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B Role #1: Dark Waters

Film discovery isn’t business; it’s personal.

B Role #1: Dark Waters
Photo: United Artists

Film discovery isn’t business; it’s personal. It defines every chapter of a cinephile’s life, mapping a unique process of spectatorship that grows and develops differently depending on the individual. This lifelong journey creates an expanding universe of preference and taste with constantly shifting borders, instilling salient reminders of nostalgia collected along the way. A small moment, an inspiring recommendation, a stellar review, or a mention in a textbook, becomes something equivalent to a first itch we spend a lifetime scratching. When the floodgates do open, the possibilities and processes swirling around in the sublime whirlpool of cinema threaten to overwhelm us. Whole subjects and genres are ripe for conquering, yet discovery is not about completion but evolution, developing an appreciation for nuances that ground films within a specific historical and social context. The only way to breath underneath so much material is by slowly, calmly addressing one film at a time, always with the understanding you won’t see them all. So, like Mother said, choose wisely.

My own obsession started in familiarly bright corners, with rampant forays into the films of Spielberg, Kubrick, and Tarantino, paving the way for Sayles, Jarmusch, Lee, Rafelson, Penn, and Altman. After exhausting myself on American cinema, I pushed outward to the national cinemas of Iran, Italy, France, and beyond. As horizon’s expanded, my viewing mimicked an inverted historiography class, constantly looking backward to see what historical elements influenced those I had just studied. Eventually, as it happens with most students of film, the muffled, haunting echoes of Hollywood’s underbelly known as the “B movie” began calling my name, screaming out of the past with a pitch so edgy and piercing I couldn’t resist. The writings of Sarris, Rosenbaum, and Hoberman provided names and faces for these daring filmmakers working on the fringes of mainstream Hollywood, men and women creating textured and scathing entertainment from whatever monetary breadcrumbs had fallen down the assembly line. It didn’t take long for Fuller, Ray, Sirk, Lapino, Mann, Boetticher, and Lang to construct a special church of subversion, a place where substance and style took dead aim at those in power and pulled the trigger. These were the ciphers of American film history, and I was hooked on their mystery and danger.

Over the years, my raging affair with the B movie has only grown more passionate and all consuming, but there’s so much more to be discovered. I’ve written occasionally on the subject, but never within a dedicated close-knit study to the social, political, and aesthetic patterns driving these potent works. So it’s extremely exciting for me to introduce a new bi-monthly column here at The House Next Door, entitled “B Role,” an ongoing exploration of the films, artists, and genres shaping the dimly lit universe of the B movie. The goals of this column are two-fold: expand my own film discovery process even further into the dank corners of the B movie, while bringing a critical light to specific directors, actors, writers, and cinematographers burrowing beneath the pressurized surface of mainstream Hollywood film history. It should be a wild ride.

My first entry delves deep into the bayou with…Dark Waters. Mood dictates narrative in Andre de Toth’s film, a hallucinatory jigsaw puzzle set in the deep swamps of 1940s Louisiana that becomes a perfect breeding ground for nourish shadows and deceptive wordplay. Fading pencil drawings of the marshy locale give way to newspaper headlines documenting the sinking of an ocean liner by a Nazi submarine, juxtaposing a textual overlap between trauma and memory. The print becomes superimposed over the face of one survivor, a young waif named Leslie Calvin (Merle Oberon), who worriedly looks into the camera and confesses some of the horrible events she’s witnessed. Leslie’s ravings don’t quite add up, but they introduce a sense of fragility so important to the trajectory of de Toth’s narrative. “You ever go to a funeral where the minister forgot the service,” Leslie screams, showing the failure of faith and hope during an ordeal where she helplessly watched her parents drown in the icy water before being saved. Mental self-destruction is imminent, and Dark Waters masterfully establishes Leslie’s shattering vulnerability as a double-edged sword, partly self-imposed, partly influenced by threatening external forces.

Alone and panicked, Leslie reaches out to her only living relatives for support, an elderly aunt and uncle she’s never met who’ve recently taken up residence at a family plantation in the deep South. De Toth uses pinpoint fades to glide Leslie from her cramped hospital bed to an empty train station where the young woman waits for some kind of Southern hospitality. That she finds only isolation is an excellent indicator of the degenerating experiences to come. The economic editing style begins a long pattern of elliptical moments that parallel Leslie’s psychological ebb and flow. As Leslie sits alone at the train station, the extreme environment once again overwhelms her, and she passes out from exhaustion only to be revived by a handsome young doctor named George Grover (Franchot Tone). Their meeting is classically melodramatic, but de Toth bases the flirty “damsel in distress” introduction within a cramped interior space bursting with pulp dialogue. “You’ll be all right once I get you out of this slab-sided oven,” George says, trying to impress the city girl with his charm. Leslie confesses that it wasn’t just the heat, but “the fear of being alone, of having no one to turn to” that promoted her extreme panic. De Toth sets the stage for a fabulously evocative struggle between characters jockeying for control of their own destinies, even when questioning each other’s sanity.

The romantic notions simmer in the sweltering heat, then placed on the back burner as George drives Leslie out to the plantation to meet her curiously absent family. When they arrive, the aura of the plantation is immediately suspect, and something about Aunt Emily (Fay Bainter), Uncle Norbert (John Qualen), and their manipulative family friend Sydney (Thomas Mitchell) immediately feels out of place. “Forgive the mess. We’re camping out,” Emily annoyingly says, evoking a wealthy sense of entitlement that feels altogether forced. As Leslie sets in for the long haul, her benefactors begin casually inquiring about her difficult experiences, seemingly pushing her toward a devastating mental break. But is Leslie’s paranoia caused by a worsening sense of guilt and delirium or by other menacing factors at play? The genius of Dark Waters stems from the initial ambiguity to this question, with the film exploring the possibilities of either explanation through languishing strolls in the swamp, densely compacted dialogue sequences over dinner, and tense nighttime set pieces filled with ghostly sound effects. De Toth constantly blurs the line between perception and reality by withholding specifics from Leslie’s past, forcing the girl into a shadowy corner where she begins to question her own self worth. “Why did they pull me out of the water? That’s where I belong, under the water with my mother and father,” Leslie screams in one of the film’s most diabolical moments. Aunt Emily just watches calmly, offering false modesty as her only comfort. The pattern of entrapment gets worse, and Leslie’s fearful existence begins to force any hope for emotional connection to the perimeter, guarding against the thought of being left alone once again.

Even though Dark Waters shows its cards soon into the third act, the film achieves so much tension through subtleties of sound and image it’s easy to forgive the more familiar thriller tropes at work. De Toth conducts long, winding camera moves to accentuate the perforated conversations that slowly undermine Leslie’s confidence, until every one of her jabs at the truth become stuck in aesthetic quicksand. To compound this sense of collapsing space, interior scenes are dissected by crisscrossing lines in the architecture and on clothing, deepening the strangeness and potential brutality wavering in the character’s facial expressions and movements. A scene in a dark movie theater, where Leslie sits between Sydney and plantation boss Cleve (Elisha Cook Jr.), is especially disturbing for its inhumanity. The two watch Leslie squirm at a newsreel about the sinking of a ship by a German sub, the flickering light of the projector restaging her entire trauma. De Toth holds on the three shot as Sydney and Cleeve revel in this shrinking violent morphing into a hot mess. In this sense, Dark Waters repeatedly conveys the idea that survival is just another form of death, something to be manipulated by those who can. Throughout Dark Waters, Leslie slowly gasps for air long after her life should be out of danger.

In terms of social and political elements, de Toth deals with issues of racial inequality quite literally in the form of the farm hand Pierson, a longtime worker who was abruptly fired by Sydney and actively seeks an answer to his termination. He teams up with Leslie to uncover Sydney’s devious motivations, and their partnership is a progressive example of sidestepping race in order to find the truth. Pierson acts almost like a detective, becoming a multidimensional character that takes his life into his own hands. It’s hard to imagine this representation being found in a mainstream Hollywood film of the time. The politics of Nazism and fascism are mostly left out of Dark Waters, replaced by the danger of serial murder and heinous criminal activity. But the traumas of wartime violence are the root of Leslie’s fractured condition, so de Toth is obviously concerned with how these elements impact the film noir and thriller genres.

Dark Waters ends with multiple dead bodies sinking into the bayou and Leslie directly confronting what one character calls her “persuasion complex.” The bravura finale through the oozing locale is a stunner, and despite some surface romance that feels a bit forced, the film stays true to its mystically dark mood, a slithering distant cousin to Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie. The screams of the swamp are supposed to echo those Leslie heard while drifting on the high seas, but this time she has found a man to solidify her future. George is the driving force behind their collective survival, but Leslie’s belief in her own sanity makes it all possible. While the gender politics are nothing radical, De Toth has constructed a temple of doubt out of the extreme location, an uneasy hybrid of B-movie genres that changes with the tides. For a long time, Leslie wades through physical and psychological canals of trauma only to find more doubt, and Dark Waters punctuates her journey by stripping the safety net of romance and compassion until the very last frame. The world can be a shifty, insidious place, and sometimes “home sweet home” and “the perfect guy” only offer a façade of protection from the growing insanity lingering just beneath the surface.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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