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Quick Explanation: From time to time, venerable properties already covered in this space will be remade again, prompting additional thoughts. This essay is hereby updated to cover Danny Boyle’s filmed stage version.

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Frankenstein aka Edison’s Frankenstein (1910). Directed by J. Searle Dawley. Written by J. Searle Dawley, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller. 16 minutes. **.

Frankenstein (1931). Directed by James Whale. Written by Frances Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, from the play by Peggy Webling and novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, John Boles, Mae Clarke. 71 minutes. *** 1/2

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by Jimmy Sangster, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart. 83 minutes. ***

Frankenstein aka Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, John Cleese. 123 minutes. ** 1/2

National Theatre Live: Frankenstein (2011). Directed by Danny Boyle. Filmed Play by Nick Dear, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Approximately 2 hours. ****

Other Versions and Sequels: Too many to list, including a large number of sequels to both the 1931 and 1957 versions, TV-movies, breakfast serials, sitcoms like The Munsters and parodies like Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

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Even if you know better, the first image to leap into your mind is almost certainly the wrong one.

Somebody says “Frankenstein,” and before you can remind yourself that Frankenstein was actually the name of the irresponsible (not necessarily “mad”) scientist, you flash on the image of the creature first embodied on film by the actor who was, in the opening credits at least, listed only as “?”: a hulking, flat-faced, walking corpse with bolts on his neck and a primal aversion to fire.

People persist in calling the guy with the clodhopping boots and dialogue that consists of a large number of variations on “Urrrrrrhhh!” Frankenstein, even after sequels like Son of Frankenstein (1939) took pains to include scenes that – showing a fair degree of irritation on the part of the screenwriters – explained the elemental difference to the audience one more time.

It’s probably a losing battle. To the public at large, the monster stitched together from various scavenged corpses will always have a name that sounds Jewish.

In truth, though, the nigh-total colonization of our collective imaginations by the 1931 version of the story, even among those of us who have never seen it and only know the various ways in which its central image has been echoed and repeated all the way down to the present day, the makeup first worn on-screen by one Boris Karloff is no more definitive a portrait of Frankenstein’s monster than any other. Mary Shelley, the remarkable teenager who first told the story, did not describe him in exhaustive detail. She simply wrote that he was about eight feet tall, horrific in appearance, and possessed a withered, translucent, yellowish skin that barely concealed his musculature and blood vessels. In the novel, as in several later versions, its unparalleled ugliness is what drove Frankenstein to suddenly come to his senses and flee in revulsion, leaving his creature to wander the earth alone, be treated with hatred and fear wherever it went, educate itself through a remarkably convenient encounters with books, and ultimately hate the man who brought it into existence only to abandon it; but having provided us with a modicum of description, Shelley then leaves the rest to the reader’s imagination, trusting us to envision a horror more personal than any we ever could.

This is of course not an option for moviemakers, who may tease the monster but must ultimately show him to us, ultimately giving us the opportunity to grow used to his grotesque features and perhaps grow to love them. In 1931, when Boris Karloff first appeared on screen as the monster, first backing into the room and then turning around to reveal his horrid visage, some audience members passed out in fright. By the time this essayist grew up in the 1960s, the same makeup formed the face of bumbling, loveable Herman Munster, in a sitcom suitable for small children. The Karloff version and its sequel used the decreasing impact borne of familiarity to fine dramatic effect. Others took an entirely different tack. The differences are remarkable given that they all started with the same source material, which to date has never been interpreted with complete fidelity.

“Edison’s Frankenstein” (1910)

The 1910 version was not, as some fanciful accounts would have it, “directed by Thomas Edison.” It was produced at a studio owned by Thomas Edison, whose company briefly produced films to go along with its motion picture cameras and projectors. An actual Edison-directed Frankenstein would be an interesting artifact; perhaps it would consist of backdated blueprints the company could use in a patent grab. Full-length motion pictures still lay in the future, thanks to the new technology’s status as toy and the widespread belief that nobody would ever sit still for any movie much more than ten minutes long, so the story is told in broad strokes, with acting that largely consists of outstretched hands and extreme pantomime, giving modern eyes the impression that nobody in these early films ever said anything unless they wanted to proclaim it to the heavens.

Thanks to the volatility and low life expectancy of silver nitrate film, as well as the blind belief by early dabblers in the form that the art was disposable and that any films that had completed their theatrical runs could be burned for their silver content, this nevertheless important artifact was considered lost for decades, before it turned up in the hands of a private collector. It still shows the ravages of time, unfortunately, but it can be followed with a little close attention. Here, for your pleasure, we imbed the entire epic.

Because the images no longer possess the clarity they once did, we also provide this still of Charles Ogle as the monster.

Looking back on this film a full century later, it is very possible to find grounds for laughter. The acting style is only part of it. For instance, Frankenstein’s letter to his beloved is downright funny to modern eyes, especially his tight-assed signature, “Frankenstein.” (Elizabeth must swoon.) But despite its crudeness, the film is clearly still capable of evoking chills and magic, even today. That scene of the monster’s creation, a brilliant early special effect, was accomplished by burning a wax figure of the monster in a furnace and then showing the footage in reverse. As a result, it seems to congeal, the pieces coming together out of thin air (or someplace far more terrible), and joining a human form that is neither born nor stitched together, but somehow, terribly, summoned. And its pathetic death, an outright rejection of its plans to disrupt Frankenstein’s wedding that attaches an additional level of the fantastic with its disappearance inside a full-length mirror, possesses a wan pathos that was only exceeded by the next, and still most famous version.

James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931)

You’ve got to say one thing about the James Whale version: as infected as some of its key sequences have been by all the parodies and homages it has seen since, it still possesses a remarkable power, most notably in this key scene that was considered so horrific in 1931 that it was soon cut from all theatrical prints and was not permanently restored for decades.

The version this essayist always saw on WPIX, growing up, was also the only one that most people my age got to see for years: it ended with a remarkably clumsy cut, just as the monster (Boris Karloff) reached for poor little Maria, and cut away to happy Henry Frankenstein’s wedding preparations. The rationale behind this was that the drowning of the little girl was far too horrific for any audiences to ever want to sit through. (Think of that in the age of Hostel, and marvel.) One effect of the cut is, of course, that the audience is then free to imagine a fate far more horrific than anything that was shown on-screen in the first place. You could even, if you choose, imagine violations greater than a mere tragic accident, at the hands of an overpowered infant who never meant the little girl any harm.

It is worth noting that by the time this scene takes place, Karloff’s monster has already committed two murders: one of Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant Fritz (played by Dwight Frye, who was deeply typecast in roles like this), and one of Frankenstein’s old mentor Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan). The careful exposition about the accidental use of an abnormal brain aside, both occur after the monster has been abused, imprisoned, chained, and terrified. He is an infant, trapped in a world he cannot understand, and lashing out because Frankenstein, the irresponsible fool, has never made sure that the sadistic Fritz can be trusted not to torment the seven-foot-tall powerhouse with lit torches. But now? Treated with warmth by somebody too innocent to know that she should be afraid, he is charmed; he is delighted; he shows that he is capable of responding to kindness. The drowning of the little girl is an accident no more malicious than a three-year-old spilling a glass of milk, and the censors who cut out the terrible moment in order to protect the audience’s sensibilities also robbed those audiences of one of the greatest moments of Boris Karloff’s career: the creature’s bereft, despairing horror upon realizing what it has done.

Placing this scene after the two prior murders has the effect of also underlining the terrible thing Frankenstein has done. Everybody who watches the movie understands that the monster is a monster, but also knows that it has a soul, and that is soul is in pain, and that Frankenstein has done it a tremendous disservice by making every possible error he could, after successfully bringing it to life.

(Nor is this a narrative accident. James Whale’s far superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, provides the same lesson by allowing the monster – again, after a murder or two – to encounter another innocent capable of treating him with kindness, this one an aged blind man who delights in the arrival of a vagabond who can benefit from his hospitality, and wisdom. In that movie, the monster is so moved by the first real warmth he’s ever felt from a human being that he weeps. This is naturally ruined by the arrival of sighted relatives who can see what the new houseguest looks like, but again, the lesson is clear: the so-called monster is not unambiguously evil, but a powerful, untamed child who probably deserved much better from the life Frankenstein bequeathed him.)

As for the story itself, it’s told with remarkable narrative economy. We open with Frankenstein already deeply involved in nasty business that includes the robbing of graves. Ten minutes in, we know that he’s up to nefarious doings, and what that involves. Twenty minutes in, we know that he’s virtually abandoned his fiance in order to pursue his madness, and we know that he’s about to start to create life. Thirty minutes in – after a creation scene that has never been equaled, not in all the years that followed – the monster is alive. Having only seventy minutes to tell your story in has some advantages, in the same way that a short story provides advantages over a big fat novel: your story needs to eschew the fat. The climax begins, plays out, and is over in ten minutes, wonderfully effective and startling to those of us living in an age when the final battle between hero and villain involves a battle’s worth of explosion and about ten or twenty reversals. (Which are rarely as effective as this film’s brief moment of chilling eye contact between creature and creator, through the machinery of the old windmill.)

This is not the same thing as saying that oddities didn’t arise as a result of some of the shortcuts.

For instance, there’s Elizabeth, who’s played by Mae Clark, the same actress who got mashed by James Cagney’s grapefruit. Frankenstein allows her and Doctor Waldman into his lab, to witness the birth of his creation. This is in large part so Colin Clive’s Frankenstein, overacting wildly to modern eyes, can provide them (and through them, us) with an explanation of what he has done. Okay; so she sees the monster’s birth. The movie glosses over the point so deftly that it’s possible not to notice, but we never do find out what she thinks of her beau’s “accomplishment.” Is she proud? Disgusted? Horrified? No; as far as we can see, she remains fixed on her number one priority, getting her guy out of that lab so the wedding can go ahead as scheduled. This is one focused bridezilla. Later on, Frankenstein discusses the monster’s doings with other people who know that he’s responsible – while four family servant girls, who always appear on screen together as if they’re joined at the waist, stand within earshot hearing everything that gets said. That, doctor, is no way to safeguard a dire secret. The happy ending, with Frankenstein and Elizabeth enjoying a happy tete-a-tete while his proud father beams, is unlikely in the extreme, and becomes even more unlikely with the sequel.

Still, these are small nits. James Whale’s Frankenstein is one witty and stylish piece of work, that is still deeply entertaining today, and deserves its central place in the pantheon of cinematic Frankensteins. It spawned an immediate sequel that is itself a classic and then a handful of others that, for the most part (the Abbott and Costello outing being the biggest exception) followed the law of diminishing returns. The main problem with those sequels is that, though they abandoned the original, human Frankenstein to follow the various further misadventures of the monster he created (as played in subsequent years by Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, and Glenn Strange), it abandoned the early canny handling of that monster’s mistreated soul, as well as the ability to speak he picks up in Bride, and reduces him to a mere lumbering brute, who can be trained to obediently kill on command but is never again the deeply betrayed figure he is in those first two outings. By the third film, Son Of Frankenstein, he is only a McGuffin.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Few actors have had as deep and as lasting an impact on fantastic film as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who entered the genre working for Hammer Films in the 1950s.

Cushing played Doctor Frankenstein in one long-running series of films and Professor Van Helsing in another; he was also Sherlock Holmes, an early Doctor Who and, in Star Wars, the coldhearted son of a bitch who orders the Death Star to blow up Princess Leia’s home world.

If anything, Christopher Lee established an even more remarkable resume, playing Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, Kharis the Mummy, Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft Holmes, the Devil, Death, James Bond’s enemy The Man With the Golden Gun, Rasputin, Dr. Fu Manchu, the murderous swordsman Rochefort in the best Three Musketeers movies, Willy Wonka’s father, the evil wizard Saruman from Peter Jackson’s Lord Of the Rings movies, and Count Dooku from the lamentable Star Wars prequels. He also had a hilarious cameo in something called The Stupids. Trust me.

Both are on hand for The Curse of Frankenstein, which began Hammer’s own long-running series of Frankenstein movies. It was a series that followed a fascinatingly different course from the Universal franchise; the monster lives and dies (and lives again and dies again) in this first film, but is no longer a factor in the handful of sequels. Instead of following the further misadventures of the monster as the Universal films did, these sequels all follow the further adventures of the Baron, who not only persists in his experiments after the first time they lead to disaster but each time persists in continuing to make the same elementary mistake, which is to say constantly leaving his creations unattended and thus constantly inviting the disaster that always ensues whenever one wanders off. You would think the guy capable of discerning the one common factor that led to all of his life’s greatest fiascos, but you’d be wrong.

He’s also a far different interpretation of the character than anything the movies have shown before. He’s a bastard. He has no real feeling for any human being but himself, has no problem with committing murders to keep himself well-stocked in body parts, also has no problem with forcing his attentions on women, and – indeed – may be a sadist as well as sociopath. In this film, he murders an elderly savant just to gain access to his brain, and in another scene deliberately locks his pregnant mistress in a room with his murderous creation just because that’s the easiest way of dealing with her threats of blackmail. Subsequent films have him committing crimes just as nasty. In short, it can be said that this series is not about the Frankenstein monster, but about the monster, Frankenstein. The remarkably slow-learning monster, Frankenstein.

The closest the series comes to an actual adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, this film takes the form of an extended confession as a haggard imprisoned Frankenstein (Cushing), who is awaiting the guillotine for an initially unspecified crime, tells a priest about his experiments and how they came to ruin. At the end, he goes off to his execution (for the murder of that luckless mistress), without any independent verification outside the flashback; it is very possible to interpret the entire story as the delusion of a common murderer rendered mad by guilt. I prefer to believe that the story is true, especially since it sets up the sequels, but your mileage may vary. Either way, the dramatic arc is the movie-length battle of wills between Frankenstein and his mentor and partner Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), who early on revolts in horror and spends the rest of the movie alternately calling Frankenstein mad and begging him to stop.

It’s good stuff, as far as it goes. But one thing’s for sure. If the story is indeed supposed to be objectively true, nobody in it acts the way a human being acts. Once he sees disaster coming, Krempe passionately begs Frankenstein’s cousin and fiance Elizabeth (Hazel Court) to leave the house and never come back; he doesn’t explain why, probably to avoid horrifying her, but after some initial anger at him for ever making such a impudent suggestion, she continues to show a level of warmth and affection toward him that seems downright odd coming from any betrothed woman who finds herself nagged about breaking it off by a guy who’s supposed to be her beloved’s best friend. Every woman I’ve ever met would take their guy aside and say, in confidence, “I want you to know that your best friend’s a real creep.” As for Krempe, who storms off in righteous disgust after the monster has already committed a murder, he later returns for the wedding party with a big smile on his face, and nothing but polite interest when his estranged friend Frankenstein tells him that there’s something in the lab that he really ought to see. (And you thought this version’s Frankenstein was a slow learner.)

Cushing’s performance covers a magnitude of sins, even though he’s easily a quarter of a century too old to be playing the driven young genius established by the young boy played by another actor who first hires the already-adult Krempe to be his teacher; by the time Cushing takes over the part, Frankenstein somehow seems to have not only caught up with Krempe in age, but leaped right past him to the point where he’s by now by a couple of decades the older man. (The age issue isn’t nearly as much a problem in the sequels, where it really doesn’t matter that much how old Frankenstein is.) Alas, Christopher Lee is not nearly as good as Cushing, here, because, for the most part, he is not given a character to play. His monster has some moments where it is as put-upon as the Karloff version, but for the most part, he’s a shuffling corpse, who kills reflexively, because he can. Encountering his own version of what is now a recurring theme, the blind man, he just up and kills the guy: not because he’s threatened, not because he’s angry, but because killing is what he does. He kills Frankenstein’s mistress just as reflexively. There is no pathos to play; again, he’s just a McGuffin. This is not fatal to the film, because it happens to be about the Baron, not the monster. But at a mere 83 minutes, the movie isn’t so long that it couldn’t have shoehorned in a few scenes where the monster demonstrated a soul of his own. Frankly, the character deserves it. (His one-sided malice is more forgivable if you buy the interpretation that the entire flashback with the monster is only a function of Frankenstein’s delusions, but, even so: in any movie, the story you’re watching is the story you’re watching, even if it’s only supposed to be a dream sequence.)

One minor point of interest: the film includes a moment where Peter Cushing peers through a magnifying glass, spectacularly enlarging his eye. He also does this a couple of times in his appearances as Sherlock Holmes. This is no doubt the source of the gag in the Zucker Brothers comedy Top Secret! where a much older Cushing also peers through a magnifying glass and lowers it to reveal that his right eye actually is that grotesquely enlarged. It’s a film-buff joke as well as a funny sight gag. Just thought you ought to know.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

Despite the existence of a TV-movie called Frankenstein: The True Story, which a surprisingly large number of people who haven’t read the novel take at its word and defend as an accurate adaptation of the Shelley novel (apparently operating under the assumption that Shelley really did write about a Frankenstein monster who came out looking beautiful, and only gradually rotted in both mind and body), there has never really been a major filmed version that adapted her story with anything approaching fidelity.

This one doesn’t, either. It comes damned close for most of its length, up to and including Elizabeth’s murder at the monster’s hands…at which point it departs radically from the text and throws in a twist that really should have worked better than it did.

Part of the problem is its extended length. In eighty-four years, the changing grammar of cinema has increased the acceptable length of a feature film from just over ten minutes to more than two hours; and that really is fine, but coupled with the film’s mission statement of honoring Shelley, it does spend an awful lot of time on framing material, including the arctic expedition stuck in the ice and the discovery of a dying Dr. Frankenstein, who tells the Captain his story. After that it goes on to detail Frankenstein’s childhood, the death of his mother in childbirth, his declaration of love for his foster sister Elizabeth, his entry into medical school, his interest in unorthodox medicine, his friendship with Henry Clerval, and so on. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it does delay the actual creation of the monster for a long time, and Kenneth Branagh’s direction takes what should have been Masterpiece Theatre material and treats it with palpably desperate energy, that includes swooping cameras and some of the most intrusive soundtrack music you have ever heard in your life. Had he let the material alone, it might have bored some members of the audience…but as it happens, the desperate over-the-top style alienated even more.

Things pick up a little bit with the creation of the monster. Branagh, who didn’t just direct but also starred as Frankenstein, got a lot of flack at the time for running around with his shirt off – a touch that was largely regarded as narcissism – but one’s got to admit; it does communicate the character’s frenzy. Still, we then get to the problematic birth scene…which culminates in Frankenstein and his creation flopping around, for what seems forever, on a floor soaked with his experiment’s shiny amniotic fluid. It’s not scary. Some people regarded it as horrifying, and others thought it hilarious, but the audience I saw it with groaned throughout.

The monster is played by Robert De Niro, who was at one point one of the greatest actors alive (even if he now seems to have used up his entire bag of tricks); but though he’s been rendered hideously scarred with canny makeup, the result is not that he looks like an unnatural monster, but like a hideously scarred Robert De Niro. Once he has his first actual conversation, with this movie’s gentle blind man, the distancing effect of the monster makeup is completely spent; in subsequent scenes where is seen from a distance, it almost disappears completely. This, alas, extends to the actual universe of the film. The very first thing the monster does after it escapes from Frankenstein’s workshop is run from a mob; and it’s worth noting that the mob chases him, not because he killed anybody, or because they’re horrified by his appearance, but because they think he’s a sick man, spreading cholera. In short, this is a movie where the Frankenstein monster can pass as a run-of-the-mill ugly guy.

Further developments including the murder of Frankenstein’s younger brother, the framing of Justine, the monster’s confrontation with his creator and his offer to go away if Frankenstein builds him a mate, all play out as they do in the novel, and, for a time, the movie works at the level it needs to. (It’s too bad the opening hour doesn’t.)

That is all before we get to the part that is original to the film, the part that you may consider one of the worst scenes in any Frankenstein movie to date, or one of the best; Frankenstein finds his murdered bride and, for what may be the first time, does what Frankenstein would do, create a new monster using her as spare parts, in a doomed, mad and desperate attempt to get her to live again. Only, hideous as she now is, she might now be more suited for the monster than the doctor.

The scene that results is horrible, hilarious, awful and wonderful at the same time. It is not the Frankenstein of Mary Shelley, but the Frankenstein that might have been made by Stuart Gordon; and though some people will never talk to me again because I said this, I confess to adoring it. The problem is that it simply doesn’t fit anything that came before. It belongs to a campier Frankenstein, a Frankenstein that Kenneth Branagh did not think he was making. If the entire film had been played at that level, he might have had something.

When we return to the icebound ship in the far north and Frankenstein concluding his confession only to die, and after that to the monster hollering, “He was my father!”, it’s all deadly anticlimax, there not to finish the story in any way the audience cares about, but to delay the closing credits. There’s very real genius in the film, but unfortunately, the whole fails to work.

National Theatre Live: Frankenstein (2011)

This brings us to a splendid oddity stretching this blog’s usual definition of “film” — a filmed play by Nick Dear, directed by Danny Boyle and shown in select theatres, internationally, for premium prices. It is very much a stagebound production, with every attribute that implies: i.e., stagecraft that includes gas jets, a turntable, and trap doors, allowing the introduction of sets and a range of locations that include everything from elegant drawing rooms to drafty old scottish castles. As Dr. Frankenstein and his unnamed monster we have two fine british actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who on stage alternated the two roles, nightly — a splendid stunt that was duplicated by the two versions of the show available in cinemas, which also alternated showings. We saw the one with Cumberbatch as the monster and consider it the best version of the story ever filmed; we assume the Miller-as-monster version to be just as good, but can only swear to Cumberbatch.

One geeky aspect to the casting is that both Cumberbatch and Miller both play updated modern-day versions of Sherlock Holmes in TV series running concurrently (Cumberbatch in BBC’s splendid SHERLOCK and Miller in American TV’s ELEMENTARY, not yet premiered as of this writing). So there’s that. There’s because of this also a nice geeky triviagasm involving just how many actors known for playing the great detective have also been important to various versions of the Frankenstein tale: not just Basil Rathbone, who was one of the two or three most identifiable players ever to perform as Holmes but also a Doctor Frankenstein in one of the Universal sequels, but also Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Gene Wilder (who, admittedly, only played Holmes’s smarter brother). Now we have Cumberbatch and Miller to add to that. Impressive.

Of the play, we report that it’s even more faithful to the Mary Shelley novel than the Branagh take, with one marvelous bit of streamlining that actually adds to the telling, and one innovation not found in Shelley that accomplishes the same. The streamlining is the innovation of beginning the story at the moment when the monster, naked and infantile and pathetic, claws its way from the membrane of the artificial womb where he has been kept. The story provides us with a Frankenstein who at first appears only long enough to reject his creation and then disappears for most of the play’s first half, while the creature staggers alone and afraid through a world that hates him on sight. This is actually kind of brilliant, because pretty much everybody knows who Dr. Frankenstein is, and the pre-creation part of the story often lies like a turd on screen; this way, we get to experience the plight of the forsaken creature, as he learns about the world around him, acquires an education, becomes articulate, and finally works his way back to his maker, seething for revenge. He is as far from the rather soulless creation played by Christopher Lee as one can imagine. As he says, he has a legitimate grievance.

We will note also that in structuring its adaptation in this manner, the play begins with a scene that Branagh’s handles much the same way, but renders ludicrous: the monster’s birth. Branagh’s has the newly-born monster flopping around in goo, at considerable length, and it’s dire; he doesn’t accomplish anywhere near the level of horror and pathos he’s going for, but instead accomplishes slapstick. This version goes on for even longer with the newborn creature twitching and writhing and attempting to stand and gradually achieving some spastic level of control over its body. We’re talking long minutes, here. An eternity. It’s a war that ends with the creature finally, at long last, achieving enough muscular coordination to stand up — and it hits where it’s meant to hit. It’s pathetic and horrifying and riveting, a brilliant bit of physical acting that pays off utterly. By the time this monster stands up, we know him; by the time he learns to speak, we love him; by the time he confronts Frankenstein, he’s a murderer, but he’s also unquestionably the figure who’s been most cruelly wronged. Karloff’s version gives us some of this, but not nearly as much as this one. It’s devastating.

The innovation, a brilliant one, is that the play actually (and finally) has a purpose in mind for Elizabeth other than being threatened, killed, or turned into a monster herself, one that doesn’t actually contradict Shelley. In the novel, Frankenstein bursts into the honeymoon chamber to discover that his love has been murdered by the monster — but he doesn’t see what transpired between them, beforehand. The implication is that the monster just terrorized and killed her. In this version, forewarned by the creature that he’s repulsive, she shows him compassion, makes peace with him, offers him friendship, and promises that she will use her wifely influence to make sure that his creator does right by him. She doesn’t say any of this out of fear. She says it because these are the gestures that come naturally to her. It is absolutely breathtaking, a new wrinkle on a classic that is both totally true to that classic, and previously unsuspected by anybody…and it culminates in the tragedy we know only because the monster, who knows and appreciates that she’s sincere, cannot let go of his own bloody vow of revenge. This scene, alone, would earn this production a place as one of the great Frankensteins of all time.

The Doctor’s Notebook

1910 version, a fascinating artifact from a distant time, with some touches of pure genius. 1931 version, a permanent addition to our shared visual language. 1957 version, a flawed but entertaining visit. 1994 version, a misshapen creation with moments of pure genius, and moments of unbelievable awfulness, stitched together to create an unnatural whole. 2011 version, a masterpiece.

And now, the wife declaims toward the Heavens as she flips the third switch…

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Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Frankenstein aka Edison’s Frankenstein (1910). Directed by J. Searle Dawley. Written by J. Searle Dawley, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller. 16 minutes. **.(Only based on the techniques used at the time)

Frankenstein (1931). Directed by James Whale. Written by Frances Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, from the play by Peggy Webling and novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, John Boles, Mae Clarke. 71 minutes. ***

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by Jimmy Sangster, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart. 83 minutes. *1/2

Frankenstein aka Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, John Cleese. 123 minutes. ***

National Theatre Live: Frankenstein (2011). Directed by Danny Boyle. Filmed Play by Nick Dear, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Approximately 2 hours. ****

Other Versions and Sequels: Too many to list, including a large number of sequels to both the 1931 and 1957 versions, TV-movies, breakfast serials, sitcoms like The Munsters and parodies like Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

So, here we are, readying ourselves for the Father’s Day guilt-a-thon, and we decide to review films retelling the tale of the worst of all dead-beat dads. Great timing on this one Adam!

The 1931 Frankenstein is one of those films that became an integral part of every American childhood whether they had seen it or not. Halloween was bombarded with it, kids played run away from the monster, and as Adam has pointed out, even our breakfasts digested it. The images from the Whale version are iconic and yet soooo wrong. Did any film version come close to capturing the look and feel of the novel? Well yes and no, but that’s film in a nutshell.

To begin at the beginning, and I truly mean the beginning, The 1910 Frankenstein is a masterpiece of ingenuity. The imagination used to create the images is amazing considering the youth of the medium. However, storytelling has been around since man began to communicate and this doesn’t even come close to the story told in the book. This version is a bad game of telephone played by children being deliberately vague. It deserves its place in film history (as do the early Wizards of Oz films) for the mere fact of being the first, not for being a great film.

Then, we get to the 1931, James Whale directed Frankenstein. Is this truly a great film? Not really. Again, the story deviates vastly from the source, and much more attention is paid to the look than the plot. But, come on, lets face it. Who is the face we place with the Creation? In this version we have the Doctor (hmm gives me an idea, but that can wait for another time) creating his child in front of an audience, just to prove himself sane. Once he completes the task, he turns away in disgust and even joins in the quest to destroy the creature he created. Why? because he’s an irresponsible child, too spoiled to realize that he is the one who must take responsibility and care for this being. His idea is to take the easy way out and destroy the evidence, thus ridding himself of all guilt. Yea, bury the broken vase deep in the garbage and Mom will never notice. Good job Herr Doktor! Oh and spoiler alert, All is well in the end. Right!

The next on our list is the awful Hammer film The Curse of Frankenstein. I feel that the makers of this film should have just said “Hey guys, we were told this story, but can’t really remember much , so we’re gonna make it up as we go.” Here we have the names and some of the basics, but now we have Frankenstein as a rich orphan, set on creating life with no background motivation other than He wants to do it. This guy is sleazy. He has his way with a servant girl, all the time knowing he is going to marry his “cousin”. He not only rejects his creation, he actually imprisons the creature and trains it with torture. Of course, in this film, he has no father to teach him how to be a Dad. His father figure is busy being a friend to seemingly keep his cushy position. After all, he was hired by the master to be his tutor giving him room and board and a salary (we assume) and this goes on past adulthood, would you easily give up that gig? Ok. so the creature gets loose, does the killing thing, is killed, resurrected and killed again. Frankenstein the man is declared an insane murderer and supposedly sent to his death. The end. But this is about life eternal, so of course death(as in superhero comics) is never forever. Thus , we have the sequels (or series) of the Hammer legacy.

The Kenneth Branagh version heels closer to the source material, actually including the pre and post creation scenes. I actually feel that this is the best of the films we viewed for these essays, but still a weak sister for all its pedigree. While there is nothing glaringly wrong with the film, it just doesn’t feel satisfying. The look is right, the script good enough, even Branagh’s direction (mostly of himself) is not too far over the top to kill the feel. But this film left me wanting another try. The changes made didn’t weaken the story. This was only the second time I had been exposed to an intelligent version of the creature on film. (I recommend seeing the TV movie Frankenstein the True Story to give a fair comparision).

Can Hollywood film this parable without overblowing it, or underplaying it? This is a story that deserves a really great retelling, and the 20 year cycle is coming soon (see the filmography and dates of release). Anybody wanna try that?

OK, so Hollywood didn’t quite take the challenge but the Brits did, kinda.

See, in 2011, the British National Theatre, as part of their “LIVE” series filmed the stage play of Frankenstein.  Directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch (yes his real name) and Jonny Lee Miller (aka Angelina Jolie’s first husband).  The leads alternated roles nightly as the doctor and his creation, so the series filmed it both ways.  Skillful in both art and sales.  Double the audience and ticket sales out of sheer curiosity.  Wow!  If the production hadn’t been so incredible it still would have had a bit of a following just on the sheer audacity.  But, the play holds true.

Here we have two remarkable actors ripping through these characters and actually fleshing out, what had been heretofore bare bones caricatures.  Even the previous best attempts left me wanting more, but not here. The writing, by Nick Dear, pares down the slow moving intro and thrusts us straight into the abandonment and horror of the creature lurching into this world alone and unwanted. He also gets the story moving without the interference of side tales and heightens the death of Elizabeth to more than just a simple ruse, but now a true sacrifice for the cause. 

The technicians and craftspeople on this team were superb.  The sets were constructed as minimalist as possible, while still conveying all we as an audience could need  for our interpretation of place and time.  But the cast is truly the crowning achievement here.  They all play the roles as if these are the freshest of characters, giving new energy and strength to these well known roles.

All in all, this is the most magnificent pair of films to ever grace the name of Frankenstein.  I would deign to name them the Shakespearean Frankenstein duo.


A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

(This one comes from February 2009, shortly after Slumdog Millionaire defeated Milk in the Oscar Race for Best Picture. It’s a highly political piece, which has relevance, I think, far beyond its critical comparison of the two movies.  – A-TC)

It is fundamentally unfair to compare one piece of art with another piece of art. They must both exist in their own universes, and at their own levels. Comparing GREAT EXPECTATIONS with THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is an act of tremendous injustice; they are both masterpieces of their kind, and the immortality of the first does not preclude the smashing entertainment value of the other, or of (naming another work at random) “The Music Box” by Laurel and Hardy. We know this. We know this well.

And yet there are times when the comparison is so instructive that it must be made anyway.

To wit: I finally caught up with MILK yesterday. And about a week before it I caught up with SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, which just won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The films are both riveting, and so different in their assumptions that they are practically different species. It would be spectacularly unfair to criticize one for not being the other. And yet this is one of those times that one must.

You see, everybody’s talking about how beautiful and magical and classic SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE was. Everybody’s dropping dead with love for that movie.

I liked it very much. It is at heart an old-fashioned movie movie, visually sumptuous and deeply involving. But I was also disturbingly dissatisfied with it, so dissatisfied that I ended up resenting it, a little.

You know what it’s about. Three children are orphaned in the hellish slums of Mumbai, and endure the horrors this world reserves only for the most destitute. Years later, one appears on the Indian version of the TV game show “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire,” where he’s mocked for his slumdog background, and is expected to do poorly. To the nation’s astonishment, he knows all the answers. It turns out (and this is not a spoiler, since the movie begins with this), that his experiences taught him exactly the answers he needed to answer these particular questions. The central question is whether he is reunited with the love of his life, who has fallen under the control of some bad people.

Now, this is what SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE did well. It had some searing scenes of poverty. It nailed the dilemma of a young boy who remained more or less unspoiled while his brother became a corrupt thug. It made us care about that standard movie trope, an unspoiled love that begins in deepest childhood and remains pure and chaste until the final clinch. I firmly confess that it worked its spell on me, and I even liked the post-narrative ending, which is straight out of Bollywood.

But I walked away unsatisfied, and I think this is why.

The protagonist did nothing.

Life happened to him. He was battered by poverty, bullied by his brother, and limited by his circumstances. He finally went to the modern equivalent of a fairy godmother, the game show, and was rewarded for just, you know, deserving it. Much was made of this being his “destiny,” and I realized upon seeing the movie that if I never hear that word again, in a storytelling context, it will be too soon.

I realized I first decided I hated that word when Crispin Glover in BACK TO THE FUTURE kept saying, “I am your density.”

Because it’s a slave’s word.

In debt? Working for a boss you can’t stand? In danger of being thrown out of your house? Working two jobs and barely a nodding acquaintance to your kids? Keep buying that lottery ticket. Someday you’ll win. It’s your destiny, or at least you’re supposed to believe it’s your destiny. As long as you have that, you might as well not work to change anything else.

The teeming masses of Mumbai, cheering our hero’s game show successes throughout SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, represent a triumph for him. But, guess what. He got out of poverty because it was his density – er, destiny. He had a million-to-one shot on a game show, and he gets a romantic clinch as well. But them? They’re still fucked. Whether he moves to the suburbs or goes out in the streets and starts handing out his rupees, he can’t help them all. The corruption is systemic. He’s just lucky he got out.

The movie has other flaws. I did not believe for one instance that the sociopathic shit of a brother, who has always been about serving his own immediate needs, would ever extend himself to help the protagonist he has used and brutalized. He only does because the movie needs him to. And that’s “density” talking again.

Now, take MILK.

And I need to establish, first, that it’s not just subject matter and approach that makes this a better movie. MILK is brilliantly performed by a fine cast, central among them Sean Penn, who has always been brilliant but who has rarely conveyed the warmth he shows here; he’s often been cast as pricks and thugs, but rarely as a guy whose smile could persuasively make others want to do anything for him. The same could be said for supporting players Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber and others; and for the staging of real historical events, and for the direction by Gus Van Sant (who, I should say, has here firmly earned his way out of the critical perdition some of us condemned him to, for his temerity in remaking Hitchcock’s PSYCHO; that move was asinine and corrupt, but MILK more than earns him his artistic pardon).

And who is Harvey Milk? An affable little gay guy from New York, living in closeted fear, who moves to San Francisco and gradually gets involved in local politics, running for office multiple times until he finally makes history by getting elected. Facing down the gay-bashers, defying those who tell him he’s wasting his time, he is instrumental in raising public awareness and defeating a truly noxious piece of anti-gay legislation. It’s a great personal triumph that is the culmination of his life, and that starts a legacy of change still continuing decades later; a legacy that he does not get in share in, as he and mayor George Moscone are assassinated by fellow city supervisor Dan White.

(Nor are these spoilers. It’s history, people.)

MILK has humor, it has passion, it has dialogue and performances capable of making the receptive viewer weep, it has a great performance by Penn and one very much on the same level by Josh Brolin, whose Dan White is a study in stewing resentments. (It was incidentally the real Milk’s theory, mentioned in the film, that the conservative White was a closeted “one of us,” but that diagnosis is not strictly necessary to what happens; what White really is, and what Josh Brolin captures, is a kind of uber-Nixon, driven by self-loathing without any of Nixon’s compensating talent. Nixon was bad enough as a political genius. Dan White was Nixon as mediocrity: Nixon the guy who remained certain that everybody was laughing at him and was pretty much right about that, Nixon the guy who was such a nonentity he could only achieve something by bringing others down with him. Brolin played Dan White and George W. Bush in the same year, and I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t a display of his versatility as an actor; the parts required the same chops.)

It’s a brilliant film, and possibly the best of the year on its own merits. I would like it more than SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE in any event. But what happens when you compare it to the film that beat it for the Oscar?

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE gives us a character who remains more or less helpless, who gets on a game show, who hasn’t even made himself the kind of person who might win there, who is instead handed a golden ticket by the happenstance of the right questions being asked. Chance rescues him, and he is cheered by a crowd that is still in the circumstances he left.

MILK gives us a character who refuses to be helpless, who head-butts that same wall time and time again and finally breaks through it, who accomplishes great things and plants the seeds of change, who does not get to share in it, and is left by a crowd whose lives he was able to change because he lived.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is about trusting the phenomenon of the happy ending. MILK is about making that happy ending happen even if it’s for other people.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is about “and then he won the lottery.” MILK is about “Don’t wait for it to be given to you. Demand what’s yours.”

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is about wish-fulfillment. So is MILK, but it doesn’t absolve its protagonist of the responsibility to make it happen.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is about “density.” MILK is about depth.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a fairy tale. MILK is….well, that’s where the contrasts fail. (I apologize.)

Cinderella stories are crowd-pleasing. But Cinderella, the character, does nothing. She’s harassed and rewarded by powers greater than herself. People respond to that because it’s how everybody feels, sometimes. But how much satisfying is a story when the character stands up and acts?

Even Buttercup, in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, gets to tell off the Prince.

The difference, I think, is the one between a movie that provides a balm to slaves, and the one that instructs free men. Trust SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and you’re deeper in your rut. But MILK, like the beverage, is good for you.

It is, as I began this little rant by saying, fundamentally unfair to compare one work of art with another. The two movies had different aims, and that’s fine. Fantasy’s fine. After all, I’m the guy salivating to see WATCHMEN in a couple of weeks.

But there was a period in film history, beginning in the mid-seventies but strongest in the eighties and the nineties, when every hit film had to end with the protagonists getting handed everything they wanted: they had to get a great job, get famous, and end up being cheered by a huge crowd, so that the audience had that image imprinted on their eyeballs. Coming after the complexity films had in the early 1970s, which was one of the greatest periods for American film at least, was like being forced to eat pablum when we’d become used to steak. I can give MILK no higher compliment than saying that it belongs to the era of DOG DAY AFTERNOON and SERPICO and THE GODFATHER. And I can say nothing more revealing about SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE in contrast than saying it belongs more to the era of ROCKY or STAR WARS, except that it uses true human suffering as a romantic backdrop, and thus (I think) betrays its subject matter.

MILK wuz robbed.


All for one and one for all.

First Commentary (continued) by Adam-Troy Castro

The Three Musketeers (1935). Directed by Rowland V. Lee. Written by Rowland V. Lee and Dudley Nichols, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Walter Abel, Ian Keith, others. 97 minutes **

The Three Musketeers aka The Singing Musketeer (1939). Directed by Allan Dwan. Written by M.M. Musselman, William A. Drake, and Sam Hellman, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers. 73 minutes. *

The Three Musketeers (1948). Directed by George Sidney. Written by Robert Ardey, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, Vincent Price, June Allyson, Lana Turner. 125 minutes. ***

The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974). Two-part film directed by Richard Lester. Written by George MacDonald Fraser, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Faye Dunaway. 105 minutes, 108 minutes. Both ****

The Three Musketeers (1998). Directed by Stephen Herek. Written by David Loughery, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Charlie Sheen, Rebecca DeMornay, Tim Curry, Chris O’Donnell, Oliver Platt. 105 minutes. **

The Three Musketeers (2011). Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Written by Alex Davies and Andrew Litvak. Starring Orlando Bloom, Milla Jovovich, Others. 105 minutes. Not reviewed here, but Holy Mother Of God.

Other Versions Not Covered By Us: Far, far too many to mention.

Welcome back to our epic two-part survey of past movie versions of The Three Musketeers, which we split into these two installments because that was an awful lot of movie neepery for one blog post and because we knew that we’d be spending an awful lot of room, in this one, discussing just why one of the many versions is so frequently described, by so many sources, as “definitive.” Indeed, we’ll spend more time explicating the reasons than we spent discussing the 1935, 1939, and 1948 versions combined.

Definitive is that loaded a word.

As we shall see, the version in question wasn’t so widely gifted with the adjective just because its D’Artagnan looked pretty. 

In the meantime, this brief recap: so far we’ve discussed the 1935 version starring Walter Abel, which was not overwhelming but which did manage to be watchable; the 1939 version starring the Ritz Brothers, which led to some confusion on my part over why my old man would ever mislead me with the intelligence that the Ritzes were so much funnier than the (to him) over-rated Marxes; and the 1948 version starring Gene Kelly, which was old Hollywood doing what Hollywood did best, in Technicolor and with one of the past century’s great dancers turning his soft-shoe wizardy into a fair substitute for brilliant swordsmanship. The last of the bunch, I said, came as close to any of these versions had to actually conveying the entire story, as written in two novels (usually published together) by the great Alexandre Dumas. 

There have been others, before and since, but this is one of the most frequently-filmed stories of all time, and sanity puts a limit on what your faithful essayists are willing to do. If you’re curious about the version we most regret omitting in this compendium, it’s the serial that featured Lon Chaney and a pre-stardom John Wayne in a version that moved all the action to the French Foreign Legion. It sounds beyond awful, but in an entertaining way. We make no judgments because we never got to it. Nor did we ever get to the Disney cartoon with Donald, Mickey and Goofy – despite much urging on the part of the wife – or the one that featured Barbie. At a certain point, even inclusiveness has its limits.

No, we’ll leave those unmentioned, and proceed directly to that “definitive” take and the many reasons it excelled why so many others fell short; followed by a brief look at a subsequent version that was so inferior to it that for years this viewer resented it beyond reason.

(Spoiler Warnings go without saying, as always, but I especially mean them in this case. I’m serious. If you don’t know the story of The Three Musketeers, and don’t want to know, stop reading. )

The Story Behind The Film

Richard Lester first envisioned his Three Musketeers as a vehicle for The Beatles, with whom he had made A Hard Day’s Night. It never happened, but it’s interesting to contemplate what that film would have been like. I doubt it would have had any fidelity to Dumas (the Fab Four disrespected conventional narrative too much for that), and believe that it would have likely been just a farce played as a vehicle for songs; but even so, which Beatle would have been D’Artagnan? (My own preferred casting, for this hypothetical version we’re all probably better off not yhaving seen: Ringo as a bumbling D’Artagnan, Paul as Lord Buckingham, John as Cardinal Richelieu, and George Harrison as Athos. Think on that, come up with your own casting choices and wipe it from your mind. However you shuffle the cards, it would have stunk up the joint.)

Whatever happened, Lester returned to the material in the early seventies, under the auspices of the Salkinds, who here pulled off a bit of a sleazy trick that lent the movie a bit of notoriety entirely unconnected to its quality: to wit, they told the cast they intended to make an epic, close to four-hour version, when in fact they always intended to cut the finished product in half and release it as two separate films.  This was a serious no-no in a business where name actors are paid a per-film rate, and a colossal act of hubris for a production that cast a current or slightly past-current who’s-who of stars. Lawsuits ensued and were eventually settled, though some members of the cast harbored resentment for life.

The upshot is that, the legal issues aside, the precedent was actually good for the business. By demonstrating that a story could be deliberately spread out over more than one film and that several could be shot at once, the Salkinds had created a  model that was later very useful on any number of big-budget franchises where it would have been impossible to keep re-building the sets and re-gathering the cast. They used it on their own Superman series (this time, telling the cast what they had in mind). Later franchises that benefited from the example were Back To The Future (Parts 2 and 3),  The Matrix (also parts 2 and 3), and, most notably, the three installments of Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings.

None of which has any bearing on that “definitive” issue.

And part of what does is this: it appears to have been one of the only versions that managed the all-important trick of getting D’Artagnan right.

He’s Just A Kid

Most prior filmic versions of D’Artagnan, including the Walter Abel, Don Ameche and Gene Kelly versions already discussed, relay his deeds during the story with various degrees of fidelity – and, as in the case of Gene Kelly, with compensating charm to cover whatever they do get wrong – but otherwise, completely miss who he is. They treat him as a generic swashbuckler, grinning in the face of danger, charming the ladies, and laughing as he humiliates the bad guys with superior swordsmanship.

This is perhaps inevitable, as classic Hollywood regarded that as what a swashbuckler was like. Most of them had interchangeable dashing personalities. Errol Flynn was famous for a series of films, often co-starring Olivia DeHavilland and Alan Hale, ranging from The Adventures of Robin Hood to The Adventures Of Marco Polo to The Adventures of Don Juan, not to mention a number of others that didn’t follow that particular titling formula, where he played what was, in terms of personal manner the exact same person, plunked down into various different historical eras. He was a guy who showed teeth and laughed in the face of danger and took what he was doing seriously but always had a glint in his eye about it. Though Flynn wasn’t the first to follow this formula – indeed, the first two of the Musketeers movies we covered pre-date his best, the Robin Hood film – he pretty much made it his own, and a generation of swashbucklers that followed him all tried to emulate his example.

The problem is, this isn’t precisely what Alexandre Dumas had in mind when he took the memoirs of the actual real-life D’Artagnan and used them as the springboard for his own fanciful narrative.

And that’s this: D’Artagnan is supposed to be a  gifted but naïve kid living out a fantasy and having reality shoved in his face. 

Trained to sword expertise by his father, D’Artagnan has also been mercilessly drilled on a personal philosophy certain to get any kid killed: to wit, do not brook even the most offhand insult, and fight duels with anybody who impugns your honor. It is the reason why he challenges a well-dressed, and at this point much more dangerous swordsman, Rochefort (Christopher Lee), over some casual mockery; and why he finds himself scheduled for three consecutive duels to the death, with three of the most dangerous people in town, within mere hours of his arrival in Paris. He thinks that’s the way he’s supposed to act. He’s living up to what his father expects of him.
  
Most film versions bury this aspect in favor of his heroism, giving us a D’Artagnan who is very much already a hero, a D’Artagnan who, even when knocked unconscious by Rochefort in the Walter Abel version, simply looks like a capable guy who fell to a baddie who had gotten the drop on him. Not this D’Artagnan. He is not up to it yet. The version written by George MacDonald Fraser and directed by Richard Lester is indeed full of slapstick (more on that, later), but it’s no mere gag when in an early scene D’Artagan grabs a rope and swings on it, intent on knocking Rochefort off his horse, but instead misses his foe completely and winds up looking like a fool. It’s the act of a kid who is not yet up to his self-image. 

Similarly, in the scene where D’Artagnan meets the Musketeers for the serial duels, the dynamic between them is for the first time in this compendium played for the point intended by the author. First, we get one of Dumas’s grace notes: D’Artagnan helpfully offering his mother’s ointment to salve the old wound of the foe, Athos, who he’s here to fight to the death. It’s a moment of splendid naivete and tremendous good-heartedness on D’Artagnan’s part, and Oliver Reed as Athos plays the reaction perfectly: with surprise, a little leavening of his prior anger at the boy, and a commitment to the duel that, in the eyes of this reader of the book and watcher of the film, amounts to a private decision to let D’Artagnan off with a little wounding. After the subsequent fight with the Cardinal’s men, when D’Artagnan has proved capable of holding his own in a fight, it is about ten times more believable that the famous trio would take the young Gascon boy under their shared wing. Not only because he’s worth a damn, but because it would be a shame to let this kid worth a damn get himself killed before he amounts to something.
  
D’Artagnan’s inexperience manifests in other ways: his gullibility, the moment of startling clumsiness where he wreaks havoc in the office of an authority figure he wants to impress, the defiant speech he gives to Buckingham in  order to make a dramatic exit  just before he has to return with the shame-faced admission that he needs Buckingham’s help getting back to France.

Even his romantic adventures fit this pattern. In the prior film versions, when D’Artagnan declares himself in love with Constance almost at the moment he meets her, and immediately devotes himself to her service, it seems the straightforward act of a man; here, it’s the posturing of a boy, no less sincere, but more the manifestation of someone trying to be a dashing hero than someone who already is one.  It’s a subtle difference, but Michael York summons enough innocence to convey it. He’s role-playing.

More to the point, these two films capture a plot element present in Dumas that is scarcely touched upon in any other Three Musketeers version, before or after: to wit, as a lover, D’Artagnan has the attention span of a goldfish. He adores Constance, but when she’s not around, he allows himself to become the boy-toy of Milady; when Milady’s not around, he cheats on her with a servant. Whatever pretty face is in view, is the pretty face he’s madly in love with. Constance may spend much of the second film pining for him in a nunnery, in the era’s version of the Witness Protection Program, but D’Artagnan’s still getting his ashes hauled regularly. It’s not that he’s a cheating bastard. It’s that he’s not yet a grownup. He doesn’t become one, not really, until the end of the second film, when he arrives too late to save his lady fair. At which point, another of the film’s stylistic attributes pays off.

The Fighting Style And Why It Matters

The best fight scenes in any of the previous versions belonged to Gene Kelly, but that D’Artagnan was not just talented at fighting; he was a prodigy, a genius, a guy who, as I’ve said, didn’t so much duel his enemies as play with them, the way a cat humiliates a mouse.

Many of the great swashbucklers of movie history took a similar tack; they played up the artistry of the thing, pitting hero against villain in exquisitely choreographed duels that permitted both to shine as martial artists.

The swordfights in almost all of Lester’s version were, by contrast, not so much exhibitions of craft, as brawls. There was no elegance about them. The contestants tripped, prat-fell, stumbled over things, used their fists and their cloaks whenever possible, tried to do fancy things and failed, slipped and fell on ice, and oftentimes looked stupid…a comical, but in context deadly serious, demonstration of the difference between the way a fight looks when you have a choreographer on your side and the way one looks when you’re trying not to get killed. It’s messy. Frank Findlay is the poster child for this. In the second movie, he has a trick he’s been working on, that involves throwing his sword like a dart; but it’s a trick that leaves him disarmed if the toss fails. (Throughout both films he’s almost as surely as D’Artagnan the guy stuff happens to.)

It is about a hundred times more satisfying than any number of movie fight scenes that look like every step was planned out beforehand. Indeed, compare this franchise’s fights to the three way duel at the end of Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace,  a dizzyingly choreographed battle that ranges across two vast rooms, involves three combatants wailing away at one another with dizzying swordcraft…and is, to these eyes, woefully dull, simply because it looks too rehearsed, perfect, and fake. (The second best fight in The Four Musketeers is one fought on a frozen lake, where the combatants can barely stand up long enough to swing this swords correctly, and spend just as much time falling on their respective asses.)

But what happens in the course of the two films? D’Artagnan and his friends fight enemies in Paris, in the French countryside, and on the road to England…finally, at the end of the two films, arriving at the convent Milady de Winter has infiltrated,with her agents and the Cardinal’s men, to kill Constance. D’Artagnan arrives in Constance’s room minutes after Milady has strangled his great love to death. (To viewers previously unfamiliar with the story who had expected D’Artagnan to arrive in the nick of time,  it is stunning.) Furious with grief,  D’Artagnan races through the convent halls, his anger building…until he spots his old enemy, Rochefort.

The neophyte fights the master. And, for the first time, in almost four hours of film, a swordfight is choreographed in the old-Hollywood manner. It is one of the greatest swordfights in the history of film, two masters battling each other with a fury that belies some of the old movie duels whose combatants looked like they were trying to look pretty rather than kill each other. It is real and it marks the moment when D’Artagnan is exactly what he has thus far only pretended to be.

This is not a happy ending, except insofar as justice is more-or-less served and D’Artagnan is left with the company of his old friends. But it is something we don’t get often enough: a story, in the sense that its main character has undergone a significant transformation and we’ve gotten to see exactly how.

Other Significant Accomplishments

Unlike many prior filmed versions of the tale, Lester’s Musketeers takes place in a persuasive time and place. It’s not some indoor set, not some production drowning in its own lush style; this is a world of drudgery and toil, where the gap between the poor in the streets and the rich in their palaces is extreme, and we get to see both (notably in the living condition of D’Artagnan’s servant Planchet).

There are spectacular set pieces, both based on Dumas and the screenwriter’s invention, that none of the prior versions attempted. One of these would be that fight on the frozen lake. But another is one of the greatest scenes in the novel: an extended sequence where, in order to gain a few minutes of privacy from Cardinal spies, Athos makes a bet that he and his friends can eat breakfast at a fort under heavy fire. This, they do – an act that their fellows regard as pure courage – but, in addition to showing us again just how formidable these fellows are, it serves the fine story purpose of allowing them to exchange information important both to each other and to the audience, while simultaneously battling an army intent on killing them. It is a terrific scene, and as painless an exercise in exposition as has ever been filmed.

The political background is superior. In many filmed versions of the story, the Musketeers fight for a king who deserves their loyalty. This guy is an easily-gulled cuckold who never quite knows what’s going on, and who looks bored out of his mind and deeply resentful when obliged to present his men with medals.

The characterization of the lesser but still important players is also far superior.

For instance, in most other versions, Constance is just a generic good girl, with no function other than to pine for D’Artagnan. These films take advantage of the observation we’ve already made, that for the story to work Constance must be a beautiful blithering idiot, and actually plays her that way, attributing to her a level of ineptitude that might have rendered her wholly not worth the trouble were she not played by a lady as comely as Raquel Welch. (Welch, who enjoyed a long and profitable career despite usually not being very good, is somehow terrific here; go figure).
     
The film’s Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway) is the most frightening in film history, the only one so far who captures the character’s utter inhumanity. Faye Dunaway, in one of the greatest roles of her career, plays her as a woman who’s been so profoundly hurt that the only remaining option is stone sociopathy. Earlier versions – even  Lana Turner’s – downplayed her physical resourcefulness and rendered her a generic bad girl, but here she graduates, before our eyes, from secondary villainess to the human face of evil described by Dumas.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than in an extended sequence where, imprisoned by Buckingham, she has three days to seduce her jailer before being exiled to America (a fate worse than death, in that particular era). Her only guard is a sexless puritan who has been described as immune to the charms of women. And in three days, he’s not only hers…but so turned against his former master that it is he who plunges the knife into Buckingham’s heart. Milady brilliantly, and hilariously, and terrifyingly has sold herself to her “incorruptible” jailer as a Joan of Arc figure, with a direct pipeline to God.

Few other versions we’ve seen attempt to tell this part of the tale. The 1948 version contains a version of it, substituting the disastrously naïve Constance for Buckingham’s right-hand man; and it was probably right to do so, since that allows the film to compress the plot and get to the deaths of Constance and Buckingham that much earlier. But it’s not pure Dumas. In the Lester version, we see, step by step, how the impressively resourceful Milady, who cannot seduce her jailer’s body, seduces his soul instead. It is relentless, and it ratchets up the suspense when she next sets her vengeful heart on D’Artagnan’s girlfriend. Can nothing stop her in time? (No.)

The film’s Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston, in one of the great roles of his late career), is given a depth he possesses in no other film version, a depth he only possesses in the novel and, briefly, in the 1948 performance of Vincent Price; he’s a man who schemes for power and has no problem arranging contract killings, but is capable of shaking his head in dismay, as the book’s Richelieu did, when Milady appeals to him for permission to kill D’Artagnan. This is, of course, a man who had only recently sent killers against D’Artagnan himself; but there’s a subtle difference between arranging assassination for power and allowing a minion to kill for a grudge, and the Cardinal dwells on that line. Heston’s weary, appalled “No” sells that difference – which is a lot of weight to put on a syllable, and goes a long way to explaining why fans of this film were so dismayed when the next version of the story had Tim Curry playing the part as a ranting super-villain.

The characterization also allows the classic ending, where D’Artagnan hands the Cardinal’s signed kill order back to him, and the Cardinal, recognizing the irony of the moment, wearily lets D’Artagnan go. In Dumas, the Cardinal is blown away by the sense that the boy before him has a hidden destiny, a greatness, more important to France than the Cardinal himself; in this movie, he simply appreciates being hoist by his own petard. Only a film deft in subtle characterization, and a performance capable of carrying it, could render the Cardinal’s contradictory behavior understandable…which is why it’s so rarely been attempted.
 
Christopher Lee as Rochefort…sorry, I see no reason why I should need to finish that sentence. Christopher Lee as Rochefort. That’s about as good as it gets.

In all versions of The Three Musketeers, only D’Artagnan and one of the titular three, Athos, are actually important to the tale; Porthos and Aramis almost fade into the background. Oliver Reed’s Athos is a brawling, heavy-drinking, embittered fellow with a past, as he’s supposed to be and some versions like Van Heflin’s have managed to be  — but that is not the same thing as saying that the other two are stinted. One, Richard Chamberlain’s Aramis, is pretty much just “the other guy,” odd enough considering that the man playing him was about to come a huge star and that he’s the kind of player who would normally be center place in something like this. More to the point, Frank Findlay’s Porthos is a splendid comic creation: the kind of guy who is always getting himself into mishaps, who can fight and even win but somehow never emerges with victory intact.

In short, why is this version “definitive”? Not because it gets some things right; because it gets virtually everything right, from the texture to the performances to the nuanced morality of the villains. It captures exactly why this has always been considered a great story. No version is ever likely to out-do it. The sad thing is that the quality decline, after this point, was not just noticeable but precipitous. And that’s without devoting any discussion to versions with cannon-bearing airships.

(There was another installment,  eventually, based on the Dumas novel Twenty Years After; it was not nearly as good, but then I don’t intend to discuss it. I mention it here because if I don’t, people will inevitably rush to call it to my attention. I know, I know.)

The Three Musketeers (1993)

A number of people have objected to my vehement hatred of this, widely called “The Disney version” despite the existence of that previous take with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy.

I’ll confess to personal resentment borne of the hubris on display when, asked in an interview about how his take would differ from the classic that came before (that he also confessed to never seeing), Charlie Sheen snotted, “Ours will finally do it right.”

Sorry. But considering the results, them’s fighting words.

Turning the Cardinal into a super-villain who twirls his red cloak like a cape and rants at length about ruuuuuling France is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Having D’Artagnan say to the Three Musketeers, “The Three Musketeers! I’ve heard of you!”, as if they’re famous celebrities, and not just three members of a larger fighting force acknowledged by the film, who just happen to hang out together, is not doing it right.

Turning its Constance into a girl who speaks to D’Artagnan once, for about thirty seconds, and later confesses to the Queen that she loves him with all her heart is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Declaring, oddly, that Rochefort just happened to be the guy who killed D’Artagnan’s father, an invention that adds another layer of “Oh, come on,” to the proceedings, is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Adding misplaced japanese swordsmen is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Having the Musketeers show up twice to rescue D’Artagnan, in circumstances that are awfully convenient but never bother to explain how they knew where to find him, let alone managed to get where he is, is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Exclamatory dialogue so disrespectful of the audience that at one point the Cardinal must address the secondary villain with an eyepatch and point out, in dialogue, that he only has one eye, is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Jokes that rarely achieve wit and most often fail the “dopey” test are not, by contrast, doing it right.

Reducing Milady, who was in the last film one of the most chilling villainesses in movie history, to a wronged woman who is here conveniently arrested and convicted and marched to her execution on the side of a cliff, just when the Musketeers need her to be so redeemed by love that she provides precisely the information they need at the time they need it, is not, by contrast, doing it right.

Having the unbearably earnest boy king defeat the Cardinal by decking him is not, by contrast, doing it right.

None of that, Mr. Sheen, is “winning.”

In 1998, I hated every minute of this concoction. I hated how every story point had been rendered idiotic. I hated how every line of dialogue was bland and flavorless. I hated the clear contempt for an audience the makers had believed incapable of understanding anything else and I hated the gulling of a generation that would now think they knew the tale of The Three Musketeers. I couldn’t imagine anything worse.

Exposure to scenes from the 2011 Paul W.S. Anderson version tells me that in 1993 I didn’t know how lucky I was.

I am forced to admit that the 1993 version was guilty of no more than reducing it to a dumbaction movie for an attention-deficit generation, and what what really irritated me at the time was not the awfulness, but the hubris – and not the hubris of daring to remake what had already been  done perfectly, as that was their right but the hubris one actor demonstrated by  claiming in specific reference to Lester’s take that this new version would be “finally done right” and thus implying that the prior version had been done wrong.

So I watched it again, straining for impartiality.

And I have to admit – while it’s more energetic than good – there’s quite a bit in it that is not actively bad.

Tim Curry was good. Yes, he was. He was there to deliver a cartoon and he did quite well at that endeavor.

Oliver Platt was good. He had infectious fun in a silly part, and it’s difficult to watch him without some of that fun rubbing off. It’s, really, the second-best performance ever given in any Three Musketeers movie, by any actor named Oliver.

Charlie Sheen gave the usual Charlie Sheen performance, but in 1993 that was not particularly bad. Keifer Sutherland is pretty good at selling Athos’s misery, even if he is no Oliver Reed. There’s also, buried in all that awful dialogue, one pretty good scene involving a discussion of “wenching” (even if it takes place in the middle of a cross-country ride to save the day and gives the impression that the Musketeers got bored with saving the day and paused to get drunk).

Some of the action sequences don’t suck, and are pretty enough, even if the final large-scale battle at the king’s palace substitutes scale and bombast for any issues we might have reason to care about.

Honestly. I take it all back. If you’re too tired or too lazy to be discerning, there are worse times to be had at the movies. (The Ritz Brothers version, for example.)

The problem, really, is that for all too many people these days, “just fine for audiences too tired or lazy to be discerning” seems to be the first, last, and only criterion.

And part of the problem with accepting a remake that is extravagantly dumb is that, a few years later, you get a remake that is appallingly dumb. The insults get larger.

I’ve lost track of the number of people who have told me, in relation to the one with dirigibles, that when they go to movies they don’t want to think, they don’t want to feel, they just want to turn their brains off and watch things crash into each other at great speed.

I’ve had intelligent people say this to me.

Of that  I will currently only say, I’m too tired to have the argument…especially since the MacDonald / Lester version provides my argument.

Really, it’s possible to provide derring-do, adventure, swordplay, thrills, charisma, and humor, and do so in the context of a story that makes sense and means something. You don’t even have to look at the Lester Musketeers. Just look at the films made by Errol Flynn.

Don’t get me started, people. Really. Just…don’t get me started.

And now, the wife bursts through the palace window, a rapier gleaming in one gloved fist…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Three Musketeers (1935). Directed by Rowland V. Lee. Written by Rowland V. Lee and Dudley Nichols, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Walter Abel, Ian Keith, others. 97 minutes **

The Three Musketeers aka The Singing Musketeer (1939). Directed by Allan Dwan. Written by M.M. Musselman, William A. Drake, and Sam Hellman, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers. 73 minutes. 1/2

The Three Musketeers (1948). Directed by George Sidney. Written by Robert Ardey, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, Vincent Price, June Allyson, Lana Turner. 125 minutes. **1/2

The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974). Two-part film directed by Richard Lester. Written by George MacDonald Fraser, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Faye Dunaway. 105 minutes, 108 minutes. Both ****

The Three Musketeers (1993). Directed by Stephen Herek. Written by David Loughery, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Charlie Sheen, Rebecca DeMornay, Tim Curry, Chris O’Donnell, Oliver Platt. 105 minutes. ** *

The Three Musketeers (2011). Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Written by Alex Davies and Andrew Litvak. Starring Orlando Bloom, Milla Jovovich, Others. 105 minutes. Not reviewed here, but Holy Mother Of God.

Other Versions Not Covered By Us: Far, far too many to mention.

I know we had to cover these films. I knew there might be a bunch of ‘em out there.  But come on guys!!! 29 versions of one story?  And you still haven’t beaten that horse to death?

OK, I admit to enjoying seeing Gene Kelly acrobatically dancing out a fight or two.

And, the 1935 version didn’t stray too far from the story I knew. 

The Touchstone/Disney production tried hard to bring in the teen audience on casting alone, and the guys did a decent job.  There’s nothing unwatchable here, but its just a bit off.

Heck, even the Disney version (the one with Mickey, not Kiefer) kept me happy as a child.

But the advertisements alone for this new “steampunked” musketeers had me baffled.  I guess historical accuracy isn’t needed if wire fu is available. Has every audience, worldwide, given up on the ability to remember two minutes into the past?

Now, mind ya’all  like my hubby, I prefer the 1973 mega version (I choose to think of it as one really looong film, rather than two really good films that just happened to be shot at the same time).  The casting of Michael York as D’artagnan made me a fan for life.  I was already well aware of Richard Chamberlain (reruns of Dr Kildaire had already hit my TV).  I was re-introduced to Oliver Reed (not realizing he was the hated Bill Sykes until many years later).  But the surprise of the film has always been Raquel Welch and her ability to pull off a decent comedic turn.  She was more than just the body in the fur bikini.  The sets were and locales were nearly perfect. The swordplay almost realistic.  And the fun just what was ordered.  Guys, we watch these films at least once a year just because.

Now has my love for this one(two) punch blinded my eye to the possibility that the definitive version is yet to be made?  Naahh!  I hope they keep trying.  Lets go for at least ten more versions in my lifetime.  Just one request to any future filmmakers who do attempt this feat.  PLEASE!!!!! Read the source material, not just the Cliff’s Notes.


If you’re gonna bend the rules of nature, for God’s sake pay attention!

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Frankenstein aka Edison’s Frankenstein (1910). Directed by J. Searle Dawley. Written by J. Searle Dawley, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller. 16 minutes. **.

Frankenstein (1931). Directed by James Whale. Written by Frances Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, from the play by Peggy Webling and novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, John Boles, Mae Clarke.  71 minutes. ****

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by Jimmy Sangster, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart. 83 minutes. ***

Frankenstein aka Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, John Cleese. 123 minutes. ** 1/2

Other Versions and Sequels: Too many to list, including a large number of sequels to both the 1931 and 1957 versions, TV-movies, breakfast serials, sitcoms like The Munsters and parodies like Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

*

Even if you know better, the first image to leap into your mind is almost certainly the wrong one.

Somebody says “Frankenstein,” and before you can remind yourself that Frankenstein was actually the name of the irresponsible (not necessarily “mad”) scientist, you flash on the image of the creature first embodied on film by the actor who was, in the opening credits at least, listed only as “?”: a hulking, flat-faced, walking corpse with bolts on his neck and a primal aversion to fire.

People persist in calling the guy with the clodhopping boots and dialogue that consists of a large number of variations on “Urrrrrrhhh!” Frankenstein, even after sequels like Son of Frankenstein (1939) took pains to include scenes that – showing a fair degree of irritation on the part of the screenwriters – explained the elemental difference to the audience one more time.

It’s probably a losing battle. To the public at large, the monster stitched together from various scavenged corpses will always have a name that sounds Jewish.

In truth, though, the nigh-total colonization of our collective imaginations by the 1931 version of the story, even among those of us who have never seen it and only know the various ways in which its central image has been echoed and repeated all the way down to the present day, the makeup first worn on-screen by one Boris Karloff is no more definitive a portrait of Frankenstein’s monster than any other. Mary Shelley, the remarkable teenager who first told the story, did not describe him in exhaustive detail. She simply wrote that he was about eight feet tall, horrific in appearance, and possessed a withered, translucent, yellowish skin that barely concealed his musculature and blood vessels. In the novel, as in several later versions, its unparalleled ugliness is what drove Frankenstein to suddenly come to his senses and flee in revulsion, leaving his creature to wander the earth alone, be treated with hatred and fear wherever it went, educate itself through a remarkably convenient encounters with books, and ultimately hate the man who brought it into existence only to abandon it;  but having provided us with a modicum of description, Shelley then leaves the rest to the reader’s imagination, trusting us to envision a horror more personal than any we ever could.

This is of course not an option for moviemakers, who may tease the monster but must ultimately show him to us, ultimately giving us the opportunity to grow used to his grotesque features and perhaps grow to love them. In 1931, when Boris Karloff first appeared on screen as the monster, first backing into the room and then turning around to reveal his horrid visage, some audience members passed out in fright. By the time this essayist grew up in the 1960s, the same makeup formed the face of bumbling, loveable Herman Munster, in a sitcom suitable for small children.  The Karloff version and its sequel used the decreasing impact borne of familiarity to fine dramatic effect. Others took an entirely different tack. The differences are remarkable given that they all started with the same source material, which to date has never been interpreted with complete fidelity.

“Edison’s Frankenstein” (1910)

The 1910 version was not, as some fanciful accounts would have it, “directed by Thomas Edison.” It was produced at a studio owned by Thomas Edison, whose company briefly produced films to go along with its motion picture cameras and projectors. An actual Edison-directed Frankenstein would be an interesting artifact; perhaps it would consist of backdated blueprints the company could use in a patent grab. Full-length motion pictures still lay in the future, thanks to the new technology’s status as toy and the widespread belief that nobody would ever sit still for any movie much more than ten minutes long, so the story is told in broad strokes, with acting that largely consists of outstretched hands and extreme pantomime, giving modern eyes the impression that nobody in these early films ever said anything unless they wanted to proclaim it to the heavens.

Thanks to the volatility and low life expectancy of silver nitrate film, as well as the blind belief by early dabblers in the form that the art was disposable and that any films that had completed their theatrical runs could be burned for their silver content, this nevertheless important artifact was considered lost for decades, before it turned up in the hands of a private collector. It still shows the ravages of time, unfortunately, but it can be followed with a little close attention.  Here, for your pleasure, we imbed the entire epic.

 

Because the images no longer possess the clarity they once did, we also provide this still of Charles Ogle as the monster.

 


  

Looking back on this film a full century later, it is very possible to find grounds for laughter. The acting style is only part of it. For instance, Frankenstein’s letter to his beloved is downright funny to modern eyes, especially his tight-assed signature, “Frankenstein.” (Elizabeth must swoon.) But despite its crudeness, the film is clearly still capable of evoking chills and magic, even today. That scene of the monster’s creation, a brilliant early special effect, was accomplished by burning a wax figure of the monster in a furnace and then showing the footage in reverse. As a result, it seems to congeal, the pieces coming together out of thin air (or someplace far more terrible), and joining a human form that is neither born nor stitched together, but somehow, terribly, summoned. And its pathetic death, an outright rejection of its plans to disrupt Frankenstein’s wedding that attaches an additional level of the fantastic with its disappearance inside a full-length mirror, possesses a wan pathos that was only exceeded by the next, and still most famous version.

James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931)

You’ve got to say one thing about the James Whale version: as infected as some of its key sequences have been by all the parodies and homages it has seen since, it still possesses a remarkable power, most notably in this key scene that was considered so horrific in 1931 that it was soon cut from all theatrical prints and was not permanently restored for decades.

 

 

The version this essayist always saw on WPIX, growing up, was also the only one that most people my age got to see for years: it ended with a remarkably clumsy cut, just as the monster (Boris Karloff) reached for poor little Maria, and cut away to happy Henry Frankenstein’s wedding preparations. The rationale behind this was that the drowning of the little girl was far too horrific for any audiences to ever want to sit through. (Think of that in the age of Hostel, and marvel.)  One effect of the cut is, of course, that the audience is then free to imagine a fate far more horrific than anything that was shown on-screen in the first place. You could even, if you choose, imagine violations greater than a mere tragic accident, at the hands of an overpowered infant who never meant the little girl any harm.

It is worth noting that by the time this scene takes place, Karloff’s monster has already committed two murders: one of Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant Fritz (played by Dwight Frye, who was deeply typecast in roles like this), and one of Frankenstein’s old mentor Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan). The careful exposition about the accidental use of an abnormal brain aside, both occur after the monster has been abused, imprisoned, chained, and terrified. He is an infant, trapped in a world he cannot understand, and lashing out because Frankenstein, the irresponsible fool, has never made sure that the sadistic Fritz can be trusted not to torment the seven-foot-tall powerhouse with lit torches. But now? Treated with warmth by somebody too innocent to know that she should be afraid, he is charmed; he is delighted; he shows that he is capable of responding to kindness. The drowning of the little girl is an accident no more malicious than a three-year-old spilling a glass of milk, and the censors who cut out the terrible moment in order to protect the audience’s sensibilities also robbed those audiences of one of the greatest moments of Boris Karloff’s career: the creature’s bereft, despairing horror upon realizing what it has done.

Placing this scene after the two prior murders has the effect of also underlining the terrible thing Frankenstein has done. Everybody who watches the movie understands that the monster is a monster, but also knows that it has a soul, and that is soul is in pain, and that Frankenstein has done it a tremendous disservice by making every possible error he could, after successfully bringing it to life.

(Nor is this a narrative accident. James Whale’s far superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, provides the same lesson by allowing the monster – again, after a murder or two – to encounter another innocent capable of treating him with kindness, this one an aged blind man who delights in the arrival of a vagabond who can benefit from his hospitality, and wisdom. In that movie, the monster is so moved by the first real warmth he’s ever felt from a human being that he weeps. This is naturally ruined by the arrival of sighted relatives who can see what the new houseguest looks like, but again, the lesson is clear: the so-called monster is not unambiguously evil, but a powerful, untamed child who probably deserved much better from the life Frankenstein bequeathed him.)

As for the story itself, it’s told with remarkable narrative economy. We open with Frankenstein already deeply involved in nasty business that includes the robbing of graves. Ten minutes in, we know that he’s up to nefarious doings, and what that involves. Twenty minutes in, we know that he’s virtually abandoned his fiance in order to pursue his madness, and we know that he’s about to start to create life. Thirty minutes in – after a creation scene that has never been equaled, not in all the years that followed – the monster is alive. Having only seventy minutes to tell your story in has some advantages, in the same way that a short story provides advantages over a big fat novel: your story needs to eschew the fat. The climax begins, plays out, and is over in ten minutes, wonderfully effective and startling to those of us living in an age when the final battle between hero and villain involves a battle’s worth of explosion and about ten or twenty reversals. (Which are rarely as effective as this film’s brief moment of chilling eye contact between creature and creator, through the machinery of the old windmill.)

This is not the same thing as saying that oddities didn’t arise as a result of some of the shortcuts.

For instance, there’s Elizabeth, who’s played by Mae Clark, the same actress who got mashed by James Cagney’s grapefruit. Frankenstein allows her and Doctor Waldman into his lab, to witness the birth of his creation. This is in large part so Colin Clive’s Frankenstein, overacting wildly to modern eyes, can provide them (and through them, us) with an explanation of what he has done. Okay; so she sees the monster’s birth. The movie glosses over the point so deftly that it’s possible not to notice, but we never do find out what she thinks of her beau’s “accomplishment.” Is she proud? Disgusted? Horrified? No; as far as we can see, she remains fixed on her number one priority, getting her guy out of that lab so the wedding can go ahead as scheduled. This is one focused bridezilla.  Later on, Frankenstein discusses the monster’s doings with other people who know that he’s responsible – while four family servant girls, who always appear on screen together as if they’re joined at the waist, stand within earshot hearing everything that gets said. That, doctor, is no way to safeguard a dire secret. The happy ending, with Frankenstein and Elizabeth enjoying a happy tete-a-tete while his proud father beams, is unlikely in the extreme, and becomes even more unlikely with the sequel.

Still, these are small nits. James Whale’s Frankenstein is one witty and stylish piece of work, that is still deeply entertaining today, and deserves its central place in the pantheon of cinematic Frankensteins. It spawned an immediate sequel that is itself a classic and then a handful of others that, for the most part (the Abbott and Costello outing being the biggest exception) followed the law of diminishing returns. The main problem with those sequels is that, though they abandoned the original, human Frankenstein to follow the various further misadventures of the monster he created (as played in subsequent years by Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, and Glenn Strange),  it abandoned the early canny handling of that  monster’s mistreated soul, as well as the ability to speak he picks up in Bride, and reduces him to a mere lumbering brute, who can be trained to obediently kill on command but is never again the deeply betrayed figure he is in those first two outings. By the third film, Son Of Frankenstein, he is only a McGuffin.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Few actors have had as deep and as lasting an impact on fantastic film as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, who entered the genre working for Hammer Films in the 1950s.

Cushing played Doctor Frankenstein in one long-running series of films and Professor Van Helsing in another; he was also Sherlock Holmes, an early Doctor Who and, in Star Wars, the coldhearted son of a bitch who orders the Death Star to blow up Princess Leia’s home world.

If anything, Christopher Lee established an even more remarkable resume, playing Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, Kharis the Mummy, Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft Holmes, the Devil, Death, James Bond’s enemy The Man With the Golden Gun, Rasputin, Dr. Fu Manchu, the murderous swordsman Rochefort in the best Three Musketeers movies,  Willy Wonka’s father, the evil wizard Saruman from Peter Jackson’s Lord Of the Rings movies, and Count Dooku from the lamentable Star Wars prequels. He also had a hilarious cameo in something called The Stupids. Trust me.

Both are on hand for The Curse of Frankenstein, which began Hammer’s own long-running series of Frankenstein movies. It was a series that followed a fascinatingly different course from the Universal franchise; the monster lives and dies (and lives again and dies again) in this first film, but is no  longer a factor in the handful of sequels. Instead of following the further misadventures of the monster as the Universal films did, these sequels all follow the further adventures of the Baron, who not only persists in his experiments after the first time they lead to disaster but each time persists in continuing to make the same elementary mistake, which is to say constantly leaving his creations unattended and thus constantly inviting the disaster that always ensues whenever one wanders off. You would think the guy capable of discerning the one common factor that led to all of his life’s greatest fiascos, but you’d be wrong.

He’s also a far different interpretation of the character than anything the movies have shown before. He’s a bastard. He has no real feeling for any human being but himself, has no problem with committing murders to keep himself well-stocked in body parts, also has no problem with forcing his attentions on women, and – indeed – may be a sadist as well as sociopath. In this film, he murders an elderly savant just to gain access to his brain, and in another scene deliberately locks his pregnant mistress in a room with his murderous creation just because that’s the easiest way of dealing with her threats of blackmail. Subsequent films have him committing crimes just as nasty. In short, it can be said that this series is not about the Frankenstein monster, but about the monster, Frankenstein. The remarkably slow-learning monster, Frankenstein.

 

The closest the series comes to an actual adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, this film takes the form of an extended confession as a haggard imprisoned Frankenstein (Cushing), who is awaiting the guillotine for an initially unspecified crime, tells a priest about his experiments and how they came to ruin. At the end, he goes off to his execution (for the murder of that luckless mistress), without any independent verification outside the flashback; it is very possible to interpret the entire story as the delusion of a common murderer rendered mad by guilt. I prefer to believe that the story is true, especially since it sets up the sequels, but your mileage may vary. Either way, the dramatic arc is the movie-length battle of wills between Frankenstein and his mentor and partner Paul Krempe (Robert Urquhart), who early on revolts in horror and spends the rest of the movie alternately calling Frankenstein mad and begging him to stop.

It’s good stuff, as far as it goes.  But one thing’s for sure. If the story is indeed supposed to be objectively true, nobody in it acts the way a human being acts. Once he sees disaster coming, Krempe passionately begs Frankenstein’s cousin and fiance Elizabeth (Hazel Court) to leave the house and never come back; he doesn’t explain why, probably to avoid horrifying her, but after some initial anger at him for ever making such a impudent suggestion, she continues to show a level of warmth and affection toward him that seems downright odd coming from any betrothed woman who finds herself nagged about breaking it off by a guy who’s supposed to be her beloved’s best friend. Every woman I’ve ever met would take their guy aside and say, in confidence, “I want you to know that your best friend’s a real creep.” As for Krempe, who storms off in righteous disgust after the monster has already committed a murder, he later returns for the wedding party with a big smile on his face, and nothing but polite interest when his estranged friend Frankenstein tells him that there’s something in the lab that he really ought to see. (And you thought this version’s Frankenstein was a slow learner.)

Cushing’s performance covers a magnitude of sins, even though he’s easily a quarter of a century too old to be playing the driven young genius established by the young boy played by another actor who first hires the already-adult Krempe to be his teacher; by the time Cushing takes over the part, Frankenstein somehow seems to have not only caught up with Krempe in age, but leaped right past him to the point where he’s by now by a couple of decades the older man. (The age issue isn’t nearly as much a problem in the sequels, where it really doesn’t matter that much how old Frankenstein is.) Alas, Christopher Lee is not nearly as good as Cushing, here, because, for the most part, he is not given a character to play. His monster has some moments where it is as put-upon as the Karloff version, but for the most part, he’s a shuffling corpse, who kills reflexively, because he can. Encountering his own version of what is now a recurring theme, the blind man, he just up and kills the guy: not because he’s threatened, not because he’s angry, but because killing is what he does. He kills Frankenstein’s mistress just as reflexively. There is no pathos to play; again, he’s just a McGuffin. This is not fatal to the film, because it happens to be about the Baron, not the monster. But at a mere 83 minutes, the movie isn’t so long that it couldn’t have shoehorned in a few scenes where the monster demonstrated a soul of his own. Frankly, the character deserves it. (His one-sided malice is more forgivable if you buy the interpretation that the entire flashback with the monster is only a function of Frankenstein’s delusions, but, even so: in any movie, the story you’re watching is the story you’re watching, even if it’s only supposed to be a dream sequence.)

One minor point of interest: the film includes a moment where Peter Cushing peers through a magnifying glass, spectacularly enlarging his eye. He also does this a couple of times in his appearances as Sherlock Holmes.  This is no doubt the source of the gag in the Zucker Brothers comedy Top Secret! where a much older Cushing also peers through a magnifying glass and lowers it to reveal that his right eye actually is that grotesquely enlarged. It’s a film-buff joke as well as a funny sight gag. Just thought you ought to know.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

Despite the existence of a TV-movie called Frankenstein: The True Story, which a surprisingly large number of people who haven’t read the novel take at its word and defend as an accurate adaptation of the Shelley novel (apparently operating under the assumption that Shelley really did write about a Frankenstein monster who came out looking beautiful, and only gradually rotted in both mind and body), there has never really been a major filmed version that adapted her story with anything approaching fidelity.
 
This one doesn’t, either. It comes damned close for most of its length, up to and including Elizabeth’s murder at the monster’s hands…at which point it departs radically from the text and throws in a twist that really should have worked better than it did.

Part of the problem is its extended length. In eighty-four years, the changing grammar of cinema has increased the acceptable length of a feature film from just over ten minutes to more than two hours; and that really is fine, but coupled with the film’s mission statement of honoring Shelley, it does spend an awful lot of time on framing material, including the arctic expedition stuck in the ice and the discovery of a dying Dr. Frankenstein, who tells the Captain his story. After that it goes on to detail Frankenstein’s childhood, the death of his mother in childbirth, his declaration of love for his foster sister Elizabeth, his entry into medical school, his interest in unorthodox medicine, his friendship with Henry Clerval, and so on. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it does delay the actual creation of the monster for a long time, and Kenneth Branagh’s direction takes what should have been Masterpiece Theatre  material and treats it with palpably desperate energy, that includes swooping cameras and some of the most intrusive soundtrack music you have ever heard in your life. Had he let the material alone, it might have bored some members of the audience…but as it happens, the desperate over-the-top style alienated even more.

Things pick up a little bit with the creation of the monster. Branagh, who didn’t just direct but also starred as Frankenstein, got a lot of flack at the time for running around with his shirt off – a touch that was largely regarded as narcissism – but one’s got to admit; it does communicate the character’s frenzy. Still, we then get to the problematic birth scene…which culminates in Frankenstein and his creation flopping around, for what seems forever, on a floor soaked with his experiment’s shiny amniotic fluid.  It’s not scary. Some people regarded it as horrifying, and others thought it hilarious, but the audience I saw it with groaned throughout.

The monster is played by Robert De Niro, who was at one point one of the greatest actors alive (even if he now seems to have used up his entire bag of tricks); but though he’s been rendered hideously scarred with canny makeup, the result is not that he looks like an unnatural monster, but like a hideously scarred Robert De Niro. Once he has his first actual conversation, with this movie’s gentle blind man, the distancing effect of the monster makeup is completely spent; in subsequent scenes where is seen from a distance, it almost disappears completely. This, alas, extends to the actual universe of the film. The very first thing the monster does after it escapes from Frankenstein’s workshop is run from a mob; and it’s worth noting that the mob chases him, not because he killed anybody, or because they’re horrified by his appearance, but because they think he’s a sick man, spreading cholera. In short, this is a movie where the Frankenstein monster can pass as a run-of-the-mill ugly guy. 

Further developments including the murder of Frankenstein’s younger brother, the framing of Justine, the monster’s confrontation with his creator and his offer to go away if Frankenstein builds him a mate, all play out as they do in the novel, and, for a time, the movie works at the level it needs to.  (It’s too bad the opening hour doesn’t.)

That is all before we get to the part that is original to the film, the part that you may consider one of the worst scenes in any Frankenstein movie to date, or one of the best; Frankenstein finds his murdered bride and, for what may be the first time, does what Frankenstein would do, create a new monster using her as spare parts, in a doomed, mad and desperate attempt to get her to live again. Only, hideous as she now is, she might now be more suited for the monster than the doctor.

The scene that results is horrible, hilarious, awful and wonderful at the same time. It is not the Frankenstein of Mary Shelley, but the Frankenstein that might have been made by Stuart Gordon; and though some people will never talk to me again because I said this, I confess to adoring it. The problem is that it simply doesn’t fit anything that came before.  It belongs to a campier Frankenstein, a Frankenstein that Kenneth Branagh did not think he was making. If the entire film had been played at that level, he might have had something.

When we return to the icebound ship in the far north and Frankenstein concluding his confession only to die, and after that to the monster hollering, “He was my father!”, it’s all deadly anticlimax, there not to finish the story in any way the audience cares about, but to delay the closing credits. There’s very real genius in the film, but unfortunately, the whole fails to work.

The Doctor’s Notebook

1910 version, a fascinating artifact from a distant time, with some touches of pure genius. 1931 version, a permanent addition to our shared visual language. 1957 version, a flawed but entertaining visit. 1994 version, a misshapen creation with moments of pure genius, and moments of unbelievable awfulness, stitched together to create an unnatural whole.

And now, the wife declaims toward the Heavens as she flips the third switch…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Frankenstein aka Edison’s Frankenstein (1910). Directed by J. Searle Dawley. Written by J. Searle Dawley, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller. 16 minutes. **.(Only based on the techniques used at the time)

Frankenstein (1931). Directed by James Whale. Written by Frances Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort, from the play by Peggy Webling and novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, John Boles, Mae Clarke. 71 minutes. ***

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher. Written by Jimmy Sangster, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart. 83 minutes. *1/2

Frankenstein aka Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont, from the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Ian Holm, Tom Hulce, John Cleese. 123 minutes. ***

Other Versions and Sequels: Too many to list, including a large number of sequels to both the 1931 and 1957 versions, TV-movies, breakfast serials, sitcoms like The Munsters and parodies like Young Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

 

So, here we are, readying ourselves for the Father’s Day guilt-a-thon, and we decide to review  films retelling the tale of the worst of all dead-beat dads.  Great timing on this one Adam!

The 1931 Frankenstein is one of those films that became an integral part of every American childhood whether they had seen it or not.  Halloween was bombarded with it, kids played run away from the monster, and as Adam has pointed out, even our breakfasts digested it.  The images from the Whale version are iconic and yet soooo wrong.  Did any film version come close to capturing the look and feel of the novel?  Well yes and no, but that’s film in a nutshell.

To begin at the beginning, and I truly mean the beginning, The 1910 Frankenstein is a masterpiece of ingenuity.  The imagination used to create the images is amazing considering the youth of the medium.  However, storytelling has been around since man began to communicate and this doesn’t even come close to the story told in the book.  This version is a bad game of telephone played by children being deliberately vague.  It deserves its place in film history (as do the early Wizards of Oz films) for the mere fact of being the first, not for being a great film.

Then, we get to the 1931, James Whale directed Frankenstein.  Is this truly a great film? Not really.  Again, the story deviates vastly from the source, and much more attention is paid to the look than the plot. But, come on, lets face it.  Who is the face we place with the Creation? In this version we have the Doctor (hmm gives me an idea, but that can wait for another time) creating his child in front of an audience, just to prove himself sane.  Once he completes the task, he turns away in disgust and even joins in the quest to destroy the creature he created.  Why?  because he’s an irresponsible child, too spoiled to realize that he is the one who must take responsibility and care for this being.  His idea is to take the easy way out and destroy the evidence, thus ridding himself of all guilt.  Yea, bury the broken vase deep in the garbage and Mom will never notice.  Good job Herr Doktor!  Oh and spoiler alert,  All is well in the end.  Right!

The next on our list is the awful Hammer film The Curse of Frankenstein.  I feel that the makers of this film should have just said “Hey guys, we were told this story, but can’t really remember much , so we’re gonna make it up as we go.”  Here we have the names and some of the basics, but now we have Frankenstein as a rich orphan, set on creating life with no background motivation other than He wants to do it.  This guy is sleazy.  He has his way with a servant girl, all the time knowing he is going to marry his “cousin”. He not only rejects his creation, he actually imprisons the creature and trains it with torture.  Of course, in this film, he has no father to teach him how to be a Dad.  His father figure is busy being a friend to seemingly keep his cushy position.  After all, he was hired by the master to be his tutor giving him room and board and a salary (we assume) and this goes on past adulthood, would you easily give up that gig? Ok. so the creature gets loose, does the killing thing, is killed, resurrected and killed again.  Frankenstein the man is declared an insane murderer and supposedly sent to his death.  The end.  But this is about life eternal, so of course death(as in superhero comics) is never forever.  Thus , we have the sequels (or series) of the Hammer legacy.

The last film we watched for this essay was the 1994,  Kenneth Branagh directed/starring and scripted by Frank Darabont/Steph Lady.  This version heels the closest to the source material, actually including the pre and post creation scenes. I actually feel that this is the best of the films we viewed for these essays, but still a weak sister for all its pedigree.  While there is nothing  glaringly wrong with the film, it just doesn’t feel satisfying.  The look is right, the script good enough, even Branagh’s direction (mostly of himself) is not too far over the top to kill the feel.  But this film left me wanting another try.  The changes made didn’t weaken the story.  This was only the second time I had been exposed to an intelligent version of the creature on film. (I recommend seeing the TV movie Frankenstein the True Story to give a fair comparision).

Can Hollywood film this parable without overblowing it, or underplaying it?  This is a story that deserves a really great retelling, and the 20 year cycle is coming soon (see the filmography and dates of release).  Anybody wanna try that?


In which men travel the long hard road from purgatory to hell

The town almost looks clean, doesn’t it?

 

Most Audiences will ask, “Yes, but what’s it about?”

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Wages of Fear (aka Le Salaire de la Peur, 1953). Directed by Henri-George Clouzot. Screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jerome Geronomi, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Yves Montand and Charles Vanel. 131 minutes. ****

Sorcerer (1977). Directed by William Friedkin. Written by Walon Green, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Roy Scheider and Bruno Cremer.  121 minutes. *** 1/2

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, The Violent Road (1957),  directed by Howard W. Koch. Written by Richard H. Landau and Don Martin, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Brian Keith. 86 minutes.

*

Your life has not gone well. You have made every catastrophic decision you possibly could, found your options eliminated one by one, and in the bleak fullness of time found that your foolishness has exiled you to an existence that might as well be considered a cage.  Now you’re a penniless man without future or hope, eking out a hardscrabble existence in a filthy, poverty-stricken town on the wrong side of nowhere. Staying amounts to a living death. Leaving would cost more money than you could ever possibly make here.

You are not just stuck. You define stuck.

Then one day word arrives of a job opportunity that only a man condemned to these circumstances could possibly consider a godsend. There has been an accident at an oil well, a couple of hundred miles away. The well is burning out of control, and explosives are desperately needed to put the fire out. But the only available explosives are at a storage facility near you, and they’re so dangerously unstable that the slightest vibration could set them off. They’re too unstable to fly in. Somebody’s going to have to get behind the  wheel of a truck and drive them to where they need to be, across roads that nobody would ever travel, if they didn’t have to; single-lane roads of the sort common in countries limited by their poverty, that are rutted with potholes, washed out along sheer cliffs, flooded in low places, blocked by debris in others, marked by visibly unreliable bridges and switchbacks, and in every conceivable way a series of deathtraps even for vehicles in danger of blowing up at the first rough bump in the road.

Two trucks will be sent, each manned by two drivers working in shifts. The two vehicles will leave half an hour apart in case one blows up on the way. Which is more likely than not.

The job is virtual suicide. But in this town, you have nothing to live for anyway. If you die, chances are that you’ll never know it. And if you do manage to defy the odds and deliver the explosives with your skin intact, the payment will be enough money to provide you with the fresh start you need, anywhere in the world but here.

This is the premise of two existential thrillers, made a quarter of a century apart (and that third version produced in the interim, which is not within our power to describe). The first is widely considered a classic. So is the second, though it was critically reviled and commercially ignored upon its release and the laudatory verdict is held by a much smaller group of film fanatics who express their admiration in what amounts to open defiance of its undeniable historical status as a major bomb. (You can count this essayist, though – spoiler – emphatically not his wife, as among those who subscribe to the “near-masterpiece” camp.) Both films are harrowing and both follow the same essential plot structure, sharing a number of sequences in common.

But as similar as the two versions are, they’re also very different films, that place their emphases on very different (but equally valid) forms of storytelling. One is the two is all about character interaction, the other is all about the iconography of desperation.

The Wages of Fear (1953)

Though I’d seen both of these movies before, circumstances surrounding our efforts to watch them again for this essay led us to view Wages of Fear after Sorcerer, instead of before, which had a strange effect on the impact of the (very well made) original film: to wit, the opening circumstances of protagonist Mario (Montand) and his best friend Jo (Charles Vanel) are really not all that bad by comparison.

To be sure, both men are stuck in a tiny South American town where they live in poverty and work only intermittently, where it is next to impossible to earn the money they need to leave, but otherwise, they’re living lives. Mario has congenial conversations, friends, a bar he can sometimes trick into extending credit, a sexy local woman who adores him and comes to him on hands and knees despite the contempt he shows her in return; and days that may be boring but are otherwise not all that unpleasant.  The town is no tourist heaven, but neither is it the hellhole William Friedkin depicted a quarter-century later. It’s almost clean. Life seems bearable, if a little poor of options.

The main focus of the backstory is therefore not how awful the lives of these transient men have become, but on how men treat each other in general. When Jo arrives in town, a prosperous-looking individual with a criminal past who had to flee his prior home with little more than the clothes on his back, his big-shot demeanor and veneer of toughness immediately makes him a kind of father figure to Mario, who places their nascent friendship above the other local connections he’s forged. Jo is not above acting like a possessive and bullying wife to make Mario feel like spending time with anybody other than him – like his woman Linda (Vera Clouzot) or prior best friend Luigi (Folco Lulli) — like a betrayal. And Mario falls for it. The tug of war between his prior best friend and current best friend reaches such heights of petulance that it comes to resemble a clash between wife and mistress, a pattern the movie recognizes and exploits for comic effect.

(Incidentally, the tragic/comic italian Luigi resembles a certain well-known video game character. It’s a damn good thing for the current impact of the film that he and Mario never work together as plumbers.)

The simmering conflict approaches violence in a tense barroom showdown between Jo and Luigi, which Jo is able to win because he’s used to being a big shot back home and can still carry off the gravitas necessary to intimidate other men into backing down. Were it not for the approaching intervention of fate, this is a power he would eventually lose, whether by increments as the others around him came to realize that he was fueled with nothing more than hot air, or suddenly, the first time he came up against someone his attitude failed to intimidate.  As it is, the emptiness of his tough veneer is exposed after the oil fire begins and he finagles a position as one of the four drivers – soon exposing a cowardice that rapidly shatters the admiration Mario feels for him.

The result is a French Treasure of The Sierra Madre, contrasting the desperation of the mission the four drivers undertake with the disintegration of the one character who seemed to be the toughest. As a thriller, it’s entirely character-based. The driving sequences are tense, especially one involving a difficult switchback turn that, when I saw it in a theatre many years ago, caused hysterics in the audience when the entire crowd found itself gasping and hoarding breath in unison.  But it’s still the rapid deterioration of the relationship of Mario and Jo – a deeply tragic male love story, ending in tears  – that drives the story, and the hopeless, arbitrary twists of fate that make the story resonate.  The remake, as we shall see, jettisons all of this. Its characters barely know one another and are not subject to feelings of affection, or hero-worship, or betrayal. They just want the payday.

Of the two movies, The Wages of Fear also possesses the superior sense of humor. In both, the drivers find the road ahead completely blocked by an object too heavy to be moved – a fallen boulder in this film, a massive fallen log in the remake. In both they feel utterly defeated by the obstacle, and are ready to give up until one of them realizes that they are, after all, carrying explosives. (Duh.) In both films, they improvise a bomb out of available materials and blow the barrier to smithereens. But there the similarity ends. In The Wages of Fear,  the utter disintegration of the boulder is not just triumphant but hilarious; and the reaction of the men to the blackened scorch-mark on the ground is pretty much in line with what men in this situation would just naturally want to do after bending the landscape to their will. They rush up and, in unison, unzip their flies to pee on it. It’s a party, of sorts (to which Jo is not invited). These men are not beyond the urge to celebrate their little victories. By contrast, the men in Sorcerer greet the clear evidence of their cargo’s destructive power with unnerved silence. Maybe they’re thinking that a similar explosion can just as easily obliterate them. Or maybe they’ve already left such concepts as joy and celebration behind.

There is another key moment which is superior in this film to its equivalent in the remake: the explosion that claims one of the trucks. In Sorcerer,  we see the tire blowout that forces one of the vehicles off the road, setting off the unstable dynamite. In The Wages of Fear, the drivers of one truck just hear a distant rumble, and see the plume of smoke in the distance. No explanation is ever provided. It’s just something that happened, that might have been set off by nothing at all. It’s profoundly anticlimactic…and for just that reason, profoundly terrifying.

The Commercial Failure of Sorcerer (1977) 

Sorcerer seemed to have everything going for it, notably the involvement of a director whose most recent films, The French Connection and The Exorcist, were critical and box-office sensations in their respective years. (Both are still considered classics.) There was also a storyline that had worked spectacularly at least once before, a star then on the rise, and a budget that allowed filming on three continents. But it was damned by the historical moment, elliptical publicity, and a crappy title.

Why was it called Sorcerer, anyway? Well, that happened to be translation of the name painted on one of the trucks. And there was a thematic reason as well. William Friedkin explained, “The Sorcerer is an evil wizard and in this case the evil wizard is fate. The fact that somebody can walk out of their front door and a hurricane can take them away, an earthquake or something falling through the roof. And the idea that we don’t really have control over our own fates, neither our births nor our deaths, it’s something that has haunted me since I was intelligent enough to contemplate something like it.” All of this is defensible in an artistic sense, but questionable when it leads audiences to a complete misunderstanding of what the film is about. (Nor was that the last time in his career Friedkin pulled something like this; see the widespread belief that his subsequent movie Bug was about icky monsters, when it was actually a literate, and stage-bound, psychological thriller about a lonely woman whose lover gradually infects her with his delusionally paranoid world-view.The terrifying but intelligent thriller turned off audiences who went to see the nonexistent mutant bugs and kept away those who might have appreciated the story it actually had.)

In Sorcerer’s case, the prominent reminders of The Exorcist in the ads, combined with a title and ad campaign that offered audiences little clue regarding what the film was about, led to a general misapprehension that this was another venture into the uncanny.  So many people who wanted that walked out upset that they hadn’t seen magic, just a bunch of disreputable men at hard labor, that the newspaper ads soon started including the risible and ill-advised line, “Not a Film About The Supernatural,” which is less a come-on than a desperate disclaimer. Of those who saw it, few were in the mood to endorse its grimy subject matter, its despairing tone, and its downbeat ending.

Remakes were also less common, then, than they are now, and the general thinking among many critics was that they were inherently suspect when based on great films. I recall actual reviews from the time from critics who venerated The Wages of Fear  enough to excoriate Friedkin for his hubris. This was expressed as an entirely separate sentiment than any judgments of the actual movie. In some reviews I saw, back then, he was assaulted for even trying, even before the movie was discussed.

(Not so incidentally, a number of critics also established with their reviews that once they were actually in the theatre, watching, they didn’t bother paying much attention to the action on screen. I recall one major critic for a major publication complaining that the hiring of truck drivers made no sense, as it would be so much easier to just fly the explosives in by helicopter. He must have been dozing or in the bathroom during the scene that makes a point of explaining at length – seriously, at length – that a helicopter would not be suitable, as the unstable dynamite would certainly be set off by the pounding of the rotors. Seriously. It’s perfectly acceptable to criticize a movie for its plot holes, less so to invent plot holes which have already been carefully plugged.) 

Then there was the timing. Sorcerer had the terrible misfortune to come out at the same time as Star Wars, which took its spot as The ONE! MOVIE! THAT! EVERYBODY! NEEDED! TO! SEE! MULTIPLE TIMES! and immediately obliterated everything in its path. You can love Star Wars and its sequels, though emphatically not the prequels, as I do, and still believe that this was not a good thing. Even those of us who like Star Wars well enough have to agree that its impact on the state of moviemaking in our country was an artistic disaster. Together with Jaws and Rocky, Star Wars pretty much ended the era of grownup subject matter, complex characterizations and artistic experimentation that made the early 1970s a second golden age of American moviemaking, and turned the attention of the studios to a time of feel-good stories and so-called rollercoaster rides that gradually weaned the generations that followed away from anything at all challenging or uncompromising, to the point that many find actual mental participation in the movies they’re watching more than should be required of them. Screenwriter Josh Olson, an Academy Award nominee for A History Of Violence,  spoke for many lovers of great movies when he recently sighed about this turning point, wishing that Star Wars had failed (or at least been a smaller hit) and that Sorcerer had been the hit it might have been only a couple of years previously. In an alternate world, he said, that might have led to decades of challenging grownup movies that in our plane of existence either died in development hell or were, worse yet, never even conceived.

He’s not wrong about that. In a very real sense, Sorcerer was the last major film of the artistically-ambitious 1970s, and Star Wars the film that ushered in the high-concept 1980s.

Which is not to say that Sorcerer doesn’t have problems, some of which are inextricably linked to its strengths.

A Talent For Filth

Unlike The Wages Of Fear, which centers on the friendship of two men and derives much of its dramatic spine from the deterioration of their relationship, Sorcerer is about four drivers who barely know one another. A couple of them have shared a civil conversation or two but they are, for the most part, strangers cocooned by the past crimes that have brought them to this time and place. They are entirely separate nations, forced into alliance by shared circumstances. The result can seem remote in dramatic terms, especially since, prior to their embarkation on their deadly road trip, the film replaces any substantive interaction between them with squalor: lots and lots of squalor, establishing with a wealth of local visual detail that this village where they find themselves is the armpit of the world, and a living death for all of them.

Their circumstances are really far worse than in The Wages of Fear, where the men were able to interact as friends and Mario was able to enjoy – or at least, resentfully tolerate – the company of an ardent, beautiful local woman. In Sorcerer, the only local woman is a weather-beaten hag. And when Scheider wakes up in a flophouse also occupied by a dozen other unwashed men, and shuffles to the sink where his morning hygiene consists of taking a mouthful of water and then spitting it out, you know everything you need to know about why this guy who once wore a presentable suit and was never more than a full day from a shower would now seize the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a truck bearing a cargo of unstable explosives. There’s a lot of this, from clothing soaked with sweat to dirty faces that go without soap for days or weeks on end. Truly, you’d have to pick a movie like the original  Flight of the Phoenix or even Quest For Fire to find a movie whose protagonists are probably more odiferous than these. It’s enough to make the sensitive viewer grateful that Smellorama never caught on.

And that palpable stench extends to the entire town around them, a muddy and ramshackle purgatory where people trudge about, ankle-deep in crap. There’s also local corruption, in the form of cops who hassle illegal-alien Scheider and demand one-third of his pitiful earnings in perpetuity. He will never escape this trap. Now, I personally think the squalor tells us everything we really need to know about the motivations of everybody involved – just as we can probably guess the backstory of the pretty young bride in the New Jersey section of the prologue, who stands at the altar before all her friends and family sporting a sizeable black eye. (It’s a splendid example of a throwaway character who sustains the premise that even the people we see in passing have lives we cannot know). I feel that we’re given more than enough information. But your mileage may vary. And if you don’t feel that the images communicate everything they should, if you wish we got to know the inner lives of these desperate men through dialogue and character interaction, then you’re going to prefer The Wages of Fear and have trouble giving a damn about anything that happens in this one.

Another problem linked to one of the film’s strengths is the long series of opening vignettes establishing the criminal pasts of the  drivers: the disgraced businessman from Paris, the terrorist from Jerusalem, the holdup man played by Scheider who gets on the wrong side of the Jersey mob. This very well-made combination of prologues makes extensive use of location filming – and no doubt ate up much of its budget. But it takes up fully a fourth of the film, and diffuses its focus, telling us little we would not be able to figure out for ourselves, namely that these men are stuck in this craphole town and have no means of moving on. Again, the sequences are defensible, even masterful. And again, they’re also distancing. Critics and audiences largely hated them.

Among the things that are clearly better in this film? The explanation for the instability of the explosives does make a hell of a lot more sense here. In The Wages Of Fear, the oil company just happens to have a supply of liquid nitroglycerin which it just happens to store far from the well, with no contingency in place for transporting it anywhere useful. Nobody even finds this odd. In Sorcerer, the explosives are sticks of dynamite, which is perfectly safe when maintained properly and which sweats nitro when not. (This is a lesson a future generation of viewers would re-learn watching the sad fate of Dr. Arzt on Lost.) So Sorcerer has an explanation that actually goes along with the ramshackle nature of the entire enterprise. The dynamite was stored in a central location, by a company that saw no reason why it couldn’t be transported if needed. But somebody screwed up and failed to maintain it properly. Now these poor bastards have to live with it (or not).

The actual journey is even more nerve-wracking here than in The Wages Of Fear, for a number of reasons. Among them: the trucks here are not the well-maintained vehicles of the original, but ambulatory wrecks, salvaged for the occasion, and marked with rusted-out craters big enough to see daylight through. Also, the trucks cross rickety bridges that start to crumble under their weight, and (at the action high point), thanks to a wrong turn find themselves faced with the absolute last river crossing you ever want to encounter with or without a cargo of high explosives.

What follows is one of the most exciting sequences of the decade, a tour-de-force that is one of the greatest achievements of Friedkin’s career and that, all by itself, eclipses anything in the classic original film. I hate to bring up Star Wars again, but, really, this sequence impresses me more than any of the heroic deeds of Luke Skywalker.

 

That’s one rickety-ass bridge!

The Weighing Station

Wages of Fear, a superior drama and a classic of world cinema. Sorcerer, ditto, another take on the same basic story from a worthwhile different angle, that deserved to be recognized in its time. The Wages Of Fear has the edge, but both are deeply recommended.

***

And now, the wife pokes her head out of the sleeper cab…

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Wages of Fear (aka Le Salaire de la Peur, 1953). Directed by Henri-George Clouzot. Screenplay by Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jerome Geronomi, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Yves Montand and Charles Vanel. 131 minutes. ***

Sorcerer (1977). Directed by William Friedkin. Written by Walon Green, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Roy Scheider and Bruno Cremer.  121 minutes. *1/2

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, The Violent Road (1957),  directed by Howard W. Koch. Written by Richard H. Landau and Don Martin, from the novel by Georges Arnaud. Starring Brian Keith, 86 minutes.

Okay, folks, so what we have here are two versions of desperate men in trucks.  Isn’t this a current reality series?

Sorcerer is the newer, grittier (by grit I imply filth),  American language version of the two films.  I’m hoping that the fact that the novel was translated from French is the sole reason for this piss poor excuse of a film.  You have all the elements for greatness packaged here; great director , who can handle both action and dialogue; a leading man, with charisma, screen presence and skills; landscapes both evocative and eerie; and a story that can be universally understood.  Why then did this turn out to be such a downer?

I’ll Tell you why.  They forgot that the story was about human beings.  Men trying to survive despite the conditions forced on them and the fallibilities of their own souls.  Friedkin focused on the dirt and fear and totally forgot that these were living men with pasts, trying for futures.   These men existed in a cocoon of self loathing, that made this film more than just uncomfortable, but outright unbearable to watch.

However, on viewing the earlier French film, I actually breathed a sigh of relief.  Here we have all the elements once again, but this time the human element was actually preserved.

While I don’t agree with the characters, I at least can see that they are not cardboard cutouts just waiting for the next event to blow up.   These are flesh and blood people, with wants and desires, desperate to return to a semblance of the lives they once knew.  They make the best of the meager subsistence they have achieved and try to enjoy the little they have.  What happened to that in the 70’s version?

To wrap all this up: I recently watched a few minutes of Ice Road Truckers:Most Dangerous Roads, andcouldn’t help but be amazed by the bravery and bravado of these men and women. They are doing a dangerous and often thankless job, under often nasty conditions, but I keep asking myself why?  Some for the money, but many do it for the adrenaline rush.  Surviving the impossible is sexy.  Is this part of what people remember when claiming that these films are classics?  Not me.

I won’t be re-watching either of these films again.  Neither film hit my “wow” button, but at least the 1953 version had characters that were close to real human beings.