Sherlock Jr. (1924)

USA
5*

Director:
Buster Keaton

Screenwriters:
Jean Havez

Joseph A. Mitchell
Clyde Bruckman

Directors of Photography: 
Elgin Lessley
Byron Houck

Running time: 44 minutes

Sherlock Jr. is a film that uses every trick in the book to produce electrifying moments of comedy that can still thrill audiences today. It is also a shrewd representation of the place of film in our lives.

The poster shows Buster Keaton as a detective and as a beloved (projectionist). The credits merely list him in his parenthetical capacity, and in fact this occupation embraces the central part of the film, which takes the audience on a journey full of twists and turns that is very clearly related to the first part of the story.

Keaton, the man with the expressionless face who manages to find himself in extraordinary situations, stars as a guy who wants to be a detective as much as he wants to marry the Girl, but when he is framed by another suitor in the matter of a lost pocket watch, and his detective skills fail him, he dreams up a scenario in which he is the ultimate sleuth. This part of the film is presented in a way that excites by means of its presentation and its content.

This medium-length film is interesting on many levels, and while the action transcends mere slapstick (it is not repetitive and does not have any condescension for the film’s characters), Keaton’s conception of the film’s biggest stunts makes for remarkable commentary on the perspective of the viewer. Consider the following movements:

1) During a film screening in a big theatre, with a large audience watching, Keaton approaches the big screen and walks into the film. He subsequently appears in different scenes as the film cuts from one location to the next, and Keaton has to keep up with objects that appear out of nowhere.

2) In this film-within-a-film, Keaton follows some undesirables to their hide-out. He puts a rounded suitcase with a costume inside on the outside of the window, and when he escapes from the house by jumping through the window, he is instantly covered by this costume, and the criminals don’t recognise him. This particular scene is further enhanced by a cut-away image (produced by means of a kind of double exposure, a gimmick Keaton also uses to great effect in his 1928 film, The Cameraman) when the inside of the house can be seen “through the walls”. Technically, it must have been quite a job, but the final effect is breathtaking.

There are many other instances of such trickery, and in spite of (occasionally) less than perfect editing to disguise the manner in which they were done, the products are unexpected and work very well. Two other moments specifically target the perspective of the viewer:

1) When Keaton has already “entered” the screen, the camera dollies closer and closer, until the screen fills the frame, so that any subsequent scenes or cuts would appear like any other film and we forget that we are watching a film that is also being watched by the film’s audience. In this way, the second-level film becomes just as real or just as fake as the first-level film.

2) When Keaton wakes up from his dream and looks through the window of his projectionist’s booth towards the screen, his face is framed by a very clear border, similar to the image he himself is looking at: the framed image of the film in the theatre.

While Keaton doesn’t approach his subject with the same complexity as Woody Allen in The Purple Rose of Cairo, it remains a very entertaining film that touches on some important aspects of film reception. Unlike Chaplin, Keaton does not behave at all like a child, but rather like a very lucky average Joe, and since his technical skills enable a very entertaining telling of his story, he is by far the more serious director. In Sherlock Jr. he manages to craft a film that, while clearly not meant to be a feature-length idea, has enormous potential to entertain.

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

USA
5*

Director:
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenwriters:
Gore Vidal
Tennessee Williams
Director of Photography:
Jack Hildyard

Running time: 114 minutes

It is truly remarkable that this film, whose subject is always implied but never mentioned by name, can have such a strong impact on a viewer who has grown up in a much less restricted era of movie-going. I knew this film from a Gore Vidal interview in The Celluloid Closet, in which he, the screenwriter, admitted that the finale was overblown, and the very visible reference to the demise of Frankenstein’s monster in the film by director James Whale was a bit over-the-top. I knew that the unseen protagonist was gay and killed because of his sexuality, so I did go into the film suspicious of the words about him, wary of things said and particularly of things unsaid. Perhaps this knowledge made me susceptible to a positive bias towards the film. On the other hand, the film pretends to look for the truth and yet persists in obscuring this most basic component of the story, always putting up a smokescreen in front of the viewer. And nonetheless, the film is intriguing from beginning to end.

A young woman named Catherine Holly has been diagnosed with dementia praecox following the death of her cousin, Sebastian Venable, at the hands of a street mob in Cabeza de Lobo, Spain, the previous summer. The reason for the death, and the exact way in which he died, remain a mystery until the very end, but our suspicions grow about the exact nature of the relationship between the two cousins when Sebastian’s overprotective mother, Violet, wants to have Catherine lobotomised for “babbling” about the events of Sebastian’s final hours. The doctor who is to perform this operation is Cukrowicz, who tries to piece together the puzzle from the fragments given to him by the supposedly insane Catherine and Sebastian’s snobbish mother.

While the screenwriters were obliged to remove references to homosexuality, it is significant that Montgomery Clift was chosen to play Dr Cukrowicz, whom Violet mistakes for her own son. Clift was gay, and even though nothing is intimated about his character’s sexuality, his casting could not have been unrelated to his sexuality. Perhaps that is a sweeping statement, but it makes perfect sense in this film where so much had to be suggestive rather than overt.

By means of imagery such as the Venus flytrap and the painting of Saint Sebastian, the film prepares us for the swallowing of poor Sebastian by the angry mob in the film’s final act. “Nature is not created in the image of man’s compassion”, says Dr Cukrowicz, and this statement, made early in the film, after Violet’s account of the “flesh-eating birds” that ravage the young sea turtles on the Galápagos Islands, paints a truthful though ominous picture of the world that will be revealed to us. “[T]he ones who eat flesh, the killers, inherited the earth. But then, they always do, don’t they?”

Cukrowicz is a serious man who barely ever blinks and is aware of the experimental nature of the work he does. In his very first scene, in the hospital’s operating room, director Mankiewicz heightens the tension with small details, both visual and auditory, that include a constant buzzing in the background. Katherine Hepburn is marvellously stiff upper-lip as Violet Venable, who has a borderline incestuous obsession with her late son. The character of Catherine is the only place where the film and the story trips up, ever so slightly: She is put, under Cukrowicz’s care, in what seems to be the least protected mental institution in the world, where she roams freely, provoking all kinds of riots among both male and female patients. Elizabeth Taylor, who plays this role, is also in the unenviable position of appearing onscreen for the first time after we have spent a long and poignant scene in the company of Clift and Hepburn, and her acting (or her character) is no match for theirs.

Suddenly, Last Summer is a joy to behold, even more so today, because the care with which Vidal (and Williams, although he distanced himself from the film) removed the references to Sebastian’s homosexuality while leaving in just enough to make us wonder. The casting of Clift and the image of Sebastian being devoured by a mob of young men are equally impressive and give ample food for thought, as they imply what could not be said outright.