The Cinema of Cruelty: From Buñuel to Hitchcock

The Cinema of Cruelty: From Buñuel to Hitchcock

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ISBN-13: 9781611459111
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: 03/06/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 225
File size: 385 KB

About the Author

André Bazin was born in Angers, France, in 1918. Critic, theorist, essayist, and teacher, Bazin is, as Truffaut notes, “the most widely published and translated film critic outside of France.” Bazin’s work and writings have attracted an international audience of filmmakers, directors, and viewers. He passed away in 1958 at the age of forty.

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Erich von Stroheim

Born in Vienna in 1885, Stroheim died in 1957. He directed: Blind Husbands, The Devil's Passkey (1919); Foolish Wives (1921); Merry Go Round (1922); Greed (1923); The Merry Widow (1925); The Wedding March, The Honeymoon, Queen Kelly (1928); and Walking Down Broadway (1933), his only sound film.

Erich von Stroheim Form/Uniform, and Cruelty

The films of Erich von Stroheim rightfully belong to the critics and filmmakers of the post-World War I period. And his work cannot be well known by anyone who is unfamiliar with the last five years of silent films. Perhaps because it is more recent than that of Chaplin and Griffith, his work needs some time to acquire the objectivity bestowed upon it by retrospectives and historical criticism. Whether by coincidence, accident, or predestination, his films are among the most difficult to view today. His relatively short but brilliant oeuvre exists only in the memories of those who were dazzled by it at the time it was released, and in the respectful admiration they felt for him — an admiration shared by the present generation.

I am not old enough to have seen Stroheim's films when they were first shown, and this means that, when I write about him, I can never compensate for not having been on this cinematic road to Damascus.

We not only lack enough historical perspective and critical documentation to appreciate Stroheim but we are also dealing with a psychological complex unique in the annals of films. A kind of fear, a sacred horror, tacitly relegates him to the Hades of film history. Perhaps that is why it is so difficult to find — among the comments and testimonials of those he most influenced (such as Renoir) or those who most admired him — anything except wild superlatives and value judgments that one would be hard pressed to justify.

We all know how original his subjects and his own character were, as we know that he turned upside down the erotic themes on the screen at a time when Valentino was at the peak of his glory in America while a new art film was emerging in France. We can still glimpse something of these themes in Stroheim-the-actor that we admire today. But nonetheless we must ask ourselves if his importance does not lie in the audacity of his subject matter and the tyrannical violence that is always present in his films. It is therefore fairly difficult to understand the widespread influence he had — an influence which continues today. Because, ultimately, what is admirable about him is precisely the most inimitable portion of his work. If Chaplin has been influential, although less so than Stroheim, his influence comes almost exclusively from word of mouth. In his films when he does not appear as an actor one perceives ultimately the secrets of his style, his stage setting, and direction. Just as Chaplin is at the core of his work, which cannot be discussed without somehow explaining the character himself, Stroheim cannot remove himself from Foolish Wives and Greed, in which he has no acting part. If any work in film history, with the exception of Chaplin's, has attained the strictly exclusive expression of its creator, it is that of Erich von Stroheim. That is why studying his work will perhaps allow us to unmask a false aesthetic problem and resolve a critical paradox.

The paradox is this: an aesthetic revolution involving radical renovation in the formal design of the direction is often only the direct result of an actor's performance, of his basic need to express his inner feelings. The perfect example is still Chaplin. But if we are wrong in thinking that Chaplin invented nothing so far as directing is concerned, and that his film cutting did not involve any particular narrative aesthetic, it is nonetheless true that his importance can be considered to be secondary in this respect. With Chaplin, the actor has almost totally taken over the film. This does not mean, however, that the same holds true for all actors' films. It is simply that Chaplin's style, deriving from music halls and Mack Sennett, had already found its full expression in films made before Griffith. Editing supplied almost nothing. Another actor might need other resources, and Stroheim, working after Broken Blossoms (1919) and Intolerance (1916), found it difficult to express himself when faced with the rather strict laws of film editing. It was because of these laws and other formal film practices that Stroheim had to assert himself, just as he did with the scripts of the time.

To explain Stroheim's directing and staging we almost have to resort to an introductory psychoanalysis of his persona. Let's start by admitting that his work is dominated by sexual obsession and sadism, and that it develops under the aegis of violence and cruelty. The message we must look for in Greed or Foolish Wives, as in Intolerance, is simply of a social or moral thesis. It is a kind of one-track testimonial, a unique and selfsame affirmation of personality, a startling vision of the world seen through a prism colored by consciousness — or rather by the unconscious. For Stroheim, a film was merely the most efficient means of affirming his character and his relationships with others, particularly women. It is worth emphasizing here that Stroheim's message did not have much impact on the literature of his time, nor would it on today's. And it is obvious that Stroheim can be considered tame when compared to the many daring, psychological novels that have been published in the last fifty years. Yet we must refrain from believing that what is conventionally called "subject matter" enjoys, albeit potentially, an existence that is independent of the means of expression that render it perceptible to us. Stroheim would doubtless have been a mediocre writer, but his advent at a certain moment in film history and the actual choice of this particular art form make him equal to the greatest writers. The significance of a theme and the power of a subject are concomitant with the time of their appearance in relation to the history of the art form that sustains them, as well as with the evolution of genres, or styles. If we consider Stroheim as the Marquis de Sade of film, although his novel Paprika is not really innovative, the fact remains that the magnitude and originality of a work can, in the final analysis, be measured only by the art form to which it belongs.

Let me stop this aside and return to Stroheim's position in the cinema of his time. Griffith had reinvented films and taught the whole world the laws of editing. De Mille's The Cheat (1915) brought about a roughly comparable revolution to film acting. By using either theatrical or simplistic acting, he invented a kind of cinematic syntax to express emotion. After all, Chaplin — as much through his acting as through his narrative style — had taught us the cinematic value of ellipse and allusion. With him, screen artistry attained the sublime by what it did not show us. This was also the period when Valentino's erotic bel canto were the rage and when the feminine ideal of the vamp was soon to be imported from Germany. If an attempt is made to synthesize this aesthetic juncture it could be defined, with respect to its basis, by the triumph of the mythological star, crystallizing, as Malraux said, some powerful collective, unconscious instinct. With respect to style, it could be defined by the ultimate implantation of a specific screen language that was basically elliptical and symbolic. Griffith's great discovery was, in effect, having taught the cinema that it was not just capable of showing but of telling; not just reproducing, but describing. By analyzing reality through the isolation of a certain fragment outside of its context and by arranging such shots in a certain way in time, the camera was no longer restricted simply to recording a story. It created the story to its own advantage, which could not be simply grasped by photography.

The importance of Griffith and the discovery of editing is immeasurable. And Stroheim's films could not have the same meaning before or after Griffith. This language had to exist before its destruction could be called an improvement. But what is certain is that Stroheim's work appeared to be the negation of all the cinematic values of his time. He will return the cinema to its main function; he will have it relearn how to show. He assassinated rhetoric and language so that evidence might triumph; on the ashes of the ellipse and symbol, he will create a cinema of hyperbole and reality. Against the sociological myth of the star — an abstract hero, the ectoplasm of collective dreams — he will reaffirm the most peculiar embodiment of the actor, the monstrosity of the individual. If I had to characterize Stroheim's contribution in one phrase, however approximate, I would call it "a revolution of the concrete."

Thus we see that what Stroheim wanted to say on film was the very opposite of what the screen was able to express at that time. An actor to the point of exhibitionism, Stroheim wished first and foremost to show himself. His legendary taste for uniforms is the least important sign of this, yet the most expressive. Around this personality, whose particular originality contained a prodigious will to power, was organized the Stroheimian directing and staging — like concentric circles when a stone is thrown. It goes without saying that Stroheim's genius lies in the fact that his tyrannical pride did not lead him to seek the lion's share of close-ups, as was the foolish conceit of most film stars. If he reigns on screen it was not by the square foot but through the constraint whereby people or things resemble him or submit to his will. One cannot resemble ideas, and one can only reign over people; myths do not suffer when whipped; sadism needs human flesh and nerves; only thus can it triumph over our hearts. This explains the realism of Stroheim's direction and his use, which was revolutionary at the time, of natural sets, or at least faithfully reconstructed sets that had true dimensions. Orson Welles would later make use of the famous Stroheim ceilings. Stroheim did not ask his actors to convey feelings through acting, according to a vocabulary and syntax of gesture transposed to expressive ends. On the contrary, he asked them to reveal themselves as much as possible, to bare their features without shame. Nothing but the disorder of the human appearance should acquaint the audience with this interior world. Unfortunately, I have seen Greed only once. Despite the famous final sequence in the desert, the image that remains engraved in my memory is the unbearably erotic scene at the dentist. Let's not dwell on the Freudian symbol of the tooth that haunts the whole first part of the film, as does all the paraphernalia of the dentist's office that is used as a prelude to love. Since the young woman can no longer bear the pain of the drill, the surgeon puts her to sleep. Only her face emerges from the white cloth that protects her. It is at this point that the man is overwhelmed by uncontrollable desire. There is a kind of sexual fury that Stroheim does not justify by the logic of the situation (a defenseless woman), but by what he shows us of the heroine's face. He literally succeeds in photographing her sleep: we see the slight twitching of her skin, minute muscular movements; the nervous trembling of her lip or eyelid imperceptibly disturb a face on which we read drug-induced troubled dreams. The man's mounting desire (the camera shows us his face with the same indiscretion) is not intimated by the editing or even by his acting. If we participate, ad nauseam, in this scene it is due to a sort of carnal incantation that emanates from so much physical evidence. Stroheim's actors do not cry glycerine tears. Their eyes are not more of a mirror of the soul than are the pores of a perspiring skin.

Nothing of what I have said up to now would be totally incompatible with a classical conception of staging or directing. Stroheim would be merely an amazing scriptwriter and a director of first-rank actors if the cutting and the forms themselves of the narrative did not corroborate and complete the sense of these working methods. The professional vocabulary of film is unfortunately too poor and ambiguous. The terms "editing" and "cutting" indiscriminately conceal technical or aesthetic realities that are absolutely different. Therefore I must paraphrase, because of my inability to justify personal definitions. Before Stroheim, and even today, in ninety out of one hundred films, the unity of cinematic narrative was, and still remains, the "shot" in Griffith's style — a discontinuous analysis of reality. Stroheim also used close-ups and broke up a scene during the shooting. But the division that he made the event undergo, by force of circumstances, did not stem from the analytical laws of editing. If Stroheim's narrative could not, for obvious technical reasons, escape the discontinuity of shots, at least it was not based upon this discontinuity. But, on the contrary, what he was obviously looking for was the presence in space of simultaneous events and their interdependence on one another — not a logical subordination as with montage, but a physical, sensual, or material event. Stroheim is the creator of a virtually continuous cinematic narrative, tending toward permanent integration with all of space. Unfortunately the technical and aesthetic state of filmmaking at the time prevented him from perfecting this new cutting, for without knowing it, he was inventing what would later become the language of sound films. A "continuous" cutting is in fact inconceivable with a reality in which only visual images can be reproduced, excluding the reality of sound. The absence of sound leaves fatal lacunae in the narrative, lacunae that can only be filled by an appeal to the added symbolism of the acting or the editing. It was necessary to wait for sound and, among other discoveries (or rediscoveries), depth of field before directors could really refine the cutting as Stroheim envisioned it. This is what Renoir did, especially in The Rules of the Game (1939), where he managed to dissolve the idea of shots in a reality of liberated space. However, the appearance of sound was necessary to grant Stroheim the place which was rightfully his and which he deserved. He would have been the Griffith of sound films, but his message was only temporarily and partially understood. From time to time in a modern film we find a shot from Foolish Wives or Greed (for example, the ending of Manon by Clouzot, 1949). If there is a cinema of cruelty today, Stroheim invented it. But those who borrow an idea or a situation from him do not always know how to draw their inspiration from his technique. This is because this technique is perhaps more terrifying than his subjects. More professional courage and above all more imagination are needed to be faithful to Stroheim's narrative technique than are needed to draw inspiration from his themes. I can't really think of anyone beside Renoir who knew how to do it; but I also see Orson Welles's sequence shots as a continuation of Stroheim's narrative style. Almost everything that is really new in film in the last twenty years has some affinity with Stroheim's work. Even today he is largely misunderstood, but his message runs deep, and we keep seeing it resurface here and there. The time has not yet come when sound films cease to be under Griffith's domination and move on to Stroheim and Murnau.

(Ciné-Club-April 1949)

Stroheim Lost and Found (Dance of Death)

Those who remember Greed, Foolish Wives, and The Wedding March know that if films possess a remarkable actor in Stroheim, it is an understatement to say that films lost one of the world's greatest directors — perhaps the greatest after Chaplin. For Stroheim, the roles of actor and director were inseparable. Under the guidance of other directors, Stroheim lost his greatest originality, even as an actor. The character he is usually made to play nowadays is only the shadow of the one that rocked the film world in 1925. It is true that Stroheim had enough character to continue to be an astonishing actor — in spite of this loss of substance. But the fact is that since The Grand Illusion he has continued to bury himself in a more and more physically and morally stereotyped character, one who is opposite of the hero in Foolish Wives and The Wedding March. Whether playing the part of the international adventurer in Storm Over Lisbon (1944) or the Prussian officer in The Grand Illusion, Stroheim has obviously become softhearted. Beneath his terrible mask seamed with scars, the shaved head, behind the unsettling silence, behind the brutality with which he drinks a glass of liquor, a repressed and sometimes delicate sensitivity is hidden. And even when entrusted with a "bad guy" role, it never goes very far. The scriptwriter easily gets rid of him through a disgraceful suicide which reveals, in the final analysis, that the villain was not really very dangerous. Frozen in a certain attitude, and displaying the tics of his early roles, Stroheim in reality saw himself dispossessed, by those who used him, of what was the essence of his genius. The former Marquis de Sade of film is today most often only a bogeyman of detective films or a misunderstood softie.


Excerpted from "The Cinema of Cruelty"
by .
Copyright © 1979 Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1. Erich von Stroheim,
2. Carl Theodor Dreyer,
3. Preston Sturges,
4. Luis Buñuel,
5. Alfred Hitchcock,
6. Akira Kurosawa,

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