Older films seen in 2015, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 editions. Most of these are really quick comments - typically scribbled down in 10-15 minutes without benefit of notes - and any resulting wit or insight should be viewed as an accidental by-product. Slightly more thoughtful capsules may be found on the now-pretty-much-defunct old reviews page.
All films, both from this year and the 12 previous ones, can be accessed alphabetically. Most can be viewed ranked by rating as well, though I'm still not sure what that's all about.
[Addendum, February 2009: I've now stopped doing reviews of new movies, but I'll continue to update this page; however, this is purely for my own benefit - since I can't always remember when I watched an oldie, so it's handy being able to find them here - and I won't be going any deeper or writing any more than I used to (probably the opposite). I am not reinventing this as a classic-movie site, nor do I set myself up as an expert on oldies. Or anything, really...]
WAKE IN FRIGHT (76) (Ted Kotcheff, 1971): Got this wrong, for some reason; thought it was like STRAW DOGS, wimpy city type (a schoolteacher) terrorised by hicks, whereas it's more like WALKABOUT in reverse, not a case of venturing deep into the Outback and gradually eliciting some kind of wisdom but a case of trying in vain to get out, back to civilisation, and sinking ever further into degradation (it also sounds like an Aussie companion-piece to HUSBANDS, but I haven't seen that yet). Donald Pleasence does the Outback anarchist, a role that could've been embarrassing, and brings it off with self-deprecating skill (the character seems both free and pathetic), the barroom interiors are a riot of lush colours and "the Yabba"'s frenzied hospitality, the tone is black comedy - all those beers cartoonishly downed-in-one - and bone-deep despair, the kangaroo hunt indelible and justly-celebrated; on this evidence, Kotcheff's career has been hugely disappointing.
Notes on second viewings:
GRADUATE FIRST (56) (Maurice Pialat, 1978): Strange to see Pialat in sentimental mode - not in making people nice, exactly (they're still pretty selfish), but a sometimes sentimental view of youth, revelling in the teenage characters' energy (they're so ready to laugh and have fun, given half a chance) even as they're trapped in a small town looking forward to unhappy marriages and a life of work, home and work, and surrounded by people who tell them: "That's life". There are comedy elements - even farcical, like the older guy who's obsessed with bottoms - odd tangents like the slightly creepy photographers inviting the young girl to model for them, plus the usual documentary feel for weddings, trips to the sea, the inside of people's homes, etc; a well-meaning minor work, but it's probably significant that Pialat went to working with big stars (Huppert, Depardieu) the minute it was over.
THE DEVIL'S TRAP (68) (Frantisek Vlacil, 1962): A fine introduction to my viewing (someday) of MARKETA LAZAROVA, this being another moody medieval yarn - only shorter and less epic - with muscular visuals (note the opening shot), a very distinctive score with choral and even atonal passages, and a script that makes, say, THE DEVILS (or even "The Crucible") look a little silly, the priest in this case slow to accuse and never hysterical. An allusive, slow-burning quality makes it strange and mysterious, though mysterious sometimes shades into muddled storytelling in the last half-hour - e.g. it's unclear why the congregation reject the priest's sermon, indeed it's unclear that they've rejected it till someone says so in the next scene; Vlacil relies on noble-peasant close-ups and one (admittedly impressive) crowd shot to do all the work, being cinematic but not always lucid. Also a suggestion (per the title) that the priest was right all along, and the seemingly humanist heroes may in fact be Satanic - and the suggestion should perhaps have been clearer, but I guess that's mysterious shading into muddled again.
PEPE LE MOKO (71) (Julien Duvivier, 1937): Minimal plot, all dialogue and atmosphere - the narrow byways of the Casbah, where Pepe lives like a regal (but caged) lion. Everyone's packed too close together, both literally (the film positively teems) and figuratively - Pepe and his chief antagonist, the smiling cop who enjoys his daily company and promises to take him down eventually - all except the elegant woman who offers not so much diamonds (or beauty) but escape, memories of home (their romantic banter comes in the form of listing favourite Parisian landmarks). Tight and controlled, then a single despairing cry - like Kowalski's "Stella!" - at the very end. A hugely enjoyable movie.
THE GIRL WITH THE HATBOX (61) (Boris Barnet, 1927): A cautionary tale: had to watch this twice in succession, because the first time was on the old Image DVD which is so ineptly cropped that several shots have the actors decapitated (I subsequently found it online and watched it again, properly); it's only my second Barnet - the first, OUTSKIRTS, was also on the same crappy Image DVD - and you have to wonder how much poor presentation may have turned people off Silent movies in the bad old days, because I was all set to write him off completely after that first viewing of HATBOX. Admittedly, Barnet's style seems to be especially fragile in this regard, his rhythms not always flowing - there seems to be at least one shot missing in the bit where the Girl follows the wrong man in the street, cutting from wide-shot to dynamic chase - his speciality a kind of unforced airy slapstick: a line of people hand their tickets to a conductor, then our hero breaks the rhythm by bending down (he's got his ticket clamped in his mouth) and the conductor collects it without comment; a cheerful maid pivots dangerously on a stepladder, utterly oblivious to danger; a dinner party moves a roomful of furniture (including a sleeping guest) from one room to another, then carry on with dinner. The plot stutters a bit before launching unexpectedly into a no-holds-barred climax - but the film deserves to be seen if only for horse-faced comedienne Serafima Birman as one half of a nasty bourgeois couple (her home is full of photos showing her in hilariously flamboyant poses), Anna Sten's exuberance as the Girl, and Barnet's attempt at a focus-pull to evoke the emotional distance between hero and heroine - he does it with cuts, keeping them steady in the frame and changing focus - at a time (I assume) before cameras could focus-pull.
AUGUST 1, 2015
TIME STOOD STILL (77) (Ermanno Olmi, 1959): Does any great director (maybe Ozu?) have a lighter touch than Olmi? The set-up lends itself to violence (as in HOW I ENDED THIS SUMMER) or at the very least cruelty, but here there's just reserve, shyness, hidden irritation, little bits of comedy and a surprisingly mobile camera (maybe he'd be more revered if his style was more boring); Olmi keeps it flowing, keeping the emphasis on authenticity - it's clear even to a non-Italian that the actors are speaking in dialect - and pictorial beauty, then pulls the trigger after about an hour, first in the older man dropping his guard for an earnest speech on how times have changed (it's the hushed quality that makes it, the non-pro actor looking like he's vouchsafing some great truth), then the scene in the church and the men's nascent friendship edging close to the quasi-paternal. The explicit religious aspect may put off some critics, but in fact the (brief, sudden) way something very small - a small act of kindness - is equated with something transcendent is why the film is so moving.
Notes on second/third viewings:
CANYON PASSAGE (74) (Jacques Tourneur, 1946): Such a dark and unusual Western. Our first impression is of rain - it falls all through the opening credits - the "foul weather" heralding a worldview based on the conviction that "the human race is a horrible mistake". Settlers build cabins on the land, as if to own it - the Indians are puzzled, and unhappy - congratulating themselves on the introduction of glass windows (a.k.a. civilisation), but it's also noted more than once that cities are too crowded, people in too-close proximity something to be avoided; human beings try to impose themselves on life - the young couple marry, and build a cabin; "When I'm dead," says one woman of her children, "I'd like them to stand where I stood and see the things I saw" - but our animal side is inescapable, and the world is a mess in any case. Friends are often weak (but you have to stand by them), the townspeople form lynch-mobs and treat fights as a spectator sport (but they're still a community), and trouble, like the Englishman says, is unavoidable - but that's the American way, replies our free-spirited hero, shuffle the deck and try again, lending a smidgen of optimism to the otherwise bleak ending. No high-concept plot, just people being flawed and buffeted by pitiless circumstance, plus Tourneur's eye for landscape and the kind of bitter detail that must've seemed more palatable after a world war: the young married couple lying outside their cabin, together to the end.
THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (56) (Josef von Sternberg, 1941): "Our story has nothing to do with the present," warns an opening caption - which sounds quite intoxicating, a dreamlike escapist concoction based on visual allure, set in a place of fake names, different races and "thoroughbred mongrels". The problem is that a plot of sorts keeps stuttering through the action, just enough to make it clear that it's choppy and confusing - Gene Tierney's downfall at the roulette table seems to have entire scenes missing - and the other problem is that, with exceptions (the truculent Russian barman, who seems to float on a cloud of ill-feeling), the bits of business for exotic casino staff are a long way from CASABLANCA. Tierney goes from ladylike to feral, Victor Mature is splendidly dissipated, and the second-half revenge is surprisingly modern, undertaken on behalf of natives against racist whites and "weak" (now strong) women against men; I just wish the power games and high-camp elements merged more convincingly.
RETURN FROM THE ASHES (68) (J. Lee Thompson, 1965): Adapted from the same book as PHOENIX, but PHOENIX must be based on a mere couple of chapters because that particular twist - Holocaust survivor posing as 'herself' - gets resolved in a matter of minutes, to be followed by lots of other twists, a fair stab at a nihilistic hero (he subscribes to Dostoyevsky's dictum about anything being possible without God), Ingrid Thulin looking haunted, and psycho kitten Samantha Eggar looking sexy ("He's the first man in your life," Thulin tells her sadly, explaining why she chooses to forgive the cad. "He's the last in mine."). Drags in places, but I note at least two things - the scene with Eggar in the bathtub, and the whole concept of a gun primed to fire when the safe is opened - which, had I watched it as a teenager, I'd undoubtedly remember all my life.
JULY 1, 2015
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (67) (Norman Jewison, 1967): Long seen as the square choice in the 1967 Best Picture race - at least compared to BONNIE AND CLYDE and THE GRADUATE - but in fact its technique is quite modish, gloriously moody Haskell Wexler photography and often jagged editing (opening shot, post-credits: an ECU of a fly on the wall) aimed at a sophisticated audience, just as Sidney Poitier's (unfair) rep as an Uncle Tom figure obscures how irritating it must've been for haters in 1967 to see a black cop who's smarter than all the white characters - a point made by the sheriff, that Tibbs has a chip on his shoulder due to his superior intelligence, a subtle shade of arrogance that prevents the black man from seeming too much of a victim. They bond over police work, not racial harmony per se (Tibbs finding the vital clue in Endicott's greenhouse, then his determination to bring "that fat cat" down; why Virgil, marvels the sheriff, "You're just like the rest of us!") - and indeed righteous fury over racism turns out to be misguided (Endicott is actually innocent), which may be interpreted as white America saying 'Calm down and let's work together', post-Civil Rights Act. Everything outside the central relationship is a bit patchy, but note: Peter Whitney as deceptively avuncular desk cop who's like the dark side of Mayberry; Tibbs' careful courtesy when showing his skills - and essentially telling the whites what to do - in the mortuary; the single short scene in the sheriff's house, and his almost funny, maiden-aunt indignation at what he perceives as pity.
OOH ... YOU ARE AWFUL (49) (Cliff Owen, 1972): Nothing in this film is as hilarious as the real-life name of its producer, "M. Smedley Aston". Otherwise so-so, the greatest saucy premise of all time buried in much unfunny filler involving wide-boy gangsters, comical Italians, dimwit aristos, Dick Emery's schtick (which, cross-dressing aside, seems to consist mainly of adopting a plummy upper-class accent when in 'disguise') and laboured, grotty-looking filmmaking that may be what Truffaut had in mind when he called British cinema an oxymoron. Best bit is the pre-credits sequence, with Emery in drag outside Buckingham Palace being accosted by a tourist looking for the Queen's Picture Collection: "It's along there - and it's marvellous!" "Oh, you're interested in painting?" "Yes, my boyfriend paints in oils." "Does he really? I expect he's done you dozens of times..." "Pardon?" "...in all kinds of positions!". Pause, simper, flutter: "Oooh, you are awful!". Downhill from there.
RABID DOGS (63) (Mario Bava, 1974): Propulsive entertainment - set in a car, with the windshield as wide-screen canvas - so it's easy to ignore the fact that the plot has no ingenious twists (the one at the very end seems contrived) and the characters barely develop at all (the sole female character is especially ill-served, looking like she's going to be the film's ace in the hole but ending up merely hysterical). Major props to Don Backy, a.k.a. Aldo Caponi as psychotic 'Blade', whose mind - we get a brief, impressionistic glimpse of his mental processes - is like a pinball machine at full clamour, and who gives the world's most demented laugh immediately after saying "I'm not crazy!".
FRENCH WITHOUT TEARS (60) (Anthony Asquith, 1940): A feast for the kind of theatrically-trained comedy acting that's admittedly artificial yet still exhilarating for its sheer formal control, see e.g. Roland Culver's drunk act and the way that, charged with being "a bumptious bore", he slurs that "I may have seemed a boretious bump..." - then repeats "boretious bump" to himself as if sensing something wrong with it, even in his stupor, then happily waves away the whole matter as irrelevant, all in a single close-up; the joke is lame, the playing expert (also impressed by David Tree's hesitant declaration of love - "This is a bit embarrassing but still, it's a good laugh" - and the way he half-sighs in repressed emotional distress after "laugh"). The play itself seems over-truncated - never read the original but it's hard to credit its rep as one of Rattigan's best, on this evidence - Paramount import Ellen Drew is decorative at best, and the last 10 minutes (will-they-won't-they contortions between Drew and Ray Milland) feel like a whole other film clumsily shoehorned into 10 minutes. Trivia note: the boy played by Kenneth Morgan, who later became Rattigan's lover - or maybe he already was, though he looks no more than 16 here - and whose suicide by gas in 1949 apparently inspired Hester's suicide attempt in THE DEEP BLUE SEA.
GATES OF THE NIGHT (54) (Marcel Carné, 1946): Opens and closes with a sweeping pan across the Paris skyline, but everything in between takes place in a single quartier over the course of a single night where the same few people keep running into each other - a claustrophobic structure matching the fatalistic tone, whimsically emphasised by Fate (or a man who claims to be Fate) among the characters. Lively at first, showing the aftermath of collaboration in a just-liberated Paris - the landlord, a grumpy old man, rants that the world has lost its morals, but in fact was so chummy with the Nazis that he's known locally as "our friend Fritz" - but then it bogs down in a series of rather dull dialogues, and Carné's romantic melancholy ("It's strange: love songs are always so sad...") may actually be wrong for this material: all my life "I've chosen nothing," laments the traitor fatalistically - but he has, surely?
PARIS BELONGS TO US (71) (Jacques Rivette, 1961): Thought this was a case of youthful hi-jinks, based on the title and New Wave credentials, but it turns out to be a moody prototype for Rivette's fascination with obscure cabalistic conspiracies and Performance as its own kind of truth ("Theatre is not illusion, it's reality" - the reality of the actor acting). It's also a weaving, unfussily strange film with a wide-eyed quality (the 20-something heroine is often called "child" and "little girl", like an Alice in Wonderland) and a morbid strain of impending apocalypse beneath a deliberately flat (if compositionally elegant) surface: people meet, talk in nondescript rooms, rehearse a play in rickety, amateurish style (half the actors always seem to be missing) - yet the sense of something big brewing just out of sight, tied in to post-war malaise and talk of revolution, keeps on building. Rivette gives away too much, if anything, but still contrives haunting passages like baby-faced Betty Schneider searching for her friend in a near-deserted, early-morning Paris; that comes shortly after the clip from METROPOLIS ("Babel", i.e. chaos) - which, with its bold crazy visuals, acts as a reminder of what this film lacks; but you can't have everything.
VIOLENCE AND FLESH (53) (Alfredo Sternheim, 1981): Only Mr. Sternheim knows why the brief early bit where the escaped convicts torch their getaway car gets stretched out to three-minutes-plus across a dozen different shots - a wide shot of the car burning, now a closer shot of the car burning, now a shot from a different angle, now a pan up to follow a plume of smoke - but maybe it's the same reason why one nudie cutie quotes Sartre to another ("Hell is other people," she says, and her friend recognises the reference) or why the youngest fugitive is a former left-wing activist, i.e. to add a little Art to the violence and flesh. It works for a while, and the treatment of homosexuality is also notable for an 80s softcore thriller (Brazil has always seemed more relaxed about such things): the hostages include a pair of loving same-sex couples, while the hostage-takers turn out to be equal-opportunity rapists ("All those years in prison have changed my tastes!" says one cheerfully), cornering the young man while the two girls get it on to distract the macho element. Ideas run out halfway through, and by the end we're reduced to standard bad-movie markers like cross-cutting between night and day scenes (both supposedly taking place at the same time) or a corpse's hand accidentally flapping as he tries to lie still. Also silly that the speedboat comes close then withdraws, instead of just staying away - the whole beach is crawling with cops - but I guess that too is supposed to be symbolic.
JUNE 1, 2015
DEATH OF A CYCLIST (62) (Juan Antonio Bardem, 1955): In the running for Most Directed Film of 1955, Bardem alternating deep-focus shots with fevered close-ups, often with tricky transitions (shot of heroine looking up at her lover, cut to her husband looking down at a matching angle in a different scene altogether), or just using unusual locations - a church, a circus matinee for kids - to pump up the story. The last half-hour is just hollow style - the film becomes trite when it emerges that the hero isn't a weak man but a man who's lost his ideals, and can now recover them - but does remain stylish; the rest of it is quite a deft melding of film noir and arthouse, its pretensions typified by the fact that the seedy blackmailer isn't Dan Duryea but a middle-aged art critic who briefly rails against high society in between blackmailing. Note the party where flamenco dancers are brought out (something "typically Spanish," sneers the art critic) to impress a visiting American - yet isn't Bardem doing much the same, tailoring his film, in the wasteland of Franco-era Spain, to impress foreign audiences?
Notes on various second viewings:
NOW, VOYAGER (67) (Irving Rapper, 1942): Notable for Max Steiner and Walt Whitman (and Bette Davis, at her least mask-like), but also for the makeover not taking place in broad strokes, as in most modern chick-flicks. Davis is still neurotic and disfigured by bitterness, even when she's shed the ridiculous fake eyebrows and is being courted by a man she loves ("an old maid's gratitude for the crumbs offered" is how she spits out her feelings, ruining the moment), then, when she comes back home, she doesn't just tell off her guilt-tripping mom and have done with it (instead they enter "an armed truce", with a definite power shift but subtle variations) - then of course, in the final act, her now-open love for Paul Henreid keeps clashing with the imperative that she not break up his marriage, however loveless. That part actually hurts the movie (it's not organic, just Production Code nonsense), yet the whole thing confirms how complex the so-called 'women's picture' can be - almost (gasp!) like a real movie - when not tied down to tyrannical story beats. Modern audiences presumably howl at Henreid's two-cigarette romantic gesture, and that makes me sad.
MAY 1, 2015
FLOATING CLOUDS (78) (Mikio Naruse, 1955): "He has a strong sense of responsibility," says a co-worker, misdirecting both the audience and magnificent Hideko Takamine; "You're a monster," she tells him later, getting closer to the truth, but it's fairer to say that he's weak-willed and governed by libido - and Naruse in any case, like the mythical Sun God, doesn't particularly care who's good and evil. The point is the tenacity of love (is it even love? or just the memory of love?), the way it lingers even when it's objectively faded - "We're too old to live on dreams," he chides her - even when it's clearly the wrong thing to do; again and again, the couple - apparently - make a decision only for an ellipsis to reveal that they ended up reneging on good sense, still in the grip of their passion. The structure is epic, almost Bollywood, taking in several years and criss-crossing Japan for locations, the pathos at the end thoroughly earned.
EL COMPADRE MENDOZA (54) (Fernando de Fuentes & Juan Bustillo Oro, 1934): Quite surprised by this film's attitude to the Mexican Revolution, barely 15 years in the past when it came out - not just how even-handed it is (the Zapatistas are both the more sympathetic side and the more savage), but also that its hero is a cynical merchant playing one side against the other. Not sure if having two directors is a reason, but the style varies, the camera often dynamic - it pans to the left then immediately to the right during the wedding party scene, like an eager spectator trying to drink it all in - but bogging down in the middle section which is also when Mendoza becomes less sly and devious, a compadre to a Zapatista general and a family man with a bland wife and son. Also whiffs the ending, which doesn't devastate as it should (the set-up is too slow, the payoff too rushed), but Alfredo del Diestro makes a memorable shrewd operator - chubby, hearty, by his own account unsentimental - and there's tension in the various deceptions, changing the picture on the wall according to which side's soldiers come calling, etc. Also notable: Luis G. Barreiro as a comic-relief fusspot.
36 FILLETTE (67) (Catherine Breillat, 1988): "You don't want to, there," says the middle-aged seducer, tapping the young girl's forehead, "but down there" - pointing south - "you're dripping with desire". That's the point, a child saddled with a woman's body, trying to keep up with its bewildering desires - and the girl is predictably confused, acting out ("If you can't dazzle them, shock them!"), prone to sudden mood swings, but the older lover (or would-be lover) is also lost, looking unhappy and defeated when rebuffed then trying again, as if unable to keep coming back to the poisoned well. A very solid Breillat (maybe because it's based on a novel), adding a desultory end-of-summer feel and comically angry family dynamics to the closely-observed back-and-forth; the ending is surprisingly un-mysterious by her standards, then again so's the whole movie.
THE MOUTH AGAPE (74) (Maurice Pialat, 1974): Two shots: the very long, maybe 10-minute single take early on, a conversation between mother and son that ends with Mozart and brims with quiet intimacy - the camera isn't static (it makes small adjustments), merely observant, giving the characters their space - and the very striking shot that inches, very slowly, around a corner to reveal a coffin surrounded by mourners, evoking the fear of Death that informs the whole movie (the final shot does it too, lights going out one by one). Death is there, soberingly in the second half, but in the midst of life - its regrets for paths never taken, its memories of people now gone, its sexual energy - Pialat's documentary touches (the villagers are obviously played by non-pro locals) insisting on the physical truth of people even as the sick mother is reduced to nothing but her physical truth, a mouth agape. Maybe a little on-the-nose in its skewed humanism - I'm thinking e.g. of the bickering family glimpsed in the hospital, clearly there to elicit an 'Aren't people funny?' reaction - and certainly very low-key; still a quiet masterwork.
APRIL 1, 2015
A PACT WITH THE DEVIL (55) (Jozef Zachar, 1968): Soldier #2 from LOVES OF A BLONDE is in a car with a much younger girl who claims to like fairytales, and they drive by a town meeting where an apparatchik is talking of five-year plans and the like: "These are fairytales too - only for grown-ups!". Lots of stray Prague Spring satire in this one ("May I smoke here?"; "No, this is a model school"), though it gives the impression of including the barbs to be trendy more than because of any deep political commitment; the whole thing seems thrown together, the ostensible premise (the girls' "pact", viz. to lose their virginity before graduation) just a jumping-off point for a series of episodes - in parents' flat with reluctant boyfriend, in a posh restaurant with Soldier #2, in another flat with two unpleasant college boys who egg a girl on to do a striptease. Feels like Zachar and Co. went in without a polished script in their haste to make it before the political climate changed; loose, pointless, undeniably lively.
THE EMPEROR'S NAKED ARMY MARCHES ON (65) (Kazuo Hara, 1987): Might need a little more cultural knowledge here, specifically to know for sure whether a Japanese viewer would register the hero as merely a rebel, dangerous but sane, or in fact demented. Body language (and presumably choice of words) is so important, a point reinforced by the fact that the confrontations are so Japanese, with much bowing and apologising in between tenacious interrogation and occasional violence (voices are seldom raised yet the 'victims' stay in place, as if cowed by politeness). The tenacity is compelling - ditto the investigative aspect, most of the film being a kind of mystery with a slowly-revealed solution - but it's hard to say how obsessive Mr. Okuzaki, who views himself as "God's messenger", should be taken. Zealot, iconoclast, truth-teller, or simple nutter?
THE LOVE OF JEANNE NEY (76) (G.W. Pabst, 1927): A triumph, mixing soap-opera plotting - a blind girl, a detective, a lost diamond, plus the ultimate twitchy villain with a pencil moustache - with naturalistic scenes like e.g. the lovers' farewell in Crimea, embracing in wide-shot in a muddy street. Generally speaking, the virtuous aspects (incl. Jeanne herself, and her love for a Bolshevik) are underplayed, the evil characters exaggerated, creating a powerful identification mechanism - it works equally as baroque melodrama with constant visual interest (such crowded compositions!) and incisive romance with amazing scenes like my absolute favourite bit, the wedding reception glimpsed by the lovebirds in the building across the street. The bride seems to be having second thoughts, standing by herself on the balcony, then her drunken corpulent groom hugs her with tears in his eyes, declaring his love in a way that's either touching or grotesque. Is it saying that love is a delusion, or that it conquers all? Both, which is why it's so rich.
THE ITALIAN STRAW HAT (54) (René Clair, 1928): Too bad Clair didn't remake this as a Talkie: his genius for drollery is there but the film's crying out for dialogue, partly because the farcical plot doesn't have much physical momentum - characters go from place to place but it's mostly intercutting, and most of it depends on verbal persuasion and/or character quirks (the whole thing hinges on a comically unreasonable character, the soldier who gets hysterical over a trifle and refuses to budge), none of which plays to the strengths of Silent movies. Visuals are mostly functional - it's a surprise when we get an overhead shot to denote the bustle of the wedding - but Clair has a knack for suspending the comedy so that repeated bits of business - one man suffering from tight shoes, another missing a glove, a third who's tone-deaf without his hearing aid - gather momentum. Very close to a kind of natural hilarity where everything is funny - but the format isn't right, so it ends up becoming frustrating.
YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY (67) (Sergio Martino, 1972): Never tops its opening sequence, decadent rich dude humiliating beautiful wife before a roomful of dirty hippies, who promptly start to undress and chant a haunting song - the mix of Euro-sleaze, psychological cruelty and ethereal ambience is superb. Turns into a giallo, then disposes of the slasher angle halfway through in a weirdly desultory twist and gets back to the characters despising each other, wrapping up with cross and double-cross and a touch of Poe (never really clicked before how "The Black Cat" is a variation on "The Tell-Tale Heart"). Is this where THE SHINING got its idea for a blocked writer typing the same word/phrase over and over and over?
PHENOMENA (65) (Dario Argento, 1985): Style over substance is fine, but I don't find much pleasure in Argento's abrupt, gaudy style (cf. De Palma's sinuous rhythms) - and maybe this is one for non-fans, my favourite of the five I've seen, a case where his seemingly wilful sloppiness and jagged, incoherent spatial sense are matched by totally loopy material, a slasher-movie giallo with fairytale elements, a Nature Girl, a bereaved, razor-wielding chimpanzee (his bond with a paraplegic anticipates MONKEY SHINES) and the late-breaking addition of a crazy son (leave him alone, scoffs his mom, "in his room with his crazy thoughts"). Feels like dream-logic, the various elements not quite working together - the insect-telepathy angle doesn't have a massive payoff, given how bizarre it is - punctuated with stray puzzling detail like e.g. why does Sophie merely "disappear" when she might as well be dead? (Did Argento intend something else, then forget about it?) Not exactly good but hauntingly strange and misshapen, which may be as good as it gets with this director.
THE INFORMER (57) (John Ford, 1935): Victor McLaglen's plain, doleful mug is unforgettable, yet he (or his character) is also the weak point. The plotting makes it clear what's going to happen, even if the fog-shrouded look didn't already spell doom - and a film where the hero found some grace in the knowledge of his certain punishment would be interesting, ditto a film where he lost himself in blissful oblivion and refused to participate in the story's moralism, but McLaglen is too limited to find all those layers. The visuals gleam, and e.g. the carefully-composed long take where Gypo improvises desperately while the IRA men surround him, standing stock-still, is very effective; Ford's technique isn't in doubt, but his sensitivity is - he's too hung up on pretentious Judas talk and lets his hero down, e.g. in having him try to shift the blame, clumsily, at his trial; that's when we needed something more, either fatalistic acceptance or an ascent to a higher purity (Gypo, after all, is an innocent, despite his guilt in the particular case; it's notable that he got kicked out of the IRA not for being vicious or dishonest, but for being too compassionate). Ultimately just the tale of a stupid man getting himself in trouble and being too stupid to find a way out; say what you like about Judas, he wasn't stupid.
THE MATCH FACTORY GIRL (62) (Aki Kaurismaki, 1990): The most acrid Kaurismaki I've seen, the only humour (apart from details like the pest in the bar, casually dispatched with a sweet smile) coming implicitly in the fact that this awful story is told with rich colours and occasional pop songs (incl. the doleful Finnish ballads so beloved of the director) - though of course the girl's Victorian suffering is itself a kind of joke, hence the title's echoes of "The Little Match Girl". Bits like the quickest abortion in history - a five-second shot with offscreen sound - clearly invoke Bresson circa L'ARGENT, probably a bigger recommendation for other people than it is for me, but the formal control gives it weight in retrospect, even if it feels a little lifeless in the telling. Details are so sparse they accumulate power, esp. girl's lovely letter to swinish man, swine's curt, out-of-nowhere brush-off ("If you think there's anything lasting between us, you're sorely mistaken") earlier in the restaurant, and of course the guy who stopped that column of tanks in Tiananmen Square, implicitly equated with our heroine. Maybe there is some humour, after all.
Notes on various second and third viewings:
GOING PLACES (48) (Bertrand Blier, 1974): Badly lacks momentum yet it does actually build into something, a desultory journey through a bleak, dissatisfied France - and our heroes do change somewhat, from mere thugs to increasingly hapless rebels, more mouth than trousers (their sexual prowess is questionable), finding out to their chagrin that they're relatively well-adjusted compared to some of the weirdos they meet. Easy to cry misogyny (panties are sniffed, a middle-aged woman pawed and harassed, a young mom forced to breast-feed one of the guys), but in fact sex is funny in Blier's world - fulfilment comes from where you least expect it, a young boy in GET OUT YOUR HANDKERCHIEFS, a depressed unattractive older woman here - and the lads' macho bullying only makes them look silly; Miou-Miou is slapped, dunked and humiliated, takes it without a murmur and emerges triumphant. That it still offends the perpetually-offended (even more today, if anything) is something to cherish; that it chugs along flatly without identifiable high-points, not so much.
MARCH 1, 2015
LA SIGNORA DI TUTTI (70) (Max Ophuls, 1934): Choppy rhythm is my eternal problem with Ophuls, I suspect because he conceived his scenes as standalone set-pieces (esp. in terms of camera movement) and didn't care so much about the transitions. The story is also novelettish here, but visual brio makes up for everything; a twirl on the dance floor seems to accelerate (all in one breathless dolly-shot) then transforms into something magical as the dancers glide into an area festooned with hanging ribbons, like a small oasis; the cross-cut tragedy comes with low angles and eloquent shadows, madness with an arched vertical composition on a staircase. Life is consciously expressed as Cinema, then Life turns out to be disappointing - hinging on the vagaries of chance, a moment that could've changed everything had it gone slightly differently - and only Cinema remains: "I'll see you again"; "Oh? Where?"; "In the film". Dazzlingly done.
SING AS WE GO (75) (Basil Dean, 1934): Gracie Fields - whom I'd never seen before - has the voice of a carnival barker (turning unexpectedly sweet when she sings) and the face of a battleaxe, but also personifies working-class spunk and won't-get-pushed-around piss-and-vinegar, with a vulnerable side beneath the bolshiness; she plays being in love by staring away to the side, as if embarrassed to be "talking so soft", then slides resignedly into noble self-sacrifice since the object of her love is a rich toff (the working-class knew their place in 30s Britain). The gruff down-to-earthness makes for constant small comedy explosions - "We weren't doin' no harm"/"You weren't doin' no good!"; "Say something, you awkward devil"; "Sauce!"/"It's on the table!" - tying in with the bathing beauties and circus clowns and the joy in people, a shock in our atomised digital age. It's a 30s thing, the packed-together Blackpool mobs a benign version of the ones hailing Hitler (the whole decade seems to have been fascinated by crowds), but it's not just about frenzy - as e.g. in LONESOME - but a real humanistic impulse, made clear in the out-of-nowhere scene where Gracie sings about love and the film cuts between all the minor characters we've glimpsed, all brought together by love. Then she's leading the workers out of the cotton mill, singing the title song, cries out "Heyyyy! Who ya shovin'?" after being accidentally bumped by a passer-by - and fade to credits. Rousing stuff.
LONESOME (56) (Paul Fejos, 1928): Essentially a two-character piece, which is why it matters that both lead performances are mediocre: Barbara Kent is lovely but can't avoid bits of pantomime fakery when e.g. she's waking up and stretching, or waving goodbye to a departing car, while Glenn Tryon comes off bumptious and self-conscious as he tries for youthful exuberance (doing two things at once, pretending to talk to an invisible butler, etc). That's the vibe Fejos seems to be trying for, exuberance and the bustle of the city - "the whirlpool of modern life" - from the early scenes (the morning crowds, a wolfed-down doughnut for breakfast, the man eating what looks like smoked fish on the subway) to the chaos of Coney Island, but he gets a little carried away: the bustle overwhelms the feeling of solitude, just as the exuberant visuals feel like dazzling visuals which may not, in the end, be ideal for this story. Audible dialogue is startling when our heroes have their first proper conversation - their growing intimacy is viscerally obvious - but the other Talkie scenes are more random, and the power fades.
THE OYSTER PRINCESS (68) (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919): So good-natured it's almost perverse, barely bothering to establish its mistaken-identity plot - it also gets resolved in a matter of seconds, with a hearty laugh and the impostor going on his way, unpunished - opting instead for jolly tangents (the heiress taking a bath) and mad joie de vivre like the antics of a slapstick orchestra (the percussion section includes one man slapping another in the face when required by the score), or an entire wedding party - guests, servants, kitchen staff - erupting into dance, or the "association of multi-millionaires' daughters against dipsomania" settling an argument with a mass boxing match. Airily cynical about such things as friends cheating each other or indolent rich people being insensitive, predicated on the tenets that vanity is funny (the impoverished prince puts a chair atop a table, to approximate a throne, when receiving guests), extreme laziness is funny, and a group of people doing the same thing in perfect sync is funny. Always instructive to see how nonchalant these early films can be about plot; still a bit threadbare, though the final punchline makes up for a lot.
PITFALL (76) (Andre de Toth, 1948): We open on stifling domesticity ("Hurry up!" yells the little woman), then Raymond Burr's fleshy villain brings the noir shadows through half-open blinds - and of course there's a femme fatale to tempt the corporate drone, sleepy-eyed and husky-voiced and formidably sexy (*) (when - and why - did women stop wearing shorts?), but that's when things get unexpected because she's a very self-aware, self-controlled femme fatale. She knows she's "the kind of girl [he's] always dreamed of", and wants no part of it - all she wants is a quiet life - nor is the film a simple matter of punishing the hero for his indiscretion; he keeps his head, tries to do the right thing, but the law of unintended consequences takes over and he ends up hurting the person he least wanted to hurt; it's the kind of movie where everyone has their reasons, and everyone gets destroyed. The ending's unresolved, and surprisingly grown-up; a film that makes the noir genre look like immature misogynistic fantasy, and I like the noir genre.
(*) Coincidentally watched it just a couple of weeks after the death of Lizabeth Scott, and a day after Nick Pinkerton's fine (if typically wordy) appreciation here.
Notes on various second and third viewings:
FEBRUARY 1, 2015
JANUARY 1, 2015