When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
THE CABINET OF CALIGARI (1962)

It’s May:  a time when degrees are bestowed.  It’s the season of commencement ceremonies.

Which reminds me of the first words I uttered as I graduated from film school in Los Angeles in 1980.  As it sank in that I finally had a bachelors of cinema in my hands, I — in true film lover from Atlanta style — raised my eyes heavenward and swore, “As God is my witness, I’ll never watch THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI again!!”

In my final semesters, it had seemed that any class on filmmaking would come to a moment when that 1919 German silent film would be shown.  And yes, the movie is interesting and worthy of historical denotation, but repeated screenings of 80+ minutes of Expressionist sets and stylized gestures, created to simulate the interior world of a mad person, can be a film student’s curse.  Seriously:  once you get it, you get it.

So far, I’ve stayed true to my graduation promise.  But during the intervening years, I have developed a thoughtful curiosity, an affection, and an admiration for the 1962, black-and-white CinemaScope film released by 20th Century-Fox called THE CABINET OF CALIGARI ( “Doctor” was dropped from the title) starring two great actors, Glynis Johns and Dan O’Herlihy.

By 1962 Hollywood has adjusted comfortably after the crash-and-burn of the Studio era.  [For more on the Hollywood Film Industry in the early 1960s, see my article in the parent website of this blog.]  By 1962, producers understood that movies could make revenue by multiple income streams (drive-in theater bookings, sales to TV, etc.), and creatives knew they weren’t going to starve.  Instead of the factory-like production line of the “Golden Age” Hollywood studio days, directors and actors could now relax by the pool between projects and wait for the phone to ring, unlike the days when studio moguls called the shots and actors were due at work at 6 a.m. six days a week, 50 weeks a year.

This film benefits from that atmosphere of relaxed experimentation and renewed careers endemic in Hollywood in 1962.  It could not have been made at any time before then.  This was the beginning of the contemporary Hollywood scene where big talent could work with small budgets, when there would be enough time lag between assignments that creatives didn’t dull the craft of their arts, but were ready to sink their teeth into a fresh assignment when their agents called.  And America and its culture machine had reached the point where taboo topics such as sex could be thoughtfully or not-so-thoughtfully approached.

The 1962 CALIGARI work has a then-radical opening:  after the Fox and CinemaScope logos comes the title of the film, then the first credit that arrives on screen is not for its stars, but for screenwriter Robert Bloch.  Next a credit for producer/director Roger Kay.  All titles are on black background.  Then a small light appears and grows larger, which reveals itself as an approaching tunnel exit as a car horn breaks the silence of the soundtrack.

Then the movie is off and running…albeit with a warped sense of time/space:  an almost fetishistic montage of various angles of the movie’s lead, Glynis Johns, and her sports car as they whiz up a non-specific highway to an unknown destination comprises what seems like an uncomfortably voyeuristic amount of screentime.  This perfectly sets you up for the rest of the film which has themes of fetishism, voyeurism, disorientation and discomfort:  essential ingredients for great horror movies.

The story that seems to present itself initially as a film in the genre of “motorist breaks down and goes to nearby mansion to ask for assistance…” quickly becomes a film of elliptical, almost Pinter-esque dialog and alternatingly graphic and lyrical imagery.

[ You might as well know now, there’s NO WAY I’ll divulge any spoilers. ]

Scriptwriter Robert Bloch had penned the novel PSYCHO which was the basis of the Hitchcock film; and PSYCHO‘s cinematographer, John L. Russell, filmed this CALIGARI film.  Cairo-born director Roger Kay made few feature films, but his early TV credits included THE TWILIGHT ZONE.  Surprisingly for a TV director, he used the widescreen format like a master, and some sequences were quite daring in concept and execution for 1962, such as handheld shots and photo montages that meld into live action.

And one shot really has my curiosity piqued:  the first shot of veteran English actress Estelle Winwood (who was almost 80 when this was filmed, and continued to be active in show business for 22 more years!) is a giant widescreen closeup of her talking mouth, with a heavy swath of lipstick across her lips.  A half-century earlier, Winwood had been the first actress to wear lipstick on the London stage.  Was the shot a tribute or a coincidence??

Doug / PostModern Joan

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