propriety and political correctness are certainly nowhere to be found. They hole up in a tiny apartment and things blur even further.

You find out about an unspeakable favor he did for her. Our hero looks pretty horrible. Our heroine does not come out smelling like roses either, since she has persisted in her admiration of this monster. Moments after seeing him do this for her, she cavorts, plays and teases. An uncomfortable air of sociopathy washes over the movie and if you had trouble pinning down this relationship before, it looks really bad now. Max is redeemed somewhat by his desire to protect her from the Nazis who want to eliminate her. Max is loathsome, but he doesn’t want what the other Nazis want out of life, he wants to be left alone and to love, however inappropriate that love might be. In movies, we forgive a lot of people a lot of terrible things they do for love. Here, your mind will reel and struggle to the very end.

Criterion has selected what they think to be the best, and when I select a movie from the collection to watch, I select what I believe to be the best of the best. Why does THE NIGHT PORTER fit in? Because Bogarde manages to be both brutal and cool, grotesque and still strangely human as Max, a hero you should hate, who still in spite of everything reveals his humanity. Charlotte Rampling is sensuous, lovely and conveys both vulnerability and strength as the victim who could still be the hero’s undoing. The cinematography is poetic and lush, but not needlessly extravagant. The story is heartrending and a test of one’s moral compass. It forces us to think about things we’d rather not, tests our boundaries and definitions of things like love, rape, evil and crime.

It’s beautiful, it’s sick, it’s deep, it’s painful, it’s scary, and it’s tense. It goes beyond our expectations of both noir and art film, of our comfort level with erotica, without having constant violations on our sensibilities like SALO (1975), or things of its ilk. Considering what it’s about, it’s as tasteful as it can be and as artistic as it can be. And frankly, The Wrong Man and The Wrong Woman don’t get any more wrong than this. One of the cruelest love stories of all time.

Is the Criterion Edition worth a buy? Maybe. The transfer is nice, the movie is unusual and the packaging is fantastic. The Criterion Store prices it at 23.96, which is a little much for a disc without features. I’d suggest seeing this via HuluPlus or Netflix before committing to a buy, especially since the emotional weight of the movie might make it something you don’t watch very often.

© Copyright 2011 by Garrett Cook