Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens (AKA: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror) (1922)

Nosferatu

Nosferatu, Eine Syphonie Des Grauens (AKA: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror) – 1922

Director –  F. W. Murnau

Starring – Max Schreck, Greta Schroder, and Gustav van Wangenheim

Of the many different genres of cinema, horror seems to be relegated to the bottom of the list when it comes to perceived importance and impact.  Drama, perhaps, is the category voted the most likely to get recognition and accolades, where as comedy seems to get the people’s choice award, but for my money some of the most effective and memorable films reside firmly in the realm of suspense, tragedy, and horror.  Even films that are billed more as mystery like, Psycho, or science fiction, such as Aliens, have elements directly rooted in the anatomy of the horror film.  Brimming with dark imagery, unsettling characters, and casual situations gone wrong, films such as The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Thing are very obviously direct descendants of Nosferatu.  it doesn’t end there either, F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece has informed the structure, tone, editing, and atmosphere of movies as a whole, and worked its way into the DNA of the language of modern cinema.

The most striking feature of Nosferatu, is the look of the film (duh…it is a silent movie after all.).  Though not as exaggerated and dramatic in appearance as fellow german expressionist work, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I found the imagery more immediate and haunting.  Starkly black and white (with only subtle color washes to provide a different feel for outdoor versus indoor scenes), Nosferatu relies on stillness and subtle creeping atmosphere to first un-nerve the viewer, then slowly build the tension of the film to a boiling point.  From the long shadowed gothic architecture of the vampire’s castle to the dilapidated, shell of a building which he inhabits upon his arrival in the fictional coastal town of Wisborg, the set pieces lend to the characters aura of danger, and the looming danger that follow with him.

Borrowing obviously from the Dracula story, originally by author Bram Stoker, Murnau and his lead actor Max Schreck craft a version of the vampire character rooted not so much in sexual charisma and riches, than it is in brute strength and fear.  Count Orlok as this Vampire is known, looks sleep deprived, starved, and ravenous.  There is a ferocity in the portrayal that is far more present and vibrant than almost every other vampire that I’ve ever seen depicted in film.  Orlok looks like a cross between the Tall Man from the Phantasm films, and a burned rat, and frankly seeing him for the first time, silhouetted in the archway of his manor, is more than a little unsettling.  The film even refers to him as the “Bird of Death”, further likening him to the dangerous animal that he is.

His appearance isn’t his only weapon though, throughout the film, the vampire utilizes impressive strength, mind control, power over animals, as well as a peculiar telekinetic ability which allows him to, non-corporally interact with the world (self-moving coffins, and doors opening in a simple, but effective stop-motion animation).  When these qualities are added up in one package, Orlok seems like an unstoppable force and brings a real sense of dread with him as he lurks slowly through the scene.

One of the first examples of a Cult Film, Nosferatu nearly didn’t survive after the estate of Bram Stoker sued for copyright infringement and a court ordered all existing prints of the film burned.  This bankrupted the production company who had neglected to acquire the rights to the Dracula story.  Luckily, copies of the film had already been shipped around the world, and survived destruction, eventually being copied and cultivated by fervent fans and film enthusiasts the world over.

As far as acting goes, the discussion should start and stop with the film’s terrifying lead, Max Schreck.  His gaunt frame and solid performance helped to create one of the most indelible characters ever created.  The rest of the cast does a fine job in their roles, but they only ever really play second fiddle to Schreck/Orlok, causing us to miss him when he leaves the frame and thrill us every time he is back on the screen.  His performance is so legendary, that a number of rumors have built up around both the character as well as the actor, painting him as everything from a true method actor, to a a real life sadist who simply plays himself on-screen.  It is these rumors that inspired a fictionalized telling of the actor’s life during the filming of Nosferatu, in the form of “Shadow of the Vampire” starring John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck.

From the research I’ve done (readings and such about the making of both Nosferatu as well as Shadow of the Vampire) I can find no evidence that any of that is true.  Instead, it would seem that this rather powerful character has simply had the effect of coloring people’s impression of a rather popular stage character actor.  Like many actors, (ie: Maria Falconetti from Passion of Joan of Arc, Linda Blair of the Exorcist, and Jaye Davidson of The Crying Game), Schreck seems to have used up all of his intensity, charisma and skill to be remembered for one great work of art.  Though he continued acting, it is always Nosferatu that he will be remembered for, and vice versa.

I feel like there is so much more that could be said about this film, including comparisons to other films, and weighing and mapping the influence that ripples even through the films of today, but I feel the best service I can do is simply to tell you to watch it.  Just watch the shit out of it.  I know it’s silent, and sometimes silent films can be boring, but this film is worth it (not that others aren’t worth it, mind you).  To see this film is to see one of the keystones in the history of film, a film that helped to define the rules which are adhered to even today.  So do yourself a favor and watch it, you won’t regret it.

“Nosferatu be needing some veneers!”  –  Ashley

This Just In…

1000 Movies You Must See Before You Die!

I thought of how much fun the idea of seeing all of these movies was to me, and equally of how much fun it would be to write about them all too.  It was at this point that a few things dawned on me.  I realized just how large this undertaking was, and how equally large the time commitment will be too.

I was daunted by the sheer volume of my endeavor.  I immediately started to formulate a way to lighten the load.  I’ve already seen a lot of movies, I thought, why shouldn’t I just write about the ones that I’ve already seen?  Yes!  That’s it!  I’d write about the movies in this book that I had already seen.  That way, I’d save a lot of time, and I wouldn’t be tempted to dwell on my own in-activity, and unsocial behavior.

This got me thinking yet again.  As I said before, I was looking forward to seeing all those movies…That’s IT!  I would go ahead with my initial plan of watching each of the movies that I haven’t seen and writing about each one individually, AND I would write about the ones I have seen (although these will be done in groupings so as not to accelerate my already rather sedentary behavior tendancies too much.)

Here is the first installment of the movies that I have seen.  They are not quite as in depth as the reviews that I have done and plan to continue doing for the new material, but they provide a good summary of what I liked and/or what I didn’t like.

I hope you enjoy this bunch.  It covers the first movie in the book that I had seen, up through the end of WWII.  So…get reading already

Metropolis (1927)

I was lucky enough to catch this projected from a remastered 70mm print with lost footage re-integrated into the story.  It featured a live piano accompaniment, and featured written descriptions of scenes that were still “lost”.  At the same time, I was unlucky enough to see it while I was super, super tired.  There are some slow moments, and I was drooping at times.  Still, it was probably the best possible way to see Metropolis for the first time.

“Fuckin’ love it!” – Ashley

M (1931)

The Criterion Collection has introduced me to a wide variety of movies, including quite a few of the selections on this list.  M introduced me to foreign film in general, not to mention the fantastic Peter Lorre.

Scarface : The Shame of a Nation (1932)

I saw this with a couple of other fantastic American noir and crime films in a little theater on the left bank in Paris, the Action Christine for those who are in the know.  It was part of a week long mini-film-festival concerned with classic and overlooked American noir films.  I was able to catch a number of other great flicks including, Kiss Me Deadly, Key Largo, the version of The Killers from the sixties (with Ronald Regan, Lee Marvin, and John Cassavetes), and the topper, Charade.  I was surprised how much of this story of Scarface is recognizable later on in the Brian De Palma version.

It Happened One Night (1934)

I was introduced to this movie through a friend who was absolutely in love with it.  I was, at first a little skeptical, but came to appreciate it quite a bit.  I’m not sure why everyone makes a big deal about Clarke Gable in Gone With the Wind, but not in this one (I suppose I’ll find out later, when I watch it).

(**Warning Spoilers**)

“If a man nicks names you brat, it’s because he loves you.”  –  Ashley

The Thin Man (1934)

As this was a recommendation from numerous trusted sources, I may have gone into this one with elevated expectations, which as you may or may not know can be death on first impressions.  While I didn’t love it as unilaterally as I was led to believe that I would, I didn’t dislike it at all.  It was solid, but not discernible from a lot of other movies that I have seen from this period.

“Alcoholism is hilarious!” – Ashley

The 39 Steps (1935)

One of two of Hitchcock’s British movies that I’d seen after I’d tooled through almost all of his American stuff, (The Lady Vanishes being the other…), and while I liked The Lady Vanishes better, this was not without it’s charms.  By and large this seems like a stepping stone through which you can get to Hitchcock’s great works, although it is not great in and of itself.

“Genius begins…” – Ashley

La Grande Illusion  AKA  Grand Illusion (1937)

This is another of these movies that I was introduced to through the Criterion Collection.  When I saw this movie, it was the first time that I had either heard of or seen Eric von Stroheim, Jean Gabin, or Jean Renoir.  Von Stroheim in particular interested me, and I have since been looking for his epic, studio bankrupting movie, Greed.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)

Snow White was the second movie that I ever saw in a movie theater (E.T. being the first), and since then, thanks in part to having a good number of girl cousins, friends, and going to a daycare where a good amount of the kids were girls, I was quickly overdosed on this movie (along with The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins).  That being said, upon my first viewing, I was enraptured.  I wanted to be the 8th dwarf, and I was terrified of the old witch with the apple.  Fucking scary!  This is how childrens stories can be.  They don’t have to be these antiseptic, polished, glittering trash-heaps that they came to be, straight to video sequels with crappy 3D animation.  Snow White set the standard, even IF I don’t really wanna watch it anymore.

“Teaching all pale, black-haired girls around the world that they are the most beautiful.” – Ashley

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

I partially wrote this longer post of movies that I had already seen because of this movie.  I didn’t want anyone to think that just because I had seen it, to think that this might mean that I liked it.  I saw this in film school, as an example of the studio system of the 30’s and 40’s, and more specifically because it was THE classic screwball comedy.  I liked movies from this period, and more importantly I was a pretty big fan of Cary Grant, so it seemed like a natural fit.  Then along came Katherine Hepburn and ruined everything.  She plays the most annoying, murder-inducing, terrible fucking annoyance EVER!  I could not wait until it was over.  From 5 minutes in or so I was checking my watch, sending text messages to friends, trying vein to sleep, anything to avoid that shrill voice, and that irksome demeanor.  What made it worse was, that Cary Grant, put up with it to the point where his character started to exhibit affection for Hepburn’s.  This bastion of charm, class, and smooth masculinity was was so utterly ineffectual, that not only could he not save me from hearing this woman speak, but he stole two hours from me in the process.

“Holy shit, there’s a leopard in it!” – Ashley

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Who doesn’t like the Wizard of Oz?  It’s a little heavy on the songs, and musical routines which I don’t really go in for (making a lot of movies musicals in this book a little daunting), but the story and the fabulous imagery were far more than enough to outweigh them.

“Technicolor orgasm!” – Ashley

Rebecca (1940)

I liked Rebecca (come to think of it, I’m not sure that I didn’t like any Hitchcock movies), but I liked Notorious better.

Fantasia (1940)

This, like with a lot of different musicals, was pretty lost on me.  I’ve fallen asleep or gotten board and wandered off each time I’ve tried to watch this (3 separate times now).  The animation was great, but not quite enough I guess.

“Elephants in tutus.” – Ashley

Pinocchio (1940)

I enjoyed Pinocchio back when I saw it initially, but it was never quite as good, in my opinion, as The Jungle Book, The Sword in the Stone, or Robin Hood.  Maybe it was just the time period that I grew up in, maybe it was the animation style.

“So many sexual euphemisms, so little time…” – Ashley

The Bank Dick (1940)

W.C. Fields is a smarter, more adult, and more aware version of The Three Stooges.  He pokes fun at himself rather than poking fun at others or having them poke fun at him.  Don’t get me wrong, I love The Three Stooges, but every now and again it’s nice to see you don’t have to hit something with a hammer in order for it to be funny.

Citizen Kane (1941)

The enigma that is Citizen Kane…it is both vastly over and under-rated.  The idea that you can pick one movie in the scope of all that has come out to date and claim that it is the greatest movie ever made is a ridiculous one.  Equally ridiculous is the idea that that same movie is of no or little value simply because every other movie since then has co-opted the same bag of tricks.  Citizen Kane and Orson Welles set the standard, and now people get mad that in a sea of copy-cats, it no longer stands out to them.

“Oh, yeah.  It is real good.” – Ashley

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Fantastic, fantastic movie.  For one reason or another, before I had ever seen a Humphrey Bogart movie, I was under the impression that I didn’t like him as an actor.  This movie, The Big Sleep and Casablanca proved me wrong three times in a row.  Each was fantastic in it’s own way, but the addition of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre make this a contender for my favorite of the bunch.

Dumbo (1941)

This is my least favorite of the early Disney movies.  I didn’t quite know what to make of the bizarre pink elephant sequence, and I took the shame and teasing that were inflicted upon the titular character to heart.  I haven’t seen this one for a long time, but I’m not sure that I want to.

“Go hug your mom.” – Ashley

Casablanca (1942)

Check out my review of  The Maltese Falcon two entries above this one, and you’ll know how I feel about this one.  With a rousing story, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains you can’t help but love this movie.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“Don’t get on the fucking plane!” – Ashley

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

I like Shadow of a Doubt, but just before seeing it, I had seen The Third Man, and I was completely prepared to fall in love with it.  Joseph Cotton was the key.  He and the movie didn’t really stand out to me…correction, they weren’t able to blow me away the same way The Third Man had.  Despite this, I still enjoy watching it when I want to throw something on while I doing something else.

Gaslight (1944)

It was on my Grandpa’s insistence that I sat down and watched this one with him.  A well made movie, with the beautiful Ingrid Bergman, but I have to say, this spot could have easily gone to at least 2 dozen other movies (Charade, Miller’s Crossing, American History X, Leon The Professional, Bottle Rocket, El Mariachi, True Romance, Shallow Grave, Hard Boiled, Hearts and Minds, Le Cercle Rouge, and Ghost Dog to name just a few.)

Double Indemnity (1944)

I fell in love with Double Indemnity when I first laid eyes on it.  I seemed to ooze a certain coldness, and efficiency that I had never seen up until that point in movies.  I’ve heard other reviews of this movie citing Fred MacMurray as being the weak link in the chain, to not committing to the role enough (the reviewer was saying that he did this in most all of his roles), I disagree whole heartedly!  He may not have achieved the short lived notoriety of someone like James Dean or Clarke Gable (note: my definition of short lived may not match yours), but he was the right man for the job in each of the movies that I’ve seen him in.

“How not to commit a murder.” – Ashley

Murder, My Sweet  AKA  Farewell My Lovely (1944)

Murder, My Sweet was a good movie, but this is another slot given to a lesser contender.

Spellbound (1945)

When traveling in London I visited the Salvador Dali museum, expecting to see a host of what I thought were the artists more well known works.  Instead, I saw a bunch of his work that I had never seen before, including a number of artifacts from the movie Spellbound!  Ultimately, I think fairly well of my visit to the Dali museum, but that is mostly because of the items from the movie.  Spellbound, like the museum, has left a generally favorable impression on my mind, but it doesn’t go much farther than that.

“I wish I dreamed in Dali” – Ashley

Les Enfants Du Paradis  AKA  The Children of Paradise (1945)

This is a fabulous movie that you should go see.  Now.  Go ahead, I’ll wait….Wasn’t that awesome.  Well dig this…This whole movie was filmed during the Nazi occupation of France.  Film stock, supplies and artisans were in short supply, cast and crew were being routinely investigated by the puppet Vichy (read Nazi) government, and still they managed to pull off a staggeringly beautiful movie with beautifully thought out and constructed sets, top notch acting, and a story packed with anti-fascist allegory.  On top of this, the majority of the actors and crew were utilizing the “cover” of the movie in order to stay hidden, as many were French Resistance underground fighters.  Now go watch it again!

That is all for this first chapter…go watch all of these movies and write back to tell me what you think.