Liliom (France, 1934):

A stopover at France for Fritz Lang, in between dodging Nazi Germany and reaching the shores of Hollywood, and the etherealization of dread. The whimsy is Molnár's, shot earlier by Curtiz and Borzage, though here romantic transcendence is second to determinism, locked in the fateful circles of the carousel where Charles Boyer, the eponymous braggart, works as a carnival barker until he meets waif Madeleine Ozeray. A settled home scarcely provides domestication, for Liliom is a hooligan at heart, incorrigible yet at the mercy of bureaucracy's hilariously protracted stamp -- he tips arcade machines for change but remains pawn to the larger mechanisms at large. Similarly, the picture appropriates some of Renoir's camera movements and Clair's fantasy while sticking to Lang's sense for the iron-clad cut: an edit from the guys discussing the stabbing of a victim to the landlady's buttered-up knife, then later, from Boyer sinking that knife into his chest to Ozeray back home, feeling something. A botched holdup, Boyer's way of finding funds for an incoming baby, propels him into the afterlife, two messengers of death escorting him for the celestial check-in -- a visualization (and literalization) of Lang's cosmic forces behind the blueprint of lives, yet the lyricism is knowing, so Heaven here is a scoundrel's memories decked with wings, a la Chaplin, the waiting room with the same "No spitting" placard as the earthly equivalent. Lightweight folklore, all, but what passage is as tormenting as the hero having to watch himself slap his wife (over a cup of coffee), projected and analyzed on an extraterrestrial projection screen? Defending Your Life, but principally Fury, and then sixteen years sweating it out in Purgatory before a trip down to Earth to visit his grown daughter (Ozeray also). Future damnation is at stake, with heavenly scales tipping this way and that up above, but Antonin Artaud is a knife-grinding angel, so Lang's Stairway to Heaven materializes naďvely for Man's folly. With Florelle, Barencey, Pierre Alcover, and Henri Richard. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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