Sunday, December 16, 2007

#80: The Element of Crime

The Element of Crime, 1984, directed by Lars von Trier, written by Niels Vørsel and Lars von Trier.

I rarely like dream sequences. They're usually a solution of last resort when a filmmaker needs to cram in some exposition about a character's mental state and can't find a way to do it elegantly. Even in Ratatouille—which I think is near-perfect—Linguini's nightmare about Ego doesn't add anything we don't see more clearly in other scenes. And when it comes to taking dream sequences seriously, using Freudian dream-logic to articulate things that characters hide from themselves and others, I'm with Nabokov: "Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts." So that's dream sequences. But what about a dream movie? For me, one of the salient features of all of my nightmares is my inability to leave, that moment when you would like to wake up but are unable to. You can't capture that in two minutes of film, but you might be able to in a feature. Of course, then the question becomes, "But why would you want to?" Lars von Trier's The Element of Crime proposes an answer, but it's not exactly the one you might expect.

The film is a cinematic nightmare in at least two senses: it captures the logic of dreams in a way most films don't, and it's a singularly unpleasant viewing experience. This has a lot to do with the look that von Trier and cinematographer Tom Elling came up with, which is (I hope) unique in film history. Here's a still from early in the film, of a horse sinking in debris-strewn water:

That's not a brief, strangely colored insert: the entire film is lit with that same sickly yellow. It looks like Piss Christ: The Motion Picture. Von Trier and Elling got the look by using sodium vapor lamps (now illuminating a grocery store parking lot near you), and it's unforgettable. Which is not to say it was necessarily a good idea.

Michael Elphick stars as Fisher, a man undergoing hypnotherapy in an attempt to cure his headaches. After an hour of staring at The Element of Crime's palette, I knew exactly how he felt. As the film opens, Fisher is living in Cairo, where he's apparently seeking medical care on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark:

N. B.: this doctor's office is in the "real world" that opens Fisher's hypnotized memory of his last trip to Europe. So to say the film is expressionist is an understatement. Fisher's memory is a muddled pastiche of film noir and serial killer films, with a touch of Apocalypse Now thrown in for good measure. It's a bit like what T. S. Eliot might have produced instead of "The Wasteland" if he'd known film noir instead of Dante. Here's how Fisher begins telling his story:

I'm a policeman. I've finally been called back to Europe to solve a murder case.

Note that he's telling it like a dream, not a memory; he might have begun "I'm an X-wing pilot" or "I'm a trombone." The Europe he's been called back to is unrecognizeable, even to him; the first time we see him there, he's adrift in a boat, yelling that someone has "moved the fucking stairs." The murder case he's been called back about is actually cases: a serial killer has resurfaced long after his case was supposedly closed by Fisher's discredited mentor Osborne:

Osborne was a criminologist with an unconventional method that will be familiar to fans of crime movies (and which John Woo took very literally): in order to catch a criminal, you must become him. Osborne refers to his method somewhat cryptically as "the Element of Crime." To anticipate where the serial killer will next surface, Fisher duplicates a preparatory trip the killer took before his first crimes. Fisher drives the same route, stays in the same hotels, wears a hat with the killer's name on it, and even sleeps with the same woman. Does he end up identifying a little too well with the killer? Are the killer and the cop assigned to catch him, in the end, not so different? Well, I don't want to give anything away.

Although the movie predates the long string of serial killer films of the 90s, all the tropes of the genre are there. The killer has a grand design he's enacting with geometric precision:

There's the obligatory autopsy sequence with the inappropriately cheerful coroner:

There's the repurposing of things associated with childhood, from the repetitive nursery rhyme nonsense some characters mutter (e.g., "books and bother killed my mother") to the childish drawings that cover key documents like this one:

And there's even the misogyny that lurks just beneath the surface of so many of these films, mixed with more menophobia than Carrie and Superbad combined.

But if you noticed the name "Harry Grey" a few stills back, you've figured out that Von Trier's cinematic touchstones are less De Palma and more Carol Reed—apparently Harry Lime sounded too brightly colored for such a monochromatic film. Von Trier evokes Reed's Vienna throughout the film in small ways and large:

That's appropriate, since like The Third Man, The Element of Crime takes it as a given that Europe is in its last stages of moral and physical collapse. Everyone Fisher meets seems to be on their last legs, and the sets are uniformly decaying. The references to Apocalypse Now are a tougher fit, since that film dealt with such a uniquely American catastrophe. They're there, though: Jerold Wells in the still above is meant to remind you of Brando, and there's a great helicopter shot later in the film that's should have "Ride of the Valkyries" playing over it:

Kramer, the police chief Wells is playing, goes so far as to wander around a chaotic excavation yelling "Who's in charge of this operation?" like Willard. Finally, Von Trier tips his hat once or twice to Tarkovsky, starting with the opening shot: a donkey trying to get to its feet like the wounded horse in Andrei Rublev.

The problem with this hodgepodge of cinematic references is that they don't make the film any less tedious. Von Trier does create a pretty convincing nightmare: there are plot points that almost make sense, vague suggestions of ominous things happening off-camera, and more textbook Freudian puns than Bringing Up Baby. But unless you're really emotionally invested in the decline and fall of European culture—in which case, you're probably blogging about Islamofascism, not watching arthouse movies—The Element of Crime isn't going to connect as anything more than a stylistic exercise. If you want a moving depiction of a nightmare, your time would be better spent with "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities."

So what's Von Trier's mash up of film noir, cultural anxiety, and monochromatic cinematography in service of, exactly? My theory is that it's in service of Lars Von Trier. This was his first feature, and from a game theory perspective, The Element of Crime is kind of a brilliant opening move. The script is just a draft away from being a conventional serial killer film. If a few of the stranger lines were excised, it would have been easy to raise money to get the movie made. The sodium lighting makes the film instantly memorable; you can't mistake a frame of it for anything else. And the fragments of other films Von Trier has shored against his ruins are critic bait if I've ever seen it. If Von Trier had made the serial killer film The Element of Crime is very close to becoming, it would probably have gone straight to video. If he'd announced upfront that his plan was to make an incoherent mess of references to other films, and color the whole thing like urine besides, I doubt he would have found a willing producer. By combining the two, he made a grand entrance, and hasn't slowed down since.

While I find The Element of Crime difficult to watch (it really is nightmarish), I can't deny that it has style. And style, like personality, goes a long way. In Von Trier's case, it took him to Cannes, where he was nominated for the Golden Palm and left with a Technical Grand Prize. I don't like this movie. But I do think Von Trier is a magnificent bastard for making it.


  • The only other Von Trier film I've seen is Dancer in the Dark, which I thought Stephanie Zacharek summed up pretty well for Salon: Von Trier's "movies are meat grinders he feeds his characters through." The Element of Crime doesn't really fit that description, but only because it's impossible to give a damn about any of the film's characters. Both films are as cruel to female characters as Brazil. In The Element of Crime, women are either there to be loathed and then fucked and then loathed again, like Me Me Lai, who plays Fischer's lover:

    Or they're anonymous victims, like nearly every other woman we see in the film:

    So Björk sort of got off easy, in the sense that she didn't have to feign sexual ecstasy while leaning over the hood of a Volkswagon.

  • Von Trier has a brief cameo, as the clerk at one of the film's many decaying hotels.

    His character is just as charming as he looks.

  • The DVD also includes Tranceformer, a profile of Von Trier directed by Stig Björkman and Fredrik von Krusenstjerna. It was made while Von Trier was directing Breaking the Waves, and is notable for two reasons. The first is a clip of Von Trier saying, "Shall we skip the niceties and get on with the interview?" on camera, presumably after the interviewer asked him how he was doing or complimented his work. It's a nice passive-aggressive thing for the filmmakers to have included, in that it makes Von Trier look like a jerk. The second is the interview footage with Peter Aalbæk Jensen, who produced Breaking the Waves. Jensen appears to have modeled his on camera persona (Producer with a capital P!) after Orson Welles in The Muppet Movie.

  • The Element of Crime contains a nice example of the art direction colliding with the script. Throughout the film, we see copies of Osborne's monograph, The Element of Crime in various editions, from a leather-bound hardcover to an Arabic translation. The graphic design of each different version is well designed and appropriate; this is the kind of detail I really appreciate when filmmakers take the time to get right). But Osborne doesn't have a first name, which means that the trade paperback floating around the floor of Fischer's car looks a little unbalanced. Click the image for a full-sized version:

  • Most awkward Freudianism in a film full of awkward Freudianim: Kim tells Fisher "I want to show you something," and the next shot is the two of them on a boat, sailing down a dark, wet passage.

    Fisher's therapist says he's gone "down the drain... into the tunnel of love." Save us, Nabokov!

Friday, November 16, 2007

#79: W. C. Fields - Six Short Films

W. C. Fields - Six Short Films, 1915–1933, various directors and writers.

In The Bank Dick, W. C. Fields says, "In the old Sennett days, I used to direct Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the rest of them... Nights, I used to tend bar." Six Short Films gives viewers a chance to see the product of that kind of schedule. The results are pretty much what you'd expect. Here are the Six Short Films:

Pool Sharks, 1915, directed by Edwin Middleton, written by W. C. Fields (according to the IMDB; there's no credited writer). Despite what the IMDB may tell you, this was Fields's first film. He basically does his best Charlie Chaplin:

Fields is 35 in this still, still relatively unscathed by drinking. But even at his young age, Fields had grasped the principle of comedy that would inform so much of his career: when in doubt, have somebody start throwing shit.

That's about 30 seconds after the credits. So, film historians, here it is: the first projectile to hit W. C. Fields in the back of the head.

It would not be the last. There's just about no plot to speak of; Fields agrees to play pool with Bud Ross for the hand of the unnamed actress on the hammock. Havoc ensues. The chief distinction between Fields in this film and Fields in the rest of his work is that he's occasionally cheerful:

Of course, he's cheerful about bashing Bud Ross's face in with a pool cue. Some things never change. If you prefer more malice to your physical comedy, rest assured that there's plenty of that as well:

Unfortunately, Pool Sharks gets weighted down in the middle by the actual game of pool. Fields and Middleton put a groundbreaking special effects sequence at the heart of their film, the kind of thing that dazzles any audience. I'm speaking, of course, of jerky stop-motion.

Every time Fields or Ross takes a shot, Middleton cuts to an unconvincing scale model of a pool table, and the balls lurch around in single-file lines. It's a shame, because the rest of the film is remarkably funny for a basically plotless silent. Fields is already remarkably misanthropic, and there's an absurdity to some of the gags that shows up in his later work. For example, is this any place to keep a goldfish bowl?

Well, as long as you're going to be standing under it when people start throwing billiard balls, the answer is yes. Clearly, Pool Sharks was included on the disc simply because it was the first movie Fields appeared in, but it's got its moments. Here's one of them:

The Golf Specialist, 1930, directed by Monte Brice, written by W. C. Fields. One of the best films on the disc. W. C. Fields plays J. Effingham Bellweather, fifteen years older, drunker, and fatter than he was in Pool Sharks. He's still sporting that ridiculous moustache, though.

Writing about The Bank Dick, I said I'd have been perfectly happy to watch a film called W. C. Fields Gets Drunk and Beats Up An Eight-Year-Old. I underestimated him. In The Golf Specialist his opponent is only five.

The Golf Specialist presents us with W. C. Fields in his purest form: unjustified rage and unsated desire. After a brief introduction in a hotel lobby, the film settles down to an extended scene where W. C. Fields tries, against all odds, to impress another man's wife by successfully hitting a golf ball. He's accompanied by Al Wood, who plays the saddest sack of a caddy imaginable. His character doesn't have a name, so let's call him Estragon:

Fields's increasingly desperate attempts to accomplish a simple task (and his mantra-like repetition of the line, "Now stand clear, and keep your eye on the ball"), are a perfect example of one of the great principles of comedy: after a certain number of iterations, tragic failure transmutes into hilarious failure. The Golf Specialist is a short film, but in the right hands you can keep that kind of gag going for nearly fifty years.

The Dentist, 1933, directed by Leslie Pearce, written by W. C. Fields. This is the first of the films from "the old Sennett days" that's actually, you know, from the old Sennett Days:

Or rather, the new Sennett days. Mack Sennett, having made his name years earlier with silent comedies (including the Keystone Kops), had just started a distribution deal with Paramount that would bankrupt him a year later. The remaining four films in Six Short Films were all produced by Sennett at Paramount, and released between December of 1932 and July of 1933 (Sennett went bankrupt in November). If that seems like a remarkably fecund period, take a look at the titles of the remaining films; not just The Dentist, but also The Pharmacist and The Barber Shop (only The Fatal Glass of Beer is its own thing). It's a lot like the McKay/Ferrell collaborations: pick a profession, put "W. C. Fields is" in front of it, walk out of the pitch meeting with a greenlight and a suitcase full of cash. That's not enough to make a good movie, whether it's with Will Ferrell or W. C. Fields. In the case of The Dentist, however, it's enough to make an unreleasable movie, because one of the film's patients reacts to being drilled as though she's, well, being drilled:

The Criterion Collection release was the first time the film was presented uncut. The Dentist is otherwise unremarkable; Fields has lost his mustache and submerged himself in a look I like to call "cantankerous Grandpa":

Most of the jokes revolve around how miserable it is to go to the dentist, which is well and good, but not exactly fresh comic territory. The Dentist does compare favorably to The Golf Specialist in one key area, however: treatment of caddies. Fields throws his into a water hazard.

The Fatal Glass of Beer, 1933, directed by Clyde Bruckman, written by W. C. Fields. One of the most bizarre films on the disc. It's often mentioned in the same breath as Monty Python, and with good reason; it's their kind of humor. It's sort of a parody of films about the Yukon, but it's also a parody of parodies of films about the Yukon, like Chaplin's The Gold Rush. But it's also succeeds on its own. W. C. Fields is some sort of Yukon-type; it's not entirely clear what he does besides attempt to milk elk. Shortly after the film begins, the action stops completely while he sings a lengthy song about the evils of drink, accompanying himself on the dulcimer, while wearing mittens:

Yeah, it's that kind of movie. W. C. Fields's wailing tune plays over flashbacks of George Chandler playing "Chester Snavely, the Wastrel Son," as he's corrupted by the titular beverage:

By the song's end, Chester has learned a valuable lesson: "Don't go round breaking people's tambourines," and the film moves on. It's completely, wonderfully absurdist, and not coincidentally, hilarious. Consider this exchange:

                    MRS. SNAVELY
          He wants more money, and if he
          don't get it, he'll take our

                    MR. SNAVELY
          He won't take old Bozo, my lead

                    MRS. SNAVELY
          Why not, Pa?

                    MR. SNAVELY
          'Cause I 'et him.

                    MRS. SNAVELY
          You et him?

                    MR. SNAVELY
          He was mighty good with mustard.

As usual, Fields manages to take a good joke and turn it into a great one by taking it just a little further: with mustard.

The Pharmacist, 1933, directed by Arthur Ripley, no credited writer. This is slightly better than The Dentist, if only because the humor depends more on observations about what it's like to work in a service industry (The Dentist, one would hope, tells you very little about what it's like to actually be a dentist). Take a look at the unchecked passive aggression in Fields's smile as his character explains that, although he'll be glad to send a truck several miles to deliver a single box of cough drops, he won't be able to split the box.

The Pharmacist also features more of the sort of alcohol joke Fields got so much mileage out of in The Bank Dick, including the best martini shaker ever:

That's Marjorie Kane as Fields's daughter. She gets a wonderful moment of absurdity a little later in the film: exiled from the dinner table (and from the foreground of the shot) she devours the family pet.

In a some ways, this felt the most modern of the films on the disc, probably because there's an undercurrent of loathing that seems so central to most people's experience at work these days. Fittingly enough, The Office seems to have stolen at least one joke: take a look at the way Fields holds up this little stuffed man and waits for his unamused customer to laugh:

Ricky Gervais held the office stuffed monkey longer, and more uncomfortably, but I'd bet money that's where he got his facial expression.

The Barber Shop, 1933, directed by Arthur Ripley, no credited writer. Thoroughly mediocre. Most of the best jokes revolve around how miserable small town life is, but the kind of small town Fields targets (the kind where a proud denizen pronounces that they've got "A public library and the largest insane asylum in the state!") has pretty much died. Fields is in good form here, playing the same kind of antihero he plays in The Bank Dick: the terrible, terrible father. I suppose it was bracing at the time for a comedian to point out that the wisdom dad spouted at the dinner table might be rubbish.

My favorite line: "Mr. Lincoln used to tell riddles, and that, as much as anything else, made him the wonderful president that he was." The stuff in the barber shop itself is very much like The Dentist, but not as funny. It's a pity the disc doesn't end on a particularly high note, but that's the price you pay for chronological order. The Barber Shop hits the kind of absurdity that makes The Fatal Glass of Beer so much fun only once, at the very end. For reasons too convoluted to explain, Fields has left two double basses leaning against one another in the corner of the shop for the length of the film. When he picks one of them up at the end, it gives birth to a pile of violins.

So the disc ends as I suspect W. C. Fields would have wanted it to: on the wrong side of the Hays Code.

Watching this many short films in one sitting glosses over the fact that these were directed by different people over a period of years. And given the incredibly rapid rate at which the Sennett productions were churned out, comparing them to features that spent years in development seems a little unfair. The correct comparison is probably to episodic television, and if he had been born twenty years later, I suspect that's where W. C. Fields would have ended up. He only really played one character, but he played that character extremely well. Whether America would have welcomed a misanthropic, bumbling drunk into their living rooms once a week is another question. But I certainly would have.


  • The Golf Specialist has a Simpsons-style freeze frame joke. Near the end of the film, we're told that J. Effingham Bellweather is a wanted man, and we briefly see his wanted poster (one of the best photos of W. C. Fields ever).

    That poster's interesting in and of itself, because it seems to have all of the rejected ideas for Bellweather's name listed as aliases: Dirty Deal Duffy, Rev. D. D. Dunk, Prince Raviola... But although the poster shows his crimes as things like manslaughter and homicide, the next shot is a ten-second pan down a list of offenses that would be right at home at McSweeneys. Except for its racist conclusion.

    For your reading pleasure, here's everything J. Effingham Bellweather is wanted for:

    • Bigamy,
    • Passing as the Prince of Wales,
    • Eating spaghetti in public,
    • Using hard words in a speakeasy,
    • Trumping partner's ace,
    • Spitting in the Gulf Stream,
    • Jumping board bill in seventeen lunatic asylums,
    • Failure to pay instalments on a strait-jacket,
    • Posessing a skunk,
    • Revealing the facts of life to an indian.

  • Clyde Bruckman, who directed The Fatal Glass of Beer, had his own illustrious history. He wrote most of Buster Keaton's best work, including Sherlock, Jr. and The General, which he directed with Keaton. He also wrote Welcome, Danger! for Harold Lloyd, and directed films starring Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and the Three Stooges. But he liked drinking even more than Fields did, was basically too drunk to direct The Man on the Flying Trapeeze, got fired (Fields apparently took over his duties mid-shoot), and nevere directed another film. If that reminds you of the director character in The Bank Dick, well, it should. Bruckman worked as a writer for a while, but became radioactive after Harold Lloyd sued Universal over stolen gags in one of his scripts. After directing an ill-fated live television show starring Buster Keaton in the fifties, Bruckman borrowed a gun from Keaton, went out to eat on Santa Monica Boulevard, bought a meal he could not pay for, and shot himself in the head.

  • Criterion doesn't offer much information about the origins of the prints used for this DVD, but there's a clue in the end credits. We briefly see an end title begin to fade in over the Mack Sennett logo:

    Before it's replaced with the following:

    It turns out that the U. M. & M. TV corporation bought virtually all of Paramount's short film library around 1955, on the condition that they remove the Paramount logo before airing them. Which they did, by cutting the original negatives. So the results are a mixed bag. The opening credits of The Dentist appear to have been restored but are windowboxed (perhaps by mistake?), The Fatal Glass of Beer features a static title screen—misleadingly claiming the picture is copyright 1933 by U. M. & M. TV Corp—while what is obviously the dog from the Mack Sennett logo barks on the soundtrack, The Barber Shop has the same dog barking in the background over a black screen, but then shows a Paramount copyright superimposed over what appears to be the U. M. & M. TV Corp's opening titles. The moral is that both copyright lawyers and film restoration experts have very difficult jobs, and when Paramount tells you to take their name off something, they don't mean destroy the original negative. None of that tomfoolery was quite as jarring as the intertitles on Pool Sharks:

    Yep, it's the Encyclopædia Britannica font, in a film from 1915. There's a reason the film has new intertitles, and it has to do with Raymond Rohauer's somewhat shameful career. The copyright page tells the story:

    Produced by Gaumont in 1915, but copyright 1968 by Raymond Rohauer. Rohauer was in the habit of taking films out of the public domain and copyrighting them himself (usually by making minor changes like the new intertitles seen here). He got his start running the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles (still extant on La Cienega Boulevard, next to one of my favorite dive bars—it's mostly used for comedy and theater now). He moved from art-house-owner to distributor when James Mason brought him a cache of long-believed-lost Buster Keaton films he found in the garage of a house he'd just bought, and apparently was so notorious for copyright manipulation that he was something of an inside joke for film nerds. As DVD Savant tells it:
    One gag film shown to great approval at Filmex in 1972 was an ersatz Rohauer copy of Fred Ott's Sneeze, an Edison film that lasts about four seconds. The parody surrounded the snippet with at least three minutes of redundant and insulting new scrolling titles, mostly proclaiming Rohauer's copyright and threatening legal action to pirates. It ended with the statement that Rohauer had successfully acquired the copyright on sprocket holes.
    Whatever his sins against the public domain, Rohauer preserved a large number of films that would otherwise have been lost, and gave Kino Video access to his entire collection on his death. Why not Criterion, Raymond?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

#78: The Bank Dick

The Bank Dick, 1940, directed by Edward Cline, screenplay by W. C. Fields (credited as Mahatma Kane Jeeves, as in "M'hat, m'cane, Jeeves!").

In its rough outline, The Bank Dick sounds almost hard boiled. A misanthropic drunk with a miserable family life lies his way into a job as a bank security guard. Once there, he convinces a coworker (and son-in-law to-be) to embezzle money and invest it in a stock market scam. When an auditor shows up looking for the money, he collaborates with a sleazy bartender to poison the auditor to cover up the theft. Only that doesn't work out quite the way he planned it either. David Mamet could direct it. But odds are he wouldn't cast this man in the title role:

That's W. C. Fields swallowing a lit cigarette, an old vaudeville bit that's about as far from noir as you can get. In fact, it's about as far from narrative coherence as you can get; Fields never bothered much with structure or plot. The opening titles, for example, feature a safe door being blown open:

That's the last time you see that safe, hear anyone mention a safe, or see any explosives. That's par for the course; no one involved in the film gave a damn about telling a story. The movie exists just as an excuse for W. C. Fields to do his W. C. Fields thing: putter around drunk, get into trouble, and say and do morally reprehensible things. Fortunately, that's more than enough to keep me amused.

Fields plays an unemployed alcoholic named Egbert Sousé, (pronounced, as he continually reminds people, "sou-say, accent grave over the 'e.'") His only goal in life is to slowly drink himself to death, but he shares a house with his wife, mother-in-law, and two daughters, and they have other plans. Basically, their plans seem to involve sitting around the house doing crossword puzzles, but that doesn't mean they aren't disappointed at Egbert's failure to provide. And they express their disappointment... physically. Within the first five minutes of the film, Sousé's adorable youngest daughter gets adorably angry enough that she throws an adorable ketchup bottle at his head.

I lost count of the number of times Egbert gets hit in the head by a projectile in the course of the movie, but this is a representative still:

Fair enough. Fields does the typical comedy thing: letting out a bizarre, high pitched yelp of pain and staggering out the door. Very funny. But then he comes right back in and attempts to murder his daughter with a concrete vase:

And that's the real gag. A great deal of the pleasure of this film comes from moments when we underestimate the level of animosity Egbert has for everyone around him. Homer Simpson's character often works in much the same way (think of him strangling Bart), and as in "The Simpsons," The Bank Dick operates in a world where sloth, dipsomania, and mendacity are invariably rewarded. Actually, Egbert's world is more morally inverted than Homer's; on "The Simpsons," Homer usually has to learn some sort of lesson before an episode reaches a happy conclusion. But Egbert learns absolutely nothing.

The film is at its best when Egbert is treated with undeserved dignity, as in the scene where he lies his way into a job as a film director. He tells a desperate producer, "In the old Sennett days, I used to direct Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the rest of them... Nights, I used to tend bar." You can't really write about his timing in a way that makes that line as funny as it is when he delivers it, of course, but you can appreciate the way this sequence works from this still of production assistants carrying their director around like the maharaja:

Of course, Egbert's dignity never hangs around for very long, whether he's falling out of his chair:

or getting hit over the head by his daughter once again:

Shortly before being hit on the head, by the way, Fields explains to the movie's leads that he's changed the film slightly: "Instead of an English drawing room dray-ma... I've made it a circus picture." And then the plot he describes is not, in fact, a circus picture, but a sports movie. The Bank Dick never really goes anywhere from here. Sousé falls over backwards on top of a bank robber and tells everyone that he foiled the crook's escape deliberately. This gets him a job as a bank dick, but what he really wants is alcohol. Which, fittingly enough for a "dick," he prefers to get at an establishment he refers to several times as "The Black Pussy."

Most of the time, the movie only toys with violating the Hays Code (Sousé's curse of choice is "GOD-frey DAN-iels! MOTHER-of-pearl!"), but I was kind of amazed he got away with this one. The movie gets bogged down about halfway through when it starts to flirt with a plot. Sousé gets taken in by J. Frothingham Waterbury, the least convincing con artist in cinema history:

After convincing a coworker to invest $500 of the bank's money in the "Beefsteak Mines" shares Waterbury is selling, Sousé has to match wits with J. Pinkerton Snoopington, bank examiner, straight out of fuddy duddy central casting:

These parts of the film fell flat for me. And the final car chase struck me as tedious, although it does show a remarkable disregard for the safety of stuntmen:

Basically, every scene The Bank Dick spends advancing the plot is a scene wasted; I would have been happier with a movie called W. C. Fields Hangs Out In A Bar And Then Beats Up An Eight-Year-Old. All the moving-the-plot-along drudgery does pay off nicely in the end, however: Egbert is redeemed, not because he has learned a damn thing, or changed a bit, but because he finds himself filthy rich.

Most comedies from this time forgive a certain amount of anarchy at the beginning, but only because the worst impulses of the main characters are curbed. The genius of W. C. Fields, and his enduring appeal, lies in the fact that his characters continue to wallow in the muck; these are films where having a static main character is absolutely the right decision, Robert McKee be damned. The Bank Dick gives viewers what looks like a happy, if somewhat ridiculous ending; his mother in law, wife, and daughters all adore him (his daughter calls him pater noster!), and he no longer has to worry about losing the family home. But he's still a drunk with no interest in anyone around him. Fields really got something about the way we mistake wealth for character—the most cutting joke in the film comes as Egbert toddles off his estate to get drunk again. His family fondly watches him go.

"What a changed man. You deserve a lot of credit, Agatha," says his mother-in-law. "Hasn't been easy," his wife replies.


  • Fields loathed tourists and paparazzi more than Britney Spears and Sean Penn put together. He was known to hide in his front bushes and shoot unwanted gawkers with a BB gun.

  • I wonder if Martin Scorsese had this in the back of his mind when working on Taxi Driver. It has a scene that's kind of familiar, if much less creepy.

  • Russell Hicks, who played the con artist, had a phenomenally distinguished career as a character actor. He was in more than 300 movies, going all the way back to The Birth of a Nation.

  • No less distinguished was the actor who played the sleazy bartender:

    That's Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges, in a rare non-Stooges appearance.

  • For some reason, W. C. Fields was rumored to have hated children. That's a charge he explicitly denied in this film, where he gives himself the memorable line:
    I'm very fond of children. Girl children, around 18, 20...