The night has a thousand eyes

Pub date May 10, 2011
SectionFilm Review

Cheap genre films targeted for the drive-in or grindhouse aside, very few truly independent features were made in the U.S. before the 1960s, and those that were made seldom found an audience. As a result, most were soon forgotten — in rare instances rediscovered decades later, like the recently restored docudramas On the Bowery (1957) and The Exiles (1961), about Skid Row denizens in New York City and Los Angeles. Foreign films had a tiny theatrical circuit (albeit usually playing in cut and dubbed form), experimental ones none at all.

It was predictable, then, that a movie straddling pretty much all the above categories should have found no welcoming niche in the complacent 1950s. Elliot Lavine’s latest retrospective of noir and noir-ish oldies at the Roxie Theater, “I Wake Up Dreaming 2011,” is subtitled “The Legendary and the Lost,” terms that both apply to the film that kicks off the two-week series.

To paraphrase recent San Francisco International Film Festival guest Christine Vachon, behind every independent feature there’s a war story. Dementia (1955) is a good example of one little film that fought and lost — on every front save artistically, and perhaps in posterity.

Even by today’s standards, with our greater tolerance for “dark” and arty material, it’s an unclassifiable, commercially doomed proposition: an hour-long B&W nightmare in which an unstable young woman wanders empty urban streets, bounces from pimp to john to jazz club, commits acts of violence (or maybe just hallucinates them), and at the end simply disappears into the cosmos. (The opening and closing shots actually are of starry infinite space.)

Oh, and there is no dialogue, just a score by noted American composer George Antheil that uses wordless vocals by Marni Nixon (who later secretly provided the vocals for the famous leading ladies of 1956’s The King and I, 1961’s West Side Story, and 1964’s My Fair Lady) as a sort of human theremin. This very curious amalgam of noir, avant-garde, lurid potboiler and silent expressionism at various times brings to mind everyone from Roger Corman to Roman Polanski and Maya Deren. It was the first and last film for John Parker, about whom very little is known — save that he must have been gravely disappointed by the long road Dementia took to nowhere. (He would have been even more disappointed had he known years later his associate producer and cast member Bruno VeSota claimed Parker didn’t know what he was doing, and that he himself did most of the writing and half the directing.)

Shot in 1953 Los Angeles, Dementia was asking for it on many levels, with content not only bizarre and uncommercial but often downright offensive by the standards of the era. Its paranoid, unpredictably mood-swinging heroine (Adrienne Barrett, billed only as “The Gamine” — not exactly the ideal description for this character) wanders alone through the city’s squalid underbelly. A flashback to her childhood — staged in a cemetery, with living-room furniture amid gravestones — reveals mom was a sluttish harpy killed by a boozed and abusive dad, who was then stabbed by guess who.

Handed over to a fat “Rich Man” (VeSota) by a slick sleazeball (Richard Barron as “The Evil One”) who picks her up on the street, she stabs him too, pushes him out a penthouse window, and saws off his hand when it won’t let go of a telltale necklace. Pursued by cops, she ducks into a club where the jivey sounds of Shorty Rogers and His Giants suddenly turn her into a sleek chanteuse (albeit one we don’t hear) alongside bongos and hopheads. All this is shot with considerable noirish panache by William C. Thompson, who as Ed Wood’s regular cinematographer made some completely ridiculous films (notably 1959’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, with its own atmospheric cemetery scenes) look much better than warranted.

Barely releasable at 61 minutes, the completed film then found that threadbare length was the least of its problems. Shown to a succession of censorial boards, it was repeatedly deemed too unhealthy for public viewing, prompting critiques like “indecent, inhuman, lacking in moral and spiritual values, could incite to crime” and “grist for the Communist mill.”

Finally after over two years and 11 screenings of different edits for New York State’s board, it was cleared with an “adults only” stamp. Double-billed with a documentary about Picasso in A Unique Program of Psychology and Art, advertised as “the first American Freudian film,” it opened on one 1955 Manhattan screen to little notice. (However Parker’s friend, the great, soon-to-be late director Preston Sturges did call it “a work of art,” strangely noting “it stirred my blood, purged my libido.”)

Two years later Parker’s producer sold the movie — now cut to 56 minutes, with pasted-on purple narration spoken in spookhouse tones by then-unknown Ed McMahon — for rerelease as Daughter of Horror. Again it flopped, although in 1958 it would gain pop culture footnote status when a clip was used as what the onscreen audience is watching when they’re attacked by amorphous sci-fi monster The Blob.

It was as Daughter that the movie started gaining a little admiration in recent years, getting a boost from Re/Search’s first Incredibly Strange Films volume and finally a DVD release (with both versions) from Kino. Taken as good, bad, or just daft, it remains unique.

Other highlights in the Roxie’s “Dreaming” program include Dementia‘s co-feature, Robert Siodmak’s terrific 1944 noir mystery Phantom Lady; actor director Robert Montgomery’s 1947 Mexican anti-holiday Ride the Pink Horse, a sort of hard-boiled cinematic Under the Volcano; and a number of exceedingly rare lesser-known titles. Certainly the campiest of them are contained on May 23’s bill: 1956’s The Violent Years, a girl-gang movie featuring the inimitable dialogue stylings of the aforementioned Mssr. Ed D. Wood, and Dance Hall Racket, an unbelievably amateurish 1953 cheapie whose stars are none other than pre-fame Lenny Bruce and his stripper wife Honey. Inspirational line: “Big deal! I kill a guy and that makes me a criminal?!” 


May 13–26

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF

(415) 863-1087