A blog 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

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Paradine Case (Alfred Hitchcock, 1947)

Ann Todd and Charles Laughton in The Paradine Case
Anthony Keane: Gregory Peck
Gay Keane: Ann Todd
Lord Thomas Horfield: Charles Laughton
Simon Flaquer: Charles Coburn
Lady Sophie Horfield: Ethel Barrymore
Andre Latour: Louis Jourdan
Maddalena Anna Paradine: Alida Valli
Sir Joseph: Leo G. Carroll
Judy Flaquer: Joan Tetzel

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: David O. Selznick, Alma Reville, James Bridie
Based on a novel by Robert Hichens
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Production design: J. McMillan Johnson

Alfred Hitchcock was at the end of his seven-year servitude to David O. Selznick when he was roped into The Paradine Case, a project Selznick had been nursing since 1933, when he bought the rights at MGM hoping to star Greta Garbo as the "fascinating" Mrs. Paradine. Garbo declined then and later, saying she didn't want to play a murderer. Hitchcock's involvement in the belated project was grudging, given that the other two features, Rebecca (1940) and Spellbound (1945), on which he had been forced to work directly with Selznick had been difficult experiences, producer and director having decidedly different views on almost everything about filmmaking. But he went ahead with crafting a screenplay, enlisting his wife, Alma Reville, playwright James Bridie, and Ben Hecht. In the end, however, Selznick rewrote the screenplay, sometimes after individual scenes had been shot, and claimed credit, relegating Reville to "adaptation" and Bridie to "treatment in consultation with," and leaving Hecht off the credits entirely. Moreover, Hitchcock's initial cut was three hours, which Selznick then scissored down to 132 minutes and after premieres to the extant 114 minutes. It's hard to say what was lost in the process, except that Anthony Keane's supposed erotic fascination with Mrs. Paradine barely registers in the current version, making Gay Keane's jealous moping almost nonsensical. It also robs the climax of the film of any real emotional impact. But miscasting also may be responsible for those failures: Gregory Peck, never a very interesting actor, becomes even duller in his attempts to play a distinguished British barrister. Peck was 31, and the gray streaks in his hair do little to convince us that he's a man with a long career at the bar. Moreover, his attempts at a British accent are fitful: You can almost see him tense up every time he has to pronounce "can't" as "cahn't." Alida Valli, in the key role, is more sullen than mysterious, and Ann Todd as Peck's wife, is pallid. What life exists in the film comes from Charles Coburn as the solicitor in the case and from Charles Laughton, deliciously haughty as the judge, with a reputation for enjoying hanging women as well as clear evidence of his sexually predatory nature when he makes his moves on Mrs. Keane. Ethel Barrymore for some reason was nominated for an Oscar for her small role as the judge's wife, who sweetly admonishes her husband for his ways, but otherwise has little to do. There is not much Hitchcock could do stylistically in the film with Selznick hanging around: He attempts some impressive long takes, many of which Selznick chopped up in the editing room, and an experiment in collaboration with cinematographer Lee Garmes in lighting changes during Keane's interrogation of Mrs. Paradine. He also introduces Louis Jourdan's character by keeping him in shadows and half darkness, to heighten our suspicion of the character's nature, but such occasional tricks only stand out from the general flatness of the drama.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Castle (Michael Haneke, 1997)

Ulrich Mühe in The Castle
K.: Ulrich Mühe
Frieda: Susanne Lothar
Artur: Frank Giering
Jeremias: Felix Eitner
Barnabas: André Eisermann
Olga: Dörte Lyssewski
Amalia: Inga Busch
Erlanger: Hans Diehl
Pepi: Birgit Linauer
Narrator: Udo Samel

Director: Michael Haneke
Screenplay: Michael Haneke
Based on a novel by Franz Kafka
Cinematography: Jirí Stibr
Production design: Christoph Kanter

There's an odd resonance between Ulrich Mühe's frustrated K. in The Castle and the role for which he's best known in America, the anonymously gray Stasi spy Gerd Wiesler in The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006). Both are trapped in systems not of their making and are given tedious tasks that ultimately prove meaningless: K. to serve as a land surveyor in a village that doesn't want one and is so covered with blowing snow that there's hardly any land to survey, Wiesler to listen in on and try to trap a playwright whose crimes against the state are, if they exist, minimal. Both try to make the best of impossible situations, K. by doggedly persisting in his attempts to communicate with the unseen and unapproachable Castle, Wiesler by doing his job dutifully until its absurdity becomes intolerable. Absurdity is, to be sure, what Franz Kafka's unfinished novel is all about: People in it behave absurdly -- even the protagonist who, in a particularly dreamlike moment, finds himself hiding under a counter with the mistress of the man he wants to meet and having sex with her. Even the people who might help him, like his goofy assistants Artur and Jeremias or the eager emissary from the Castle, Barnabas, only lead him into further frustrations. Michael Haneke has followed the novel's plot faithfully, even to the extent of leaving off in mid-sentence at the point where the dying Kafka abandoned the manuscript. The result is a film both provocative and tedious: There's a scene near the end in which K. is struggling to stay awake, and I found myself fighting slumber, too. But the commitment with which Haneke and his cast throw themselves into a project that itself is a bit supererogatory -- does Kafka's unfinished story really need to be an unfinished film? -- is impressive.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

"Alex, will you come in, please. I wish to talk to you." Reinhold Schünzel, Ivan Triesault, and Claude Rains in the final scene of Notorious
T.R. Devlin: Cary Grant
Alicia Huberman: Ingrid Bergman
Alexander Sebastian: Claude Rains
Mme. Sebastian: Leopoldine Konstantin
Paul Prescott: Louis Calhern
Dr. Anderson: Reinhold Schünzel
Eric Mathis: Ivan Triesault
Joseph: Alexis Minotis
Walter Beardsley: Moroni Olsen
Emil Hupka: E.A. Krumschmidt

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Ben Hecht
Cinematography: Ted Tetzlaff
Music: Roy Webb

The critics have canonized Vertigo (1958) as the greatest film of all time, but I don't think it's even Alfred Hitchcock's greatest film. That would have to be Notorious, with Rear Window (1954) close behind, and North by Northwest (1959) and maybe Psycho (1960) edging up in the pack. I have a theory that Hitchcock threw himself so whole-heartedly into Notorious because it was begun under the infernal meddling of David O. Selznick, who was forced to sell the project to RKO in order to devote himself full-time to the impossible task of making Duel in the Sun (1946). Hitchcock had just suffered through making Spellbound (1945), with Selznick and Selznick's shrink, May Romm, breathing down his neck throughout the filming, and he must have felt such a great relief at being freed from Selznick's control that he was determined to make Notorious as good as it could be. He succeeded: It's a tight, witty, suspenseful showcase of everything that Hitchcock could do well. It has two or three of his most impressive directorial touches, specifically the two minute, 40 second single-take kissing scene that follows Devlin and Alicia from room to balcony and back again, and the great crane shot that begins on the balcony of Sebastian's entrance hall and swoops down to the key clutched in Alicia's hand. But technical mastery is only part of the glory of Notorious. It begins, after the sentencing of Alicia's father, with a film noir moment: "bad girl" Alicia entertaining her rather dubious friends as Devlin, whom we see only from behind, watches. And it ends, not with a lovers' clinch, but with the villain being summoned to a doom we know will be very unpleasant. Hitchcock trusts the audience to feel a little bit sorry for Alex Sebastian at that moment when the door shuts him inside with his mother and some very angry Nazis. But the whole film is full of masterly touches, including the characteristic concentration on objects like wine bottles and coffee cups and keys, which play almost as important role in the narrative as the actors. Not that the actors are ignored: Hitchcock was one of the few directors* who saw and exploited the dark side of Cary Grant, who effectively lets his mouth grow tense and his eyes grow cold in his first scenes with bad-girl Ingrid Bergman, so that he can loosen up as they fall in love and then resume the icy tension when Devlin is forced into virtually prostituting Alicia to Sebastian. Hitchcock also invents great business for Leopoldine Konstantin as the sinister Mme. Sebastian, such as the wonderful moment when, awakened by her son with the bad news that Alicia is a spy, she sits up in bed and calmly lights a cigarette before getting down to business. I also love that when Devlin comes to confer with his boss, Prescott, over Alicia's plight, Hitchcock has the usually debonair Louis Calhern stretched out in bed insouciantly eating cheese and crackers. In short, Notorious is a showcase for everything Hitchcock had learned in his first 20 years of moviemaking, as well as a demonstration of the great things to come. When Alicia overhears the argument between Sebastian and his mother, it's a foreshadowing of Marion Crane's hearing the argument between Norman and Mrs. Bates.

*The others would be Howard Hawks in Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and George Cukor, who was the first to glimpse Grant's darkness in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), but I think Hitchcock exploited it best.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Green Ray (Éric Rohmer, 1986)

Vincent Gauthier and Marie Rivière in The Green Ray
Delphine: Marie Rivière
Manuella: María Luisa García
Beatrice: Béatrice Romand
Françoise: Rosette
Edouard: Eric Hamm
Lena: Carita
Joel: Joël Comarlot
Jacques: Vincent Gauthier

Director: Éric Rohmer
Screenplay: Marie Rivière, Éric Rohmer
Cinematography: Sophie Maintigneux
Film editor: María Luisa García
Music: Jean-Louis Valéro

Delphine is shy, self-conscious, self-doubting, and frankly somewhat of a pain. At the beginning of Éric Rohmer's film, which is part of his series "Comedies and Proverbs," a successor to his more celebrated "Six Moral Tales," she has been ditched by a friend with whom she was planning to go on vacation. It's July, which in France means you're obligated to go on a vacation, especially if you live in Paris, which will be abandoned to the tourists and the pigeons in August. Her long-distance boyfriend, whom we never meet, has his own plans, so she spends much of the film searching for someone to accompany her. Ireland, where her family plans to vacation, is too cold and wet for her. Finally, a friend invites her to stay with her and her family in Cherbourg, but Delphine finds all the fuss and noise of a large group depressing, since she has no one she can call her own. Moreover, she's a vegetarian amid a hearty group of carnivores, and finds herself spending a lot of time (and talk -- this is a Rohmer film, after all) defending her dietary choice: It makes her feel "airy," she claims. She returns to Paris, then makes a mad one-day dash to an Alpine resort where she walks up an Alp and back down to take a return bus to Paris, where she finds herself being followed by a creep on the street. Finally, another friend takes pity on the increasingly depressed Delphine and offers her her brother-in-law's apartment in Biarritz. Things aren't much better there, though she strikes up an acquaintance with a holidaying Swedish girl, Lena, who is as gregarious and sexually adventurous as Delphine is solitary and touchy. They go out on the town together, but Lena's vulgarity offends her and she flees from the advances of one of the men Lena helps pick up. But in Biarritz she has also overheard the conversation of a group of older people about Jules Verne's novel The Green Ray, which centers on the atmospheric phenomenon sometimes called "the green flash," which occurs when the sun is setting. In the novel, observers of the green ray supposedly gain a magical insight into themselves and the people they're with. At the film's end, Delphine has somehow overcome her shyness and struck up an acquaintance with Jacques, a handsome young man she meets in the station as she's waiting for her train back to Paris. And, yes, they observe the green flash together. End of film. There's a great deal of charm to Rohmer's fable, which was crafted with the assistance of Marie Rivière, the actress who plays Delphine. Much of the dialogue was improvised by the cast, and the film was shot on 16 mm to keep the actors as spontaneous as possible. Occasionally, you can see a member of the cast, especially the children in the Cherbourg sequence, look straight at the camera as if uncertain about their performance, but it only helps maintain a kind of documentary feeling to the film. This is a wisp of a film, but it's heartfelt.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945)

Opening title cards for Spellbound
Constance Petersen: Ingrid Bergman
John Ballantyne: Gregory Peck
Alexander Brulov: Michael Chekhov
Murchison: Leo G. Carroll
Mary Carmichael: Rhonda Fleming
Fleurot: John Emery
Garmes: Norman Lloyd
House Detective: Bill Goodwin

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Angus McPhail
Based on a novel by Hilary St. George Saunders and John Palmer
Cinematography: George Barnes
Art direction: James Basevi, Salvador Dalí
Music: Miklós Rózsa

Although David O. Selznick held Alfred Hitchcock under contract, Hitchcock made only three films directly under his niggling presence: Rebecca (1940), Spellbound, and The Paradine Case (1947). The best of his work during this period -- Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1941), Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Lifeboat (1944), and Notorious (1946) -- was done on loanout to other producers and studios. It was clear from the tensions between director and producer during the work on Rebecca that things would never go smoothly in their relationship. So I have a strong suspicion that Spellbound represents a sly Hitchcockian subversion of Selznick, an attempt to undermine the producer's obsessiveness by playing off Selznick's own quirks, in this case his preoccupation with psychoanalysis. Selznick notoriously gave his own analyst, May E. Romm, a screen credit as "psychiatric advisor" on the film, leading to some criticisms of her by the psychoanalytic community. Though Romm isn't credited as a writer on the film, it's thought that the title cards "explaining" psychoanalysis in the opening of Spellbound are her work. Romm and Hitchcock clashed during the filming, he studiously ignoring her suggestions and once dismissing her criticism with a characteristic "It's only a movie" retort. The result is one of Hitchcock's wackier, more improbable films, one that probably sent many in the audience away convinced that analysis was movie hokum, and not a real-life solution to mental problems. From the outset, for example, it's clear that the doctors in Green Manors, the fancy mental hospital in the film, are at least as nutty as the patients, with Dr. Fleurot constantly horndogging his beautiful colleague, Dr. Petersen, and the rest of the staff showing off their own ineptness. When the supposed Dr. Edwardes, the replacement for the retiring Dr. Murchison, arrives, he turns out to be a twitchy young man, given to fainting spells and other bits of odd behavior, but he succeeds in winning over the icy Dr. Petersen in an instant. And so on, through various bits of Hitchcockian obsession, mistaken identities, and unlikely revelations. There's the famous Dalí-designed dream sequence and Miklós Rózsa's Oscar-winning score, one of the first to use the eerie-sounding theremin in key passages, but it's never terribly convincing. Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck are gorgeous, of course, and for once Peck doesn't seem like he was whittled out of wood -- perhaps because he and Bergman had an affair during the filming. The rest of the cast hams it up nicely, though the fact that the hammiest of them all, Michael Chekhov, got an Oscar nomination for his stereotypical shrink is lamentable. This is one of those movies that are more fun if you know all the backstories about the production.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Three Resurrected Drunkards (Nagisa Oshima, 1968)

Kazuhiko Kato, Osamu Kitayama, and Norihiko Hashida in Three Resurrected Drunkards
Beanpole: Kazuhiko Kato
The Small One: Osamu Kitayama
The Smallest One: Norihiko Hashida
I Chong-il: Kei Sato
Kim Fwa: Cha Dei-dang
The Middle-aged Man: Fumio Watanabe
The Young Woman: Mako Midori

Director: Nagisa Oshima
Screenplay: Masao Adachi, Mamoru Sasaki, Tsutomu Tamura, Nagisa Oshima
Cinematography: Yasuhiro Yoshioka
Film editing: Keiichi Uraoka
Music: Hikaru Hayashi

Nagisa Oshima's attempts to unsettle his audiences usually took the form of serious explorations of social dysfunction like Cruel Story of Youth (1960), Boy (1969), and The Ceremony (1971) or sexually provocative films like In the Realm of the Senses (1976), but Three Resurrected Drunkards plays more like A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester, 1964) than any of those often grim and brutal excursions into the dark side of contemporary Japanese life. It begins with three young men larking about at the beach, accompanied by a giddy Japanese pop song. When their clothes are stolen and replaced with others, the film goes off into  a series of mostly comic mishaps. But there's a dark side to their larking about from the beginning: One of their gags is an attempt to restage the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Eddie Adams of a South Vietnam general pointing a gun at the head of a grimacing Viet Cong prisoner. They take turns playing the general and the victim as the third critiques the grimace on the face of the one playing the victim. It turns out that the clothes thieves are South Koreans who are trying to sneak into Japan to avoid military service in Vietnam. The Koreans have a gun, with which they threaten the three young Japanese. Along the way, they also get involved with a young woman and an abusive older man who may or may not be her husband. At one point, the film simply stops and starts over at the beginning, but this time the characters know what happened in the first part and are able to change things around. It's all a fascinating blend of rock movie high jinks and serious social commentary: Oshima is satirizing the Japanese prejudice against Koreans, among other things. Some of the satire is lost on contemporary audiences, especially in the West, but Three Resurrected Drunkards is a fascinating glimpse into its director's imagination and political indignation.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca
Mrs. de Winter: Joan Fontaine
Maxim de Winter: Laurence Olivier
Mrs. Danvers: Judith Anderson
Jack Favell: George Sanders
Frank Crawley: Reginald Denny
Major Giles Lacy: Nigel Bruce
Colonel Julyan: C. Aubrey Smith
Beatrice Lacy: Gladys Cooper
Mrs. Van Hopper: Florence Bates
Coroner: Melville Cooper
Dr. Baker: Leo G. Carroll

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison, Philip MacDonald, Michael Hogan
Based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier
Cinematography: George Barnes
Art direction: Lyle R. Wheeler, William Cameron Menzies
Music: Franz Waxman

Rebecca is a very good movie. Would it have been a better one if Alfred Hitchcock, directing his first American film, had been left alone by the producer, David O. Selznick, an incurable micromanager? That's the question that lingers, especially since Hitchcock later expressed some dissatisfaction with the film. It does lack the director's sense of humor, manifested for example in the scene in which the horrid Mrs. Van Hopper snuffs a cigarette in a jar of cold cream, a gag Hitchcock liked so much that he used it again 15 years later in To Catch a Thief, in which the substitute ashtray is a fried egg. The differences between Hitchcock and Selznick largely lay in the realm of editing, in which Selznick loved to dabble, insisting that scenes be shot from various camera angles to give him latitude in the editing room. Hitchcock was a famous storyboarder, working out scenes and planning camera setups well in advance of the actual shooting -- "editing in the camera," as it's usually called. The story would probably also have been very different in the Hitchcock version: According to one source, the original version suggested by Hitchcock began on shipboard, with various people being seasick. Selznick, however, liked to stick closely to the novels on which he based his films: The opening title, for example, refers to the movie as a "picturization" of Daphne Du Maurier's bestseller. (This was doubtless a comfort to Du Maurier, who hated Hitchcock's version of her novel Jamaica Inn (1939) -- but then so did Hitchcock, and both of them were right to do so.) The glory of Rebecca lies mostly in its performances. Although Laurence Olivier never makes Maxim de Winter a fully credible character -- I think he felt he was slumming, doing the film only to be near Vivien Leigh, and disgusted when Selznick didn't cast her as the second Mrs. de Winter -- he was always a watchable actor, even when he wasn't doing a great job of it. Joan Fontaine is almost perfect in her role, making credible the crucial character switch, when she stops being shy and stands up to Mrs. Danvers. And Hitchcock must have loved working with the gaggle of British character actors who had flocked to Hollywood and populate all the supporting roles.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (Ermanno Olmi, 1978)

Batisti: Luigi Ornagi
Batistina: Francesca Morigi
Minec: Omar Brignoli
The Widow Runk: Teresa Brescianini
Anselmo: Giuseppe Brignoli
Maddalena: Lucia Pezzoli
Stefano: Franco Pilenga
Finard: Battista Travaini

Director: Ermanno Olmi
Screenplay: Ermanno Olmi
Cinematography: Ermanno Olmi
Production design: Enrico Tovaglieri
Costume design: Francesca Zucchelli

Watching almost any three-hour movie is going to be an immersive experience, but The Tree of Wooden Clogs is exceptionally so, given that it was written, directed, and beautifully photographed by Ermanno Olmi as a kind of tribute to the endurance of the people of the province of Bergamo in Northern Italy, the region Olmi came from. I compare filmmakers to Faulkner perhaps too often, but once again it seems to fit: Bergamo is Olmi's Jefferson, Mississippi -- a place where the past weighs heavy and the people have learned to endure. The film is set in Bergamo at the end of the 19th century, when a kind of feudalism still reigned: The people of The Tree of Wooden Clogs are tenant farmers, struggling to survive on a third of the produce and animals they raise, the rest of it going to the landowner who supplies them housing -- an old ramshackle building where four families live. In one apartment the bedroom, in which a woman gives birth during the film, is in a sort of attic reached only by a ladder. They are kept going by a deep piety, a constant invocation of the Holy Trinity and the saints. Political protest is something that takes place far away, and we glimpse it only when a newlywed couple makes a journey to Milan, where they spend their wedding night in an orphanage run by nuns and in the morning return to Bergamo with the year-old infant they have adopted, in part because the stipend that pays for his support will supplement the man's farm labor and the wife's work in a small mill. Their path to the orphanage is blocked briefly by troops battling with protesters. A Marxist orator also gives a speech at the local carnival, but he's mainly ignored by the people having fun. Critics attacked Olmi for not being political enough, but it's clear that one function of his film is to stir anger at human exploitation: The title comes from one of the episodes in the film, in which Minec, the young son of Batisti and Batistina, breaks the wooden clog that he wears on his daily eight-mile walk to and from school. Batisti, in desperation, chops down a tree and carves new clogs from the wood, but when the landlord finds out, the family is sent packing. Olmi's vision is steady and only occasionally slips into sentimentality, and his non-professional cast, made up of residents of Bergamo, is flawless.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

Chieko Naniwa in Throne of Blood
Taketoki Washizu: Toshiro Mifune
Lady Asaji Washizu: Isuzu Yamada
Noriyashi Odakura: Takashi Shimura
Yoshiteru Miki: Akira Kubo
Kunimaru Tsuzuki: Hiroshi Tachikawa
Yoshiaki Miki: Minoru Chiaki
Kuniharu Tsuzuki: Takamaru Sazaki
The Ghost Woman: Chieko Naniwa

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa
Based on a play by William Shakespeare
Cinematography: Asakazu Nakai
Production design: Yoshiro Muraki
Music: Masaru Sato

To call Throne of Blood the best film version of Shakespeare's Macbeth, as some have done, does a disservice to those filmmakers who have wrangled with the difficult beauty of Shakespeare's language, like Orson Welles in 1948 or even Justin Kurzel (who pretty much threw the language out of consideration) in 2015. But it also distorts Akira Kurosawa's achievement, which is not to provide us with a kind of Japanese Masterplots version of Macbeth, but to grasp the essence of Shakespeare's tormented vision of ambition and the limits of civilization. Moving the action from medieval Scotland to medieval Japan could be just as gimmicky as staging Shakespeare's play in the Old West or outer space, except that Kurosawa has the skill to make Throne of Blood stand on its own, even for those who have no knowledge of Shakespeare. It's an action film, a ghost story, and a portrait of a marriage -- the contrast of the blustering Washizu and his icy spouse is beautifully handled by Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada. And the final assault on Washizu is one of the most exciting -- and dangerous -- stunts ever pulled off by a director and a movie star, involving sharpshooting archers and careful choreography as Mifune battles his way through a forest of real arrows. We miss the language, of course -- Macbeth contains some of Shakespeare's most gorgeous speeches -- but Kurosawa gives us some compensations. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Shame (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)

Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow in Shame
Eva Rosenberg: Liv Ullmann
Jan Rosenberg: Max von Sydow
Jacobi: Gunnar Björnstrand
Mrs. Jacobi: Brigitta Valberg
Filip: Sigge Fürst
Lobelius: Hans Alfredson

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Production design: P.A. Lundgren
Film editor: Ulla Ryghe

One of Ingmar Bergman's bleakest and best films, Shame is unencumbered by the theological agon that makes many of his films tiresome (not to say irrelevant) for some of us. It's a fable about a couple, Eva and Jan, two musicians seeking to escape from a devastating war by exiling themselves to an island. At the start of the film their life is almost idyllic: Their radio and telephone don't work, so they remain in blissful ignorance of the problems of the world outside. He's a bit scattered and idle; she's practical and businesslike. They quarrel a little over their temperamental differences, but they have developed a self-sustaining life, raising chickens and cultivating vegetables in their greenhouse. But needless to say, no couple is an island: The war comes to them. When they take the ferry into town, selling crates of berries and stopping to drink wine with a friend who has just been drafted, they begin to be aware that the larger conflict will not remain at a distance for long. There will be no retreat for them into the simple life. Under the pressure of war, their relationship changes: Eva becomes more careless, Jan loses his passivity. In the end, desperate to flee the despoiled island, they join a group on a fishing boat heading for the mainland only to wind up in a dead calm -- a literal one, for they are stuck in a sea filled with corpses, an image that, because so much of the film is straightforward in narrative and imagery, manages to avoid the heavy-handedness that often afflicts Bergman's films. There is also, for Bergman, a surprising lack of specificity about the war in the film: There are no direct allusions to particular wars, such as World War II, the one that raged in his childhood, or to the war of the day in Vietnam -- there are no images of burning monks as in Persona (1966). The war of the film is generic -- soldiers, planes, trucks, and tanks lack insignia and the names and nationalities of the two sides are never mentioned. It's as if war is an ongoing condition of the human race.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Ariel (Aki Kaurismäki, 1988)

Turo Pajala in Ariel
Taisto Kasurinen: Turo Pajala
Irmeli Pihlaja: Susanna Haavisto
Mikkonen: Matti Pellonpää
Riku: Eetu Rikamo
Miner: Erkki Pajala
Mugger: Matti Jaaranen

Director: Aki Kaurismäki
Screenplay: Aki Kaurismäki
Cinematography: Timo Salminen

As in Shadows in Paradise (1986), another of Aki Kaurismäki's impassive, expressionless couples sets sail at the end of Ariel, this time on the ship that gives the film its title. (If you know Kaurismäki's films, you surely weren't expecting any airy Shakespearean sprites from him?) When the mine at which Taisto and his father work shuts down, the father hands to keys to his Cadillac convertible to Taisto, then goes into the men's room and shoots himself. Taisto stoically gets in the car and drives to Helsinki to look for work, despite the fact that it's winter in Finland and he can't get the top to go up. (This problem persists throughout the film, leading Irmeli's small son to comment, "Nice wind," as they're speeding along the highway. It's resolved only toward the end of the film when Mikkonen asks, at a particularly inappropriate moment, "What's this button for?" and presto!) It's odd to use the word "charming" about a movie so grim in its setting and the plight of its characters, and that involves suicide, murder, various beatings, and prison time, but that's the nature of Kaurismäki's filmmaking: There are moments of dark delight scattered throughout, such as the fact that the fob on which the keys to the Cadillac are hung is the inner workings of a music box, and the tune it plays is the socialist anthem "The Internationale." Music is used wittily throughout the film, including various pop songs, and as the Ariel sails away to Mexico at the end, we hear "Over the Rainbow," sung in Finnish. There is something Faulknerian about Kaurismäki's determination to inject humor into even the grimmest of situations.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948)

Robert Helpmann and Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes
Boris Lermontov: Anton Walbrook
Vicky Page: Moira Shearer
Julian Craster: Marius Goring
Boleslawsky: Robert Helpmann
Ljubov: Léonide Massine
Boronskaja: Ludmilla Tchérina
Livy: Esmond Knight
Ratov: Albert Bassermann
Prof. Palmer: Austin Trevor
Lady Neston: Irene Browne

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay: Emeric Pressburger, Keith Winter, Michael Powell
Based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Production design: Hein Heckroth
Film editing: Reginald Mills
Music: Brian Easdale
Costume design: Hein Heckroth

In its digital restoration, The Red Shoes almost certainly looks better than it ever did even in the most optimal theatrical showing, its colors brighter and sharper, its darks deeper and more detailed. But is that necessarily a good thing? I'm not like one of those audiophiles who insist that old vinyl LPs sound better than CDs or any digital audio process -- I like being able to hear things without surface pops and skips. But I do think that in the case of a film like The Red Shoes, where suspension of disbelief is essential, something has been lost. The great red snood of Moira Shearer's hair is revealed to be a thing of individual strands that might have benefited from a quick brushing before her closeups. The special-effects moments, like Vicky's leap into the red shoes or Boleslawsky's transformation into the newspaper man, are more glaringly just rudimentary jump cuts. There's a loss of glamour and magic that hasn't been compensated for, even though we can now see Jack Cardiff's photography of Hein Heckroth's designs with greater clarity. I will also admit that I have never been in the front ranks of the fans of The Red Shoes. While I admire the storytelling ability of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, I have to question the moral of the story, which seems to be that a woman can't have both a great career and a successful private life, or in a larger sense, that art is impossible without a loss of self. Granted, the story comes from the realm of fairytale, which is never without an element of cruelty, but is Vicky's suicide a necessary follow-through, or just a submission on the part of the screenwriters to the demands of some kind of closure, given that they've never made the character more than a stereotype: the woman torn between the demands of two men? Ravishing to the eye, The Red Shoes doesn't satisfy the mind or the heart.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Shadows in Paradise (Aki Kaurismäki, 1986)

Kati Outinen and Matti Pellonpää in Shadows in Paradise
Nikander: Matti Pellonpää
Ilona Rajmäki: Kati Outinen
Melartin: Sakari Kousmanen
Co-worker: Esko Nikkari
Ilona's Girlfriend: Kylli Köngäs
Shop Steward: Pekka Laiho

Director: Aki Kaurismäki
Screenplay: Aki Kaurismäki
Cinematography: Timo Salminen

Glumly smoking their lungs out, a garbage collector and a supermarket clerk embark on a ploddingly passionless relationship -- their first date, to her disgust, is at a bingo parlor -- in Aki Kaurismäki's Shadows in Paradise. Don't look too hard for paradise: It's no more in evidence in Kaurismäki's film than in his friend Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise (1984), unless Talinn, the Estonian capital toward which the couple set sail on a Soviet liner at the end of the film, is their idea of heaven. It's hard to think of a film as both authentic and ironic, but Kaurismäki and his actors manage to make their characters both convincing and, in a very low-key way, funny. It took me a while, to be sure, to catch on to the tone of the film: I had never seen one of Kaurismäki's before, and coming cold to its gray Helsinki cityscape and its entirely unprepossessing leads -- Outinen and Pellonpää are by far the homeliest performers in the film -- I wasn't sure whether the twinges of mirth I felt at their solemn, dogged worldview was appropriate. For that matter, I'm still not sure --- which is one of the reasons I find the film so interesting.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Gods of the Plague (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1970)

Harry Baer in Gods of the Plague
Franz Walsch: Harry Baer
Joanna Reiher: Hanna Schygulla
Margarethe: Margarethe von Trotta
Günther: Günther Kaufmann
Carla Aulaulu: Carla Egerer
Magdalena Fuller: Ingrid Caven
Policeman: Jan George
Mother: Lilo Pempeit
Marian Walsch: Marian Seidowsky
Joe: Micha Cochina
Inspector: Yaak Karsunke
Supermarket Manager: Hannes Gromball

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cinematography: Dietrich Lohmann
Production designer: Kurt Raab
Film editor: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Music: Peer Raben

The Rainer Werner Fassbinder stock company is one of the wonders of film, mixing up their roles throughout his movies in often amusing ways. This is the second film to feature Franz Walsch, a name Fassbinder took as his own sometimes -- including in the credits for Gods of the Plague, which list "Franz Walsch" as the film editor. In the first Franz Walsch feature, Love Is Colder Than Death (1969), the character, a young hood, was played by the decidedly homely Fassbinder, but in this one he becomes the considerably more handsome Harry Baer, preening his luxuriant mustache. Franz is released from prison at the film's start, and he soon becomes involved with two women, Joanna (played once again by Hanna Schygulla) and Margarethe (Margarethe von Trotta, who would soon come into her own right as a director as well as actress). Like the earlier film, Gods of the Plague takes place in the rather inept underworld of Munich, in which Franz teams up with Günther, aka Gorilla, to pull off a supermarket robbery that's doomed to deadly failure. Also like Fassbinder's other early films, it's played with a deadpan, emotionless affect by all concerned, so that you sometimes have to laugh at the disconnect of situations, events, and relationships that would be shocking or horrifying in the real world but are treated as no big deal by the characters in the film. It was obviously inspired by the attempts at coolness essayed by the characters in the French New Wave, but even Godard's delinquents seemed to be having more fun than Fassbinder's do. A difference between being French and being German perhaps? The cast also features other members of the stock company such as Irm Hermann and Kurt Raab (who doubles as production designer) as well as Fassbinder in very small roles.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)

Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne in The Lady Vanishes
Iris Henderson: Margaret Lockwood
Gilbert: Michael Redgrave
Dr. Hartz: Paul Lukas
Miss Froy: May Whitty
Mr. Todhunter: Cecil Parker
"Mrs." Todhunter: Linden Travers
Caldicott: Naunton Wayne
Charters: Basil Radford
Baroness: Mary Clare
Hotel Manager: Emile Boreo
Blanche: Googie Withers
Julie: Sally Stewart
Signor Doppo: Philip Leaver
Signora Doppo: Selma Vaz Dias
The Nun: Catherine Lacy
Madame Kummer: Josephine Wilson

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder
Cinematography: Jack E. Cox

There are those who think that Alfred Hitchcock never surpassed The Lady Vanishes when it comes to the romantic comedy thriller. From the opening sequence of an obviously miniature Eastern European village to the concluding scene in which Miss Froy delightedly reunites with Iris and Gilbert, it's an utterly engaging movie. If I happen to prefer North by Northwest (1959), it may be only because Cary Grant is a greater movie star than Michael Redgrave and James Mason a more suavely subtle villain than Paul Lukas, and of course the thrills -- the crop-dusting scene, the Mount Rushmore chase -- are done more deftly (not to say expensively) and with greater sophistication. Because virtually everything in The Lady Vanishes works: There's real chemistry between Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood; May Whitty is a delight as the geriatric spy; the notion of a song being the MacGuffin is witty; Caldicott and Charters are the perfect ambiguously gay duo; and there's a nun in high heels who pauses to fix her makeup. It also has a genuinely serious subtext: 1938 was a year fraught with tension, and when Caldicott and Charters are preoccupied with getting the news from England, our first thought is that it has to do something with the threat of war and not with a cricket test match. The satiric glances at the insular Brits are also underscored by the relationship of Todhunter and his mistress, escaping to a place where nobody knows them to conduct their affair, and even by Gilbert's blithe preoccupation with collecting information about the native folk dances of the Bandrikans, who might indeed be next after the Czechs to be swallowed up by the Third Reich. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Yotsuya Kaidan (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1949)

Ken Uehara and Kinuyo Tanaka in Yotsuya Kaidan
Oiwa/Osode: Kinuyo Tanaka
Iemon Tamiya: Ken Uehara
Naosuke: Osamu Takizawa
Kohei: Keiji Sada
Oume: Hisako Yamane
Yomoshichi: Jukichi Uno
Takuetsu: Aizo Tamashima
Kohei's Mother: Choko Iida

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Eijiro Hisaita, Masaki Kobayashi
Based on a play by Nanboku Tsuruya
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Production design: Isamu Motoki

Yotsuya Kaidan is one of the most famous Japanese ghost stories, put in classic form in the kabuki drama written by Nanboku Tsuruya in 1825. But in adapting the tale of a ronin, a masterless samurai, pursued by the vengeful phantom of the wife he murdered, Keisuke Kinoshita and his screenwriters, Eijiro Hisaita and the uncredited Masaki Kobayashi, jettisoned the supernatural elements to turn it into a psychological drama with overtones of Shakespeare tragedy: the ambition of Macbeth and the jealousy of Othello, abetted by an Iago-like villain. The ronin of Kinoshita's film, Iemon Tamiya, was dismissed by his former master for failing to guard the storehouse from a thief; he now ekes out a living with his wife, Oiwa, making and selling umbrellas. But while drowning his sorrows in sake one evening, he is approached by Naosuke, who plants in him the idea of wooing the wealthy Oume, whose father has the connections that would enable him to find a master and restore his status as a samurai. Naosuke also plots with Kohei, with whom he served some jail time, to woo Oiwa, with whom Kohei has been infatuated since the days when she worked in a teahouse. Kohei's attentions to Oiwa arouse Iemon's jealousy, which Naosuke plays upon. As the prospect of marrying Oume becomes more likely, Iemon is given a poison to use on Oiwa, but he's initially reluctant to go that far. When Oiwa accidentally scalds her face, producing a horrible disfigurement, Naosuke provides an "ointment" that puts her in terrible pain and Iemon administers the poison. In the turmoil that follows Oiwa's death, Naosuke also kills Kohei. Freed to marry Oume, Iemon finds himself tormented by a guilty conscience, and when he learns that Naosuke was the one who robbed the storehouse that led to Iemon's dismissal by his former master, he turns on the conspirator. A fiery conclusion results. Kinoshita released the film in two parts, the first running for 85 minutes, the second for 73 minutes. Part I is more tightly controlled, efficiently introducing its characters -- there are lots of secondary ones, including Oiwa's sister, Osode (also played by Kinuyo Tanaka), and her husband, Yomoshichi, who provide a kind of grounding in normal life. Kinoshita is not as successful at marshaling all of the secondary plots in Part II, and I tend to blame the director's tendency to sentimentalize, including the search of Kohei's mother for her son, for the weaknesses in the later parts of the film. But he gives his characters depth -- there is more sympathy for Iemon in the film than in more traditional versions of the story, which has been filmed many times: Turner Classic Movies has Nobuo Nakagawa's 1959 film version on its schedule later this month.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Number Seventeen (Alfred Hitchcock, 1932)

Ann Casson and John Stuart in Number Seventeen
Barton: John Stuart
Ben: Leon M. Lion 
Nora Brant: Anne Grey 
Brant: Donald Calthrop 
Henry Doyle: Barry Jones 
Rose Ackroyd: Ann Casson
Mr. Ackroyd: Henry Caine 
Sheldrake: Garry Marsh 

Director: Alfred Hitchcock 
Screenplay: Alma Reville, Alfred Hitchcock, Rodney Ackland 
Based on a play by Joseph Jefferson Farjeon
Cinematography: Jack E. Cox, Bryan Langley 

For the first part of the film, a bunch of people stumble around a derelict house, and for the rest of it most of them get on a speeding train and scramble around in pursuit of a presumably valuable necklace. There's a woman who's supposed to be a deaf-mute but turns out not to be and a corpse that's supposed to be dead but isn't, along with a giddy ingenue who falls through the ceiling and a cockney derelict who is supposed to supply comic relief from the gun-waving and running about. He doesn't, but the actor who played him, Leon M. Lion, not only got top billing but also a credit as producer. In short, Number Seventeen is a total mess. That it's atmospherically staged and photographed and the runaway train sequence is exciting in a mindless way are the positive elements we can ascribe to Hitchcock, who really didn't want to do this film version of a popular play, but agreed to anyway, then tried to turn a play he thought filled with clichés into a comedy thriller. He later called it "a disaster," and he was right.  

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Ceremony (Nagisa Oshima, 1971)

Masuo Sakurada: Kenzo Kawaraski
Ritsuko Sakurada: Atsuko Kaku
Terumichi Tachibana: Atsuo Nakamura
Tadashi Sakurada: Kiyoshi Tsuchiya
Grandfather: Kei Sato
Setsuko Sakurada: Akiko Koyama
Shizu Sakurada: Nobuko Otowa

Director: Nagisa Oshima
Screenplay: Mamoru Sasaki, Tsutomu Tamura, Nagisa Oshima
Cinematography: Toichiro Narushima
Production design: Shigenori Shimoishizaka
Music: Toru Takemitsu

In his comments on The Ceremony in Have You Seen...? David Thomson makes an admission that perhaps I myself don't keep enough in mind: "I have seen enough Japanese films to know that, much as I admire that national cinema, it is based on precepts that are strange to me." But Thomson also makes an important point when he likens the family in The Ceremony to those in "Faulkner or Greek tragedy." We are distanced from the tortured family narrative in the film not only by cultural differences, but also by the larger-than-life mythic quality of the personalities and events. The transgressive sexuality -- the pervasive incest in the Sakurada family -- and the rigid adherence to tradition, which reaches its most absurd point when an elaborate wedding is conducted with the bride in absentia, are on one level satiric indictments of Japanese culture, but on another level are statements about human obsessions that transcend national boundaries. Sometimes Oshima's attempt at this kind of transcendent mythmaking bogs The Ceremony down a bit, and the performers don't always rise to the demands of the material, losing their grip on the humanity of their characters and bringing in a whiff of pretentiousness to the enterprise. But it's a fascinating film to watch -- and often to listen to, when Toru Takemitsu's spiky score appears.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Rich and Strange (Alfred Hitchcock, 1931)

Henry Kendall and Joan Barry in Rich and Strange
Fred Hill: Henry Kendall
Emily Hill: Joan Barry
Commander Gordon: Percy Marmont
The Princess: Betty Amann
The Old Maid: Elsie Randolph

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville, Val Valentine
Based on a novel by Dale Collins
Cinematography: Jack E. Cox, Charles Martin
Art direction: C. Wilfred Arnold
Music: Adolph Hallis

One of Alfred Hitchcock's early talkie flops, Rich and Strange begins well, with an opening shot of Fred Hill at work in an expressionist-style depersonalized office set, followed by a montage showing his attempt to make it home on the Underground, dealing with elbowing crowds and a recalcitrant umbrella. There's a nicely synched bit in which umbrellas open to musical flourishes before Fred's fizzles. Then it's home to a drab and chaotic existence before the Hills receive their wished-for deliverance from the daily muddle: A rich uncle tells Fred that he can have an advance on his inheritance so he and his wife, Emily, can live a little. They set off to see the world. This early part of the film is perhaps the best because it mostly picks up on the skills Hitchcock learned through his work in silent movies. In fact, it is shot through with droll title cards and very little dialogue of consequence. The Hills are overwhelmed by Paris and shocked at the Folies Bergère, then board ship -- not a promising moment for Fred, who succumbed to seasickness on the Channel crossing -- for a cruise on the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal toward Asia. (The American title was East of Shanghai.) And then the talk takes over, as both Fred and Emily have shipboard romances, she with a somewhat dashing bachelor on his way to Ceylon, he with a German "princess" who cons him out of his money. Rich and Strange is a curious mess, with Henry Kendall, a once-well-known music hall comedian, awkward in the romantic part of Fred's story. Joan Barry steps out in front of the camera behind which she was lurking to speak the lines for Anny Ondra in Hitchcock's  Blackmail (1929), but she's not much more than pretty.  Hitchcock liked the film, but nobody else did very much, and opinion doesn't seem to have changed with time.

The Young Rebels (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1980)

Tomisaburo Wakayama in The Young Rebels 
Journalist: Go Kato
Asakawa Senjo: Tomisaburo Wakayama
Takiko: Junko Mihara
Yukio: Tatsuya Okamoto
Orie: Tomoko Saito

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita
Cinematography: Masao Kosugi

The title of Keisuke Kinoshita's polemical pseudo-documentary, The Young Rebels, sounds like that of a Hollywood film from the 1950s, the era of naive, sensational, and didactic dramas about "juvenile delinquency." Which is exactly what The Young Rebels turns out to be: an exploitation film about why kids go wrong. The answer is a simple one: their parents. The kids, Kinoshita is saying, are not all right: They ride around on motorcycles, they cut school, they shoplift, and they have sex. This was not exactly news in 1980: Nagisa Oshima, for example, was onto these facts in 1960, when he made Cruel Story of Youth, and he blamed it on dysfunctional parenting in 1969's Boy. But Oshima's films are about people more than they are about problems. Kinoshita has lost sight of the people in his obsession with the problem, and the result is a scattershot film designed to ferret out examples of parental irresponsibility both high -- affluent parents who are so obsessed with climbing the corporate or social ladders that they either ignore their children or spoil them -- and low -- parents who are so mired in poverty and its attendant ills like alcoholism and crime that they abuse their children. The narrative framework of the film is as simplistic as its point of view: a journalist goes in search of answers and interviews children and parents. Kinoshita is enough of an artist that he knows how to tell the several stories uncovered by the journalist, which gives The Young Rebels enough dramatic substance to keep the polemic at bay during the storytelling, but the piling on of miseries turns into overkill. Eventually, the journalist visits a kind of reform school in Hokkaido, the north of Japan, where wayward boys are nurtured back into society -- but there's even some recidivism there. At the end, the point seems to be that every kid needs a loving mother and father -- the Japanese title translates as a cry for help: "Father! Mother!" It has been pointed out that people raised children for millennia until, sometime in the mid-20th century, they became self-conscious about it and turned it into a problem. Kinoshita's humorless and even hopeless polemic does little to solve the problem, especially when the film often seems bogged down in fogeyism: A scene of joyriding motorcycle gangs, for example, is treated as a vision from hell.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Skin Game (Alfred Hitchcock, 1931)

Phyllis Konstam and Edward Chapman in The Skin Game
Mr. Hillcrist: C.V. France
Mrs. Hillcrist: Helen Haye
Jill Hillcrist: Jill Esmond
Mr. Hornblower: Edmund Gwenn
Charles Hornblower: John Longden
Chloe Hornblower: Phyllis Konstam
Rolf Hornblower: Frank Lawton
Dawker: Edward Chapman
Mr. Jackman: Herbert Ross
Mrs. Jackman: Dora Gregory
Auctioneer: Ronald Frankau

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville
Based on a play by John Galsworthy
Cinematography: Jack E. Cox

Despite winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1932, John Galsworthy is one of those authors nobody reads much anymore, partly because his reputation was eclipsed by the great modernists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf whom the Nobel committee overlooked. His series of novels that constitutes The Forsyte Saga came back in vogue for a while in 1967 and again in 2002 when they were adapted for British television, playing on that nostalgia for the good old days of the British class system that more recently made a hit of Downton Abbey. Class, especially the conflict of the landed aristocracy and the new-monied bourgeoisie, was his big theme, and he explored it not only in his novels but also in plays like The Skin Game, which was first performed in 1920 and immediately snapped up for a silent film adaptation. Hitchcock apparently saw the play and liked the idea of turning it into a talkie, wrote the screenplay with his wife, Alma, and even cast Edmund Gwenn and Helen Haye in the roles they had played in the silent film. The problem is that Galsworthy forbade any deviation from the original plot and dialogue, leaving Hitchcock for the most part stagebound. There's occasionally some interesting camerawork, especially in the auction scene in which swish pans are used to build suspense during the competitive bidding over the property that the old-money Hillcrist wants to keep out of the hands of the self-made industrialist Hornblower. But too often Hitchcock reverts to stage tableaus -- some of them badly blocked -- that show off the melodramatic hamming of some of the actors, as well as some stilted dialogue carried over from the play. There's a long take in which Chloe Hornblower confronts Hillcrist's scheming agent, Dawker, that particularly exposes Phyllis Konstam's mannered acting. The plot hinges on Chloe's dark secret, which seems much ado about nothing today: that she once worked as a professional co-respondent in divorce cases before marrying Hornblower's son, Charles. But Hitchcock retains Galsworthy's ambivalence about his characters, making neither Hillcrist not Hornblower purely admirable or villainous. We dislike Hornblower for his callous treatment of some old tenants of Hillcrist's after he buys property from the squire and for his willingness to despoil the land with his factories, but we also have to condemn Hillcrist's snobbery and his readiness to drag Chloe Hornblower's name through the mud. As he often did, Galsworthy put his faith in the younger generation, Hornblower's son Rolf and Hillcrist's daughter, Jill, who seem fated to bring both houses together, but Hitchcock doesn't quite give these characters room enough in the film version to make that point. He later told François Truffaut that he "didn't make [The Skin Game] by choice, and there isn't much to be said about it," but as so often, Hitchcock was fiddling with the truth. It's not one of his better films, hindered as he was by Galsworthy's restrictions, but there's some meat on it.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Merchant of Four Seasons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)

Hans Hirschmüller and Irm Hermann in The Merchant of Four Seasons
Hans Epp: Hans Hirschmüller
Irmgard Epp: Irm Hermann
Anna Epp: Hanna Schygulla
Harry Radek: Klaus Löwitsch
Anzell: Karl Scheydt
Renate Epp: Andrea Schober
Mother Epp: Gusti Kreissl
Hans's Great Love: Ingrid Caven
Kurt: Kurt Raab
Heidi: Heidi Simon

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cinematography: Dietrich Lohmann
Production design: Kurt Raab

Schlubby little (much is made of how much shorter he is than his wife) Hans Epp joined the Foreign Legion after washing out of the Munich police force for receiving a blowjob from a prostitute he had arrested, and now sells fruit from a pushcart he trundles through the courtyards of apartment houses. He is the object of scorn from his family because he never found a white-collar job, unlike his upwardly mobile brother-in-law and his intellectual sister Anna. His wife assists him in the fruit-selling business, working from a street stall, but it's clear that their marriage is troubled -- she spies on him at work, counting the minutes that he takes to deliver a bagful of pears to the woman he once proposed to. (She turned him down.) Even his mother doesn't love him: When he returns from the Foreign Legion and tells her that the friend who enlisted with him was killed, she retorts, "The good die young, but you come back." When he suffers a heart attack, his wife cheats on him while he's in the hospital, and then later lets him hire the man she slept with to take over the heavy-lifting part of the job. Despite all that's stacked against him, Hans manages to make a go as a merchant, but just as his family begins to praise him instead of dumping on him, he sinks into a deep depression and winds up drinking himself to death. If this all sounds terribly heavy-handed, it's lifted out of the suds in precisely the way Douglas Sirk made his films rise about their soap-operatic plots with sharp-eyed direction, flashes of wit, and sly social comment. The comparison to Sirk is an obvious one: Rainer Werner Fassbinder's breakthrough film was inspired by his study of the Hollywood master, whom he deliberately set out to imitate and, I think, managed to excel, if only because he wasn't handicapped by the money-making concerns and censorship of American film. There are some delicious performances, not only from Hans Hirschmüller as the sad-sack Hans and Irm Hermann as his sly helpmeet, but also from Hanna Schygulla as the somewhat sympathetic Anna. And the film ends with one of the most chilling exchanges in any Fassbinder film, as Irmgard and Harry, Hans's old Legionnaire buddy who has gone to work for him, drive away from the funeral and she proposes a business-like marriage to him. His terse reply, "Okay," perfectly sums up the emotionless, mercantile tone that pervades the film.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Murder! (Alfred Hitchcock, 1930)

Norah Baring, uncredited actress, and Herbert Marshall in Murder!
Sir John Menier: Herbert Marshall
Diana Baring: Norah Baring
Doucie Markham: Phyllis Konstam
Ted Markham: Edward Chapman
Gordon Druce: Miles Mander
Handel Fane: Esme Percy
Ion Stewart: Donald Calthrop
Prosecutor: Esme V. Chaplin
Defense Counsel: Amy Brandon Thomas
Judge: Joynson Powell
Bennett: S.J. Warmington
Miss Mitcham: Marie Wright
Mrs. Didsome: Hannah Jones
Mrs. Grogram: Una O'Connor
Jury Foreman: R.E. Jeffrey

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Alfred Hitchcock, Walter C. Mycroft, Alma Reville
Based on a novel and play by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson
Cinematography: Jack E. Cox
Art direction: John Mead

Hitchcock's third talkie, after the commercial success Blackmail (1929) and the comparative flop Juno and the Paycock (1930), is a solid start toward establishing his reputation as a master of the thriller, or in this case the murder-mystery subgenre. Hitchcock's direction of it is full of innovative touches: an opening sequence in which a scream is heard and the camera pans across a series of windows from which curious heads emerge; a neatly staged scene in which the investigation of the murder takes place in the wings of a theater, where people being interrogated sometimes interrupt their testimony to make their entrances; a scene that takes place in the jury room and lingers there as we overhear the sentence being delivered, with only a janitor tidying up in the actual frame; a voiceover by Herbert Marshall as we see his reflection in a mirror -- accomplished in those pre-dubbing days by playing a recording of Marshall speaking his lines. But frankly, Murder! is a bit of a mess, filled with improbable twists. For example, Marshall's character, Sir John Menier, an eminent actor-producer, winds up on the jury even though he has a prior acquaintance with the defendant, Diana Baring. And somehow, even though he believes her to be innocent, he is bullied by the other jurors into voting guilty. He then turns detective to try to overturn the verdict. The motive for the murder is equally muddled: something to do with the fact that the murderer, who turns out to be a circus trapeze artist who performs in drag, is "half-caste" -- a secret that he is willing to kill in order to protect. But this muddle has its moments, such as the one in which the dignified Sir John spends the night in a house near the murder scene, to be awakened by the landlady (the always valuable Una O'Connor) and her gaggle of noisy kids. Better, tighter scripts were to come, but Hitchcock gives this one better than it's due.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Boyhood (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1951)

Akiko Tamura and Akira Ishihama in Boyhood
Ichiro: Akira Ishihama
Mother: Akiko Tamura
Father: Chishu Ryu
Teacher Shimomura: Renaro Mikuni
Toyo: Toshiko Kobayashi
Mrs. Yamazaki: Mutsuko Sakura
Furukawa: Takeshi Sakamoto
Headmaster: Ryuji Kita

Director: Keisuke Kinoshita
Screenplay: Keisuke Kinoshita, Sumie Tanaka
Based on a novel by Isoko Hatano
Cinematography: Hiroshi Kusuda
Art direction: Tatsuo Hamada
Music: Chuji Kinoshita

It's easy to see why Keisuke Kinoshita was one of Japan's most popular directors: He had that audience-pleasing ability to create identifiable characters and familiar situations, along with a sincere desire to make a statement about ordinary people caught up in the sweep of history. Like his Twenty-Four Eyes (1954), Boyhood is about people in wartime but not where the conflict rages most fierce -- the conflicts in Boyhood are interpersonal and internal, not international. Ichiro is a 15-year-old boy, too young to fight in the war. When his family -- mother, father, two younger brothers -- relocates to the country during the war, Ichiro chooses to stay behind in Tokyo so he can continue his studies. But the first air raid finds him on a train to see his family, and when he returns to school he finds that he has fallen behind the other students and is stigmatized for his flight. So he joins his family in the country and starts at a new school, where he is an outcast, in part because the rural people treat the refugees from the city with scorn. He also feels at odds with his father, an intellectual who tacitly disapproves of the war, and is disturbed by the fact that his mother does most of the work to keep the family fed and housed, while his father continues with his studies. Ichiro is regarded as a weakling by his fellow students, and the teachers, most of whom preach the militaristic virtues of strength and self-sacrifice, do little to help. When the lake freezes over in winter, for example, Ichiro finds that he is incapable of learning to skate, and though he makes a determined effort, he's mocked for his failure. Not as wrenchingly sentimental as Twenty-Four Eyes, Boyhood still elicits strong feeling because Kinoshita sticks with Ichiro's point of view -- his desire to fit in, his closeness to his mother, and his confusion about his father's distance from the reality of what is happening around them. At the conclusion of the film there's a measure of triumph in the defeat of militarism at the war's end, but there's also a feeling of a lack of resolution to Ichiro's story.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar, 2016)

Adriana Ugarte and Rossy de Palma in Julieta
Julieta Arcos: Emma Suárez
Younger Julieta: Adriana Ugarte
Xoan: Daniel Grao
Ava: Inma Cuesta
Lorenzo: Darío Grandinetti
Beatriz: Michelle Jenner
Marian: Rossy de Palma
Julieta's Mother: Susi Sánchez
Beatriz's Mother: Pilar Castro
Antía: Blanca Parés
Young Antía: Priscilla Delgado
Young Beatriz: Sara Jiménez

Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Screenplay: Pedro Almodóvar
Based on stories by Alice Munro
Cinematography: Jean-Claude Larrieu
Production design: Antxón Gómez
Music: Alberto Iglesias

Julieta is low-key for a film by Pedro Almodóvar. It has the familiar bright pops of color and the characteristic involvement in the lives of women, but it rarely surprises or startles you with either its events or outbursts from its characters. Its use of two actresses to play the same title character has been likened to Luis Buñuel's casting two actresses in the same role in That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), but Buñuel's film features two very different-looking actresses in scenes that are occurring in the same time period, a disorienting effect when Buñuel switches from one to the other. In Julieta, Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte play the title character at different periods in her life, and although the two actresses don't look very much alike, there's little disorientation when one takes on the role from the other. Almodóvar has said that he didn't want to mess around with old-age makeup, and he's right. As the film begins, the older Julieta is packing to move to Lisbon with Lorenzo when a chance encounter on the street with Beatriz, an old friend of her daughter, Antía, causes her to abruptly chance her mind and stay in Madrid. We learn that Julieta and Antía have been estranged for many years -- the daughter even has children that Julieta has never met. In hopes that Antía will make a move to reconciliation, Julieta even moves to an apartment in the same building in which they lived when Antía was growing up. And she begins to write the story of how she met Antía's father, Xoan, initiating a flashback in which Ugarte takes over the role of Julieta from Suárez. Like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Almodóvar has always had strong ties to the films of Douglas Sirk, with their tortured love affairs and strong, beleaguered female protagonists, and like Sirk, both filmmakers use melodrama as a vehicle for social comment, particularly on the roles of women. Julieta touches on the still-pervasive and often repressive role of religion in Spanish life, but the film isn't out to make a point about it other than incidentally. The real focus of the film is on the unraveling of the story of Julieta herself as she comes to terms with female friendships and rivalries. The men in the film, from the passionate Xoan to the almost sexless Lorenzo, are decidedly secondary, there only to stir the plot and to spur Julieta's involvement with the other women in their lives. It's a splendidly crafted movie, but it feels at the end like one that was begun without a clear destination.  


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Two English Girls (François Truffaut, 1971)

Jean-Pierre Léaud and Kika Markham in Two English Girls
Claude Roc: Jean-Pierre Léaud
Ann Brown: Kika Markham
Muriel Brown: Stacy Tendeter
Mrs. Brown: Sylvia Marriott
Madame Roc: Marie Mansart
Diurka: Philippe Léotard

Director: François Truffaut
Screenplay: François Truffaut, Jean Gruault
Based on a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché
Cinematography: Néstor Almendros
Production design: Michel de Broin
Costume design: Gitt Magrini
Music: Georges Delerue

Late in his life, Henri-Pierre Roché wrote two semi-autobiographical novels about his life and romantic entanglements in the artistic circles of Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Since François Truffaut had his first great success as a director with one of them, Jules and Jim (1962), it's not surprising that he turned again to Roché for inspiration almost a decade later in Two English Girls. Both are about romantic triangles, though with a woman and two men in the first film, and a man and two women in the second. But where Jules and Jim is loose and larky, Two English Girls is slow and stately, its characters stewing in their frustrations and uncertain desires. Part of the difference may lie in the fact that the pivotal character in the first film is Jeanne Moreau and in the second film it's Jean-Pierre Léaud. Both are remarkable actors, but Moreau centers the film an element of mystery that gets diffused when Léaud becomes the protagonist, forced to deal with his attraction to two very different sisters. We know instantly why Jules and Jim are so fascinated by Moreau's Catherine, but in Two English Girls the difficulties among Claude, Ann, and Muriel, centering in large part on sexual morality, are not so provocatively drawn. So the tension among the figures in the triangle goes a little slack in Two English Girls, which at some point turns into a meditation on the differences in nationality and religion (or the lack of it). Roché's novel was titled Les deux anglaises et le continent, emphasizing the Channel-wide gap between the characters. ("The continent" is the Brown sisters' epithet for Claude, erecting a kind of geographical barrier reminiscent of the one between Henry James's Americans and Europeans.) Two English Girls is beautifully filmed by Néstor Almendros, and it has a lovely unobtrusive score by Georges Delerue (who also appears on camera in the role of Claude's business agent), but Truffaut's adaptation, relying heavily on voiceover narration, never overcomes a lack of dramatic incident inherent in the source. It takes patience and concentration to fully appreciate the intricacies of the relationships in the film.

Filmstruck Criterion Channel

Friday, September 22, 2017

Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929)

Cyril Ritchard and Anny Ondra in Blackmail
Alice White: Anny Ondra, Joan Barry
Frank Webber: John Longden
Tracy: Donald Calthrop
The Artist: Cyril Ritchard
Mrs. White: Sara Allgood
Mr. White: Charles Paton
The Landlady: Hannah Jones
The Chief Inspector: Harvey Braban

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Alfred Hitchcock, Benn W. Levy
Based on a play by Charles Bennett
Cinematography: Jack E. Cox
Film editing: Emile de Ruelle
Music: Jimmy Campbell, Reginald Connelly

Anny Ondra has the distinction of having appeared in both Alfred Hitchcock's final silent film, The Manxman (1929), and his first talkie, Blackmail. Unfortunately, it was the arrival of sound that put an end to her nascent career in English-language films. Blackmail was begun as a silent movie, but not long after filming started Hitchcock got what he wanted: permission to turn it into a talkie. Which presented a problem for Ondra, who was born in a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire that is now Poland and grew up in Prague, where she was a successful stage actress, and had been unable to lose her accent. In the infancy of film sound, a satisfactory technique of dubbing another actor's voice had yet to be developed, so actress Joan Barry was hired to speak Alice White's lines off-camera as Ondra silently mouthed the words. (After Blackmail, Ondra returned to the continent and was a major star in Czech and German films; she married boxer Max Schmeling in 1933.) The tricky problem of synching Barry's voice with Ondra's performance only spurred Hitchcock to other innovative uses of sound, for example the scene in which Alice White, stunned by having stabbed her assailant to death, hears a neighbor chattering about the murder and repeating the word "knife," which becomes increasingly louder until Alice breaks down in hysterics. Hitchcock also pioneers a gag he will use again: Alice opens her mouth to scream, but in a quick cut the scream comes from the landlady who has discovered the victim's body. The cut anticipates the one in The 39 Steps (1935) in which a woman's scream becomes the shrill whistle of a locomotive. Sound was still such a novelty that a silent version of Blackmail was made for theaters still not equipped for it. And even in the sound version the first six minutes of the film, which take place in the streets where the London police "flying squad" makes an arrest, are silent except for the background music, even though we see cops talking to each other and there are plenty of opportunities for ambient sound. Some scenes also have that curious slackness of pace of early talkies, as if the directors were uncertain about how quickly audiences could assimilate spoken dialogue. But it's far more "Hitchcockian" than most of his late silent films in that he's working effectively with thriller material, including a chase through the British Museum that anticipates his later exploitation of such landmarks as the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur (1942) and Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959). It also contains the longest of Hitchcock's familiar cameo appearances, as a passenger on the Underground being tormented by a small boy.

Turner Classic Movies