Superman 1.44: The Man Behind the Curtain

He’s had henchmen. He’s had cronies. He’s had dupes and hostages and occasional team-ups, and according to the comics, there’s a whole planet out there populated by knuckleheads who think he’s a hero. But he’s never had a sidekick before; it’s just not a thing that Lex Luthor does.

He doesn’t really have a sense of humor either, or a collection of wigs, or any kind of compelling backstory or motivation.

So this, right here? This is not a Lex Luthor that we’ve seen before. This is something new.

Yesterday, we looked at the four-minute cop movie sequence that led us from the sunny streets of Metropolis down into the underworld, a dark place where a merciless villain lurked behind a perplexing bank of controls and screens, pulling fatal practical jokes on a representative sample of normal civilized humanity.

The spider at the center of the web was all-powerful, taking personal ownership of the cinematography, and editing the movie from the inside. Lex Luthor, the calculating Bond villain, was clearly in control of something vast and unknown.

And then the first thing that we see is his sidekick, who looks at him with disgust and spits out a one-word diagnosis: “Sick.”

 

So it turns out that the man behind the curtain isn’t exactly the great and powerful wizard that we thought he was, and it’s not immediately clear what he is instead.

Sick, Miss Teschmacher?” he complains, getting up out of the chair and stalking through a door into what appears to be a train station lobby that’s been converted into about six other things at the same time. “Sick, when I’m mere days from executing the crime of the century?”

There’s some kind of mad scientist equipment strewn about the set, and a comfortable leather accent chair, and some filing cabinets, and I don’t know, a billiards cue? Whatever this is, there’s a lot of it. Miss Teschmacher strikes a pose against one of the computer banks — she strikes a lot of ornamental poses, it seems to be her entire job description — and he waves her away from it impatiently.

“How do you choose to congratulate the greatest criminal mind of our time?” he continues. “Huh? Do you tell me that I’m brilliant? Oh, no no no, that would be too obvious, I grant you. Charismatic? Fiendishly gifted!”

“Try twisted,” she says, opening up a drawer in the filing cabinet, and once again he impatiently shoos her away from it.

So what do you call this, when it’s at home? The immediate thought, observing a pretty young woman being bossed around by a guy in a suit, is that she’s some kind of secretary, but he apparently won’t let her near the office equipment, and she’s dressed like a burlesque magician’s assistant from the planet Cartier. The second thought is wife and/or mistress, but he calls her “Miss Teschmacher,” and he doesn’t seem to show any sexual interest in her, here or at any point in the movie.

She’s just here because she’s the most interesting thing that anybody could think of putting next to Lex Luthor. The same principle applies to everything on the set. If you wanted to, you could make the argument that the entire film industry was assembled in order to put something interesting next to Lex Luthor.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so for now, I just want to focus on how unexpected he is. This doesn’t look like the Lex Luthor that we thought we’d see. The immediate discrepancy is that he has hair, but that’s a side detail which isn’t that important. Even if you somehow got through life without ever seeing a picture of Superman’s arch-enemy, you still wouldn’t expect him to look like this.

The greatest criminal mind of our time is wearing a brown pinstripe suit with a salmon-colored shirt and a completely impossible psychedelic floral ascot; he’s got a pinky ring, and a dead flower in his lapel, and a brown spotted pocket square that is clearly desperate to escape from his pocket.

For the first part of the scene, Lex scribbles occasional notes on a battered clipboard — notes which seem to be on the subject of how much he hates his co-workers, because he only does it when someone is annoying him — and in a minute, he’s going to open a safe on the other side of the room, put the clipboard inside it, and then close the safe door without locking it.

“Tell me something, Lex,” the vamp says impertinently, “why do so many people have to die, for the crime of the century?”

“Why?” Lex responds, because he is constitutionally incapable of answer a question with anything but a series of distractions. “You ask why? Why does the phone always ring when you’re in the bathtub?”

He switches off the lights, and struts over to another section of his bespoke, overstuffed set. “Why is the most brilliantly diabolical leader of our time surrounding himself with total nincompoops?”

That’s when Otis makes his entrance, with a jolly, “I’m back, Mister Luthor!”

“Yes, I was just talking about you,” Lex says with an irritated frown, and makes another notation on his mysterious clipboard.

Then he says, “You were followed again,” and his henchman whirls around and executes a perfect comedy pratfall, knocking over a lamp in an animated display of confusion and alarm. “In spite of those catlike reflexes,” Lex observes.

This is Luthor’s world, a tangle of wit and brilliance and self-destructive impulses. He knows that these people will annoy him, but he keeps them around and feeds them cues. He comes up with what is actually a clever lunatic scheme, but then he invites an extraterrestrial archangel directly into his lair, to brag about it. Luthor makes entirely no sense, and he is a joy on every level.

The movie version of Lex Luthor is one of those mythopoetic trickster figures like Reynard the Fox, Bugs Bunny and Dr. Julia Hoffman, who exist in order to shake things up and make life interesting for everyone else. He collects equipment and ornaments like a magpie. He employs henchpeople who don’t do anything useful, and aggravate him beyond endurance on a minute-by-minute basis. He claims to be the most brilliantly diabolical leader of our time, but he hides underground in a secret cave and shows no evidence of having ever successfully completed anything, criminal or otherwise. He appears to be both extravagantly rich and totally broke.

Honestly, if he’s anything in particular, then he’s Alexander Salkind, financier and executive producer of Superman: The Movie, who made blockbuster movies as the central feature of a slapdash money-laundering scheme, and surrounded himself with shady nincompoops. Salkind was eccentric and confusing and thoroughly untrustworthy; he lived in his own world of shell companies and Swiss bank accounts, and just before this movie was released, he literally had to flee the continent of Europe, and go hide out in Mexico until his lawyers threw up enough magic smoke to exhaust everyone until they agreed to a cash settlement, which he did not pay.

I don’t know for sure that Alexander Luthor keeps seven simultaneous passports, but like Alexander Salkind, his key advantage is his unparalleled ability to dazzle and surprise. He is an agent of pure exasperating chaos, and therefore the perfect antagonist for the first blockbuster superhero film. The whole point of superhero movies is to show the audience something that we’ve never seen before, and this Lex Luthor delivers beyond any reasonable expectation.

Tomorrow:
1.45: Hair Today.

Chapters

— Danny Horn

12 thoughts on “Superman 1.44: The Man Behind the Curtain

  1. Well, Luthor, Otis, and Miss Teschmacher weren’t really all that big a surprise to audiences in 1978. The Batman show had only been out of production for ten years at that point, and had been in heavy syndication around the world ever since. So the three of them are precisely what the audience was expecting a superhero’s arch-enemies to be like, and their lair is precisely where they expect to find them. It’s all executed superlatively well, of course.

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      1. When I first started reading Danny’s Dark Shadows Every Day blog, I was disappointed he wasn’t going to cover the first 42 weeks of the show. I loved those episodes, and they were fresh in my mind.

        As time went on, his refusal to talk about them came to be one of my favorite features of the site. I enjoyed participating in the comment threads, and Danny’s silence about episodes 1-209 meant that it was usually easy for me to come up with something to add to what was in the original post.

        Unfortunately, Batman 66 isn’t fresh in my mind. I haven’t really watched it since about 1979. But maybe I’ll watch some episodes in the weeks and months ahead, in hopes that I’ll have something to contribute later on.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Lex Luthor: The Movie (because as far as Lex is concerned this is all about him) is the Salskind’s shattered funhouse mirror version of America’s Self Made Man.

    He’s got toadies, hot dames, and piles of toys, but he’s really at a loss as to how to organize any of it. He feels and acts superior but he can’t keep a hankie in place. His is a mind of infinite ambition and endless self-aggrandizement, with enough actual smarts to concoct and carry out insane schemes, but *just* enough. Anything involving thinking about anyone besides himself, or long term consequences, or even why he’s doing any of this shit in the first place, is beyond him.

    This absolutely does not remind me of any American lunatic who destroyed the nation for his personal ego-stroking in the last four years. Nor does a planet full of knuckleheads who are convinced he’s a genius or Jesus or a genuine rich guy.

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  3. Does Lex live here with his henchpersons, or is this just their workplace? We see Otis making his way here in yesterday’s blog; is this his morning commute to work or just his return home from picking up the paper? If they live here, where do they sleep; what does a bedroom look like in this lair? I can easily imagine where Miss Tessmacher and Otis live, but if this isn’t Lex’s residence, what does his home look like?

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    1. I can’t imagine how a supervillain secret lair wouldn’t have a plush suite (or two). Never know when he might need to lay low for awhile. Probably has his own four-star chefs on hand too, in case he feels peckish.

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  4. Is anyone else getting a vibe from this iteration of Luthor like the X-Men villain Arcade? Same type of trickster, only Arcade doesn’t have heists on the side.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ok, I’m going to live up to my name and be contrary.
    The beginning of this movie was trying very hard to be taken seriously. Then the tone changed rather abruptly. And then we got to the villain and we got the 3 Stooges. Well, two stooges and a girl. I expected better based on the build-up.
    I had no knowledge of Lex Luthor when I saw this originally. This guy tells us he’s a master criminal but he’s obviously no Moriarty. He’s an eccentric psychopath with a quirky design sense. He seems to have no real criminal organization and his fixation seems to be making the most out of cheap real estate. I wasn’t expecting Thanos but I expected at least someone threatening. Instead we get a Batman tv series villain. Which would have been fine if that’s where they had been signalling they were headed from the beginning. I was expecting steak and got chopped liver.
    It’s a comic book movie. Yes, I get it. From the moment Lex appears until the end of the movie, it’s a typical comic book adventure. It started out as something different and ended–well, don’t even get me started on the ending! With the exception of the helicopter scene I actually found the rest of the movie disappointing. It’s not just seeing 40 years of more grandiose superhero movies that makes me feel that way. At the end of the movie 43 years ago, I left thinking it was ok but rather silly and I never went to see any of the sequels. I probably would have enjoyed it better if they had just gone with the “the-Superman-tv-show-and-the-Batman-tv-show-had-a-baby-and-this-is-it” vibe from the beginning. My expectations would have been lower and I would have been pleasantly surprised.

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  6. It’s interesting, the abominably misconceived Superman Returns (Superman buggers off to see if Dead Krypt’n is really dead – answer: Yes – for no apparent reason? Clark Kent: Deadbeat Dad? Lois as blandroid who looks and acts nothing like any convincing Lois Lane? Superman gets shivved?????) lifts one thing in particular from the original Superman(s) and gets it right, the delish Parker Posey as a Miss Teschmacher manqué, yet we can’t help but wonder why she is there. Ms Posey is one of the few highlights (I like Brandon Routh well enough but I don’t know why the blue of his suit is now apparently superdepressed – maybe it had time travelled and had already seen the movie? – or why it has a teeny tiny superman symbol that looks like it shrank in the wash) but of all the elements from the Donner/Puzo/Newmans/Mankiewicz/Lester Super-movies why would Singer and Co. think “what we need is a Miss Teschmacher clone”? Baffling.
    Apropos of nothing, I rather think modern movie supervillains would be jealous of having a Miss Teschmacher around as she does look good in that dress (the heterosexual villains at least but I’d guess some of the homosexual ones would appreciate how she dresses and her, um, sass?). They get stuck with CGI weirdoes or characterless flunkies. Boo!

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    1. Routh actually got a second chance to play Superman in one of the CW crossover events, Crisis on Infinite Earths. He did a really good job. I never saw Superman Returns, but judging by the COIE event, the problem wasn’t Routh.

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      1. That’s true, I wouldn’t advise seeing Superman Returns but Brandon certainly wasn’t bad, he just wasn’t Christopher Reeve and as Singer was trying SO badly to to have Returns be a sequel to the Donner Superman that was a problem. That said, if Singer intended Returns to be a sequel to the 1978 Superman it is hard to fathom why it is tonally and in most other ways so different. Not that I’m overthinking it or anything!
        I do have the Crisis on Infinite Earths episodes (on DVD! Yes, despite the assertions of the smug and the thoughtless some people DO still use DVDs or don’t have access to streaming or whatever is currently be sold as the latest must-have – series being projected into people’s brains via lasers wielded by capuchin monkeys, nature’s butlers, maybe. Ha! Um, unprompted cri de bore ends) but I have only part-watched them. Routh is likeable as Ray Palmer in his other appearances. It was a kick to see Tom Welling cameo along with the actress who played Lois in Smallville (I liked her a lot, unfortunately mind-fog means I can’t do her the courtesy of remembering her name!).

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