Then Playing — Mabel’s Strange Predicament; Wanda; The Professional

Mabel’s Strange Predicament (Mabel Normand, 1914). In the third film of his career, Charles Chaplin tried on a new costume. Mabel’s Strange Predicament is the first appearance of Chaplin in his famed guise as the Tramp, and it’s almost jarring to see how distant from the iconic version the persona is its nascent state. He’s a drunken cad, harassing patrons in the lobby of a posh hotel until he stumbles upstairs to accidentally insert himself into a comic melee between two couples renting rooms across the hall from each other. Directed by Mabel Normand, who also plays one member of the set of frantic, intertwined set of hotels guests, Mabel’s Strange Predicament is a knock-around romp of mugging and pratfalls. Aside from the historic significance in Chaplin’s filmography, the short film is a vital piece of U.S. cinema history, exemplifying the style of the earliest years when kinetic movement caught on camera was enough to justify the price of a ticket. It’s delightful in its madcap spirit.

Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970). A fascinating progenitor of U.S. independent cinema that grew in scope and reach around a decade later, the sole feature directorial effort of actress Barbara Loden has a coarse dramatic authority. Loden plays the title character, a woman in a coal mining town in Eastern Pennsylvania. She is woefully adrift, numbly seeking anyone who will take her in, which eventually put her in the passenger seat of a small-time crook (Michael Higgins). Loden’s screenplay is resolutely downbeat, charting desperate lives moving through seedy locales. Her direction is restrained and attentive, alert to small, troubling details, particularly in the ways Wanda is treated by the many people all too happy to use and discard her. Understandably, her performance is very strong, eschewing high dramatics in a way that forces the viewer to deeply focus on her, hunting from the truths that simmer beneath her placid surface.

The Professional (Luc Besson, 1994). An Italian hitman named Léon (Jean Reno) unexpectedly becomes the caretaker of a twelve-year-old girl (Natalie Portman) when all of her family members, neighbors in his tenement building, are slaughtered by a group of corrupt DEA agents led by a flaring-eyed lunatic (Gary Oldman, feasting while on a strict scenery-only diet). Capitalizing on the global success of his previous film, released as La Femme Nikita in the U.S., writer-director Luc Besson brought a mordant wit and plenty of flash to this slam-bang action movie. The staging is often inspired (I’m especially partial to an expertly executed shot that slyly reveals where Léon is hiding when a pack of heavily armed agents enters his apartment), and Besson injects just enough moments of warm humanity to elevate his archetypal storytelling. Portman, in her first film role, is a joy to watch, clearly still developing her formidable talent but still able to crack off a powerhouse moment, as when she quietly pleads for sanctuary at Léon’s door. The Professional is a slick, satisfying entertainment.

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