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What to Watch: Psycho Month

For October FAN (Film Appreciation Nights), we’re doing a small list of movies about people who belong in rubber rooms. The psychos and the misfits, the dangerous and the charming.

Fritz Lang’s M

The Greatest Foreign Language Film of ALL TIME, Lang’s M is a movie that ushered in modern film making. It almost could have taken place 30 to 60 years later without losing a beat.

Yes, it’s in black and white, in German, but it has a remarkable grasp of criminal psychology and law. It understands not only mass hysteria, but also the movements of the modern cinema camera. It establishes, and pans, moves through windows, takes daring high and low angles, and plays with dark and light.

The movie even uses silence – dead silence – to convey meaning in ways we don’t expect.

Here’s looking at you, kid…

From a screenwriting perspective, what’s most intriguing is that there’s no protagonist. We have a situation: child murders in Berlin, and we see the whole city respond, and factions making their way – the homicide inspector with the police and city council, and the criminal underworld lead by a cool guy in a leather trench coat – but mostly we’re watching camera, intruding on various elements, and settling on the criminals stalking Beckert, the child murderer.

The modern screenwriter could never get away with that.

After discussing so many brilliant moments, especially cross-cutting between council room and mob meeting, the story culminates in the criminal court scene that lays out reasons for and against terminating the criminally insane. And there we get to watch Peter Lorre deliver his greatest performance (IMO).

The FAN group talked of other movie connections. The criminal court scene was used in an episode of Miami Vice, and the phrase “the lives of others” may have been used for the title for a great movie in 2006.

As always, our discussion took divergences into which was the best vampire movie, best werewolf movie, and what other Fritz Lang movies should we see (um, there’s a bunch).

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

An even lesser-known German horror film with an overwhelming influence on modern film making is the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

First, its use of flashbacks.  Now, some can argue that it uses a “framing device” at the beginning. That is, a point of view is established so that a single protagonist can tell a story using flashback.  In other words (for writers), a framing device IS a flashback.

It also uses a flashback within this framing device (now considered a story problem), along with parallel action shots, close-ups within scenes (called coverage), a wildly expressionistic set, and a twist ending.

Not bad for a film that came out in 1919!

The story involves two friends finding in Dr. Caligari’s cabinet a sleepwalker (somnambulist), Cesare, who can tell the future. He says to one that he will live until dawn, and at dawn, the man is murdered. The investigation brings us back to Cesare and Caligari, except that a copycat killer is also arrested (again, produced in 1919!). The hero defeats the criminal mastermind, who is also the director of the local insane asylum.

But as the Framing Device ends, the story reveals — SPOILERS!!!!! —

Our protagonist is actually an inmate in the asylum, and Caligari is actually his doctor.  Yes, it’s also an unreliable narrator story!

Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has influenced countless directors, including Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands) and Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island).


On the misfit end of our list, consider 1950s Harvey. James Stewart is perfect as Elwood P. Dowd, a charming local character (read: alcoholic) who hands out cards, invites everyone to his home for dinner (informally, of course), and who then introduces them to his best friend Harvey, an invisible 6 foot, 3 3/4 inch rabbit Pooka.

This Pulitzer-prize winning play became a classic thanks to Stewart. Spielberg and others have and are trying to remake it and haven’t yet found the secret sauce.

On that point, our group believes they never will find it. Three things work against it:

  1. CGI-happy Hollywood won’t let Harvey be just the disembodied, seemingly imaginary friend. They’ll have to cast his shadow on everything, up until he appears in former stand-up comic/drag queen splendor.
  2. The dramatic tensions of his niece, the ladies group, and others who flee the house after Elwood talks to the air are now gone. Most cocktail parties in any large city today involve stranger conversations than this plot devises, and updating it will require the writers to abandon the very delicate balance of comedy, propriety, and gentleness that makes Harvey charming and not The Beaver.
  3. Today’s attitudes toward charming lunatics and alcoholics have changed. We know too much and overlook too little now to accept without modification a protagonist who drinks that much and never faces the depression over his lost mother.

In short, capturing Harvey’s lightning-in-a-bottle charm is triply difficult.

Also interesting for writers, Elwood is considered a “steadfast character” or a “traveling-angel” who doesn’t change over the course of the story (though many try!). The prime-mover of the plot is Veta, who wants her brother committed so she and her daughter can get on in life.  And interestingly, it’s Veta who first derails her scheme by revealing too much about Harvey at the sanitarium.

The writer, Mary Chase, introduces the reality of Harvey in the second half of the story, but we’re meant to believe Elwood is a crackpot before then. This allows the audience to finally “see” Harvey after we fall in love with Elwood.  “Believing is seeing” for Harvey, and this, along with Elwood’s remarkably strange but loving personality, makes this a subversively Christian movie.

Arsenic & Old Lace

For our last film in the psycho-realm, perfect for Halloween, Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, an emotionally-unstable, anti-marriage theater critic who marries the girl next door, Elaine. He intends to whisk her off to Niagara Falls after they pack.

All fine until Mortimer discovers that his aunts, Abby and Martha, poisoned an old guy, stuck him in the window seat and intend to bury him in the cellar beside their other 11 kills!

This throws Mort off his game. He tells Elaine to wait at home while he hatches a plan to commit Uncle Teddy, who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt.

How getting Teddy out will cure his charmingly lethal aunts isn’t clear, but it begins a farce of macabre fun that escalates when Mortimer’s psychotic brother Jonathan comes home with a face like Boris Karloff and his ghoulish surgeon, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre, again!).

Frank Capra’s comic masterpiece (#30 on the AFI Comedy list), was shot in 1941, right before the US entered WWII. Capra joined the war effort with the Why We Fight series, leaving Arsenic & Old Lace to be released in 1944. Capra originally wanted Bob Hope for Mortimer, but he wasn’t available. Boris Karloff, also couldn’t play Jonathan because he was performing the role on stage.

Grant struggled with the macabre subject matter, and delivered what he considered his worst performance.

Our FANs didn’t fault Grant for anything. I personally loved the over-the-top performance, but we all felt that certain story beats didn’t quite work.

As mentioned, Mortimer’s obsession with committing Teddy doesn’t make sense, especially when he should fear his psychotic brother.

Also, once Elaine hears of the bodies buried in the cellar, she enters the storm cellar door to investigate. But Jonathan, who grew up in the house and so, would have known about this entrance, instead brought his victim’s body through the side window. Had he used the storm cellar door, he could have avoided all those Act 2 complications!

We concluded that it was a problematic movie addition that the play didn’t have.

Strong points go to Mortimer and Jonathan trading threats of revealing dead bodies to the cops, and our biggest laugh came with both men plunging onto the window seat, revealing who was responsible for the extra dead guy.  Grant’s facility at the slow double-take sold the scene perfectly.

Lastly, the original play was written by Joseph Kesselring in the antiwar atmosphere of the late 1930s, and was supposed to express the conflict in American history between personal liberty, and its bloody hidden past. After all, the Brewsters were psychos since the Mayflower. Even the aunts got their poisons from their father’s lab.

This theme was expressed but it couldn’t compete with the fast farce, funny lines, inside-theater jokes, and great characters that make Arsenic & Old Lace such a classic.

Well, that’s my list. Yes, I could have mentioned other works, from Dracula to Dexter, but the above are the foundation most others stand upon. Best to know and enjoy them, learn from them, and write worthy successors.

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