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Le caporal épinglé (1962)
worthwhile on its own
In 1937, Jean Renoir directed GRANDE ILLUSION, the first great (maybe greatest) POW film and one of the most influential motion pictures ever made. Even though this movie shows the influence, one should keep in mind that most POW movies of the time do so as well, from STALAG 17 to BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. However, rather than focus how THE ELUSIVE CORPORAL resembles GRANDE ILLUSION, what's more interesting I think is how it differs.
GRANDE ILLUSION used the POW camp as a metaphor for society, with all three classes represented. This film does not. It has no wealthy aristocrats, like Erich Von Strohiem's character. Some might compare Rich's character Ballochet to Pierre Fresney's Captain Boldieu, but doing so neglects that Ballochet is not an aristocrat; he only acts like one. Before becoming a POW, he was a gas meter attendant. Staying in the prison camp allows him to escape reality, for it offers him a deluded and misguided sense of comfort. This is why he does not want to leave it (until his final moment of self completion, of course). In this respect, Ballochet is unlike any character in GRANDE ILLUSION.
Saying that the POW camp in THE ELUSIVE CORPORAL reminds one of a country club ignores that virtually every other prisoner-of-war movie did the same. Only Bryan Forbes's unique KING RAT, released three years after this one, was a film that showed a prisoner-of-war camp as Godawful. I also don't see how viewers could interpret life in this film's camp is all that enviable. While it's true that Ballochet obtains a sinecure that allows him easy work and extra rations, the movie clearly condemns him and also shows that he's an exception. Many times, we see most prisoners working, often performing menial, unheroic labor (ie, emptying the latrine's cesspool tank--a symbol of those, like Ballochet or Pater, who choose the stagnation of remaining in prison). Rarely do we see the prisoners idling the time away. Unlike most POW movies, we're reminded that they are not only prisoners, but enslaved labor.
If one wants comparisons, one might more profitably compare THE ELUSIVE CORPORAL to French prison movies made just a few years before it (ie, A MAN ESCAPED and LE TROU). Like those films, this movie's concerns are not so much for society but for individuals, and, like THE ELUSIVE CORPORAL, they use escape as a metaphor for attaining selfhood (unlike GRANDE ILLUSION, which shows that even after escaping the prison, the prisoners still remain imprisoned---by their illusions).
Maybe this movie is not a perfect film (though I'm not sure about that), but it's certainly worthwhile. It's beautifully lensed, often presenting a gray, misty look. It intersperses documentary footage to remind us of how chaotic the reality outside the camp was like. And yes, one can say it resembles GRANDE ILLUSION, but one could also just as easily say it resembles PAPILLION. The point is not that it doesn't, because, actually it does. But then again, it's also quite different.
That it was made with such a small budget proves that Renoir's genius was still potent even toward the end of his career. It's a dramatic, humorous, subtle, and under-appreciated work of cinema.
The Last Bastion (1984)
Australia during World War II
Many of us have seen dramas of what transpired in England, the U.S., France, Italy, etc. during WWII....but what about those beloved, amiable mates down under? This docudrama does a very fine job of showing what they went thru.
It's not as well-done as CHURCHILL AND THE GENERALS or WORLD WAR II: WHEN LIONS ROARED, but it's a cinch to say that viewers who loved those dramas will enjoy this one. Some of the actors (including Warren Mitchell as FDR) are not always convincing with their American accents, and even some of the actual Americans have laughable moments(Robert Vaughn plays MacArthur wearing sunglasses, even while indoors).
However, no smart viewer cares about such quibbles. One cares for learning about the factual complexities/anxieties that Australia underwent during world history's most dramatic time. That is what makes this compelling viewing from the start. It also provides many pleasures, from a stirring score and to memorable performances from many, including Michael Blakemore and Timothy West as (once again!) Churchill.
Hauser's Memory (1970)
A lively TV movie of 1970, aided by an above-average cast, which includes Leslie Nielson in a dramatic role. At one point, he almost utters a swear word when he says "You b....", then stops himself, to David McCallum. Believe it or not, that was considered strong stuff for television in 1970. It also boasts an interesting, pseudo-sci-fi script by Curt Siodmak, a writer who repeated the basic idea of his own DONOVAN'S BRAIN in many variations.
McCallum plays a scientist on the run, because he's got another mind inside his own, Hauser's memory, in fact. It's a cinch that someone involved with TOTAL RECALL recalled this movie; in that film, the character's memory that he has in his brain is also called Hauser (which was not the name used in Dick's story that TOTAL RECALL was based on). There are other comparisons as well, although TOTAL RECALL is the better film by far. Still, this one has its charms, especially if you like early seventies TV movies.
Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
To the millions who died thinking they were making this a better world...
So many of us in the United States are clueless about the significance of the red poppy which recurs so often in the movie. First of all, it is not an opium poppy. It is a symbol for peace. John McCrae, one of the great poets who were killed in World War I, wrote in the following in his anti-war poem "In Flanders Fields":
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row by row,. . .
If yea break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields
Anyway, shortly after WWI, in the early nineteen-twenties, the red poppy became the symbol of remembering and honoring the heroic dead. The day for remembrance became November 11, the date World War One ended. These days, I fear, most people in the United States think of November 11 not as "Remembrance Day" or "Armistice Day" but more as just Veteren's Day. It rarely even falls on November 11, and, when it does, most Americans view it simply as time off work.
As critic Roger Ebert once said, OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR really isn't a movie at all, but a theatrical tableau. Like many a British muscial review, it contains little plot, much spirited music, and--in this case--the story of World War I. Some portions, as even director Richard Attenborough admitted, go on too long; however, so many other portions are just brilliant. Like other Attenborough movies, one hates to dislike it because its subject matter is so worthwhile and commands respect (will anyone do a remembrance film honoring the fallen dead of the present Iraqui conflict?) I know I gave it an 8, but I must say I don't quite know how to rate a movie like this one. There's nothing else in cinema like it.
The Strange Door (1951)
When Universal became Universal-International in 1946, the studio virtually ended its monster movies. Producing honorable, but now forgotten films like ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST and ALL MY SONS, the newly-organized studio was obviously aiming for taste and class. Even the Universal-International logo, with a quiet, turning earth against a starry field, was more tasteful than the brash, glittering glass-globe that opened Universal movies the decade previous. Aching for critics' approval, the studio even hired the brilliant Val Lewton, who produced only one Universal-International film before his untimely death. Afterwards, William Alland, an associate of Orson Welles, assumed command of the studio's B-films and soon made THE STRANGE DOOR.
It's often compared to Universal's previous great monster films, which is not quite appropriate, because the movie is more of an attempt at doing a Val Lewton horror film. Like Lewton's BEDLAM, this film is set in 18th century. Like Lewton's THE BODY SNATCHER, this film is based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson. Like Lewton's ISLE OF THE DEAD, this film has Boris Karloff.
Certainly THE STRANGE DOOR is not the best for fans of either Karloff or Laughton, both of whom overact to the point of silliness. Even though it compares to--because it draws inspiration from--the Val Lewton horror films, it completely lacks their creepiness and substance. Watch any of the Lewton horrors and compare its atmosphere with this movie's and you'll observe a great example of the difference between subtle and non-subtle lighting. Not surprisingly, producer Alland would find his niche in producing B science fiction films, not horror ones.
It's a fun flick, but one that disappoints on most all levels. Even fans of Robert Louis Stevenson are disappointed. The short story, "The Sire de Maletroit's Door" is romantic, ironic, and even humorous (this movie has humor as well, but unintentional). Stevenson's original tale is not set in the refined eighteenth century, but during the chaotic era of the Hundred Years War. Although Stevenson's sire is a severe authoritarian, he is actually shrewd and clever--nothing like Laughton's madman, just as the original story has little in common with this over-ripe (or overwrought?) piece of entertaining hokum.
Factual and Cartoonish--what fun!
Why is it that people quibble about Jason Robards not looking like Capone? Many actors who have played him, from F. Murray Abraham to William Forsythe, really didn't resemble him. Maybe it's because this film attempts a semi-documentary approach. Perhaps it's the most accurate Hollywood drama on Capone, but the other semi-documentaries of the time (such as Fox's own THE LONGEST DAY), had the look and lighting that reminded a viewer of a documentary, while this one doesn't. In fact, its style is more evocative of a 1930's Warner Bros. gangster film. Even George Segal's bullying the bartender and his mashing his girlfriend's face with food are bits very comparable to ones Cagney does in THE PUBLIC ENEMY. Segal playing a mean Cagney-type might seem very offbeat casting, but in this film it works, because all its casting is offbeat--even deliciously over the top. It's a lot of fun.
The Last of the Mohicans (1920)
Easily the best film of 1920
This story, possibly the most famous of all American tales (its very title has become a catchphrase), was largely envisioned in this version by a European: Maurice Tourneur. Yes, some filmbuffs like to think the American co-director, Clarence Brown, more responsible for the movie's quality; even Brown himself (after Tourneur's death) claimed he filmed most of it. This is a hard claim to believe because Tourneur, whose reputation was virtually second only to Griffith at the time, was the one who hired Brown, largely to shoot the outdoor scenes.
Tourneur loved lighting an indoor scene more than any director in the Hollywood of 1920, preferring the control of creating painterly interior scenes, so he had Brown get dirty and go camping in Big Bear and Yosemite to shoot the outdoor ones. And even though Brown directed them, Tourneur, as boss, must have had control of selecting which shots were filmed. Since Brown got his start in the industry five years earlier as Tourneur's editor and assistant, he was well-acquainted with Tourneur's style and most likely filmed shots that the Frenchman would want.
The European sensibility to the story shows itself in this version's focus. Most remakes--like the novel--make Hawkeye, the most central character. Here, however, he is a very minor person indeed, often in the background, always appearing gawky and unheroic. The most emphasized characters in this version are Cora and Uncas, whose impossible-to-fulfill relationship results in a liebestod-like tragedy. Many who like the later versions of this story might be put off by the fact that Hawkeye is not a main character, but this silent movie is beautiful.
Fighting Caravans (1931)
Paramount's curio sequel to THE COVERED WAGON
To fully appreciate FIGHTING CARAVANS, one must know a little about THE COVERED WAGON, released in 1923 and the first Western epic. For decades this silent movie was hailed as the finest Western ever, and even in 1968, Bosley Crowther's popular book, THE GREAT FILMS, listed it as one of fifty greatest motion pictures. Few would claim that today, although it is still an entertaining silent. What remains undeniable is THE COVERED WAGON's influence. Other big-budget Westerns soon followed, and, by the talking era, Fox released THE BIG TRAIL (a virtual remake of THE COVERED WAGON) and Paramount released FIGHTING CARAVANS (a virtual sequel).
Those of us who love THE COVERED WAGON adore the two lead supporting characters: trackers Bill Jackson and Jim Bridger, played by Ernest Torrence and Tully Marshall. They play them again in this film, only now they're older, because FIGHTING CARAVANS was filmed eight years after, and their increased age actually adds a curious poignancy.
Slightly different from the plot conflicts in THE COVERED WAGON, this sequel hinges on whether Jackson and Bridger can both persuade their new, handsome protégé to continue tracking with them and not settle down to marry. However, just as the two have aged, so has the west. With the trains being connected, it is obvious that the trackers will no longer be needed. Not surprisingly for a Western with this sort of elegiaic theme, both Jackson and Bridger die in the film's climax, fighting renegades and Indians. (This, of course, was not how the actual Jim Bridger ended his days, and, yes, the film's portrayal of Native Americans is not accurate either.)
Lili Damita, who would later become the first Mrs. Errol Flynn, had one of her best roles as the civilizing influence on the young handsome tracker, convincing him to veer away from a profession that would die with changing times. Gary Cooper plays the young tracker, and he wears buckskin far better than J. Warren Kerrigan did in THE COVERED WAGON. Cooper, in fact, plays another of his callow rakes he did so often in the early thirties, from THE VIRGINIAN to IF I HAD A MILLION to even A FAREWELL TO ARMS, and it's always odd to see him play such parts before Mr. Deeds would change his image afterward.
Roughly the same year as this film, MGM released BILLY THE KID, Fox released THE BIG TRAIL, and R.K.O. released CIMMARON; all were very expensive, very spectacular Westerns. FIGHTING CARAVANS was Paramount's contender with these others, and it was a film so big, with so much location work, that two directors were ultimately required. Like the other big Westerns of its time, it contains crude, almost amateur-like, moments. One could even complain that the broad acting of the early talkies is totally at odds with a Western---a genre that traditionally relies on laconic, expressionless characters. However, for those who love curios, for those who love film history and Western history, and for those who love THE COVERED WAGON, this film is a charm.
Theatre Night: Othello (1990)
The best Othello for Shakespeare fans.
While many people may like films such as Verdi's OTELLO, with Placido Domingo, or "O" with Mekhi Phifer, others of us like Shakespeare and want to see an OTHELLO with some devotion to the play. However, doing so is tough....and the other dramatizations prove it. I recall when the BBC version of it first aired in the United States, the director, Jonathan Miller, uncomfortably tried to defend having a white actor play the part of Othello. Afterwards, many of us watched the great Anthony Hopkins disappointingly perform Othello in very unconvincing blackface make-up.
Orson Welles directed a visually-brilliant black-and-white film version, but the play was cut severely and, frankly, a white actor in black face, doesn't really work anymore. The same goes for the Laurence Olivier film version, which was stagily directed, with disappointing set design and color.
At least Olivier played Othello with gusto, unlike so many other actors, such as Hopkins, who underplay Shakepeare's most passionate tragic hero. Laurence Fishburne, normally a great actor, underacted the part to the point of being monotonal. Even if one can accept a white actor in the part, however, the Olivier version, like the Welles one, suffered from an Iago less charismatic than Othello (perhaps because Olivier and Welles, both prima-donnas, in portraying the character, didn't want to be upstaged?). Too bad, because the play needs a great ensemble cast.
There have been other dramatizations; however, this version tops them all, especially for Shakespeare lovers. At three-hours running length, the play is hardly cut, if at all, and one can't ask for a more uniformly talented ensemble. While Ian McKellan is as likable oily as Iago as he was for RICHARD III, Willard White gets the kudos for being one impressive Othello--the best on DVD (If you see White in the Glynbourne video of Mozart's "Abduction in a Seraglio," you'll see how he is always a very effective scene-stealer). Imogen Stubbs actually makes sense of Desdemona, a female character many of today's audiences have trouble understanding or even liking, and Zoe Wanamaker is the most appealing Emilia of them all. Like most Trevor Nunn productions, the acting is uniformly right in terms of chemistry, pacing, etc.
Some might be bothered with its setting. Personally, I'm all for setting Shakespeare plays in different time periods, especially when they serve the drama's themes/characters, as TITUS and McKellan's RICHARD III did. In this case, Shakespeare's most Mediterrian tragedy is set, somewhat abstractedly, in the U.S. Civil War era. To me, it works--as does most everything else in this, the best production of OTHELLO, at least for Shakespeare fans.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Matt Damon walked right out of Highsmith's novel
For those who grouse about Matt Damon, I can only say read Patricia Highsmith's very entertaining psychological thriller. If you find the title character in this film callow and sexually confused, then I can only that's how he is in the book.
This movie is really a more faithful adaptation than the earlier version PURPLE NOON, directed by Rene Clement. Many people prefer that French film, which is (unlike many French thrillers compared to Hollywood ones) a more traditional crime movie, even containing a more compact, wrap-up-all-the-disturbing-aspects type of ending. It also starred an appealingly sexy and young Alain Delon as a more charismatic Tom Ripley.
However, Highsmith's book clearly points out that character is not charismatic; he only wishes he were more charismatic. Unlike Delon's, Matt Damon's interpretation contains far more complexity. As an actor, he straddles two difficulties: 1) playing someone who's such a nondescript entity that he both envies and despises the idle American rich, 2)making the character intriguing enough for the audience not to lose interest in him, because it is his story and he does carry the film.
"Better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody" is Tom Ripley's philosophy. It's a tragic world-view, and--weirdly--one that many of us can understand, if not empathize with. I wonder how many critics dismiss this movie because it unsettlingly provokes aspects of themselves they'd prefer to remain hidden?
Yes, the movie makes changes, including Cate Blanchett's character, who is not even in the original, but it's faithful in terms of plot and, yes, character. It captures well the book's irony that Tom Ripley so aches to join this class of people, despite the fact that he's smarter and more alive than any of them. Perhaps the story is far-fetched, but it has more to say to all of us than what might first meet the eye.