Reintroductions #21-23. Knife in the Water, The Earrings of Madame De… & Marnie


This year I’m devoting more time to revisiting films I’ve seen only once, a practice I’ve shamefully neglected. My Reintroduction posts are a place for me to jot down some thoughts and observations after revisiting and reading up on each film.

Knife in the Water

#21. Knife in the Water (1962, Polanski)
First Seen in: 2008

I’ve got an alphabetical list of the films I want to revisit. I have a system for picking films at random. I keep going until I land on one I have access to and am in the mood for. So I’m happy to have stumbled on Knife in the Water not so long after revisiting Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion. Polanski forgoes dealing with WWII, unlike fellow Polish filmmakers of the time, instead enclosing a trio of characters in an open space of endless pale grays.

People call this a thriller, but I don’t really see it like that. I see it more as a claustrophobic chamber drama of underhanded class competition and male pomposity. I don’t feel a lot of suspense or tension, but more of the feeling of entrapment which I’d say is different than suspense. Petty competition rules the day. The audience is always aware of the body both as a physical form and a sexual one. Pretty much all of the sexual tension here comes from framing and cutting, very rarely from anything actually happening in this regard.

Polanski allows his framing, dialogue, characterization, blocking, movements and changing weather conditions to contribute equally to the overall effect. For a chamber drama, there’s not a lot of talking and there’s no plot. But you get the intended effect when you take everything in especially in the visual sense (this is FILM ya know!). The claustrophobic aspect really comes into play when you consider how difficult it was to film Knife in the Water.

I’m in love with Polanski’s framing; he stretches out and plays with all his possibilities in some really memorable ways. He favors high contrasting the distance between characters in the frame. He’ll often have one character really close in the foreground, hogging a good portion of what we see, with another character(s) comparatively miniscule, visually trumped. It closes us in more, makes us feel the palpable presence of their close proximity through great distance. There are other shots, like the one above that display a single character, often against the dark gray sea and light gray sky (or in this case, the yacht) which emphasizes the body through silhouette. Finally, there are the shots that put all three characters on the same wavelength, like the jackstraws scene.

Polanski’s debut introduces a lot of elements that will pop up again and again in his films. The outsider, non-conformity, chamber pieces, psychological claustrophobia and characters who can be manipulative, cruel and underhanded. It’s a nice touch at the end to realize that either way Andrzej loses. It’s up to us to decide which he’d rather believe.

Earrings of Madame De

#22. The Earrings of Madame De… (1953, Ophuls)
First Seen in: 2010

The Earrings of Madame De… is an example of a film that I admire and glean from as a piece of immaculate filmmaking over anything else. While I enjoyed it more the second time around, the story simply doesn’t grab or engage me the way I want it to. Just one of those things. But as always with the opulent Ophuls, there’s much to focus on even if I merely like it.

Set in that favorite period of the director’s, late 19th century Vienna, rococo decadence is a prison where a world of debts, money and materialism allow no room for actual emotion or depth. All of our characters are caught up in this world even as it is the thing that eventually destroys them.

With Ophuls, it’s always about elaborately naturalistic camera movement (which must have always been supremely difficult but it appears effortless onscreen). The camera is ruled by where the characters move, tracking where they look and where they go, always making sure to keep enough distance in order to capture the over-decorated surroundings. The mere feat of his tracking shots wow to this day. The camera also makes sure that Louise and Donato are intertwined, crossing paths by meeting at the middle. His repeated theme of what becomes of us when love and desire take hold is certainly present here. Suffering for love becomes its own art form.

The earrings of the title at first carry a lot of symbolic importance but little meaning to Louise. By the end, they carry multiple strands of symbolic importance and mean everything to Louise. A symbol first of her marriage, then of her love for Donato. For Andre they represent control and a way to damage and inflict pain if used at the right moment. In fact, the earrings are over-symbolized by these characters. It’s as if they don’t know how to let emotions exist as they are. They must infuse meaning into a shiny material inanimate object.

Danielle Darrieux is nuanced elegance. Charles Boyer is underrated in this as a general whose occupation has trained him to never show his hand and to plan his moves strategically. Vittorio De Sica is the one I attach myself to most. He is gentle and easily lovable, bursting with humanity even while caught up in a somewhat trifling triangle.

Random Observations/Things I Want to Remember:
– The dance montage stands out. Communication can only exist in this world while engaging in public ritual. Even then it takes time to peel away the layers of artifice as we see the barriers drop between the two.
– Louise throwing out the ripped paper

Marnie 2

#23. Marnie (1964, Hitchcock)
First Seen in: 2008

Marnie plays out like Hitchcock’s wet dream, even perhaps over Vertigo, both of which fixate on identity and obsession. His visual arsenal is in peak working condition, creating a brazenly filmic representation of Marnie’s psyche. All the clues to Marnie’s repressed trauma are explicitly depicted, but that’s what’s so voluptuously addictive about it; there’s nothing like Hitch indulging in his artificial but incomparable ‘pure cinema’.

For all the love I have towards Marnie, Hitch bit off more than he could chew in certain regards. He slaps some stirringly dauntless ideas up onscreen without doing anything with them. What I mean of course is the character of Mark, the virile fetishist who gets off on the fact that Marnie is a compulsive thief. Marnie correctly calls him out, accusing him of trapping her like something he’s caught. Sure, he wants to help, but Mark has flaws that Hitchcock thinks his audience will overlook simply because he’s got Sean Connery in the role. This is Marnie’s film to be sure, and the focus needs to be on her, but the master’s need to shine everything through a grotesquely romantic prism goes further to ignore the psychosexual realm that he explores so minutely in Vertigo. Instead, you’ve got a character that rapes Tippi Hedren without us ever dealing with the implications of the assault. And since Mark really does want to help her in his own misguided way, all of his actions by the end feel absolved. Because of his interference, Marnie can start to heal. It dismisses his actions instead of exploring Mark’s delve-worthy characteristics. Hitchcock sets up all the pieces for an equally layered character, only for the layers to lie limp in the aftermath of Mark’s sexual assault.

Tippi Hedren is awe-inspiring in what was only her second film. Marnie is brittle and stunted, covering her frigidity with ‘decent’ manners, a woman who has no identity for herself.  She goes to some exhausting places for this role and the sympathy she arouses makes us desperate for her to have a breakthrough as we inch towards the conclusion. Louise Latham is walking rigidity as Bernice, embodying self-inflicted mental confinement. It’s a theatrical performance, Latham was much younger than Bessie, but since Marnie is in its nature manifest, she fits in like a haunted washed-out glove.

Even with its shortcomings (dropping Diane Baker’s character like a hot pancake and a climax that mostly works despite its touch of falsity are others) Marnie remains one of Hitchcock’s most hypnotic works. He drowns us in signifiers, the color red being the flashiest. But there’s some graceful character work that is easy to miss amidst the flamboyance. So much of Marnie works not just because we care so deeply for her, but because beneath the sheen of formalism, there’s a considerate and layered character study of a woman without an identity to call her own save a love of horses.

Random Observations:
-Bruce Dern as the sailor!
-“Well, I just swan”
– The pivotal sequence with Forio is impossibly expert
– Edith Head’s costumes, particularly for Diane Baker, are great. Always high necklines for Tippi. Always.
– That crane shot at the party that mirrors Notorious
– The only two conventionally suspenseful scenarios Hitchcock has in Marnie is the robbery at Rutland’s and Strutt’s appearance at the party.
– Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen (she was hired after Evan Hunter felt too uncomfortable with the rape scene) says that she doesn’t consider the scene a rape. Just some marital trials. So basically, Jay Presson Allen is fucking out of her mind. Noted.
– Now that I’ve revisited Marnie, I’m finally ready to embark on Hitchcock’s final four films, none of which I’ve ever seen before. How exciting!
– Bernard Herrmann’s score reminds me so much of Leonard Rosenman’s work for Rebel without a Cause that I can’t think of anything else.
– Funnily enough, I placed Marnie and Mark on my list of  Top Ten Heterosexual Couples that Scorched the Screen. I admit I find nothing really romantic between the two. So why did I put them on my list? Click the link to find out!
Top Ten Heterosexual Couples that Scorched the Screen: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/07/08/list-10-cinematic-heterosexual-chemistries-that-scorched-the-screen/

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