Thursday, May 31, 2012

Le Drame de Shanghaï

1938, France, directed by G.W. Pabst

Pabst's film is an oddball mixture of fairly straightforward 1930s exoticism featuring the Shanghai underworld and torn-from-the-headlines political intrigue related to the Sino-Japanese War of 1937. Where a later film like Casablanca kept the historical specifics pretty loose, one of the many reasons that film remains so fresh 70 years on, Le Drame de Shanghaï is rather dated for an audience not exposed to news from the front. Still, while the segments on Chinese nationalism are pretty stodgy fare, there are several memorably atmospheric sequences in and around the nightclub on which much of the action centers -- especially those sections featuring, all too briefly, Louis Jouvet in what is, by his standards, an unusually despicable role. He plays a gangland figure who appears to come back from the dead, and the scene where he reappears, tilting a lamp toward his interlocutor, is the kind of detail that might have caught the eye of a Jean-Pierre Melville; there's also a genuinely creepy scene in which Jouvet and other criminal bigwigs preside over the death of an unfortunate coolie, brought to the club merely to demonstrate the effectiveness of an assassination method the men are considering.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


1927, US, directed by F.W. Murnau

I'm always a little lost for words when dealing with the true masterpieces, mostly because it often seems as though everything's already been said -- even when writing mostly for myself, I have the strange sense that my thoughts are more than likely just repetitions or reworkings of things I've read along the way.

Murnau's film carries the sub-title "A Song of Two Humans," and that's as good a description of the film's effect as anything else -- despite the difference of medium, there's a direct, intense lyricism that reminds me of the best popular music, which functions as a kind of emotional essence in three of four minutes. Though the running time is rather longer here, as with the subsequent City Girl, Sunrise has the simplicity of mythology: a man yields to the temptation of another woman, a visitor from the city, before rediscovering his love for his wife. It might be a country song -- and there's no dismissive sarcasm in the comparison.

The point, of course, is what Murnau does with this bare skeleton: while preserving that straightforward narrative, the director finds complexity in the emotional shadings of the central couple as they stumble toward some form of reconciliation, a reconciliation embarked on in the most unpromising of circumstances. The director's effect is achieved particularly through the mastery of shifts in tone, from the leading man's darkest hours -- as he struggles with murderous thoughts -- through to the extraordinary explosion of joy both at the moment he realizes the depths of his love for his wife, and in the film's final granting of a kind of redemption just when things seem once again to be lost. There's a intentional universality to the setting, too: filmed in the US, the scenery transitions from what looks like a gloomy European village through bucolic landscapes to the razzmatazz of the vibrant 1920s city, as if to underline that this particular story could play out against any backdrop; the tram that marks the passage from country to city is almost like the tornado of The Wizard of Oz, whirling its passengers to a new and different world.

Entrée des artistes

1938, France, directed by Marc Allégret

As in so many of his films, particularly from the 1930s, Louis Jouvet is offscreen for much of the running time of Entrée des artistes, and his absence for long stretches here only heightens the sense that much of the remainder of Marc Allégret's film is rather routine. The narrative mostly focuses on the petty, even vicious, love squabbles between a group of theatre students overseen by M. Jouvet, who is presumably playing a role not a million miles from his offscreen professional life at the head of a theatre company. The moments when he seems to be most fully inhabiting that real-life role are wonderfully rich, as he gives gentle direction to his charges and takes an interest in their home lives; there's nothing of the Svengali about this particular man of the theatre, though the students clearly regard him as possessing great power.

The sequence where Jouvet visits the laundry where one aspirant spends her days is an absolute treasure, with his character tamping down a distaste for the surroundings only to find it erupting again in the face of blatant philistinism he encounters when attempting to persuade the girl's relatives of the value of her new career choice. As he departs, he mutters "quel atmosphère," a word made immortal a few months later by Arletty in Hôtel du Nord -- and in Jouvet's presence. The two films share a writer (Henri Jeanson, author of many an immortal word) and I wonder if Jeanson liked the sound of the word so much he reused it soon afterwards, as the two films were made in quick succession. Jouvet gets most of the best lines here, but his supporting cast is also filled with treasures -- Bernard Blier in a very, very early role though he's already portly and bald, Julien Carette, the poacher from La Règle du jeu, Roger Blin, a very sinister heavy in L'Alibi, Marcel Dalio... It's all testament to the extraordinary richness of the French cinema in the era, with even the bit parts seemingly played by actors of some consequence.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Mona Lisa

1986, UK, directed by Neil Jordan

Neil Jordan's films often have a tendency toward the fairy tale, and I had a bad feeling about the direction Mona Lisa seemed likely to take when Bob Hoskins' small-time gangster started falling for the high-end hooker (Cathy Tyson) he's employed to drive around. It's a relief, then, when Jordan goes down less obvious paths, concocting something that's a vaguely London variation on Paul Schrader's Hardcore, with Hoskins, who has just emerged from prison, descending into the tragically cheap underbelly of the London sex trade.

This is territory on which many a filmmaker has foundered, caught between ogling the seamy goings-on and finger wagging: Jordan uses the Hoskins character as an oddball surrogate, with Hoskins generally more repelled than engaged by what his pre-prison colleagues do to make money, while there's barely a hint of glamour in the sex trade here. Hoskins's glimmers of conscience set the stage for a redemption that manages to be simultaneously a touch too neat -- shades of the fairy tale again -- and surprisingly convincing. Hoskins finds ways to make an initially unsympathetic character far more nuanced, with the character's growing awareness of how others see him both tragic and oddly triumphal, while Michael Caine does a fine job with the part of Hoskins' terrifically seedy boss, desperately trying to swim in more exalted waters but undone by his baser instincts.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Sign of Four

1932, UK, directed by Graham Cutts

The transition from Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock for the 2010s to Arthur Wontner's 1930s edition is a little disconcerting -- and certainly not kind to Wontner, who comes across as older than his already middle-aged years, and entirely unlikely as a purveyor of fisticuffs (perhaps that's why Graham Cutts speeds up the action sequences, since otherwise Wontner might have looked rather lethargic while swinging his fists). Wontner appeared in five Holmes vehicles between 1931 and 1937, one of which is entirely lost; while Wontner isn't my cup of tea as Holmes, it's amazing to me that the remaining films all available only in dreadful public-domain copies, and that no-one has attempted to market cleaned-up versions to the presumably large Holmes fanbase. For the most part, this is pretty routine stuff, with a very pallid Watson in the form of Ian Hunter, though Cutts makes nice use of sound to enhance the suspense, and there are a few agreeably lurid supporting roles -- Graham Soutten, as the villainous Jonathan Small, looks as though he might have seen Lon Chaney's performance in West of Zanzibar, though Soutten's onscreen disability -- a missing leg -- was entirely genuine.

Hitch and Lye

This is a contribution to the (third annual) For the Love of Film Blogathon, co-hosted by the Self-Styled SirenFerdy on Films, and, for the first time this year, This Island Rod. Please read the posts, participate as a poster or commenter, and, most important of all, donate!

The cause this year is an especially fine one: the blogathon aims to raise the funds needed to put recently rediscovered reels from the 1924 film The White Shadow, a hitherto-lost component of Alfred Hitchock's early career, online for all to see Free of Charge.

The aftermath in Secret Agent
Though the discovery of several reels of The White Shadow in a New Zealand shed is understandably being celebrated as Hitchcock's most notable antipodean connection -- unless we count the backlot Australia of his film Under Capricorn -- there is at least one other New Zealand association buried deep in the master's filmography. Sadly, though in the spirit of this particular blogathon, the snippet of screen history on which I'll focus is lost to film viewers; in the event that someone can rectify the loss, perhaps with dusty materials from a London attic on this occasion, the film preservation community will have another coup to fête...

Len Lye, in movie villain mode
Back in 1936, as Hitchcock was putting the finishing touches to his film Secret Agent, he employed the services of a New Zealander filmmaker/artist by the name of Len Lye, who had been in London for a decade after making his way across the Pacific and eventually northwards, his perambulations the partial inspiration for his film Tusalava, which got the British censors in something of a lather because they just knew that Lye was up to something funny with his weirdly biological imagery even if they couldn't figure out quite what was going on.

Lye was very much an artistic polymath, in the midst of one of his most productive periods as a filmmaker at the time he crossed paths with Hitchcock: in the mid-1930s he made several wonderful and wildly colourful films for John Grierson's GPO Film Unit as well as advertising shorts for clients ranging from Shell to Imperial Airways, with the occasional foray into the commercial cinema. Hitchcock somehow came across Lye on the London film scene and asked Lye to try his hand at some special effects for the climactic train-crash sequence of Secret Agent. Roger Horrocks' wonderful biography of Lye doesn't go into great detail on the encounter between the two men, and most of the very many Hitchcock volumes don't mention Lye at all, though perhaps Secret Agent star John Gielgud, of whom more below, had a hand in arranging the encounter; equally, that GPO Film Unit experience surely helped open doors at the time.

In any case, however the two men ended up meeting, Lye delivered as requested, and apparently his efforts made quite an impression. As the train disaster unspooled, Lye created a colour effect in this otherwise black-and-white film that gave all the appearance of the celluloid itself going up in flames, to further underline the point that the sequence marked a radical, emotionally wrenching break for the characters -- the shattering impossibility of going back to the world before the crash. However, it had occurred to precisely no-one that this apparently very realistic visual trick might cause alarm for the unfortunate projectionist, who initially assumed that there was a fire in his booth.

The incident came to the attention of the higher ups at Gaumont British, who were concerned that audiences, well aware of the flammable properties of film at the time, would similarly panic when they saw Lye's trickery -- with potentially grave consequences (not an empty fear: as an example, I came across reports of a stampede at a New York cinema in 1913 caused when a film caught fire, with two women killed in the ensuing panic). Hitchcock was apparently quick to agree with the higher-ups request that the sequence should be cut, not least because he seems to have thought the idea was a bit pretentious to start with, although he makes use of a similar idea in Spellbound a decade later, with a couple of tinted red frames at a key moment. Hitch's  producing partner Ivor Montagu wanted to make a stand on artistic grounds -- or just because he wasn't willing to comply with the bean counters -- but once the master had made clear he wasn't too worked up about the cut, the sequence was inevitably if unfortunately discarded. Apart from that one test projection, the Lye-enhanced version of the train crash never seems to have been seen by an audience, not even the press corps, and so the Hitchock-Lye connection sadly remains in the realm of the curious anecdote.

Lye's signature from Free Radicals
Much of Lye's other film work has survived, and indeed the 1979 version of his film Free Radicals, reworked in several iterations after Lye relocated to the United States, was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry in 2008. However, there are still key gaps, perhaps most notably his 1935 short film Full Fathom Five, which featured a pre-Secret Agent John Gielgud as narrator. Gielgud read three passages from Shakespeare over images from Lye's first "direct" film, where he manipulated the film stock itself to achieve his effects, a departure from the more conventional animation techniques he had previously employed. Full Fathom Five film is virtually lost, and other of Lye's works exist only in fragmented or partial form, while still other portions of his filmography are in need of preservation -- future projects all!

I can't help but spare a thought for poor old Graham Cutts, too, as film-lovers across the globe shunt him stage-left off his own project in favour of the youthful, yet-to-be-rotund Mr. Hitchcock (it's nice to see Cutts get a little bit of his due from David Cairns in this very blogathon). As much as I bow to the reality that the preservation of The White Shadow is a priority in large measure because of its illustrious connections, I'd argue that it's ultimately worthy of preservation in and of itself, even if it is of more limited interest as "a film by Graham Cutts" -- as an illustration of what was being made, and watched, in 1924.

Cutts has some history with the experience of being written out of his own films: The Sign of Four, his 1932 Sherlock Holmes adventure, is noted chiefly for the credits of a variety of behind-the-scenes American contributors who went on to greater things, though the film is a solid adventure with the occasional dash of genuine flair, and Cutts makes nice use of sound to generate suspense (in other words, it's pretty typical early sound fare, a little creaky to be sure, and the available prints are in parlous condition).
The Sea View Hotel, Accra, long past its days of glory
Similarly, when Cutts' 1935 Oh Daddy! is remembered -- which is rarely -- it's largely as a film to which Michael Powell made some early contributions rather than for Cutts' own work. Oh Daddy! is intriguing on at least another level, though -- it showed up a couple of years later in a colonial movie theatre in Accra, advertised with some fanfare at the Sea View Cinema as an attraction in December 1937, presumably one of many locations the world over where the by-all-accounts rather modest film was eventually seen. That's the kind of out-of-the-way, end-of-the-line place that films like The White Shadow eventually found a home so perhaps there's an overheated room somewhere in the Ghanaian capital yet to yield a treasure for a future blogathon -- or even just a copy of Oh Daddy!

Click on Hitch to donate!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Karate Kid

1984, US, directed by John G. Avildsen

My wife took it upon herself to rectify this gap in my cinematic education -- and since my family didn't get a VCR until well in the 1990s, she has her work cut out to catch me up on some of the hits of the 1980s in particular. Nearly 30 years on, there's not a whole lot of point in taking on a cultural phenomenon -- I finally know where some of those lines come from! -- but not much interest on my part either: despite much silliness, and a ridiculously cheesy ending, I thoroughly enjoyed the screening. It's hard to imagine the people behind the Karate Kid equivalents of 2012 adopting such a relaxed approach to the central narrative, or providing so few actual fight sequences -- high school romance is at least as important here, and there are a couple of sweet sequences between Ralph Macchio and Elizabeth Shue before we finally get to the main event. Admittedly, I'm not about to test this theory by watching a slew of recent films directed at the teen audience.

Although the film is hardly an ad for subtle analysis of Asian-American history, it's still somewhat notable that the villain of the piece is the Vietnam-vet soldier with the kill-kill-kill attitude, in contrast to the quietly heroic Japanese-American, played by Pat Morita, who does what he can to deliver his various aphorisms with as much good sense as possible. If you ever wanted to teach a class on how Hollywood films ignore boring old reality, this wouldn't be a bad place to start -- no-one ever bothers to explain the almost complete disappearance of Ralph Macchio's mother from the film for a good hour, nor how Macchio is apparently released from school obligations to train all day at his personal dojo (the film takes place over the course of the fall semester).

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

La Marseillaise

1938, France, directed by Jean Renoir

Renoir's film begins in the same spirit as Ken Loach's much later pair of historical features, Land and Freedom or The Wind that Shakes the Barley, as an attempt to dramatize some sense of the actual lived experience of a major historical event, in this case the French Revolution. The intention is ostensibly democratic, bringing us both to Louis XVI's bedside in Versailles and the lower levels of revolt in the south of France, though there's never a moment of doubt as to where the film's sympathies lie (and perhaps there's a little cheating in the decision to halt proceedings well before the Revolution's bloody excesses begin, when sympathies become much more complex).

As the film progresses, and particularly after our introduction to the titular song (then an unknown air that was to grow in popularity), the film becomes much more didactic, with rather obvious conversations about the meaning of France's new sense of citizenship that are clearly more in the spirit of 1938, in the shadow of fascism, rather than explorations of the meaning and reality of 1789 and beyond. Of course, the notion of participatory citizenship is key to the French social ideal, so the debates between the newly-anointed citizens function in two different time periods, but they are occasionally rather heavy-handed, a matter not helped by the fact that the two main actors are not the weightiest of performers.

Andrex, most often seen at the side of his pal Fernandel, isn't able to do much with some of the stodgier lines, while Edmond Ardisson, making his debut here, occasionally seems to be acting in an entirely different movie, perhaps a broad comedy -- his goofy expressions appear to have been shipped in from a Revolution-era spoof, while his fey manner, perhaps unremarkable in 1938, tends to undermine his romantic exploits (see the first image!). Many of the supporting players are rather stronger, including Renoir's older brother Pierre as Louis XVI (particularly in a terrific moment, late on, when the king suddenly understands how his world is about to change), or Louis Jouvet in a small role as the government representative Roederer, tasked with persuading the king to appear before the parliament.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Il Sorpasso

1962, Italy, directed by Dino Risi

Through the luck of the draw, I've come across a handful of films with stings in the tail of late, but nothing tops the finale here -- an utterly jarring conclusion to a generally breezy film, filled with throwaway Italian pop music of the era. The film opens on a note that recalls Nanni Moretti's wonderful 1994 Caro diario, in which Moretti drives the empty Roman streets during the height of the summer, before the film develops into a picaresque account of the open road, replete with enjoyable minor characters and a constant onward momentum -- the next town, the next adventure, the next corner -- that's fundamental to the character played by Vittorio Gassman. He's a man whose apparently joyful view of life gradually reveals itself to be a cover for his fundamental inability to follow through on anything serious or worthwhile; there's fear rather than delight at the heart of the character. That said, the film's way of resolving this problem is, to say the least, a slap in the face; if the analogy is to Italy of the post-war era, the film takes a dim view indeed of the state of the country circa 1962. Gassman is terrific -- finding the tenderness in a character who might otherwise just have been boorish, while Jean-Louis Trintignant is an enjoyable foil, gradually, if very tentatively, loosening his self-imposed restrictions in the company of a man incapable of taking no for an answer.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Scarlet Street

1945, US, directed by Fritz Lang

The other entry in Fritz Lang's diptych of films with Edward G. Robinson/Joan Bennett/Dan Duryea, Scarlet Street flips everything in The Woman in the Window on its head: where the first film is all in the mind, with the consequences purely on the level of the salutary warning, here we see the full, frightening splendour of the whims of fate at work, with devastating consequences. Both films kick off with apparently minor decisions that quickly spiral beyond the protagonists' control -- and Robinson takes everyone down with him on his brutal descent.

Loren K's take on Edward G. Robinson*
It's a re-working of the novel and play originally brought to the screen by Jean Renoir as La Chienne, a film with which it shares one central weakness, namely that the wife at the center of both films is such an unbearable shrew for her entire onscreen time that it's difficult to believe that not one but two (very different) men could have agreed to marry her. I felt myself dreading each scene in which she features -- Rosalind Ivan plays the thankless role here -- simply because the character is so completely without nuance; while Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea are hardly the most subtle of bad guys, their characters at least have some character arc, nicely adapting to the lucrative situation that so unexpectedly presents itself to them as the film evolves. Though ultimately utterly bleak, it's as morbidly compelling a film as its predecessor -- if likely to make the viewer rather queasy as you watch the irredeemable fall of a fellow creature.

* The second image is lifted from Loren's blog Woodcuttingfool, where he documents his carving projects; I'm a big fan of woodcut prints generally, and black-and-white stars seem a natural subject for the medium. His recent portrait of Lauren Bacall is one of my favourites.


List of all movies

Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States