Sunday, February 23, 2014

German expressionism meets mid-century modern

I sat down this morning and turned on the Fox Movie Channel/FXM to watch the 1962 film The Cabinet of Caligari. It's airing again tomorrow morning at 7:10 AM, and also got a DVD release at some point (although it seems to be out of print).

Glynis Johns plays Jane Lindstrom. At the beginning of the movie, we see her driving a convertible down a lonely, little-traveled road. Suddenly, one of the tires blows out, so it's out of the car looking for the nearest house for help. She obviously walks a long time, as by the time she gets to a house it's dusk outside, and it was broad daylight when she suffered the tire blowour. This house is a mansion, complete with a gated driveway. She opens the gate, and knocks on the door to find one lone figure opening the door: a bearded man who goes by the name Caligari (Dan O'Herlihy). He offers to help Jane, sending one of his assistants to look at the car, because a creepy gated mansion like this always has a retinue of staff for the one lone person living there. Oh, and it's not the stereotypically creepy mansion of horror films but a wonder of circa-1960 design with a very open floor plan and one of those staircases without the vertical risers, among other modern design features.

Jane accepts the help gratefully. The only thing is, this Caligari only seems to be helping her. Jane wakes up the next morning, talks to Caligari in his study (which has a regular door and a revolving door!) and has some coffee, which she discovers has been drugged! Caligari is keeping her in his mansion against his will! Worse, every time she goes to talk to him, he starts asking her insultingly probing questions about her sex life! So Jane tries to find out more about Caligari from the people he's got working for him, and more importantly, whether there's any way out of this Kafkaesque world she's fallen into. It turns out that some of the people are working for Caligari, such as the well-coiffed Christine (Constance Ford), and the apparent mad doctor David (Lawrence Dobkin). Other of the people, however, seem to be prisoners in the mansion, too, like Ruth (Estelle Winwood) and her sometimes companion Martin (Pat O'Malley). Somwhere in the middle are young Mark, who seems to be falling in love with Jane, and Paul, who knows a surprising amount about Caligari, and claims to be working on Jane's behalf. But not everybody is as they seem....

It's a bit difficult to go into any more detail about the movie without giving away key plot points in the ending, when everything finally comes together. This is a film that requires patience, however, because there's a lot in it that seems almost laughable: although it's supposed to be in the horror genre, I suppose, I was laughing at some of the awful dialogue and seemingly overworked plot devices. In fact, I found myself thinking of various other movies from which The Cabinet of Caligari seemed to be borrowing liberally. Jane sees Caligari and David abusing Ruth, and this is portrayed in a series of photos reminiscent of La jetée. Jane feels as though she's going mad, which is portrayed by a long line of oddly-shaped door jambs that recall the original Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with which this only shares a title and no plot points; it also zooms here a bit reminding me of Alfred Hitchcock's camera trick in Vertigo. There's also an extended scene at the end which we see through Jane's eyes, until we finally see her looking at herself in the mirror. Can anybody say Lady in the Lake?

If you stick with this movie until the end, it's really not bad, despite the mess you might think you're watching for the first hour and a half or so. And this movie really is worth at least one viewing.

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