Essays by Gerald DiPego
These are films I saw between the ages of ten and twenty, films that, in some way, hit hard and went in deep and mattered, enhancing or awakening some strong feeling in the boy I was then and helping to shape the man I am now. They are in no particular order.
Movie 5 - INVADERS FROM MARS, '53
I was 12 when I saw this one, and it drove like an arrow into the most vulnerable part of myself. It was years before the wound healed and the reoccurring nightmares left for good.
Aliens were landing on the earth. You didn’t see them. They made holes in the earth, in the sand. They were hidden, but they could come out – and they didn’t kill humans and eat them, far worse. They ‘took them over’. They would plant a tiny bar of metal into the back of a person’s head, and from then on that man or woman was changed, never smiled, was never animated and had, in his or her eyes, a malignant look.
All of this hit me hard and went so deep because the film focuses on the child character, on the boy of the family, on me! This boy and I seemed to meld together as we watched the story and listened to the very creepy music and held our breath as, one-by-one, several people in this small town ‘changed’.
The boy tries to understand what’s going on. His parents are helping him, becoming caught up in the fear, until a moment comes when the frightened boy approaches his dad – and sees that the man is cold now, not the same at all. Oh my god – his father. They got his father. It was the strongest movie shock I had ever felt up to that time. The boy’s world is shaken, falling. He tries to tell his mother, and it’s this moment that is branded on my brain, when he walks into a room and his mom turns to see him, and there it is: the cold, malignant stare of his own mother.
I don’t remember one more minute of this film. I think it had a happy ending and the boy gets his loving parents back by the finish. But that came too late for me. I had already imagined seeing, in my mother’s face, a malignant stranger – and this was the reoccurring nightmare that showed up a dozen times during my boyhood. And I had a loving mother, a funny mother, and maybe that’s why the fear went so deep. What if SHE changed? What if that look came into HER eyes, the woman I depended on for care and affection and safety and love and…. What if she looked at me as if I was a hateful stranger? This particular what-if knocks the struts out from under a child’s world and goes right to the eternal core of his or her fear.
Okay, it’s a movie. It scared the hell out of me and gave me nightmares, but it didn’t scar me or crack me. I survived as most of us survive the fears that tumble along with the joys of childhood. But, wow, what an impression! I don’t believe this would have happened if I had read a novel of the exact same story. Only a film can carry this kind of punch because film is the closest medium to the human dream state. Films and dreams are like twins. They behave the same way, not anchored to any page or stage, with their juxtaposed scenes and their dialogue and the way they cut, sometimes jaggedly, from setting to setting anywhere on the earth or off the earth. I believe that it’s this closeness to human dreaming that gives film its power.
Movie 6 - THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, ’39
I was about 10 when this classic was re-released in the early fifties, and in those days my friends and I didn’t pay much attention to movie starting times. We just went, whenever we could, to our one theater, a Quonset hut just outside our rural town in Illinois. If we walked in in the middle of a film, so? We watched the rest of it, then waited, caught the newsreel, the cartoon, coming attractions and then watched the repeated film until somebody said: ‘this is where we came in,’ and we left.
So I walked into this dark theater, into a raucous roar of wild shouts and laughter on the soundtrack, seeing only the screen, and this screen was full of the face of Quasimodo, the hunchback, a close-up as he’s led through the streets of Paris and crowned King of Fools. Charles Laughton played the hunchback, or rather became the hunchback, his face and body deformed, his expressions terrible, his voice inhuman, even his laughter frightening, grotesque. He was hideous, and I was stopped dead in the aisle, holding my popcorn, a frozen boy. I wanted to run back to the lobby and out of the theater, but I was with my older brother, Paul, and his friends, and I couldn’t bolt. “C’mon!” came Paul’s whispered shout as he stood at a row of empty seats, motioning to me.
I looked away from the monster and found my seat and then was pulled back into the horror, because I couldn’t keep my eyes away from this marvel of ugliness. It was too real. HE was too real. And we DID think of The Hunchback of ND as a monster within a list of ‘monster’ stories: Wolfman, Dracula, Frankenstein, etc. So, yes, I was expecting a monster film, but nothing so human or so tangible, so overpowering as this. Monster movies were dark and mysterious, with only peeks at the fierce creature now and then – but this daytime carnival on the streets of Paris was dumped right into my lap.
I didn’t know the story. I had never even read the Classic Comics version of it, let alone the wonderful novel by Victor Hugo (one of the few classics I’ve read three times over the years and will likely read again)
It had what seemed to be the trappings of a monster story – the ‘beast’s’ keeper, an archbishop, the beautiful gypsy girl who dances in the street for coins, and who is there to be threatened by the monster, right? And then rescued from him by the hero at the end, right? But wait. That wasn’t the story at all.
I saw that the monster was deaf. That he was simple. That he was shy – and then I saw him on trial and then the victim of a public whipping, and left tied to the pillory, bloody and thirsty, and I felt sorry. I felt sorry for the monster. Esmeralda, the lovely dancer, conquers her fear of him and gives him some water. It’s a great moment.
Later in the story, when Esmeralda herself is falsely accused of a crime, it is SHE who is taken to the pillory – to the gallows! She is about to be killed – but there IS a hero in this story, and the hero is Quasimodo! He pushes aside the guards, gathers up the girl and escapes with her into the Sanctuary of the Cathedral where he lives, he being the bell ringer. This monster is a hero! What a transformation. But then this change goes beyond his heroism, and we see his tenderness with the girl, and we watch him shyly show her his world of the bell tower, and show her his friends, the great bells, whom he has named and who have made him deaf with their powerful tolling.
He defends her against a mob that surrounds the church. He’s ready to give his life for her, and, of course, he falls forever and completely in love with the beautiful Esmeralda, and this is where he disappears forever as monster. At this point in the film, Quasimodo has earned my love and my great pity, here at the end when the woman must leave him. I had never felt such heartbreak from any book or film as I watched his great final sigh, and felt his loss and felt, also, a bit older, even wiser as the credits played. We were both transformed.
A fine, epic production, yet only 117 minutes long (that kind of powerful mega-movie would be closer to 3 hours if made today – that conciseness a lost art?) Directed by William Dieterle, staring Laughton, Maureen O’Hara, Edmund O’Brian and Thomas Mitchell. I love it.