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Reel Life: the peculiar virtues of poverty row



For today's moviegoers, a film must attain the status of a special event to command attention; there's not much of a regular moviegoing public anymore. Audiences of the 1930s and '40s, lacking the alternative of television, were less demanding. They went to films for routine entertainment, and could be satisfied by cheaply made westerns and horror films that remained within the conventions of their genres. Such films were provided by a group of smaller Hollywood studios that specialized in turning out low-budget fare and that became known collectively as "poverty row."

The curator of the Film Center's upcoming series "The Outcasts of Poverty Row," William K. Everson, is not your usual academic film historian. He is also a major collector and preserver of films, many unavailable elsewhere. Students in his classes at New York University will see The Birth of a Nation, but they will also see turn-of-the-century travelogues, bizarre compilation films, strange low-budget British comedies of the 1930s, and poverty-row films.

Judged against the slickly produced spectacles of today in terms of things like production values and special effects, the films in this series are sorely wanting. But they have their own peculiar virtues, and many of them are well worth a look. In place of the smooth flow of an epic, each shot of which is itself a manufactured event, poverty-row directors provide us with jagged, quirky, surprising rhythms. "The very lack of facilities," Everson told me in a phone interview, "challenged them to come up with creative ideas."

Lacking surplus cast and sets, directors turned to pacing to move their stories along. Viewers of the taut noir mystery The Trespasser, which starts out as a comedy set in a newspaper office and ends up as a drama about book forging, will have trouble finding a wasted scene in its 71 minutes. "Those that are well done tell their stories so succinctly and so neatly that audiences today used to the very, very padded two-hour TV films and very, very self-indulgent contemporary films will be surprised at how well good stories can be told, albeit simply, in a one-hour framework," says Everson.

Amazingly, these films were made as late as the 1940s for budgets as low as $20,000. Using minimal sets mixed with painted backdrops, the directors and their cinematographers often made masterful use of the mobile camera and sparse, suggestive lighting to create an illusion of space where there was none. In Strangler of the Swamp, one of two films in the series directed by German emigre Frank Wisbar, the swamp set is quite small. Light and fog create an illusion of depth, but they cannot hide the fact that the same dead logs are seen again and again. Yet the repeated return to the same set seems appropriate to the quirkily obsessive narrative, and Wisbar's debt to German expressionist filmmaking is evident in some stylishly fluid camera movements.

Perhaps most brilliant at using light to animate a scene was the great cinematographer John Alton. Even in a small film like The Trespasser, directed by George Blair, Alton achieves clear, balanced, painterly compositions in most every scene. But it is in the night scene at the end that his work really shines. In scenes that appear to be lit by only a few sources, Alton achieves dynamic contrasts between light and dark, producing a feeling of movement even in static shots.

It could be argued that the low budgets of many of these films worked to their advantage. The filmmakers, unable to rely on having extraordinary material in front of the camera, had to learn to use the camera itself more creatively. Part of Alton's skill, Everson argues, derives from having to "disguise a lack of sets and to suggest a great deal more than is actually there." He does this by combining close-ups with long shots in which much of the image is dark and light is "used to illuminate only what he wants you to see." Meanwhile, says Everson, cinematographers with large budgets, such as Karl Freund and James Wong Howe, were forced to use makeup and gauzes for a single close-up of a star to get the look the studio required.

There are certainly no stars in these films, and the acting has some of the flatness common to low-budget work. As is so often the case in American cinema, the filmmakers try to use rhythm to disguise deficiencies in other areas. Not that these works are rhythmically perfect: Wisbar's Devil Bat's Daughter, an odd and brooding tale with suggestions of demonic possession, is full of spatial discontinuities. In a large-budget production, the filmmaker will take time to match the positions of the actors from one shot to the next, but small mismatches are to be expected in poverty row work. It is no accident that Jean-Luc Godard dedicated his first feature film, Breathless, to Monogram Pictures, one of the studios represented in this series: Godard's use of the "jump cut" (we cut to a shot with the same camera position, but an actor has moved, or "jumped") as well as his general sense of rhythm were partly inspired by low-budget American films such as these.

Even when discontinuous editing is not an aesthetic strategy but the result of budgetary exigencies, the result can be interesting to watch--as much for what it isn't as for what it is. Devil Bat's Daughter is not a perfectly made, predigested package. In the airless perfection of large-budget film, one gets the sense that the filmmaker has already decided not only what the viewer will see but what he'll feel and think as well. The jagged imperfections and suggestive lighting of poverty row films, by contrast, require almost the same degree of creativity from the viewers as they did from the filmmakers; one cannot view them passively.

Some of these films also give viewers the opportunity to see "top directors on the way down and new directors on the way up," says Everson. Joseph H. Lewis's Minstrel Man makes frequent use of stylized imagery--several shots are framed by a stair banister--that anticipates the cinematic flair of his later films. Similarly, Someone to Remember, by Robert Siodmak, who would soon be directing haunting films noirs such as The Spiral Staircase, is a well constructed drama; notice the strikingly tight shot of students grouped around the older woman's bed near the end.

But perhaps the greatest tribute I can pay this series is to say that it contains one genuinely great film, Edgar G. Ulmer's Strange Illusion. Ulmer was, like Wisbar, a German emigre who used some of his German expressionist heritage. This quintessential poverty row director was never really "on the way up." His films remained low budget, and much of what's great about his work depends on his low-budget milieu. Strange Illusion is as improbable a project as any, a kind of Hamlet-meets-the-Hardy-Boys, the Hamlet plot transposed to upper-class America in the 1940s. The film begins with a stunning, even terrifying dream sequence in which certain objects appear abruptly at key moments. The dream ends, and we switch to the quotidian--a fishing trip, for example--until the events of the dream start coming true, and we see, in close-up, objects from the dream appearing in the actual world. Ulmer's expressionist heritage is invoked in a haunting camera movement in the dead father's study--from the son, past a large globe, up to his father's portrait--in which each object is imbued with a strangely assertive visual power. In almost every image objects have the same kind of disturbing palpability as the objects in the opening dream.

Even in this film, there are oddnesses that result from its poverty row budget. The villain is improbably phony, and there is a hilariously ridiculous psychoanalyst. But if you approach the films in this series not expecting to have all the work done for you, prepared to suspend disbelief even when it's not fully warranted and to see the films on their own terms, then there are many small pleasures, much to be learned, and an occasional work of brilliance.

The series runs through Thursday at the Film Center, Columbus and Jackson. Admission is $5, $3 for Film Center members. Call 443-3737 or see the Reader's Guide to the Silver Screen in section two for dates and times of specific films.

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