March 14, 2019
The Invader (a.k.a. An Old Spanish Custom) – U.K., 1936
Remind me the next time I see my former co-workers who taught Spanish to talk to them about The Invaders. I want them to tell me if what we see in it has any basis in reality, either past or present, or whether this, like so much in movies, was a thing of fiction cooked up by someone who thought it would be humorous. The quip I’m referring to comes early in The Invaders, and it involves a Spanish couple – at least I think they were a couple – repeatedly slapping each other. When the woman uses all her might to smack the man, his face become flush with joy, and he proclaims something like “So, you do love me!” and she asks him if that isn’t obvious. So, if I understand this correctly, the harder one slaps someone, the more affection he or she feels. It’s an abusive spouse’s greatest fantasy.
And then there’s what happens next – the placing of rules on the one you profess to love. No sooner does the man learn that the woman he apparently loves indeed adores him back, then he imposes on her a series of severe, sexist restrictions. For example, she is banned from flirting with any other man – a rather ridiculous rule seeing as how she is an entertainer in the man’s club. The penalty for violating his rules: death to the man who receives her advances. Those of you looking down at your complimentary list of ethnic stereotypes perpetuated in movies can check off numbers one and three.
And we’re not done there, for no sooner does the man lay down his version of the law and depart, then a man comes out from under a tablecloth-covered table and passionately embraces the woman, all the while expressing both a rugged refusal to be intimidated and the heartfelt implorings of a woman who loves a man too much to put his life at risk. But wait! Those sentiments have awakened another notion, one of a more baser instinct. If the first man becomes so enraged with jealousy that he kills someone, then he’ll go to jail. And nothing says that the second man has to be him. It could be any poor sap unfortunate enough to fall for the woman’s charms. Now, check your list again. Somewhere on there, I’m sure, is conniving and prone to go along with homicidal impulses.
So, let’s see if I understand this clearly: The Invaders is about a couple trying to find someone for the woman’s boyfriend to kill in a fit of rage. If so, this is the stuff of black comedies, something in the vein of War of the Roses and Ruthless People, and with the sudden appearance of Buster Keaton as the couple’s intended sap, what could go wrong? Well, plenty, if you must know.
In the film, Keaton plays Leander Proudfoot, a yachtsman who is, for some unknown reason, sailing around Spain. It is also unclear just why Leander goes ashore alone – other than for comic purposes. Normally, I would not quibble with this, but there’s just one problem. The film is simply not funny. That’s not entirely correct. I did laugh in one place – and when I say one, I mean one. The moment came about halfway into the picture and involved Keaton and a musical instrument. Sadly, the levity was fleeting.
There’s a truism for films of this sort. The more time they devote to musical numbers that distract rather than adding to the plot, the worse they are. Also, with a short running time – The Invader clocks in at a little more than fifty minutes - any misuse of screen time is a sin. In fact, there are only two musical numbers that are necessary to the plot, one that establishes the woman as the object of men’s affection and another in which Keaton serenades the woman under her balcony. All of the other numbers could have been shortened or stricken from the film completely.
I’ve written before that the best of Buster Keaton’s films are about two people in love, but unsure of the way into each other’s arms. I think the key is to these films’ success is the investment that the audience has in the fulfillment of that relationship. Here, though, there’s no backstory to get behind. Keaton’s character just sees Lupita (Lupita Toar) on stage and falls for her. It’s not real love, but rather something akin to those high school crushes that start simply because a young man boy lays eyes on an attractive girl. There’s no reason to invest in these characters or their relationship, and their eventual get-together produced feelings of indifference and incredulity instead of excitement and satisfaction.
The film was directed by Adrian Brunel, whom I was unfamiliar with before seeing this film, and his work here is hit and miss. He has a large cast, but gives very few of them anything of substance to do. He shoots dance scenes that look suspiciously and tragically improvised, and just what people would see appealing in them or the dancer doing them escapes me. He also has the annoying habit of telegraphing what comes next. For example, in the scene in which Leander tries to serenade Lupita, he sits under a man’s balcony. Brunel films the items on the balcony – eggs and a plant. Care to guess where they end up? Even more egregious, he doesn’t seem to understand how to build comic scenarios around Buster Keaton, one of the greatest comedians who ever lived. In one key moment, a bartender puts something in Keaton’s drink, yet the scene leads nowhere. Keaton just sniffs the drink and pours it out discreetly. Nothing funny there. And yet, later in the film, when Brunel finally showcases Keaton’s physical comedy skills, as he does when Leander is preparing for a duel, the film becomes pleasantly watchable. Not good, mind you, but almost.
I never completely disliked The Intruder, not did I ever have overly positive feeling toward it. It has a scenario that is promising, yet never develops it to its potential. It has a female lead that is appealing, yet she is never allowed to use that appeal to its full potential. And it’s got Keaton, here making his second appearance in a film made outside the Hollywood system, yet it hardly knows how to use him either. I’m tempted to end something snide here, but this may have been the film that made me finally understand the notion that a film can only be this terrible for so long before it becomes somewhat watchable. And in all honesty, there are worse things that can be said of a film. (on YouTube)