What better way to follow a silent movie?
In the piece on House of Games, I focused on Roger Ebert’s strong passion for the film. He championed it and explained very well how the film worked and why he thought it a great film. The review of The Shout (1978) in italics below takes the opposite approach. The critic doesn’t like the movie and only cares about what bothers him. I hope I can give some meaning to it, using it as launch pad for a fuller understanding of the film. The review is unedited, only interrupted, and can be found among the reviews on the critics page for The Shout.
ACCORDING to the program notes accompanying the credits for Jerzy Skolimowski’s “The Shout,” there is an “ordinary” housewife living near Bristol, England, “who has undergone exhaustive tests in a sound chamber and proved, beyond doubt, that she can produce a vocal sound greater in volume and power than the Concorde.”
Now there is a story to mull over. Can you imagine what would happen if that woman tried to move to Queens? They’d probably pack her off to Dulles Airport in Washington.
[These preliminary remarks suggest the snarky attitude to be taken in the rest of the review. The tactic of using the film against itself is common for reviewers, although they often use a title of a film against it. The Shout offers an opportunity, such as my opening sentence (in a positive way).]
Unfortunately, “The Shout” is not about that ordinary Bristol housewife. It’s about an unstable fellow named Charles Crossley (Alan Bates) who one day turns up at the English country house of Rachel (Susannah York) and Anthony (John Hurt) and alternately terrorizes and charms them with stories about his life among the Australian aborigines.
[One basic story. Crossley had been in the Outback for 18 years. He casually mentions that he killed his three aborigine children, a fact that becomes significant later. While there, learned “the shout”. “Terrorizes and charms” hardly describes the effect he has on the couple, upon whom he imposed himself. Their nonchalant and complacent marriage has run up against this strange man. His stories initially challenge the apparent solidity of their marriage.]
Charles also practices black magic learned from the aborigines, and it seems to work. When he takes an object from Rachel — in this case her shoe buckle—she falls completely under his spell. When she retrieves the buckle, the spell is broken. In a more dangerous way Charles fascinates Anthony with stories about a shout so piercing that it can kill all who hear it. Anthony, a composer of electronic music and a man always interested in a new sound sensation, challenges Charles to go into the dunes with him and let fly with one of his famous shouts.
[The most neutral part of the review. Relating the facts of the story. An important part of the story is iterated: the use of sound. Anthony hopes to show up Charles and get him away from Rachel. John Hurt exhibits well the threat to his increasingly fragile pretensions. Not just in his relationship with Rachel but, importantly from the film’s viewpoint, also his art and creativity.]
“The Shout,” which opens today at the newly remodeled New Yorker Twin 2, is a vivid, piercingly loud movie as well as an almost totally incoherent one. [We arrive at the review’s first salvo against the film.] The screenplay by Michael Austin and Mr. Skolimowski is an adaptation of a 1926 short story by Robert Graves. Since I haven’t read the story. [Since you haven’t read it, don’t mention it. This represents a phantom dig at the film. I have read the story and the film conforms to it well. Two major differences: the time period in the story is the 1920s. Second, Anthony’s music predilections are very 1970s. There also prints of Francis Bacon paintings on the wall of Anthony’s music room, one them is the screaming Pope in Head VI.] I can’t be sure whether the obscurities are Mr. Austin’s, Mr. Graves’s or those of Mr. Skolimowski, the Polish director of such well received films of the 60’s as “Rysopsis,” “Walkover” and “Deep End.”
[Skolimowski has a diverse output with several successes and interesting failures. Last year I purchased The Adventures of Gerard (1970), adapted from stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. Made the same year as Start the Revolution Without Me, the film is a satiric treatment of the French occupation of Spain in 1808. An uneven film, at best, much like his attempt to adapt Vladimir Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave(1972), which I watched on YouTube . He has two other major literary adaptations: Ivan Turgenev’s Torrents of Spring (1989) and Witold Gombrowicz’ Ferdydurke, entitled 30 Door Key (1991). His most unqualified success was Moonlighting (1982) starring Jeremy Irons. His 2009 film, Essential Killing, is nearly without dialogue, in which a captured Taliban fighter (Vincent Gallo) escapes from a black site in Eastern Europe and tries to make it ‘home’.]
The story of the film is told in flashbacks in the course of a cricket match at a mental hospital. The narrator is Charles Crossley himself and the listener, also according to the program notes (though there’s nothing in the film to confirm it), is Robert Graves, played by Tim Curry. [Curry’s character is named Robert.]
The story starts off well, like almost any ghost story made up by a child [I am perplexed by this assertion and the follow up below. Is this based on the critic’s experience or did he conjure this scenario from the vast reservoir of received ideas.], but then it becomes so full of loose ends, contradictions, cryptic symbols and close-ups of objects that, at the moment, have no meaning, that one eventually tunes out of the narrative [He tuned out the narrative because he didn’t understand what was going on. The Shout (1978) is not an easy movie to understand. This critic, and most of his brethren, judges a film as confused and contradictory when the meaning is beyond their grasp.], much as one does when the child’s ghost story becomes too hopelessly muddled for even the child to unravel.
A few things in the movie are clear: the magic we see in the film is real — that is, it works because its victims want it to work; Charles, played by Mr. Bates with the great loony relish he brings to such roles, is brilliant as are some certifiably mad people [Charles Manson, perhaps? John Dupont (Foxcatcher )? Although the latter probably was bi-polar and, once you look at him closely, he had to be oppressively boring to be around.]; Anthony is crazy too, or else he wouldn’t be carrying on with a blowsy village girl when he has a wife, in the person of Miss York, at home. [Should we assume, with this critic, that no man has ever cheated on a wife of great beauty? Again, another received idea makes its way into print instead of a thoughtful interpretation of the content.] Everything else, though, is confusion. [Final Judgement.]
“The Shout” is an elegant looking movie, nicely performed, but because it leaves one knowing less than one did at the beginning, it is easily forgettable. [The people to whom I showed this film in March wouldn’t agree. I thought a few might be irritated. However, the audience was caught up in the suspense and the film’s ideas.] Except for the sound. Apparently to prepare us for the scene in which Charles screams his aboriginal scream, the producers seem to have sharpened or heightened the soundtrack in such a way that even ordinary sounds — the wind, for example — take on a painful sibilance.
What is the meaning of the film? What our reviewer perceived as confusion may have been small but substantial suggestions as to what we are watching.
One of the Skolomowski personal quotes in the IMDb is: “As a poet my mind is trained along the path of poetic associations – I’m not afraid to wander away from direct narrative – I feel safe with a story that tempts you to believe or disbelieve.” This applies especially to The Shout. The aforesaid cricket match is where Crossley tells Robert the story. Crossley is an inmate (with privileges). Robert is a young doctor who is scoring the match with Crossley. One of the cricket players in John Hurt (he may not be Anthony), to whom Crossley reacts badly to. He tells Robert that he has a story to tell, a story that he, Crossley, often changes with each telling.
This is an important point. Not that Crossley is lying about his encounter with Anthony and Rachel, it may have some truth. For instance, at the film’s end, we’re expected to believe that “the shout” is a real thing. Also, Crossley clearly puts himself in opposition to those he believes have little or no imagination. He criticizes the Chief Medical Officer (Robert Stephens) when he first meets Robert. Neither does he have much respect for Anthony’s music, constituted with ambient sounds like marbles rolling in water in steel pan or a cigarette being inhaled. He calls Anthony’s experiments empty and, ultimately, uses his SHOUT as a superior manifestation of the art of sound.
Crossley’s intimidation of Anthony’s art is intermingled with his seduction of Rachel. Anthony falls apart in Crossley’s presence at lunch. Feeling his superiority, Crossley insinuates himself into the couple’s home and makes love to Rachel. Anthony is emotionally paralyzed. Crossley is cheating, at least seen on his own terms. He has a buckle from Rachel’s sandal which, according to aboriginal legend, gives him emotional dominance over the owner. Eventually, Anthony figures out how Crossley gets his power and fights back.
Crossley’s downfall occurs when the police come to Anthony’s house and arrest him. The charge: he murdered his wife and three children (echoing his story about killing his aborigine children). We assume he’s eventually tried, found criminally insane and placed in the asylum.
But we can’t be sure. The story of Crossley, Anthony, and Rachel is completely spun by Crossley. Everything he’s said must be qualified.
In the last scene, after a lightning strike killed another inmate (Jim Broadbent in his earliest credited role), the Chief Medical Officer, and Crossley, Susannah York (not identified as Rachel, and she did drop John Hurt off at the cricket match) arrives and runs into the asylum. She’s wearing a nurse’s uniform (Rachel is never portrayed as a nurse) and uncovers the bodies one by one until she sees Crossley. She places a necklace with a shoe buckle on his neck.
The scene suggests another, unseen story. The three principals, under other guises, may have had contact, even intimate contact. The film portrays the psychological struggle within that relationship. Crossley appears to have been rebuffed by Anthony, but after the spell over her has been broken, Rachel cannot let go of Crossley.