A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

Toshiro Mifune in Rashomon
Tajomaru: Toshiro Mifune
Masako Kanazawa: Machiko Kyo
Takehiro Kanazawa: Masayuki Mori
Woodcutter: Takashi Shimura
Priest: Minoru Chiaki
Commoner: Kichijiro Ueda
Medium: Noriko Homma
Policeman: Daisuke Kato

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto
Based on stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Cinematography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Production design: Takashi Matsuyama
Film editing: Akira Kurosawa
Music: Fumio Hayasaka

Rashomon is one of those films like Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960) and Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957) that you had to have seen just to be considered culturally literate. So I was a bit surprised when, watching one of the Criterion Channel supplements to Rashomon that featured Robert Altman commenting on the film, Altman praised the acting of Toshiro Mifune by name but funked it on Machiko Kyo, referring to her as "the actress." For if there's any key to the success of Rashomon as drama it's Kyo's performance. It's not like she was an unknown, either: She's the star of another 1950s imported hit, Teinosuke Kinugasa's Gate of Hell (1953), and gave memorable performances for Kenji Mizoguchi in Street of Shame (1956) and especially Ugetsu (1953) as well as for Yasujiro Ozu in Floating Weeds (1959). She even crossed the Pacific to play opposite Glenn Ford and Marlon Brando (in yellowface) in the film version of The Teahouse of the August Moon (Daniel Mann, 1956) -- though that's one that Altman might well have forgotten seeing. I don't want to labor the point too much, but it's the nuances of Kyo's performance that make Rashomon work, that keep us guessing whether she was the dutiful wife or the savage wanton. As I steep myself more and more in Japanese film of the late 1940s, '50s, and '60s, it becomes ever clearer that this was a great period for female actors like Kyo, Setsuko Hara, Kyoko Kagawa, Kinuyo Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada, Hideko Takamine, and many others -- most of whose names are unknown to Americans today. As for the film itself, it was a career breakthrough for Akira Kurosawa and Mifune, and while it remains essential viewing for the cinematically literate, I don't hold it in as high esteem as I do such Kurosawa/Mifune collaborations as  Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Lower Depths (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), or High and Low (1963). Rashomon feels arty and remote in ways that those don't.

A Generation (Andrzej Wajda, 1955)

Tadeusz Lomnicki in A Generation
Stach Mazur: Tadeusz Lomnicki
Dorota: Urszula Modrzynska
Jasio Krone: Tadeusz Janczar
Sekula: Janusz Paluszkiewicz
Jacek: Ryszard Kotys
Mundek: Roman Polanski

Director: Andrzej Wajda
Screenplay: Bohdan Czeszko
Based on a novel by Bohdan Czeszko
Cinematography: Jerzy Lipman
Production design: Roman Mann
Film editing: Czeslaw Raniszewski
Music: Andrzej Markowski

There are few more accomplished directorial debuts than Andrzej Wajda's A Generation, with its daring footwork around the Polish censors and its loving portrait of the titular generation, working their way through the wartime years as they try to embrace something that would represent a future after the German occupation. It doesn't have the nerve-stretching tension of Kanal (1956) or the poetic audacity of Ashes and Diamonds (1958), the two films that would constitute Wajda's wartime trilogy, but its gritty authenticity gives it a distinction all its own. The mostly young cast, including the young Roman Polanski, is authentically real. Wajda keeps both the action and the romantic business between Stach and Dorota, whose commitment he finds incredibly sexy, convincingly on the mark. There is a smudge of sentimentality and a touch of agitprop at the film's end, when the torch of rebellion is handed on to a fresh-faced new group, but it's not enough to mar the total effect of the film.

You Were Like a Wild Chrysanthemum (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1955)

Masao: Chishu Ryu
Tamiko: Noriko Arita
Young Masao: Shinji Tanaka
Masao's Mother: Haruko Sugimura
Tamiko's Mother: Kazuo Motohashi
Tamiko's Father: Nobuo Tagaki
Tamiko's Sister: Keiko Yukishiro

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita
Based on a novel by Sachio Ito
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Art direction: Kisaku Ito
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

Keisuke Kinoshita loved trying things out, and was so prolific and popular a filmmaker that his studio, Shochiku, let him get away with his innovations. For You Were Like a Wild Chrysanthemum* Kinoshita and cinematographer Hiroshi Kusuda decided to put all of the film's flashback scenes inside an oval mask, giving them the effect of vignetted images in a photo album. It's an interesting choice, but to my mind a mistake: More than half of the film consists of flashbacks, and given that almost all of the drama is contained in them, there's a loss of clarity and intimacy in the film's most important scenes. The unmasked frame story consists of the return of Masao, now a man in his 70s, to the village where he grew up. His closest friend, we learn, was his cousin Tamiko, a girl two years his senior. And this age difference -- not the blood relationship -- was considered a barrier to their engagement and marriage. As the aging Masao recalls the past, we see how Tamiko's family stymied their budding romance, sending him off to school and pressuring her into an arranged marriage. It's an affecting story, well performed by not only veterans Chishu Ryu as the old Masao and Haruko Sugimura as his mother in the flashbacks, but also the younger actors who play the young Masao and Tamiko. The cinematography is lovely, and it won awards, but I still think the masking gimmick is a distraction.

*The title the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck gives it. IMDb and other sources call it She Was Like a Wild Chrysanthemum.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Tattered Wings (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1955)

Hideko Takamine and Keiji Sada in The Tattered Wings
Fuyuko Terada: Hideko Takamine
Shunsuke: Keiji Sada
Keizo Ishizu: Takahiro Tamura
Kojiro: Teiji Takahashi
Ryo: Akira Ishihama
Tokiko: Toshiko Kobayashi
Kimiko: Kuniko Igawa
Shunsuke's Father: Eijiro Yanaki
Fuyuko's Father: Takeshi Sakamoto

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita, Zenzo Matsuyama
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Art direction: Kazue Hirataka
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

Keisuke Kinoshita's explorations of postwar domestic dilemmas continue with The Tattered Wings, in which Fuyuko, a war widow, is torn between -- what else? -- love and duty. Before the war she was in love with Keizo Ishizu, but she was forced into a marriage with the older son of a wealthy distiller. Her husband was cruel and unfaithful, and he left her with a daughter when he was killed in the war. Meanwhile, her husband's younger brother, Shunsuke, has fallen in love with her. He's a nicer guy than his brother, but things get complicated when Keizo suddenly returns to town, paying a visit before he moves to a new job in far-off Hokkaido. Their meetings stir gossip in the town, some of it fed by Fuyuko's sister, a telephone operator with a direct line, as it were, to the latest news. Meanwhile, Shunsuke is there to remind her that her daughter needs a steady, reliable father. Will Fuyuko choose stability or an unknown, romantic future? Kinoshita works all of this out with finesse and his usual attention to environment -- the sometimes claustrophobic small town -- but lays on a bit too much of his brother Chuji Kinoshita's musical emotion-tugging.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Remorques (Jean Grémillon, 1941)

Michèle Morgan and Jean Gabin in Remorques
André Laurent: Jean Gabin
Yvonne Laurent: Madeleine Renaud
Catherine: Michèle Morgan
Gabriel Tanguy: Charles Blavette
Marc: Jean Marchat
Renée Tanguy: Nane Germon
Radioman: Jean Dasté
Georges: René Bergeron
Dr. Maulette: Henri Poupon
Marie Poubennec: Anne Laurens
Le Meur: Marcel Pérès
Pierre Poubennec: Marcel Duhamel

Director: Jean Grémillon
Screenplay: Jacques Prévert, André Cayatte
Based on a novel by Roger Vercel
Cinematography: Armand Thirard
Production design: Alexandre Trauner
Film editing: Yvonne Martin
Music: Roland Manuel

Remorques features Jean Gabin at his most effortlessly rugged and romantic, playing André Laurent, the captain of a tugboat that rescues distressed ships and is paid a percentage of the assessed value of their salvaged cargo. He's happily married to the delicate Yvonne, who longs for him to give up the hazardous work and retire to a less stormy port. Still, André is also devoted to his longtime crew and is reluctant to leave them to the mercies of the company's management. One stormy night they go out to rescue a ship whose captain, Marc, is a nasty piece of work. Among other things, he has a very unhappy wife, Catherine, who manages to escape from the ship in a lifeboat that is picked up by André and his crew. When the storm begins to subside, Marc manages to break the towline that is pulling his ship to shore and head to the port of destination under his own steam, thereby depriving André's tug of its share of the rescue money. But André has salvaged something else from the rescue: Catherine, to whom he is attracted at the peril of his marriage. As their relationship heats up, however, Yvonne becomes seriously ill. Director Jean Grémillon makes the most of this blend of action and romance, keeping it from sinking into mush by leavening things with solid supporting performances and providing a piquant, bittersweet outcome. Remorques was made under difficult circumstances as France fell to the Germans, and was not released until after its stars, Gabin and Michèle Morgan, had left the country for Hollywood.

Repast (Mikio Naruse, 1951)

Setsuko Hara and Ken Uehara in Repast
Michiyo Okamoto: Setsuko Hara
Hatsunosuke Okamoto: Ken Uehara
Satoko Okamoto: Yukiko Shimazaki
Mitsuko Murata: Yoko Sugi
Seiko Tomiyasu: Akiko Kazami
Matsu Murata: Haruko Sugimura
Koyoshi Dohya: Ranko Hanai
Kazuo Takenaka: Hiroshi Nihon'yanagi
Shinzo Murata: Keiju Kobayashi

Director: Mikio Naruse
Screenplay: Toshiro Ide, Sumie Tanaka, Yasunari Kawabata
Based on a novel by Fumiko Hayashi
Cinematography: Masao Tamai
Art direction: Satoru Chuko
Music: Fumio Hayasaka

Repast is one of those beautifully layered films by Mikio Naruse that defy simplistic judgments about the characters. Superficially, it's a story about a failing marriage that tempts you to take sides: Michiyo and Hatsunosuke have been married long enough that the tenderness has rubbed off of the relationship, and they have no children to provide a distraction from the routine of living together. She suffers the tedium and toil of keeping house, and he comes home from his salaryman's job in an office tired and frustrated. They are scraping by financially, and live in a less than desirable neighborhood. Initially the focus seems to be on the woman's lot -- she's the one we see doing all the lonely work of managing the house, whereas he at least has the opportunity to get out and fraternize with his fellow office workers. And when his lively young niece, Satoko, comes to visit -- actually to escape from family pressure to settle down and get married -- Michiyo finds herself slaving for both her husband and his niece. Eventually, things come to a head and Michiyo goes to Tokyo, taking Satoko back to her parents and leaving Hatsunosuke to fend for himself, which he doesn't do a particularly good job of. But Naruse is careful to let us see his side of things as well, and when Michiyo returns to him -- after making a few steps toward finding a job and leaving him permanently -- it's possible to see this as not a defeat for her so much as an acknowledgement that some remnants of their original affection remain and that she has decided to try to build a more equitable relationship on them. The performances of Setsuko Hara and Ken Uehara, who starred in several other films for Naruse, have that lived-in quality necessary for such a muted and ambivalent conclusion.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Samurai Trilogy (Hiroshi Inagaki, 1954, 1955, 1956)

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto
Toshiro Mifune in Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto
Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple
Kaoru Yachigusa in Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple
Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island
Toshiro Mifune and Koji Tsuruta in Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island
Musashi Miyamoto: Toshiro Mifune
Otsu: Kaoru Yachigusa
Kojiro Sasaki: Koji Tsuruta
Matahachi: Rentaro Mikuni
Takuan Osho: Kuroemon Onoe
Akemi: Mariko Okada
Oko: Mitsuko Mito
Osugi: Eiko Miyoshi
Sado Nakaoka: Takashi Shimura
Sasuke: Minoru Chiaki
Nikkan: Kokuten Kodo
Koetsu Hinami: Ko Mihashi
Toji Gion: Daisuke Kato
Shishido: Eijiro Tono

Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Screenplay: Hiroshi Inagaki, Tokuhei Wakao
Based on a play by Hideji Hojo and a novel by Eiji Yoshikawa
Cinematography: Jun Yasumoto (I,II), Kazuo Yamada (III)
Art direction: Makoto Sono (I)
Production design: Kisaku Ito (II,III)
Film editing: Eiji Ooi (I,II), Koichi Iwashita (III)
Music: Ikuma Dan

Toshiro Mifune achieves a kind of gravitas that he never displays in the movies by Akira Kurosawa in which he played a samurai. That's because Hiroshi Inagaki's trilogy is a kind of cinematic Bildungsroman: the education of Musashi Miyamoto, a historic figure who served as a kind of bridge between the swordsmanship tradition of the Japanese warrior and the meditative tradition rooted in Zen Buddhism. It's a strongly planned trilogy where it comes to Miyamoto's development, and Mifune provides a solid center. But I found myself distracted by the Hollywoodizing of the story, especially the subplot involving Otsu, the woman who loves Miyamoto so much that she devotes her life to seeking him out. The argument goes that this romantic subplot represents one of the trials that Miyamoto must undergo before he can achieve the kind of wisdom that his spiritual mentors wish for him, but Otsu's doggedness struck me as heavy-handed and sentimental. Still, it's a fascinating and often spectacular trio of films, beautifully climaxing in the battle between Miyamoto and Kojiro Sasaki as the sun sets over the sea on whose verge they are dueling.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Le Amiche (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1955)

Yvonne Furneaux, Eleanora Rossi Drago, Anna Maria Pancani, and Valentina Cortese in Le Amiche
Clelia: Eleanora Rossi Drago
Lorenzo: Gabriele Ferzetti
Cesare Pedoni: Franco Fabrizi
Nene: Valentina Cortese
Momina: Yvonne Furneaux
Rosetta: Madeleine Fischer
Mariella: Anna Maria Pancani
Tony: Luciano Volpato
Clelia's Employer: Maria Gambarelli
Carlo: Ettore Mani

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenplay: Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Michelangelo Antonioni, Alba De Cespedes
Based on a novel by Cesare Pavese
Cinematography: Gianni Di Venanzo
Production design: Gianni Polidori
Film editing: Eraldo Da Roma
Music: Giovanni Fusco

The usual rap on Michelangelo Antonioni's films by those who dislike them is that nothing happens, when in fact all sorts of things happen, from mysterious disappearances to murder. What sets Antonioni's films apart is that things happen almost randomly, without the usual dramatic buildup, and that the way his characters react to the things they witness or that happen to them is not usually the way we would react to them. So Le Amiche starts with an attempted suicide to which the sophisticated women who form the circle of "girlfriends" of the film's title react with a kind of detachment and indifference, even though the woman who tried (perhaps not very hard) to kill herself was one of them. Even Clelia, the outsider who will soon become part of the little circle and who discovers the unconscious Rosetta, seems to take the occurrence in her stride. The next on the scene is the brittle, cynical Momina, who knows Rosetta and accepts her suicide attempt as something like a part of the routine. And so we, along with Clelia, are thrust into a group of people in whom something essential seems to have atrophied, producing several fractured marriages and dead-end affairs. Clelia has come to Turin, the city where she grew up, to supervise the opening of a dress shop, part of a chain headed by the designer for whom she works. So it's the world of fashion superimposed on a place Clelia knew in the immediate postwar years as a grimy working-class city, and her point of view on the lives of the girlfriends is a special one. Partly in reaction against these wealthy women and their ineffectual men, Clelia takes up with Carlo, a supervisor on the construction of the shop, who shares her lower-class roots in the city. But you can't, as they say, go home again. The film is full of Antonioniesque touches that anticipate his major works of the 1960s. There's a visit to the beach where the behavior of the girlfriends and their men evokes some of the behavior that precedes the disappearance of Anna in L'Avventura (1960), and there's a breathtaking cut from the suicidal Rosetta walking away into the darkness to a high-angle shot of her white-shrouded body on the pier after she succeeds in killing herself. Antonioni antagonists will find nothing in Le Amiche to counter their charges of "arty ennui," but those of us who appreciate his work, even if we have to struggle sometimes, think this earlier film is almost the equal of his later work.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Seduced and Abandoned (Pietro Germi, 1964)

Saro Urzi, Stefania Sandrelli, and Aldo Puglisi in Seduced and Abandoned
Agnese Ascalone: Stefania Sandrelli
Don Vincenzo Ascalone: Saro Urzi
Peppino Califano: Aldo Puglisi
Antonio Ascalone: Lando Buzzanca
Amalia Califano: Lola Braccini
Baron Rizieri Zappalà: Leopoldo Trieste
Cousin Ascalone: Umberto Spadaro
Matilde Ascalone: Paola Biggio
Orlando Califano: Rocco D'Assunta
Police Chief Polenza: Oreste Palella
Francesca Ascalone: Lina Lagalla
Lawyer Ciarpetta: Gustavo D'Arpe
Consolata: Rosetta Urzi
Rosaura Ascalone: Roberta Narbonne
Pasquale Profumo: Vincenzo Licata
Priest: Attilio Martella
Brigadier Bisigato: Adelino Campardo
Don Mariano: Salvatore Fazio
Uncle Carmelo: Italia Spadaro

Director: Pietro Germi
Screenplay: Pietro Germi, Luciano Vincenzoni, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli
Cinematography: Aiace Parolin
Art direction: Carlo Egidi
Film editing: Roberto Cinquini
Music: Carlo Rustichelli

Bigotry is fun to watch, as long as it's someone else's. There's no fun to be had from the recent story about the high school valedictorian who was kicked out of the house for being gay, even though it had a happy ending: He received a full college scholarship. That's because it hits too close to where we live: a United States constantly beset by bigots sanctioned by our government. But Pietro Germi's Seduced and Abandoned delighted audiences because it made them feel superior to the small-minded, small town Sicilians who cause such a ruckus over Agnese Ascalone's out-of-wedlock pregnancy. To them, the story was much ado about "honor," a concept long regarded as outmoded ever since it was mocked by Shakespeare's Falstaff, and the notion that things could be set right by marriage, even if the marrying couple was a rapist and his victim. In this case, however, the seducer, Peppino, refuses to marry Agnese, whom he impregnated, because she's not a virgin -- no matter that it's his fault that she isn't. Much raucous but edgy humor ensues from this Catch-22, as the irascible head of the Ascalone family, played wonderfully by Saro Urzi, tries to work out the complications while maintaining the family honor -- a word that will be engraved on his tombstone. Seduced and Abandoned is a keen-eyed, cold-hearted film that works best if you realize that Germi and his screenwriters are making a point about the danger of imposing societal values on private matters, the risk run in communities of all constituencies and convictions.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 1955)

Hideko Takamine in Floating Clouds
Yukiko Koda: Hideko Takamine
Kengo Tomioka: Masayuki Mori
Sei Mukai: Mariko Okada
Sugio Iba: Isao Yamagata
Kuniko Tomioka: Chieko Nakakita
Seikichi Mukai: Daisuke Kato

Director: Mikio Naruse
Screenplay: Yoko Mizuki
Based on a novel by Fumiko Hayashi
Cinematography: Masao Tamai
Production design: Satoru Chuko
Film editing: Eiji Ooi
Music: Ichiro Saito

Mikio Naruse's Floating Clouds brings to mind some of Ernest Hemingway's stories about war-damaged lovers trying to make the best of a doomed relationship. Yukiko is a young woman returning to Tokyo after working in Japanese-occupied French Indochina as a secretary. There she had an affair with the bitter, cynical Kengo, an employee of the Japanese forest service who is married to the sickly Kuniko. Trying to make it on her own in postwar Japan, Yukiko finds that her secretarial skills are in little demand because she doesn't know English, a necessity under the American occupation. Desperate, she picks up an American soldier and becomes his mistress. Meanwhile, she also seeks out Kengo, and finds him trying to make a go of it in the lumber business, still married to Kuniko but unwilling to divorce her and marry Yukiko. So over the course of the film, these two deeply wounded people meet and part repeatedly, not only lacerating themselves but also hurting others with words and deeds. At the end, they have seemingly found a way to live together, partly by retreating from the world onto a remote Japanese island, but even that rapprochement is ill-fated. Naruse's film is an absorbing downer, gaining much of its energy from our suspense about what the protagonists will do to each other next, as well as a showcase for Hideko Takamine's marvelous performance. There are those who think it a masterpiece. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Sisters of the Gion (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936)

Isuzu Yamada and Fumio Okura in Sisters of the Gion
Omocha: Isuzu Yamada
Umekichi: Yoko Umemura
Shimbei Furusawa: Benkei Shiganoya
Sangoro Kudo: Eitaro Shindo
Kimura: Taizo Fukami
Jurakudo: Fumio Okura
Omasa Kudo: Sakurako Iwama

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Screenplay: Kenji Mizoguchi, Yoshikata Yoda
Based on a novel by Aleksandr Kuprin
Cinematography: Minoru Miki
Film editing: Tatsuko Sakane

"Why do there even have to be such things as geisha?" laments Omocha at the end of Kenji Mizoguchi's Sisters of the Gion. The line could well be a motto for Mizoguchi's career as a filmmaker, as he returned again and again to the theme outlined in the film, not just for geisha but also for prostitutes, mistresses, and wives: Why do women have to spend so much of their lives employing their talents, intelligence, and energy at pleasing men? In this larger sense it's a theme that preoccupied not only Mizoguchi but also Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse, and other Japanese filmmakers, especially after the war, when political and social change altered the roles of both sexes. Sisters of the Gion is decidedly pre-war, but it's a film that can hold its own with those of the postwar renaissance of Japanese film. It's both of its time and prophetic of what is to come, embodying the dynamic of tradition and change in its two sisters, Omocha and Umekichi, the former outwardly faithful to but inwardly rebellious against her profession, the latter resigned to its demands. In the end, both suffer defeat, but the film implicitly endorses Omocha's defiant strength.

Monday, August 6, 2018

A Kid for Two Farthings (Carol Reed, 1955)

Jonathan Ashmore in A Kid for Two Farthings
Joanna: Celia Johnson
Sonia: Diana Dors
Avrom Kandinsky: David Kossoff
Sam Heppner: Joe Robinson
Joe: Jonathan Ashmore
"Lady" Ruby: Brenda de Banzie
Python Macklin: Primo Carnera
Blackie Isaacs: Lou Jacobi
Mrs. Abramowitz: Irene Handl
Madam Rita: Sydney Tafler

Director: Carol Reed
Screenplay: Wolf Mankowitz
Based on a novel by Wolf Mankowitz
Cinematography: Edward Scaife
Art direction: Wilfred Shingleton
Film editing: Bert Bates
Music: Benjamin Frankel

Carol Reed's first color film is a very talky, somewhat claustrophobic one, best remembered today as a portrait of the London Jewish community that inhabited Petticoat Lane (called "Fashion Street" in the film) in the East End. The story centers on young Joe, a lover of animals (often to the animals' misfortune, as he can't seem to keep some of them alive) who lives with his mother, Joanna, over Mr. Kandinsky's tailoring shop. Kandinsky indulges Joe with stories about animals, telling him that if he ever found a unicorn it would bring everyone good luck. So naturally Joe finds one, a feeble little goat with one deformed horn, that a merchant is happy to get rid of. Joe thinks it will bring luck to the pretty Sonia and her body-builder boyfriend Sam Heppner, who want to get married but don't have the money; to Mr. Kandinsky, who would like to have a better trousers press; and to himself and his mother, who are waiting for his father to return from South Africa, where he has gone to seek his fortune. Things eventually work out for Sonia and Sam and Mr. Kandinsky, but at the film's end Joe and his mother are still waiting for the return of his father. There's a fair amount of whimsy at work, but it's subsumed in much local color and the hard-scrabble realism of the neighborhood. Diana Dors shows considerable depth as an actress, rising above the exploitation that tried to turn her into the British Marilyn Monroe. But the great Celia Johnson is wasted in the thankless role of Joe's mother, with little to do but look worried. The wrestler Primo Carnera appears as Python Macklin, whom Sam must conquer in the ring to make the money he and Sonia want, even though he's reluctant to develop the unphotographic muscles needed by a wrestler.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Greed (Erich von Stroheim, 1924)

Gibson Gowland and Jean Hersholt in Greed
McTeague: Gibson Gowland
Trina: Zasu Pitts
Marcus: Jean Hersholt
Maria: Dale Fuller
Mother McTeague: Tempe Pigott
"Mommer" Sieppe: Sylvia Ashton
"Popper" Sieppe: Chester Conklin
Selina: Joan Standing
Zwerkow: Cesare Gravina
Charles W. Grannis: Frank Hayes
Miss Anastasia Baker: Fanny Midgley

Director: Erich von Stroheim
Screenplay: June Mathis, Erich von Stroheim, Joseph Farnham (titles)
Based on a novel by Frank Norris
Cinematography: William H. Daniels, Ben F. Reynolds
Production design: Erich von Stroheim

One of the legendary mutilated masterpieces, Greed isn't one film but several, most of which are lost. The gravest loss would have to be the original 42-reel cut (about eight hours) of the film, which was seen only by a handful of people, several of whom were the first to call it a masterpiece. What we're most likely to see now is the 1999 reconstruction of the film, gathering the scenes that remained after various hands cut it down to about 10 reels (about an hour and 50 minutes) before its 1924 release, which was a critical and commercial flop. After that, the footage deteriorated or was trashed, so the four-hour restored version is pieced out with what remained in various archives along with stills and other archival material. I doubt that anyone other than professional film historians would be willing to sit through more of Greed than that: It's an exhausting experience, not only because of the length but also because Erich von Stroheim's dedication to telling as much of the story in Frank Norris's novel as he could led him into some extraordinarily bleak places. The bleakest of those places is of course Death Valley, where the climactic standoff of McTeague and Marcus takes place -- a sequence that still has the power to astonish even when seen independently of the rest of the film. But much of the bleakness also lies in the characters of McTeague and Trina, especially the latter, whose transformation from sensitive, shy virgin to monster of greed is harrowing -- a reminder that Zasu Pitts, now best known as a comic character actress, was a performer of real skill. The restoration also includes the sordid subplot of the greedy junk dealer Zwerkow and his half-mad henchwoman Maria, which ends in murder and suicide. Balancing that was a sentimental subplot involving the McTeagues' rooming-house neighbors, the elderly bachelor Grannis and the spinster Miss Baker, who don't meet for a long time, even though their rooms are separated by a partition so thin they can hear each other's every move. If the junk dealer subplot serves to indicate the depths of degradation that threaten the McTeagues, the story of the lonely elders helps sweeten the film as they meet and fall in love, using a monetary windfall in constructive ways -- a counterpoint to Trina's miserly hoarding of her lottery winnings. Greed is a fascinating film, but I suspect that the story of its mishandling outweighs any significance it might have had if it had remained intact and coherent.

Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942)

Ronald Colman in Random Harvest
Charles Rainier: Ronald Colman
Paula: Greer Garson
Dr. Jonathan Benet: Philip Dorn
Kitty: Susan Peters
Dr. Sims: Henry Travers
"Biffer": Reginald Owen
Harrison: Bramwell Fletcher
Sam: Rhys Williams
Tobacconist: Una O'Connor
Sheldon: Aubrey Mather
Mrs. Deventer: Margaret Wycherly
Chetwynd: Arthur Margetson
George: Melville Cooper

Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Claudine West, George Froeschel, Arthur Wimperis
Based on a novel by James Hilton
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Art direction: Cedric Gibbons
Film editing: Harold F. Kress
Music: Herbert Stothart

It's a good thing that amnesia is as rare an affliction in real life as it is, because it gives the crafters of melodrama free rein to imagine its effects, such as the case of what might be called "double amnesia" that plagues Charles Rainier in Random Harvest. For not only does Rainer forget who he is once, after suffering shell shock in the trenches of World War I, he then forgets what happened to him during that bout of amnesia after being hit by a taxi and brought back to his senses. That is, having once forgotten that he was heir to a lucrative family business, he now forgets that he wandered away from the asylum where he was being treated and fell in love with Paula, a music hall performer who devoted herself to him as he launched a career as a writer named John Smith -- she calls him Smithy. But plucky Paula learns the truth about her Smithy, goes to business school and learns to be a high-powered corporate secretary, and gets herself hired as Charles Rainier's executive secretary -- all without revealing the truth about that lost passage in their lives. Was ever such nonsense taken seriously? Yes, indeed, because it's filmed through MGM's highest-quality gauze, with Ronald Colman at his handsome stoic best and Greer Garson at her plummiest and dewiest, full of trembling self-sacrifice. It was a huge hit, partly because it hit wartime audiences where they lived: separated wives and husbands, uncertain whether they they would be reunited and made whole again. Today, we can look back on Random Harvest with irony, or view it as a product of a particular period of Hollywood history that will never come again. But it's made with such affection for its improbabilities, which are manifold, that I can't help admiring it.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Summer Interlude (Ingmar Bergman, 1951)

Maj-Britt Nilsson in Summer Interlude
Marie: Maj-Britt Nilsson
Henrik: Birger Malmsten
David Nyström: Alf Kjellin
Kaj: Annalisa Ericson
Uncle Erland: Georg Funkquist
Ballet Master: Stig Olin
Henrik's Aunt: Mimi Pollak
Aunt Elisabeth: Renée Björling
Priest: Gunnar Olsson

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman, Herbert Grevenius
Cinematography: Gunnar Fischer
Production design: Nils Svenwall
Film editing: Oscar Rosander
Music: Erik Nordgren

Maj-Britt Nilsson gives a stunning performance as the ballerina haunted by death -- both the literal death of the young man with whom she once had the titular summer interlude and the slow death of her career, which depends on the youthful vitality she can feel beginning to slip away. Like Ingmar Bergman's earlier To Joy (1950), which starred Nilsson and many of the same actors, it's a fable about art and life, about the conflict of the public persona of a career with the personal needs of an intimate relationship. Unlike To Joy, in which Nilsson's character is subordinate to that of her musician husband, Bergman has shifted the focus to the woman -- a focus that he would maintain for most of his remaining career. Summer Interlude may be his first great film, and Nilsson's ability to move from the winsome young Marie -- sometimes evoking the young Audrey Hepburn -- to the toughened, successful prima ballerina is remarkable. Perhaps the most startling moment comes when the older Marie removes her stage makeup, which has the effect of making her look older and harder, to reveal the remaining traces of the younger woman -- a fine reversal of the usual film trope of removing the makeup to reveal the effects of aging. 

Friday, August 3, 2018

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)

Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Matthew Bennell: Donald Sutherland
Elizabeth Driscoll: Brooke Adams
Jack Bellicec: Jeff Goldblum
Nancy Bellicec: Veronica Cartwright
Dr. David Kibner: Leonard Nimoy
Dr. Geoffrey Howell: Art Hindle
Katherine Hendley: Lelia Goldoni
Running Man: Kevin McCarthy
Taxi Driver: Don Siegel

Director: Philip Kaufman
Screenplay: W.D. Richter
Based on a novel by Jack Finney
Cinematography: Michael Chapman
Production design: Charles Rosen
Film editing: Douglas Stewart
Music: Danny Zeitlin

Speaking of remakes, as I did recently, there are few more successful than Philip Kaufman's version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, first filmed by Don Siegel in 1956. Siegel's film was informed by the red scares of the 1950s, which had faded into a more free-floating paranoia 18 years later when Kaufman returned to the material. Siegel was perfectly happy to go along with the idea of remaking the story, and contributed an amusing cameo as a cabbie in Kaufman's film. Kaufman also wittily used the star of Siegel's version, Kevin McCarthy, in a bit as the "running man" who races through San Francisco streets shouting "They're coming! They're coming!" It's the wit that pervades Kaufman's version that makes it such a worthy successor to Siegel's more straightforward sci-fi horror film. There's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment in which we see Robert Duvall as a priest on a playground swing and ask ourselves "Was that ...?" There's the casting of Leonard Nimoy as a psychiatrist possessing the same sangfroid as Mr. Spock, a more benevolent alien being. And there are Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright (a year before her appearance in Ridley Scott's Alien) as the somewhat loopy Bellicecs. Kaufman has a little trouble establishing the tone of his version, so that it plays better on a second viewing than on a first one, but it's one of the few films in the genre that I'm more than happy to give a repeat viewing.

Les Grandes Manoeuvres (René Clair, 1955)

Gérard Philipe and Michèle Morgan in Les Grandes Manoeuvres
Marie-Louise Rivière: Michèle Morgan
Armand de la Verne: Gérard Philipe
Victor Duverger: Jean Desailly
Félix Leroy: Yves Robert
Lucie: Brigitte Bardot
The Colonel: Pierre Dux
Armand's Orderly: Jacques Fabbri

Director: René Clair
Screenplay: René Clair, Jérôme Géronimi, Jean Marsan
Cinematography: Robert Lefebvre
Production design: Léon Barsacq
Film editing: Louisette Hautecoeur, Denise Natot
Music: Georges Van Parys

René Clair's first film in color is a pretty pastel confection set in a French village at the end of the 19th century, a period many French filmmakers were drawn to in part because it held a kind of autumnal glow before the harsh winter that would set in during the second decade of the 20th century. A handsome womanizing lieutenant, Armand de la Verne, stationed in the village before the beginning of the army's summer maneuvers, wagers that he can seduce the first woman to enter the room. She happens to be Marie-Louise Rivière, a divorcée who has opened a millinery in the village. And they happen to be played by Gèrard Philipe and Michèle Morgan, two of the biggest French stars of the day, both of them in middle age and endowed with a kind of gravitas that means the movie is not going to be a frivolous sex farce. For sexiness, we have a parallel flirtation between another lieutenant, Félix Leroy, and the saucy young Lucie, played by the saucy young Brigitte Bardot. Yet the film is weighed down by the more mature couple, to the point that Clair's romantic nostalgia never quite comes off the screen and engages the audience. It's lovely to look at, and it has admirers who defend its bittersweet tone, but it feels to me more like an exercise in period filmmaking than a fully committed work -- even though it was one of Clair's favorite films.

Thursday, August 2, 2018


The Beguiled (Don Siegel, 1971)
Geraldine Page and Clint Eastwood in The Beguiled (1971)
John McBurney: Clint Eastwood
Martha: Geraldine Page
Edwina: Elizabeth Hartman
Carol: Jo Ann Harris
Doris: Darlene Carr
Hallie: Mae Mercer
Amy: Pamelyn Ferdin
Abigail: Melody Thomas Scott
Lizzie: Peggy Drier
Janie: Patricia Mattick

Director: Don Siegel
Screenplay: Albert Maltz, Irene Kamp
Based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan
Cinematography: Bruce Surtees
Production design: Ted Haworth
Film editing: Carl Pingitore
Music: Lalo Schifrin

The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)
Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman in The Beguiled (2017)
Corporal McBurney: Colin Farrell
Miss Martha: Nicole Kidman
Edwina: Kirsten Dunst
Alicia: Elle Fanning
Amy: Oona Lawrence
Jane: Angourie Rice
Marie: Addison Riecke
Emily: Emma Howard

Director: Sofia Coppola
Screenplay: Sofia Coppola
Based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan and a screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp
Cinematography: Philippe Le Sourd
Production design: Anne Ross
Film editing: Sarah Flack
Music: Phoenix

Why some movies get remade and others don't is one of the abiding mysteries of the business. There doesn't seem to be a very clear reason why Don Siegel's 1971 The Beguiled should be a movie that Sofia Coppola would choose to remake 46 years later other than that it's a pretty good premise: a wounded Yankee soldier is taken in by a Southern girls' school who hide him from the Confederates until events turn them against him. The premise does have a slightly pornographic quality to it, but that's unlikely to have motivated this particular version. Whatever the reason, we now have two pretty good versions of the story, the first starring an actor who became known for a taciturn masculinity, the second with a softer, more feminine (not to say feminist, because who knows what that means in any given context) approach. In fact, the two films are almost complementary, notable as much for what the remake leaves out as for the way in which Coppola changes the tone of the first version. Siegel's film is rougher and more action-filled, and it treats the sexual tension of the material in a more heated manner -- not to say overheated, which the 1971 version veers toward in its suggestions that Martha, the girls' school headmistress, not only committed incest with her brother but also had a lesbian relationship with (or at least attraction toward) the head teacher, Edwina. Times have changed, and Coppola steers clear of both, probably because they add nothing to the main story and same-sex attraction doesn't have the the power to shock in 2017 that it did in 1971. Coppola also eliminates a major character from Siegel's version, the slave Hallie, who serves as a kind of interlocutor with Clint Eastwood's McBurney, the two commenting on their different forms of captivity. Although the major characters retain the same general outlines, Coppola's Martha and Edwina, Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst, are less eccentric performers than Siegel's Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman. I think this works to Coppola's benefit, making the women's turn against McBurney more startling, even a little tragic, than in Siegel's film. In Siegel's version, the girl who lures McBurney, called Carol in his film, is more vulgarly hot to trot than Coppola's Alicia, played with more subtlety by Elle Fanning. As for the two versions of McBurney, Coppola gives hers more of a backstory: an Irish immigrant lured into the Union Army by the promise of ready cash when he agrees to serve as a substitute for a Yankee reluctant to fight. Colin Farrell is also a more versatile actor than Eastwood, whose tough guy persona makes it hard for us to accept his acquiescence. The scene in which McBurney eats the poisoned mushrooms comes off better in Coppola's version because Farrell lets us see the poison taking its effect, whereas Siegel decides not to show the effect on Eastwood's McBurney. Yet somehow, I prefer the Siegel film, perhaps because there's an inherent cheesiness to the story's melodrama that Siegel embraces but Coppola strives to downplay.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Star Wars: Episode VIII -- The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)

Adam Driver in Star Wars: Episode VIII -- The Last Jedi
Luke Skywalker: Mark Hamill
Leia Organa: Carrie Fisher
Kylo Ren: Adam Driver
Rey: Daisy Ridley
Finn: John Boyega
Poe Dameron: Oscar Isaac
Snoke: Andy Serkis
Maz Kanata (voice): Lupita Nyong'o
General Hux: Domhnall Gleeson
C-3PO: Anthony Daniels
Captain Phasma: Gwendoline Christie
Rose Tico: Kelly Marie Tran
Vice Admiral Holdo: Laura Dern
DJ: Benicio Del Toro

Director: Rian Johnson
Screenplay: Rian Johnson
Cinematography: Steve Yedlin
Production design: Rick Heinrichs
Film editing: Bob Ducsay
Music: John Williams

Fun but just a little bit frustrating. As I said in my comments on Episode VII: The Force Awakens, we need more backstory -- about Ren's fall to the dark side, about Poe Dameron, Finn, and Rey. We get snippets of Ren's story, including Luke's threat to kill Ren when he sees him going bad, and of Rey's, including a revelation that her parents were no one in particular -- which may be unreliable information on both counts. Poe and Finn go their separate ways in The Last Jedi, essentially into subplots that add texture but not substance to their stories. Instead of establishing Poe, Finn, and Rey as the heroic triad comparable to Luke, Leia, and Han, which is what The Force Awakens might have led us to expect, The Last Jedi makes them seem relatively ineffectual. I think the episode suffers a bit from "middle film" syndrome, the need to continue a story without providing the resolution that presumably will arrive in Episode IX.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001, 2002, 2003)

The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001
The Two Towers, 2002
Sean Astin and Elijah Wood in The Two Towers
The Return of the King, 2003
Orlando Bloom, Viggo Mortensen, and Ian McKellen in The Return of the King
Frodo: Elijah Wood
Gandalf: Ian McKellen
Aragorn: Viggo Mortensen
Sam: Sean Astin
Pippin: Billy Boyd
Merry: Dominic Monaghan
Legolas: Orlando Bloom
Gimli/Treebeard (voice): John Rhys-Davies
Arwyn: Liv Tyler
Elrond: Hugo Weaving
Gollum (voice and motion capture)/Smeagol: Andy Serkis
Bilbo: Ian Holm
Saruman: Christopher Lee
Galadriel: Cate Blanchett
Boromir: Sean Bean
Eowyn: Miranda Otto
Theoden: Bernard Hill
Denethor: John Noble
Eomer: Karl Urban
Faramir: David Wenham
Haldir: Craig Parker
Wormtongue: Brad Dourif

Director: Peter Jackson
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Stephen Sinclair
Based on a novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie
Production design: Grant Major
Film editing: John Gilbert (The Fellowship of the Ring), Michael Horton (The Two Towers), Jamie Selkirk (The Return of the King)
Music: Howard Shore

There is a clarity of narrative and action in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings that seems to me to be lacking in the blockbusters that have followed in its sizable wake, even those that have been scaled down for serialization on television, like Game of Thrones. (And even, I might add, in Jackson's own attempt to expand J.R.R. Tolkien's much more modest novel The Hobbit into a similarly epic film trilogy.) Some of this clarity lies in the source, in Tolkien's vividly characterized and shrewdly plotted novel. But Jackson and his team also display an ability to stage action sequences like the Helm's Deep scenes in The Two Towers and the assault on Minas Tirith in The Return of the King while both keeping things exciting and making sure we know where the characters we most care about are in the thick of things. Too often, especially in recent superhero films, the big battles of action movies seem to be either taking place in the dark or are simply a blur of quick cuts, with the revelation of who's up and who's down taking place after the dust clears. In The Lord of the Rings, there's a logic to what's taking place, and an awareness of peril and triumph that threads through the action. This is the more to the good because Jackson makes us care about Tolkien's characters, even the ones who seem less vulnerable or lovable than the small beings who bear the burden of the Ring. I think the special effects have begun to show their age: The group shot of the fellowship, for example, in the first film in the trilogy, feels awkwardly tricksy, with the hobbits and the dwarf obviously "pasted in" along with the human-sized characters. But the great vast project of bringing Tolkien's book to the screen remains a landmark and a stunning success.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith, 1997)

Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams in Chasing Amy
Holden McNeil: Ben Affleck
Alyssa Jones: Joey Lauren Adams
Banky Edwards: Jason Lee
Jay: Jason Mewes
Silent Bob: Kevin Smith
Hooper X: Dwight Ewell

Director: Kevin Smith
Screenplay: Kevin Smith
Cinematography: David Klein
Production design: Robert Holtzman
Film editing: Scott Mosier, Kevin Smith
Music: David Pirner

The treatment of sexual identity in movies and on TV becomes a more sensitive topic every year, so it's nice to see that Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy hasn't dated as much in the past 20 years as it could have. Just hearing that the plot involves a love affair between a straight guy and a lesbian sets off all sorts of alarms about misconceptions of sexual orientation, including the old canard that the "right guy" (or woman) could "convert" someone to heterosexuality. Actually, even in 1997 that idea would have been derided and protested off the screen, but there is sometimes a sense in Chasing Amy that Smith is walking on eggshells. What we have instead is a thoughtful portrait of the complexities of youthful sexual experimentation along with a scathingly satiric one of the ways in which men misunderstand women, gay or straight. The penultimate scene in which Holden (a deliciously Salingerian choice of name) attempts to prove his bona fides to Alyssa is brilliantly, cringingly, painfully funny. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Sweet Movie (Dusan Makavejev, 1974)

Anna Prucnal in Sweet Movie
Miss Monde 1984/Miss Canada: Carole Laure
Potemkin Sailor: Pierre Clémenti
Capt. Anna Planeta: Anna Prucnal
El Macho: Sami Frey
Mrs. Abplanalpe: Jane Mallett
Jeremiah Muscle: Roy Callender
Mr. Kapital: John Vernon
Mama Communa: Marpessa Dawn

Director: Dusan Makavejev
Screenplay: France Gallagher, Dusan Makavejev, Martin Malina
Cinematography: Pierre Lhomme
Production design: Jocelyn Joly
Film editing: Yann Dedet
Music: Manos Hatzidakis

In the 1933 decision that lifted the ban in the United States on James Joyce's Ulysses, Judge John M. Woolsey dismissed the charges of obscenity, though he found that "in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic." I've never found anything to be "emetic" in Ulysses, certainly not on the level of some of the more queasy moments in Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie, which exploits every orifice known to be possessed by human beings, especially in the orgiastic scenes featuring Otto Muehl's commune. As for obscenity, that lies in the eye of the beholder. To my mind, Sweet Movie dallies on the brink of it in the scene in which Anna Prucnal's Captain Anna, scantily clad to say the least, makes what appear to be sexual come-ons to a group of boys aboard her boat called Survival. At moments like this I snap out of the trance of make-believe into which art lures us, and into a realization that the boys in the scene are pre-pubescent actors. There's a layer of child sexual abuse in staging such a scene that I can't quite rise above. Beyond that, however, Sweet Movie does precisely what Makavejev wants it to: It surprises, startles, shocks, overturning most of our expectations of what a movie can and/or should show us. It's valuable for that reason alone. Whether it illuminates or provokes thought in its even-handed assault on both capitalism and communism is another question. It has begun to feel dated, as many avant-garde satires tend to do. But it's also done with a great deal of verve and chutzpah, which never really grow old.     

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini, 1968)

Jane Fonda in Spirits of the Dead: Metzengerstein
Contessa Frederique de Metzengerstein: Jane Fonda
Baron Wilhelm Berlifitzing: Peter Fonda
Contessa's Advisor: James Robertson Justice
Contessa's Friend: Françoise Prévost

Director: Roger Vadim
Screenplay: Roger Vadim, Pascal Cousin
Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe
Cinematography: Claude Renoir
Production design: Jean André
Film editing: Hélène Plemiannikov
Music: Jean Prodromidès

William Wilson
Alain Delon in Spirits of the Dead: William Wilson
William Wilson: Alain Delon
Giuseppina: Brigitte Bardot
Priest: Renzo Palmer

Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: Louis Malle, Clement Biddle Wood
Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe
Cinematography: Tonino Delli Colli
Production design: Ghislain Uhry
Film editing: Franco Arcalli, Suzanne Baron
Music: Diego Masson

Toby Dammit
Terence Stamp in Spirits of the Dead: Toby Dammit
Toby Dammit: Terence Stamp
Priest: Salvo Randone
TV Commentator: Annie Tonietti
The Devil: Marina Yaru

Director: Federico Fellini
Screenplay: Federico Fellini, Bernardino Zapponi
Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe
Cinematography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Production design: Piero Tosi
Film editing: Ruggero Mastroianni
Music: Nino Rota

Of the three short films based on Edgar Allan Poe stories collected here under the title Spirits of the Dead, only the third, Federico Fellini's Toby Dammit, a freewheeling version of Poe's "Never Bet the Devil Your Head," really works. Roger Vadim's Metzengerstein is simply cheesy, with his then-wife Jane Fonda sashaying around in supposedly period costumes that are designed to reveal as much flesh as possible. The casting of her brother, Peter, as the man she loves, is obviously there to elicit a frisson of some sort, but it doesn't. Louis Malle's William Wilson stuffs a little too much of Poe's doppelgänger fable into its confines, and despite the presence of a cigar-puffing Brigitte Bardot, manages to pull whatever punches the story may have had, ending up rather dull. But Toby Dammit is a small gem, a concentration of Fellini's usual grotesques and decadents into a bright satire on celebrity: It's almost impossible to watch another awards show without recalling Fellini's acid-bathed take on it. Only the conclusion of the film really retains much of Poe, which suggests that Vadim and Malle might have been better off devising contemporary riffs on the material, as Fellini does.

Black River (Masaki Kobayashi, 1957)

Tatsuya Nakadai and Ineko Arima in Black River
Shizuko: Ineko Arima
Nishida: Fumio Watanabe
Killer Joe: Tatsuya Nakadai
Landlady: Isuzu Yamada
Okada: Tomo'o Nagai
Okada's Wife: Keiko Awaji
Kurihara: Eijiro Tono
Kin: Seiji Miyaguchi
Sakazaki: Asao Sano

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Screenplay: Zenzo Matsuyama
Based on a story by Takeo Tomishima
Cinematography: Yuharu Atsuta
Production design: Ninjin Kurabu
Film editing: Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

Masaki Kobayashi's remarkable slice-of-life drama Black River takes place in a slum near an American army base. It's a festering dump, inhabited by a variety of people, from lowlifes attempting to make a living by exploiting the soldiers to dead-enders with no place else to go. Into this morass wanders a naïve university student, Nishida, in search of cheap lodgings, who tries to make a little money as a used-book seller. He falls for a pretty waitress, Shizuko, who longs to escape from the slum, but their attachment puts him in the line of fire of a swaggering young gangster called Killer Joe, who has his own designs on Shizuko. Presiding over everything is the landlady, who has plans for the property that don't include its tenants. She's played to a fare-thee-well by the great Isuzu Yamada, perhaps best known as the Lady Macbeth equivalent in Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (1957). Here she's outfitted with a snaggly golden-toothed grill, a fitting correlative for the concealment of the moral rot within. But the real scene-stealer of the film is Tatsuya Nakadai as Killer Joe, in one of his first major film appearances, perfectly blending the charisma that would make him a star with the menace that would allow him to play memorable villains as well as heroes.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Thick-Walled Room (Masaki Kobayashi, 1956)

Torohiko Hamada in The Thick-Walled Room
Yokota: Ko Mishima
Yamashita: Torohiko Hamada
Yoshiko: Keiko Kishi
Yamashita's Sister: Toshiko Kobayashi
Kawanishi: Kinzo Shin
Kimura: Tsutomu Shimomoto

Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Screenplay: Kobo Abe
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Art direction: Kimihiko Nakamura
Film editing: Shizuo Oosawa
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

The resonant phrase "just following orders" hovers silently throughout Masaki Kobayashi's scathing The Thick-Walled Room. It's a portrait of postwar Japan more critical of all concerned, from the militarists who caused the war to the forces that occupied the country after it, than most of the films made by Kobayashi's contemporaries, which is why it was held from release for three years after it was made in 1953. The film focuses on the class-B and -C war criminals held prisoners by the occupying Americans -- and then by the Japanese -- for crimes they were ordered by their superior officers to commit. Meanwhile, many of those superior officers have been released and have returned to civilian life and even to important positions in business and government. The prisoners are both haunted by the things they were ordered to do and resentful of the injustice of their situation. They also remain ignorant of the way the outside world has changed. Yokota, for example, dreams of his girlfriend, Yoshiko, unaware that she has become a prostitute. The screenplay by novelist Kobo Abe is psychologically rich, and Kobayashi's direction makes the most of its subtleties. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

The American Soldier (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1970)

Karl Scheydt in The American Soldier
Ricky: Karl Scheydt
Rosa von Praunheim: Elga Sorbas
Jan: Jan George
Doc: Hark Bohm
Cop: Marius Aicher
Chambermaid: Margarethe von Trotta
Gypsy: Ulli Lommel
Magdalena Fuller: Katrin Schaake
Singer: Ingrid Caven
Ricky's Mother: Eva Ingeborg Scholz
Ricky's Brother: Kurt Raab
Prostitute: Irm Hermann
Police Chief: Gustl Datz
Franz Walsch: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cinematography: Dietrich Lohmann
Film editing: Thea Eymèsz
Music: Peer Raben

Is The American Soldier an hommage to American film noir or is it a satiric glance at the ongoing European fascination with that genre? I like to think that it's the latter, Fassbinder's snarky take on the movies' hard-drinking anti-heroes who, like Alain Delon in Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967) for one example, affect trenchcoats and fedoras as they go about their murderous business. Surely Ricky's sharply angled hat and his omnipresent bottle of Ballantine's are tongue-in-cheek allusions to those cinematic predecessors. The American Soldier isn't up to much else. Fassbinder is playing around with his usual company as well as giving himself another opportunity to play a character named Franz Walsch, which he did in Love Is Colder Than Death (1969) before handing over the role to Harry Baer in Gods of the Plague (1970). The film's real highlight is its loopy, nonsensical ending, in which Ricky's brother wrestles with the dying Ricky as their mother looks on impassively. Otherwise, it's really for Fassbinder completists.

The Ballad of Narayama (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958)

Kinuyo Tanaka in The Ballad of Narayama
Orin: Kinuyo Tanaka
Tatsuhei: Teiji Takahashi
Tama: Yuko Mochizuki
Kesakichi: Danko Ichikawa
Matsu: Keiko Ogasawara
Mata: Seiji Miyaguchi
Mata's Son: Yunosuke Ito
Teru: Ken Mitsuda

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita
Based on a novel by Shichiro Fukazawa
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Art direction: Chiyoo Umeda
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Chuji Kinoshita, Matsunosuke Nozawa

Keisuke Kinoshita was so prolific a filmmaker, so freewheeling in his choice of subject, so willing to try something different with each film, that it's tempting to dismiss him as a kind of dilettante. And too often, his attempts at pathos come off as sentimental, even banal. But if he has a masterwork in his oeuvre, it's The Ballad of Narayama, a highly stylized account of life in a medieval Japanese village in which old people, when they reach the age of 70, are taken up the mountain and left there to die. I know nothing of kabuki, but the style of the film is often likened to that traditional Japanese theater. What I do know is that Kinoshita is one of the few directors who have managed to make film feel theatrical, to give us the intimacy of theater with the flexibility of film. The Ballad of Narayama is carefully, deliberately staged, using sets that are obviously on soundstages with trees and plants that emulate nature but are clearly artificial. I kept being reminded, oddly, of the MGM musical Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954), which was originally planned to be filmed in Scotland, and later on the Monterey Peninsula in California, but was moved into a Culver City soundstage thanks to budget cuts. Kinoshita, who had often made spectacular use of actual Japanese locations, wasn't forced by the budget to give his film such an artificial look but rather chose it. And it works: There's a formal quality to the film that suits its story, a distancing that makes the harshness of its fable so effective. The film also benefits from the performance of the great actress Kinuyo Tanaka as Orin, whose dignified acceptance of her fate becomes heartbreaking. Her own grandson, Kesakichi, scorns her as just another mouth to feed, and mocks her with a song about a woman with demon teeth, whereupon Orin takes a rock and smashes her own teeth to demonstrate her good intentions. Tanaka makes this horrifying scene plausible, as she does the final submission to the abandonment at Narayama. She's well supported by Teiji Takahashi as her grieving, dutiful son.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Rose on His Arm (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1956)

Yoshiko Kuga in The Rose on His Arm
Kiyoshi Akiyama: Katsuo Nakamura
Keiko Hase: Yoshiko Kuga
Kiyoshi's Mother: Sadako Sawamura
Masahiro Hase: Akira Ishihama
Kaoro Akiyama: Noriko Arita
Yoko: Hiroko Sugita
Choshichi Tsuji: Shinji Tanaka
Masahiro's Mother: Kuniyo Miyake
Masahiro's Father: Ryuji Kita

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita '
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Art direction: Chiyoo Umeda
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

The only real distinction accruing to The Rose on His Arm is that it was cited as one of the best foreign films by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in its Golden Globe Awards for 1956. Otherwise, it's a rather plodding entry in the "troubled youth" genre, very much outshone even in the year of its release by Ko Nakahira's Crazed Fruit, which exploited with greater finesse the audience's fascination with the postwar generation. Kiyoshi is a sullen, rather spoiled young man who resists his mother's attempts to find him gainful employment in a factory, and instead falls into the clutches of would-be yakuza Masahiro, not to mention the arms of Masahiro's pretty sister, Keiko. Keisuke Kinoshita and his usual behind-the-camera collaborators never quite lift this one out of predictability.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Big City (Satyajit Ray, 1963)

Anil Chatterjee and Madhabi Mukherjee in The Big City
Arati Mazumdar: Madhabi Mukherjee
Subrata Mazumdar: Anil Chatterjee
Himangshu Mukherjee: Haradhan Bannerjee
Edith Simmons: Vicky Redwood
Priyogopal, Subrata's Father: Haren Chatterjee
Sarojini, Subrata's Mother: Sefalika Devi
Bani, Subrata's Sister: Jaya Bhaduri
Pintu: Prasenjit Sarkar

Director: Satyajit Ray
Screenplay: Satyajit Ray
Based on stories by Narendranath Mitra
Cinematography: Subrata Mitra
Art direction: Bansi Chandragupta
Film editing: Dulal Dutta
Music: Satyajit Ray

For a long time, cities got a bad rap in the movies: Think of Fritz Lang's soul-devouring futuristic city in Metropolis (1027), the hedonistic town that sends out tendrils like the sinister Woman From the City to ensnare country folk like The Man and The Wife in F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927), or the weblike New York City that blights the lives of John and Mary in The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928). But these are surviving remnants of the Romanticism that proclaimed "God made the country and man made the town." By the mid-20th century, even our poets, or at least our songwriters, had turned the great big city into a wondrous toy, just made for a girl and boy, and a place where if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere -- a heroic challenge. In The Big City, Satyajit Ray's Kolkata retains some of the old sinister qualities, but it also represents opportunity, especially for women emerging from the shadows of male domination. Ray's domestic drama doesn't set up a contrast between town and country so much as a contrast between the dark, cramped home that Subrata and Arati Mazumdar share with his mother and father and sister and their young son, and the expanse of the city, which offers up tempting alternatives to the tight nuclear household. And those alternatives are something that the older members of that household view with disgust and horror: Arati's going out to work and to supplement the small income of the traditional breadwinner, Subrata. A world opens up for Arati, though it's also a world that can easily crumble around her. Madhabi Mukherjee's wonderful performance as Arati, tremulous and naive at first but gradually gaining fire and courage, animates the film. Obstacles present themselves: Subrata loses his job as a bank clerk, and Arati eventually loses hers by standing up for the Anglo-Indian Edith. But at the end, husband and wife, who have found their marriage tested by her employment, summon up reserves of courage to face the job market. The ending has been criticized as sentimental, but Ray has so carefully shown the growth of both Arati and Subrata that I find it hopeful.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Farewell to Dream (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1956)

Noriko Kikuoki, Shinji Tanaka, and Yoshiko Kuga in Farewell to Dream
Yoichi Akimoto: Shinji Tanaka
Oshin, Yoichi's Mother: Yuko Mochizuki
Toyoko, Yoichi's Older Sister: Yoshiko Kuga
Genkichi, Yoichi's Father: Eijiro Tono
Kazue, Yoichi's Younger Sister: Noriko Kikuoki
Sudo: Takahiro Tamura
Seiji Harada: Ryohei Ono

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Yoshiko Kusuda
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Art direction: Kazue Hirataka
Film editing: Yoshi Sugihara
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

The English title, Farewell to Dream, seems to be grammatically or idiomatically off: We would expect Farewell to a Dream or ... Dreams instead. (The Japanese title is Yûyake-gumo, which Google Translate renders as "Sunset Cloud.") But then there's something a little off about this entire short film -- only 78 minutes long. Its young narrator, Yoichi, tells us his story about how circumstances made him bid farewell to his dreams, except that he doesn't seem to have had any substantial dream other than not following in his father's footsteps as a fishmonger, a job he hates because it makes him smell of fish, causing other boys to taunt him. We can't really blame him, but the film never suggests that Yoichi had a clear plan of escape from that life. He spends a good deal of his time looking out over the rooftops of Tokyo through his binoculars, sighting a pretty young woman whom he dreams of meeting. Eventually, he and his friend Seiji make their way across the city to where they think the young woman lives, only to arrive in her neighborhood as she's getting into an automobile with the man she's engaged to marry. Yoichi's story is also mixed with that of his sisters: The elder one, Toyoko, is pretty and vain, and has a handsome boyfriend, Sudo. But when Sudo's family goes broke, she marries an older man -- and then carries on an affair with Sudo. When his father falls ill, Yoichi's parents allow a rich uncle to adopt his younger sister, Kazue, in exchange for some financial support, and we see Yoichi bid a sad farewell to the girl. I think we're meant to sympathize with Yoichi in the collapse of his family, but the irony is that after his father dies, Yoichi turns out to be a very good fishmonger, building a thriving business from his own talent as a cook by developing a sideline as a caterer and seller of prepared meals. Like it or not, Yoichi has become what many families would see as a blessing: the son who successfully keeps the family business alive. The effect is that Yoichi's lament for his lost future feels like self-pity rather than legitimate dismay at unfulfilled potential.