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The Other Love (1947)
Wondrously Soppy Romantic Melodrama!
A truly irresistible piece of high-fashion schmaltz, The Other Love stars Barbara Stanwyck in the sort of 'genteel weepy' role more commonly associated with Norma Shearer or Joan Fontaine. A lady pianist dying of some unspecified lung disease. Whatever her illness may be, it only makes her grow more glamorous the closer she edges towards death.
Of course, dying in so decorous a fashion would take a bite out of anybody's schedule. So our Babs cuts short her international concert tour, and checks into a plush clinic with a panoramic view of the Swiss Alps. There she meets David Niven, a handsome doctor who takes a more-than-professional interest in her case. Frankly, I found his fascination with Babs and her illness to be downright ghoulish - and couldn't help wondering if he was a closet necrophiliac.
Realising, perhaps, that Niven is far too lightweight to make a convincing leading man (at one point, I felt they should switch roles!) La Stanwyck runs away to Monte Carlo. There she starts living the high life with a tough, sexy racing driver (Richard Conte). Given the fact that she has only a few weeks left to live, I thought this was eminently sensible behaviour on her part. Ah, but her heart is calling her back to Niven and his Alpine clinic...
The Other Love is spectacularly well-made by unsung director Andre de Toth, and boasts a luscious Tchaikovsky-esquire score by Miklos Rozsa. But it's success is down to Barbara Stanwyck, who lends a much-needed note of toughness and reality to what would otherwise be a pure camp melodrama. Played by anyone else, our heroine would most likely drown in syrup long before succumbing to a weakness of the lungs.
3 hommes à abattre (1980)
Euro Trash? Or Just Plain Trash?
"It isn't bad luck," hisses the lead villain. "It's incompetence!" In truth, what more can you say for a French film that sets out to emulate the very worst of Hollywood drivel and fails even at that? This atrociously-plotted thriller makes you appreciate the narrative finesse of Death Wish and Dirty Harry, while aging pretty boy Alain Delon (who also produced and co-wrote) is a sadly inadequate stand-in for Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood.
Delon plays a laconic gambler who rescues a dying man from a wrecked car. This turns out to be an assassination, not an accident - and Delon, as "the man who knew too much," becomes the killers' next target. This is frankly nonsensical, as Delon knows nothing about the conspiracy, and has never set eyes on the two assassins. Elsewhere, the same duo murder another man but leave his wife alive - even though she's an eye witness to the whole crime. And we're meant to believe they're afraid of getting caught?!
Still, it makes an excuse for two gay hit men with appalling 70s haircuts to chase Delon all over Paris. Given his fondness for such ghastly fashion no-no's as white socks with black trousers and black shoes, I could sympathies all too readily with their murderous intent! It all climaxes in the most ludicrous, ineptly-staged car chase you're ever likely to see - but at least Italian sex-bomb Dalila di Lazzaro adds a much-needed touch of glamour as Delon's girlfriend.
If this dreadful movie is of any use at all, it's for correcting the old stereotype that European Cinema Equals Art while Hollywood Cinema Equals Trash. True, the Americans may make more trash than the French...but at least they do it properly!
Feu Mathias Pascal (1926)
The White Russian exile Ivan Mosjoukine was arguably the greatest male star of the silent screen. Imagine an actor who combined the matinée idol looks of John Barrymore with the smoldering sexual magnetism of Valentino, the deft physical comedy of Chaplin with the dark Gothic creepiness of Lon Chaney. It sounds impossible, of course - unless you've seen Mosjoukine in action. One glance from those hypnotic, liquid eyes holds more power than all the others combined.
Indeed, there's a strong case for Mosjoukine as the greatest actor in screen history. His stylised High Romantic playing has dated far less in 80 years than the Actor's Studio tricks of Brando and de Niro have dated in half that time. To see him in his great roles - and Matthias Pascal is one of those - is to feel time itself dissolve through the camera's lens. Mosjoukine, like Garbo, is one of a handful of screen stars whose work on celluloid has the immediacy of live performance.
As a vehicle for Mosjoukine and his brilliance, The Late Matthias Pascal is one of the all-time greats. He starts off as an adolescent dreamer, last survivor of a ruined of a ruined aristocratic dynasty (much like Mosjoukine's own family in post-Revolutionary Russia). Blundering his way into marriage, he becomes a harassed and penniless family man, weighed down by wife, baby and the original Mother-In-Law From Hell. Only the awfulness of his home life allows him to tolerate his job - catching rats at the local library, whose mouldering piles of books resemble the last scene of Citizen Kane!
Tragedy strikes, and Matthias runs away. Instantly, his luck changes. Winning a fortune at the Casino in Monte Carlo, he moves on to Rome - where he appears as a young gentleman of fashion. Soon enough, he falls in love with a young girl played by Lois Moran. An infatuation of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the model for Rosemanry in Tender Is the Night, Moran is similarly idealised in this film. Naturally, Matthias longs to do the decent thing and marry her. Yet he faces the same dilemma as most of Pirandello's heroes. If he isn't himself, who on Earth is he?
As a work of cinema, The Late Matthias Pascal is not as spectacularly dotty as L'Herbier's 1924 masterpiece L'Inhumaine. It is also perhaps a shade too long. Yet its bravura sequences - the library, the casino, the dream sequences where Matthias is haunted by his 'dead' double - show L'Herbier as an unjustly neglected genius, worthy of a place next to Lang and von Stroheim in Film Studies 101. His spectacular use of real-life locations is unusual for the 20s. But Mosjoukine is the most spectacular sight of all!
Merchant-Ivory's Best - And Most Atypical?
Was it de Tocqueville who wrote that America passed from barbarism to decadence with no civilization in between? If so, then he (or whoever else) deserves at least partial screen credit for Savages. A bizarre and blackly comic fable, this is Merchant-Ivory's most atypical film. It was also, probably, their biggest flop. Yet fans of the duo will find much recognise and admire. Non-fans may enjoy it even more!
Savages opens in dazzling sepia-toned black-and-white. A tribe of primitive forest-dwellers called the 'Mud People' find a mystical round orb that's fallen from an alien world. (In other words, a croquet ball.) They trace its path to an elegantly dilapidated Colonial-style mansion. As they explore the house, the prehistoric intruders start to play dress-up. Soon enough, the screen shifts into colour. The 'savages' transform into the denizens of a grandly decadent 1920s house party...
Chief among them are a formidable Auntie Mame-style hostess (Anne Francine), a toothy and spirited debutante (Susan Blakely), an elegantly faded 'fallen woman' (Salome Jens) and an exotic, eyelash-fluttering vamp (legendary Andy Warhol icon Ultra Violet). As usual in a Merchant-Ivory film, the women's roles are stronger than the men's. But a young Sam Waterston is on hand, rehearsing his 'detached and disenchanted observer' role for The Great Gatsby.
While that later film is little more than a parade of gorgeous costumes and opulent sets, Savages is considerably more. Ivory's eye for social nuance and period detail is as sharp here as in later masterworks like Quartet, Heat and Dust and A Room with a View. Yes, it may perhaps be possible to dismiss Ivory as a bland director - but only if you dismiss Jean Rhys, E.M. Forster or Henry James as bland authors. Or is it a crime to be a discreet and faithful adaptor of other people's work?
Savages is one of the rare films based on Ivory's own imagination. And what a perverse and mordant imagination it turns out to be! What little 'civilisation' the 'savages' acquire in the guise of Jazz Age socialites is, of course, a flimsy and feeble veneer. We can't be surprised when they revert to full-fledged barbarism. In fact, the honesty of that primal state comes as something of a relief.
Savages is impeccably acted, smoothly directed, wittily written, richly designed - and photographed with jaw-dropping splendor by Walter Lassally! It may be something of an aberration in the Merchant-Ivory canon. It is also, possibly, their best film.
An Incomparable Film Masterpiece!
A plot that's strung together out of bits of Lady of the Camellias! A director so obscure he doesn't even feature in film dictionaries! A leading lady who's best known for playing a robot! Would you believe me if I told you this was one of the all-time great films? More poignant and visually dazzling than Ophuls, more erotic and atmospheric than Sternberg. A camera more sinuously alive than Murnau or Lang.
Incredibly, the Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna is all that and more. The tear-stained story of a glamorous St. Petersburg courtesan (Brigitte Helm) who ditches her high-ranking officer lover (Warwick Ward) for a lowly sub-lieutenant (Francis Lederer) it's the best-known film of Hanns Schwarz - a sort of silent-era Douglas Sirk who made lush (and potentially soppy) women's melodramas but transformed them into something like High Art.
The opening sequence alone is enough to establish Schwarz as one of the all-time great directors. As an absurdly ornate rococo clock chimes the hour, the camera tracks through the boudoir of Nina Petrovna, elegant lady of the White Russian night. She rises from her lace-smothered bed, wafts her way out onto her snow-covered balcony. Every frame glows, as if spun out of polished silver. A troop of soldiers trudges down the street. One handsome youth gazes upwards. Their eyes meet...
From that moment on, tragedy is inevitable - as surely as in any play by Aeschylus or Euripides. Not that Schwarz isn't a master at teasing his audience...in their first intimate encounter, Nina and her young suitor play games of sexual cat-and-mouse but - explicitly - they do NOT make love. This whole sequence is blindingly erotic, provocative in a way no hard-core sex scene could ever be.
Apart from the forgotten genius of Hanns Schwarz, the great revelation in this film is Brigitte Helm. Best remembered for her dual role as a robot/revolutionary in Fritz Lang's 1926 sci-fi epic Metropolis, Helm was in fact a movie icon to rival Garbo or Dietrich. Indeed, Nina Petrovna reveals her as a full-fledged goddess - at a time when Dietrich was still a chubby starlet, posing astride a beer-barrel in The Blue Angel.
As the Nazis rose to power, Helm defied the regime by marrying a Jew. She retired from films, moved to Switzerland and settled into the life of a wealthy recluse. A tragedy, perhaps. Or perhaps not? On the strength of Nina Petrovna, Helm had already soared as high in Movie Heaven as a star could go. Did she simply have nothing left to prove?
Such a Marvelous Surprise!
Having tried and failed to sit through Carousel (a lumbering musical remake of the same story) I was wholly unprepared for the delight that is Liliom. A fantasy love story set half on Earth, half in Heaven, it's not at all the type of film you expect from Fritz Lang. It's closer in tone to Michael Powell or Jean Cocteau - and may be a 'hidden influence' on both A Matter of Life and Death and Orphee.
Not least among his achievements...Lang pulls off the well-nigh impossible feat of making Charles Boyer interesting! Sorry, but I'd always found this actor deeply resistible. A suburban housewife's stereotype of a suave Continental lover. But in this movie, Boyer plays a role that (even five years later) would have been reserved exclusively for Jean Gabin. A tough carnival barker and petty crook. A sexy 'bad boy' in a striped, clinging T-shirt and skin-tight jeans.
Boyer as Liliom is a Gallic cousin of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. I could well understand why Julie (Madeleine Ozeray) fell head over heels for him, because I did too. He treats her appallingly, of course. Boozing, whoring, gambling...even a (very non-PC) touch of wife-beating. For all its fantasy elements, this love story is as warped and sadomasochistic as any in later Lang movies, like Secret Beyond the Door or The Big Heat. (Hot coffee, anyone?)
Eventually, two angels show up and haul Boyer off to the hereafter - where he must atone for his sins! The term 'angels' is one I use loosely. Dark-suited, pale-skinned and shaven-headed, these two guys look like denizens of an X-rated Berlin nightclub. Kinkier still is Boyer's personal 'spirit guide' - a mad-eyed knife-grinder played by Antonin Artaud, the twisted genius who invented the Theatre of Cruelty.
Liliom is a rare treat for old-movie buffs. Lyrical and fantastic, yes. Soppy and sentimental, never. It stands comparison with Lang's best work from Berlin or Hollywood. I can only regret he did not spend more time in France.
La criatura (1977)
Years before Almodovar patented his own brand of 'shock' cinema, the Basque director Eloy de la Iglesia was busy smashing every taboo of the Spanish screen. As outrageous as any film he ever made, La Criatura tells the tender and erotic love story of a respectable bourgeois housewife (Ana Belen) and a large black Alsatian dog.
Unlike Almodovar - who tends to be radical on the surface, but conservative at heart - de la Iglesia tells his lurid tale with astonishing restraint. Dark paw prints on our heroine's white wedding gown, a playful tug-of-war with a towel as she emerges from a bath, a savage attack on her husband when he tries to make love to her himself...the sexual liaison between woman and dog is made amply clear, without ever once descending into a sub-porn ghetto.
Most important, the razor-sharp psychology of this film makes it easy to empathise with Belen and her life choices. Her brutish husband (Juan Diego) is a staunch supporter of the far-right Alianza Nacional Espanol, the ideological heirs of General Franco. He hosts a TV variety show of truly toe-curling awfulness, and spends most of his time with a flashy mistress (Claudia Gravi).
When Belen refuses to have sex with her husband, he gets drunk and rapes her. (The film's one truly shocking and nasty scene!) The rape is promptly condoned by her family priest...in the name of marriage, God, the family and the sanctity of Catholic Spain. Small wonder that Belen compares Spanish society to a hall of distorting mirrors. "I am surrounded by monsters. All I can do is become more monstrous than they are!"
La Criatura lacks both the dreamy eroticism of Borowczyk's La Bete and the sly social comedy of Oshima's Max, Mon Amour. It is a full-frontal assault on post-Franco Spain, and the Fascist-era values that continue to breed and flourish. Shocking, yes - but not because its heroine finds love and sex with a beast. Shocking because, in this world, all the real beasts are human!
Callas Forever (2002)
Not The Disaster That Rumour Has It...
Beautifully acted, intelligently written and criminally neglected by critics and distributors (it wasn't even released in the UK or USA) Callas Forever is a haunting and poignant study of the sacrifices an artist makes for her art. The director Franco Zeffirelli based much of it on his own 25-year friendship with the lady herself. Still, this is anything but a straightforward biopic. In a fictional story set during the last few months of the diva's life, Zeffirelli plays a tantalising game of "What if..?"
It's the spring of 1977, and Maria Callas - the world's most famous opera star - is now a recluse in Paris. A tragic cross between Garbo and Norma Desmond, she spends her life popping pills, fighting off bad dreams and listening to recordings of her voice at its glorious peak. Fanny Ardant does a stunning impersonation of the Callas voice and mannerisms. She even looks uncannily like her (apart from the odd awkward shot where she looks like Nana Mouskouri!) But her private hell is disrupted by the arrival of an old friend...
Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons) is a flamboyant gay impresario, complete with pony-tail! He's just had the brainwave of matching recordings of Callas in her prime with movie versions of her greatest opera hits. First up is Carmen, and this film-within-a-film (a riot of dancing gypsies, dashing matadors and floating lace mantillas) is easily the highlight of the show. We also get not one but two tragic love stories - Maria's unrequited passion for a hunky young tenor (Gabriel Garko) and Larry's doomed affair with a cute young painter (Jay Rodan).
At the end, Larry and Maria sit on a park bench and muse on how they have Sacrificed Their Lives For Their Art. Was it worth it? When the final result is as touching and lyrical as Callas Forever...well, most definitely, yes. Provided, of course, the public gets a chance to see it!
Not Bolognini at His Best
Mauro Bolognini's most critically acclaimed film is far from his best. A tale of a 'working class hero' in turn-of-the-century Florence, it seems fundamentally unsuited to this director's world view. Most of Bolognini's films take place in an aesthetic and rather camp universe ruled by powerful and glamorous women (Claudia Cardinale in La Viaccia, Gina Lollobrigida in Un Bellissimo Novembre, Dominique Sanda in The Inheritance) who hold effortless sway over effete and malleable men.
Yet this film of Vasco Pratolini's novel was Bolognini's pet project for nearly a decade. If he had managed to cast Albert Finney (as he hoped to do in 1963) the character and his story might have a shade more conviction. But pretty-boy pop star Massimo Ranieri barely seems capable of reading his lines off a cue card, never mind digesting huge chunks of Das Kapital. Faced with the inadequacy of his male lead, Bolognini does what he has always done - and lets the women rule the film.
The least interesting woman, by far, is Metello's saintly wife Ersilia (Ottavia Piccolo). A salt-of-the-earth proletarian Madonna figure, she keeps her husband in line largely by boring him (and the audience) into a state of submission. Piccolo is an actress of minimal charisma, and her Best Actress award from the 1970 Cannes Film Festival has to be one of life's great mysteries. Far more amusing is Tina Aumont as Idina - the couple's frivolous and flirtatious neighbour. We wait for the inevitable to happen, and of course...
Early on in the film, Metello has a fling with Viola - a sensual middle-aged school teacher played by Lucia Bose. As usual, Bose is stunning but has far too little to do. One of the screen's great wasted natural resources, Bose has the magnetism of a Garbo - but she also has a maddening tendency to retire for decades at a time. Given roles as limited as this one, who can really blame her?
As always in a Bolognini film, the visuals in Metello are flawless. The camerawork by Ennio Guarnieri evokes old photographs of the period. The sets and costumes (supervised by Piero Tosi) are almost eerie in their perfection. Midway through, the cast enjoy a night out at a music hall and the film springs to life - as Bolognini finally gets a chance for a bit of flamboyance, which is what he does best.
Sorry, but I can't get excited about Metello. Its appeal, I suspect, is largely to those who do not enjoy Bolognini's other and better work. Still, it's one of his easier films to come by. Fans of arty Italian cinema must take our pleasure where we can get it!
Anima nera (1962)
Right Script, Wrong Director!
Written for the stage by camp aesthete Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, but directed for the screen by dour Marxist Roberto Rossellini, this film is a fascinating disaster. It's the wreckage left by two creative talents in head-on collision.
Vittorio Gassman plays the 'black soul' of the title, an upwardly mobile Italian who was once a bisexual rent boy. Now cosily married into the upper bourgeoisie, he and his unsuspecting wife (Annette Stroyberg) are hoping to move into a sumptuous villa he has inherited from a former male lover. Ah, but this is a movie, so sinners must be punished - however photogenic and well-dressed they may be!
Enter his dead lover's sister (Eleonora Rossi Drago) - one of those outrageously glamorous lesbians who live mainly in French and Italian films. She demands that Gassman renounce all claim to the villa, or risk exposure and public scandal. Stroyberg walks out in disgust. Our hero takes refuge with an old 'comrade in arms' - a hooker (Nadja Tiller) who's about to marry a rich American. He tells her how he survived World War II by seducing an SS officer.
Given a sympathetic director - Visconti or Bolognini or Patroni Griffi himself - Anima Nera could be powerful stuff. Rossellini is simply the wrong man for the job. He does make a half-hearted stab at high-style decadence in the obligatory 60s nightclub scene. But his one moment of inspired film-making comes right at the end...
The hero's problems solved (temporarily, at least) his bride starts lecturing him on how to be a proper husband. He presses his face to a window - as if gasping for air - a prisoner of the bourgeois world he has always aspired to.