That Old Feeling: Fear Noir

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If the movie is faithful to the original, which I haven’t read, it’s a twist on typical Woolrich: a story of psychological torture from the victim’s point of view. The closest Martha-Helmut analogy in a Woolrich film is to “No Man of Her Own,” with Stanwyck getting the smooth laceration from oily Lyle Bettger — who looks so much like Böhm here that they might be evil twins.

What’s certain is that “Martha” is pure Fassbinder: one of his many valentines to sexual sadomasochism. Like “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” before it, “Martha” (whose heroine is named after Hollywood actress Martha Hyer) is indebted to Hollywood models. It’s reminiscent of “Gaslight” and other sadistic-husband dramas, but with the unique chills-and-fever Fassbinder touch. The German writer-director was impossibly prolific, turning out more than 40 features (16 of them with Carstensen) before his death at 37 in 1982. There’s not another moviemaker anywhere, ever, whose quantity and quality were so high.

The Woolrich story apparently concentrates on the heroine’s attempts to escape her husband in the company of a helpful man. What fascinated Fassbinder was not the escape but the imprisonment, which he makes a metaphor for any marriage, any intimate relationship. When Martha and Helmut meet in the embassy courtyard, she walks past him, both turn once, counterclockwise, nearly touching, as the camera revolves twice, clockwise, with the movement slowing to emphasis the mesmeric effect Helmut has on Martha. It’s the single most powerful and vertiginous shot in any Woolrich film.

They meet again back in Germany at a dinner party. He pursues her outside the mansion and, while her drunken Muter lurks in the bushes, woos her the only way he knows how. “You excited me... You’ve never slept with a man... You think you’re beautiful. I don’t. You’re too thin... and your body stinks.” She laughs and turns to him; they embrace passionately; from the rear, the mother screams. They whirl out of the clinch, as in an apache dance. Martha runs inside; Helmut swaggers back. Opera, melodrama, choreography and film dazzle in one intoxicatingly gorgeous 3min. 40sec. shot.

He insists that Martha take a roller coaster ride with him because “Fear exists to be overcome.” When it’s over, she vomits, and he proposes marriage. At her home, her mother takes a pill overdose and passes out, and Helmut violently embraces Martha. When she demurs, he throws her to the floor: “Never resist when I want to be nice to you!” That’s his strategy: asking nicely, then attack; insult, then purr his love, but condescendingly, as if he speaking to a dim child. (When she cooks what he’s said was his favorite dish — pig’s kidney with red wine sauce — he snaps, “Have you forgotten that I’m allergic to offal?”)

Helmut is a very sensible sadist. [SPOILER] He doesn’t want to kill her; he wants her around forever, to domineer and demean. Why would he try running Martha off the road as she drives away to what she thinks is freedom? He knows she can’t escape her destiny. Like Helen in “No Man,” she ends up in a hospital after a crash — she’s lost use of her legs — and has a handsome man to claim her. Helmut wheels her out of the hospital. What might be a toast to another couple is a curse to Martha: Long life to them both.

Original Sin, 2001
Screenplay and direction by Michael Cristofer, from “Waltz into Darkness”

Alan Jordan (Jack Thompson): “Love is to give, then want to give more. Lust is to take, then take more.
Luis Antonio Vargas (Antonio Banderas): “I want to give her everything, and I want to take everything from her.”

Count this as my Woolrich guilty pleasure. Withheld from release for a year, then spanked by most critics for its overripe dialogue, narrative improbabilities and nude couplings of Banderas and Angelina Jolie. Which is to say, people, that “Original Sin” is a melodrama, impure and simple. That’s clear from the opening moments, when Jolie’s photo- (and colla-) genic lips fill the screen, then part to intone: “This is not a love story. But it is a story about love, and the power it has over life. The power to heal or destroy.”

So, fully aware of the goofiness I’m about to write, I still aver that this version of “Waltz into Darkness” is yards better than the Truffaut. It’s clear Cristofer has seen “Mississippi Mermaid”: he throws in a few unobtrusive jump cuts in homage to Truffaut’s use of the device. But the Truffaut was an autopsy of Woolrich’s tale; this one is a revival. It understands the connection of two original sins. Indeed, the movie argues that lust is greed, the vice in avarice. Both are crimes without conscience, without remorse. “I just killed a man,” Luis declaims after he’s disposed the detective who pursued them. “I just bought a hat,” trills Julie/Jolie, “but I don’t dwell on it.”

Cristofer also improves on, or completes, a plot strand in the novel. You recall that Julie was controlled by Billy, who has murdered the real mail-order bride and sent Julie to impersonate her and steal Luis’ fortune. Billy appears only furtively in the novel and not at all in the Truffaut. In “Original Sin,” where he’s played by Thomas Jane, he [SPOILER] has multiple personalities: he’s Billy, and the detective (who faked his own death), and Satan in a play staged early in the film. The invisible battle for Julie’s loyalty, between Billy’s conniving evil and her husband’s dogged devotion, is now made flesh. “He says he loves me,” Julie tells Billy. “No one loves you,” Billy replies. “No one could. Except for me.”

At the center of the Woolrich, Truffaut and Cristofer versions is the truism that love can’t be explained, that it is no more the slave of logic than the course of human history (or a Woolrich plot). “I love you as I know you,” the dying Luis tells Julie. “I love you because I know you. As you are. Good and bad. Better and worse. No other love but you.” [LAST SPOILER] Cristofer can’t let such a declaration go unacknowledged, can’t allow this tanned, succulent pair of actors be separated. If Julie is to choose Luis over Billy, she must turn him into Billy: teach him the tricks of her trade, as women have since the Garden of Eden. This is a story of Adam falling in love with Eve, or with Evil, and getting love back. In her fashion.

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