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

Sunday, March 27, 2016

A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, 1956)

François Leterrier in A Man Escaped 
Fontaine: François Leterrier
François Jost: Charles LeClainche
Orsini: Jacques Ertaud
Blanchet: Maurice Beerbeck
Le Pasteur: Roland Monod

Director: Robert Bresson
Screenplay: Robert Bresson
Based on a memoir by André Devigny
Cinematography: Léonce-Henri Burel
Production design: Pierre Charbonnier
Film editing: Raymond Lamy

"I don't laugh," Fontaine says. No, he doesn't. In fact, throughout A Man Escaped, François Leterrier's expression rarely changes. But we always know the determination, the doubt, the calculation, the suspicion that's going through his head, thanks to Leterrier's use of his eyes.* But as Eisenstein taught us so long ago, montage is responsible for so much of what we feel and witness in movies, and we have to credit Raymond Lamy's editing as well as Léonce-Henri Burel's cinematography and of course Robert Bresson's direction for making A Man Escaped, based on the memoirs of André Devigny, a member of the French Resistance who was imprisoned by the Nazis, one of the most powerful excursions into a man's soul ever put on film. The word "minimalism" was not so much in use when A Man Escaped was made as it is today, but if ever a film was minimalist in avoiding conventional movie tricks like background music or flashy camerawork, it's this one. Bresson's restraint as a filmmaker serves to keep us in Fontaine's head, blotting out all but his grim determination to escape. When Fontaine murders the prison guard, we don't see it. We barely even hear it. We are watching a blank wall when it happens. But we hold our breaths while it does. Today we think of the prison-break movie genre in terms of films like Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, 1953), The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963), Escape From Alcatraz (Don Siegel, 1979), and The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994), with stars like William Holden, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Tim Robbins, and Morgan Freeman, with action leavened by comic relief and made more tense by grotesque and sadistic guards, and underscored by mood music. What Bresson gives us is a film with no stars that concentrates largely on the face of the man planning his breakout and whose only music is the occasional underscoring with the "Kyrie" from Mozart's C-minor mass. And it works far better than those more famous and conventional movies.

*Leterrier went on to become a film director and writer. He made only one more film appearance as an actor, in the small role of André Malraux in Alain Resnais's Stavisky... (1974).

The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962)

Although Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) is by far the more celebrated film, I think as satire The Manchurian Candidate is a more subtle and sophisticated response to the Cold War. It may have fallen out of favor too soon because its subject, political assassination, became so sensitive just a month after its release, when John F. Kennedy was shot. For reasons that remain unclear, including Frank Sinatra's purchase of the distribution rights, it fell out of release for a long time, and only resurfaced occasionally on television until 1987, when, after a screening at the New York Film Festival, it became available on video. It's a loopy, scary, often hilarious, sometimes puzzling, and -- especially in any election year -- absolutely essential American film. Frankenheimer, who was one of the pioneers of American television drama in the age of shows like Playhouse 90, never developed a distinctive style in his movie work, but he knew how to tell a story, even when the story is as convoluted as this one. With George Axelrod, he adapted the 1959 thriller by Richard Condon, sometimes lifting dialogue direct from the novel. The results are occasionally enigmatic, as in the meeting of Marco (Sinatra) with Eugenie Rose Chaney (Janet Leigh) on the train, where the dialogue shifts into the surreal and seems to be laden with code. In terms of plot, the encounter -- probably the oddest meeting on a train since Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint's characters met in North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) -- goes nowhere: Leigh's character serves no further discernible role in the narrative. But it serves nicely to keep the viewer off guard as things grow increasingly bizarre. The weakest performance in the film is probably that of Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw. Harvey can't seem to be bothered to keep up an American accent, but somehow even that fits the ambiguity of his character. Angela Lansbury, as Raymond's mother (this is the point where it's usual to mention that she was only three years older than Harvey), is absolutely terrifying as one of the movies' greatest female villains. It earned her an Oscar nomination, but she lost to Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn). James Gregory, as her Joe McCarthy-like husband, would not be out of place in the current presidential campaign.