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The Shining
The Shining
DVD ~ Jack Nicholson
Offered by SOUTHWEST MEDIA
Price: $9.99
131 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic Tale of Terror that Will Haunt Your Dreams!, August 7, 2001
This review is from: The Shining (DVD)
I used to think this movie was terrible - overproduced, overlong, and cursed with some of the worst performances in cinematic memory. Then one night I rented it for a lark and found myself unexpectedly swept up by it. After the film was over, I went to bed and had one of the worst nightmares of my life, dreaming that I was trapped within the hedge maze and running frantically from a screaming Jack Torrance like Danny in the movie, only I was unable to find my way out of the maze. I woke up drenched in sweat and didn't sleep for the rest of the night. Any movie that could do something like this to me must be great! I have since watched it again, and am astounded by the film's tension, general atmosphere of unease, and I have come to greatly admire the fine acting of all the principals. Kubrick's Overlook Hotel is one of the great sets in the history of filmmaking. The photography, camera work, and compositions are all spectacular, and the film gains greatly from a truly exquisite use of music (a soundtrack was released very briefly, but it is long out of print). This film has the simple yet compelling structure of a fairy tale, and some of its images have become mythic in themselves - the unnerving bird's-eye views of Jack's car driving through the forest, Danny cycling through the endless corridors of the hotel and suddenly being confronted with vision of the dead girls, the scene between Jack and the non-existent bartender, the horrific scene where Jack threatens Wendy on the staircase, and of course the final bathroom and maze sequences. This DVD offers the film in stereo for the first time, and having a stereo soundtrack greatly improves the viewing experience. And by the way, there is no widescreen version available because this film was not shot in widescreen to begin with - it was filmed in the traditional 1:33 aspect ratio and "masked" by Kubrick into a horizontal format when it was released. What we are seeing now is actually MORE of the total image than was originally seen in theatres, as can be noted if you take a close look at the great opening sequence, where the shadow of the helicopter supporting the camera is quite clearly visible in the lower right corner of the screen for a few seconds. So stop griping about the widescreen issue, folks, because it isn't going to happen! This is a very great film that richly rewards repeated viewing - it is my personal favorite of Kubrick's after 2001. Heeeeree's Johnny!
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 29, 2007 7:58 PM PDT


Texas Chainsaw Massacre [VHS]
Texas Chainsaw Massacre [VHS]
VHS
11 used & new from $9.61

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly disturbing cult horror!, August 5, 2001
This astonishing film is the ancestor of all the "slasher" films of the late 1970's and early 80's, but remains unmatched by any of its successors. Very loosely based on the infamous necrophilic activities of Ed Gein, TCM uses this real-life horror merely as a jumping off point. TCM employs certain standard elements that have become cliches of the genre - a gaggle of vapid teens who get picked off one by one, crazed country bumpkins and a maniac wielding a weapon that cuts, slices and dices - but these customary Gothic devices supply the backbone of a truly original and terrifying film. Gore and special effects fans will be disappointed, as there is very little actual bloodletting to be seen, but this is director Tobe Hooper's ... most striking achievement. .... Amazingly, Hooper achieves a state of utter terror without any explicit blood or guts - every horrific sequence is suggested rather than shown. The design of the farmhouse - all squalor and strange bits of furniture constructed out of human bones - is the perfect setting for a nightmare. Energetic performances from the leads add to the effect, and the usual sexual angle is totally absent. The atmosphere of the film is sweltering and claustrophobic, and the final chase sequences elemental in their impact. A brilliant work of art which manages to terrify solely through the power of suggestion, this film will loge itself in your imagination. It is amazing how this movie has gained a reputation for being almost unendurable in spite of the relative restraint of the effects. Perhaps this is TCM's greatest success - a film without explicit gore that retains all the qualities of a riveting, pell-mell nightmare. See it if you dare!


Persona [VHS]
Persona [VHS]
VHS
Offered by jkvalues
Price: $4.39
32 used & new from $1.95

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Complex, rich and audacious filmmaking!, August 3, 2001
This review is from: Persona [VHS] (VHS Tape)
PERSONA is everything a film should be - visually groundbreaking, thematically complex, and a deeply involving emotional experience. The plot is almost laughably simple: A famous stage actress, Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann) appears to have a nervous breakdown. Unwilling to speak or even interact with others, she is sent to recuperate at the seaside home of her doctor in the care of a young nurse, Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson). Over time, the talkative Alma becomes more and more obsessed with her famous patient, and resorts to emotional blackmail and even violence in her attempts to force Elisabeth to communicate with her. Ultimately, the two women's identities seem to blur into one. Driven nearly insane by her relationship with Elisabeth, Alma leaves her service. It is impossible to overstate how complicated a viewing experience PERSONA is for the uninitiated spectator. Both of the lead actresses are phenomenal. Liv Ullmann delivers one of the most nuanced and complex cinematic performances in existence, despite having no more than one line of dialogue (or possibly two). Bibi Andersson's interpretation of Alma is equally stunning - cool, calm and professional at first, then slowly descending into a whirlpool of self-doubt and then madness. Characteristic of this film is its ambiguity - the viewer is forced think for themselves about the meaning of events and individual sequences, rather than being spoon-fed a series of definitive images, as in Hollywood movies. Is Elisabeth actually ill, or is she merely selfish, acting yet another role to manipulate those around her? Is Alma's mental breakdown the result of Elisabeth's treatment of her, or does she bring it on herself by using Elisabeth as a blank screen on which she projects her own fantasies? The emotional and intellectual themes of the film - what is identity and how do other people play a role in our construction of our own personalities? - are perfectly balanced by an extraordinary cinematic style which foregrounds the illusory nature of the "actions" taking place in front of us. Beginning with its opening montage, PERSONA explicitly reminds the viewer of its status as a fiction, and of the material process which transforms a set of still pictures into shadows with the illusion of life. Within the body of the main narrative, certain sequences (such as Elisabeth's midnight visit to Alma's room) are structured so that we are unsure whether what we are watching is "real" or merely an hallucination on Alma's part - indeed, the entire last half of the film may be no more than Sister Alma's fantasies, but then again...PERSONA'S mystery and meaning are best expressed in an astonishing shot within the opening montage - a boy interrupts his reading and reaches towards the camera/audience. A cut reverses the perspective, and we see the boy extending his arm to caress what seems to be a huge screen, on which colossal images of Andersson and Ullmann's faces appear, merge with one another, and disappear. In this single sequence, Bergman amalgamates Woman and the Screen of the cinema, and the child seeking the embrace of the mother with the cinema audience. PERSONA is one of the most unusual, even philosophical films ever made and it will certainly haunt your dreams as it haunts mine.


'Salem's Lot
'Salem's Lot
by Stephen King
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $25.69
144 used & new from $4.00

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Town That Knew Darkness..., July 30, 2001
This review is from: 'Salem's Lot (Hardcover)
Along with THE SHINING, SALEM'S LOT is the standout work of Stephen King's early years. Familiarly called "The Lot," by its inhabitants, the town is, at least on the surface, an idyllic American haven whose citizens go about their daily routine in peace and harmony taking little note of the outside world. Ben Mears, a semi-successful novelist who lived in The Lot as a child, returns to the town seeking the peace and quiet necessary to write a new novel. Instead, he and a small circle of friends slowly realize that an ancient vampire has settled in The Lot and is preying on the townspeople. Ben, with the help of Mark Petrie, a local boy, ultimately destroys the King Vampire. However, this victory is a hollow one, as the bulk of the townspeople have already joined the ranks of the undead, effectively destroying the town. Along the way, Ben loses his girlfiend to the vampire and Mark's parents are killed. Of the three other friends who try to help them, two of them die by the novel's end, and the only survivor is tainted by the vampire's blood and becomes a Cain-like pariah. As its title indicates, the book is really about the town as an entity, and King uses the numerous secondary characters to paint a portrait of a town already half dead to the world and filled with a peculiarly American kind of evil. The citizens of Salem's Lot are a rather small-minded, selfish, and petty group of people, cordial to one another on the surface, but gleefully gossiping about the latest bit of scandal, and busily impugning everyone else's reputation behind closed doors. Even before the actual arrival of the vampire, Salem's Lot is a village of the dammed and the dull, crowded with brutal drunks, lazy motormouths, child bullies, greedy businessmen, stupid or cowardly police, and vapid housewives. Everyone appears to be hostile and suspicious of outsiders, and contemptuous of the world of ideas and the imagination. King uses his considerable skills of character development to turn the American fantasy of "perfect" small-town life on its head, excoriating the townspeople for their blithe isolationism and smug complacency. Providing no more than lip service to religion, and secure in their dislike for the strange and the unusual, the citizens of Salem's Lot make perfect fodder for the vampire. King's six heroes (three of whom die before the novel's end) are all unusual types distinguished by their fine minds and familiarity with the realm of the imagination: Ben is a writer, Matt an English teacher, Susan an artist, Jimmy Cody a liberal doctor, and Mark a bright boy with a taste for the macabre. While all of them, to some extent, appreciate the homespun virtues of The Lot's culture, none of them are comfortable with the town's insularity, xenophobia and mental dullness. Ironically, the refusal of The Lot's inhabitants to accept anything but the most quotidian vision of reality proves to be their undoing, and their thinly-concealed mutual contempt makes it impossible for them to defend themselves when danger does arise. The supernatural trappings (mostly blatantly lifted from Stoker's DRACULA), effective and suspenseful as they are, are actually the icing on the cake of the story. The real horror of this book is in King's rather disturbing and depressing portrayal of the true-blue "American" mind, as represented by that most American of places, the small town and its people. This book was made into a TV miniseries in 1979 which concentrated on the vampire aspect of the book and missed its deeper rhythms, thus trivializing the tale and turning it into just another Gothic shocker. King himself revisited Salem's Lot in the short story, "One for the Road," available in the NIGHT SHIFT collection, and has said on several occasions that he might write a sequel. I hope he does, as his fictional town of Jerusalem's Lot has haunted my dreams for many years, and I would love to know what happened to Father Callahan, whose faith failed to match Barlow's!


Abstract Expressionism: Works on Paper : Selections from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Abstract Expressionism: Works on Paper : Selections from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
by Lisa Mintz
Edition: Hardcover
24 used & new from $10.77

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A worthwhile assembly of relatively unknown works, July 26, 2001
In 1940's New York, a handful of artists from varied backgrounds began producing work equal to the finest of the European avant garde. Although these artists worked in a wide variety of individual styles, all of them were connected by a similar belief in the ability of art to communicate fundamental truths about human psychology and experience. Drawing on mythological and psychological sources, and inspired by the presence of many members of the exiled European avant garde in New York, this small group of men and women created the first wholly American modernist style, Abstract Expressionism. From the mid-1940's until the ascendancy of Pop Art in the early 1960's, Abstract Expressionism was the most important movement in the Western art world, and one which remains influential even today. While the paintings of the Abstract Expressionists are the movement's best-known works, drawing was a fundamental means of communication for these artists. This book documents a small but exquisite exhibition of drawings held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You will find exemplary works from the "big names" (Pollock, Motherwell, Rothko, Willem de Kooning) reproduced here, along with important drawings by less well-known artists like Theodoros Stamos, Anne Ryan, and Mark Tobey. The diverse selection of works provides a broader overview of Abstract Expressionism than is usually seen in the art world, which has tended over the past few decades to discuss the movement through monographic exhibitions focussing on its most famous practitioners. This handsome volume restores coherency to the Abstract Expressionist story. It seems that art like this - both formally and conceptually serious - has vanished from the contemporary American scene, which has chosen to either follow the Warhol/Duchamp route of easy, jokey satire, or the equally easy road of explicit and didactic politics. This books documents a world where artists were still capable of taking painting in directions which explored the labyrinth of the mind and extended perception into new realms. An inspiring work of art history.


Schindler's List (Widescreen Edition) [VHS]
Schindler's List (Widescreen Edition) [VHS]
VHS
Offered by Tony's Deals
Price: $8.90
44 used & new from $0.01

9 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Typical Spielberg - All technique, no emotion!, April 22, 2001
The critical and commercial success of this slickly produced but ultimately hollow piece of Shoah-kitsch in 1993 has always puzzled me. If Spielberg were any less than the master technician he is, I'd give this film one star. The black-and-white photography, which so many have praised, is undeniably lovely in itself, but as a means of lending the story emotional impact and credibility, it is the single worst aesthetic decision Spielberg made for the film. The technique, deliberately grainy to recall old newsreels, nicely distances the viewer from the action, and ensures that we see this as a story "out of the past." This might not have been the case had the cinematographer refrained from the annoying, pseudo-avant-garde technique (seen in every rock video!) of shooting carefully selected fragments (such as the now-famous red coat) in color, another aesthetic decision that calls attention to itself and prevents the viewer from fully identifying with the characters. Second, for all its "authenticity" (the production design is truly remarkable), the film is filled with the usual Spielbergian cheap, manipulative and blatant emotional appeals - it is an insult to everyone who died in Auschwitz to replicate the style (but not the substance, since the characters aren't actually going to be killed) of the Zyklon-B shower deaths as a suspense scene - this is one of the most sickening things I have ever seen in a movie. Additionally, huge portions of the script are obvious lifts from such telefilms as John Hersey's THE WALL, about the Warsaw Ghetto, HOLOCAUST, and even THE WINDS OF WAR, such as the woman's killing of her infant to keep it silent lest its crying betray the group...The final sequence, where all of the surviving "Schindler's Jews" are paraded around in living color only underscores the sleaziness of Spielberg's cheap melodrama. The film also distorts the facts - Oskar Schindler was no "hero" (which the movie at least recognizes), nor was he the only industrialist who made huge profits from using cheap Jewish and prisoner slave labor during the war. After this film was released, several of the survivors revealed far more ambivalent attitudes towards Schindler than you will see in this film - he may have saved most of their lives, but he also worked them like drayhorses and made money off of them anyway. I will commend the uniformly fine performances, but this film is wildly overrated. See A. Holland's EUROPA EUROPA for a film with an almost identical structure to this one, that even incorporates the "real"people at the end without seeming manipulative.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 29, 2007 7:57 PM PDT


Last Year at Marienbad
Last Year at Marienbad
DVD ~ Delphine Seyrig
Offered by nonibooks
Price: $20.99
18 used & new from $15.49

46 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't think, Just Look., April 21, 2001
This review is from: Last Year at Marienbad (DVD)
LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD is virtually without peer in the cinema. It has caused a great deal of controversy over the years, with some claiming it as one of the greatest films ever made, others claiming that it must be some sort French joke on the audience. For those of you familiar with French films in general, you know that bad French movies tend to consist of a few characters discoursing about love in a stilted, soap-opera-like manner. Set against this context, LYAM is indeed a joke, a brilliant satire. The banality of the love triangle also pokes very Gallic fun at the annoying cliches of Hollywood melodrama. Part of the confusion caused by this film comes from the standard nature of the plot - our expectations about how this type of film should work are constantly set up, then thouroughly compromised from the opening sequence of the movie. Viewers are rarely cognizant of just how much we have internalized standard Hollywood techniques as the ONLY way of using cinematic forms to tell a story, which should have a beginning, middle and end, but MARIENBAD cannot be understood this way, although there is indeed a progression to this bizarre narrative, which takes the form of Man Y's increasingly elaborate explanations of what might have happened between him and the Woman in her room, which might have been either rape or seduction. It is a profoundly VISUAL film that can only be understood if you use your eyes carefully. The action is split completely from the dialogue, which goes over the same issues again and again in settings that indicate different times of day and of the year. Some of these scenes are flashbacks, some may only be the narrator's fantasy. In MARIENBAD, past, present and future coexist simultaneously. What MARIENBAD dramatizes is the relative quality of human memory. We tend to organize our perceptions of the world in linear fashion, but memory is non-linear, collapsing past and present into a single entity. Subjectivity is crucial to understanding MARIENBAD, which examines the way in which each participant in a given event experiences the same event differently. Lawyers know that if you have six different eywitnesses to an event, you will get six different stories about what happened, and this relativity of memory is basically what MARIENBAD is about. Once you know this, MARIENBAD is actually quite easy to understand and to follow, at least in terms of the "plot." Now just sit back and admire the unbelievably rich technique the film uses to explore this idea. The moving camera tracks by frozen humans, assimilating them within the overall decor, are combined with astonishing editing techniques which alternately slow down or extend time itself through fragmentation or repetition. The performances (and the actors REALLY ARE BRILLIANT - I can hardly imagine how difficult this film must have been to act) accomplish the same thing through similar means. This film should be watched at least 3 times, once just to accustom yourself to its unique rhythms, a second to appreciate the complex structure, and a third for the humour of it. MARIENBAD is a truly mind-boggling experience.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 28, 2012 7:07 PM PDT


Interiors
Interiors
DVD ~ Diane Keaton
Offered by Outlet Promotions
Price: $12.70
45 used & new from $4.49

5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Harrowing Study of "Family Values!", April 8, 2001
This review is from: Interiors (DVD)
Woody Allen's "Bergman" film, INTERIORS is, to say the least, a peculiar viewing experience. It is a deeply-felt, superbly-acted film which nearly collapses under the weight of its own pretensions, saved only by the astonishing performances and brilliant photography. The plot revolves around three daughters, Renanta, Joey and Flyn, and their relationship to their mother, Eve. Eve is a highly-strung woman whose life is destroyed when her husband (E.G. Marshall) blithely throws her away after decades of marriage. Eve, whose perfectionism is ultimately blamed for everyone else's problems, is a materialistic decorator who uses objects as talismans to secure her grip on a world which grows increasingly hostile to her as the film progresses. Eve is seen as "perfect" by her family, but it is this delusion on the part of those around her that destroys her. Eve is treated by everyone around her as an object that nobody wants, an image impossible to live up to. Wrapped up in their own competitiveness and selfish concerns, her daughters pay little attention to her cries for help, and barely seem to see her as a real person. Indeed, Eve is finally driven to suicide not only by her ex-husband's remarriage, but by the hostility of her middle daughter, Joey, who (in a devastating monologue) reveals that she has hated her for years. Neither Joey nor Renata - both domineering, unstable and emotionally cold - realize just how much they resemble Eve, and it seems that their own marriages are in trouble for similar reasons. The main character of the film is really Joey, a brilliant but frustrated woman who feels trapped between her "perfect" mother and her sisters, one talented (Renata), and the other beautiful (Flyn), and who would like to be an artist but doesn't have the talent. Joey is also Daddy's favorite daughter, which causes still further resentment between her and Renata (the youngest daughter, free-spirited and coke-snorting, hardly appears in the film, and when she does it is obviously meant to contrast the vapidity of the "L.A." lifestyle to the "seriousness" of the east coast). This fragile network of relationships comes apart on one fateful night in East Hampton, when Daddy marries Pearl, a none-too-bright, rather vulgar Jewish widow at the family house. A fight breaks out at the reception, and everyone proceeds to get very drunk. Renata's husband nearly rapes Flyn, and Eve crashes the party only to be mocked and vilified by her own child. Eve kills herself by walking into the Atlantic Ocean just outside. Joey nearly dies trying to save her, but is pulled from the water and resuscitated by Pearl, whom she had insulted earlier in the evening. This sequence is AWESOME. Exquisitely shot and edited (at the moment Eve dies, Renata and Flyn open their eyes from a sound sleep), the only sound is the unending BOOM of the waves against the shore. In this one scene, the film works as the deep "cinematic art" that Allen was trying so hard to create. Everything that INTERIORS does well is summed up in this moment. That said, the film is at times unbearably pretentious (Best Unintentionally Funny Line: Joey about Pearl: "She's a VULGARIAN!" - Oh my!!) and emotionally one-sided: these people seem not to have had a single happy moment in their lives, despite their fashionable wardrobes, successful careers, and expensive Manhattan and Long Island real estate. I'm sure the whole thing is supposed to be a dissection of the emotional underpinnings of WASP-culture, but scene after scene is so overwritten that the whole thing becomes unbelievably ponderous. Maureen Stapleton livens things up a bit and the vibrant-but-dumb Pearl, but even her character (a trashy yenta) is a cliche (Pearl wears bright red all the time and talks about food a lot - WOW, she must be the symbol of Jewish vitality versus WASP restraint - what an original idea, Woody!). The film also has a certain high-70's "Me-decade" quality, (as evinced by such lines as "I'm sick of your needs and insecurities! I have my own problems!") which again pushes it towards the unintentionally comical. Still, the graceful, intense acting saves the whole thing. Despite its pretensions (the last shot defines the term, "arty") and self-consciousness, INTERIORS still packs an emotional punch if you happen to be an East Coast intellectual type. If you aren't, much of the dialogue will leave you stranded. See this film for the performances and the often-exquisite compositions. Whatever else it may be, INTERIORS is unique within the American cinema, an experiment that hasn't been repeated.


Shivers [VHS]
Shivers [VHS]
VHS
5 used & new from $15.98

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Shivers" delivers!, March 31, 2001
This review is from: Shivers [VHS] (VHS Tape)
Also known as THEY CAME FROM WITHIN (a far more appropriate title), SHIVERS is the eye-popping debut of Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, probably best known for VIDEODROME, THE FLY and DEAD RINGERS. Due to the very low budget of this film, the special effects are not quite up to Cronenberg's usual high standards - the effect of the well-done appliances which enable us to see the parasite moving underneath the skin of its victims are nearly compromised by the appearance of the parasite, which basically looks like a moving mound of bloody dung, and is even less convincing thanks to way too many close-ups of the thing in nice bright light! However, SHIVERS is that rarity in the world of the macabre - like most of Cronenberg's work, SHIVERS is a horror film of ideas in addition to mere effects, and the ideas in SHIVERS are brilliant. Produced at the mid-'70's height of the sexual revolution, SHIVERS is on one level a delicious satire on the mating customs and relationships of the upwardly mobile, liberal, middle classes. The film opens with a calm, soothing salesman's voice showing off the facilities and interiors of the deluxe, ultra-modern Starliner apartment complex. Even before we meet any of the characters, we have a pretty good idea about the kind of people they are, thanks to the very trendy decors in the apartments - shag rugs, sleek furniture, wood paneling, waterbeds and macrame abound. The lives of the Starliner's inhabitants are self-centered and self-absorbed; if you can afford to live on totally self-sufficient Starliner Island (where shops, apartments, medical facilities and entertainment are all readily available), you can ignore the outside world completely. Starliner Island's exclusivity (its big selling point) eventually becomes its Achilles heel, allowing all of the residents to be infected by the parasites within the course of a single night. Don't think that this movie is a hedonist's delight just because of the sexual nature of Cronenberg's parasite - not everyone who becomes infected is young and beautiful! The boundaries between husband and wife, hetero- and homo-, age and youth are violated constantly, and even incest is ultimately no big deal. The inhabitants of the Starliner become better-dressed, sexualized versions of the zombies in Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and the final sequence in the Starliner's swimming pool, where the residents victimize the last inhabitant free of the parasite and then engage in one big love-in, is utterly horrifying, a kind of sexual anarchy. The paralells between HIV and Cronenberg's parasite (which, however, may not be deadly - no one in this film dies as a result of the infestation) are quite striking. SHIVERS suggests that the polymorphous sexuality celebrated in the "liberated" era of 1965-1981 may have been a lessening of individuality and a diminishment of human potential rather than an expansion of it. In this regard, SHIVERS is a profoundly moralistic and conservative film, yet its exploration of the dark power of sex belies liberal assumptions about human happiness being contingent on "sexual freedom" and raises issues about the nature of sex which many people find difficult to confront. Even in this early film, Cronenberg's ideas about the simultaneous joy and horror of the body are present and fully developed. I was astounded by this film and highly recommend it - certainly, it could never be made today! A courageous and shocking work.


Secret Agent [VHS]
Secret Agent [VHS]
VHS
Offered by wowcomic
Price: $1.97
14 used & new from $0.89

8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Often-overlooked Hitchcock is worth several viewings!, March 30, 2001
This review is from: Secret Agent [VHS] (VHS Tape)
SECRET AGENT was Hitchcock's follow-up to the hugely successful THE 39 STEPS, and continues that film's explorations of moral ambiguity and instability of identity. A very young John Gielgud portrays Edgar Brodie, an English soldier whose identity is deliberately eliminated by the government so his talents may be put to use as a professional spy under the name of Richard Ashenden. His mission: travel to Switzerland and execute a German spy before he crosses the Swiss border. Ashenden's accomplices in this state-sanctioned murder are the bizarre and campy bisexual "General" (Peter Lorre), who claims to be Spanish but is obviously nothing of the sort, and Elsa (Madeleine Carroll) a rather bloodthirsty woman assigned to play Mrs. Ashenden, who seems to have become an agent just to get a few thrills. Elsa's gung-ho mindset changes rapidly when the little group deceives and assassinates the wrong man. Elsa distracts the man's wife by asking for German lessons while Ashenden and the General take him on a mountain trek from which he will not return. Although the General actually does the killing, Ashenden is complicit in the unwitting crime, and seems to accept it as a matter of course. This murder sequence is extremely suspenseful, cross-cutting the male plot with the gradual realization of the doomed man's wife that something has happened to her husband because of the increasing agitation of the man's faithful dog. At the moment of the killing, the dog breaks out into eerie, unforgettable howls. After this event, Elsa realizes that what she thought was a game was actually in deadly earnest, and she tries to stop Ashenden from going through with the actual muder of the real agent, whose identity is uncovered almost by accident. The final sequences, including a fire alarm in a chocolate factory and a stunning train wreck, result in the deaths of the German agent and the General, leaving Elsa and Ashenden free to marry and quit the spy business. As another reviewer has noted, there is a strange and disquieting undercurrent of homosexuality among all the major male characters, who seem to be more interested in each other than any of them is in Elsa. Indeed, Madeleine Carroll has almost nothing to do in the last half of the film, and the usual sexualized banter between Hollywood lovers is actually given to Ashenden and the General! Indeed, Ashenden seems oddly reluctant to touch Elsa throughout the film and their love scenes are awkward at best. I can't say whether any of this was deliberate on Hitchcock's part, or whether was simply the result of casting a trio of homosexual or bisexual actors as the male leads, but the function of this choice undercuts the usual romance angle that we find in this type of story and renders the conclusion quite unbelievable, which perhaps makese sense, considering that no one in the world of this film is what he or she seems to be on the surface. Still, this is a surprisingly accomplished film which, despite some jarring shifts in tone, is watchable throughout. By the way, the film is supposedly set in 1916 and the events it chronicles deal with WW I, but don't you believe it for a second! The costumes and decors are strictly mid-30's, as is the language! Hitchcock obviously wished to comment on the moral choices forced on people by the deteriorating international situation of the times, and it isn't much of a stretch to relate these people to choices present only in the 1930's!


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