A PreCode Paralyzed Piranha: Walter Huston in A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931)

One of the many joys of attending a classic film festival such as the recent TCM Classic Film Festival, sometimes you get a chance to screen a film for the first time. When seeing a decades old film for the very first time, yet on the big screen, it’s like momentarily slipping back in time. I imagined what it may have been for audiences of the past.

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Recently at #TCMFF 2016, I experienced such a unique pleasure in screening William Wyler’s A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931). It’s a PreCode with such dark tones, that Czar of Noir Eddie Muller himself introduced this screening with a brief interview of Wyler’s son, David Wyler.

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The story takes place in a small fishing town, centered on the main character, Walter Huston as Seth Law. He’s a strong, mean, miserable son of a bitch. As low brow as that sounds, I’m underselling it. Seth’s wife has just died so he takes his son, Douglass Montgomery/Kent Douglass as Matt Law, to the local dive to get drunk. Initially we give him some slack in his aggressive handling of the situation, assuming temporary grief. Soon Seth’s true nature becomes clear as he cruelly berates his son to prove his manhood and by attempting to force him to drink heavily. Matt is uncomfortable and offended by his father’s behavior but not strong enough to stand up to him. In his aggression, the father openly manhandles women as he slings back shots then starts a violent brawl that finishes with Matt out cold.

In striking contrast to his father, Matt is a kind, gentle and handsome blond lad. Back home, Seth announces he will simply replace his wife with a mail-order bride of strong stock. He has plucked her from a simple description in a catalogue (in “Heart and Hand” magazine, selecting a 35-year-old, hard-working good cook named Ada Peterson); not unlike picking out the strongest draft horse for the farm. Calculated enough to know his son would make the more persuasive communicator, Seth tells Matt to write the letter. Matt gingerly approaches his domineering dad with a trade. Now that he’s older and there’s help on the way, he wants to branch out on his own. He’s never liked it there. And who could blame him?

On the day of the new bride’s arrival, Matt is unable to convince his father to ‘clean up’ to greet his betrothed. Instead, he treated it like any other day, went about his fishing business and left it up to Matt to welcome her. A true romantic. When a young, very attractive, slight wisp of a gal shows up at the door, Matt is confused.

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This nineteen year old is evidently not the Ada Peterson as advertised. Young Ruth Evans (Helen Chandler) explains that she came in her friend’s place because the original bride-to-be had already married another by his letter’s arrival. There is an instant chemistry between the two. She initially assumes Matt is her groom.

Reality comes crashing in soon enough after he explains the mix-up and Pops walks in. In his socially inept and jarring method, Seth inspects his new livestock with disapproval. Ruth begs for him to reconsider because she has no where else to go. Besides, if his son is so sweet, how bad can dad be, right? Ruth eventually convinces him to change his mind after he realizes his pretty new bride can provide assets that a housekeeper cannot. Now he inspects her with hungry eyes. She’s switched to deep regret. Apprehensive, she ponders her mistake yet reluctantly moves forward with the wedding. It’s clear that without someone to stand up to Seth, she is not strong enough, physically nor rhetorically, to persuade him otherwise.

At the wedding ceremony, a crowd of unruly, drunken locals align with Seth’s behavior yet widen her eyes to the grim future before her. She’s sunk. After the spectacle of ill manners, Seth approaches Ruth back at the house. He’s ready for bed time, looking at her like she’s a gazelle dinner at a lion den. She openly states she’s made a big mistake; she tries to talk him out of it. Her pleas fall flat on his ears. He wants his dinner and he doesn’t care if she doesn’t comply.

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Matt finally intervenes and a violent confrontation ensues. The fight ends with Matt assuming he’s accidentally killed his father. No such luck. The town doctor is called and he says Seth will likely never walk again. Ruth and Matt feel doomed and torn, trapped by an obligation to stay. Meanwhile, this tragedy and a bond of fear of Seth has only drawn them closer together.

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Seth is determined to grow stronger and defy the doctor’s diagnosis. He is more ruthless than ever before to assert his bullying power over his son and display his machismo to his young bride. It’s nighttime. An intense storm is brewing outside. Matt slips into Ruth’s room. She confides in him that she is too afraid to stay a moment longer. They plan to escape together.

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Seth, whose bed has been set up on the main floor downstairs for obvious reasons, picks up that something is going on. With paralyzed legs, he pulls himself off the bed and crawls along the floor towards the staircase. Slowly and surely, he drags his body up each spindle of each step, along the outside of the staircase. His strong and determined arms pull him up as he peers onto the second floor. There light coming from underneath Ruth’s door.

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Sitting on her bed, as Ruth and Matt find love and solace in each other’s arms, Matt attempts to convince her to stay until morning, after the storm settles down. Ruth expresses that she is too filled with fear to wait. Just then, Seth bursts in. What follows is a frightening, suspenseful explosion of violence, fear and a chase through a horrific stormy sea.

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I’ve never been so freaked out by a paralyzed cinematic figure before. When Walter Huston crawls and drags his way upstairs, you do not think of him as having the disadvantage in power. Not in the slightest. Instead, you are biting your nails and gripped by your own fears that his son Matt will meet his doom.

That’s how intense, strong and cruel he comes across. It also has an eery quality that reminded me heavily of Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) when you see them crawl in the muddy muck under the circus trailer, with knife clinched in teeth, to hunt down their deserving victim.

The violent explosion between Matt and Seth is indeed a nail-biter. Seth pulls his body around the room on the floor, posturing his body to block, shoving chests of drawers and beds around like they were kindling, and one-handedly throwing a chair down the stairs after Matt, knocking him out. Trust me, there is no handicap on Seth’s part.

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I won’t give up the exact ending but the climax is palatably intense, with Seth remaining a terrifying threat right up to the end. Walter Huston makes this role. In his PreCode days, he sometimes played a father figure, or a cop, but was a master as the villain. There is something about his presence. When he says something, you believe it. His face scrunches up in an evil snarl. He’s defiant, intimidating, menacing, with a confidence deep in his bones that comes across boldly on the screen. There are many great screen villains, but I guarantee you’ll never forget this one.

This was my contribution to The Great Villains Blogathon, hosted by those lovely blogging ladies Kristina of SPEAKEASY, Ruth of SILVER SCREENINGS and Karen of SHADOWS and SATIN, May 15-20.

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The Charming Psychopath of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

There are so many types of villains in the movies- mobsters, monsters, scoundrels, crooks, creeps, vixens, killers… and they come in all persuasions of evil, smarmy, spooky and scary. The variety of ‘bad guys’ reminds me of the scene in Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES (1974) when Harvey Korman as Hedy (err, that’s Hedley) Lamarr rounds up every nasty ne’er-do-well in the wild west. Check out this clip of:  “Boy Is He Strict” Video.

The Bandit needs no stinkin' badges. Along with Slim Pickins and Harvey Korman, we see villainry in western parody.

This bandit needs no stinkin’ badges. Along with Slim Pickins and Harvey Korman, we see villainry via the western parody.

A truly outstanding villain is pure cinema gold. Audiences root for the courageous and upstanding hero or heroine to save the day and we crave happy endings. But we clamor for a hard-fought battle of good vs. evil along the way. Let’s face it, the good-doer protagonist earns no glory without a truly heinous antagonist in equal measure of nasty.

When I think of all the memorable villains in film, I’m mesmorized by  the charming ones. There’s something fascinating about the hustle of a highly social persona who draws in his/her victims. There’s no need for lurking in dark shadows or ill manners when they lust the dance of enticement, right in the bright spotlight. Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) is a perfect example of this particular hybrid of the charming psychopath of the silver screen.

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The story takes place in a parallel universe of nazi-occupied France during World War II where a small troop of Americans, nicknamed the ‘Basterds’, seek to fulfill a heavy thirst of redemption against ‘nazi Jew hunters’ with a bloody vengeance. The year is 1941. We are introduced to their unique nicknames and fighting styles- like “the Bear Jew” who prefers bashing SS skulls with a baseball bat, or their other trademark of scalping nazis upon capture. When it comes to a universally known symbol of villainy, you can’t get much more iconically evil than the nazis.

Tarantino is known for a flair for violence in his filmmaking. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is no exception to this reputation and we see violence coming from both sides. This renegade band of soldiers’ gruesome approach to justice is an unorthodox secret weapon. Yet as vile as their violence may be, I can’t help but taste some sour but sweet satisfaction as the Basterds serve up their revenge on the nazis.

While there are many scenes depicting the plotting schemes of the Basterds to counteract the Third Reich’s occupation in France (including a grand plan to take down an entire movie house filled with members of the SS and Hitler himself), some of the most eery and disturbing moments come from Waltz’ portrayal as Landa.

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In this opening scene, we feel the extreme tension build when a dairy farmer and his family receives a visit from the nazis. Here we get an intimate introduction to the Landa method of the social predator. He starts in by following a strict adherence to formality of cordial manners. He initially speaks in their language (French) not his own (German), then later asks his permission to continue the rest of the discussion in English. He smiles warmly. He’s not just polite, he’s highly complimentary. He’s enjoying himself as he closely examines the farmer and his family, expectant that they should respond in kind like a neighbor dropping in. After this facade of politeness and respect, he firmly controls the conversation and the tone by painstakingly taking his time through every single step of an interrogation. The audience feels the mounting tension in pace with the farmer, Monsieur Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet).

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Landa continues his upper-hand by letting it be known to the cautious farmer that there’s absolutely nothing that he can hide from him- in ecsquisite detail as he lights his pipe. Cooly and calmly confident, Landa has complete control. He’s snared his victim into a corner. Swiftly, the Jewish family trapped under the floor boards is gunned down in a shower of bullets. One of the hunted has escaped through the crawlspace, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) is covered in mud as she runs for her very life across the open field in a John Ford-esque door frame shot. Landa has a clear shot within range, but he chooses to wait; holding his gaze upon her with his pointed gun without squeezing the trigger. He wants this moment to linger, then he calls out to her just to let her know he chose to savor in her horror. She flees but does she ever fully escape from his haunting threat? See a snippit of the scene here and note how the music adds to the emotional horror, as the strings reflect to the chaos and building tension.

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Like a cat that toys with the mouse, Landa loves the game. It’s not enough for him to catch and kill his victims, he desires to tease and play with the victims’ fears. It whets his appetite by manipulating them into their false sense of security by exhibiting his prowness for charm and social manners. He then turns the table as he eliminates any hope for his victim. But not before he takes little pauses to express child-like joy in watching them squirm. He literally cooes and squeals at times.

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In this scene, Shosanna finds herself in another horrific predicament. She’s now operating a local movie theater when a popular German actor/nazi officer has taken a shine to her. He insists that she tag along with him when he joins several SS officers at a local cafe, including Hans Landa. Reunited with her demon tormentor, the tension is nearly unbearable as she finds herself facing the exact same nazi that ruthlessly killed her family.

Yet again, he brings on the charm; showing off his intelligence, culture and appreciation for the ‘finer things’ via his joy for a special dessert. While he regales in his delectable desire for cream topping, she is barely holding it together. Of course she recognizes him instantly and hopes he doesn’t recognize her. The horrors of their last encounter is washing over her in contrast to each of his probing questions masked as superficial chit-chat. This excrutiating verbal dance can be seen in this Video clip.

THE ITALIAN JOB:

In yet another tense scene, the German actress/double agent Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) who is working with the ‘Basterds’ attends the premiere film screening for the grand plan of nazi destruction. She introduces Hans Landa to three of the ‘Basterds’ who are working undercover, as Italian filmmakers- Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) as a stuntman, and the other two, Sgt. Donny (Eli Roth) and PFC Omar (Omar Doom) as camera men. Playing with his food like a killer whale with a baby seal, Landa tosses them about and watches them squirm and flail in their awkward attempts to deceive him.

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The Basterds trio pretend to only speak Italian (eventhough they only know a few words between them) assuming the Colonel doesn’t know a single word. But this smooth killer is too slick. Not only does he speak fluent Italian but he further toys with them by asking them to repeat their names, as much as three times over- just to show he’s the one in charge of this ruse. When she lies to him about how she broke her ankle, he laughs hysterically to the point of making a scene. He knows her explanation is incredulous and he drives home that point, abundantly. Another controlling tactic. [See the clip here.]

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When Hans Landa methodically unveils Von Hammersmark’s  betrayal, he begins the hunt as before. At first he keeps his usual strict code of manners and formality. But he closes in faster this time. Less time spent enjoying the victim squirm. Just enough time to watch her slip into the shoe found earlier where nazis where gunned down in a basement pub (his confirmed evidence of her working with the Basterds). It’s not long before he leaps into his primal side. The beast is now unleashed. His dark side, which is ever-present but usually masked in a different method, is now completely exposed. He feels no need to play the game here- he goes straight for the kill. [See clip here. *Note profanity alert.]

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For any of you who have yet to have seen this film, I chose to only highlight a few scenes as opposed to a detailed synopsis of the full film, in order to focus on this unforgettable villain. But don’t worry, this nazi may have mastered serial killer charm, he also receives his own branding of justice and come-uppance in the end.

Christoph Waltz was relatively unknown to American audiences yet a seasoned actor of the stage before landing this part. It was this talented portrayal of Hans Landa that quickly turned him into an ‘overnight sensation’. He followed by working additional great roles, including partnering again with Tarantino as an atypical hero in DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012). He continues to be a fan favorite at the box office and has become a household name.

This was my contribution to THE VILLAIN BLOGATHON hosted by the lovely ladies at Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin, and Silver Screenings. Explore each of their blogs for complete listings of each day’s recaps (April 13-17) with fascinating contributors. Enjoy!

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