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Le lion des Mogols (1924)
Rare and interesting relic of Russian cinema in exile
A surprisingly ambitious production by Albatros Films, the company set up in Paris by Alexandre Kamenka to utilize artists and technicians forced out of Russia by the 1917 revolution. Foremost among these was Ivan Mosjoukine, who provided the plot idea for the film and stars with his then-wife Nathalie Lissenko.
Mosjoukine plays Prince Roundhito-Sing, part of the guard in the palace of the Grand Khan, ruler of a nation identified in some synopses as Tibet (although 'Khan' suggests Asia, 'Mogols' implies India, and the titles refer to the Prince simply as 'Hindou.')
When a usurper seizes the throne and imprisons Zemgali, the princess he loves, the Prince flees to France. On the boat, he meets actress Anna and her director, who decide, despite his naiveté about the west, that he has the makings of an actor.
In Paris, he's cast opposite Anna, on whom he develops a crush, much resented by her villainous banker lover Morel. When Morel sees the Prince wearing a ring he gave to Anna, Morel traps him into signing a large check on a non-existent account.
Learning that Anna doesn't love him, the Prince drinks himself into a stupor at a nightclub. At dawn, he hails a taxi and orders the driver "Drive anywhere. It doesn't matter - just fast!" The cab careers through the outskirts of Paris, delivering him to a hotel where a masquerade ball is in progress.
Meanwhile, four of the Prince's countrymen arrive.They reveal that the Prince is the true heir to the throne, now vacant since the fall of the usurper. A lavish enthronement ceremony concludes the film, at which Anna symbolically places the Prince's hand into that of Zemgali.
Jean Epstein makes accomplished use of the tiny Albatros studios in the suburb of Montreuil-sous-Bois. By placing action in the background and shooting across rooms full of furniture or, in the closing scenes, a foreground crowd, he creates the illusion of space. Some exteriors employ an early version of deep focus photography. The sequence of the cab rushing through the early morning streets is reminiscent of Russian post-revolution documentary, suggesting Epstein was familiar with such directors as Dziga-Vertov. He's at his best in the set pieces, in particular the frenetic nightclub scene. The three-piece balalaika and guitar band is obviously meant to suggest one of Paris's Russian cabarets but the sign behind them, "Jokey Club", implies they are in Montparnasse's disreputable Jockey Club. (Alice Prin, aka Kiki of Montparnasse, makes a brief appearance as a dancer.) In the course of the evening, the Prince downs the contents of a bottle, orders a dozen more, picks a fight with two other guests, has visions of Anna all while the crowd dances wildly around him in a space barely larger than a domestic living room Unfortunately Epstein's efforts are frustrated by the stars. Lissenko has only one expression, a stolid glower. Mosjoukine, by contrast, verges on the manic. Given a wad of money by Morel, he capers out the gate of Anna's house, scattering notes in his wake. Some of what remains is spent at a florist to fill her house with flowers. When she thanks him, he scampers around the room, disappears out a door at the rear, and is seen running back and forth on a loggia in the deep background. Even in repose, he seldom looks more than ridiculous. All the same, the film is an interesting survival, meticulously restored by the Cinematheque Francaise, with a new piano and organ score, and the original tinting.
So-so picture of life in a Paris brothel c. 1900
"House of Tolerance" opens with a scene that typifies the film. A gentlemanly client of L'Appollonide, the fictional Paris brothel of the 1890s where the film is set, declines sex with the exotic and likable Madeleine, but requests she instead describe one of her dreams. After she recounts a fantasy of sex with a masked man that ends with her weeping tears of semen, he politely asks permission to tie her to the bed. One she's helpless, he slashes both her cheeks with a knife,leaving her with a permanently disfiguring grin.
In a real-life Paris bordello like Le Chabanais, the establishment that inspired L'Appollonide, Madeleine would have been turned out. Instead, the other prostitutes and its kindly madame, hearts of gold all, rally to protect her. She becomes the house's cook, minds the children, and even, as "The Woman who Laughs", continues to attract jaded aesthetes excited by deformity. In one of the film's more Sadeian scenes, she stars at an orgy involving aging aristocrats, a staff of female servants, all nude, and a sullen black-gowned dwarf.
We see one of the obligatory fortnightly health checks required by the police, and the system of paying the women; clients buy tokens, which the women cash in at the end of the night. Such realism clashes with a Visconti-esque sumptuousness in costumes and decor. The house itself is palatial compared to Le Chabanais, or any real brothel, and the women more attractive than the habitués of even the most elegant establishment.
The film often feels like an anthology, shuffling together episodes and individuals associated with the brothel culture, and not bothering too much about anachronisms. An idyllic country picnic and skinny-dip for the girls evokes the most humanizing of whorehouse stories, Maupassant's "Le Maison Tellier". A client, called only Gustave and content to spend his time in the brothel staring raptly at vaginas, suggests Gustave Courbet, who painted "The Origin of the World", a meticulous but faceless depiction of female pudenda. Courbet, however,died in 1877, well before the period of the film.
Bonello is closer to his time period when he shows a girl being bathed in champagne. The then-Prince of Wales, Victoria's son and later Edward VII, liked to sit around such a bath at Le Chabanais and share the wine with friends. Wine, water and secretions mix promiscuously in the film. In an early scene, whores and clients share champagne from a gilded chamber pot of what should be Sevres porcelain but resembles anodized aluminum. Meanwhile, the girls play a table game using the squirt bulbs normally employed to flush their vaginas. Repeatedly we see women rinsing their mouths after oral sex and washing the sticky residue of wine from their bodies. One woman observes bitterly, "this place stinks of champagne and sperm."
Bonello is at pains to insist on the moral and emotional superiority of the prostitutes over their sentimental, self-absorbed clients something even the men concede. As one ruefully confesses, "men have secrets, but no mystery." Even Gustave, the most compassionate of the regulars, sees the women as objects. The complaisant Pauline dresses up for him, first in a Japanese kimono, then as a blank-eyed, jerkily moving doll. In a scene reminiscent of Donald Sutherland coupling with a clockwork woman in "Fellini Casanova", her impersonation of a machine excites Gustave in a way flesh and blood never did. As he penetrates her from behind, she stares expressionless at us, the audience, as if to ask, "How like you me now, my masters?"
Returning repeatedly to the mutilation of Madeleine, adding more graphic detail each time, Bonello makes us complicit in her pain. Her endurance and acceptance, like that of all the prostitutes, is transcendental, and appears a kind of martyrdom an offering to the Apollo for which the house is named. The girl dead of syphilis, the opium addict, and, finally, all the women dumped on the streets when the brothel closes down, have suffered and died for our sins. The last shot of the film drives home the point. Beside a modern highway, the same girls who staffed the L'Appollonide, now in mini-skirts and hot pants, continue to offer sex and salvation to an indifferent male world.
Blind Date (1959)
Flawed crime story by socialist director Losey
BLIND DATE starts out hampered by a misleading title and the miscasting of the key female role. The meeting in the Tate Gallery between penniless Dutch painter Hardy Kruger and French bourgeoise Micheline Presle is no blind date, but, superficially at least, a simple pick-up - the "chance meeting" of the film's US title. As for Presle, her advances to Kruger appear gauche, even desperate, with none of the allure that would be needed to snare him. A better actress might have accepted that her character would, in that situation, appear clumsy, and play on that, but Presle lets the lines do the work. The film only picks up with the appearance of Losey's preferred male lead, Stanley Baker, as the detective Morgan. With a broad Welsh accent, and troubled by a cold that has him sniffing repeatedly on an inhaler, Baker sketches out the role he would play with increasing assurance in later collaborations with Losey like HELL IS A CITY, EVA and ACCIDENT - a working-class outsider, in revolt against the elite of which he secretly wishes to be part, but which he knows will never accept him. Any strength in BLIND DATE resides in the confrontations between a disheveled, snuffling Baker and the Scotland Yard establishment, represented by three-piece-suited Robert Flemyng and his equally suave subordinate, John van Eyssen. By stressing that Morgan's father was a chauffeur and Kruger's a miner, Losey decisively places both on the opposite side of the social divide from these two, not to mention the awkward, chilly Presle. In a brief but significant scene, Flemyng, having hinted to Baker, none too subtly, that he should frame Kruger if he ever wants promotion, encounters van Eyssen in the corridor and reminds him they'll be meeting socially over the weekend. By contrast, Kruger and Baker languish in the cultural ghetto with losers like Gordon Jackson's PC Plod and Jack McGowran's furtive "nudge-nudge-wink-wink-know-what-I-mean?" postman. The film hammers home this point with its set design, in particular that of Baker's office, a draughty attic with exposed waste-pipes running down the wall. The office, along with Baker's clothing, advertises the fact that, by exposing the real murderer, he has incurred permanent banishment from the circles of power. Losey's supposedly socialist principles are seldom apparent in his films, which are mainly calculated exercises in style, but in BLIND DATE at least he appears to pin his left-wing colours to Baker's crumpled sleeve.
The Flying Scotsman (1929)
Early British Silent/Sound hybrid with locomotive interest
Moore Marriott, bumbling, blustering old buffer of the next generation of British comedies, shows his origins in drama as Bob White, about-to-retire driver of the elite "Flying Scotsman" express between London and Edinburgh. Fireman Crow (Alec Hurley) is fired after White reports him drinking on duty, igniting a feud that culminates in Crow's attempt to wreck the Scotsman. Stirred into the mix are his replacement on the footplate, cocky young fireman Jim (Ray Milland) and a romance with Bob's daughter Joan (Pauline Johnson).
"The Flying Scotsman" is essentially a silent, with a few dialog sequences, mainly in the love story, which takes up more than half the action with a chance meeting in a dance hall and subsequent visit to a posh restaurant, where Jim scandalizes everyone by ordering sandwiches and beer.
Action picks up in the last two reels, with Crow and Joan inching along the outside of the speeding train and then onto the roof, the actors doing their own stunts, without any apparent safety harness. The impossible way Crow, with a single flip of his knife,separates the locomotive and carriages, obviously offended the rail service, since the producers apologize in the opening credits for making it look so simple. Aside from the stunts, the film is mainly interesting for the early Milland, who, though still too exaggerated in his gestures, shows a sure grasp of screen comedy.
Effective late silent , and Dietrich's first starring role
Known as THREE LOVES in the US and L'ENIGME in France, this late silent makes skillful use of limited resources to tell its story of guilty love and sexual obsession. The dreamy Charles Leblanc (Sima), about to marry into a wealthy steel-making family, glimpses Stascha (Dietrich) and her companion Karoff (Kortner) as they pause for a drink at a bar in his small southern France town. They meet again on the train taking him and his wife on their honeymoon. Overwhelmed by Stascha's sexuality, and ignoring his distraught new wife, Leblanc agrees to help her escape from the domineering Karoff. Later, she confesses that the two of them murdered her husband, and that the police are on their trail.
Stascha introduces Leblanc as her cousin to a menacing, incredulous Karoff , and the three check into a large alpine hotel where preparations are under way for a New Year's eve party and show. Stascha manipulates Leblanc and Karoff, playing them off against one other as the party becomes wilder, with a jungle of streamers, a conga line, high-kicking showgirls, and a huge clock face whose hands are periodically moved towards midnight.
Dawn finds Leblanc and Karoff slumped in chairs in the lobby, exhausted, while Stascha sleeps upstairs, the morning sun creeping up her silk-stockinged legs. At that moment, the police arrive, and trap the killers. Karoff draws a gun. Stascha catches his eye and nods slightly, giving permission for him to shoot her. As Karoff is led away, Leblanc is left cradling her body.
Those who believe Josef Von Sternberg created the Dietrich persona from scratch will be surprised by this film, in which Bernhardt uses some of the visual devices normally associated with Sternberg, particularly in the choreography of extras, and moreover shows Dietrich, in character and appearance, as somewhere between her earlier party-girl roles and the smoldering temptress of SHANGHAI EXPRESS. Though still plump and not yet blonde, she's made up with skill, showing off her expressive eyes and high forehead, while the camera frequently lingers on her beautiful legs.
Shot entirely on sets, the film seems cramped- the party can only manage a chorus line of two dancers - though Bernhardt makes effective use of montages, to evoke the steel-works, for instance. The film is mainly important as a glimpse of Dietrich just before the curtain rose on her international fame.
La chamade (1968)
Beautifully Costumed Contemporary French Melodrama
For three years, the beautiful Lucile has lived with wealthy Paris businessman Charles, for whom she is a lovely ornament,and an admired figure among their rich, leisured circle.
Lucile lives for pure sensation; the best clothes (all by Yves St Laurent), chic restaurants, summers in St Tropez. Her hedonistic character is symbolised by her pleasure in putting her head or hands out the window of her sports car and enjoying the rush of cool air.
After a theatre party, she's attracted to Antoine, young journalist lover of a woman in the group. Charles throws them together, gambling a brief fling will get it out of her system. But their affair becomes more serious, and common knowledge after the two argue at a formal soiree. Following this key scene, with the disapproving guests ranged silently against the couple like a tribunal that find them guilty of that most despicable of social crimes, Bad Taste, Lucile leaves Charles's mansion for Antoine's cluttered apartment.
Her new life is a shock. She has to take buses, and even work for a living,hauling files in a newspaper research library. She sells her jewels,and flirts with the idea of selling herself to a wealthy American who tries to pick her up. Her resentment of her new condition is summed up in a section of William Faulkner's SANCTUARY in which the writer unashamedly endorses a life lived for pleasure alone. She reads the passage aloud to a cafe crowded with civil servants glumly eating their lunch, and they erupt in applause.
When Lucile gets pregnant, it's Charles to whom she turns for the abortion. As the relationship with Antoine deteriorates, she ducks the grim modern play he wants her to see, and instead accompanies Charles to a concert. Dressed again in one of her St Laurent gowns (she's left fifty of them at Charles's place, perhaps suspecting she might need them again) and sipping champagne while listening to Mozart, she realises this is her true milieu. Next morning, she returns to the sleeping Antoine only to set out a single coffee cup for his breakfast, then ring him from the bar downstairs with news that it's over.
Few actresses convey sensuality more effectively than Deneuve, and in LA CHAMADE she's at her most seductive. She exudes undiluted desire when,beautifully sun-tanned, she welcomes the news that Antoine will join her in St Tropez for a mid-summer idyll. The phone call comes at a bar telephone next to the statue of a bare-breasted woman - as close as the film ever gets to nudity. Throughout, Deneuve never shows more than a leg and her shoulders. Yet even a scene where she dumps salt and hot water into a red plastic bowl to soak her sore feet carries an erotic tingle.
While Lucile is no heroine, she's the archetypal Parisienne, her self-regard justified by her beauty and style. Ironically, LA CHAMADE was made on the eve of the 1968 revolutionary "events", as the French now call them. At the time, the disappearance of Lucile and her class was confidently predicted. Like similar forecasts in 1789, it was premature. Today, Paris is more and more filled with such beautiful creatures, and Deneuve herself continues to flourish. Vive la France, and Vive la Deneuve!
The Sea Bat (1930)
Above Average Early Sound Action Picture
Wesley Ruggles began directing THE SEA BAT but Lionel Barrymore completed it. This would account for the contrast between the outdoor scenes, shot on Mexican locations, and the interiors, particularly a sponge-diving episode, filmed in the studio tank, and some dialog between Charles Bickford and Raquel Torres.
The exteriors bear all the hallmarks of Ruggles - in particular a long tracking shot following Torres through the ramshackle village to the dock, where the sponge fishing boat is about to leave with her brother Asther aboard. The hand of Ruggles is also evident in the scene of Torres fending off potential rape on the rocky seashore, the star pulling a knife and snarling defiance at John Miljan and cronies as spray soaks her flimsy blouse (revealing a pre-code absence of lingerie.)
On the other hand, one is inclined to lay at Barrymore's door an embarrassing voodoo sequence, with Torres performing an unconvincing dance, and also the scene where she tries to vamp Bickford as he stolidly studies the Bible.
The casting, as often in early sound films, mixes talents on the way up with once-eminent silent performers working out the end of their contracts; Charles Bickford and Boris Karloff among the former, Gibson Gowland (GREED), Nils Asther (WILD ORCHIDS)and Mack Swain (Keystone) the latter. George F. Marion parades another of his excruciating accents, a serious rival to his performance in ANNA Christie as Garbo's father.
Considerable effort has gone into creating the manta ray "bat",a towed semi-submersible on the order of "Bruce", the shark in JAWS. More whale than ray, it spouts, and overturns boats. This impressive piece of physical special effects, as usual with early studio productions, is uncredited.
Oedipus the King (1968)
Heavy-handed Anglicised Greek Tragedy
A mixed cast of British and Canadian performers pose picturesquely on authentic Greek locations for this labored version of Sophocles' tragedy about the unlucky young man who is cast out at birth by Laius, his father, king of Thebes, encounters him in adulthood and, not knowing his identity, kills him, then marries - again by chance - his own mother, and takes over the kingdom to which - ironically - he is entitled by reason of birth. After that, it's all downhill, with the god Apollo cursing the whole of Thebes until Oedipus accepts the terrible punishments he himself has called down on the killer of Laius.
Walter Lassally's camera is the star of the film. The killing of Laius, used over the credits and reprised a number of times later, is a barrage of swooping overhead and hand-held shots, intercut with freeze-frames, that captures the frenzy and confusion of the attack. He also makes the most of the locations, treating us to stylish skyline shots of the blind prophet Tiresias and attractively spacing the black-clad elders of Thebes around the weathered stones of an ancient amphitheater.
Christopher Plummer, however, is no tragic hero, and in his uncreased white off-the-shoulder gown flounces like a debutante at his coming-out ball. Richard Johnson, ferociously bearded as Creon, seems intentionally made ugly so as not to threaten Plummer's place at the center of events.Donald Sutherland leads the chorus, but has been unaccountably re-voiced, probably by British actor Patrick Allen. Orson Welles, who in those days specialized in cameos that required booming pronouncements of doom, (eg, Father Mapple in MOBY DICK), is customarily ominous as Tiresias. Other than for the locations and the photography, this is a failure, if an honorable one.
Little Friend (1934)
Interesting stage in Christopher Isherwood's career
In his memoir CHRISTOPHER AND HIS KIND, Christopher Isherwood devotes an entire chapter to working with Viertel. Novelist Margaret Kennedy wrote an earlier screenplay, but Viertel didn't like it, or her, calling her 'a crocodile who wept once in her life a real tear.' Isherwood, who never saw the Kennedy script, though they are co-credited as writers, was suggested as a collaborator by Jean Ross, the real-life "Sally Bowles" of his Berlin stories (She demanded half his first week's salary in return.) Viertel wanted someone who spoke German, and was new to movies; "He needed an amateur, an innocent, a disciple, a victim," writes Isherwood. A professional would have made Viertel embarrassed at working on this piece of trivia, but he told Isherwood, 'I feel absolutely no shame before you; we are like two married men who meet in a whorehouse.' During production, Viertel used the fact that both could speak German to impress the crew, taking Isherwood into the corner and discussing finer points of the film in that language while the technicians looked on in awe. For all Viertel's contempt for LITTLE FRIEND, it was successful both financially and critically,described by the NEW YORK TIMES as "very close to being a masterpiece of its kind."
Three in One (1957)
An important early independent Australian film
Socialist author Frank Hardy offered his equally convinced left-wing friend Cecil Holmes part of his royalties from the controversial novel "Power Without Glory" to film his story "A Load of Wood", after which Holmes was able to finance two more segments, "The City" and "Joe Wilson's Mates". "A Load of Wood" remains, however, the best in the film,a bleak, almost Soviet tale of men suffering out the Depression in a country town. One of them, irritated by the meagre pay for their road-mending job and by the threat of a cold night, suggests a raid on a neighbouring landowner for firewood. Ross Wood's photography sets the mood of cold, misery and shame, while Jerome Levy as the burly revolutionary gives a performance of ferocious skill. By comparison, "The City" is trivial, and, as Holmes admitted, excessively influenced by Italian NeoRealism, while "Joe Wilson's Mates", though likable, is light-weight. When a tramp is found dead outside a country town with a union card in his pocket, other union members, even though they have never met him, club together for a proper funeral. Sweating in the heat, and making frequent stops to rest, drink beer and bicker, they put Joe Wilson to rest, and celebrate afterwards at a spirited wool-shed dance. With Australian distribution controlled by British and US companies, an independent production like THREE IN ONE was denied general release,supposedly because of its socialist tone. However, "Joe Wilson's Mates" was shown as a short in support of an Alfred Hitchcock film.