Saturday, October 4, 2008

"A Case of Depressive Psychophobia": Voice in the Wind (1944)

The crashing waves underneath the credits eventually dissolve into a view of a serene body of water as a voice intones:

"Again it has happened, and in our time. That hundreds of thousands of innocent people, human beings like you and me, have been forced in unprecedented terror to flea their homes and their countries. Some of those who fled the medieval darkness of Europe succeeded in reaching their goal: America. You may have encountered them just around the corner---human beings like you and me. Some didn't. And they are the ones our story is about. Like those who found themselves cast ashore in the lonely island of Guadeloupe in the Lesser Antilles in 1940, cast ashore without reason, without friend, without hope. Human beings like you and me. Maybe you can feel with them, maybe you can't."

The last line rings of harsh accusation---there is nothing reasonable about Voice in the Wind. You'll either succumb to its despairing tone or be put off by its strangeness. There may not be a way to categorize a film that is an extension of the poetic realism movement, an anti-Nazi propaganda piece, fog-shrouded psychological horror, demented slapstick comedy, ethereal romance, celebration of the arts, and an experimental film. If not for Arthur Ripley's other masterpiece, The Chase (1946), we might be able to call this film singular. These two Ripley "believe-it-or-not's" are clearly spawned from the same delirious mindset, from a director described by Edgar G. Ulmer to be of unsound body and mind.

Otherworldly mystery is established from the first scene. The sound of a foghorn punctuates the night, as a lone man walks determinedly into a bar. With a paranoiac stare, he approaches the bartender who clearly knows the man.

"Pernod's no good for you, Pernod's no good for anybody. It makes you play the piano, and I don't like the piano. I hate the piano. And I don't want you to play the piano. So...I don't give you no Pernod." LONG PAUSE "Whiskey, yes. Double, triple, cuatro. But, NO PERNOD."

He, of course, pours a Pernod for the wild-eyed man. Opening his cash register, he pulls out some cotton (right next to a set of false teeth) and stuffs it in his ears.

An old woman walks up the rickety stairs to her apartment. Inside her husband fans himself in a rocking chair next to a bed-ridden young woman.

Together, they walk through a beaded curtain onto their porch. The emotive sound of a piano can be heard in the distance, leading their conversation to the player, "El Hombre, the crazy one." Pulling drags from his pipe, he diagnoses the enigmatic pianist. "I would call it a case of depressive psychophobia, probably the result of a head injury."

She speaks quietly, "Strange, how beautiful he plays. Takes you you wish they were."

"Things as you wish they were,” he agrees.

She has teared up. "Well, I guess that's the way it is with us oldsters. Always looking back."

"But today, even the youngsters of twenty are old and looking back. Hopelessly looking back. Trying to remember, trying to find the thing which they have lost, the thing which may have given meaning to their lives. Lost...lost. Like our little friend lying in there. Lost and dying because she cannot get back the one thing she loves."

The camera dollies in, magically parting the curtain, to the bedridden woman's face. She slowly opens her eyes, raises her head as if an invisible force were beckoning her. The piano playing ends. The foghorn blows. Her eyes seal back up.

The connection of these characters, their foreign accents, and their location is unclear. They exist in a melancholic island, somewhat exotic, both humid and foggy. What ails the angelic looking woman in bed? Who is the insane piano player and what happened to his head? Even the contents of the bartender’s till raise questions.

El Hombre was Jan Volny in another life, a respected Czech pianist who dreamed of going to America with his wife, Marya---the withering angel we saw earlier. On the eve of his capture by the Nazis he laments their tyrannical invasion.

"Listen." The sound of marching outside puts a pall over his face. "Since they've came, Marya, there's come over me a kind of darkness and despair. The simple truth and beliefs I thought I'd found in poetry and in my music now seem forever lost. There is no dying and no death. The spirit of man is a thing apart---a thing of beauty, of truth, and of love. Since they came, it now seems but pure mockery. An insistent voice keeps whispering: stay home, stay where you are, snipe and hate with the rest."

Though a whispered, somber tone is maintained through most of the film, a harsh element is introduced in two forms. First, there are the Nazis, foremost Captain von Neubach, an effeminate who interrogates Jan after he disobeyed orders and played the verboten melody---Bedrich Smetana’s “The Moldau”.

Von Neubach: "You played it because you wanted to arouse the anti-German feelings of the audience, not because it's beautiful music!"

Jan: "Maybe you're right. Maybe beautiful music does arouse anti-German feelings. Maybe anything beautiful does and that's why you hate it. Because you don't know what beauty is, because it's beyond you, because you can't destroy it with all your soldiers and Gestapo-men with all your tanks and Panzers with all your poor, foolish, and ridiculous---"

Jan is promptly bludgeoned into a crazed idiot. After escaping the clutches of the Germans, Jan finds a ship about to set sail. Three brothers, ringleader Angelo, the strong, silent Luigi, and the whistling young one Marco run this ship. We first see Angelo arguing with Luigi’s latest floozy. After wishing a death by shark attack upon the brothers, Angelo flies into a fury, smacking the woman over and over, screaming incessantly:

"And this is for the baby shark! And this is for the papa shark! And this is for the mama shark! And this is for the baby shark! And this is for the papa shark! And this is for the mama shark!"

When the woman collapses, they erupt into hysterical laughter. Later in the film, Jan/ El Hombre thinks back to his time with Marya. They were together on bench, Jan reading form Shelley's "Alastor: Or, the Spirit of Solitude":

"All else, selfish, blind, and torpid, are those unforeseeing multitudes who constitute together with their own, the lasting misery and loneliness of the world. Those who love not their fellow-beings live unfruitful lives, and prepare for their old age a miserable grave."

The world is divided between the lovers and, as Jan calls them, "The enemy---the philistines." The Nazis and the marauding brothers (though brother Angelo has an intuition about El Hombre's dual nature, which leads to his salvation) do their utmost to destroy Jan and Marya's union, but they are drawn together on a Caribbean island for one moment before death. "There is no dying and no death," Jan says to Marya as his head slumps onto her body.

In his New York Times review upon Voice in the Wind's release, Bosley Crowther commented on the eyestrain caused by the film's dark cinematography. He saw a brand new 35mm print. Once that print has been duped down to 16mm, transferred to VHS and, later, compressed onto a DVD-R disc, it is a wonder anything can be made out at all. But it is evident that Eugen Schüfftan, who lensed such moody pictures as Le Quai des brumes (1938) and Les Yeux sans visage (1960) as well as many low budget Hollywood pictures---including Voice in the Wind---where he went uncredited due to his union status, lent just the right brushstroke of light to the pool of darkness. A newly-struck re-release print would be a cause for celebration, just to bask in the glow of the candle from the last shot, seen above.


GuyMiles said...

Just wanted to thank you for doing a post on this film. Your assessment and frame grabs are both excellent and helpful. Read about this film in Spencer Selby's Dark City: The Film Noir, and was intrigued from the get-go. I'm also a fan of Ripley's The Chase, I like his sensibility as a filmmaker, though I realize not a lot of people share my sentiment. I've discovered at least a couple private dealers who have it, seeing these images has me motivated to act soon.

Adam said...

I do hope you track down a copy of this film. It is highly melodramatic, even morose!

Thanks for commenting!