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Life is weird, I keep on writing over and over again about all the movies I watch, following the motto "I review what I rate and I rate what I see"... still, my intent is not to show off my cinematic knowledge (no more or no less impressive than any average movie lover), but to share some thoughts with people who share the same passion.
Isn't that, by the way, the true measure of a passion?
Now, why do I write movie reviews? since I'm not paid for it, since it's not even my central activity, why wasting energy for lengthy texts that a few dozen readers in the best case would read? Well, because I don't believe it's a waste of energy at all ... and actually, I also write about movies because I wish I could work in the movie business. Having graduated in screenwriting and directing, I hope my time will come. If not, this is the closest I can get to my dreams.
According to Woody Allen's ex-girlfriend in Play It Again, Sam (1972), he likes films because he's "one of life's great watchers". To which he retorts: "I'm a doer, I want to participate". Well, as much as I want to participate, to do something, it's not that being one of life's great watchers and share some vets about life through the experience movies and about movies through the experience of life.
I hope some reviews will be insightful for you, convincing enough to discover a film or just enjoyable, and I hope it will simply get you the opportunity to compare your tastes, your appreciations and your dislikes with a fellow movie lover. Please, forgive some language mistakes and take into consideration, I'm not from an English speaking country, I do my best to use the most proper language... but hey, we're only humans.
Have a good read!
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Following this triumph, rumors started to spread that an American remake was in preparation starring Leonardo DiCaprio, what's your take on this news?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of these distinguished members of the Best Picture Elite Club is *your* perfect movie?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
In your opinion, which "body frame" had your favorite set of male icons from Hollywood Golden Age?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Which of these lines from "Tom and Jerry" is your favorite?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
Though we respect your disagreement on many of these inclusions, we hope we'll get your vote for the couple that you feel ticks most of, if not all, the boxes of what makes a legit couple.
So, which of these memorable movie duos is the closest to a couple?
After voting, you might discuss the vote here
These actors are all dead now but their legends still shine over our hearts and a little melody has something to do with it, which one do you most identify with his score or can't you think of without having the music playing in your head?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
There are many reasons for that: the war has impacted history so significantly no one can possibly imagine our modern world without its influence. Secondly, many images are part of our universal heritage: Hitler spitting his hatred to cheering crowds, Churchill's broadcasted speeches, Spitfires fighting Messerschmitts, the "Day of Infamy", bombed cities, the nuclear mushroom, resisting civilians and skeletal people in striped pajamas carrying in haggard gazes the horrifying mark of human barbarity.
All these elements have inspired since the end of the war countless movies and documentaries, among them many masterpieces and maybe WW2's edge over WW1 is its narrative. The various key moments that punctuated these six bloody years were the kinds of turning points that made the reality even more dramatic than fiction. And the narrative is even more effective because the enemy's actions were pretty horrific and ultimately, the good side won (though calling it a clean victory would be an offense to the civilian casualties).
Anyway, not asking for an objective historical answer but just your personal opinion, here are 10 key milestones in the WW2 timeline, ranked in chronological order: which one do you consider the most dramatic or important?
After voting, you might discuss the list here
(the images might not totally correspond to the option's title)
This poll was inspired by the Apocalypse series
Brutus vs César (2020)
Quo Vadis, French Cinema?
There's a French expression I'm afraid will be lost in translation, it's a branch of comedy that goes through the designation of "potache humor", a term of reference englobing schoolboy pranks humor or the kind of unsophisticated inside jokes a few 'enlightened' minds can get... it's fair to say that "Brutus vs. Caesar", the highly anticipated and advertised swords-sandals-and-sneakers film from Amazon Prime is a monumental chunk of that humor. And here's a sample: Brutus (played by comedian Kheiron) mistakes a 'complot' reunion for one where they serve 'compote', after all, there are 'raclette' parties, aren't there?
I suspect Kheiron has enough common sense to figure out that no half-brain will command laughter from such a stupid joke, but the film aims low, it aims at the chuckle, the little one you almost accidentally exude when a joke is so lame that you laugh at the guts it took to put it in the final cut. That joke made me chuckle or smile but the more such jokes where used, the lower the film sunk in comedic abysses I didn't think were possible. Even Michael Youn's films didn't bother with quality plots but he had standards, even the dreadful "RRRrrrrr!" had the merit to set a realistic design of the prehistoric era, even "The Daltons" ventured into fantasy with a meager but still edible narrative... "Brutus vs. Caesar" had no story, it's a barbecue of little shish kebab jokes up the skewer of lousy vignettes where Rome is set in Morocco and Gauls seems as accessible as the next bus station.
After a round of heartfelt albeit not successful films, I figured Kheiron's priority wasn't into convincing the viewer that this was the real Rome -I'm telling you, the film aims low- he doesn't try to emulate "Life of Brian" or classic French peplum spoofs like "A Quarter to Two B. C." or "Mission Cleopatra" because at least these movies put us in a semblance of realism to better detach us from it, constructing before deconstructing, but "Brutus vs. Caesar" sets the tone pretty quickly, this is a variation of Rome that only exists for the sake of benign chuckles, it's a sketchy cheap Carthage-looking Rome begging us to suspend our disbelief because... it's only a joke, but the jokes aren't even funny to begin with.
Kheiron is an intelligent person all right and I guess he didn't have the right budget and one could appreciate that the film subverted so many tropes and featured a revisionist take on Roman history with Black soldiers, where Vercingetorix is played by an Arab and so was Caesar - at least Ramzy Bedia is having fun playing the megalomaniac dictator- and Spartacus ai a geek who went too hard on Chips and sodas and women are part of the Senate. These anachronistic touches are like the barbed wire preventing any critic to go hard on the film, because if you ever criticize it, you might be labeled a reactionary... but what are these changes for? What do they provide? Are these characters interesting?
If you make a woman senator, give her a substantial thing to do. If you have a TV star on your cast, don't just take them for granted and do something about it. No, it's all in an exercice of style and nothing else with a bland character who's got nothing to offer, except falling after running. That's the kind of running gag the film can desperately rely on: Brutus can't run. And it doesn't get any better. In a scene a rich plebeian tells his female slave that she's got no brain, the right pay-off is ruined by her explaining the situation to Spartacus who keeps comically missing the point. The film sabotages its own jokes.
And the romance that grows between Kheiro and Lina El Arabi Is played straight as if we were supposed to root for these characters because they were the heroes... it didn't make any sense at all, not at all, and it's a shame that French cinema should fund such duds while many struggling writers try to come up with elaborate screenplays , now, the goofiest adaptation of any kiddies comic-book with a bankable face is worth more than whatever efforts some decent creative minds with no connections can pull.
"Brutus vs. Caesar" is a disaster that can't get away with the the so-called second degree, there are a few jokes here and there but the gags are like the setting: cheap, lowbrow and phony, with a tedious story and an editing that can't save the film from its atrocious look and idiotic directing, the characters are bland and the film is obviously designed to elicit some strong responses from some fans of Kheiron who don't regard the real history of France or Rome as their own, it's a sort of appropriation of French history and geography by a minority (to which I happen to belong by the way) which is okay in my book if it was funny but would have the opposite been accepted? I don't think so.
I don't want to get into that turf, but there's something very unpleasant in that mocking of classic history that makes me wonder how Lhermitte, Darmon or (et tu?) Pierre Richard ended up in this mess.. even Kheiron who strikes me as a comedian worthy enough of our attention not to try to be a poor man's Youn or Debbourze.
... oh and yes, the film had the guts to end on that cliffhanger, well, let me tell you something, the only thing that should hang over a cliff is any script containing the sequel and who ever holds it should just drop it and say "Scriptum delenda est". (yes and that I'm a Latinist made me hate the film even more).
Death at a Funeral (2007)
Many shenanigans ... and one funeral...
From its opening scene, one can easily guess where "Death at a Funeral" is driving at. Frank Oz concocted a comedy of (good) manners using the most extreme context of seriousness to plug it with its polar opposite through a cable of more-or-less predictable incidents, revelations, twists and plain visual gags that include a full-naked man escalating a roof. It's a tricky kind of comedy that totally depends on the reactions rather than the anticipation, and for the most part it works.
Take that first gag for instance when a long-faced Daniel, played by Michael McFayden, is brought his father's coffin. From the obligatory stern and solemn look with a touch of sadness in his eyes, you can tell the poor man is desperately trying to conceal some deep shock while conforming to his status as the deceased's heir, he must show without showing too much. Now in any lesser movie, the sight of the wrong dead in the coffin would have inspired an over-the-top wide-eyed reaction or the act of kicking the undertakers out of the house with a few colorful names. McFayden is befuddled but doesn't overreact as if something had convinced him that such mistakes were possible, forgiving those poor chaps who also have the right reactions with that 'oh crap! The boss won't be happy' guilty looks. They take back the wrong coffin and leave us with the sentiment that humor will be handled with the cautious delicacy of pallbearers.
"Death at a Funeral" with its exquisite title promising a great deal of British absurdism, is an interesting combination of the roles of seriousness as a crash barrier and humor as a Damocles sword that can befall at any moment. So the question is never: how goofy the situation can get but how much will the characters contain themselves before exploding? It's a comedy with the timing of a ticking bomb and again, it works so many times that we might forgive the slower moments. Because that's the catch of such comedies, they demand a sort of patience from viewers and must take time to establish the characters. And think about that: celebrations such as parties or weddings are better expositional devices as they allow characters to behave according to their personalities. Here we need to see them interacting in the intimacy of their cars before putting on the mourning masks, and there's a shade of truth resonating in these scenes that remind us how we let enough of ourselves steam off as a necessary preliminary before protocol forbids any attempt to be natural.
And so we have Jane, Daniels's devoted wife played by Keeley Hawes; who tries to convince her isolated husbdan that everything will turn fine while everyone complains about him reading the eulogy since his brother is the writer of the family. Speaking of Robert, he's played by Rupert Grave, a successful writer who had just come from his penthouse in New York and brings with him the news that he's broke and can't allow Daniel to save some money to buy a house, so much for the providential comer: no money and not even a prepared speech as a consolation. Daniel can only count on his wife's support and a few little cards not to miss some important key-moments of his father's life. Jane Asher is the tearful widower and is so underused in the earlier parts we can see some comical hysteria coming at such point. And in the subplot department, there's Ewen Bremmer as the obnoxious relative who keeps making moves on Martha (Daisy Donovan), the girlfriend of Simon (Alan Tudyk), despised by her father and Sandra's brother Victor (Peter Egan).
Overall, the screenplay from Dean Craigs adroitly paints a family tree with one hand while making these interactions natural. At the end, each character exists for a purpose, Sandra's brother Troy (Kris Marchall) who specialized in pharmaceutical experiments exists because Simon must be so stressed at the idea of meeting the family he'll take valium pills ... only you might not expect a man to write 'LSD' on his bottles. Simon marks the first departure from subtle comedy to plain craziness and allows the film to move at two speeds. It's effective but I think it's a sort of cheat because the film doesn't need that, there's a great comedic potential in Fred Nyman as Howard the family's friend who must take care of Uncle Alfie (the great Peter Vaughan) and this leads to hilarious situations that involve pushing a wheelchair over a mounting hill and helping the old man to use the toilet. The fun isn't that the outcome is gross but because we can relate to it slightly more than the "Trainspotting" sheet incident.
Just like we can all relate to Daniel's nervousness and despair to keep everything all right, trying to make the best of the event. I think that's the real power of "Death at a Funeral" as it captures how unnatural we all are when we're put in situations where we mus't shown any sign of.... The case of Simon is simply an extreme use of the situation of holding a laugh during a funeral, something that never fails to get me..What Oz does is setting the pieces of various little archetypes and make them evolve one by one until explosive finale where everything ties up quite well.
You might notice I forgot one name from the cast, which is Peter Dinklage who makes for a great performance as the uninvited guest and the one unmissable presence, the one that brings all the chaos on everybody and that includes himself. What's good about "Death at a Funeral" is that it takes an ordinary situation where fun is merely impossible and makes the best out of it, that it never really cross the line of bad taste and keep consistent with the whole funeral decorum is certainly its best achievement.
The Skin Game (1931)
A minor Hitchcock dated even in its own present...
I'm going into a marathon of earlier Hitchcock earlier features (the silent ones and the pre-1934 talkies) and there's the same French expert who announces the film and provides some interesting backstories about the making and many appetizing trivia. And so it's very telling when the same Hitch enthusiast tells you before the beginning of "The Skin Game" that this is not the director's best film, not even by the era's standards. Granted we know that the real thing started with "The Man Who Knew Too Much", it doesn't set your anticipation very high when you're told from the get-go that you might not enjoy the film and when it takes merely five minutes to say anything remotely interesting about it. But I wouldn't call myself a Hitchcock fan if I didn't have one thing or two to say about "The Skin Game" and it so happens that I have things to say so let's get over it.
For the sake of simplification, let's say that the film is about a feud between two highly-influent families in the English countryside: the upper-class and long established Hillchrists and the nouveau-riches Hornblowers and for the sake of simplicity, let's just say that the three main characters are Mr. And Mrs. Hillchrist (C. V. France and Helen Haye) and Mr. Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn aka Kris Kingle from "Miracle at 34th Street"). May I add that the 'skin game' involves some elaborate schemes from Hornblower consisting on buying land and then booting off the farmers in order to build factories, to which the Hillchrists are firmly opposed. The plot revolves around some counter-attack from the Hillchrist that goes through blackmailing Mr. Hornblower with some dark secret about his daughter-in-law's dubious past. That's the nature of the beast.
The film was based on a 1920 play from John Galsworthy that was adapted into a silent movie version in 1921. Gwenn and France reprised their roles. But this contextualization is just to tell you that the plot was already dated in 1931 when the Great Depression had made these feuds rather obsolete in a time where anyone would have dreamed to see the dark smokes of factories over the green landscapes if that meant more jobs for people. Much more after winning his Nobel Prize, Mr. Galsworthy passed away one year after the film's release. The film belonged to the past during its own present and nothing could possibly elevate it not even among Hitchcock's good enough little films to be watched. But I think the reasons of the film's relative failure are to be counted in three.
First, the acting. It is way too theatrical to be remotely entertaining. Mr. France keeps carrying that constantly infuriated gaze of a sinister school principal, even in his moments of weakness there's never an emotion or a shade of warmth drawn in his stone-face whereas Mrs. Haye struck me as a less likable and thinner version of Margaret Dumont and so these two people who represent the old order, rooted in their bucolic and picturesque past, are rather plain and uninteresting individuals, which makes difficult to root for them. And when the acting takes off to melodramatic summits with actors or actresses looking for long monologues, the adaptation shows its first signs of fatigue and the material gets dangerously risible.
The acting actually highlights what is the strength and therefore the weakness of the film, Mr. Gwenn is a superb actor, he brings in his portrayal of the cocky and straightforward Hornblower the very likability we were demanding in the protagonists. He's smiling, cocky, larger-than-life, with all the stamina that the film lacks and every moment he's here, the film reaches a high spot... I can say that Gwenn reinforces my conviction that Hitchcock films needs faces and actors and some good stories can suffer from unknown faces. I could see the colorful Gwenn who played Santa Klaus or even the corrupt bodyguard in "Foreign Correspondent" and the the film makes him the antagonist, daring us not to root for him. Impossible!
The third weakness is the rather tedious plot that relies way too much on monologues and melodrama with solemn oaths, fainting and all that jazz... and all ends on a bittersweet notes where Mr. Hornblower curses the Hillchrists for what they did and the film concludes on a climate of unpleasantness with Hitchcock who couldn't decide between cynicism or comedy and just went on rolling with the lucidity of the beginner who knows he doesn't have the upper hand.
That said, even in the lesser Hitchcock, there's one golden rule: you have your Hitchcockian scene. And for all the bad things I said, I can say that the film features one of the most memorable auction scenes I've ever seen one that for once allowed Hitchcock to distance himself from the pompous codes of the stage and have the camera go back and forth between one auctioneer to another with various speeds, and Gwenn's subtle eye signals, creating so many swings and double swings it's like watching a Roland Garros finale. Hitchcock was said to film crime like love scenes, this time he filmed an auction like a tennis game, one that went on and on so much, with one agent outbidding another, I couldn't get over it and wish it would never end, for I felt the film had reached its momentum and would feel downhill after...
... just like that tree in the final shot that reminds you that even after a dull movie that it's not the man behind the camera to blame and Hitchcock had a few tricks under his sleeve he destined to better movies.
That's all to say about "Skin Game", a film for hardcore fans only with one great sequence and one great performance... and a competent director striving for greatness.
Billy Liar (1963)
There's a limit to how long you can dodge reality; sooner or later, you gotta play ball with it...
"Billy Liar" belongs to that British New Wave that consecrated the 'angry young man' as the figurehead of a new cinematic cape toward the working-class reality with Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay or Lawrence Harvey as rebellious figures from the lost generation (too young for the war, too old for the baby-boom revolution) rejecting the old guard diktats and raising their own voice amidst a storm of conventions made of marriages, steady jobs, children with the pub as the only possible loophole.
And so John Schlesinger paints through Billy Fisher aka 'Liar' the complex portrait of a not-so angry young man (Courtenay had embodied that figure more eloquently in "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner") but a young man so defiant toward reality that he never misses an opportunity to escape from it. Working as a funeral parlor clerk in some North Country town, he does his best to sabotage his work, extorting money from some postage jobs and overall enjoys giving himself challenges such as walking his eyes closed or fantasizing himself as the leader or the hero of his own idealized world: an imaginary place named Ambrosia where he can lead the life he never had.
So Billy strikes first as a dreamer rather than a liar, Tom Courtenay portrays him with the dazed look and crisped expressions of an immature kid who can't figure out what to do with his future and so indulges to vague reverie. The part was originally created by Albert Finney but Schlesinger preferred the less imposing and more adolescent-looking physique of Courtenay and it was the right choice. I couldn't see Finney being verbally dominated by his no-nonsense parents: a stiff hardly-smiling father (Wilfred Pickles), a comprehensive mother and housewife (Mona Washbourne) too busy to play referee of their continuous antagonizing to truly understand her son, not to mention the grandmother (Ethel Griffies) who adds to the whole cacophony by her constant babbling.
Finney would slam the door and get his own house but Courtenay hides beneath a faux-rebellious façade, the signs of an adolescent crisis that just went too late rather than a true craving from adventure, he's basically a rebel without a cause. But he does have a crowning moment where he vents his frustration to his father in a scene that echoes the moment where James Dean finally stood against his father in "Rebel". But Billy is rarely a force on his own but rather a torchlight on a complex exploration of the British demography, grossly divided in three categories: those who accept their situation as a state of fact and don't care about changing the world, people who lived the war and believe that the young generation should value its luck. Some do seek escapism but only into TV and radio programs, the film opens with a radio DJ announcing the songs picked up by various auditors and in a way the media represents a sort of onguent for the prevalent moroseness.
And then there are dreamers, the last category. Billy's dreams is to write radio sketches to the local comedian Danny Boone and the connection with the girl he's in love with is indirectly made as she's picked by the artist among a group of other women. In a role that anticipates her future Oscar-winning role in Schleinsger's "Darling", Julie Christie plays Liz, a positive girl who embraces the unpredictability of life, she's shot in the street with a documentary-style (the reactions of the by-standers are genuine) and she's too perfect not to be suspected as a sort of idealization growing from Billy's fertile imagination. That theory apart, it's telling that the beautiful girl doesn't need to 'sell' herself to be caught, whereas Billy must pretend so much that he ends up entrapped in what must be his most pathological trait: lying.
To call him a mythomaniac would be an understatement, Billy is so wrapped in a desire to change the reality and present a better one that he's got two girlfriends, the straight-laced Barbara (Helen Fraser) and the street-smart Rita (Gwendolynn Witts) and can't even keep track on the lies and watching him trying to keep afloat in that deluge of lies is one of the narrative delights, in a sort of schaden-freude way.
There's almost a sort of Hitchcockian fun in the way Schlesinger puts Billy in a situation where he can't basically escape, and can only get away by throwing a grenade, sometimes shooting his boss, gunfighting his friends or imagining undivided support from his parents, dressed like upper-class citizens. These surreal creative ellipses that Schlesinger would later re-use in "Midnith Cowboy, certainly inspired movies like "Amelie", "Requiem for a Dream" and guess what they had in common? They were about dreamers? Style-wise, it works like a meta-referential illustration of the cathartic intervention of the camera in the way it cuts off the dull parts of life or the most embarrassing and provide escapism even within escapism.
Billy Liar is certainly one of the most interesting characters of British cinema, with his two relationships going on simultaneously (if we discount Liz), he reminded me of the late Charles Grodin in "The Heartbreak Kid" a character that doesn't ask to be likable but is liked for as along as he can't get away with it. And in a similar fashion,It all leads to that ending where Billy is given one chance to fulfill his dreams until we realize he's a truly dream chaser in the tragic meaning, something only a true dreamer can relate to. In a way the director and writers Keith Waterhouse (the novel's author and co-screenwriter) and Willis Hall show a deep knowledge on how the creative mind works, incapable to wrestle with reality not even the positive one, it's implied that Billy did write a successful hit song, so he did have the right stuff... but there's a limit to how long you can dodge reality, sooner or later, you gotta play ball with it.
Primitive Hitchcock... but effective...
"The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog" is the third feature from Alfred Hitchcock, a modernization of the "Jack the Ripper" story with a mysterious killer assassinating fair-haired women (Hitch's early obsession with blondes?) every Tuesday night and leaving a paper-triangle carrying his signature: "The Avenger". The silent era still kept cinema as a visual art and and young Hitchcock knew how to feed hungry eyes with well-disposed close-ups of screaming victims and hysterical witnesses, bizarre angles and eloquent editing, using words so seldom the film is pretty much understandable without the need of intertitles.
And through the montage of city cops, journalists, anonymous people and gossipy showgirls reading the newspapers before the fashion show, the film keeps a very long time to build up the character of the killer, making him the first memorable Hitchcockian villain... if only it could hold up to that premise for the enjoyment is milkdly handicapped with the knowledge that the protagonist, played by Ivor Novello, is innocent. Novello was then a bigger star than the rising director and according to his contract he couldn't play villains... which forced Hitch to rewrite the original more ambiguous ending. Granted the 'wrong accused man' is one of his cherished tropes and the suspicion is leveraged with too much evidence not to be suspicious itself, ambiguity would have spiced up the experience a little bit. Sometimes, it drags on needless details.
It's interesting though that this restriction wasn't quite the era's fault but a simple matter of casting, Hitchcock needed big stars and that was the price to pay. He would later be forced to obey the Hays Codes with "Suspicion" concluding with a happy ending that could have been perfect had Cary Grant left a mysterious grin at the end. It's unfortunate that the wicked sense of humor of Hitchcock could only bloom in a late point of his career but that he made so many masterpieces with all these limitations prove his remarkable craftsmanship and in a way, his revenge on Novello is that the actor who got the looks of a Valentino was given a great career-film but as far as novelty goes, it's the man behind the camera whose presence is felt every second.
There is a marvelous scene where the landlady Mrs Bunting (Marie Ault) and her husband (Arthur Chesney), watch him walking from above and the floor is transparent and we see his footsteps from below, suggesting how haunting his presence is. In another scene where he comes back after a murder is committed, you can hear the impact of his sound from the horrified reactions of Ault. Another great moment is when he talks with his Daisy Butting (June Tripp) while she's taking a bath, a close-up on her feet in the bathtub is an obvious precursor of the voyeurism displayed in "Psycho", not to mention the setting. The connection between lust and murder, crime and passion will never desert the director's inspiration.
What is "The Lodger" about ultimately? First, it's the wrong man trope that finds its root in Hitchcock's famous childhood episode where his father asked policemen to put him in jail for five minutes as a warning, an experience that sows the seeds of fear of authority and justified that no Hitchcockian hero was ever a cop and no villain either. The real thrills comes from the voyeurism driven not by lust but by pure suspicion: we see the Lodger through the eyes of the accusers and his clear-eyed face, his body language become key to our suspicion, it works so well that we'd rather regret the certitude that he's not the killer. The explanation given later does make sense, revealing what the little bag he carried was about (maybe Hitch's first MacGuffin?) but it's a rather futile satisfaction when we long for thrills rather than melodramatic backstories.
The aesthetic value of the film, beautifully restored, leaves no doubt that even in the early 20s, Hitchcock was growing full of his talent, waiting for the right material to implode, the entrance of Ivor Novello as the Lodger is quite a remarkable moment of the silent era: he walks slowly with a delicate and sad look and a scarf covering the lower half of his face as if he was some creature with a mysterious secret, which makes hims a rather frightening and effective presence Hitchcock can have fun with. He goes as far as making his less menacing by insinuating a sexual orientation that should reassure Daisy's policeman sweetheart Joe (Malcolm Keen) that a rival he can't be. Joe however can be seen as the forefather of a long lineage of incompetent cops in Hitchcock's filmography.
A few minor regrets though: the film drags on too long it prevents an interesting sequence where the Lodger is handcuffed from really paying-off, Hitchcock would make the premise more interesting in the "39 Steps". The 'Deus ex Machina' weakens the villain and turns the whole plot into a simple matter of misunderstanding. The ending was unnecessary and later Hitch would end the films at the right moments, without embarrassing himself with happy reunions. I also wished the restoration could keep a soundtrack a little more fitting for the era, the music sounds too modern and the use of colors turns it to a sort of D. W. Griffith' kaleidoscope while the good old black-and-white could have been perfect.
Still, for those who were asking themselves how far back they could get to find the earliest buds of Hitchcock's luxuriant talent (including his first cameo)? The answer is in his third feature film: and if finding his trademarks in their primitive state makes the experience definitely worthwhile for any self-proclaimed fan, it's highly doubtful that the film will leave as indelible a mark as anything made in the decades to come. But it's definitely a must-see for any Hitch fan.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)
When a five-minute conclusion can turn a fine little action-buddy movie to a humble masterpiece...
Forgive me for starting with the ending but blame the image that keeps haunting me: the lifeless face of Jeff Bridges with a distorted grin as the last testimony of his optimistic nature, the moment where the film trades its rather debonair attitude for the ugly mask of tragedy. Because it's a tragedy all right, not because the man who owned up his zaniness and devil-may-care spirit to the last breath dies, not because the kid with the infectious smile dies, but because of the narrative. I saw the film many times and I just realized how much foreshadowing there was, how many times Red (George Kennedy) threatened to beat the hell out of him. Earlier on when he punched him in the stomach for a little quip, he said he'd be dead if it was in the face... in any other film, that would be your average one-liner.
Such details draw the line between the 70s and the 80s where the hero could undergo several punches and just get away with a little headache, the reality of "Thunderbolt & Lightfoot" could never be applied to "Die Hard" or "Lethal Weapon". Death isn't only treacherous but agonizingly slow, making Lightfoot dizzy first, feeling a numbness in his face, losing balance when Thunderbolt is finding the money from a previous heist and holding death like you hold a laugh not to lose a game... Lightfoot was so generous in good spirit he wouldn't even let death show until it's too late. The disbelief in his posthumous rictus is one of a man who cheated death just long enough to keep Thunderbolt believed they had a future together but once they reached the top and could enjoy their cigar, Lightfoot left his friend speechless and ready to hide his tears behind his sunglasses.
Till now, I regard Lightfoot's death as one of the worst downer endings... but it was a necessary one for the film would never have reached that status with a happy ending. Director and writer Michael Cimino could yield the temptation of a sequel-friendly film: Clint Eastwood was just at the peak of his manly handsomeness without any shades of grey spoiling his virile brown mane and Bridges plays the perfect counterpart as the baby-faced eccentric drifter who enjoys a good old pistachio ice cream, but Cimino had other plans, making Lightfoot such a lovable buffoon who seemed beyond tragedy it would be tragedy that immortalized him and earned Jeff Bridges the film's unique Oscar-nomination in 1974. Bridges was in fine company. Yes, this is an average B-looking picture that challenged "The Godfather Part II". Later, Cimino would make the Best Picture winner "The Deer Hunter" but it's the same raw stuff, but with more prestige and more budget.
I know I'm overloading the review with details about the ending while there's more to enjoy in the film: the road trip across the midwest, the sleazy and oddly cinematic charm of small towns in the 70s and that senseless freedom that male bonding can provide. Lightfoot had just stolen a car pretending he had a prosthetic leg to fool the salesman (that's how cocky he is) and Thunderbolt, disguised as a priest, was giving a sermon until Red cut it down with a shotgun, he jumps in the next car that comes his way and almost instantly, the two men become friend, the one with a past, and one without a future, if you're going to travel to any place in the 70s, at least do it with someone. The chemistry is there, Thunderbolt doesn't speak much and Lightfoot too much, Bridges could play him annoying but there's such a likable thing about him that makes him impossible to resist, not even the hardened Eastwood can't resist a few lousy jokes.
Maybe it's because of the impact the ending had on me that I feel the whole heist is rather accessory, but it is not. The film insists on showing waitresses or prostitutes with very short skirts but that also foreshadows the way the men will trick one of the guard by disguising Lightfoot into a woman, this is a very small place with average men trying to compensate their misery with sex magazines, drugs, pickup girls, when some middle-aged schmucks are so spineless they don't even bother listening to their nagging wife telling them to stand for themselves. In the midst of the oil crisis, (Dub Taylor makes an interesting cameo as a Station Attendant) there's a statement about a crisis of masculinity that makes the gang the best tribute to manhood: Red is the brute, Goody (Geoffrey Lewis) is the brains, the man who can plan at the minute the right timing so they can tie the vault director and prevent him from calling the police, Thunderbolt is the technician, who can open a vault using an anti-tank rifle and Lightfoot is the spirit of the youth.
Still, it's the very brutality of Red that kills Lightfoot, Goody's shot and thrown out of a car like an animal and what's left from an audacious robbery is just a sneeze and a shirt that ruins everything. In the disillusioned 70s, men are their own enemies, along with a certain reality. Movies like this defy conventions without even trying, they belong to a unique breed of simple films whose very simplicity opens the vault of your feelings to put you in a state where you don't know which one to liberate. Just like another forgotten gem of the same year, Peckinpah's "Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia" "Thunderbolt & Lightfoot" is made of the same material than the usual masterpieces of the New Hollywood era but Cimino hushed it under the format of a typical buddy movie, one so lighthearted it never totally prepares us to its devastating finale. The nerve of Cimino to have toyed with our suspension of disbelief so well it was reality that left us in total disbelief.
The Paradine Case (1947)
The "Hitchcock/ Selznick" case...
"The Paradine Case" was adapted from a Robert Hitchens novel read -and therefore validated- by Alfred Hitchcock. Its premise is simple: a rich woman is accused of poisoning her blind husband -a former officer of great reputation- and then put on trial; her lawyer, an English barrister, feels a strange attraction toward that infuses his mind with the certitude that she couldn't kill her husband. It's a good start.
Now I haven't read the novel but this time I feel the format of cinema limits rather than transcends the story, here's why: by insisting on depicting Mrs. Paradine (Alida Valli) with the aura of a cold femme fatale, it's hard for the viewer to figure what a competent man like Anthony Keane would find in her. Attraction is one thing but faith of her innocence? In fact, the word 'innocent' is the last epithet you would think of employing as there's a fragrance of guilt beneath that overly dignified posture of her that it pushes us very much ahead of the 'hero' in the certitude of her guilt, so much that the best thing to happen is to be proven wrong. If not, where's the twist?
And the film does insist on Anthony Keane's reputation, he's a lawyer whose winning streak granted him one of the most enviable careers and Peck, with his hair stricken with silver shades to age him a little, plays his usual successful and charismatic man, with a big house and a devoted wife played by Ann Todd, but his obsession with his client remains a mystery. In a scene where he confronts his partner Joseph (Charles Coburn), he defends his client with an extraordinary zeal, swearing to defend her honor. Now, wouldn't any lawyer just suspect that she really did kill her husband but then just try to find a more strategic angle?
There's something that confines to hysteria in the attachment of that man to a truth that nowhere exists and the so-called reason that he's in love is never truly asserted, he does admit it at one point but it never really shows, not even implied, in fact it's more a case of dominance and submission while the intricacies of their relationship turns the case into an abominable mess that doesn't get better with the lover's entrance. The valet, named André Latour (Louis Jourdan), despises Mrs. Paradine with such intensity it can't fool us either. But from a pragmatic standpoint, he can only be the prime suspect if her innocence was proved.
This makes sense actually as Keane points it out, if the death can't be ruled suicide, either Latour the killer or she is. But Mrs. Paradine refuses to incriminate André and we know why, and there comes the dead-end. At that point of the story, there's no way for Keane to pursue his defense or his strategy but the plot tries to mix it with the melodrama of his marital life being jeopardized and his wife prompting him to acquit the lady because otherwise, they'll be doomed. The film is enveloped within a atmosphere of pure psychological suffocation where love inspires either acts of murders or ethical compromissions. Jourdan looks at the verge of a nervous breakdown, Valli keeps channelling Scarlett O'Hara trying to pose for an eyeliner ad with her eyebrows keeping perfectly still and Peck does his best to hide his confusion with more-or-less convincing face tics.
In this air of unpleasantness, there's Charles Laughton as the judge who psychologically harasses his poor wife, played by Ethel Barrymore (and he's actually one of the best things about the film), Leo G. Carroll as the prosecutor, and Joseph's daughter (Joan Tetzel) as the kind of character with no specific role except to be a bridge to the viewer. There's a moment in the trial where she dissects every question from Keane, even the most obvious ones, leaving us wondering whether the screenplay holds our intelligence in high regard. But the screenplay was written by Selznick who was also the producer and whose name appears so many times in the opening credits it's easy to diagnose what went wrong with the film.
The collaboration between the producer and the director had reached a similar dead-end and after a streak of successful films, Hitchcock got tired of Selznick's interference with his work, lost his interest and let him handle the writing and casting. You can hear the interview with Truffaut and see that Hitchcock wasn't fond of Peck or Valli's performance and kept his harsher criticism for Jourdan, I'm no language purist and I don't mind Peck playing a British gentleman but we know casting is integral to Hitchcock's film and one can't simply imagine that the director who made his name a real brand would let a producer continuously dictating his law, even if he produced "Gone With the Wind", or his sole Best Picture winner "Rebecca".
Hitchcock didn't put his heart in this project and it shows from beginning to end, well maybe not the beginning for Hitchcock admitted that what interested him in the story was the idea of a rich woman being arrested, leaving her house to be put on jail, which translated one of Hitchcock's earliest childhood traumas into the screen. Now, it's perhaps the one fail that Hitchcock can get away with it for the trajectory of his career proved him right while Selznick would never hit the same jackpot as with "Gone With the Wind"... and Valli didn't become the next Bergman.
"The Paradine Case" should be retitled "The Hitchcock / Selznick Case" for that's the real conflict that terminated any chance for that film to even join the rank of lesser-known but rather enjoyable Hitchcock films. Picking up a few good performances here and there and some neatly photographed shots wouldn't even make up for the several problems that handicap the film and make it, as if it was ever possible, the least enjoyable of Hitchcock's creations.
The Spear and the Bayonet...
Opening like John Ford's "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", with Richard Burton's voice-over, an official document announces the overwhelming death toll of the Battle of Isandlwana on January 22, 1879, where an expeditionary force of 2000 were crushed by Zulu warriors: the British Little Big Horn. Meanwhile, a handful of British soldiers and officers assigned in a farmstead to protect colonials, learn that the Zulus are coming.
That's for the set-up.
Directed by Cy Endfield, "Zulu" is a spectacular, entertaining and ultimately poignant depiction of one of the greatest military feats of history when two different warfare approaches collided in some remote outpost: the Battle of Rorke's Drift or or the heroic stand of a handful of British soldiers against thousands of Zulu warriors; when what promised to be a certain massacre became one of the greatest defense actions of history and the feat that earned the most Victoria Cross ever for one single action. Now, a lesser director would have stirred the film with patriotic lyricism but the leftist director wisely opted for the underdog narrative and the emotional culmination consisting of two cultures aknowledging each other's warlike worth.
Indeed, instead of emulating WW2 films, Enfield played it like "Seven Samurai" with outnumbered protagonists whose determination, anticipation of the enemy's moves and some bravura stunts allowed them to resist. One of the key scenes shows a Boer veteran (Gert van den Bergh) explaining the strategy of envelopment used by the Zulus, schematically shaped like a buffalo's head, which is exactly like the Samurai planning to use the territory to their advantage. Anticipating is winning and that simpe scenes pays off when the regiment decides not to get off the barracks so the Zulus can never surround them.
And like the Japanese epic, we've given some time with the protagonists, starting with the young Lieutenants Bromhead -Michael Caine in his breakout role- and Stanley Baker as Lt. Chard, a Royal Engineer assigned to build a bridge across the Buffalo River. That's an interesting pair for both are newbies despite their confident facade, a matter of seniority allows Bromhead to pass the torch to Chard maybe because despite his relative cockiness, he was scared too. Caine hasn't the flashiest role but the most interesting arc as he starts as a snobbish prick, decidedly unhelpful, but smoothly transitions to a dependable brother once things get nasty.
The rest of the cast includes the best embodiment of upper-lip sprit as Colour-Sargeant Bourne (Nigel Green) who gives the overarching line to the film, when one private asks him "Why is it us? Why us?", he dryly retorts: "Because we're 'ere, lad. Nobody else. Just us." We meet the various soldiers, an Irish chap (Neil McCarthy) who worries about a calf, some Welsh singers and a drunkard named Hook (James Booth) who'll redeem himself hero at the heat at the battle. What is remarkable is that the film truly shows the British as those out of water, coming here for an Anglo-Zulu war they know nothing about except that they must not undergo a new defeat... "one that would upset civilians at breakfast" a disillusioned Bromhad says.
Now, the real challenge of the film was in the portrayal of the Zulus, the element that could have severely dated the film. We first see them through a mass wedding ceremony where two Swedish missionaries represent our POV, Otto Wick (Jack Dawkins) and his daughter Margareta (Ulla Robinson) would later join the outpost and play conscience objectors, in vain. Under the commandment of King Cetewayo (Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi), Zulus are shown as valuable warriors who might not have rifles but spears and leather shields and yet their presence is palpable before they're ever seen with the sound of a marching train scaring the hell out of Bromhead, and later, when the army peeks over the hill, like the Bandits in "Samurai", we know the real business starts.
What they lack in technology warfare, they make it up in fearlessness, strategy, pragmatism and a capability to intimidate the enemy with war chants and screams that have the same psychological effects as the All Blacks' Haka for rugby fans. And you can see it within the soldier's terrified eyes, to the point that they retort by singing "Men in Harlech".
This was filmed during the infamous era where Endfield was forced to have a different treatment toward the indigenous, paying them with cattle and animals, actually more worthy than the money they would have received. He also showed them movies of the Silent Era to give them the idea of the notion of acting, and while even an inattentive eye will catch a few over-the-top deaths, John Jympson's smart editing keeps the fight as thrilling as easy to follow, with fires at will, three-rank firing squad allowing soldiers to reload their muskets while the other shoot. In one interesting streak of events, the Zulu pragmatically use their trophy-guns from the precedent victory and while not the best shots, they manage to be effective.
The fight is a piece of epic film-making that makes the farm smaller and smaller until the final move where it's up to the first who impales the other and some graphic images make up for the previous fails. The bravery takes no side, both transported by the triumphant rhythm of John Barry's soundtrack, inspired by the Zulu music, and it finally culminates with the Zulus singing chants to the braves, and both Lieutenants questioning how they feel. "Do you think I could stand this butcher's yard more than once?" says Chard; Bromhard understands and his last laughs suggests a sort of PTSD-driven disbelief at this pyrrhic victory.
Like Endfield intended to, this film is devoid of political perspective, what stays is a victory on the tactical side but there's more to it, there's the fact that men were pushed to accomplish the impossible and two enemies respecting each other. A war masterpiece!
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
The last heroic charge from Captain Brittes...
You could throw all the memorabilia and history books and keep John Ford's movies, you will learn just as much and maybe more about the conquest of the West, much more because John Ford didn't care about historical accuracy. Indeed, history is written by winners and as a proud Irishman coming from a land that underwent many invasions, Ford was bound to side a little with the Natives and yet keep it a secret from his longtime partner John Wayne. The ambivalence of Ford made his portrayal of Natives during the 1876 Indian Wars and his cavalry trilogy a unique case of subtle deconstruction.
Take the opening sequence of "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon", with the tempo of a war broadcast, a narrator announces that after the defeat of Little Big Horn and the demise of Custer, invigorated Indians have sworn to pursue their fight against under the leadership of a young Messiah figure named named Red Shirt. If Sioux, Apaches and Arapahos united and won a second fight, there would be no convoy to ever cross the territory in 100 years; which is rubbish as Indians were already divided and the Transcontinental railroad operational. But by elevating the stakes, Ford romanticizes the story, making Indians glorious for the sake of the cavalry's own glory.
But in this opening with the cavalry's flag and the sky as red as the Atlanta fire in "Gone With the Wind', it's a certain truth about the old west, one nowhere to be read in the lines of history books or today's revisionism. The truth can be seen in the sad eyes of Captain Nathan Brittes, six days before his retirement, contemplates his past and spends his time visiting his wife's grave and talk with her, a ritual that has been a component of Ford's movies ever since "Young Mrs. Lincoln". The Oscar-winning cinematography of Winton C. Hoch envelops the sky with a tapestry of violet, red and bluish taints, making these melancholic moments true Technicolor artworks where the present and the past waltz in a breathtaking melody of colors.
The truth about the old west is that the past is the ultimate winner, cavalry allows the march of civilization but is left behind, burying with these majestic landscapes the people and the memories like so many seeds sowed for an unknown future to emerge, one none won't be part and about which Ford doesn't care much, his land is Monument Valley. Ultimately, it's the land that wins and men are only passing by. It takes the wisdom of a man soon to retire to realize the futility and yet necessity of that past glory and as Brittles, John Wayne delivers his finest performance, he doesn't act as much as lets his actions be guided by his missions but not blinded by the hidden emotions he can express in a few scenes without apologizing, because as he says "it's a sign of weakness".
That's his motto - and one that made me believe this film would portray the Indians in the negative- but even that line is deconstructed when the young Lieutenant Flint Cohill (John Agar) apologizes to Olivia, the niece of the fort commander, played by Joanne Dru. I guess the idea is that what's done is done and there's something counter-productive in trying to wrestle with the past. Brittles has no more reasons to apologize for his mistakes than the Indians for Little Big Horn. The past and the land are the great drivers of John Ford's movies and both are invoked in that thrilling opening.
In a way the film, second chapter of the 'Cavalry' trilogy, and only one in color, is the continuation of "Fort Apache" that was loosely based on the massacre of "Little Big Horn". Apaches, Sioux and Arapaho fighters, after the victory, took the migration of buffaloes to the Norther plains as a good omen for a second fight. And "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" is set during that historical momentum where it's the Natives' moves to be anticipated, notably with the help of an expert played by Ben Johnson. Tyree has a good eye for weapons and Army intelligence, skills needed by Brittles who're too blasé to act zealously and who needs eyesights to read an inscription in a gold watch, in one of the film's most memorable and emotional moments.
But what he lacks in eyesight, Nathan makes it up with true wisdom and there's a great fraternal dialogue between him and former chief Poney-That-Talks (Chief John Big Treet), where the two old timers deplore the bloodthirsty way of the younger ones. Clearly Ford doesn't make cavalry rhyme with ethnic rivalry, the climactic charge that lead to the resolution shows that he hasn't any interest in another "war" either because "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" is more of a meditative film whose best moments don't involve much action but shows the life of the cavalry; assigned missions, objections to be formally written, corpses to be properly buried, a wounded man being healed in a wagon in march, a few officers' balls and many, many bugle calls.
The title suggests a little romance, but it's more of an excuse to use a catchy song as the film's anthem, one that proudly chants 'Cavalry! Cavalry!' and the triangular love between Olivia, Cohill and Lieutenant Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.) mirrors the young Natives' excitement in the warpath, showing the younger ones who've got too much to prove and are all entrapped in the little comedies of their age while the elders can focus on the essential: contemplate the past or just be themselves... like good old Victor McLaglen as the inevitable Quincannon whose taste for whiskey and bar brawls makes him the most lovable mean Irish that ever graced the screen.
And the film's just too beautiful with its sunsets, its thunderstorm and emulating Remington or Russell's paintings, galloping horses, the greatest sight according to Ford... that and a couple waltzing.
The Servant (1963)
The power of the Master stops when the indispensability of his Servant starts...
The film opens with a rich and idle dandy Tony (James Fox) lying on his couch after too many beers and the servant Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) literally standing above him: a simple use of the camera that foreshadows the evolution to come. Indeed, like "The Godfather" or "Requiem for a Dream", "The Servant" is one of these experiences that give its emotional appreciation to the rather technical notion of 'story arc': once the ending allows you to process your thoughts, you just wonder how you got from that beginning to that ending?
But the metamorphosis that goes on in Joseph Losey's remarkable piece of film-making isn't one of a character but on a relationship between the master and the servant: simple did you say? Wait till you've digested the full picture and then figure out of what exactly triggered the chain of thoughts and processes that reversed the role and turned the master into a submissive pet dog to a master... of manipulation and psychology. As Barrett, Bogarde delivers a lifetime performance as one of these nuanced villains so good they make the film great.
The film was based on a 1948 novel by Robin Maugham who's always adopted a critical stance against his aristocratic background, notably for its apathetic neutrality that allowed the more mass-appealing fascism to infect Europe. The novel itself reflects his disillusioned spirit that forced him to reject his own background: witnessing the last sanctuary of civilization allowing the rise of evil instead of fighting it. Joseph Losey updates the material making it part of that British New Wave of the 60s films showing that the most sordid and putrid debauchery can hide beneath the curtain of civilization. The enemy is internal this time but the common denominator between the two versions is the obvious guilt of the domineering class in the decadence of values.
Tony is the living embodiment of this degradation, he lives in the illusory comfort of an under-furnished house, he seems to have an occupation that justifies the daily use of formal suits, he's got a girlfriend named Susan (Wendy Craig) who comes occasionally and some project in Brazil that's never fulfilled. Tony lives in a bohemian lifestyle wrapped up in uncertainty and incompleteness. The one who truly acts in the film is indeed Barrett: he cleans the house, decorates, furnishes it and cooks delicious meals. In a way Barrett becomes the most essential part of Tony's life, one that is real in its effects, that makes the comfort of his life palpable. Barrett is such a compliment to Tony's vacuum that breeches on his intimacy are imperceptible.
Barrett intrudes himself when Tony is with Susan and her intuition doesn't fail her when she smells something fishy about Barrett's little play. Tony is totally clueless about it and to prove how wrong he is, Losey gives us a hint when Barrett insults a girl in the street, using the kind of profanity that unfits his gentlemanly façade. And then comes Vera, Sarah Miles as the candid and petulant 'sister' whose short skirts worry Barrett. That Barrett expresses his concern about the tightness of his skirts ring too false to fool us and there's an obvious trick behind that attempt to pose as a prude straight-laced Jeeves.
But Tony's romantic life is so unsteady and Vera so insolently attainable with her girl-next-door manners that Tony finally surrenders to the temptation in a memorable scene where the tension rises within the tempo of a leaking faucet. Vera's kiss is the symbolic kiss of death that will take Tony to the path of self-destruction.
Eventually, Susan learns the truth and Tony realizes that she was just Barrett's girl and Tony's left alone for a while. The first plan has worked and when Tony accepts to have Barrett back, the film cuts to a scene where they argue like roommates. The homoerotic subtext is more than obvious, in a way, Vera was like the intermediary body between these two men who truly need each other and call themselves old chaps while there's more to it, there's a need to exist in the true meaning of the world: for as long as Barrett is here, Tony feels like existing for someone, unbeknownst to him, Barrett needs Tony to simply live, have a roof, have fin and tolerate the master as the price to pay, one to make as small as possible.
The switch of hierarchy occurs during the two game-scenes, in the first one Tony is throwing balls at Barrett, assessing his dominance through playful teasing until Barrett has enough of it; in the second, they're playing hide-and-seek, and when Barrett slowly climbs the stairs with the menacing allure of a film-noir villain, the camera intercuts with Tony's trembling face as if he was sensing that the wolf who's always shared his house would finally take his sheep's clothes off.
"The Servant" is remarkable in its simplicity, with a jazzy score so casual it never totally prepares us to that explosive climax. As for the musical leitmotif, a slow and annoyingly mellow "While I love You" so overplayed that it becomes a sort of soul-eating clockwork that gets louder and louder as the personality of poor Tony is engulfed by his parasite-like butler. The use of mirrors sublimate the ever changing power balance between the two leads, using the same kind of aesthetic juxtaposition than Bergman's "Persona". As first we see Tony much taller than Barrett, more confident, so dominant even Barrett soaks his feet in hot water, but gradually, Tony's attitude changes: he cries in his bed like a sad teenage girl, his voice cracks and he literally shrinks while Barrett gains more stature and less manners.
It all explodes until the shocking finale where Barretts marks his territory in the most depraved way in a way that translates Tony's journey into quite a rancid trip, and leaving us speechless viewers wondering: how did that happen?
I Confess (1953)
Silence resisting the Law or Silence being the Law: Clift's moral dilemma in darker Hitchcock...
Continuing on my exploration of "lesser-known" Hitchcocks, I realized that films such as "Stage Fright", "The Paradine Case" or "I Confess" had many elements in common: a solid cast, an interesting premise but somewhere the treatment failed to enhance the story to semi-classic level.
Hitchcock obviously wanted to go straight on this one, to venture into the hearts of the darkness, the deepest secrets one could hide for the sake of professional integrity, reputation or misguided freedom. And to convey these emotional turmoils, the plot is remarkably simple: a murder is committed, the killer confesses his crime to a priest who therefore can't reveal it without breaking his oath of silence and in a crazy turn of events, he becomes the prime suspect for a man dressed in cassock was seen shortly after the crime hour.
The dilemma is wickedly Cornelian: either Father Logan (Montgomery Clift) reveals the identity of the killer -fittingly named Keller, and intensely played by O. E. Hasse- and then betrays his priesthood, either he lets the rumor affect his reputation anyway. It gets even trickier because he was also outside when the murder occurred, with a woman, one he intercepted the day after to tell her that "Villette is dead", a flash that didn't escape the perspicace eye of Inspector Larrue played by Karl Malden, certainly the most competent and sharpest cop of Hitchcock's filmography: aman who hides behind the affable façade drawn by a down-to-earth smile a Dragnet-like obsession with facts.
This is a world of secrets wrapped up in a postcard Renaissance-like little town somewhere in Quebec, when any attentive bystander can smell the fragrance of a bond between Father Logan and Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter) and we know it's a matter of time before the name of Logan will be in serious need of rehabilitation. It's one of these twists where an innocent man benefits from the crime and the real killer benefits from the wrong accusation. On the paper, this is all good and Hitchcock trusts the material enough not to indulge of fancy directing or tricks shots.
From the start, Hitchcock handles the script like typical film-noir material with high respect to the great tradition of German expressionism, with its expected contrasts of black and white and lights and shadows, and expressive close-ups and a clever use of locations with confessional rooms and long and dark cobblestone streets as so many canvases to hide guilty secrets. And you can even pinpoint a serious Hitchcock film from the cameo: here it comes right after the credits, when he's seen walking on a sidewalk at the top of stairs. This is the second earliest coming cameo after "The Wrong Man", the one where he spoke to his audience before the credits.
And there are similarities between "I Confess" and "The Wrong Man" in the way unfortunate events burden one innocent man so much that he can only get away with luck, the real irony is that Logan can get off the hook easily but then he would fail himself. Such a tormented role was tailor-made for Montgomery Clift, who plays a dark and brooding priest who keeps hiding his secret behind the curtain of a neutral expression, incapable to be any help for the police, confronting his very faith to men of reason. Clift didn't go along with Hitchcock for he needed to interiorize the character, but this allowed to bottle-up the intensity of the conflict inside one single performance and if we don't quite enjoy the suspense, we might at least enjoy the performance.
The lack of suspense is one of the main flaws of "I Confess"; despite the attempts to magnify the tension, the narrative mechanisms don't quite work. First, the villain confessed the murder. Even in a film like "Stage Fright", nothing was definite about the identity of the killer. Secondly, we know there's history between Logan and Ruth, and when the long overly romanticized flashback starts, it eats up a good portion of the middle act and creates a needless distraction. And Anne Baxter for all her decent efforts tries so hard she reminded me of Eve Harrington getting out the violins to tell her story.
And take that moment when after Ruth provided the alibi for Logan, Brian Aherne tells Larrue that the hour of death had been ruled half an hour later. Cut to the next scene where Ruth gets the same news, Hitchcock can be unsubtle, but redundant? The motive of Keller is also flawed for he seems to be truly repentant and yet doesn't feel any guilt whatsoever toward the priest, his change of heart prevents him from being the compelling villain he was at the start. Overall, the film tries to stretch a rather thin material and once the trial starts, nothing new emerges except for Logan being a little more eloquent, which isn't saying much.
What works though is the original verdict and its bittersweet outcome. Still, I wish I could like the film a little better, especially since it dealt with a serious subject and Hitchcock who confesses a certain fear of religious order could do a lot more with a priest as a protagonist. And sorry for being too picky but whoever directed the extras should've been fired, at 1:22 when Keller fires, you can see a woman holding her laugh (the one with the round white hat) and I couldn't get her off my mind for the last of the film. As I said, this is a film for Hitchcock completists and perhaps hs last little misfire before his greatest streak from 1954 to 1956 where he would direct two films by year and not the least of his filmography, and all in color...
... maybe Hitchcock needed one last shot of black coffee before more colorful but no less thrilling offerings?
Fort Apache (1948)
When the massacre becomes a heroic charge, both Ford and Wayne know which story to tell...
John Ford is there neck-to-neck with Alfred Hitchcock, together the greatest directors of the English language. But I might give the edge to Ford because I'm a sentimental and I can't resist the way Ford emphasizes the story in history, covering through his immense body of work a century-and-half of American conquests and turmoils with the prose of a natural born raconteur and camera's penmanship.
And now that John Wayne became a controversial figure, when the myth of the American frontier is reduced to polarized intellectual crumbs triggering petty sensitivities, it's easy to see Ford as a one-sided old-school director who portrayed the Native in the negative in "Stagecoach" or "The Searchers". And I wish I could see the cavalry trilogy in chronological order and take a few words back from my "Rio Grande" review. Anyway, "Fort Apache" is certainly one of the earliest Westerns to deconstruct the 'savage' myth and offers a balanced view of the Apache tribes under the commandment of Cochise (Miguel Inclan).
And being a masterful military film, it goes even further by showing them as rather well-organized warriors, far from the usual caricatures of Indians going into headlong charges like sitting ducks for average sharpshooters; this time, they're the ones who set the trap and uses Monument Valley like the Vietnamese did for Dien-Bien-Phu with the French in Indochine. I admire John Ford's bravery, maturity, and visual artistry as the film is certainly the master as its peak in the way he's literally painting the battles with great black-and-white contrasts, giving a mythical aura to the whole action.
The film doesn't romanticize the cavalry, it's centered in a remote post in Arizona next to the frontier where a certain laisser-aller is soon to be disrupted by the arrival of Lt. Col. Owen Thursday, a man who acts by the book, a Civil War veteran whose assignment signifies a punishment rather than a promotion. Colonel Thursday, played by a straight-laced Henry Fonda, makes no attempt to be liked but rather to lead the fight the way he intends to, ignoring the advice of those who preceded him, notably the former leader: Capt. Kirby York (John Wayne). This time, it's Duke himself who sides with the Natives, accusing the corrupted Bureau of Indian Affairs for stirring their resentment and you can tell their fates hang on the blind patriotism of Thursday.
There's something so unflappable in his posture that it takes us off-guard, even by John Ford's standards, making the closest to an antagonist in the film. He even plays a pivotal role in the subplot, by preventing his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple) to marry the clean-cut 2nd Lt. Michael Shannon O'Rourke (played by her husband John Agar), the son of the Sgt. Major of the same name, played by the inevitable Ward Bond. There are many "O's" in the army but as an annoyed Thursday points out "too many O'Rourkes". The romance, as predictable as it is, highlights the alienating effect Thursday creates within his entourage and how one man's attachment to the Code can break the codes of chivalry and savoir-vivre.
There's one scene where it's O'Rourke Sr. Himself who reminds Thursday that his conduct is inappropriate. But again to defuse all this uptight tension, Ford knows how to bring a dose of humor, earlier when he solemnly asked Phil to leave the house, not to compromise his young son's career, his own wife orders him to sit down and you can tell she meant business. That's one of Ford's unsung talents, to incorporate the right doses of comedy in his film, and I'll always be grateful when the credits include Victor McLaglen: he plays Quincallon, one of the four sergeants whose slight interest for alcohol inspires quite a hilarious ellipse. Like Hitchcock, Ford had his sense of humor.
And he knew how to make war movies, painting a glorious portrait of the cavalry that has nothing to envy from "Saving Private Ryan". His secret? He shows men first; greenhorns who're taught what a horse is, drunk sergeants, mama's boys but slowly these men grow and once they go into action, the faces disappears, forming troops leaving toward the horizon, the myth is on march. Ford's camera knows how to swift from one scope to another, and in the scene where York talks peace to Cochise and we see Thursday going into a rant against the Apaches, notice how the camera focuses on Cochise's eye-language, he's not shocked by the words but rather the man's foolishness. Ford gives a personal dimension to the fight and something almost suicidal in Thursday's actions.
But at the end, it's history written by the winner, echoing the legendary "if the legend becomes facts, print the legend", a literal massacre inspired from the fall of Custer at Little Big Horn, is 'purified', becoming a heroic charge and poor dead soldiers the posthumous carriers of a myth based on loyalty, courage and friendship. The romance that had so much buildup is cut short and we later see the little O'Rourke and Philadelphia who joined the other women gazing at the horizon while their men are converging toward the sunset. What stays is the tradition, the rituals like all these songs, these dances whose steps are no less rigid than military protocols. They all have a purpose, they give a ground to walk on, values to stand for, and Ford has the same attachment to filmmaking rules: don't tell what can be shown or expressed through music or images, have a good story and then improvise a little, trusting your actors.
And how fresh to see John Wayne playing such a nuanced character. I suspect he might have inspired Eastwood's "Josey Wales", especially when he meets the Chief played by Will Sampson, but I suspect all directors had seen for whoever you think is the best American among Scorsese, Spielberg or Eastwood, well guess what, John Ford was their favorite director. That says something.
Stage Fright (1950)
All is acting in stage and crime ... and investigation...
Despite an edgy title, "Stage Fright" is a minor Hitchcock. Yet the film isn't devoid of delightful moments where the humor of the Master of Suspense breaths the kind of timing even comedic directors struggle to obtain.
Take that scene where Commodore Gill, the father of Eve (Jane Wyman), played by the scene-stealing Alastair Sim, tries to get a doll from a sitting-duck stand and the humor is so sharp, enhanced by the the funny grimaces from the toothy standowner that we end up forgetting the sinister implication of the doll. It's odd that one scene works too well for the film's own good as if Hitchcock's mind was so focused on little moments that his heart missed the whole picture.
The film opens in startling medias res, with Eve, a drama student, driving her boyfriend Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd). The tension is palpable: Cooper reveals through a flashback that his secret lover, actress and singer Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich), came to his house in panic after killing her husband -the plot-decisive sight of her bloodstained dress precedes her face reveal. To disguise the murder, Jonathan goes to the crime scene but is spotted by the housemaid (Kay Walsh), he leaves the house making himself the prime suspect.
So far, so good... the flashback is even more efficient as it's full of these creative Hitchcockian touches like a camera following Todd from behind but instead of having the closed door cover the frame then a cut to another inside plan, we just follow Todd as we were either behind him or if we had cut through that door. But there's something rather hazardous in that plan that failed way too well not to trigger a natural suspicion toward Charlotte.
Indeed, Sir Hitchcock insists so much that she is the killer that it might highlight another talent of hers: manipulation, Eve's father immediately suspects she might have framed her boyfriend. Charlotte becomes the femme fatale to unmask and it's up to the mousy little Eve to spot her, which prompts her to bribe the venal housemaid so she can take her place... and this is where the film that kept swifting from various perspective finally settles down on Eve: not the most attractive Hitch protagonist but in a provocative self-referential approach, that's part of the role -whatever one you're looking into- as her plain looks make her unsuspected.
Meanwhile it's Dietrich who plays the cold blonde girl and delivers a performance so rich in magnificent close-ups and salty one-liners it's sad to see that 'wasted' in a lightweight Hitchcock. Through an enamored camera-work, we admire coldly serene artist free after casting two male birds with one stone. She's got one singing number "laziest gal in the town", where all wrapped in sexy nonchalance, her lyrics enables us to judge her real capability for murder (and you can tell where Madeline Kahn got her inspiration for "Blazing Saddles")
The trouble with "Stage Fright" is that the whole plot is based on a false premise and although the 'unreliable narrator' became a mystery trope, it's unfortunate that Hitchcock couldn't see that the empathy of the viewer depends on what he's shown to him and while Todd makes for a fantastic villain, a precursor of Norman Bates, maybe Hitchcock's ambition with the opening flashback outshadowed his instinct for giving the audience what they want.
Still for all its shortcomings, the film has its little moments of brilliance. Wyman's playing two roles (which is fitting for a film about stage) and trying to make her two 'characters' interact with people who might share the same space some day; so seeing her swining back and forth between two identities, gives a sort of dizzy vaudevillian charm to the film, especially when she also grows an infatuation with a detective investigating on the murder, played by the delightful Michael Wilding. Fortunately, her charm operates with the detective who fails to take the earlier hints... before he finally takes a level in smartness.
There's also that elaborate gag where Eve tries to disguise herself as the new maid Doris by putting glasses -there's a clever use of subjective camera when she removes her glasses and the images gets blurry and then become clear again when she put them on, which is an interesting subversion- all these efforts end up with her mother (Sybil Thorndike) instantly recognizing her and asking her to "find her glasses", the disappointment in Wyman's face isn't even the punchline, this comes the next scene where she decides to play it natural. This is certainly one of Hitchcock's funniest gags.
Wyman plays mousy with a cockney accent and is forced to use every possible trick to let her investigation start, even a false fainting to let Cooper go; in a way she shows the essence of acting which is to pretend and surrender to overacting as a desperate measure, just like Charlotte supposedly tricked Jonathan thought melodrama. Hitchcock does show the stressful nature of acting, which is to have a 'false' identity backfire on you sooner or later. That might be the film's element of suspense, especially when the third 'actor' is revealed to be Jonathan.
And in the superbly lit film's climax, Jonathan realizes he can get away by acting crazy, which even Norman Bates didn't dare, as he was full crazy from the start. Through an exquisite uses of shadows and light, Hitchcock reveals the wicked side of acting: a good servant but a bad master and in pure Hitchcockian fashion, the curtain finally falls, working as a final instrument of immanent justice in one of the most shockingly 'deus ex machina' demises.
But it was 1950, the film was easily overshadowed by "Rashomon", a classic about deception, "Sunset Blvd." a classic about a megalomaniac diva, and of course, a stage classic "All About Eve", not to mention the next Hitchcock classic "Strangers on a Train". Reputation like comedy and suspense can also be a matter of timing.
Donovan's Reef (1963)
A lightweight yet lighthearted "John Ford"... it has its serious moments, but don't take the rest too seriously...
Watching a John Ford film tickles me with the same excitement than a bar crawl... while a quick glimpse on the credits have that "drinks are on me" effect that gives its extra flavor to the beer. And from the synopsis, I could see that was a movie made for the beauty of the setting and its escapist value, which unburdened my mind from high expectations... except for fun. After all, John Ford had just added "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" to the top shelf of his body of work and I didn't expect two masterpieces in a row ("Valance" would be his last anyway).
But if the veteran director is entitled to concoct a few 'potboilers', he stills knows how to serve the starters: "Boats" Gillhooley, Lee Marvin as a US navy veteran, spots Haleakaloha (a name I could only copy-paste) and after punching the sailor who didn't want to call there as promised, he jumps from the freighter and swims to the island. His dive splashes the last doubts one misinformed viewer would still have: this is the lighthearted Ford. The 'splash' also says something about the magnetic power of the island as there must be some history buried in these golden sands. The only reservation is that it misleads the viewer on the role Marvin will occupy in the film: if anything, he's the closest to a comic relief, a role he embraces with the self-awareness of an actor who doesn't go for awards but free vacation in Hawaii.
Hawaii stands for French Polynesia here and -as one viewer might expect- it is full of female natives offering colorful garlands and radiant smiles to the modern "Bounty-mutineers". There's an interesting international ambiance à la "Casablanca" (minus the war): with an Asian diaspora, and as obligatory representatives of the French metropole, you have the nuns, the local priest (Marcel Dalio) and the distinguished Marquis (a delightfully hammy Cesar Romero). And finally, there are US Navy survivors in John Wayne as "Guns" Donovan and Doc Derham (Jack Warden) the only doctor in the archipelago and certainly the most dependable and respected figure of all.
Gillhooley is the last vet to join the club and the reason the film starts with him is because he guides us right to the place of action: the pub owned by Donovan where beer flows more surely than coins from the broken slot machine, and faces more likely to get hit than the jackpot. There's a strange rivalry going between "Boats" and "Guns" as both share the same birthday (... of infamy, December 7), and celebrate each one by a tradition of drag-on fistfights both actors indulge to with the same childish pleasure as kids playing cowboys (rivalries are like bar brawls, you don't know who start them, but you insist on being the one to finish them).
After these character-establishing shenanigans, we take a little detour from Boston where Amelia Derdham, a rich businesswoman, must prove that her father violated some morality clause so she can inherit his fortune and content her company's stockholders. She's played by Elizabeth Allen who's way too cold and sternly unattractive to fool us, and watching her icy façade slowly melting under the tropical sun is like the little peanuts you're being served with the beer, you know how it tastes but you can't just stop eating one after another.
So when her majestic little-self lamentably falls into the lagoon with Guns, it's one little dive for a character but a giant leap for the romance, that a straightforward director like John Ford doesn't stall. Indeed, from the very start, Mrs. Allen knows how to place her legs to let the camera literally lusting on them, so insistently it almost confines to fetishism. This is a man's movie and the male gaze is even more invasive toward the other woman played by Dorothy Lamour, the bar singer who can handle the ruder manners of Gilhooley. Elizabeth Allen goes along with the whole playful mood, plenty aware that she's playing the 'straight' role; but she proves to be more than good looks and a solid replacement to Maureen O'Hara (the one Wayne wanted for the part). Take that scene where she puts on the old swimsuit, "Guns" doesn't even realize she's pulling his leg.
And we know the Duke: he might resist good looks, but not a good sense of humor or a "mean Irish temper". Meanwhile Amelia starts to appreciate the man's warmth, believing he took children under his care, ignoring that these are her own father's children and it's a whole scheme to cover the Doc before a father-and-daughter conversation settles things for the best. The deception had noble intentions and fortunately, isn't used as the backbone of the middle act (an attempt from the Marquis to sabotage the love story fails immediately).
But there's an interesting moment where the teenaged daughter Leilani believes she was hidden from Amelia because she's half-caste indirectly making a powerful statement about tolerance and a certain hypocrisy regarding skin-color and highlighting the humanity of the two lead roles. John Wayne admitted he was too old for the part and you can tell he was more at ease in the scene where he plays with the children than the romantic man.
Among the serious vignettes, there's also a a long celebration of Christmas that works as a communion on three different cultures: Occidental, West Indies and Asian, one that a long thunderstorm can't even interrupt. The sequence is so well done it redeems a few dated stereotypes but I can tell which part are more likely to offend viewers today and while I agree that the treatment wo men receive can trigger a few sensitive minds, let's not forget this is a product of its era and that Lee Marvin is last seen staring at his new toy train like a little kid, which tells you where the emphasis should be put.
After the mist, here comes the breeze...
"Breezy" does live up to its title for there's a delicate gentleness running down through this May-December romance between a young free-spirited hippie and a divorced man in his fifties, the whole thing wrapped up with the lyricism of Michel Legrand trying to make his "Love Story" and a sweet and catchy song that would make you expect some cheesy soft-core flick if you closed your eyes.
Okay, it's very disconcerting that the material that could be borrowed from Harlequin station novels inspired Clint Eastwood, of all the directors. That he wouldn't make a straight romance until "Bridges of Madison County" might indicate some retrospective disappointment... the film was a flop and didn't even become a cult-classic and so Eastwood had to stick to his guns and wait to mature a little.
There's nothing quite wrong in the film and I'm certain that it would have been better received had it come in the 90s but in the 70s, the persona of the director was so strong and rooted in a universe of criminals, coppers, robbers and desperados that there was no room for softness, even his debut "Play Misty For Me" not devoid of skin-contacts was still a hard-boiled thriller. Now, the "directed by Clint Eastwood" is the one asset the film had going for it and it might ravish some devoted completists like myself.
And I kind of liked it: the merit of "Breezy" is to build some believable chemistry in the improbable pairing between two people of different generations and different classes. The secret lies in differences that mix like butter and chocolate rather than oil and water. Alice Edith Breezeman aka Breezy (Kay Lenz) is a devil-may-care pint-sized girl who puts trust among her values, we first see awakening in a bed in some sordid studio and the intuition that she's leaving her boyfriend is erased by his asking her name.
Later, she's taken by a creepy driver who doesn't even mistake her for a prostitute but expect some reward in-kind for taking her for a ride. She manages to slip off his claws but doesn't even come out as shaken or traumatized, next time will be the right one, and the next car so happens to belong to Frank Harmon (William Holden). We first see him saying goodbye to an escort girl, promising her to call her back but the heart isn't in it, he's nice enough to write her phone number and wait till her taxi leaves the sight so he can throw the paper.
We get it: this is a gentleman who might not be too proud of his lifestyle but is somewhat resigned to it enjoying freedom while surrendering to the basic appetites. Frank has got urges but they never get in the way of his priorities. But Breezy doesn't even wait for his permission, she jumps into his car and puts her guitar in the backseat which is the right move, otherwise, he might have found a polite way to get rid of her.
Men like Frank must be caught off-guard because they developed in the course of their lives, too good reflexes when it comes to women. We see him with an old friend (Marj Dusay) who's fallen in love with a lawyer and announces it with a touch of bitterness that betrays some deep regrets, clearly she's a victim of Frank's talent to stall relationships through smooth diplomatic moves and her lover is a consolation prize.
It's a foregone conclusion that Frank will fall in love with the little Breezy and so the interactions that go before are obligatory intermediary steps Eastwood does his best to make them interesting, it's not until the beach scene that he shows up his talent to depict lyricism like he did with the erotic picnic in "Play Misty For Me" and without falling in kitschy sentimentalism or vulgarity. What he does is taking Frank out of his natural element enabling to discover a whole new universe through that perky little smile of Lenz.
It's a little naïve but Holden proves that working in the best romances of the 50s (starting as one who was much younger than his lover) did serve him, he never overplays his emotions and lets his certitudes being thrown away by that little breeze of tenderness, savoring these moments of bare honesty. How ironic that the man who started with a woman twenty old older would close the loop with that film.
Meanwhile, Lenz couldn't reinvent the Lolita complex given the thinness of the script while Frank's age is such a comfort that he doesn't need to go through long soliloquies like in "Network". The plot thickens when it tries show that it's easy for a mature man to be with a younger girl and admit that love but the most difficult part is still admitting it to the surrounding people. Played by Roger C. Carmer, Frank's friend envies him for living passionate romances while he's too scared to be unfaithful to his wife and yet secretly desiring to let his lusty side express itself before he can wait for the next heart attack.
The friend highlights the eternal hypocrisy of men regarding commitment something echoed in these lines from "Network": "Your last roar of passion before you settle into your emeritus years.", making it feel like a fatality. "Breezy" leaves the existential questioning to that tall bald-headed schmuck because he's quite entertaining to watch and because it elevates Frank to a sort of moral person who doesn't pretend. Which gives its dilemma to the romance; as beautiful, sincere and photogenic as it there's the reality of the relationship as a public part of one's life.
At the peak of his charm, Eastwood might have been wondering if the secret of his charm was his looks or his age... or his talent as a serious director or a Hollywood icon...There's something of Eastwood's self-doubt that makes it almost touching... and yet unbelievable.
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
The War According to Hitch...
Released with the imminence of the Blitz in mind, "Foreign Correspondent" is about a man assigned to discover what's coming to Europe, for an audience who knows it already. So much for the surprise effect! But you can trust the Master of suspense and deception to have a few tricks under his sleeve.
It's historical poetry that Britain's darkest hours shed the light on two British geniuses: Chaplin and Hitchcock. And "Foreign Correspondent" was called a 'masterpiece of propaganda' by a certain Joseph G. Who knew one thing or two about manipulating the masses. He saw in Hithcock a dangerous competitor capable to lean opinions to his cause without hammering slogans but only through the commercial attire of an action-packed and romantic thriller just like Chaplin could arouse crowds with "The Great Dictator".
And like Chaplin, Hitchcock concludes his thriller with a rousing speech; he didn't like politics but made an exception through a last-minute change in the script from Ben Hecht and John Jones (Joel McCrea) urging America to help Britain during a broadcast where audiences could hear the planes coming. America wasn't part of the game and still hesitant to make blatantly anti-German movies, calling the big brother for rescue was the narrative, one wonderfully imploding in a masterpiece like "Casablanca".
Jones may be a mild anticipation of Rick Blaine, an American reporter who couldn't care less about politics and is sent to Europe to find out what's going. Initially, I wasn't too sure about McCrea and wished Gary Cooper would have taken the role (he regretted it afterwards) but while not the most versatile actor, there's something about McCrea's good looks but ignorance that makes him quite sympathetic and effective as a Hitchcock protagonist.
Indeed, this is a man who can't see a fake bodyguard (Edmund Gwenn) when he tries to kill him, who can't ask questions without blowing his cover and who seems incapable of deduction. However, he's capable to understand from facts, from what is shown, not told... good enough, but Hitchcock likes to show and in espionage movies, things aren't told. But the plot is complex enough it requires a smarter character and (curtesy from Hitch) he happens to be British, his name is ffolliot (no capital letters, that's a long story), played by the irresistible George Sanders.
At his arrival, Jones meets the Globe's former correspondent Stebbins (Robert Brushley), who kept saying all's quiet on the Western front. He embodies that "so far, so good" attitude of Europe on the latest days of August 1939, like the story of the guy falling from a building. Jones then meets Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) the leader of a pacifist organisation, whose knowledge of some clause 27 makes him a perfect target for some unnamed enemy. McGuffin, we got it, just looking at the man being tortured for that tells about its importance (and we don't even need to see the torture, hearing the screams is enough)
Anyway, during a conference, Jones meets the beautiful Carol (Laraine Day), daughter of Stephen Fischer, a peacenik played by Herbert Marshall. I wasn't too impressed by the romance going and the struck dumb look of McCrea during her speech, but just when things are slowing down, Hitchcock changes the pace with what appears to be the assassination of Van Meer the Odessa-Stairs way. From that point, the Hitchcockian ride starts and the first touch of genius is the way the killer vanishes in a pool of black umbrellas where you can guess his movement from the swirling effect it generates. This is the best uses of rain, crowds and black since Magritte's "raining men" painting.
To call Hitchcock a surrealist would be a stretch, Hitchcock wouldn't tell you "this is not a pipe" but "this is not JUST a pipe"... and a windmill might be a regular one but can be a hideaway for political conspirators. Interestingly, it's Jones' reliance on the "shown" that makes him find the "hidden", noticing that the windmills didn't turn the same way. And progressively, it's Jones' daringness that pushes him further to the key of the conspiracy, he's not an intellectual but like Michel Audiard said: two sitting intellectuals go less further than a brute who walks.
Not only Jones walks, but he runs and climbs, pulling a "Vertigo" more than once, and still has time to declare his love to Carol and meet her father. As Mr. Fisher, Herbert Marshall plays one of the most nuanced Hitchcockian villains, and perhaps the most tragic of all his characters, giving a subtle dimension to a film that loaded with delights of contrivances. Hitchcock knows he can get away with implausibleness if he's got a nice villain and a spectacular climax with a memorable setting.
Hitchcock went into full details about the making of the sequence, and yes, the scene holds far better than the lousy CGI crash in "Air Force One" and elevate Hitchcock to a unique level: one of a man dedicated to his craft and eager to take any challenge, if British could accomplish the miracle of resisting an invasion, he could also reinvent cinema, trust both the art and the technic.
It might be a detail, but notice how Hitchcock never trusts the paper: Carol gets mixed up with her speech notes, telegrams are unreliable, even the clever ffolliot is fooled by Mr. Fischer when he tells him to write down an important information. However, telephone is the real deal, the first things the enemy uses or cuts, and ultimately, telephone is the unsung hero of the film when it ties the plot through an ingenuous and funny trick from the protagonists.
The film anticipates the decline of paper and the importance of technology in the new media, as if all the headlines in the world wouldn't have the same impact than a broadcasted voice calling for help ... or a movie that even by fictionalizing such event, would make it even more timely, and real.
You Can't Take It with You (1938)
So many spoonfuls of syrupy sentiments it gets indigestible pretty fast...
"You Can"t Take It With You", adapted from George S. Kaufman's play by Capra's long partner Frank Capra is one of my least favorite Best Picture winners. There, I said it!
They say you shouldn't use negative sentences during a job interview; even if the intended effect is positive, "I'm a doer" is a wiser choice of words than "I'm no quitter" and somehow "It's a Wonderful Life" works far better than "No Man is a Failure Who Has Friends". So maybe that overlong, negative and preachy title cast a spell on my own appreciation.
I enjoy a good Capra film like the next movie lover, there's just something in my heart left cold by an avalanche of good sentiments and interminable lectures about the value of money vs. Friends. There's a fine line between telling a moral story and moralizing the audience, which Capra crosses way too often, feeding the viewer with so many spoonfuls of syrup it gets indigestible pretty fast.
The film opens with two families as opposed in values as the Montaigues and the Capulets: the Kirbys, a wealthy conservative family where being a businessman is an evidence from one male heir to another; the son, Tony (James Stewart) is already young Vice-President by the sole merit of being the son of Anthony (Edward Arnold). And the Vanderhorfs/ Carmichaels/Sycamores, a family where anarchy doesn't run but gallops on the horse of insanity and whose offspring Alice (Jean Arthur) works as a stenographer for the Kirbys and is incidentally Tony's sweetheart.
Tony compares Alice's family to characters that could have emerged from the imagination of Walt Disney. I wish it could be Disney for they're closer in spirit to the Looney Tunes. And the grandfather and patriarch Martin Vanderhoff (Lionel Barrymore) is perhaps the wisest of all (which isn't saying much). His establishing moment consists of persuading a timid bank clerk (Donald Meek) whose hobby is to manufacture little toys, to quit his job and leave in his big house (how he figured he didn't have a family speaks volumes about his capabilities to read into people).
I wish the family's portrayal could have lived up to that madness-with-a-heart spirit but, the Sycamores form such a nutty gallery it makes the patients of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" feel like a Bergman cast. The mother, Penny (for some reason Oscar-nominated Spring Byinton), works on a play not out of passion but because she wanted to use a typewriter, her husband designs firecrackers in the cave, the little cousin (Ann Miller) keeps dancing so much it's a miracle there aren't blood spots all over the tapestry, her husband played by a young Dub Taylor plays xylophone, ... there is also some Russian dancer (Mischa Auer) who looks like a Rasputin after a haircut and the two Black helps whose seem to have been moderately infected by the whole environing nonsense.
The so-called hymn to freedom invoked by Capra confines to sheer cacophony, which allows us at least to appreciate the true moments of genuine tenderness like when Martin talks about his wife to Alice. Lionel Barrymore is one of the best things about the film, with Edward Arnold who was born to play businessmen-like types. And the little scene with Alice allows us to understand why Martin doesn't want to sell the house hence preventing an important project to be built in a 12-block area of New York City, working against the interest of Mr. Kirby and his shareholders. It's a matter of sentimentality, not some rebellion against the system or against taxes that could have been used against Capra during the HUAC commission.
Sentiments are as integral to Capra's appeal as horses in John Ford's movies. The romance between Stewart and Jean Arthur is touching and sweet but while Stewart does act his age (he was 29), Arthur looks way too mature and lacks a little sparkle of juvenile innocence. Or was it deliberate? Alice is perhaps the closest to a straight person, making her somewhat the 'black sheep' of the family, which means a tad more likable than the others.
That's my beef with the film, what Capra basically asks us is to choose between a family that is way too hard to like and a family he tries too hard to make us like. The film went well for the most part but I kept feeling the psychological maneuvers here and there. One in particular annoyed me: in the scene where Mrs. Kirby (Mary Forbes) started to talk about her own hobbies, Penny dismissed them as 'ridiculous'. If anything, the Sycamores should embrace ridiculousness, so why so categorical? The reason is simple: the script wants us to dislike the Kirbys' but here's the Gordian knot of the film: one family can't be liked for ethical reasons, the other for practical ones.
And while the edifice seems steady for two thirds of the film, everything stumbles in the third act when they all go to jail and Mr. Vanderhorf gets his bail paid by people, which is the Capraesque usual reward, and we know what comes next is the "change of heart" that will redeem father Kirby, after getting not one but two 'reasons-you-suck" speeches. But even when the two old men start playing harmonicas, I kept thinking of that very death that occurs in the film, way too dramatic for the whole material.
And growing tired of the whole 'let's all play and sing and wrestle' mess, I was thinking of that canceled project: wouldn't have it created more jobs and allowed people to improve their living? Money can't buy happiness but didn't it make Mr. Vanderhorf a free man? Despite some truly likable moments and an adorable James Stewart, this is just Capra's least subtle contribution.
I guess this was the Great Depression and Capra's films were people's antidepressents, but you know what happens when you take too many pills at once?
Lady for a Day (1933)
A nice little apple to Hollywood from Capra, one that sure brought him good luck...
"Lady for a Day" was released one year before Frank Capra would direct his first true classic, the romantic screwball comedy and Best Picture winner "It Happened One Night". This is a giant leap from a gangster-picture-with-a-heart to a movie that touched the hearts of millions of Americans in the midst of the Great Depression; still, hints of the spirit coined now as 'Capraesque" can be detected even in his earlier works; and one might regard "Lady for a Day" as a Frank Capra's last warm-up before entering the Big league.
Now, a bit of context, I saw the film after watching the 1961 remake "Pocketful of Miracles", the experience was a tad disappointing (from a Capra fan's perspective) and so I wanted to check how the original stood out. It certainly was a better experience in the sense that the film went straight to the matter and had set up all the majors protagonists in less than ten minutes, Warren Williams as Dave the Dude, Ned Sparks as his deadpan snarker partner with a fitting nickname Happy, and of course, May Robson as street peddler Apple Annie.
I thought the casting was uneven in the remake, I'm not sure I'm a fan of Williams as he doesn't exactly radiates the same charisma as a Cagney or a Robinson or a Muni; in fact, he's one little measure less caricatural than Sparks who at least can get away with it, that's the attitude that immortalized and made him a darling for the Looney Tunes. But there is May Robson, the film's heart and she was a better Annie than Bette Davis. Don't take my word for it, even Capra said it was more acceptable for audiences to accept down-on-their-luck characters when they're unfamiliar with their faces.
Indeed, when we see Davis as the street peddler, we know it's a matter of time before the relooking does justice to her status as a Hollywood icon, when she makes her entrance as Lady Manville, we don't see the transformation of Apple Annie, but just Bette Davis. May Robson, the earliest-born Oscar-nominated actress, was a relatively unknown figure but her homely grandmotherly look feels irresistibly authentic. And her transformation doesn't make her beautiful but just like a dignified wealthy woman like Margaret Dumont. It's even more striking a surprise because she still maintains her genuine sweetness.
And when's frantically writing a latter to her daughter in Spain, listening to classic music and pretending to be a rich lady leaving in a prestigious hotel, we're simply watching one of the earliest Capraesque characters, not a beggar but a woman who places her individuality beneath the moral comfort of her daughter thus guiding her life with the torch of self-sacrifice. Capra has always been found on people who acted for their fellow brothers without ever compromising themselves, and if it wasn't for Apple Annie, we wouldn't have Mr. Smith, Mr Deeds and George Bailey. Granted there's no ideology in Capra; just matters of simple belief, the point isn't to judge Annie for the way she tricks her daughter but the noble motive behind.
And so it comes down to the 'prince and pauper' trick combined with Damon Runyon's play and a clever rewriting from Robert Riskin, making people believe that she's rich and welcome her daughter, her fiancé and her future father-in-law, the Count of Spain. Dave the Dude also owes something to Annie, believing her apples brought him luck for business and his superstition, as ludicrous as it is, is a welcomed sign of sentimentalism that prompts him to help Annie, by any means; hiring a pool hustler to pretend to be her husband (Guy Kibbee), silencing some noisy reporters and hiring a bunch of goods and dolls to act like mundane figures, all monitored by the muscleman Shakespeare (Nat Pendleton) and Glenda Farrell as his moll.
Now, I'm realizing I couldn't memorize all the names and had to check IMDb's front page, which says something about the film's unintentional weaknesses, there aren't many stars and that makes it twice dated since we don't have many Capra regulars. And so what sticks is all these Capra touches that made his reputation, the way his movies always revolve in the real world, with cops, commissioners, mayors, governors, reporters, and every one forming a spiderweb of political relationships that would make the ordeal of little people easily unnoticed. Even the beloved classic "It's a Wonderful Life" dealt with loans, banking etc. The practical aspect allowed the film to delve into familiar territories and made the so-called Capra corn immune from accusations of fairy tales.
Unlike its successor, the film never lingers on these details, goes right to the point, never preparing the audiences to the resolution that comes at the last minute and that has no other explanation than the inner generosity of people and the desire to help a poor woman, or the central point of Capra's philosophy; good people always get their break and are rewarded by their efforts, it might have the touch of the miracle but from Capra's perspective, this is the America he believes in. As unrealistic as it is, Capra never cares for realism but rather the plausibility of an inspiring act that would inspire audiences, let alone audiences of the Great Depression. No one would help an Apple Annie like that but how about after seeing the film?
With its tiny imperfections, theirs is a sensitive chord in the film that predicts the masterpieces to come, the spirit is there already and May Robson had the merit to be one of the earlier Capra protagonists before his cast would always include big names.
But this was an apple the Sicilian-born director gave to cinema and it sure brought him good luck.
Pocketful of Miracles (1961)
Many unfortunate little holes in that 'pocket of miracles'...
"Pocketful of Miracles" sums up the spirit of Frank Capra's tremendous legacy with such eloquence it's a pity that his final feature film couldn't live up to the premise of its title.
Ironically, I didn't know this was a remake and so it was to "Trading Places" that I kept thinking while watching this film. At the end of the day, I find it less enjoyable. Why? Simple reasons: Landis had a great cast, kept focused on its story and the film was short enough to sustain its comedic material, and now that I've watched "Lady for a Day", my criticism stands even more. But let me start with the good stuff.
This film has the kind of plots that can almost totally depend on character actors. On that level, Peter Falk steals the show as the henchman Joy Boy, his constant rambling about a plot that goes nowhere makes him an interesting cross between a Greek Chorus and a deadpan heckler. He's one of the best things about the film, and his performance was rightfully nominated for an Oscar. As the pool hustler Judge Henry Blake, veteran Thomas Mitchell is given a superb supporting role, sadly one year before his passing. And I also enjoyed Edward Everett Horton as the long-suffering butler Hudgins, overshadowing the bigger roles with a pocketful of small but subtly funny moments.
Unfortunately, with all due respect to Glenn Ford who was the producer of the film, who insisted to play the part, and who wasn't Capra's initial choice... I'll just say: can you imagine someone other than Gary Cooper playing 'John Doe' or Mr. Deeds? Or anyone but Stewart as Mr. Smith or George Bailey? I loved Ford in "Blackboard Jungle" because he had that ordinary downbeat look most teachers have and that allowed him to reveal a more nuanced side of his inner bravery... however the role of Dave the Dude called from a colorful incarnation of the gangster figure: Widmarck, Cagney or Sinatra (who turned down the role). As for Ford, it's not a matter of talent but let's say, physicality.
As his moll "Queenie", Hope Lange isn't unconvincing but she embodies so many different personalities that she feels like a written rather than a genuine character. First, she's a modest girl in a raincoat who seems to impersonate Anne Baxter in her first "All About Eve" scene; the next scene, she's a cabaret star, then she urges Dave to marry her, live in a ranch and have a pocketful of little ones and finally, she's a female pygmalion who finds the nerve to stand to her man. Still, within her spring-like arc, she does her best and her role wasn't exactly the hit-or-miss of the film, which can't be said about the film's only true star: Miss Bette Davis.
Davis is almost unrecognizable as the apple-selling street-peddler who sends money for her daughter in Spain. They made such an effort to make her unglamorous, to exaggerate her neglected and shady aspect that she becomes as implausible as a Disney character. And since the plot requires her to impersonate a wealthy woman, there's something uncomfortable at watching her begging audiences to feel sorry for her. What worked with May Robson because she was a much older woman and an unfamiliar face, couldn't work for Davis. Even Mr. Smith wasn't a boy scout and George Bailey had a few tantrums and while witnessing the drowning of Davis in an ocean of pathos, I was thinking "can somebody throw a buoy?"
And Louise, the daughter, Ann-Margret makes a fine debut for a role that only asks her to look cute and darling, and Arthur O'Connell doesn't bother with a Spanish accent, which is the right move. The most unforgivable aspect about the guests is all in these hugging and tweeting of happy emotions, culminating with the 'A Capella' rendition of the "Cherry without a bone" song, which made me think of John Belushi smashing Stephen Bishop's guitar to pieces in "Animal House". Romance is one thing but here Capra broke Billy Wilder's first commandment: "the audiences, thou shall not bore".
All these shortcomings wouldn't have damaged the film had it benefitted from a better cutting. It takes almost twenty minutes to know about Annie's charade and one hour to get us to the 'sting'. Meanwhile, we have to go through the whole backstory of Dave the Duke and some deal with a fugitive gangster (Sheldon Leonard) that doesn't even payoff at the end. The only things that makes these part endurable is Peter Falk, for his acting and his narration.
The film tries to be a witty gangster film and an inspiring fable about people's generosity with a finale à la "It's a Wonderful Life", but both legs don't walk at the same speed and so the rhythm is rather unsteady, with each part trying to catch up to the other. A shame because there are some great moments in this film, the whole tutorial of Dave's boys and dolls to look like upper-class people was even better than the casting of Hitlers in "The Producers", so there was a comedic zest that just was mixed between other ingredients.
I'm also puzzled when a comedy lasts for more than two hours, comedy is built like a joke, the longer it is, the less it connects the punchline with the setup and so Capra is torn between the emotional climax resurrecting "Wonderful Life" but there was no set-up for it, nothing that made Apple Annie such an endearing figure? And the crucial part about the three missing journalists got less screen-time than the gangster deal that added nothing. Ultimately, comedy was the effective antidote against the film's sappiness.
Ford and Davis went into a feud, causing Capra's problems and prompting him to end his career... and that's just sad. Even sadder that the film's trivia is more interesting than the film itself... which still makes it an interesting watch for hardcore Capra fans.
Rio Grande (1950)
When the past of a man is even harder to desert than the Army...
"Rio Grande" could easily be disregarded today as a film that offends the memory of Native Americans, showing them as bloodthirsty savages and legitimizing the fight "valiantly" conducted by the white civilization... but that would be an unfair trial, not to mention hypocritical given the intouchable reputation of "The Searchers", not the most Native-friendly Western to say the least.
It would be unfair to sweep the good off "Rio Grande" for the simple reason that whatever drives the usual 'Cowboys vs. Indian' tropes in that Western, you can feel John Ford's heart isn't in it, that the director is in autopilot mode and only uses the cavalry and the rebellion from Apaches tribes as a canvas to tie the real story: a cavalry officer estranged with his wife and son he hasn't seen for 15 years. Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke is played by John Wayne, Trooper Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.) is his son, and Kathleen (Maureen O'Hara) his son's mother.
And beyond its military setting, "Rio Grande" is certainly one of Ford's most blatant exercices on sentimentalism and yet strangely effective because anyone familiar with movies like "How Green Was My Valley" or "My Darling Clementine" would know how sentimental and deeply attached to values like family and commitment Ford was. And as corny as it is, I must say I was absorbed by these moments between the two Yorkes. John Wayne was only 42 but his receding hairline and smaller-than-usual toupee made him look a tad older and te more endearing, and it's interesting to see him shift from his character-establishing charisma to the genuine pride of a simple father.
I've never seen John Wayne looking so sad and so emotional, in small moments where he looks at his son or at Kathleen during that first serenade from the Regimental Cavaliers (played by the Sons of the Pionneers) it's all in the eyes. This is a man who devoted himself to the cavalry to desert from a past that came back to him with a delicate vengeance, and he's way too honest to lie about his feelings. There's no attempt to hide his persona, he's no Ethan Edwards, but a no nonsense man who's proud of his feelings and wishes to see Maureen O'Hara back to him. As Kathleen, Maureen O'Hara has a beautiful scene where she listens to a music and a long close up epitomizes John Ford's statement about directing: photographing people's eyes.
Through the eyes, we see feelings of course, unspoken truths and perhaps the two opposite stares, one to the past, one to the future, that converge into one expression only an emotional mindset can dissect.
And one could look at Ford's filmography as a constantly idealized tribute to the past, for the only true movies dedicated to the present were his WW2 documentaries. Ford here doesn't idealize the Western past or a time where Whites were conquering the Old West but the past within that past. And so the real dynamics are between that past and the future which is represented by the young Yorke. Kirby could win back Kathleen's heart and let his son go but he knows the price to pay to make a man out of his son, and would jeopardize his future with Kathleen for his son's own future.
The nobility of that past lied in the way it kept a practical attention to the future. (and allow me to digress and declare that our present, once it'll become the past, won't be the source of much nostalgia given how much a disaster on the making our future is already is.) And so "Rio Grande" tells two parallel stories: the coming-of-age of a young boy with a lot to prove to himself and the comin- to-terms between his parents who've got a lot to prove to each other, the whole thing wrapped up in a strange overuse of music. But music is actually the bridge between all times, past, present, future, translating the riddle of time through beautiful melody from the "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" to even the folkloric "Irish Washerwoman" (and I was surprised they didn't sing "Toora Loora" at some point).
"Rio Grande" features many memorable characters such as Victor MlcGalen as Sgt. Major Quincannon and obligatory comic relief, Ben Johnson makes quite an impression as trooper Tyree, a Texan fugitive, there's also Harry Carey Jr. As another risk-loving recruit and J. Carrol Nash as a disillusioned general who give the order that reminds us there's a war going after all. I must say I felt a bit frustrated when it went to the whole fight sequence that showed Apaches a killers or hostage-takers- granted this is something one would expect from cavalry film but I only wished he could give a little more complexity by also introducing the Mexican army. Their involvement never really pays off at the climactic which is quite ironic from a film titled "Rio Grande".
But again Ford didn't go in full-Ford style and only made it to get money to shoot the more superior "The Quiet Man". But if "Rio Grande" isn't one of Ford's best, far from it, it's one of its most effective romances and a film that gives us a different perspective on Wayne, far from the usual bitter man always in a bad mood... his Yorke is a good person, open-minded and who doesn't overplay the whole heroism that kept Wayne stuck in the same persona for years and years.
And so from a movie known as the last of the cavalry trilogy, the cavalry elements are rather accessory, I didn't love everything from it, but it had a heart and that's what mattered in the end. Jarman Jr. Does his best but being 16 at the time, I felt he was a bit too young and obviously you could tell Ben Johnson was the real newcomer; and Maureen O'Hara has such a natural chemistry with Wayne I was actually wondering whether it was acting. Yo-ho!
The Go-Between (1971)
The Boy Who Knew Too Little...
I have a hunch that readers of E. L. Forster or fans of Merchant-Ivory productions will be delighted by Joseph Losey's Golden Palm winner "The Go-Between"; on the surface another exploration of British aristocracy at the turn of the century from a novel by L. P. Hartley, and yet the miracle of Joseph Losey's directing and Harold Pinter's writing is to make such a lively and bright film out of rather nonchalant people basking in bourgeois idleness and confined in the codes of their cast... not to mention indulging to ersatz of activities that would make any sane mind wonder: aren't these people ever bored?
But there's more in that story: it swiftly shifts the focus from adult characters and the usual forbidden-love trope to a child who finds himself entangled in the romance between a stunningly beautiful young lady Marian (Julie Christie) and a manly long-haired farmer Ted Burgess (Alan Bates). The boy's name is Leo (Dominic Guard) and the film opens with his marveled eyes as the carriage takes him to his rich classmate's luxurious house in the middle of the countryside near Norfolk. His friend Marcus and is played by Richard Gibson.
Together they climb up and down the stairs, making loudly echoing noises, playfully wrestling, simply acting their age... with an innocence in danger of being spoiled, if not soiled. On that level, "The past is a foreign country" is one of these openings that immediately sticks to your memory, like "I had a farm in Africa" or "Only Connect", suggesting a present way so estranged from the pas we may suspect that these holidays at the Trunighnam house had a dramatic impact on the boy's life. Whether for bad or good reasons is the element of mystery that gives the film its spice. Michel Legrand's ominous piano theme keeps us on guard.
Still, Leo who's obviously fish-out-of water in this grand house carries on very well and manages to win the heart of the family, grabbing a few genuine chuckles through unintentionally dry humor. Known to practice black magic, he matteroffactly says "well, there's spell and spell" and when asked by the matriarch (Margaret Leighton) if he intend to cast deadly spells on them them, he says "I shouldn't think so", which is so British tongue-in-cheek humor.
At that time, he's already noticed the beauty of young Marian played by Julie Christie, they go along very well, she buys him a forest-green outfit and the choice of color isn't fortuitous. His first mission would be to carry romantic letters to Ted unbeknownst to him with green as the perfect camouflage. What Leo sees is that he makes Marian happy.
Meanwhile, he gets in closer circles, meeting Hugh Thurmingham (Edward Fox was born to play aristocrats), Hugh grows an instant liking on Leo and coins him with an obvious nickname: Mercury. When Leo learns that Marian is engaged to him, he's start questioning the ethics of his unofficial endeavor, even a child his age knows the value of engagement and friendship and wants answers that would reasonably comfort him.
But as summer goes on, the little green chameleon fits just too well within the village, even catching a few good balls during a cricket game, a sport also cast by the spell of slowness, judging by spectators struggling with sleepiness and bees (where's rugby and football when you need them?). The game is followed by a singing session where Marian accompanies Ted and it's subtle moment of tension that I was surprised it didn't raise more gossipy whispers.
But in reality, the family isn't totally oblivious to Marian's on-goings, not even Hugh, not even Marian's father (Michael Redgrave) but Hugh is formal, "nothing is a lady's fault", his stoicism is as sharp as his determination to duel Ted if reparation is needed. Ted is beyond these uptight conventions but even he can give propers answers to Leo's naive puzzlement. As for Marian she says that she can't marry Ted and tes she must marry, because that's the way it is. The tantrum she puts on Leo contrasts with the previous moments of pampering and reveals Leo's status as a laquey, a boy who doesn't act his age, but acts his class.
And there's the fatality of a scandal coming like the grey clouds of the storm, taking us back to the rainy drops of the opening credits , we get closer to the present, and that the climax was set during a rainy evening, reminded me of that "Blade Runner" quote "all these moments will be lost in time like tears in rain", as if all the happiness and innocence of childhood displayed all through the film would be annihilated in one incident, one that earned Margaret Leighton its Oscar-nomination (she has two great scenes in the film).
Now, oddly enough, Losey chose to juxtapose the story with brief glimpses on the future, obviously showing the adult Leo. Maybe it would have worked had these scenes been extended, Sergio Leone did it far better with "Once Upon a Time in America" (with which you'll find some similarities here). But these scenes are so brief they feel more disruptive than adequate. It gets better near the third act when we start to see where this is going, we understand the purpose, a sort of last voyage to the time of childhood that ties the flashback together, showing what has become to Leo, a type of man whose discovery of love was sacrificed at the altar of selfish passions.
"The Go-Between" is a lavishly directed film, with glorious shots of pastoral beauty for a torrid summer that aroused two young people's instincts at the expenses of a boy's childhood, sending a warning about the negative influence adults can have by toying with kids' undivided trust. At first, I thought Legrand's score, as beautiful as it was, might have been too solemn; retrospectively, it totally fits the film.
Let the sleeping Tiger lie...
Paris, like every post-modern metropoles, is so full of poverty-stricken people that the hardship of immigrants like "Dheepan" is likely to be unnoticed in the anthill-like crowded streets or suffocating subways. And if I put the name between crosses, this is less a reference to him being the titular character than the first reveal: his identity taken from a man who wouldn't have the chance to reclaim it.
Played by Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Dheepan is a former Tamil soldier who's lost his family in the civil war that struck the island of Sri-Lanka for several years. Seeking exile, his only chance is to be joined by similarly ill-fated people, left on their own within the ashes of a burnt-up past whose smokes darken their future. There's a woman in her twenties who becomes Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and the 9-year old Illayaal (Claudine Vinashitamby). As far as they're concerned, they don't just leave a country, but a past.
While Europe is more partial to the appeal of Mediterranean or Oriental post-colonial territories, countries like Sri Lanka or Bengladesh are cruelly overlooked. But Jacques Audiard took an interesting challenge by focusing on a Tamil character because there's something about people's conception of these dark-skinned immigrants that is too Third-World to generate an interest or not colorful enough to trigger fireworks of glamorous Bollywood-like stereotypes.
Lately, the diaspora has increased and from friendly sellers of roses wrapped in plastics, or silly toys and gadgets or cooked chestnuts during winter, they became restaurant owners, and in one some popular Parisian districts they lead the little segment of telestores and phone equipment; and the upper you go to Paris, the more likely you'll find cleaning ladies belonging to their community. And so Dheepan manages to 'fool' the immigration office and gets himself a job as a janitor in one of these impoverished suburban area or French hoods depicted in movies like 'La Haine' or more recently 'Les Misérables'. That they didn't check the pictures, might suggest that for Europe, they're interchangeable faces that don't even deserve to be focused on.
Now, I figured Audiard would use the very gloomy and dark prospects of marginalized people to venture in the realms of these documentary-like explorations of immigrants' or poor people's struggle that inspired the best of the Dardennes brothers. That "Dheepan" is mostly spoken in Tamil was the naturalist move to give the film its seal of credibility but it's interesting that the three players are complete strangers within their own circle, because that makes them act with mistrust one to another. Yalini is still contemplating the idea of leaving to London and is incapable to show any motherly love for Illayaal. By being so close and yet so distant one to another, they became harder to reach from our own standpoint, and therefore we try to grab any moment that will reveal a little depth of character.
And so the film is like a broken vase being fixed bit by bit, and we get fragments of personalities, long close ups of shattered lives that give us time to try to understand the defensive mechanisms behind their behavior. It's a very odd journey and actually one of the reasons the film functions despite its slow pace, lingering on these moments of casual dialogues loaded with unspoken truths that make the emotional burst more rewarding. And from uneasy intruders in a place of three converging solitudes, we feel more at home with Dheepan's family and more uneasy in their environment.
Dheepan, used to more life-threatening, makes his borns, earns the respect of honest citizens and proves himself a dependable man. A few subtle details reveal that inside he's a good man. When his 'wife' who doesn't speak French, gets a job, I expected him to lie to her, but he's really willing to pull the family together. Later, when he's asked to joint the combats by a former general, he refuses, stating that he lost his family and as far as he's concerned the war is over... little does he know that the place he works isn't estranged to violence and is the arena of a gang war that does worse than threatening his life, it prevents him from being a role-model. In the scene where the refuses to let the gang search Yalina's bag, we get the first sign that he won't take that crap for too long.
One might question the choice of Audiard to feature gang wars and take the film in a whole different director, channelling (of all the films) Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs", I gather that it showed Dheepan as a miscast who's so worthless that the gangsters didn't even contemplate danger through him, clearly underestimating him like with Dustin Hoffman's geeky character . There an abrupt transition from drama that takes us to the vicinity of hard-edged thrillers or vigilante movies that can't hide its kinship with another Golden Palm winner named "Taxi Driver": a seemingly exhilaration of violence to end all violence, either killing you or making you stronger, or at the very least, the place safer for those you love. The poetry lying underneath the happy ending also echoes the so-called dream-like finale of "Taxi Driver".
Maybe I wish Illayaal could have been given more presence in the final act where she seems to get off the picture, or maybe I felt Vincent Rottiers was oddly miscast as Brahim was given Audiard's courageous efforts not to deprive the ethnic aspect from a certain realism in his film. He didn't even look like he could be the old man's son. But these technicalities put aside, "Dheepan" is a strangely engrossing film whose appeal depend less on Audiard himself than the charismatic personality of Dheepan himself, a humble man, wise, devoted but like a sleeping tiger who shouldn't be awakened.
Les choses de la vie (1970)
Michel Piccoli as the man at the wheel, but not in command...
Pierre Bérard is a man in his forties, a lean and attractively masculine architect exuding self-confidence and that nuanced shade of charisma in gray-flannel suits executive display like a second nature.
On a sunny day in the French countryside near Nantes, a lorry full of pigs is caught in the middle of an intersection; blocking the way to Pierre's car coming at full speed, and with a truck coming in the opposite direction, Pierre can't avoid the head to tail, he veers off the road, hits a tree, spins and turns over and over before being ejected on the grass. The accident lasts less than ten seconds but is treated like a longer interval allowing Pierre to recall all the events that preceded it... and also to tell us that real people don't 'go out' with style and only Sautet's artistic license made a truly engaging character out of a rather ordinary man.
Now, there's more than the "whole-life-flashes-before-eyes" trope, more than the brutality of a sudden accient that the magic of cinema can stretch to a long exhausting hour, itself being the result of ten days of shooting, there's more to it. There's a stylistic decision from Claude Sautet that marks one single event with the stamp of human obsession: like the Golden Palm winner of 1966, "Blow-up" and a mysterious picture or the winner of 1974 "The Conversation" with a mysterious recording, the adaptation of Paul Guimard's novel explores an 'act of God' with the hopeless insistence suggesting that something ever went wrong.
The title gives the unique clue, that's only part of the "things of life".
The film opens with an unscrewed wheel rolling like the last remain of a life in motion. Pierre is lying motionless on the grass, his car already burnt up. Cut to Pierre, lying in bed, with Hélène (Romy Schneider), so much younger we suspect she's not the woman with the ring. There's something about Michel Picolli's physique that makes him strangely more appealing than matinee idol Delon, whose movies with Schneider feel designed to attracts younger audiences. Picolli with his receding hairline, his silvery sideburns, his hairy chest and his naturalness makes the relationship somewhat more relatable.
The intentionally unsubtle transition to the first flashback exposes a naked truth about Pierre's life. The whole accident is shown in slow-motion and intercut with events and incidents set before, getting us close enough to his state of mind during the brief lapse of his accident to seize the irony of his whole life: only when he regained control that he was caught off-guard. In the slow-motion parts, you can see in his face a grim look either out of anticipation of pain, or worse, the realization that he had just broken his "Pot of Milk" like La Fontaine's dairymaid.
Picolli dominates the screen, his chemistry with Helene is believable but there's something so 'definite' about their project to leave for Tunis that it doesn't fool us about Pierre's motivation. He's got a life besides Hélène: a job, a friend (Jean Bouise), a gifted son (Gérard Lartigau) who manufactures electronics gadgets and his ex-wife Catherine (Lea Massari). Every ordinary moment has a sort of casual nonchalance, not interesting in the cinematic meaning, the expositional value would even compromise our interest if it wasn't for Piccoli floating above his own arc with a thinly veiled duplicity.
When he takes an old childhood picture from an old relative or when he has an intimate conversation with ex-wife he grows some complicity, it's like the unexpected activation of the subconscious before something dramatic would happen. And so the flashbacks all build up to the moment where he cancels his holidays with Helene, to spend more time with son. He's evasive in his explanations, with the guilt-ridden expression of a man who can't make the fatal move, I could relate to it. The middle-act weakens the characters but humanizes him in the process.
His chain-smoking isn't even a detail, he smokes so much that IMDb's cigarette count on the Trivia page made me laugh (46, by the way). It's not much the addiction but rather the necessity to plug himself to old habits, the unmovable forces that govern his life without hurting anyone but him.
Another scene shows his first encounter with Helene during an auction, outbidding her for such a futile piece of art it leaves no doubt about her status as the trophy girl. Helene becomes the lighthouse illuminating his second youth, shown through romantic outdoors interludes à la "Love Story", all converging toward the tragic intersection and its nihilistic taste bacK.
Life is a series of random events that constitute our arc, the events that prompted Pierre to write a letter, to retract himself for sending it, to make the final choice, Pierre talking to himself and letting the viewers know the contents of his thoughts, all these things don't amount to much when destiny decides to cut short all our goals and projects.
When Pierre is lying on the ground like Rimbaud's "Sleeper of the Valley", his thoughts are internalized, passing the torch to the more traditional voice-over (that might have inspired the final monologue in "Carlito's Way"). Images aren't set in the past but in a future too idealized to be taken at face value. Indeed, when Pierre's imagination starts, his reality is fading out slowly, becoming the subject of morbid curiosity. The show of life goes on with the anticlimactic spectacle of normality: angry drivers, quarreling couples, policemen, doctors, hospitals and all that jazz.
We're never in total control of our lives, and as one of my friends used to tell me, we spend our life writing the past, not the future, or like John Lennon said, "life is what happens while you're busy making plans" or as LaFontaine said:
When I'm alone, I dare the utmost: [...] Diadems rain down on me.
Some chance event then brings me to my senses, And I'm my lowly self again.
Separation: a series of emotional climaxes leading up to the anti-climactic conclusion..
After a certain amount of time, separation and divorce come down to the same emotional ordeal, eloquently encompassed by the title "We Won't Grow Old Together". Maurice Pialat's separation inspired an autobiographical novel but as if words couldn't bring the intended catharsis, he needed images, dialogues, shouts, cries and even silences to show the true nature of the beast.
I went through divorce myself and I still remember the six-paged letters with carefully chosen words, the pride-swallowing pleas and the whole affective bargain ... the truth with separation is that you don't mourn a person, or a relationship, but the very idea that the one you loved wouldn't be the life-partner you expected, nor the hand that'll softly touch yours in the deathbed. As someone said: "the woman of your life is the woman of your death". There's a symbolic death indeed upon separation, which doesn't make it an act but a process, a slow one going through the five commonly known stages: denial, anger, sadness, fear and resignation. Pialat used them all as necessary seasonings to a dish served in the sober colors of reality, using real locations to dramatize real episodes of his past experience.
Pialat could have played the leading role himself but I guess he wouldn't have brought that level of authenticity with another person but the woman he loved. And Jean Yanne was too painfully real as Jean, a grisly, gruff, disenchanted but oddly magnetic filmmaker. He's a divorced man in his early 40s venting his past frustrations on the much younger Catherine, played by Marlène Jobert. The ghosts of his failed marriage keep haunting his present, reminding constantly that Catherine is not his ex-wife Françoise (Macha Méril). Still, the complicity seems in place in the beginning; they have the interactions of a man and a woman who've known each other for years, silences aren't awkward and there's room for tenderness.
Suddenly we see Jean throwing a tantrum on Catherine struggling to handle the sound boom while he's filming in a crowed street. He insults her, pushes her, shouts so loudly that even the sanguine Mediterranean bystanders retort. Today, Jean would be considered a bully and end up arrested by the Police or filmed by a smartphone and have his career destroyed; the film reminds us of the way violence toward women was, if not systemic, at the very least was trivialized. And despite his behavior, Jean keeps his edge over Catherine, even her parents don't dare put him in his place. Maybe it's Jean's age, his strong masculinity, the way he can swiftly switch from anger to gentleness, or a possessive spirit that's only a twisted version of love.. or is it just that Catherine loves him and like many enamored people, falls into the biggest trap of a toxic relationships: the false conviction that you can change someone.
The bullying culminates in the memorable car scene where he delivers such a harsh and odious "reasons you suck" speech even Yanne was reluctant to go through it, calling Catherine 'vulgar', 'ordinary', 'ugly' and concluding with "it's over". The face of Jobert says it all; just when you think she's at the verge of teary explosion, she keeps a dignified face; words don't hurt her anymore. And she's right to spare her feelings, next thing you know, they're back together again. And that 'false start' (or 'false finish') sets the narrative pattern: an alternation of arguments and reconciliations. The more they swear not to see each other again, the more rapidly they reunite. The repetitive episodic structure might give the wrong impression of a story spun in circles with nothing really happening but since when does reality rely on plot requirements?
The whole ups-and-downs schema actually makes two points. First, undoing a relationship is as difficult as building it, if not more. Secondly, if you keep an attentive eye, you'll see that Catherine does evolve. While Jean fails to communicate with her without the uses of patronizing rants and violence, verbal and physical, Catherine realizes that she didn't stay with him out of love, but of fear. Fueled with stoic determination, her detachments takes its slow but certain path to the finishing line, finally responding to the overarching viewer's questioning: when the hell will she leave Jean?
And in that psychological arm-wrestling, Jean realizes he lost the upper hand and therefore changes the tactic: he writes romantic letters, shows his sensitive and benevolent side yet smoothly but surely, Catherine lets her hand slip. She becomes 'Françoise', the absent figure to haunt Jean's present. A confused Jean is reduced to pathetic investigations about Catherine's new man, asking her parents how he looks, how old he is etc?. That's indeed the final stage of grief in its manhood-offended expression: when we accept losing someone, we hope it's for the best. Jean still believes he has a saying on Catherine's life while she shines through her absence. Jean's confusion illustrates one of separation's paradoxes: bringing people closer. Separation is even harder in a time without Internet or social networks, when immediate dating wasn't commonplace.
Yanne, a famous TV comedian and chansonnier, reveals his dramatic side in a performance that earned him the Best Actor prize at Cannes and boos from the audience (as if they had projected their own disdain for Jean), Yanne didn't intend the festival anyway, he and Pialat didn't get along, and it is possible that the director exploited it to enhance Jean's bitterness. Jean ends up consoling himself that there's more fish in the sea and a free Catherine, happily swimming in that sea. As tough as it is, separation isn't that bad after all.
Still, what an enigmatic character, leaving so many interrogations marks: was he truly in love? Did his first failed relationship twist his capability for love commitment? Pialat's merit is to humbly allow viewers to make up their own opinions, as if he was a riddle for himself as well.
Sous le soleil de Satan (1987)
Do You Renounce Satan?
One of the major books of the 20th century, Georges Bernanos' "Under the Sun of Satan" isn't an easy read. Centered on the personal crisis on a young priest who struggles to find God's voice, it is a powerful comment on humanity's more convenient devotion to Satan. Not the Satan that became a stock-word to define tentations, but that energy of despair, that 'gravity' effect toward the lowest depths of the soul. As I said in my review of Ingmar Bergman's "Silence", if we can't make ourselves worthy of God, let's make ourselves even more worthless.
Bernanos wrote the book after the Great War when French people; instead of mourning the dead or contemplating the barbarity they had just undergone, indulged in lust, fun and celebrations. The author indirectly points out the way the Roaring Twenties deafened humanity from the calls of the grace. As a fervent Catholic, he deplored the 1905 new laicity law and the way rationality inherited from the Kantian revolution and psychoanalysis, prevented priests from operating in what he described as "the bleak battlefield of our instincts" (the war that would never stop).
I mentioned Bergman, Maurice Pialat channelled the introspective "Winter Light", also about a priest caught in a faith crisis. But Bernanos' hero Donissan (played by Gérard Depardieu) believes in God, his struggle is more complex: his life reduced to petty rituals and confessional's confidences, his mind became a regular depository of human crasses he couldn't get rid of. Ironically, he's in a situation where he must keep his flock close, but his enemy (Satan) closer. Full of insecurity, he poignantly admits his failure to find the right language with Abbot Menou-Segrais (Maurice Pialat). He flogs himself regularly to expiate his own powerlessness.
And I couldn't see anyone but Depardieu as Donissan. With his broad shoulders and towering presence, Depardieu has always been a force of nature capable to play larger-than-life and flamboyant characters but there's something inherently instinctive in that man who learned acting from the scratch, without any Academical background, spontaneous at the risk of stumbling on a word, starting a sentence he wouldn't finish or just being silly. The power of Depardieu is that even his his oafishness could move audiences. Fittingly so, Donissan was a man who acknowledged his intellectual limits, but had the faith that moved mountains.
There's a second subplot with Mouchette, a sixteen-years old teenager who announces her lover that she's pregnant. The merit of Mouchette is to draw Donissan's torments in flesh and blood, preventing the story to get stranded in abstractions. She enjoys being beautiful and desired, much more by handsome men. She doesn't embody sin but embraces it as the lesser of two evils. Indeed, she hates her condition; daughter of a peasant, as mediocre a politician as a brewer, surrounded by hypocrites who lust on her body but would never make it worth ruining their little lives. Not only have men failed to elevate her but they wouldn't even join her in a stylish and assumed degradation.
Mouchette becomes the instrument of her own vengeance toward the human genre... including herself. And Sandrine Bonnaire was perfect, with her frail petite frame and yet eyes that contained more passion and strength than all the male characters combined. The story is driven by Donissan et Mouchette and when the two meet: it's the ultimate convergence of two souls that were lost for different reasons ... but as close as they were, literally, they had went just too far in their own journey to reach one another.
Now, there's a third important player in the film, a man Donissan meets during a long walk across the countryside, he's played by Jean-Christophe Bouvet, Pialat knows how to use a blatant 'Day for Night' effect with deliberately exaggerated blue and pale tones to convey the supernatural aspect of that crucial encounter. He isn't exactly a fancy director but he knew that epiphanic moment needed an extra-surrealistic push, visually. The rest of the film is more sober even in the passionate moments.
There is a lot of dialogue between Pialat and Depardieu but they never sound as on-the-nose or expositional material, the reason is simple: these men are priests, they're used to listen and they're used to silence, they can either process their thoughts or explain how they can't, all in a very soft voice, that befits their status but also establishes an unconscious resignation for failure in a world where the Catholic church had lost its grip on people. There's an important moment where Menou-Segrais makes Donissan (too honest to deny) admit he put himself in the hand of someone he didn't have esteem for. The abbot knows he lives in bourgeois semi-idleness he wouldn't trade for all the mental torture of the world. But Donissan is capable of passion (in the 'pathos' sense): he whips himself, shouts at Mouchette, raises a dead corpse with that strength and body language that elevate even his silent moments to sheer eloquence.
"Under the Sun of Satan" earned France its second Golden Palm twenty years after "A Man and a Woman", meeting with furious boos from audiences who wished it was "Wings of Desire", I couldn't be more satisfied by that outcome for Wenders' film that dealt with similar themes but with flashy artsy stuff to conceal its skeletal story. Pialat took up a higher challenge and made a film I just wish directors like Ingmar Bergman or Martin Scorsese saw it.
Getting his Golden Palm, he raised his fist and said "if you don't like me, I don't like you either", I always thought this was anger speaking, after seeing the film and hearing the director speak about it, I think it was exhaustion and maybe frustration of not having reached his audience just like Donissan with his people... and he was humble enough to appease the tension afterwards.
Still, one of the most famous moments of Cannes' history, a unanimous but controversial win, but a deserved win nonetheless.