Friday, January 13, 2012

"The Blue Hotel" by Stephen Crane with James Keach and David Warner

This was the first time I have seen this remarkable film from Jan Kadar. It was first released in 1977 and then again in 1984 as a PBS special. Set in the last days of the American frontier, the story takes place in the parlor of the Blue Hotel, located in the small town of Fort Romper, against the backdrop of an impending blizzard.

Three men get off the train for an overnight stay in the hotel. Almost immediately the viewer is aware that one of the men is not quite right. The character known as "Swede", played by David Warner, is angry, apprehensive and almost expectant of trouble. He announces that "many men have died in this room", a charge vehemently denied by the owner. The Swede then further declares that he too will be killed that night, in that very room. Thinking him mad, the owner, Scully, does all he can to placate the Swede, mostly to no avail.

The owner's son, Johnnie, played by James Keach, is caught cheating at cards in a game with the Swede. The two then go outside, in the blizzard, to fight it out. The other guests, who have by now taken a dislike to the Swede, are all there to cheer on the owner's son. Initially, as he is beating the Swede, the other guests are crying out for the younger man to "Kill him, kill him!" They are sorely disappointed when the Swede nearly beats the younger man to death.

When everyone adjourns back into the hotel, the Swede decides to check out. When the owner refuses to accept any payment from the Swede a new argument is born. Just as that argument is escalating, a stranger enters the hotel seeking shelter. The Swede begins to pick on him, demanding that he listen to his story. The man refuses and the Swede puts his hands on him. The man asks him to remove his hand from his shoulder, and when the Swede does not, the man swiftly stabs him to death with one thrust. He then turns his knife over to the proprietor and asks to be awoken when the sheriff arrives in the morning.

Who is responsible for the death of the Swede? Was it the Swede himself? Had he read too many dime store novels about what to expect out west? Was he fulfilling a self-perpetuating fantasy? Or was it the intolerance of the other guests, and the hotel owner, for not understanding the strain the Swede was under? Thinking he was about to be killed could not have been easy to live with. But that only begs the question of why he would go someplace to experience what he fears the most?

In the end, director Jan Kadar has left us with a stunning visual adaptation of the Stephen Crane story. 130 years removed from the action portrayed in this film, these questions of intolerance still remain unanswered.

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