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The Crucible (1967)
Another crucial loss
Saw this version of THE CRUCIBLE when it was first broadcast: it made a big impression on me. But haven't seen it since (so far as of 2013 not available on DVD), but the acting was astounding. I remember details of Coleen Dewhurst's performance, her rich, deep voice quivering with disbelief as the accusations mount. Most of all, Tuesday Weld gave the finest performance of Abigail i've ever seen. She was able to bring so much depth to the part, and such ferocity! I've seen several stage versions of the play, as well as the 1957 French film and the 1996 film version: no one has ever been better than Tuesday Weld. One thing: who played Tituba? I can't remember, and i can find no listing (anywhere) as to who played that part in this TV production. (I know that Jacqueline Andre played the part in the 1953 Broadway production, and Vinette Carroll went to France in 1957 to play the part in the film starring Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, but who played the part in 1967?) Of all the Abigails, Tuesday Weld is the only one to really bring out the sexual assertiveness, and how the thwarting of sexual expression can become "demonic". (Another thing i remember is how the married women were addressed as "Goody"; the sound of Melvyn Douglas's voice and Fritz Weaver's voice saying "Goody" to Coleen Dewhurst is a vivid memory.)
Fährmann Maria (1936)
Maria, a gem of the Weimar ocean
Frank Wisbar was one of the many talented people working in the German film industry in the late 1920s-early 1930s. He was a producer, often working with Arnold Fanck; he produced MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM (directed by Leontine Sagan), and assisted on the production of Dreyer's VAMPYR. Obviously, this was a person with an interest in "alternative" cinema; his own work as a director also revealed his interest in non-mainstream cinema.
FAHRMANN MARIA is a fable of the occult. As such, it follows VAMPYR in trying to tell a narrative in terms of atmosphere and metaphor. The moody, shadow-shrouded cinematography is just so marvelously evocative; the settings show the great influence of Expressionist design. Yet this design is used to enhance the performances, particularly those of Sybille Schmitz (also one of the leads in VAMPYR) and Peter Voss.
Wisbar's highly promising career was cut short, as he was one of the many who fled the Nazi regime and wound up in the US; though many of the German emigres would succeed, quite a few wound up toiling in the nether regions of low-budget fare for Poverty Row studios. Wisbar, like Edgar Ulmer, was one of those who never quite made the leap to success in the major studios. Wisbar would remake FAHRMANN MARIA as THE STRANGLER OF THE SWAMP, but, though atmospheric, the mythic dimensions of FAHRMANN MARIA are contracted in the American settings. But FAHRMANN MARIA is one of the true classics of the Weimar cinema.
Une si jolie petite plage (1949)
The quintessence of Gerard Philipe
His sensitive performance as Prince Myshkin in L'IDIOT (1946) had brought international attention, and his performance in THE DEVIL IN THE FLESH (1947) made him a star; with his next two films, LE CHARTREUSE DE PARME (1948) and UNE SI JOLIE PETITE PLAGE (1949), Gerard Philipe's position as the premier leading man of French cinema in the post-war period was assured.
Just as PEPE LE MOKO, QUAI DES BRUMES, LA BETE HUMAINE and LE JOUR SE LEVE had established the Jean Gabin persona in the 1930s (what Andre Bazin had termed "the tragic destiny"), so these four films established the Philipe persona, the sensitive young man overwhelmed by destiny. In UNE SI JOLIE PETITE PLAGE, the small seaside resort out-of-season, with its fog, its desolation, and its ramshackle buildings, is a perfect setting for this story of lost souls seeking connection and (possible) redemption. Madeleine Robinson, as the young woman working at the inn, is Philipe's counterpart: a sullen girl battered by circumstances who nevertheless is touched by the fragility of the young man. The fact that, on a realistic level, Gerard Philipe does not project the hardened facade of a criminal is rather the point: the point of a star persona. In this case, Philipe's projection of an intensely isolated, even alienated, psyche which defined the existential dilemma that was being defined by writers such as Sartre and Camus in the post-war epoch, was really enshrined in this movie.
Philipe would prove to be a more versatile actor than initially assumed; his humor, his athletic vigor, and his exuberance can be seen in movies like FANFAN LA TULIPE and POT-BOUILLE. But UNE SI JOLIE PETITE PLAGE shows Philipe at the apex of his portrayals of tortured youth, a prototype for such stars as Montgomery Clift and James Dean.
Little Man, What Now? (1934)
Borzage making his way
Frank Borzage was one of the prize directors at the Fox Studio in the late 1920s; he became the first director to win the Academy Award for SEVENTH HEAVEN in 1927, one of the essential romances of the silent cinema. But by 1932, William Fox was running into trouble, and the finances of Fox were shaky. Borzage had won his second Oscar for Best Director in 1931 for the Fox production of BAD GIRL; two years later, he was working for Mary Pickford's own production company (SECRETS), Paramount (A FAREWELL TO ARMS), Columbia (MAN'S CASTLE and NO GREATER GLORY) and Universal (LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?). LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? was based on a German novel by Hans Falleda, which had been made into a movie in Germany in 1933. (I haven't seen the German movie.) But LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? would be the follow-up film for Universal's new star, Margaret Sullavan, who had made an impressive debut in ONLY YESTERDAY, directed by John M. Stahl. She was known for being temperamental, and she refused several projects before she agreed to star in LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?
In some ways, LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? is the quintessential Frank Borzage movie, with many scenes and themes which echo his earlier films. There is the young couple, struggling to survive severe economic hardship; there are the effects of the Great War, leaving many with few opportunities. There is even the scene where the heroine appears in a shimmering gown, a radiant moment that is a respite from the general squalor and/or misery (this scene can be found in SEVENTH HEAVEN, in MAN'S CASTLE, in THREE COMRADES). LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? takes its young couple (Sullavan and Douglass Montgomery) through various strata of the struggling working class in Germany during the worldwide economic downturn of the early 1930s. Along the way, they encounter a variety of characters, including Muriel Kirkland as the hideously overprivileged daughter of an employer, Catherine Doucet as Montgomery's giddy stepmother, and Alan Hale as her hearty, possibly shady friend. Through it all, Sullavan's empathetic, luminous performance provides the film with its beacon of hope in the midst of turmoil and strife.
This would be the first of four collaborations between Margaret Sullavan and Frank Borzage. (Just for the record, it should be stressed that this film was made at Universal Studios, NOT MGM, where Borzage would start working in 1937; Universal has been one of the studios which has been notoriously problematic in terms of getting their films on various home-video formats, so it's no wonder that LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? is unavailable, but asking for MGM to release a Universal film on DVD is an object lesson in futility.)
Week End (1967)
What a ruckus!
As anyone who has the slightest interest in Jean-Luc Godard's career knows (and that would be anyone interested in "modern" cinema), WEEKEND marked the end of his early career, a 15-film run from 1959's BREATHLESS to this film in 1967. Few in the history of film have ever been as productive, as provocative, and as influential. One thing that has happened in the last decade or so is that many of the films from this era have been restored and re-released in the United States: BREATHLESS, MY LIFE TO LIVE, CONTEMPT, BAND OF OUTSIDERS, PIERROT LE FOU, MASCULINE FEMININE, MADE IN U.S.A. (finally having its first US commercial release), 2 OR 3 THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER, LA CHINOISE and now WEEKEND.
WEEKEND begins as a rude and vicious satire in which people in cars become violent at the slightest provocation. It proceeds with a bourgeoise couple (Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne) who are bored with each other, openly contemptuous, and seemingly ready to kill. There is the wife's erotic confession, delivered in a quiet deadpan as she is shown in silhouette. This is only the first of many virtuoso sequences which show Godard at his most formally inventive. As soon as the couple gets in their car to begin a journey (they've decided to kill her mother for the inheritance), the viewer knows this journey is one which isn't going to end as expected. And it doesn't. Whimsy, annoyance, rage, disgust and horror greet the couple as this picaresque lurches from Rabelaisean to de Sade (and beyond).
When the movie first opened, Renata Adler in the New York Times wrote that the movie "was hard to take." In a sense, the years have been kind: there are now movies filled with such horrors that WEEKEND can only seem mild-mannered. But as an intellectual provocation, WEEKEND remains a scintillating experience. It should be noted that in 2 OR 3 THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER and LA CHINOISE, Godard presented his protagonists in ripe, sensual, adoring close-ups; here, everything is presented in medium or long-shot, so that the characters are kept at a distance. Yet Godard is always ready with another joke to keep the movie buoyant: his apocalyptic vision can't help but be filled with passionate rage and humor.
Toute une nuit (1982)
Romance in brief
Chantal Akerman's movies can be disconcerting: she is on the one hand a highly sensual filmmaker, with a great interest in textures and surfaces, and on the other hand, she can be highly conceptual. This combination can result in films which are enticingly seductive, or it can result in films which are abruptly alienating.
Of all her films, TOUTE UNE NUIT is one of the most seductive. Set during one night, it's a series of vignettes, some no more than a glimpse of a few seconds, of people at night. People sitting in bars near closing time. People sitting at home, waiting. People walking at night. The sense of anticipation, of yearning, becomes palpable.
Some vignettes are longer, but all these stories are fragmented: we're not given a real beginning, though we are given a few endings. There is no real dialogue: we just see a few gestures, a little action, but that's all.
People alone in a bar, then noticing each other. Will they make some sort of contact? A little girl packing her little suitcase: is she running away? Where? It's like we're given the bits and pieces of a larger narrative, but we have to decide what these bits and pieces mean. And then there are those encounters. Someone waiting alone in an apartment, when another person finally arrives. Two people running into each other on the street. All the meetings, often culminating in a kiss, seem to distill the most intense romantic desires.
We want these strangers to find a way not to be alone, and that desire on our part creates a tension which is tactile and erotic. Of course, Akerman has populated her night world with highly attractive people, so we are in a fantasy world of desire. TOUTE UNE NUIT is one of the most romantic movies that i've ever seen; it's funny that Akerman's most famous movie, JEANNE DIELMAN, is a long movie composed of very lengthy takes, while this movie is relatively short, with sharply edited, staccato little scenes. TOUTE UNE NUIT is almost the antithesis of JEANNE DIELMAN, but it shows Akerman in a romantic mood which is filled with yearning, desire and affection.
Yue guang xia wo ji de (2005)
Intriguing family drama with political overtones
Again, am writing a review a few years after viewing, so don't remember all the details. But what was most striking about the movie was the period details which were very understated.
In this movie, a mother and daughter (she is an adult, starting her own career as a teacher) live in a very emotionally confined situation. The daughter is engaged, but it's unclear whether the mother is actually accepting of this situation, or wants to hang onto her daughter.
The complexities of this situation were often revealed in little offhand scenes which give the feeling of the constrained lives of the two women. I also remember that a lot hinges on the fact that the father in the family had been arrested for some political "crime" and that this hampered the women's social and economic mobility. So the marriage of the daughter becomes the avenue for escape from this social/economic confinement, but the eventual outcome leaves both women in a situation which is even worse.
I remember this as a very subtle movie, and i think Lin Cheng-sheng's movies should have found a greater reception in the West. The subtlety of his films, as well as their quiet beauty, should please discriminating audiences who are attuned to his quiet mastery. I also note that, to date, this has been his last film, as the Taiwanese cinema has lost a lot of its momentum and funding.
Mei li zai chang ge (1997)
taiwanese drama of two girls
MURMUR OF YOUTH is a very delicate and understated drama about two girls, both from small villages, who meet in Taipei while working in a movie theater; their mutual dislocation leads to a friendship which soon becomes something more. In many ways, there is a tentative quality to this film which makes it seem almost evanescent, but this very delicacy allows for subtle emotions to emerge gradually within the story. It's actually been a while since i've seen this film, but i remember it with real affection, because it seemed so unassuming and shy, rather like the two heroines. There were some humorous touches, such as having the two girls share the same given name, and the way they tried to find space in the cramped quarters of the ticket booth where they were both stationed at work.
When this film was made, cinema in Taiwan was undergoing a radical shift, as a number of artists, led by Hou Hsaio-Hsien and Edward Yang, were trying to create an "art" cinema; Lin Cheng-sheng was one of their colleagues, and his films, though less hard-edged, tried to tell stories of Taiwanese youth and their search for relationships.
Prima della rivoluzione (1964)
the charterhouse of cinema
One of the typical ploys of modernist artists has been to take a known work, and to use that as a basis for experimentation. In this case, Bernardo Bertolucci (at the age of 22!) took Stendhal's novel THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA and used the basic plot and characters, only Bertolucci abstracted these elements, taking them for granted and simply creating a wide-ranging collage of impressions and emotions. But the central love affair between Fabrizio and his aunt, Gina (the names of the characters in the Stendhal), is the motivating heart of the film; the suggestions of incest, the need for secrecy, the impacted emotion because of the covertness: these provide PRIMA DELLA RIVOLUZIONE with a core of great integrity, so that the more "random" elements (the scene with the lament on the lake, the scene at the opera, the scene where the friend rides the bicycle in circles, etc.) are able to reflect on Bertolucci's feelings regarding politics, class, revolution, art, the search for belief.
PRIMA DELLA RIVOLUZIONE is one of the most youthful films ever made, as well it should be, since it was made by someone who was impossibly young at the time. I hate to say this, but it's the work of a prodigy, a gifted post-adolescent who is trying to find a form to contain his sometimes overwrought feelings about life, love, and politics. There had been many works catering to the teen crowd, movies like WHERE THE BOYS ARE or BEACH PARTY, but, aside from some of the works of Nicholas Ray (THEY LIVE BY NIGHT and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE), no film artist had yet tried to use the medium as a vehicle for a vision of youthful passions from the inside: Godard would follow with MASCULINE FEMININE and LA CHINOISE, Bertolucci with FISTS IN THE POCKET, Skolimowski with LE DEPART and DEEP END, but Bertolucci was pioneering when he made this movie, and the fact that it's "flawed" should not be held against it, as it represents the expression of a very young artist, trying to express his emotions as directly as possible.
I pugni in tasca (1965)
fists in the eye of the cinema
When this film first appeared in the 1960s, the effect was so startlingly individual: there had never been a film as bold, as seemingly unhinged, yet as ruthlessly controlled, as this first feature by Marco Bellocchio. The wonderfully atmospheric black-and-white cinematography seemed to be developed from some dingy dream which dared to bring out into the open the most heinous family secrets, yet the utterly dispassionate fury which animated the most frenzied sequences was so freakish it was almost funny. This constant tension somehow allowed for a sneaky kind of compassion to enter the movie, so that the family dynamics, though extreme, seemed to come out of a common nightmare. FISTS IN THE POCKET remains an embattled cry for a new society, by focusing on the remnants of the diseased upper classes, yet this tale of sound and fury seems to have been made in the kind of frenzied reverie that is analogous to the stream-of-conscious jumble which William Faulkner used at the beginning of THE SOUND AND THE FURY, and to the same effect, i.e., to chart a family's disintegration as a mirror to the decaying grandeur of a dying society.