Monday, 24 February 2014

Wheel of fortune... The Wheels of Chance (1922)

Whilst I’ve seen quite a few late-period British silent films, I’ve seen very little from the early twenties (not for want of trying). Director Harold M. Shaw’s version of HG Wells’ novel is a gentle social satire that entertains whilst leaving you reading through the lines for its author’s original intentions.

Never-the-less, this is a charming, well-made film that serves as a time-capsule travelogue of Sussex and Hampshire in the days when they were opened up to cycling free spirits yet to be crowded off the highway by motor cars and heavy goods vehicles.

George K. Arthur
George K. Arthur (later to feature in von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters as part of a long career) plays Hoopdriver, an assistant at draper’s shop who has planned a week of freedom on his new bicycle. The only problem is he hasn’t quite managed to learn how to ride it yet.

Meanwhile over in the select suburbs, a couple who are planning an altogether more elicit adventure. Jessie Milton (Olwen Roose) has been persuaded by her man-friend Bechamel (Gordon Parker) to travel with him down to his sister’s house in the Sussex town of Midhurst. Her domineering mother (Mabel Archdale) would never countenance such a venture – such things are not welcome in Surbiton - and so, the two skulk off on their bikes in the early hours…

A question of balance...
Hoopdriver wends his wobbly way through picturesque lanes devoid of motor traffic and Shaw works some excellent mobile shots of pastoral perambulation even as you marvel how he’s managed to get so far. Arthur does very well at nearly riding his bike: almost as difficult as deliberately playing a piano badly only rather more painful.

He chances across young Jessie and the two engage in a brief conversation – he’s impressed by her refinement: she’s no shop girl. He leaves her waiting for her male friend and a few minutes later encounters Bechamel angrily trying to fix a puncture, the young man offers to help and gets a hail of invective in response – a wonderful title card graphic hinting at the language used.

Jessie and the bounder Bechamel
Hoopdriver reaches Midhurst and books himself into the hotel only to find that the couple have also arrived there. But all is not quite as it seems…

We already suspect the man is a bounder but the full extent of Bechamel’s caddishness is soon exposed as, after re-joining Jessie, he reveals that his line about his sister was a lie and that he has booked them into an hotel as man and wife! This is shameful… "You are mine! Netted and caught - but mine!”

Meanwhile Mrs Milton has noticed Jessie’s disappearance and sets off in pursuit accompanied by three male friends who are eager to please the comfortably off widow. The portly Widgery (Judd Green) leads the way on his bike whilst the cadaverous Dangle (Wallace Bosco) and monocled Phipps (Clifford Marle) stay in close attendance with the distressed mother.

Wallace Bosco, Clifford Marle, Mabel Archdale and Judd Green
Once Bechamel has revealed his full awfulness, Jessie looks for an escape. There are no more trains to anywhere and she decides that Hoopdriver is her only hope… persuading him to help her escape on their bikes whilst Bechamel awaits her surrender. They fly off just as Dangle arrives… the chase is on.

Jessie decides that she wants to continue her adventure and to free herself of her middle class shackles and, instinctively trusting Hoopdriver, she asks him to go with her. The young man is flattered and decides to paint an improved picture of himself, inventing a more impressive persona as Chris Carrington, colonial diamond mine owner who is considering standing for “Parleyment”…

The game's up!
They stay on the road to Fareham unaware that they are being pursued and that Widgery has guessed at their direction sending the others ahead by train whilst he follows by bike. The Surbiton party spots them and Phipps gives chase on a horse and trap. Unfortunately his control of both cart and horse means that having caught up he cannot stop… Jessie realises what is happening and the couple divert to Winchester.

The Wheels of Chance gives very good countryside and we are treated to lovely views of Hampshire and Sussex roads as well as the towns and villages – on through the tiny village of Wallenstock to Chichester.

Hampshire haven...
But the relationship between “Chris” and Jessie is perhaps not developed enough and there are only occasional hints of Hoopdrivers’ social awkwardness as Jessie notices his habit of almost waiting on her… he doesn’t have the right bearing for a diamond miner.

Jessie’s break for freedom is also never fully explained but then perhaps that’s the point: she’s a polite rebel without a cause… just in need of distraction.

No spoilers…  I won’t give away the ending as it’s less predictable than you might expect: this is more Ringwood than Hollywood.

George K Arthur is the stand-out performer investing Hoopdriver with a peculiarly-British mild heroism that sees him engage in slap-dash fist-cuffs in order to defend Jessie’s honour. He never gives up even though his self-confidence is defined by his position but maybe this adventure will ultimately give him a new direction.

 The Wheels of Chance is occasionally screened round London and the print I saw could do with a clean-up and digital release… but there’s a long queue for that.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The lost world… Merton of the Movies (1924)

"This is such a good picture that we intend seeing it again at the first opportunity we have."
New York Times, September 8, 1924

Recent research from the Library of Congress has concluded that up to 75% of American films made before the advent of sound have been lost. How much does this add to the allure of silent film and do we count ourselves especially lucky to be able to watch that which survives? There’s no way of knowing how many classic have been dumped and whether what remains is almost by definition the best, the most watched and the most cherished? But, without doubt, many great films will never be seen again and many entertaining films that might have added to our appreciation of the period and its entertainments.

Aside from bemoan their loss, what can we actually do about non-extant films? Maybe the answer is to try and put them in context and to try and give them some kind of existence in memory.

Maybe, like Bradbury’s characters in Fahrenheit 451, we should all task ourselves with committing to memory at least one silent film so that it lives on in some way… maybe by drawing together the available information we can somehow resurrect them at least enough to catch a glimpse of what might-have-been and what actually-was…

Viola Dana and Glenn Hunter
Merton of the Movies is a lost film from 1924 directed by James Cruze, starring Glenn Hunter (who had earlier featured in Smilin' Through) and Viola Dana (star of many dozens of films from 1910 onwards including Children of Eve)  and which enjoyed some success being nominated as one of the top ten films of the year by the New York Times.

It was based on a 1919 book written by Harry Leon Wilson who also wrote The Ruggles of Red Gap which was later turned into a film starring Charles Laughton... In 1922, the book was adapted into a Broadway play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly and a tie-in novel was published including stills from that production.

My copy of the 1922 edition, issued to tie in with the play's success: thanks Mary!
My friend Mary found a copy for 75c in a bookstore near where she lives in Santa Barbara and kindly sent it to me knowing it would be just my cup of tea. So now, ladies and gentlemen, I am able to re-tell the story of the book that led to the play and then onto the film and let your imaginations fill in the rest with the aid of the few shots that remain…

The book begins with some very dense, florid prose as cowboy Buck Benson does battle with one Snake le Vasquez for the honour of city girl Estelle St. Clair… you wonder if this is just aged creaky style but its Wilson’s post-modern humour poking fun at not just the movies but also our dreamy devotion to them.

Buck confronts Snake le Vasquez
 The participants turn out to be two showroom dummies and one stock room one: Merton Gill (Glenn Hunter) who whiles away his working hours daydreaming of being a western film star. He is employed by Mr Gashwiler (Charles Sellon) at his general store and is saving every penny for his big chance in Hollywood.

Merton has an ally in Tessie Kearns (Gale Henry) who writes scenarios in her spare time – none yet published – as well as accompanying Merton on frequent trips to the local movie house. He worships BB the star of dramatic serials and rather looks down on the slapstick shorts served on the undercard: real drama was worth more than laughter.

Soon Merton heads off to chance his hand with his savings and the promise of his old job back if things don’t work out - Mr Gashwiler obviously seeing nothing much to lose in the extension of such generosity…

Merton finds room and board and begins a daily routine of looking for work as an extra at the Holden Studios where BB films her serials… part-stalker, part-dreamer, you wish Merton the best but you’re not convinced he’ll get very far.

Flips buys Merton a square meal (image thanks to Jay Parrino...)
He encounters others on the fringes of the business including Mr. Montague (Charles Ogle) and his daughter Sally – nicknamed “Flips” (Viola Dana) who seems to have a finger in every pie and to know everybody and everything. Merton decides he doesn’t like her “frivolity” he prefers that movies are taken more seriously.

Wilson’s construction of cohesive inner dialogue for Merton is expert and you wonder how this could ever be translated onto the silent screen – a voice-over would help explain the young man’s nativity and an earnestness that blinds him to neuro-typical responses almost throughout the whole book.

Flips sees something in him and she persuades slapstick specialist  Jeff Baird (DeWitt Jennings) that his unflinching seriousness will have hilarious results when placed in the context of the latter’s silly comedies. Young Merton also bears more than a passing resemblance to  Harold Parmalee (Elliott Rothe), a successful and serious dramatic actor.

The formidable Flips
So it is that Merton gets into the movies thinking that he’s filming the start of a new serious strain of from the joker and his wobble-eyed cast (any resemblance to Ben Turpin is entirely deliberate…). But it’s vital that in order to be the joke, Merton mustn’t get the joke and Wilson works very hard to enable Baird’s hood-winking to succeed. His every improvised excuse for how things look is rapidly assimilated as justification for some of the extremes Merton must endure.

Things go well but Flips worries about how he’ll react when he discovers the truth… in spite of it all she’s going soft on the guy.

But Bairns thinks only good can come from being successful and even laughter is better than no applause at all… He rushes Merton into his next feature and aims to complete that before the cat is let out of the bag.

No spoilers… you can’t see the film but you really should read the book! There’s also a remake featuring Red Skelton in 1947 but it’s also fair to say that Show People owes more than a little to Merton.

Merton is so well-informed about the movies, how they’re made and how the effort in front of the camera can only truly be appreciated once all of the editing, cutting and post-production has been completed. Merton’s nights on the lot show evidence of Wilson’s depth of research and it’s especially fascinating to get a glimpse of the production process. Most of all, the attitude of the film-makers to what was already a massively successful business, is so revealing: the clichés were already in place probably a decade before the book was written.

Glenn Hunter in the play
The play was a huge success and Glenn Hunter had starred in one of the touring products. You can imagine he’d do very well in this role but Photoplay thought Charlie Ray would have been better. The New York Times was rather more enthused:

"Mr. Hunter's performance is all that could be wished. He makes Merton wistful and hopeful... While he is pathetic, he is persistent, and his frowns and smiles, his puffed-out chest and speaking eyebrows keep one constantly interested, and often stir one to hilarity."

Glenn Hunter as Merton as Buck
The Times described Viola Dana as splendid and you can imagine how she’d cope very well with the wise-cracking Flips, always addressing life on the balls of her feet – up for anything!

Ultimately, it’s hard to do anything other than imagine which bits of the 335 page novel would have informed the film and perhaps the play might provide a closer fit (it’s downloadable from the Internet Archive). But the book, as all source materials, stands on its own right and is stillavailable from Amazon. Second hand copies are also on eBay, later editions without dust-jackets are quite affordable, but a mint copy of the first edition could set you back over $2,000.

Maybe one day the celluloid will be found… it’s a slim chance but every so often, cinematic dreams do come true as Merton himself would attest.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

No school like old school… College (1927)/ The Electric House (1922) BFI with Costas Fotopoulos

It’s taken me a little while to make it to the BFI’s Buster Keaton season but I picked a good combination in his 1927 feature College supported by 1922’s The Electric House or, as the BFI’s booking office screen briefly had it, The Electric Horse

Both films felt fresh and if you’re looking for an un-guarded, un-contextualised, reflex-reaction to a 90-year old film, Buster can provide it: tonight we were grinning like it was 1927…

Buster is arguably the most timeless of all silent comics because, whilst he takes risks like Lloyd and has the grace of Chaplin, he underplays with such measured restraint: you want him to react and by talking everything in his stride he lets you in on the joke in a very genuine and naturalistic way. Against the artificiality of the films is balanced the real danger of the stunts – he broke his ankle in The Electric House –  yet he’s always true to himself and he doesn’t hide the seriousness in his work. This diligence and invention is still capable of surprising the most cynical of cinephiles and we were rewarded with many laugh-out-loud moments.

Ronald sways from left to right...
Directed by James W. Horne and Buster Keaton from a story by Bryan Foy and Carl Harbaugh, College tells the tale of the bookish Ronald (Buster) who follows his sweetheart, Mary (Anne Cornwall) to college in order to show her he’s as much an athlete as an aesthete.

He wins the school prize and gives a speech decrying the “Curse of the Athlete” as it makes fellows forget to learn as they concentrate on physicality. Unfortunately Ronald’s suit is shrinking before his audience’s eyes after he was soaked in a rain shower, and as the audience bays in disgust at his words, they laugh their heads off as he tries to hide his diminishing clothes. It’s a rip-roaring start and the pace hardly lets up through the rest of the film.

Mary is shocked and Jeff gets mad...
Mary tears a strip off Ronald for his narrow-mindedness and goes off with Jeff (Harold Goodwin) – one of the jocks. Worse still, they are both headed for Clayton College an expensive but un-academic institution that thrives on sports. Determined to win Mary back, Ronald changes course and heads off to Clayton with a bag packed with sporting gear he has no idea how to use.

Naturally Ronald begins to fit in like a square peg as we see him trying out for the baseball team and then the athletics squad making a wonderful mess of sprinting, shot put, hurdles and high jump. Mary admires his spirit but despairs of his co-ordination… she seems stuck with Jeff as Ronald is seen to be thrown by his own hammer and barely clears the pole let alone the vault.

The hammer throws the thrower
Meanwhile Ronald has a couple of unsuccessful jobs as a soda jerk who is too jerky and a black waiter… best to draw a veil over that.

We’re hoping for some kind of redemption for Ronald and he may find it through the Dean (Snitz Edwards). Initially delighted to find this academic high-achiever had chosen his sports-obsessed college the Dean is appalled at Ronald’s low marks but, when the young man confesses the reasons, a chord is struck for once the Dean had had to make the same decision and played safe… and sour.

He orders the coach to give him a chance as cox on the college rowing team because “he’s got brains”. The coach attempts to drug Ronald but he swaps his cup with the preferred coxswain and there’s no other option as Clayton’s eight face the most significant contest in their history.

Jeff steps over the line... as the crew take issue with their new cox
Meanwhile, Jeff has been expelled and locks Mary in her room knowing that if he’s found there she will also have her place terminated: he wants to force her into marriage.

No spoilers… Can Ronald redeem himself and save the girl? All plays out in a breathless final ten minutes which allows Keaton to finally show us how fast he can run, jump and think! And there’s a coda which is a surreal take on the usual ending… to be believed it has to be seen!

As my wife observed, just like Mary we admire Ronald’s heroic failure to ever give up – he just keeps on going and you’re rooting for him all the way, laughing with and not at: in Buster we trust.

There’s an academic start also to The Electric House as Buster lines up on graduation day to collect his degree in botany only to be given a colleague’s certificate in electronics.

He’s given the job of wiring up an advanced modern house by a family who depart on vacation leaving him with only a book on electronics to help.

On their return we fear the worst but, initially it seems like Buster has done a good job as he demonstrates a moving staircase which moves smoothly enough but perhaps a bit too fast as it launches the master of the house out of the landing window and into the swimming pool.

By and large Buster’s automations appear to work well, the mobile bath, the automated book selection in the library and the billiard table that re-sets itself. There is some trouble with the mini-railway that delivers the food to the dining table but that’s only because Buster accidentally re-lays the rails pointing towards the lady of the house… dinner is swerved!

But then the man who should have got the electronics degree turns up eager to revenge himself on the man who stole his honours degree… and things go a lot haywire.

The Electric House packs a lot of invention into its twenty minutes: all perfectly arranged by its director and star.

Costas Fotopoulos provided energetic accompaniment to both films that matched Buster’s every slip, trip and fall. Playing for comic effect must be a rare treat for the improvising musician and, as with all humour, the timing has to be spot on. It was.

For home viewing College is now available on Blu-ray in the US from Kino Lorber. The Electric House is available as part of the Buster Keaton The Complete Short Films collection, readily available from Movie Mail.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Old Clayface is back… The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)

Much has been written about the impact of the Great War on European cinema in general and its impact on the “losers” in particular. With death affecting almost everyone there was an interest in the mystical as a grieving audience looked for deeper meaning yet there was also a willingness to be entertained by horror safely isolated on the screen?

As Lotte Eisner wrote in The Haunted Screen: “mysticism and magic, the dark forces to which Germans have always been more than willing to commit themselves, had flourished in the face of death on the battlefields…”

Yet, in placing Paul Wegener’s Der Golem in the context of post-war cinema it must be remembered that it was not only the co-director and writer’s third go at the subject, with the first being made in 1914, but that his interest dated back at least to his location shooting of The Student of Prague in 1913. In Prague he studied the legend of Rabbi Loew who was reputed to have constructed a golem to protect the Jews from oppression in sixteenth century. Leow’s body is still buried in the cemetery in which they filmed part of Student… still one of the most haunting pictures of the period and due a re-release from Edition FilmMuseum very soon.

Then there is the Jewish question, always a loaded one in Germany as the story itself highlights when the King of Prague issues his “Decree against the Jews”, asking for them to quit their ghetto and leave in penitence for their ongoing guilt at having killed Jesus, aggressive self-propagating financial dealings and their practice of the darker arts of necromancy.

Wegener said that Poelizig's set was "a poem of a city"
Paul Wegener wasn’t Jewish, and there’s no overt anti-Semitism in Der Golem, but the characters are certainly stereotypical and even the Ghetto shapes up in anthropomorphic imitation of the culture and attitude… Then again the members of the Emperor’s court are no less caricatures of nobility: this is a fairy tale.

Together with co-director Carl Boese, set designer Hans Poelzig and cinematographer Karl Freund, Wegener created one of the cornerstones of Weimar cinema: something on a par with Caligari which became one of the most influential horror films in history.  Wegener subsequently denied any deliberate attempt to make an “expressionist” film but… it certainly has many of the hallmarks: brilliantly designed, lit and photographed.

I’d almost written off Der Golem after having only watched murky black and white excerpts but, having now seen the re-mastered 2003 version complete with crystal clear colour tinting and cleaned up frames, you can’t fail to be impressed by the style and substance.

The world created is closer to our own reality than Caligari and yet the skylines are stretched to extremes, houses are almost grown organically around their inhabitants and the whole set reflects the feelings of those huddled behind the walls.

Are the stars out tonight?
It begins with a mix of magic and magnification as Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück) scans the stars for portends: he’s a science-priest who mixes the arcane with astronomy to look after his people and to influence their destiny. He sees catastrophe ahead and is busy making plans moulding a golem from clay who will, with the right incantations and calls to the necessary demons, become a living super being able to defend the Jews from all threats.

He has an apprentice, the sly Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) who has eyes for his daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova who, fact fans, was married to Mr Wegener on two separate occasions)… and he might get lucky as she seems game.

Poelizig's organic designs: spot the spiral staircase?
But events are about to take the turn Loew feared as Emperor Luhois (Otto Gebühr) writes his anti-semitic instructions and tasks gallant Knight Florian (Lothar Müthel) to deliver the message. We see his pride in serving his ruler as he bounces towards his horse, through splendid palace gates and to the forbidding, high-walls, of the Ghetto where, flower jauntily in mouth, he has to wait for the gatekeeper to unlock the massive wooden doors…

The ultimatum is delivered to the Jewish leader, Rabbi Jehuda (Hans Stürm) who immediately confers with Loew: what can they do?

The eyes of the beholders
Meanwhile the mischievous Miriam has caught the eye of the young Florian and he has seen her too...

Loew plays for time and asks for an audience with the Emperor… he plans to take a special guest. Off he goes to complete his molding of his Golem, plastering clay over an unformed face as hard as he can. Then comes the moment when he must bring his creation to life… He draws a smoking circle around himself and summons up the demon Astaroth who utters the word he must use to complete the magic by writing it on a slip of parchment and enclosing it in a star which, when attached to the Golem’s chest will animate the clay. But, if removed, the life will drain away and the Golem reduced back to mere clay…

Off to the city
There follows a sequence in which Golem goes shopping and helps with the daily chores. Wegener is suitably imposing as the hunk of clay and yet there’s a child-like surprise at this new life he’s woken up to. When Loew takes him to the city, you expect no danger even when the locals recoil. He is presented to the Emperor and his chamber and once the commotion dies down and all are convinced of his good nature the Rabbi is encouraged to show more of his magic. He projects images of the exodus and the Wandering Jew on the walls of the throne room but when the court get the giggles and even the emperor starts laughing the figures start to move towards them and the ceiling starts to crumble…

Golem saves the court
Loew manages to switch of his projection and gets Golem to hold up the roof, thereby saving the royal family and earning his people a pardon. Mission accomplished…or is it?

Meanwhile… Florian and Miriam had used this occasion to meet in secret and the camera cuts back to their post-coital bliss in Miriam’s room… will there be a price to pay?

Florian and Miriam
Back in his workshop Loew discovers a darker side to Golem as he discovers that a change in the alignment of the stars will bring about an unpleasant shift in the creature’s personality: he will start to do the bidding of the evil Astaroth. Loew just about grabs the star in time to de-activate the Golem…

And, that would be that were it not for the imperfections of the human heart as Famulus re-animates the Golem and orders him to remove Florian. All hell breaks lose…

No spoilers… Der Golem has a more detailed and inherently logical dramatic arc than Caligari without the latter’s raw impact. It’s less overtly experimental but the overall look and feel is as expressionist – just on a bigger budget allowing for the construction of wonderfully lob-sided walls, roads and rooftops. Wegener succeeds in creating an holistic logic in this alternative Prague and one that resonates clearly with everyday passions.

Albert Steinrück
Albert Steinrück is the moral foundation as the well intentioned Rabbi whilst the love triangle is well performed by all three corners. But it is Paul Wegener who gives the film true heart as the monster who begins to develop thoughts and morality even in spite of the influences of evil. The scene when he meets the children playing outside the ghetto is especially well-handled and I’m sure James Whale was watching…

The Kino DVD seems to be the best quality version and comes complete with those wonderful tints and a super score from the late Aljoscha Zimmermann which moves along with the action with impact and grace. The Eureka DVD appears to be from the same source and is also worth checking out - it's available from MovieMail.

Wegener’s first Golem is still extant and there are excerpts available on YouTube… der Golem looks very much the same as five years later.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Past train to Memphis… Mystery Train (1989)

There’s something about Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train that perfectly captures the feeling of dislocation fractious travellers can get when visiting even their favourite places. My wife thinks we saw this in our first holiday as a couple - Barcelona (surely that was Sullivan’s Travels, Crimes and Misdemeanours and Lawrence of Arabia?) or possibly our second, in Italy, but I’m thinking it was on home turf: yet it’s the feeling of “the holiday”, of late night rambling in search of a hotel, down darkly-shaded unknown streets… that’s what we remember in this film, not specifically the where.

In the first part of this inter-connected triptych a young Japanese couple, Mitsuko (Youki Kudoh) and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) try to align their feelings on their first big holiday abroad. Mitsuko is openly excited about the prospect of seeing Graceland whilst Jun is cool, claiming to prefer Carl Perkins in the time-honoured way of all 18-year old hipsters the world over: pick your own smaller niche and avoid the obvious… bit of a mistake to head for The Kingdom of Memphis then.

Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase
But Jun is also trying to impress Mitsuko and this trip is clearly early in their relationship – they are still looking to find the common ground in those awkward hours between their natural sexual connections,   

Far From Yokohama features the couple arriving in Memphis and their disparate attempts to experience the place and themselves….on a blues pilgrimage will they establish enough common ground set alone, apart from family, friends and location in Yokohama. That’s what our holiday’s as young couples all reveal.

Mitsuko and Jun chance upon the Arcade Hotel - a run-down establishment off the beaten track as they head from Sun Studios through avenues of rust and distressed plastic fascia’s that once trumpeted the best new music and the biggest movies… all gone now, but providing atmospheric reminders of the transience of architectural ambition.

They are greeted by the concierge, a rather splendidly attired Screaming Jay Hawkins and his bell boy (Cinqué Lee – brother of Spike) who rent them a double for $22. There’s no TV just a portrait of Elvis and an ancient radio.

The couple make young love and then fall apart and into a deep sleep… They are wakened in the early hours by the sound of Roy Orbison. The DJ (Tom Waits with the gravel turned on full…) who announces Elvis’ supernatural cover of Blue Moon from his early Sun sessions… strange things can happen around music like this….

A gun shot is heard and they quickly make their exit…

Nicoletta Braschi
The next story, called A Ghost, features an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) stranded in the city overnight, as she waits to ship her husband’s dead body back to Rome. Braschi’s probably the most engaging character in the film and takes everything in her stride; reactions numbed by grief or just calm and collected?

She gets hassled by some of the locals who feed her a line about seeing the ghost of Elvis and then circle around with evil on their minds. She keeps calm and finds her way to the Atlantic Hotel where, she meets Dee Dee (Elizabeth Bracco) – a woman seemingly capable of talking without either breathing or thinking. The kindly concierge puts them together in a $22 room possibly seeing a way of helping them both.

Nicoletta Braschi and Elizabeth Bracco
Dee Dee has just split from her English boyfriend and is leaving town with what little money she has, her new roomy lets her talk herself out and the two fall asleep in their beds, the light left on for one and the radio for the other.

In the night the Italian woman awakes to find the ghostly figure of Elvis in their room… he’s confused but polite and disappears somewhere else before Dee Dee can awake to witness him.

Then the radio shifts from Orbison to Elvis, Scotty and Bill and as Blue Moon fades a gunshot rips through the early morning: we better get out of here panics Dee Dee, “sounds like a 38…” ponders her new friend who may well know more about such things than she has shown…

Elvis haunts the wrong location...
The final part of the film ties the ends together…  Lost in Space starts with an Englishman, Johnny (Joe Strummer), getting blind drunk in a bar – his girl done left him and his job also called time on his services: he’s having a bad day and he has the gun to prove it.

His friend Will Robinson (Rick Aviles) is called to help haul him out of trouble and he in turn contacts Johnny’s brother-in-law Charlie (Steve Buscemi) – Dee Dee’s brother and a moderately respectable hairdresser.

Steve Buscemi, Rick Aviles and Joe Strummer: white riot
But all attempts to calm Johnny down fail and he ends up shooting a drug store owner after they steal some hooch… and off they go on the run, easing their way by drinking copious amounts of whiskey. They finally end up at the Arcade Hotel where the Bell Boy calls Will by his Lost in Space nick-name (they were a Space Family Robinson…) and the concierge again offers to help.

The three share a dingy room and drink themselves through to morning… the outlook looks just as bleak to Johnny day or night and, as he moves to end it all, Charlie jumps in to prevent him… Blue Moon comes on the radio, a train passes by and a gunshot is heard…

No spoilers: I’m not giving the ending away but even if I did this film is worth watching for the excellence of its atmospheres and the brilliance of the performers. Even Joe Strummer does well and is possibly the best punk rocker-turned-actor I’ve seen… Jarmusch was keen to use him not just because of his fondness for The Clash but also because of his persona and when his scenes work well it’s because it’s Joe Strummer not Johnny.

Mind you he is ably supported by Rick Aviles and of course by Steve Buscemi who can have few rivals in modern televisual acting. My daughter spotted him as Nucky Thompson within seconds in spite of the 20-odd years between Mystery Train and Boardwalk Empire: he’s only got better as an actor over that time.

Cinqué Lee and Screaming Jay Hawkins
I watched the MGM DVD which is a good copy and widely available, but Criterion have now done an Blu-ray overhaul with all kinds of trimmings...

No matter how you play it, Mystery Train still retains its mystery and that nostalgic pull of being a little lost and enjoying it… that’s something we should try not to lose, no matter how organised life gets!