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What to Watch Tonight: Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

I do not think there is a classic movie-loving person or anyone who has even moderately studied film on the academic front who is not aware and likely a fan of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The picture serves as a great example of silent, horror and German movies as well as an illustration of the German expressionist period.

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

Besides being a tale of murder and insanity, the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is also made especially eerie with its sets, designed by prominent Expressionist artists of the day. Depending on the copy you get your hands on, it might also feature tinting, a process by which the frames of film were tinted with a color –in this case three different ones marking daytime, night-time, Jane’s house, and the plot’s framing device. This also works to make everything look additionally off-center.

The story is framed through a man recounting the plot to another person. It is a story of love, murder and a somnambulist –that is to say, a sleep-walker. The Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) of the title operates a circus sideshow (which is also called a cabinet) at which he offers the somnambulist Cesare who will waken and answer any question asked. When one of our characters asks how long he will live, Cesare says not for long. The somnambulist later wanders off in the night to accomplish this task. Cesare is notably portrayed by Conrad Veidt who would go on to play many a Nazi in American-made films, most markedly in Casablanca.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the most visually stunning films in history, which is quite a feat given how early into the history of motion pictures it was produced. The film’s use of chiaroscuro was largely created by having shadows painted directly onto the sets rather than producing them with lights. Although not horrifying by the standards of later fright films, the flick is certainly unsettling and thrilling and accomplishes all this without sound. So if you want to kick of the Halloween season right, and can stay up until 3:30 a.m. ET tonight/Tuesday morning, this is a must.

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is set for 3:30 a.m. ET Oct. 4 on TCM.

Above Suspicion

Gasser

Above Suspicion (1943)

     At first blush, Above Suspicion seems to be a spy comedy of sorts, given its star of Fred MacMurray and original casting of William Powell and Myrna Loy. As the plot progresses, however, the audience finds itself steeped in the treacherous landscape of Nazi espionage. 

     The picture starts out on a light-hearted note as MacMurray, nearly always a funny guy, walks out of an Oxford chapel with Joan Crawford on his arm. The newly married couple have their honeymoon interrupted almost immediately by an assignment to essentially act as spies during their Germany honeymoon and track down a missing agent. Crawford’s character’s response to the proposition is one of sheer delight at the prospect of spy life, but that jolly approach will not last too long.

     MacMurray is Oxford professor Richard Myles and Crawford is his bride Frances. Their first honeymoon stop is France where the two attend a cafe –with Frances in a rose-adorned hat– and spill their drink. They next utter a code line to signal their contact to meet them later. The next stop is a restaurant where their contact does not speak to the couple but leaves a map of Southern Germany filled with clues in Richard’s coat pocket. The young couple revel at translating the dots and holes into an indication of their next step.

     The first top in Germany is a book store where a man tells them where to find their next contact. Instead, the suspicious hotel staff point the Myles toward a concert where a German officer is shot by their hotelmate Thornley (Bruce Lester), who was also once engaged in similar spy work and had is fiancée tortured to death in the process. The couple next move on to a remote mountain village where they track down a chess collector who happens to be the man they are looking for. Unfortunately, another man is masquerading as the professor they seek and has the spy tied up. The Myles’ manage to escape, return for the Professor Mespullbrun (Reginald Owen) and make another clean escape. Their work is far from finished, however, and the most difficult tasks have yet to come with Conrad Veidt‘s Seidel to help them along.

     Never before have I seen Crawford so cheery as in Above Suspicion. She is in the height of her career and yet her character’s persona has a young energy to it that makes her highly appealing as a wife character and protagonist. It is worth noting, however, that in a scene where Frances is meant to have been beaten about the face, a close up of the actress provides favorable lighting that makes her appear more beautiful than at other moments in the film. Crawford was good at getting her way on aspects like this. Even when her characters were meant to appear worn down, she made efforts to look beautiful (see Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and the makeup and false breasts she uses to amp up her appeal).

     As mentioned, this picture was originally meant for a Powell-Loy repairing to get them out of the Thin Man setting that had become their mainstay together. It was Loy’s departure from MGM, however, that resulted in the recasting of the Above Suspicion. Speaking of cast members, Veidt makes his final screen performance here before dying from a heart attack later in 1943. The German film star, who like many of his contemporaries fled the country upon Hitler’s rise to power only to be cast as Nazis in American films, nicely rounds out his career by playing a German working for the good guys. His character begins rather ambiguously, and like many other aspects of this movie, one has trouble discerning whether he is sinister or an ally. Veidt made fewer than 30 films during the 50 years of his life, but left an indelible mark on cinema history.

Source: Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine, TCM.com

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