Tuesday, July 10, 2012

American Geeks and Russian (Black) Widows

I feel like I'm climbing Mt. Everest - 10 straight days of blogging and I still haven't caught up with all the films I've seen.

I saw two very different films which I'm grouping into a single post for expediency as well as the fact that greatly enjoyed both of them. 

In May, I saw Nightmare Alley at the Castro.  It was teamed on a double bill with Walter Hill's The Warriors which I skipped out on.

In June, I saw Elena at the Landmark Lumiere.

Nightmare Alley starring Tyrone Power; with Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray & Helen Walker; directed by Edmund Goulding; (1947)
Elena starring Nadezhda Markina & Andrey Smirnov; directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev; Russian with subtitles; (2011)


I wasn't familiar with Nightmare Alley prior to seeing it.  Tyrone Power plays Stan Carlisle, a man of dubious character who gets a job with a traveling carnival (carnies).  He quickly becomes the onstage assistant to Mademoiselle Zeena (Joan Blondell) who has a mind reading act with her offstage, alcoholic husband.  Zeena and her husband used to be a big time theater act until he started drinking.  Although the cause of his alcoholism is unspecified, Zeena makes clear she blames herself and as a result is loyal to her lush of a husband. 

Carlisle can't understand why Zeena would stick with a lush; especially when she knows the code used in their act to give appearnce of mind reading.  Many people have offered to buy the code from Zeena but is keeping the secret as a source of emergency money if needed.  Despite Carlisle's romantic interest, Zeena will not reveal the code. 

Carlisle also has a fascination with the circus geek which is a nice bit of foreshadowing.  For the uninitiated, a circus geek is a sideshow act where a guy bites the heads off live chickens.  Usually billed as a wildman or insane;  in Nightmare Alley, the unseen geek is a weird man who is avoided by the rest of the carnies.

While wooing Zeena for money, Carlisle also woos Molly (Coleen Gray), the daughter of the strongman (Mike Mazurki), for more reason more carnal.  Carlisle's life pivots on two accidents.  First, Carlisle accidentally poisons Zeena's husband by giving him wood alcohol to drink.  To continue the act, Zeena must teach Carlisle the code which goes down easier because Carlisle has continued to show romantic interest in her. 

Carlisle has also been making progress with Molly.  Unfortunately, after consummating their relationship, it is discovered by Molly's father and the rest of the circus who force the two into a shotgun marriage.  Carlisle is nothing if not ambitious.  He uses the marriage to his advantages; he and Molly leave the carnival for Chicago.  Carlisle teaches the code to Molly and they take Chicago by storm.

Not content to be a nightclub or theater act, Carlisle plans to use the code to convince wealthy people he can speak to the dead and scam them out of their fortunes.  Forming an uneasy alliance (and romance) with a shady psychiatrist (Helen Walker who has the best part in the film), a mark is targetted and all is set...except, Molly's conscience is getting the better of her.  Her part is to masquerade as the wealthy old man's long dead love.  Molly reveals the scam at a crucial moment which ruins the plan. 

The shrink quickly turns on Carlisle and he sends Molly back to the carnival.  Wanted by the police, Carlisle goes on the lam.  He hops the rails and pulls some small time scams but eventually turns to the bottle; much like Zeena's late husband.  Seeing a traveling carnival, Carlisle figures he can resurrect the act with another girl but the great man has fallen.  The carnival boss sees a drunk and offers Carlisle the only job fit for a drunk - the geek. 

I wish the film would have ended there but there is a contrived ending where Carlisle goes crazy after being the geek for awhile.  It turns out Molly works in the outfit and sees him.  Molly soothes him during one of his rampages and the film ends with a more ambiguous ending.  Has Carlisle turned the corner as a result of Molly's love and forgiveness or will Molly & Carlisle become Zeena and her husband?

Nightmare Alley sparkles with a highly entertaining plot featuring a particularly seedy depiction of the carnival subculture for its time.


Elena was entertaining in a different way.  Nadezhda Markina & Andrey Smirnov play Elena & Vladimir, a married couple.  Vladimir is a wealthy retiree; Elena is his second wife and about a decade or so younger.  Probably attractive in her youth, Elena is a few pounds overweight and decidely middle-aged.  Their marriage reflects their status at the time of their marriage.  Elena was a nurse caring for Vladimir when they met.  She still cares for him in a different.  They sleep in separate bedrooms (Vladimir in the master bedroom) and apart from a single sexual encounter, Elena is more of a housekeeper than wife.  Vladimir drives a luxury car to they gym, Elena takes a bus and transfers to a train to visit her son.

Both of them have children from their first marriage.  Elena's son is an unemployed ne'er-do-well with his son following in his own footsteps unless he turns to ganglife instead.  In the US, they'd be called poor white trash.  Elena supports his son's family by skimming off her household accounts.  Vlad keep tight control of the purse strings.

Vlad's daughter (nice performance by Elena Lyadova) is financially supported by her father and is a spoiled rich girl.  She is educated, estranged from her father and resentful of his wealth but not enough to reject the money.  Vlad's support of his daughter is a source of conflict between him & Elena because the two women do not like each other and Vlad refuses to give any money to Elena's son.  Vlad simply refuses to discuss the situation with his daughter and by extension draw any comparision to Elena's son.  He could simply say "it's my money"  but that expose the unequal status in their marriage to uncomfortable levels.  This conflict is more acute than usual because Elena's son is in need of immediate cash so that Elena's grandson can get into university and avoid compulsory military service (which seems to have negative connotations).

When Vlad has a heart attack and rewrites his will to leave most of his wealth to his daughter, Elena sees an opportunity right out of a noir film.  Familiar with the medication Vlad is taking, Elena can surreptitiously add another medication to Vlad's food/drink which is fatal in combination.  After some initial hesitancy due her conscience, Elena does the deed.

It is somewhat anticlimatic because Elena appears to be able to live with her actions which were done with her two grandson's future in mind.  Vlad's daughter will still receive a sizable inheritance so everything's fine...except for two things. 

What about Vlad?  Somewhat unlikeable, he still didn't deserved to be married.  Second, Elena's sacrifice probably won't make much of a difference.  Her eldest grandson looks to follow his father's unimpressive path which doesn't bode well for Elena's infant grandson.  In fact, I wonder how much Elena is to blame for her progenies' problem.  Blind to their faults and willing to commit murder to "help" them, the seemingly benevolent Elena hides the worst character flaws of all.

With long stretches of no dialog, Elena is a minimalist film lacking in the flourishes that noir would have had.  However, Elena covers the same psychological ground as the best noirs which is the malevolence present in all humans is barely contained beneath the surface.  In many ways, Elena is more effective and memorable for its minimalist approach.

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