I’m back! And I am in Amsterdam currently. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to keep up the blog while I’m here, but now that I’ve been here a week, I feel confident I can stick to a post a week. That might change, but for now, that’s what we’re going with. Since I’m in Amsterdam, I thought I would try to cover some Dutch filmmakers. But I didn’t have access to a ton of Dutch filmmakers. So I did one film from a Dutch filmmaker (though I don’t know if it’s considered a Dutch film), and one in the same genre. So this week’s films are:
George Sluiker – The Vanishing (1988)
Sidney Lumet – Deathtrap (1982)
I have seen The Vanishing before, and I also saw the American remake, but for some reason, in my mind, the remake occurred much much more recently. It actually came out in 1993, but in my mind, it was a mid-2000s film. I think my brain is confusing it with the Nolan remake of Insomnia, which is another remake of a European thriller. And I’ve never seen Deathtrap, though I’ve seen the poster in the past.
Also, I’m on a totally different setup this week, so it looks like my screenshots are a bit off. Sorry about that.
Let’s get into it.
The Vanishing (1988)
Rex and Saskia are on their way to a nice vacation in the French countryside. But when Saskia disappears at a gas station, Rex’s life is put on hold as he spends the next three years searching for her. When he starts getting postcards from the killer, will he finally learn what happened to his wife?
The film is directed by George Sluiker, who was a Dutch filmmaker. The film stars Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, and Joanna ter Steege. The film is based on a book, which I’m not familiar with, and despite being a Dutch film, French seems to be the most spoken language. Donnadieu is a French actor, and the film takes place mostly in France, as that is where Saskia is taken.
The film does a lot of interesting things. First off, it plays with time very effectively. We start out with Rex and Saskia on their trip. They run out of gas in a tunnel, and they both begin to freak out, as it is completely dark, and there are no lights on the car. It’s an intense scene as Rex very confidently walks away with the gas can, and Saskia, who clearly has a fear of the dark and likely enclosed spaces, screams for him to stay with her while she frantically searches for the flashlight.
When Rex returns, Saskia isn’t in the car, which he doesn’t seem surprised by. For the audience of a film called “The Vanishing” however, this could be read as a very suspenseful moment. Rex simply drives to the end of the tunnel, where Saskia is waiting, having escaped from the tunnel.
Looking back from the end of the film, we see this entire sequence as foreshadowing various elements of the film. In particular, a moment where Saskia explains a dream she’s been having, where she is trapped in a golden egg in space, and cannot escape. She’s usually alone in this dream, but in recent dreams, Rex has visited her, also trapped in a golden egg. When we’re watching the film initially, this doesn’t seem very important, but at the end of the film, we learn that all of this is foreshadowing.
The other thing the film does that is incredibly interesting is that it introduces us to the killer as he is hunting Saskia. We don’t know exactly who he is, but we see a man at a gas station putting on a cast and a sling. His arm is clearly healthy as he does this. So he’s attempting to hide his strength. We then see him standing near the door, watching. When Rex and Saskia arrive and she walks in, we see him turn to her as she goes by. He clearly has bad intentions.
The film in fact never hides this man, who we later learn is Raymond, the killer. There are several shots of him lurking nearby Saskia.
At the gas station, Rex and Saskia make up and bury a couple of coins under a tree as a sign of their affection for each other. Saskia goes to get drinks, taking the keys as she’s going to drive next, and Rex sits by the car. We don’t see what happens to Saskia, but she doesn’t come back to the car. When Rex goes to look for her, she isn’t in the station. He begins asking around, panicking, and someone mentions they saw her walking away with a man. After looking for awhile, he returns to the car, and to increased the damage, their car has been robbed. He can’t even leave, because Saskia had the keys.
Here, we move to another fascinating part of the film, in which we start spending time with Raymond. We see him at home with his family, a wife and two daughters. They have a small country home and seem to have a nice life. But then we see Raymond doing things like testing how long a drug will knock him out, and whether or not screams can be heard from his country home. He practices how he might convince a woman to get into his car, and then hold them down while covering their mouth with a drug soaked rag. Once he thinks he has a good move, he even practices it on his daughter to see how it feels on a real human, replacing the violence with a light bop on the nose.
His family is suspicious, but not that he’s planning a murder, but that he’s having an affair. His wife is checking his mileage, and even his daughter assumes he’s cheating. But he has answers for everything.
His plan takes shape over several scenes, various moments giving him ideas to iterate and improve. He begins by going into town and asking women to direct him to a local place by getting in his car. But this goes bad when one of the women he approaches recognizes him. She scolds him for being so obvious about looking for a mistress, as she assumes. She suggests he go to any random gas station on the highway and there won’t be a chance of being recognized. He takes this to heart, and begins going to the gas station with a trailer. He plans to ask women for help attaching it, and get them into the car that way.
But when asking women to help him, he finds that they will either refuse, or send their husbands over, who quickly notice how light the trailer is, revealing his ill intentions.
We jump forward 3 years, where Rex has just started a new campaign to find Saskia, putting up posters in a town near where she disappeared. Raymond in particular finds te poster, and even chats with his friends about them. Rex is completely obsessed with discovering who took Saskia. He has a new girlfriend, but she seems to be losing interest. Raymond has been sending him postcards, inviting him to a location to meet. Rex dutifully goes, trying to gather as much information as he can, having his girlfriend take pictures of everyone there to try to catch the killer.
Raymond is too smart for this, however. But the film is careful to pan the camera around to show him watching from a nearby balcony. As Rex and his new girlfriend sit, discussing how long to wait, we can see Raymond sitting behind them, out of focus. The director here makes an explicit choice to never bring Raymond into focus, even when Rex leaves frame. But the shot lingers on the out of focus man. I imagine that some percentage of the audience never even realizes who it is.
The film picks up here, as Rex goes on television to make a direct plea to the killer, telling him that he just wants to know what happened, and that he will do anything to find out. Raymond watches from home, and the station shows police footage of the first couple of meetings. As they watch, Raymond’s daughter shouts out “That’s us!” after seeing herself and family in the first video.
Soon after, Raymond finds his opportunity and approaches Rex, revealing the keys that Saskia had when she was taken. He tells Rex that if he comes with him to France, he will know exactly what happened to Saskia. Rex responds by attacking him, punching and kicking him. Raymond seems to understand, and isn’t offended. He simply repeats his offer, telling Rex that he’s leaving for France in 5 minutes, and if he doesn’t come with him, he will never know what happened. Rex relents and goes with him.
Along the trip, Rex tries to get evidence against Raymond, taking his passport at the border and getting his name and address. Raymond assures him that he’s taken precautions, and that there is no connection between him and the murder.
Finally, they arrive at the gas station that Saskia was taken from. Along the way, Raymond explains to him how he took Saskia, and what made him want to kill someone. He talks about his childhood, and how he realized he was a sociopath, and experiences that he had that gave him the ideas of how to commit the crime. Finally he tells him about the day that he took Saskia. He had planned on using the cast as an excuse to get a woman into his car, and it works, but as he’s going around the car with the drugged handkerchief, he has to sneeze, using the handkerchief. He gives up on the plan, and goes into the bathroom, tossing his disguise.
As he’s prepping to go home for the day, Saskia herself approaches him, and asks for change for the coffee machine. They strike up a short conversation, and she asks about his keychain, which has an R on it. She thinks it would be a good gift for Rex. He makes up a story about selling them and having a box in his car. She follows him there and he prepares the handkerchief. Saskia hesitates to get in, but then sees the photo of his family and feels reassured. She gets in, and he holds the rag over her mouth, knocking her out. He sees it as fate.
Finally, he tells Rex that if he wants to know what happened to Saskia, he will have to drink a drugged coffee. Rex at first refuses, but his desire to know is too strong. He drinks the coffee.
I’ll stop the recap here, as the ending is just too creepy and unnerving to reveal. It’s one of the great endings in film.
A playwright’s latest work has just been excoriated by critics. Upon going home, he finds a spec script sent to him by an aspiring playwright. He realizes it’s genius, and makes a plan to invite the man to his home and kill him, publishing the play as his own. Will he be able to complete his plan over the objections of his wife?
Deathtrap is directed by Sidney Lumet, and stars Michael Caine, Dyan Cannon, and Christopher Reeve. Reeve was right in the middle of his run as Superman, and Caine was a legendary actor. Dyan Cannon is mostly remembered for being good looking, but she had a lot of good films under her belt by the time this was made, including Heaven Can Wait, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.
The film is about a playwright, and a play, and it is shot like a play as well. Almost all of the action occurs within a single room of the home of Sidney and Myra(Caine and Cannon). Lumet has the advantage of moving around the space a bit to show different perspectives that a stage play wouldn’t be able to do, but this is all stagecraft.
The film opens on Sidney’s latest play, which is widely hated. Sidney has been doing this for a long time, and knows that there’s no coming back from an opening night like that. So he goes home to the East Hamptons where his wife is waiting. Myra is portrayed as a nervous person with a heart condition. She screams her head off whenever she is surprised and everything about her demeanor tells us she feels in danger frequently. We also learn that she has lots of money, and isn’t worried about Sidney’s play failing, other than his happiness. She wants to take care of him. I really love Dyan Cannon in this role, she really does a lot with it.
Michael Caine plays his Sidney as a sad sack, angry at the world. Not for rejecting his play, but because he feels like he can’t do any better. He arrives back at his home, having missed his train stop, and having to take a cab back home. He’s hungover, and miserable, and complains to his wife about the play. She tries to comfort him, but he just won’t relent. Finally, he reveals that the thing that has upset him most is that a young playwright, Clifford, who took a weeklong seminar from him has just sent him his first play for feedback, and he found it absolutely brilliant. He’s furious that his work is declining and someone with no experience can outwrite him.
The next morning, he reads it again, and things it’s flawless. He slyly look at his wife, and suggests that no one knows who this guy is, and that he could kill Clifford, and take credit for this play as his own. To her credit, Myra is deeply against this idea, and tries to talk him out of it, telling Sidney that he could produce it, or offer to help rewrite it, and take half the credit, and the profit from the young unknown.
Sidney seems to accept this option, and calls the young man to visit him in East Hampton, confirming that there’s only one other copy and asking him to bring it. We move to the scene when Clifford arrives at the home to begin talking about the play. He initially gets excited at seeing all the posters and memorabilia of Sidney’s older, most famous plays. The walls of his little office are covered in various weapons, some from plays, some just as part of a collection.
They begin to talk about the play and how it might get made. The acting, directing and editing come together wonderfully here, as Clifford begins to explain that all of his notes, and the only other copy of the manuscript are here with him, the camera cuts to Sidney’s face. He’s staring at his wife with a menacing look on his face. He’s telling her without words, that it would be easy to take the play for himself, there’s no reason to continue this farce, he wants to kill Clifford.
Myra responds by launching into a speech about how Sidney should help Clifford get his play performed as a producer, or co-writer. Her nervous energy completely fills the space. This leads to another great scene where Clifford reveals he thinks the play is pretty good, and he wants to show it to some literary agents. Sidney talks him down, then talks him into putting on a pair of Harry Houdini’s handcuffs. After realizing he can’t get the secret mechanism to release, and Sidney suggests he can’t find the key, Clifford begins to get nervous. This is one of Reeve’s best scenes, as he begins to try to convince Sidney that someone knows he’s there. He gives a long speech about how someone will be calling to check on him any moment. The camera pushes in on Reeve as his desperation increases. Sidney toys with him, poking holes in his story, until finally revealing the key. This releases the tension in the scene and everyone is able to laugh. Sidney hands Clifford the key, and confirms with him that his story was fake. Clifford says he was trying to add enough little details to make it believable, just like Sidney taught him.
Then, in a wholly unexpected moment, Sidney throws a casual remark at Clifford about how long it’s taking him to take off the handcuffs, then wraps a chain around his neck and begins choking him.
This brings us to the first instance of the film’s trademark: turnabout. Just when we think we might have a handle on how things are going to go, and who has the upper hand, things twist and change. This is the first of the first act, but there are many more to come.
After Sidney buries the body, the film introduces the psychic detective, Helga. This is a silly aspect of the film, but it fits with the madcap style. Helga is from a Nordic country and speaks with a thick accent. Up to this point, the film has set her up as a serious professional, who actually solves crimes. When she enters, both Sidney and Myra are on edge, and even more so when she begins walking around the house, telling them how much pain there is in the house. She specifically points out the spot where Clifford was killed. She goes on to make several predictions about the future, which don’t quite connect with what we’ve seen, but are possible.
The film introduces it’s next big twist that night. The two go to bed, and Myra insists that there’s someone moving around outside. Sidney dismisses it, and demands she come downstairs to see that there is no one there. He opens the doors wide to reveal nothing there. They go upstairs, and as they are getting back into bed, the balcony door bursts open, and Clifford, covered in blood and dirt and holding a log comes in. He attacks Sidney first, then chases Myra. As he advances on her, a look of violence in his eyes, her heart gives out, and she falls dead to the floor.
As Clifford stares at her dead body, Sidney casually walks in. The entire thing up to this point was a plot between the two of them. Soon after, we also learn that the two men are lovers.
This is the end of the first act, much like a play, and when it starts up again, things start moving in a different direction. The funeral is over, and Sidney and Clifford are settling into their new life. Clifford is posing as Sidney’s secretary, and is ostensibly writing a play about poverty. The action in this act is kicked off when Sidney’s business manager arrives to tell him about Myra’s estate. Sidney very carefully plays the role of the grieving husband. He plays shock at how much money Myra had. As he leaves, the business manager makes a comment about how Clifford slipped something into a drawer and locked it when Sidney wasn’t looking, perhaps a script. He warns Sidney not to trust the man.
Sidney decides he must know what it is, and spends time trying to force the lock open. When he fails, he waits for Clifford to get home and manages to switch his work with a folder of his own. Here he discovers that Clifford is writing a play about everything that has happened up to that point. He is horrified, but Clifford threatens him with revealing everything. Sidney clearly can’t accept this, and he is particularly uncomfortable with being outed as a homosexual, so he agrees to play along…for now.
From here, the twists start coming fast and furious, every time we think one man must win the battle of wills, we discover that he was duped by the other. And things get increasingly frantic when Helga is reintroduced. The film climaxes with all three of them in a scrum in the living room. Clearly, only one can succeed. But who will win?
The Double Feature
This was a really great pair of films to look at. I was really pleasantly surprised by Deathtrap, which is essentially a screwball horror/thriller, something I had personally never seen before. And I’ll go ahead and say it, I think The Vanishing is certainly the best Dutch film of all time, and among the all-time greats. The way it’s structured with it’s focus on the killer, and his careful planning, and his trial and error, somehow avoiding major suspicion is incredibly thrilling. The way he uses Rex’s obsession against him in order to snare him is fascinating. He doesn’t have to attack Rex, or overpower him, Rex goes to his doom willingly. Raymond gets exactly what he wants. The final shot of the film lets us know that he’s very aware of what he’s done, and gives the impression that he’s getting the itch to try again. He’s been so successful, why would he stop?
Deathtrap is so intricate. It’s completely absurd, but it still all hangs together. The battle of wills between Sidney and Clifford is incredibly fun to watch. In particular, we get to see a great role from Christopher Reeve. It’s hard telling where his career would have gone after Superman, even though he had some nice roles, but it’s clear from this film that he was a serious actor, and his accident stole what could have been several more decades of great work.
Well, I’ve been in Amsterdam about a week, and I’ll be here for a few more. This is my first post here, and I think I’ll have plenty of time to keep the blog going for the most part. Maybe not every week while I’m here, but I’ll be trying to make it a priority. Because I’m here for so long, I don’t have to pack every single tourist thing I want to do into one week or weekend. I have lots of time.
Being in Amsterdam, I have access to some films I wouldn’t normally have, but a lot of films I would normally have access to, I don’t. So things might be a little different It’s the time of year where I start thinking about horror films, so that’s what I’m aiming for.
So next week’s films are:
Kaneto Shindo – Kuroneko (1968)
Nobuhiko Obayashi – House (1977)
Both Japanese horror films, but very different. One very atmospheric and moody, the other wild and over the top. Should be a good time. See you then.