Programming note: I had inadvertently skipped a number of weeks in the summer of 1972, so now I am circling back to cover what I missed. Thanks to faithful reader Jody G. for setting me straight! Cuiusvis hominis est errare, nullius nisi insipientis in errore perseverare.
Synopsis: A successful stage magician named Diijon (Erich Von Stroheim) has retired his lucrative act in order to study the mysterious art of hypnotism. He feels he is on to something big, but his obsessive devotion to his studies is troubling to his wife Vicki and their friends. His lack of income is putting a strain on their marriage, but all attempts by Vicki’s friends to help are rebuffed by the proud and arrogant Diijon.
About this time, Tom Holliday arrives in town. He is an old flame of Vicki’s and he too is concerned that she is being neglected. In an attempt to help her, he offers Diijon a gig at the club where he works as a bandleader. After much convincing, Diijon finally agrees; but because he is long out of practice he botches the act and is fired. Diijon is furious, and accuses Tom of trying to humiliate him in front of his wife.
On his way home, Diijon stops at a diner for a cup of coffee. A shady character enters and tries to hold the place up – but Diijon manages to hypnotize the man, forcing him to give up his gun and return the money to the owner. Intrigued by his success, Diijon hypnotizes the man selling papers at a newsstand — getting him to shout for all to hear that he is selling the evening edition, when he is in fact selling the morning edition.
It becomes clear to him that he can hypnotize anyone, and his subjects will do whatever he orders them to do. But how far does his control go? As something of an experiment, he hypnotizes family friend Danton, forcing him to write a suicide note and then throw himself off a bridge.
Now that he has established a means to kill through hypnotism, Diijon decides to take revenge on Tom and Vicki – by hypnotizing his now-estranged wife, and forcing her to kill Tom at the club, in front of hundreds of witnesses….
Comments: Tonight we have a pair of minor programmers that have appeared frequently on the show; each was last broadcast late in the winter of ’71-’72. As luck (or the inflexible laws of TV package availability) would have it, both have popped up again.
I’m a bit torn by The Mask of Diijon, a movie that I feel really ought to work better than it does. As a character, Diijon is so thoroughly unpleasant that we can’t identify with him on any level. He is psychologically abusive to his wife (and perhaps physically abusive as well — while this isn’t shown or even implied, Diijon just seems the type).
Much of the film’s early conflict is built around Diijon abandoning his successful career as a magician in order to study the mysteries of the human mind, a pretty broad topic which the movie equates with the narrower subject of hypnotism. The sudden poverty he brings about underscores his selfishness (he’s indifferent to the hardship and embarrassment Vicki experiences due to his refusal to work). Vicki’s friends wonder aloud what the hell Diijon hopes to gain by this detour, and Vicki wonders too. Grudgingly, Diijon tells her:
I want to develop my mind spiritually. If I can do that, I can reach the very pinnacle of success. I could discipline my mind above the ordinary finite thoughts. I would be in touch with the infinite.
If Vicki’s thinking, how about disciplining your mind so you’re not such a gigantic douchenozzle to everyone?, she doesn’t say so. But this speech really does point to a major problem in Diijon’s stated plan. Abandoning his responsibilities to everyone around him doesn’t seem like a promising way to start developing his mind spiritually, and being reflexively rude and abusive to friends and family isn’t the hallmark of those on the road to spiritual perfection.
In any case, it’s not clear if the confusion belongs to Diijon or to the screenwriters (my money is on the latter) but let’s be generous and say the screenwriter intended to give us a clue to Diijon’s psychological state.
Diijon starts out by saying that he wants to develop his mind “spiritually”, but then immediately goes on to add that this will help him reach “the very pinnacle of success”. Success at what? His career as a magician, which he is now claims to have outgrown? Most people who pursue a spiritual path do so for its own sake, but not Diijon; he is interested in its utility to him, in how it can advance his career — whatever career that is. To those who protest that he’s not working, paying the rent, feeding his family, etc, he simply scoffs. These are small-minded people whose petty concerns don’t interest him.
If we set aside the prattle about the pinnacle of success and his quest for spiritual enlightenment, we start to see a pattern in Diijon’s actions. He is behaving exactly like an addict. There is one thing in the world he is interested in, and no amount of persuasion from those around him can tear him away from it (the opening scene in the film, when magician friends try to lure Diijon back to work with their new guillotine trick, plays much like a failed intervention). He is certain that he has everything under control and that everything will come out right in the end, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.
It is, therefore, only dumb luck that has rewarded Diijon with the ability to hypnotize others. It’s a power that he doesn’t use to develop his spiritual side, or even to advance his career (he’s clearly too far gone for that) but instead to simply take revenge on those whom he feels have wronged him, a group which includes approximately everybody.
I found myself liking Eric von Stroheim’s performance somewhat less this time than I had on previous viewings. He has a terrific glower, and the ominous way he murmurs his lines is quite engaging at first. But von Stroheim’s range is just too limited for him to carry a feature film. A better actor could find some nuance or pathos somewhere between the lines that would make Diijon a somewhat tragic or compelling figure; but von Stroheim plays him as simply a bad guy, with no redeeming qualities.
Synopsis: Michael Ward is a young newspaper reporter who’s the key witness in a sensational murder trial. Ward had walked into a coffee shop he frequents only to find proprietor Nick dead, his throat slashed. Standing over the body was a young man named Briggs (Elisha Cook, Jr) whom Ward had seen quarreling with Nick the previous day.
Being the key witness has been a stroke of good fortune for Ward. He’s been given a promotion and a raise at the paper, and his writings about the case have landed him on the front page, above the fold, for days. He is making a name for himself, and his raise will allow him to move out of the dreary boarding house he’s living in and marry his sweetheart Jane.
But Jane, who’s been following the trial closely and has been in the courtroom during some of the testimony, has a nagging feeling that young Briggs is innocent. The entire case hinges on Ward’s eyewitness testimony, and even that is circumstantial: he only saw the young man standing by the body, and didn’t see the murder take place, nor did he see Briggs holding the murder weapon. But Briggs did flee the scene of the crime, and he did have a criminal record, including an armed robbery arrest when he was a teenager. To top it off, when the police apprehended Briggs he was packing a suitcase to leave town — as guilty an action as you could ask for.
To no one’s surprise the jury finds Briggs guilty, and the young man is dragged from the courtroom, screaming for all who will listen that he’s innocent. A troubled Ward walks home from the courtroom, and encounters a strange man with a white scarf (Peter Lorre) sitting on the stoop of his boarding house.
Later Ward sees the odd man ducking behind a doorway inside the boarding house, and it is then he notices that his neighbor, the supercilious Mr. Meng, isn’t snoring away through the thin walls as he is most nights. After a disturbing dream in which Meng has been murdered and Ward is convicted of the crime, Ward checks on Meng, only to find the man dead, his throat slashed. It occurs to Ward that he himself might be regarded as a prime suspect by the police. In a series of flashbacks, Ward recalls a number of unpleasant run-ins with Meng, including one occasion when he told a colleague he’d like to cut Meng’s throat.
Returning to his room, Ward packs his bag, deciding to skip town before he’s sentenced to the electric chair just as Briggs had been. But on an impulse he calls Jane and asks her to meet him in the park one more time before he leaves. Jane convinces him to call the police and tell the truth. Ward reluctantly does so, but because he’s now all-too-conveniently the key witness in two separate murders with exactly the same m.o. he’s booked on suspicion of murder. Jane realizes it’s up to her to find the mysterious man in the white scarf and clear Ward’s name….
Comments: Stranger On the Third Floor’s big claim to fame is that it’s frequently cited as the first film noir. That honor isn’t a sure thing by any means – in fact, the category of noir itself isn’t a sure thing (it wasn’t even identified as a subgenre of the crime drama until the 1970s) but most critics cite a number common elements that distinguish the noir from other melodramas and crime capers. I took a stab at writing my own list of film noir elements, but made such a hash of it that I threw it out; I offer instead this Roger Ebert list from 1995. And while his list is also imperfect, it’s at least a start:
1. A French term meaning “black film,” or film of the night, inspired by the Series Noir, a line of cheap paperbacks that translated hard-boiled American crime authors and found a popular audience in France.
2. A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending.
3. Locations that reek of the night, of shadows, of alleys, of the back doors of fancy places, of apartment buildings with a high turnover rate, of taxi drivers and bartenders who have seen it all.
4. Cigarettes. Everybody in film noir is always smoking, as if to say, “On top of everything else, I’ve been assigned to get through three packs today.” The best smoking movie of all time is “Out of the Past,” in which Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoke furiously at each other. At one point, Mitchum enters a room, Douglas extends a pack and says, “Cigarette?” and Mitchum, holding up his hand, says, “Smoking.”
5. Women who would just as soon kill you as love you, and vice versa.
6. For women: low necklines, floppy hats, mascara, lipstick, dressing rooms, boudoirs, calling the doorman by his first name, high heels, red dresses, elbowlength gloves, mixing drinks, having gangsters as boyfriends, having soft spots for alcoholic private eyes, wanting a lot of someone else’s women, sprawling dead on the floor with every limb meticulously arranged and every hair in place.
7. For men: fedoras, suits and ties, shabby residential hotels with a neon sign blinking through the window, buying yourself a drink out of the office bottle, cars with running boards, all-night diners, protecting kids who shouldn’t be playing with the big guys, being on first-name terms with homicide cops, knowing a lot of people whose descriptions end in “ies,” such as bookies, newsies, junkies, alkys, jockeys and cabbies.
8. Movies either shot in black and white, or feeling like they were.
9. Relationships in which love is only the final flop card in the poker game of death.
10. The most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal, unless it were essentially naive and optimistic.
I’d previously shrugged off the claim that Stranger On the Third Floor was the first noir, for a couple of reasons. First, I felt that the presence of Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook, Jr had fooled people into believing that it was a noir, much in the same way that Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet’s presence made Three Strangers seem more noirish than it actually was.
And I felt the happy ending, in which Ward and Jane help to clear a grateful Brigg’s name, then drive off smiling into the sunset, runs counter to noir’s grim sensibilities.
Well, maybe I was being a little hasty (spoiler alert: I have been guilty of this once or twice). For most of its running time, the movie does in fact delve into the dark and seamy side of urban life; and the moral quandary at the center of the movie (one which Jane points out, and which Ward stubbornly ignores) is that Ward is moving up in the world at someone else’s expense. He’s gotten headlines and publicity and a nice promotion, but none of it’s due to his own talent or hard work. Instead, it all rides on Brigg’s all-but-certain murder conviction.
That’s pretty noir, don’t you think?
Granted, the way in which Ward is forced to walk a mile in Briggs’ shoes is less than convincing (if the police think Ward’s proximity to a second throat-slashing murder is too convenient, just think how we feel) but it’s good to see the guy squirm. Plus it gives Jane some very good scenes stalking Ward’s neighborhood, looking for the mysterious bulgy-eyed man in a white scarf. When she finds him, we’re treated to the best scene in the film, where the titular stranger, who hasn’t uttered a line in the whole movie, walks into the diner and ordering two hamburgers, raw, and hold the bun, please (“just put them in some paper,” he says gently). Ah, Peter Lorre.