Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Twentieth Century

1934, US, directed by Howard Hawks

Hawks' film can't keep up the terrific momentum he establishes in the the opening sequences -- it's not quite Scarface in a comic register -- but he's blessed with the presence of a boundlessly energetic John Barrymore, who delivers one of the great comic performances, both self-aware and self-parodying as a Broadway director who never shies away from the exaggerated effect in his personal stylings. By contrast, Carole Lombard is lumbered with too much in the way of irritating histrionics; she's a much more subtle performer than Hawks allows, and there's a repetitiveness to her character that causes the centre of the film to sag. Hawks' work behind the camera is often more subtle than in some of his other films, with careful setups of the actors rather than more visible stylistic flourishes; he frames the crowded train sequences in ways that surely influenced A Night at the Opera a year later, though that film pushed the idea for even greater comic effect. A final thought: at what point did the drunken press man disappear as a Hollywood staple?


1946, France, directed by Marcel Blistène (and Jacques Feyder)

Claude Chabrol, in a long interview in Cahiers du cinéma, grouped Macadam together with Duvivier's Panique and Impasse des Deux Anges as three extraordinarily bleak postwar films, made at a time in France's history when -- as he saw it -- one might have expected a rather more hopeful mood to prevail. I'm not sure that his thesis is all that carefully thought-through -- the US produced some pretty downbeat fare during the same period, after all, while France was coming to terms with a terrible national trauma, a theme to which Chabrol returned in several of his films, but he's certainly on the money that these are three films with a frequently grim take on human nature.

Macadam begins with an off-kilter shot that gives an early indication of its skewed world-view -- even an apparently innocuous bit of domestic business becomes imbued with a sense of unease as the camera cants to the side, and such angles proliferate as the film progresses and we're introduced to the residents of a Paris hotel that holds little of the bonhomie of the pre-war tel du Nord.

Françoise Rosay was never averse to playing less than sympathetic characters, though her turn as the hotel proprietor here is as jaundiced as they come, a woman who uses all of her wiles to survive, and who blithely uses her own daughter as a servant (where Arletty might have made such a survivor sympathetic, Rosay makes no attempt to paper over the flaws). There's a scene where the younger woman unexpectedly expresses affection for her mother that carries a deep frisson, as though we're privy to the moment when the daughter's Stockholm syndrome reaches its apogee, and the finale scene suggests that the apple has indeed stayed pretty close to the tree.

Rosay's character has no monopoly on misbehaviour -- when Paul Meurisse shows up with a briefcase in hand and asks Rosay to keep an eye on it, it doesn't take a genius to deduce that he may be up to no good. Meurisse played some light-hearted parts during his career, but it's the men from the darker side that stick in the memory -- the casual killer from this film, the sadist from Clouzot's Les Diaboliques, or the melancholy safe-cracker in Impasse des Deux Anges.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

L'Ainé des Ferchaux

1963, France, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

L'Ainé des Ferchaux seems to be the forgotten man amidst Melville's 1960s output  -- all of his other 1960s films, and then some, have received the Criterion treatment, while this film hasn't been released in the US at all (it was remade in 2001 for French TV with a much older Jean-Paul Belmondo playing the role taken here by Charles Vanel).

I wonder if there's a rights issue that's holding it a release, since the film's certainly not without merit or interest, not least as one of two films that Melville shot (partly) in the US. The "partly" is the more significant here in that he didn't bring his actors with him for the American shoot -- apparently in a fit of pique over Charles Vanel's desire to have the trip double as a honeymoon, something that Melville, with his exceptionally, and perhaps sometimes unreasonable, high standards found to be unforgivably unprofessional.

Whatever the rationale, the outcome allows Melville, as he acknowledged, to have plenty of fun stitching together American location footage with studio material and, here and there, exteriors shot in southern France but purporting to be in the US. The stitching doesn't quite work if you happen to have taken a similar road trip through the American east and south, with the locations occasionally shifting unexpectedly, but Melville's not really after strict verisimilitude, and his vignettes of early-1960s Americana remain diverting, while there's a genuine care to find continuities between the neon colours he finds in the American streets and the studio sets back in France. He seems to be thoroughly enjoying his first work in colour, although he switched back to black-and-white for his subsequent film.

Always an admirer of the US, Melville gets to indulge that love here, both in terms of the places he chooses to put on the screen and the films to which he pays homage -- starting off with The Set-Up in the opening scenes, to the western music that underlines much of the central road trip that Charles Vanel, a banker on the run, takes with his new assistant Jean-Paul Belmondo. Many a road movie mines the differences between the protagonists for comic effect, but Melville is much more interested in the cat and mouse dynamic between Vanel, an ailing older man, and his brash young bagman, who's clearly on the hunt for a score. Melville underscores the difference between the men by constantly placing them as far apart as possible in the frame, so that even when they are ostensibly crammed together in a car they're at odds; the effect is even more pronounced when they settle for a time on the fringes of New Orleans, with Belmondo, in the example below, barely inside the frame.

For the most part, Melville films the two men in long and medium shot, eschewing close-ups until two key moments in the narrative in which Vanel and Belmondo invade the frame, as if to intensify an already fraught scene. The shots also reinforce the claustrophobia of their New Orleans existence -- a near-tropical setting that recalls Vanel's past in the French colonies. The atmosphere of decadent decay surely influenced Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Torchon (based on an American novel transposed to Africa) years later; Tavernier worked for Melville on Le Doulos.

More screengrabs:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Sherlock Jr.

1924, US, directed by Buster Keaton

I'm not even going to attempt to dissect Keaton's wonderful comedy, which provided easily the most laugh-filled evening I've enjoyed at the cinema this year, except to note that after only a few minutes I started thinking about how much I was looking forward to screening this for my son, still only 18 months old and thankfully as yet pretty uninterested in the television (except in so far as the remote control can be used as an improvised telephone). I loved Chaplin and Keaton when I was young, and Sherlock Jr reinforced my sense that it's been far, far too long since I spent time in their excellent company. I'm not sure if I'd ever seen this particular Keaton before, but the imaginativeness of the gags, both small-scale and death-defying, is often breathtaking; you're still recovering from the previous gag, or the previous portion of a multi-layered gag, when the next laugh is upon you.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Untel père et fils

1943, France, directed by Julien Duvivier

Duvivier's film, shot in 1940 but not released until much later, recounts 70 difficult years in France's history -- from the Franco-Prussian war to the coming of World War II -- through the experiences of one over-burdened French family, from the trenches to the home front. There's an extraordinary amount of narrative action packed into the film's brisk 80 minutes, but there is still room for some distinctive Duvivier touches, particularly his repeated use of traveling shots, most effective in the clever shot in which he focuses on a man running behind a plane, perhaps as a means to avoid special effects; that shot has a parallel later in the film when Robert Le Vigan's character anxiously watches warplanes over the Marne.

There's also a hint of Duvivier's earlier La Belle équipe in the set of an artist's rooftop studio, although the backdrops with Montmartre, the Arc de Triomphe and the colonies could have been taken from any Hollywood backlot. Despite the historical through-line, the film isn't entirely coherent: it's never really made clear why Louis Jouvet's character needs to depart France forever after a failed love affair, for instance, though the metaphor of Raimu's decline from youthful glory to shabby old age is pretty straightforward.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012


1941, France, directed by Maurice Tourneur

I loved Ben Jonson's original play when I read it in college, but I'd never previously seen Volpone on stage or film, and somehow it never occurred to me that it might be quite so broad in performance. This version is at a couple of removes from Jonson -- it's a filmed version of a stage adaptation that came the pens of Jules Romains and Stefan Zweig, which altered Jonson's original ending -- and perhaps it plays up the farcical elements to an even greater degree. That's especially true of Harry Baur's performance in the title role: although Baur is capable of great subtly elsewhere, his work here hits the same note over and over, with only the briefest of more nuanced asides -- the performance is in keeping with his enormous fake nose, as seen above.

Louis Jouvet, as Volpone's sidekick Mosca, is rather more toned-down, at least within the context of the play, and there are some terrific supporting players, especially Charles Dullin, a great theatre actor who tutored Jean-Louis Barrault and Marcel Marceau, among others; he plays the decrepit Corbaccio so convincingly that it's easy to forget the actor was only in his fifties. Maurice Tourneur, so good a director elsewhere, mostly settles for observing the actors at work, with only a handful of interesting shots (a conversation shot in silhouette, or the shadows of dancers late used as a striking backdrop); it sounds as though the film had a troubled production history in the early months of the Occupation, and perhaps in the end it's most valuable as a record of a work which had its greatest fame on the stage.


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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.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States