Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Kiss Before the Mirror

The Kiss Before the Mirror. Nancy Carroll (Maria Held) and Frank Morgan (Paul Held).

Il bacio davanti allo specchio. US 1933. D: James Whale. Based on: dalla pièce Der Kuss vor dem Spiegel di Ladislaus Fodor. SC: William Anthony McGuire. Cinematography: Karl Freund. ED: Ted Kent. AD: Charles D. Hall. M: W. Franke Harling. C: Gloria Stuart (Lucy Bernsdorf), Walter Pidgeon (l’amante di Lucy), Paul Lukas (Walter Bernsdorf), Frank Morgan (Paul Held), Nancy Carroll (Maria Held), Donald Cook (l’amante di Maria), Jean Dixon (Hilda). P: Carl Laemmle Jr. per Universal Pictures Corp. [The film was not released in Finland]. 35 mm. 68'. B&w.
    US © 1933 Universal Pictures
    Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna
    Print from Universal Pictures
    E-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti Londra
    Universal Pictures: The Laemmle Junior Years
    Cinema Jolly, 30 June 2016

Dave Kehr (Bologna catalog): "James Whale’s classic Universal horror films will always overshadow his extensive other work for the studio, but his non-horror work is no less personal and often more formally inventive. The Kiss Before the Mirror is perhaps his most radical film, taking both cinematic and theatrical stylization to the edge of abstraction. In the extraordinary opening sequence, a married woman (Gloria Stuart) arrives at the home of her lover (Walter Pidgeon) and begins to disrobe, as her husband (Paul Lukas), mad with jealousy, spies through a window, a revolver in his pocket. Whale films these events as an elaborate, dreamlike dance of sexuality and death, precisely matching camera movement, blocking and dialogue delivery to the swooning rhythms of a tango."

"The play on doubles and reflections suggested by the title continues both as a visual motif (mirrors reflect mirrors, within studiously symmetrical shots) and as a narrative strategy: no sooner has Lukas’s best friend, a celebrated attorney (Frank Morgan), agreed to defend him on a charge of murder, then does the attorney discover that his own wife (Nancy Carroll) has been unfaithful to him, and he is drawn into an identical emotional maelstrom. Morgan’s performance in the courtroom scenes is spectacularly and appropriate histrionic; when he applies the same melodramatic excess to more private moments, the films suggests that his great show of pain is only a pretense, meant to cover a possessive, misogynistic rage – a cover that Morgan’s junior associate, a ‘lady lawyer’ coded as a Lesbian and played with a no-nonsense attitude by Jean Dixon, penetrates immediately. The camera work, by Karl Freund, includes a spectacular example of that rara avis, a perfectly executed 360-degree pan. Deployed during the courtroom scene as Morgan delivers his impassioned defense to the jury, the circular shot completes the film’s sense of claustrophobia and entrapment, of lives doomed to endless repetition."
– Dave Kehr

AA: I saw The Kiss Before the Mirror for the first time.

James Whale is today best known as a director of Universal horror (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein), but he always fought against being typecast as a horror director. His other high profile films included Journey's End and the first, Pre-Code, film adaptation of Waterloo Bridge – WWI stories both. Whale himself was a war veteran who had also been a prisoner of war on the Western front. In his films for Universal Whale had the backing of Carl Laemmle, Jr. until his last major works, the 1936 film adaptation of The Show Boat (starring Irene Dunne, Paul Robeson, et al.), and The Road Back, a peace time sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front.

The Kiss Before the Mirror and Remember Last Night?, both screened in Bologna today, are among James Whale's most personal films. Most of Whale's films were released in Finland, but not these two. I think both were favourites of William K. Everson. Whale did not want to make a war film, but I find a peculiar sense of urgency in his horror films which might be traced down to a need to work out war traumas.

Much of the film, including the stunning opening sequence, is purely visual, backed only by music, with a Viennese mélange to remind us that we are in Vienna, and the sensual tango theme of the movie. The cinematography by Karl Freund is marvellous with spellbinding camera movements and long takes. The mirror motif is haunting in the present tense and as a pathway to the past in flashbacks. The 360° pan was a signature device of James Whale. Some claim it was invented by him but that I find hard to believe. If memory serves, it was already used in the panorama effects of the earliest cinema, for instance in the Paris World Fair views. Whale used the 360° pan memorably in Frankenstein; and in the "Ol' Man River" number in The Show Boat a similar pan also appears. Here it is used electrifyingly as the defense lawyer Paul Held (Frank Morgan) is about to give his shocking speech.

But The Kiss Before the Mirror is also a filmed play with a dialogue full of irony, dry wit, and shocking revelations. "There is murder in the heart of everybody", declares Paul Held. "The greater the love the greater the hate". The dialogue is theatrical; the courtroom sequence is theatrical by definition. Giving his stunning speech Paul Held is so over-involved in it that he is completely exhausted.

This is a case of non compos mentis, of being not of sound mind while committing murder. Committing a crime of passion the perpetrator is not of sound mind and can therefore be acquitted. This is the legal surface level of the narrative. On a deeper level it is about the insanity of being possessive of another human being. On these terms, getting married you get in mortal danger. Love becomes dangerous. Therefore there is a profound sense of unrest in the film.

Another subtext is forbidden love. There is the official facade life and the true, secret life of freedom in passion.

The assistant attorney Hilda Frey (Jean Dixon in a brilliant performance) is an outsider in this world of possessive relationships, exhilaratingly free from the obsessions of the others. She might be James Whale's alter ego.

Some of Alfred Hitchcock's films made later have affinities with The Kiss Before the Mirror, especially The Paradine Case. John Williams in Hitchcock's films resembles Frank Morgan here. The 360° pan was used memorably by Hitchcock in Vertigo, another story of lethal possessiveness.

A brilliant print.


Nancy Carroll     ...     Maria Held
Frank Morgan     ...     Paul Held
Paul Lukas     ...     Walter Bernsdorf
Gloria Stuart     ...     Lucy Bernsdorf
Jean Dixon     ...     Hilda Frey
Donald Cook     ...     Maria's Lover
Charley Grapewin     ...     Schultz (as Charles Grapewin)
Walter Pidgeon     ...     Lucy's Lover
Wallis Clark     ...     Public Prosecutor
May Boley     ...     Busybody in Courtroom
Christian Rub     ...     Man on the Wrong Floor
Reginald Mason     ...     Judge 

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