THE MIRACLE WOMAN (1931) ***½
This is a most impressive early sound picture, more compelling and well-crafted than most of the movies of its time I've seen. Barbara Stanwyck plays Florence Fallon, a young woman who with the help of a sleazy showman, Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy), becomes a celebrity evangelist/miracle healer in the style of Aimee Semple McPherson. The daughter of a minister who dies after the congregation he had served for many years replaces him with a younger man, she is motivated by bitterness and revenge, and by disillusionment with what she sees as the hypocrisy of those who profess to be true believers. When Hornsby sees her deliver a fiery denunciation of her father's parishioners from the pulpit, he realizes what a potential goldmine she is with her histrionic evangelism and her ability to make religious platitudes seem sincere. "George M. Cohan said, 'Leave 'em laughing,'" he tells her. "I want [you] to leave 'em crying."
Her revival meetings are theatrical, stage-managed affairs—almost religious spectacles—complete with shills planted in the audience to fake miracle healings and help Florence fleece the gullible for contributions. Problems begin when Florence meets and falls in love with a blind war hero, John Carson (David Manners), whom she saves from suicide, and begins to question her ruthless exploitation of her followers' trust. The possessive Hornsby, a sort of malevolent Pygmalion, senses he is losing control of Florence and coerces her into continuing their scam by threatening to implicate her in crimes he himself has committed, including bribery, fraud, embezzlement, and even murder.
Stanwyck is sensational in the title role, relentlessly intense as she maneuvers through a whole gamut of emotions. She is by turns a hardened cynic out to manipulate the credulous with her showmanship and phony piety, a frustrated victim being controlled by the menacing Hornsby, and a disillusioned and vulnerable woman susceptible to redemption by the goodness of her blind lover. But whatever emotions she expresses, she always remains believable and basically sympathetic.
Capra's direction is assured, and he keeps things moving briskly. The emotional intensity of the plot surges and relaxes, but Capra's sure-handed staging never for a moment lets the movie's interest level flag. Highlights include the lavishly detailed, circus-like revival meeting scenes, including one in which Stanwyck delivers a rousing sermon on the strength of faith while inside a cage of lions; a tender and humorous birthday party scene with Florence and John; a dramatic night scene on the beach between Florence, John, and Hornsby in which she defiantly confesses her charlatanism to John; and a spectacular fire that destroys Florence's Temple of Happiness in the movie's climax.
Capra's expert staging of these sequences is aided tremendously by the inventive photographic effects of cinematographer Joseph Walker, including impressively mobile tracking shots, startling whip-pans, and imaginative camera placement—for example, looking into John's room from inside its fireplace, with roaring flames in the foreground between the viewer and John and Florence. Many shots of the revival scenes are composed showing Stanwyck from the rear with upraised arms, the silhouette of her body visible through the backlit diaphanous white gown she wears. This is one of the most watchable movies of its era I've seen—one of Capra's best early directorial efforts and one of Stanwyck's best and most sizzling early performances.
THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER (1974) ****
Directed by Werner Herzog, this movie is a part-factual, part-speculative work based on a true story. In 1828 a young man is found early one morning standing in a deserted street in Nuremberg, Germany, holding in one hand a note saying his name is Kaspar Hauser and in the other hand a prayer book. Able to speak only one nonsensical sentence, he seems disoriented and confused. He appears to be neither violent nor mentally defective, only unacquainted with normal human life.
Exhibited as a freak in a circus, he is observed by a professor who adopts him and undertakes to teach him the ways of civilized humans and the German language. Kaspar quickly learns to communicate, and the story he tells is a bizarre one. He claims to have been kept chained in a dark cellar for nearly his entire life and never to have encountered another human being (food was left for him while he was sleeping) or to have seen anything outside the cellar where he was imprisoned. Under the professor's tutelage, Kaspar becomes something of a celebrity. There is much speculation—most of it absurdly fanciful, for example, that he is the castoff heir of the royal House of Baden—about his true origins before he is mysteriously murdered a few years later.
Filming largely in the Bavarian village of Dinkelsbühl, which looks essentially unchanged since the early 19th century, Herzog authentically recreates the life of the time. In the midst of this historical realism, he interpolates brief dreamlike scenes filmed in an anomalously distorted style. The overall effect of this historical authenticity punctuated with unexpected departures into surrealism is to suggest how utterly strange life in his new environment is for Kaspar. No matter how much he learns about the ways of human beings, his conception of life always keeps its edge of strangeness, threatening to slide at any moment into weirdness, if only briefly. Like a mystic, he is subject to occasional visions and imaginary events that seem to the viewer baffling and mysterious, but to Kaspar as genuine as his real experiences.
Kaspar is played by a 41-year old street singer named Bruno S., who didn't want his full name used in order to preserve his privacy. It's hard to imagine that anyone else, especially a professional actor, could have given such a naked, real performance, so spontaneous, instinctive, and entirely lacking in artifice does he seem. And it's hard to imagine that the movie would be half so effective with anyone else in the title role. One of the oddest supporting characters in the film is a scribe who is present almost from the beginning of the movie until its very end, obsessively documenting every experience Kaspar has, from his discovery in the town right up to the results of his autopsy. Yet these factual details provide no real insight into the man. The insight is provided by Herzog and Bruno S., whom it's clear played off each other and inspired each other like two complementary halves of a whole, Herzog providing the intellect and vision and Bruno the heart and emotions.
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is unlike any other movie I've seen: It incorporates dreamlike elements that in a strictly logical and narrative sense don't seem to belong in an otherwise realistic movie, yet that on some extra-logical level do enhance the narrative without compromising its coherence, suggesting through the story of Kaspar Hauser that the nature and meaning of human existence can be explained only so far before hitting the impenetrable wall of the inexplicable.
DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978) ****
Terrence Malick is one of the great contemporary American directors, a filmmaker with a style as distinctive as that of David Lynch, yet he has directed only four movies. When you see how meticulously conceived, written, photographed, and edited his movies are, this deliberately unhasty approach to filmmaking becomes entirely understandable. His first movie, Badlands (1973), seemed to follow a clear plan determined in advance, with little improvisation. But beginning with Malick's second movie, Days of Heaven, his work seems to be the result of a combination of advance planning and spontaneous inspiration taking place at the editing stage.
I have heard that Malick is an exceptionally well-read man, and in Days of Heaven I detect two clear literary influences. The plot of the movie resembles Henry James's novel The Wings of the Dove. In the early 1900s two lovers, Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams), pretend to be brother and sister. When Bill is fired from his job in a steel mill in Chicago after a dispute with the foreman, he and Abby, along with his young sister Linda (Linda Manz), travel south seeking work as itinerant farm workers. They end up in the Texas panhandle, where the wheat harvest is just beginning. The wealthy owner of the farm where they find work (Sam Shepard) quickly becomes obsessed with Abby, and when Bill overhears the farmer's doctor telling him he has only a few months to live, he persuades Abby to allow herself to be romanced by the farmer and to marry him, with the expectation that he will soon die and she will inherit the farm. Two forces thwart this scheme, though. The farm foreman (Robert Wilke) is immediately suspicious of Bill and Abby. And the farmer's love for Abby cures him of whatever disease the doctor thought he had.
The other literary influence I detect is apparent in the visual element of the movie and makes an even stronger impression than the narrative. This element resembles the vividly atmospheric rural locales of certain novels of Thomas Hardy and the themes in those novels of the conflict between man and nature as humans attempt to tame and dominate nature in an early Industrial Age agrarian setting. The people in the movie are dwarfed and made insignificant by the vast, flat landscapes of the plains and the golden fields of wheat, the imperatives of following the rhythms of the crops, and the challenges to human endeavor posed by the physical world. Some of the strongest images in the movie are of the wheat being grown, being harvested, being processed. Scenes of frenzied harvesting, a sudden invasion of locusts, and the nighttime burning of the fields are especially dramatic and hypnotic. Such images contrast strongly with those of artifacts of early 20th-century industrialism—steel mills, steam-driven trains, the first automobiles, primitive farm machinery, even the World War I-era airplanes of a flying circus.
Visual and thematic preoccupations present in all of Malick's movies appear here: scenes of the limitless sky overhead shot through overhanging trees, of ever-flowing rivers, of animal and insect life coexisting with human beings shown in almost documentary fashion, of people attempting to survive in immense landscapes that barely accommodate their presence. All this is imbued with a deterministic sense—not unlike that of Hardy—of the lack of control of individuals over their destinies, which seem governed instead by hostile human enemies, their own self-destructive impulses, and a benignly indifferent natural world.
The movie is filled with arrestingly beautiful images, and a great deal of credit for this must go to Nestor Almendros, the Spanish-born cinematographer best known for his work with François Truffaut and Eric Rohmer, who won an Oscar for his work here. (Additional photography was done by another Oscar winner, Haskell Wexler, who has said he tried to duplicate the work of Almendros rather than impose his own style on the parts he shot.) Almendros largely eschewed artificial lighting, particularly in the many outdoor scenes, in favor of natural sources of light. Those outdoor scenes were shot mostly late in the long summer days on location in Saskatchewan, and the result is nothing short of stunning, with one riveting image following another. The voice-over narration typical of Malick, the performances, and the plot are lean, while the visual element is of a contrasting richness seldom found on the screen. Days of Heaven is in all ways the expression of a fully developed and uniquely personal cinematic style associated only with the greatest film directors.