“The Seventh Seal” — A Truthful Darkness in the Face of Hope

An Analysis of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal

Opening Note Ingmar BergmansThe Seventh Sealhas innumerable meanings to infer, but I have chosen to focus on only a few to represent what I believe to be one of the films overall themes. While I choose to include only some scenes and a few characters, I am not denying the rest that remains unmentioned to have significant meaning in the film, as I believe the entirety of the elements and characters in Bergmans film to be more than adequate for interpretations and flowing with meanings.

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The film opens up with a shot of a clouded sky with rays of sun piercing through, paralleling a mind full of existential doubt and hopeful light struggling to break through. From there, the scene fades into a shot of a black bird flying solo in the wind, silhouetted against the dimly lit, clouded skies; a search for Truth in the vast, conflicting skies. With the introduction of the quote from the Bible’s “Revelation”, Bergman shows us a visual diagonal opposition between a strong, dark mountain and the vulnerable, light sea.

And when the lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was a silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” Cutting from there to a shot of the shore and the sea in another dark-light opposition, the quote continues: “And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound.” Bergman’s presentation of dark and light elements in visual opposition to each other forms the perfect canvas for the existential struggle between dark and light (doubt and hope) that forms throughout the film. Using a natural setting gives a more powerful impact of not being able to control certain natural, non-created elements in our minds.

Lying on a bed of rocks next to a chess board (which I believe symbolizes our thinking mind), we are introduced to Antonius Block (none other than the extraordinary Max von Sydow), a medieval knight who had just arrived to his home of Sweden from ten years fighting in the religious battle of the Crusades. I believe this to represent a battle of internal and external forces and oppositions that leaves one with a deteriorating hope in any “God”. How could a God allow so much oppression, torture, and suffering (as seen in the symbol of the Crusades and the Black Plague in the film)? Lying in a coarse comfort atop a shore of rocks, Block’s mind is exposed as a light and dark checkered chess board of jumbled hope and despair. Bergman then cuts to a scene of the knight and his squire’s black horses in the water. Revelation 6:5 says, “And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand” (King James Bible). Perhaps the black horses in the film are used to represent dark times of famine and to symbolize a time of compromise and the struggle to balance change.

Block steps into the water, washing his face only to step right back out and fall to his knees, submitting into hopeful prayer. After his years of struggling with the religious forces within and around him, this collapsing moment portrays a sense of despair that one only hopes a God could mend. Rather than present the scene in a visually new lightness after his prayer, the corners of the scene darken, as to close in and create a mood of emptiness outside of the scene. In Revelation 8:9 it says, “And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood […]” (King James Bible). Bergman shows the chess board overlapping on the sea, perhaps to foreshadow the death and doubt of physical and existential plague throughout the film.

Immediately after this, the vision of a black-robed, white-faced Death appears before Block. Though the figure of Death is presented just as real as the reality that Bergman creates around the characters, I believe that Death’s appearance is the emergence of existential and religious doubt and despair in Block’s mind—creating an opposition of light and dark that becomes very real for those who endeavor to contemplate existential matters. Already, two and a half minutes into the film, Bergman has succeeded at creating a mood of opposition between two forces of doubt and hope.

Death’s arrival in the film also portrays the silence of God in Block’s mind. “And when the lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was a silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” Block’s moment of prayer on the sea’s shore shows a desperation and willful force for God to speak to him. In hopes of defeating Death (his doubts), Block proposes a game of chess—a battle between light and dark pieces, in which Death’s character ends up with the dark pieces (symbols of doubt and emptiness) while Block ends up with the light ones (symbols of hope and meaning). The medium of the board in which the game persists is Block’s willful search for knowledge, for answers, for God to speak to him and provide a sense of meaning and purpose to life. Sitting down to begin their game of chess, Block says to the vision of Death, “As long as I resist you, I live. If I win, you set me free. Equipped with his white pieces of hope, Block opts to win the battles of doubt through a search for meaning through knowledge.

Turning to the scene of Block attempting to find meaning in the church by going to confession, he neglects confessing any sins, but instead asks a series of existential questions. One of them showing his desperation for meaning through knowledge of God’s existence: “I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge.” Furthering the overall theme of opposing forces of light and dark, and the silence that comes with the latter, Block continues saying in the confession booth, “I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me. But He remains silent. I call out to Him in the darkness.” Again, the unbearable weight of nothingness plagues Block’s hopeful mind; he says, “No one man can live faced with Death, knowing everythings nothingness.” This scene of confession, which later shows to be a confession of Block’s hopes to his relentless doubts (Death), reveals the latter’s undeniable impact on the former. Exposing a reality, Block says, “We must make an idol of our fearand that idol we shall call God.” I draw now a quote from Albert Camus that fits all too perfectly to this absurd reality: “Man simply invented God in order not to kill himself” (The Myth of Sisyphus, p. 105). Faced with this absurdity, Block says that he wants to perform one meaningful act. I believe that by striving for such a thing, he unknowingly affirms a life of existential nothingness (Death’s win over his life) and opts to create meaning in the only way he knows how: by imposing meaning on life himself—that is, by helping others. However, it is not until he becomes aware of this inner knowledge that he is freed from doubt.

After this point in the confession, Block evades his unconscious awareness by bringing existential hope into the picture again: He proposes to win the chess game with “a combination of bishop and knight”, feeling a strong hope that he (a knight in the battle of life) will conquer his doubt and the emptiness that lies beneath it by finding a meaning to life through religion (the bishop, in the game). Immediately after Block’s hopeful words, a piercing realization of emptiness protrudes as the character of Death exposes himself to having been in disguise as a priest. Despite Block’s assertive hope that his move will win him the game, doubt emerges from an assumed religious figure as Death shows his white face. Bergman created a powerful scene here for many reasons: one of which is the blackness that drowns the confession area, while the fencing that separates Block and Death casts dark and light checkered shadows against their opposing faces. The brightest moment in the scene is when Death reveals his bitter white face against Block’s hopeful words, proving the entire conversation to be a confession of his own hopes cast deep into the emptiness of his doubts.

Another scene I want to specifically draw into this is the one with Joseph, Mary, and their baby (in another version of the film I saw their names were Mia and Jof, though it seems clear they are to represent a sort of “Holy Family” like that in the Bible) when Block joins them for a simple meal of wild strawberries and fresh milk. The scene begins with Block lying in a field with the chess board next to him—of course, his existential doubt lingering in his mind. He walks away from the game board to join the family in conversation. Sitting in the airy natural landscape that Bergman nicely chose for the scene, Mary offers Block wild strawberries; an offering of natural simplicity. Declining the offer, Block sinks back into his mind’s thoughts, saying, “To believe is to suffer. It is like loving someone in the dark who never answers.” Offering a second time, Block accepts the strawberries from Mary and a genuine smile forms on his face—the first real moment of content seen in Block, as he says, “I shall remember this moment of peace.” For me, this scene showed Block’s realization of a meaning to life in other people. Though the chess board (his mind’s scramble of doubt and hope) was not totally destroyed or defeated, he chose to dismiss it to engage in a generous, simple coexistence. He seemed to find a kind of God in other people; whereas before he admitted an indifference to men.

Continuing the chess game after this scene, Block guards his realization of content in others that he felt in the presence of Joseph, Mary, and their baby, and allows Death to take his knight; to take the white piece that he earlier confessed his hopes on. However, Block faces this reality with a smile and an affirmation, while not submitting to the fear that doubt creates. Death has something else up his sleeve though, foreshadowing his later intentions by asking the whereabouts of Joseph and Mary before smirking mischievously.

Later in the film, Block escorts the family through the forest in the dark of the night. The moon eerily pierces down, casting light for them to see. What they see though is a cart, almost surreal-looking, taking a “witch” to be burned. (Earlier in the film, it is shown that the witch, a young girl, is blamed by religious people for the cause of the Black Plague. In this way, showing the irrationality and cowardly nature of the religious people who are constantly searching for objects to point blame on for life’s unanswerable questions.) Stopping to explore the situation further, Block confronts the “witch” with one of his last pieces of religious hope, asking her if it is true she has seen and been in the company of the Devil, for if she surely has then he would know of a God. She says to look into her eyes for the answer, in which Block sees emptiness and fear. Religious questions are, thus, not something that can be answered by any objective means; one must simply believe if one is to allow hope to conquer their doubts.

Given a moment of respite before their chess game is finished, Death allows Block to pursue a last act before taking him away, in which he opts to visit his wife. To me, this was Block contemplating one last hope to save him from his existential torture; he chose love. At the large, empty castle where his wife was waiting, he does not express an apparent joy at being reunited with her; he is mostly silent. As they all are eating dinner, his wife, Karin, is sitting at the head of the table and reads from the book of Revelation. The sounds in this scene echo the words she reads from the Bible. Realizing that love cannot save him, Block desperately prays one last time, asking for God to speak from the tortuous silence that plagues his life. One of the characters in the scene, a girl who was mute, speaks words from the book of Revelation: “It is finished.

In the final scenes, Death and Block are to finish their chess game. Death has obvious intentions of taking Joseph, Mary, and the baby along with Block. Joseph awakens and shares in the reality of Death and Block’s chess game. Block, seeing that Joseph experiences this reality as well, knocks over the chess board to distract Death so that the family can escape. This is Block’s one meaningful act that he aspired to perform before submitting to Death. The family can continue life, while Block and a number of other characters are taken away by Death (all characters presenting their own existential dilemmas of emptiness and doubt).

This part of the film can be interpreted in a number of ways. For the sake of concluding my metaphor, I would suggest that Block’s leave with Death implies a sort of religious “suicide” and a realization that it is painful and almost impossible to live a life entirely in one’s thinking and questioning mind; always struggling between forces of light and dark, hope and doubt. By allowing Death to win the chess game, he affirms his doubt and no longer tortures himself with an empty hope for a silent God to speak to him. His physical knocking over of the chess game could symbolize a break from one’s questioning mind in order to help others in a meaningful way (as Block helps the couple and their baby to escape Death, in the film).

A kind of liberating occasion, the film ends with the characters (all remaining aside from the family) led by Death in an infamous Danse Macabre (Dance of Death), silhouetted against a dimly grey horizon. The grey overtones that Bergman used created a sense of unification of light and dark forces together – An acceptance of death and the ambiguity of life as a uniting force over all uncertainties.

It can be seen in a counter-perspective that Bergman did not mean to offer a, more or less, conclusive view such as the one I presented. The film, indeed, raises heavy existential questions. Perhaps the purpose of the film was to expose viewers to these questions so that they may find the answers in themselves. It is easy to see that belief and faith become realities for many religious people, and no one of us is in a position to condemn others for their values (though I, personally, would dispute some of them). Other people may see the film as praising religion and punishing the non-believers (both those who choose not to believe and those who cannot find a means for belief). In this way, Joseph, Mary, and their baby would really symbolize the Holy Family as those who prosper in the peace of their faith while the others are taken away by Death. Even then, it is not the Devil who takes them away, but it is Death. Death admits to know neither of a God nor of a Devil. Similarly, the Devil does not make any appearance except for the religious people’s creation of such through their looking to place blame (as seen by the “witch” who was seen to be the start of the Black Plague and the Devil’s silent advocate for the loss of so many to the Plague). In my opinion, the film (like many great works of art) can be shaped according to each individual viewer’s perspectives on life; likewise, it can help shape viewers’ perspectives by offering existential questions that, when applied to each individual’s experiences, can give birth to unique meaning for him or her.

“Notorious” — Obscure Identities

Analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Notorious

A recurring theme in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Notorious that I noticed is that of the masking of identities. I found it extremely difficult to understand the true identity of Alicia’s character except through the manner in which she chooses to conceal herself from others.

From the beginning of the film, Alicia Huberman (played ever-so-perfectly by Ingrid Bergman) is shown drunkening her state of being at a party immediately following her German father’s conviction of treason against America. She turns to alcohol, seemingly to evade having to face her reality, in which case she assumes very child-like and childish behaviors. After her father’s trial and conviction, the camera shows us a road symmetrically lined with palm trees, cutting to Alicia’s party—a kind of immature, created paradise, or drunken ‘bliss’. She proclaims to want “good times […] and laughs with people who’ll treat [her] right and like [her] and understand [her]”, such as that which every child desires who is unstable with confronting their own identities—in this way, other people’s approval is used to shape their identities.

Like a child instantly rejecting anyone who tells them what to do, one of our first encounters with Alicia is her vocalizing her utter discontent and despise for policeman and authoritative figures. This is visited again in the car with Devlin (another amazing performance by Cary Grant) when a policeman pulls her over for speeding and driving drunk; when Devlin gets them out of a ticket by showing his ID to the policeman, Alicia realizes he’s an authority figure and starts whining and throwing a temper tantrum for him to get out of the car, swatting and pushing him away with a childish attitude. Alicia, the morning after this incident, awakes with a bold, assertive Devlin standing at her doorway, then handing her a glass of liquid to drink for her obvious hangover. By doing so, Devlin assumes a sort of paternal character for the frivolous Alicia to lean on. After losing her father to prison and then later in the film to his inflicted suicide, Alicia seems to surrender her identity to Devlin in exchange for his attention and love. She leaps into this sort of ‘love’ with Devlin before she even gets to know his identity. Like many people who are forced to experience things that disrupt the ‘comfortable’ patterns of things, she seemed to prefer a dependence on someone to ease any transitions in life—usually someone to offer love—rather than to sit with the changes and the identity that is ever-molded through these experiences (however unpleasant they may be). When speaking of her father’s death, Alicia says, “It’s a very curious feeling, as if something has happened to me and not to him. You see, I don’t have to hate him anymore. Or myself.” This statement appears to reveal a part of her identity that was attached to her father and essentially thrown out upon his death. Whatever void this left in her life, she submitted it fully to Devlin in order to fill it for her.

Hitchcock, once again, gives us a peak into Alicia’s identity through an opposition of what she is not when she admits, “I am pretending I’m a nice, unspoiled child, whose heart is full of daisies and buttercups.” We can assume, therefore, that she intends the opposite to be true for her: Perhaps that she is a spoiled child, whose heart is empty and thirsting for easier, more child-like remedies.

Asking Devlin for his opinion on her taking the job to spy on her father’s Nazi comrades, Alicia glares with a wide-eyed ambivalence at Devlin for him to mold her uncertain feelings for her. She ultimately accepts the job, saying later that she only did it because she thought Devlin wanted her to and because he did not try to stop her—as if she was expecting a dramatic scene laced with love’s intrusion to keep her from taking the job. Alicia dishes out more of her identity to her work spying on the Nazis, and sacrifices most of her remaining Self to her decision to marry Sebastian (Claude Rain, fittingly); marrying him as a way to prove to him her dislike for Devlin, though really just burying her Self deeper. This plastic identity is shown during her and Sebastian’s first dinner in the film: Alicia is embellished in sparkling, sequined apparel, expelling superfluous words with empty meanings in order to manipulate Sebastian with her created identity.

On the other hand, Devlin dodges the blinding rays of love by not letting amorous words decide for Alicia which path to take when it came to taking or not taking the job to spy. He admits to Alicia (at the horse races when she tells him that she is going to marry Sebastian) that he never told her to take the job as a spy because the answer had to come from her, not from him. This showed his intentions for a sort of test of love, in which Alicia mindlessly lost because of her infantile dependency on trying to fit an identity by making a decision that may appeal to Devlin—a naïve call for approval on her part. Alicia’s duties to her work eventually consume much of her masked identity, which is realized by the more reserved, collected Devlin. However, if Devlin had verbally articulated his feelings for Alicia when she had asked him to essentially make the decision for her, then the entire story as we know it would cease to be, including Alicia’s eventual poisoning. Perhaps Devlin’s realization of this coupled with Alicia’s poisoined and debilitated state of being in the final scenes leads him reveal and affirm his love for her. In the final scenes, I saw both Alicia and Devlin’s identities to be the most authentic: Devlin reveals and confronts his feelings of fear and pain when confessing his love to Alicia, and Alicia calmly replies the same without getting sucked in by excessive feelings (perhaps also because of her languid state).

It is also worthy to point out that in many cases Sebastian acquired an identity to hide many revealing aspects of his character. The most profound recognition of this is in the last scene when he clings to Alicia with a phony care and a desperate urgency to keep hidden Alicia’s position as a U.S. Agent. He not only cowardly flees this particular situation, but he imprudently tries to preserve his flimsy reputation with his fellow comrades. Obviously lacking the assertion behind an affirmed, authentic identity, Sebastian uses the very person he poisoned (Alicia) to further escape his Self. There is also undeniably a reliance on his mother, which is similar to that of Cody (James Cagney) in White Heat. Like Cody, he lacked the emphatic will to act diligently when put under pressure. He could not even decide, much less carry through, what to do when Alicia’s job is revealed. His mother was the one who thought up the ‘remedy’ to poison Alicia, and she planned and executed it as well. Sebastian, like an ill-curious child, just cowardly watched his malignant mother do the dirty work. Even at the end, walking down the stairs with his mother, Devlin, and Alicia, Sebastian mindlessly stutters lies to his Nazi comrades before clinging to his only hope for safety: a poisoned Alicia. As Devlin and Alicia climb in the car to the hospital, Sebastian presses himself against the car, begging to go with them—not because he cared, but because his ‘reputable’ identity relied on convincing his comrades of Alicia’s ‘innocence’, as well as his own.

The recurrence of alcohol (namely, wine) is something I see to be symbolic in the film as a means for concealing and even revealing identities. From the beginning when Alicia is drinking herself into juvenile behaviors (a desperation for identity lost), to the dinner party at Sebastian’s; the latter of which shows a mansion full of guests sipping on champagne and drowning themselves in regurgitated verbiage to fit this or that cloned identity. The wine cellar can be seen as a prison cell hiding the identities of the people involved with the uranium ore that is, also symbolically, stowed away inside of an empty wine bottle; yet it is revealing when Devlin and Alicia discover the uranium and the secrets attached. The moments leading up to the party’s running out of champagne guide Sebastian down to the wine cellar, in which case Devlin and Alicia’s more-than-friendly relations are revealed (though instantly re-concealed with a lying mask when conversation between the 3 comes into play). Moving back to the beginning of the film again when Devlin first finds out about Alicia’s proposed mission to spy on her father’s Nazi friends, the camera zooms in on the champagne bottle he accidentally forgets in his boss’ office after leaving for Alicia’s. He arrives at Alicia’s apartment, empty-handed having forgotten the wine, and their feelings for one another are then revealed. Hitchcock reveals their love in an on-again-off-again kiss that lasts for several minutes, never leaving their tight embrace. The camera launches the audience into their moment, as we move closely with them across the floor, enjoying their kisses. As a symbol, the wine’s absence perhaps allowed for this intense moment of their revealed feelings for one another. Similarly in a symbolic way, the camera showed us that Devlin had left the bottle of wine at the office where his boss and the other agents were—this perhaps highlights alcohol’s physical and emotional place in the concealing of identities in the film; leaving the wine in the place where Alicia’s mission to conceal her own identity (a.k.a. to spy) was discussed among the business men.

The symbolism can even be taken further, and it might be said that drinks in general played symbolic roles in the film, representing various faces and stages of identity. For example, the coffee in which Sebastian’s mother laced with poison for Alicia was not only for the further concealment of Alicia’s identity, but also for the defense and protection of her and Sebastian’s own identities from their fellow Nazis.

Insofar as elements of film go, Hitchcock mastered the art of purposeful camera focus, movements, and placement most especially in Notorious. He brings the audience into the film by altering between objective and subjective points-of-view. At the beginning of the film during Alicia’s party, the camera is placed directly behind an opaque figure whose identity is a cryptic shadow and who sits mutely in observance of the party. Here we are put in both an objective and a subjective point-of-view; both objectively seeing the ambiguous, dark figure and subjectively observing Alicia and her party from his perspective. Also, when Alicia was in the midst of her post-party hangover, Hitchcock allowed us to objectively see Alicia in her bed, then subjectively we become a dizzy, scrambled Alicia waking up and seeing Devlin standing patiently at her doorway. We further become her vision as the camera curiously moves in the moment with Devlin’s movements and her vision blurs in and out of focus; an effective representation of the physical, objective state we see her in. Another example is toward the end of the film when Alicia realizes she has been poisoned: the camera moves closely to her face and we see her panicked expressions, while sweat drowns her pores, and the camera circles around her head vertiginously. Then we are placed subjectively in her position and we experience her perspective as the colors invert, voices echo, faces become shadows, and the room distorts. As a viewer, I can say that Hitchcock’s techniques invariably created a convincing experience, because I found myself looking away from the screen with a sick feeling in my stomach and a queasiness in my head during this scene.

Hitchcock has a way of revealing only what is necessary, and amplifying things in the most compelling of ways in his films. Throughout Notorious, he does not use overly obvious means of expressing his intent through excessive violence, language, or sexuality, but instead he lets the camera do the ‘talking’. There is no doubt that the script is well-written, but he goes beyond mere linguistic explanation and he shows his audience with the eloquence of his camera. In my opinion, this is a perfect match for the engaging plot and themes which contribute to my overall appreciation for the film. 

 

“D.O.A.” — A Toxic Reality

An Analysis of Rudolph Maté’s film D.O.A.

Frank Bigelow’s consumption of a fatal toxin presents an encounter with the realization that he is basically a living dead man (as we all are, in a way). Facing the certain fate that Time carries with it, Frank’s character serves as an exaggeration of our state in life—living with the absurdity of an approaching death.

As he stows away alone to San Francisco and leaves his lovestruck secretary behind, he sets out for a sort of selfish freedom through aesthetic, hedonistic means. Intoxicated by women and drinks, he becomes so consumed in his sense of self that the only thing to sober his mind is his face-to-face confrontation with impending death. Going in search of the person who poisoned him and to find out why, Frank becomes flooded with existential uncertainty. Toward the end of the film, he pauses his quest for Truth and spills feelings of love onto Paula, his secretary, saying that something happens to make people realize how much they love someone. To me, Frank’s sudden love-drunken behavior shows a person’s desperation to find meaning in a life of ambiguity when confronted with the certainty of death; Frank’s last resort for meaning seems to be through love.

The director, Rudolph Maté, uses classic film-noir elements to add to the hysterical, anxious nature of the film. The hospital in which Frank frantically goes to in order to further investigate his toxic consumption is massively surreal with what seems like endless steps to the top. The vile in the hospital that revealed toxins in Frank’s body was illuminating brightly; the light of a deadly Truth. Slanted blinds cast chopped black and white lines across Frank’s face while he’s in the office inquiring about Eugene Phillips; a parallel of light and dark forces in the film. Oddly enough, in the home of Mrs. Phillips and the office of Eugene Phillips’ receptionist (as well as her home), flower decorations are laced in pictures, curtains, and fake bouquets. To me, the flowers in these situations could only symbolize death, as flowers can be associated with funerals and mourning. The mob boss, Majack, wears a white suit, radiating in the darkness of the dungeon-like house he resides in. When we are first shown Majack, his facial features and incongruous and his eyes look uneven on his face. Furthermore, Paula, so immersed in love, is shown throughout the entire film in a drunken glow. Though she easily dismisses death when she tells Frank of Eugene Phillips’ death, saying not to worry about him calling and that Frank can “go ahead and have fun”; she seems to use love as an escape from the existential toxicity of a life empty of meaning.

One scene that I found especially intriguing is when Frank first confronts the certain death that the toxin presents him with. He stops by a newspaper and magazine stand: To the left of him are headlines on magazines pertaining to society, while to the right of him is a ladder of numerous copies of a magazine called “Life”. He looks distraught as he is standing in this “life” while surreal-looking events occur before him: A young, care-free girl bounces a ball in front of him; A man and a woman approach one another and smile during a loving embrace. Frank does not look comforted by this “life” around him though—he searches for Truth behind his certain death.

“Act of Violence” — A Selfish Dignity

An Analysis of Fred Zinnemann’s film Act of Violence

The mood for the film is set when the opening scene consumes viewers in a dark, wet street with a harsh black and grey aura while Joe Parkson (actor Robert Ryan) eerily limps across, like some sort of non-human figure. The director, Fred Zinnemann, lets light emerge only a few times throughout the film, giving a sense that the world the characters were in was not the same world as we experience every day—it seemed, instead, like a war zone or prison camp amidst a smoky underworld.

Joe, seeking a sort of freedom through vengeance, is content to consistently point blame to others. He feels it is not his fault that he disregarded Frank Enley’s (played by Van Heflin) advice in the prison camp and tried escaping through the tunnel; it could not possibly be his fault that Frank got shot and died in the final scene—or so he claims. Similarly, Frank feels it is not his fault that Joe went into the tunnel. Both men seem to be trapped in their arrogant dignities, while Joe more directly evades any moral attempts. I believe that Frank at least withheld his “I didn’t do it” attitude in order to act with a more humane morality to go to the train station in order to warn Joe of the events that were going to unfold that would have led to Joe’s premature existential fate. However, Joe’s intentions of committing his act of vengeance by killing Frank would not have changed anything; as his girlfriend, Pat, said, “What are you going to prove through violence? It won’t bring back men that died.” This line highlighted the selfishness of Joe’s intentions: an egocentric elevation of his sense of dignity and self-worth as his end goal.

Oddly enough, the women in the film did not assume the typical ill-mannered femme fatale role that is seen in numerous other noir films. Zinnemann seemed to allow women in this filmto be somewhat a voice of morality, at least to an extent. The main women (Edith, Pat, and Ann) all tried to break the one-track motives of the men who strove for violence as a means (Joe and Johnny). Throughout the film, the women were shown in a physically brighter light for the most part; perhaps to assist in revealing the truths of the situations through their dialogue.

Another element that I believe Zinnemann used effectively in the film is the use of sound. Frank and Edith’s baby pierced the air with its eerie screeching cry every time Joe was around, creating a mood to fit the arrival of Joe shortly after. With a sound of almost mimicking proportions, the trains in the film sent a surreal punch to the ear drums. Along with unearthly lighting, skewed framing, and a significant succession of scenes, dialogue, and convincing acting, Zinnemann created a noir of a magnitude as intense as the philosophical themes it brings into question.

“Little Caesar” — Rico’s Delusional Superiority As Seen In Our Society

An Analysis of Mervyn LeRoy’s film Little Caesar

The film Little Caesar, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, presents an insightful look at issues of insecurity, irresponsibility, and immorality through Edward G. Robinson’s character Rico, a.k.a. “Little Caesar”. Rico’s motives of becoming a ‘famous’ gangster depicts aspects of some of our motives in society (void of gangster-involvement, in this case).

As Rico’s character develops from a lowly hoodlum to a big-shot gangster, we are able to see more clearly his degenerating individuality. He loses his sense of Self in his deadly lust for superiority. His motives are firmly embedded in rising to a level of fame through belittling others and mimicking those which he admires. Since his lack of social and conversational ease persists, he opts to rob others of their humanity (and some of their lives) as a means to achieve the selfish ends he desires atop the hierarchical ladder of the underworld. In this way, his gun serves as his source of rising success; it cowardly asserts his dominance.

Rico states that he never got the chance to “be somebody” when he was living in the hood as an unrecognized ‘nobody’. In his pursuit for recognition, he resists taking responsibility for who he is and where he came from—he does not want to come to terms with himself, so he chooses to ingenuinely establish himself by creating and adopting an identity that better suits his motives. He intentionally mirrors many aspects of Diamond Pete Montana’s and Big Boy’s lifestyles (both dominant forces in the underworld) in hopes of projecting a similar, superior reflection.

We can perhaps empathize with Rico on account of his general motivation to scamper out of the streets and make something of himself, but empathy is quickly stolen and replaced with pity, disgust, and aversion when we recognize his cowardly intent. Failing to take the time and make the efforts to genuinely establish himself within the context of society and even the underworld, his created ‘Self’ quickly falls through the weak, flimsy materials in which it was fabricated. Cowardly enough, Rico seems more satisfied with dying than confronting the reality of what he has become.

Without pointing fingers, it is evident that Rico-like characters can be found in our society (with the exclusion of guns and gangs, in this case). Even in the smallest of social situations, some people cower away from taking responsibility for themselves. They, essentially, make others into something in order to evade any attempts to courageously make themselves. This is precisely Jean-Paul Sartre’s claim regarding Anti-Semites’ motives to create their own identity as ‘superior’ by creating one they deem as “inferior”; namely, the Jews’. This is also apparent in the film The Battle of Algiers by simply replacing the colonizing French with a character such as Rico—an utter denial of the others’ humanity by imposing one’s motives on them is a result.

In our society, it is also evident that many people look to the “Big Boy” (the media, fashions, trends, societal ideals, etc.) as an easy way out of taking the responsibility to make themselves through themselves and not through “the gaze of the other”, as Sartre said. Ironically, as Rico marveled over Big Boy’s and Diamond Pete Montana’s lavish jewels and expensive material goods, he assumed an inferior position through trying to rise to superiority by creating his life as a reflection of their’s. However, his superficial efforts were rewarded by none other than a warped reflection similar to that of a carnival mirror’s.

Rico’s ounce of humanity fights the powerful current of immorality and comes up for air in his lack of ability to be able to shoot Joe. However, Rico’s love for Joe is, essentially, nothing more than a love for himself and the identity he strives to create. In the book Dreams and Dead Ends, Jack Shadoian says, “Rico’s self-assurance is dependent on Joe’s allegiance.” Moreover, his immorality contributes to the ever-increasing debt he soon pays for at the end of the film, proving the quote LeRoy included in the film to be true: “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (St. Matthew).

LeRoy’s use of minimal cast members keeps us attentively focused on the prominent characters presented. Similarly, the simple yet precise framing presents only what is relevant. Lack of diegetic sound, aside from conversation and the few instances of dance-related music, centers our attention to every moment and allows us to feel every moment as it naturally occurs in the characters’ actions and interactions. These elements (but obviously not limited to these) create a very distinct mood that echoes the serious and ponderous nature of the film.

 

“Harold & Maude” — An Affirmation of Natural Life

An Analysis of Hal Ashby’s film Harold & Maude

Though there are many things to draw upon in the film, to me I felt that both Harold and Maude were representations of different environments. Maude, in this case, symbolizes not only the natural environment but also true meaning; whereas Harold can be seen to symbolize a societal environment as well as the meaninglessness that arises from created tensions. Maude’s experience with oppression is, no doubt, drowning in meaning that is born from time spent in a concentration camp (Hal Ashby, the director, does an excellent job of only providing us with a glimpse of this as her tattoo, perhaps as a way to bring more awareness to the meaningful effect and not so much the oppressive cause). In this way, her connection with existence is powerful and her actions are willfully significant. Harold, on the other hand, a youth during the Vietnam War, shows no real significance or meaning for his obsession with death. We are given no insight into his past to suggest a purposeful reason for his attention-seeking place in society.

Hal Ashby creates Maude as a character who appreciates Nature’s gifts and embraces the impermanence of everything that makes up a life. Ashby animates her with a yellow umbrella after a funeral to subtly remind us of death as a part of life, and even makes several relations of her with breath: For example, her letting Harold breathe an oxygen tank filled with flavors of snowfall; showing him the yoga breath called “breath of fire”; letting him smoke from her hookah water pipe; and, most importantly, her concern, care, and love for plants—showing the importance of a coexistence not only with humans, but also with Nature; as plants and animals work together to provide breath and life for one another.

Maude also seems to be a rejection of any adopted moralities; we can assume as a result of her experiences in the Holocaust. Though Harold points out to her the ‘immorality’ of taking people’s cars and upsetting people, she continues to do so based on her own intent and not that which is imposed on her or implied from some alternative ‘morality’.

Slowly we see Harold accepting his existence, as a warm blood runs through his once pale face toward the end of the film. The ultimate affirmation for him is when he sends his hearse over a cliff onto the ocean’s shore. Perhaps synonymous with emptiness and meaninglessness, his hearse was once something that (literally and metaphorically) drove him through life, casting a grim murkiness onto his perceptions of existence. The hearse being sent onto the ocean’s shore can also be seen as a reuniting of life (the ocean which bores existence) and death (symbolized by the hearse).

His ability to affirm existence after Maude’s death is shown in the final scene when he strums his banjo—creating a ‘music’ for life—while walking amidst the lengths oforganic, natural phenomenon.