For 30 years now Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has been escaping into the early cinema, shooting and editing his eerie, eccentric comedies in the style of silent films and primitive talkies from around the world. Archangel (1990), his sophomore feature, draws on the heroic imagery of the Soviet cinema; The Saddest Music in the World (2003), his biggest critical success, recaptures the rickety magic of the earliest screen musicals; and his recent triumph The Forbidden Room (2015) is a fever dream of reheated Saturday-matinee genres—the submarine drama, the jungle adventure. With a master's ease, Maddin incorporates old-fashioned materials (black-and-white photography, low-grain film stocks, color tinting) and editing conventions (wipes, irises, intertitles) to re-create the cinematic experience of a bygone era and indulge his personal obsessions and fetishes. His films preserve that sense of mystery lost in so much other contemporary cinema.
The Green Fog is a striking departure from Maddin's previous features because it's composed entirely of archival footage, nearly all of it from Hollywood movies and TV series. Acting on a commission from the San Francisco Film Society, the director pored over more than 100 dramas shot on location in the City by the Bay, snipping out the images he wanted and editing them into a new narrative loosely based on the greatest of them, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). The result, running about an hour, may not be particularly innovative—avant-gardists have been repurposing archival footage for decades—but it could be the most entertaining experimental film ever. Maddin has a jeweler's eye for the screen moment; he extracts only the most potent images and kinetic movements, divorcing them from their original story lines and distilling them into moments of pure pleasure. His narrative, something about a detective investigating a mysterious green fog that's swept over the city, is so silly you needn't think about it; the visual candy alone, unified by Jacob Garchik's edgy string score, will pull you through to the end. The Green Fog is a true paradox—an academic exercise with a popcorn mentality and a big role for Chuck Norris.
Maddin reaches back to his beloved 1920s and '30s for footage, pulling shots from such black-and-white classics as Greed (1924), Barbary Coast (1935), and San Francisco (1936). But The Green Fog also forces him out of his silvery comfort zone and into the postwar era's overlit, Technicolor pop culture, everything from The Love Bug (1968) to Dirty Harry (1971) to Star Trek: The Voyage Home (1986) to Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) to Terminator Genisys (2015). The numerous references to Vertigo—the opening rooftop chase, the mysterious trip to the art museum, the climactic bell-tower climb—are all stitched together from other, lesser movies. Most of the scenes that carry Maddin's vague narrative come from two long-running cop shows: NBC's McMillan & Wife (1971-'77), starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, and ABC's The Streets of San Francisco (1972-'77), starring Karl Malden and a young Michael Douglas.
Miraculously, Maddin succeeds in alchemizing this Hollywood junkola into something strange, new, and frequently wonderful. Because the dialogue from other movies would only distract from the new story, he simply deletes those frames; the image skitters as the actors speak, but their expressions and reactions remain, driving home the scene's emotion even though its import has been removed. You come to appreciate anew the craft of such hard-working players as Hudson, Malden, Joseph Cotten, Lee Remick, Claude Akins, and John Saxon. When the dialogue survives, its isolation tends to heighten its poignance or irony. In a scene revisited throughout the film, Inspector McMillan (Hudson) sits handcuffed to a chair while two hoods make him watch projections of 16-millimeter films. When the celluloid breaks, clattering as the reel spins, the inspector finally pipes up: "That's the trouble with that old film."
Fortunately that old film can be taped together too, and Maddin's interpolation of footage from different movies is captivating. In one highly formal sequence, anchored by a shot from The Streets of San Francisco, Cotten sits on the patio of a fancy home overlooking the hills; when he looks up, Maddin inserts a low-angle shot from another movie, and when Cotten looks down, a high-angle shot follows. Again and again the actor looks up and then down, until Maddin has exhausted his store of images. Shots of reel-to-reel tape recorders and electronic surveillance (courtesy of The Conversation and other suspense films) allow Maddin to connect otherwise unrelated scenes. Characters watch projection screens or TV monitors showing images from other movies, and the transitions can be surreal. After a scene from Basic Instinct (1992) in which Michael Douglas gets out of bed naked and walks into a bathroom, Maddin cuts to a scene from The Streets of San Francisco two decades earlier in which Douglas watches a 16-millimeter projection. "You really look good, Mike," his character cracks, appearing to comment on the previous scene. "Did you ever think about going into show business?"
The Green Fog really ignites when Maddin organizes his montages around pure motion. The aforementioned rooftop chase begins with a formal flourish as the filmmaker cuts back and forth between a color close-up of a horizontal ladder rung (one of the few images actually taken from Vertigo) and a long shot of a rifleman making a vertical ascent up a building ladder (from Edward Dmytryk's 1952 thriller The Sniper). After that Maddin binges on shots of characters dashing across rooftops, taken from Dirty Harry, The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), the Chuck Norris actioner An Eye for an Eye (1981), and the Sidney Poitier vehicle They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970). A later, similarly propulsive sequence samples car chases from all over San Francisco, and Maddin communicates the Hitchcock movie's title neurosis with a gripping montage of characters falling through space, either tracked in their vertical descent or shrinking from view in an overhead shot. These creme de la creme sequences are delectable, reminding you why people go to the movies in the first place: to see things move.
The film wouldn't be a tribute to San Francisco without a giant earthquake, and for the climax Maddin not only collects images of the city crumbling—from San Francisco all the way up to San Andreas (2015)—but lets the actors from the various source films have their say at last, shouting accusations one after the other in a sequence that replicates James Stewart's final confrontation with Kim Novak in Vertigo. This collective tantrum is another reminder of why people go to the movies: to see others moved. Meanwhile, Inspector McMillan gets the jump on his captors when they allow him a cigarette during the private screening; surreptitiously flicking it into a garbage barrel of loose celluloid, he sets off a blaze that distracts the hoods, allowing him to clobber them with his chair. That old film—it offers escape, for the inspector certainly but no less for you and me. v