Older films seen in 2005, continued from the 2003 and 2004 editions. Note these are just quick notes, written on the fly mostly. This page was never intended to supplant the slightly more extended comments on oldies, though I guess it has really.
All films, both on this page and the previous ones, can also be accessed alphabetically. You lucky people.
(Addendum: films from 2004 and 2005 can now be viewed ranked by rating as well, thanks to one man's passionate grassroots campaign. Bizarre, I know...)
THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (67) (Ronald Neame, 1969): Somehow I don't think this was ever really appreciated, being in its day (I suspect) the equivalent of Miramax product in the early 00s - Familiar Art, wordy prestige drama based on a play based on a book (which apparently it dilutes), Ten-Bested by the likes of the National Board of Review (#7), shunned in the ferment of late-60s movies though of course Maggie Smith won an Oscar as the mythomaniac Fascist-loving teacher, fuelling the hormonal yearnings of her young charges. Neame doesn't really suggest a hothouse atmosphere, beyond the occasional close-up of windmilling teenage legs during a PE lesson, but Smith is magnificent - whatever Muriel Spark's original was like - striking a pose (cocked head, upraised shoulders) when addressing her "gels", lost in rapture like a little girl herself, fiery and voluble when roused to anger; David Thomson is wrong to call her Brodie a "calculated phony" - better to call her a woman who's become her own creation, the mannerisms clearly second nature, part of her denial about her own failure (there's no calculation; she's a real phony). Pamela Franklin also impresses, possibly the only performance I know that's utterly convincing as both child and woman - the transformation is quite shocking - and though Pauline Kael calls the final confrontation between student and teacher "a clinker" that may be just because it's dialogue-driven in a way that's admittedly old-fashioned (and stagy); Brodie's dawning realisation of who "betrayed" her makes for riveting drama. The film's real test is the balancing act, how it views Miss Brodie - a menace, or an inspiration? - and it proves a bit too fond of her; there's no hint of self-delusion when she says "I'm a teacher, first and foremost!", and her downfall seems rushed and unconvincing (though I saw a truncated TV version, 100-odd minutes instead of 116), arbitrarily added to force a sombre conclusion and force her to confront the truth - that she's no longer in her "prime". Artificial film about an artificial woman, which may be why it works so well.
SABOTAGE (62) (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936): Second viewing, no change in rating; a grim little piece dramatically undone by two deaths, the first too intense (even Hitchcock later admitted he miscalculated), its cruelty compounded by Oscar Homolka's callous response which seems out of character, the second robbing the last 15 minutes of much tension - though in fact it substitutes a different kind of tension, that of moral judgment. Homolka is legally in the clear but morally culpable after the first death, Sylvia Sidney exactly the opposite after the second, making the film one of Hitchcock's Catholic fables of guilt and punishment - and it's no coincidence that it features people trying to define an "act of God" (as opposed to an act for which someone bears responsibility) or, later, holding a sign that reads "Repent Ye and Believe" (not forgetting the old bomb-maker's cryptic joke to his little granddaughter: "Slap me hard, Grandpa's been very naughty"). In itself, murky and saturnine like its lead actor, though cheeky London atmosphere offers some compensation.
BONJOUR TRISTESSE (54) (Otto Preminger, 1958): Clearly anticipates L'AVVENTURA, DOLCE VITA and the rest in its tale of bored rich Europeans wallowing in alienation - but it doesn't use its heroine to chart a disaffected generation (maybe it was too early for nameless alienation in 50s America; people wouldn't have understood what her problem was), instead giving her that old chestnut, a Bad Conscience, one of two ways in which the film pulls its punches (I won't say it's bowdlerised, since I've never read the book; but I suspect it is). She used to be happy, she was happy "last summer", but now she's "surrounded by an invisible wall, a wall of memories"- and flashbacks duly show what happened "last summer" including her closeness with shiftless playboy dad David Niven, a relationship with clear hints of incest but of course not explicit, the other way in which the film pulls its punches; when our heroine - a Deanna Durbin in reverse, spoiling instead of matchmaking - decides to get rid of Dad's new wife-to-be it's not because she's jealous and sees her as a rival, but because the priggish woman makes her study and wants her to drop the young man she's in love with - a silly fig-leaf that diminishes the movie. Fans may call it subversive, but it's tiresome having to decode these closeted 50s movies - and besides it isn't clear that Preminger wants it decoded, his 'objective' style for once getting in the way; showing scenes of rich-person's banter in one static master-shot does indeed make it look stiff and leaden, but was that the idea or is the banter just not very witty? Maybe artificial lives need editorial comment, if only to establish how much the artificiality should define the characters' emotions - filming people doesn't have the built-in objectivity of filming institutions, like the artificiality of Congressional rules in ADVISE AND CONSENT. As it is, a tame little film about a spoiled girl who does wrong and feels bad about it; Niven is superb, Jean Seberg likeable - the film refrains from condemning her - though curiously asexual with that ultra-short blond hair.
KING KONG (72) (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933): Sorry, nothing much to say about this one (it's been a rough week). Second viewing, down from the high 80s; the ratio of spectacle to character no longer appeals so much, and the spectacle is less dazzling than it seemed when I was a child - also the effects 'no longer hold up' though that actually means nothing, since they're not intended to be lifelike in the way effects are nowadays. Stop-motion Kong is actually quite touching, and the jungle has a dreamy faraway-ness (what's always being called a Gustave Doré look, though I don't think I've ever seen Mr. Doré's illustrations); much more suggestive than the too-big, too-literal-minded Peter Jackson remake, and at least the ape has pathos. [See review of the new version for more comments.]
DECEMBER 1, 2005
THE PHOTO (55) (Nicos Papatakis, 1987): A grim little fable, clearly allegorical though the allegory is a little slippery after all these years. Is it a case of Greek Communism chasing after a beautiful chimera - a lie, basically - destroying itself in the process? (If so, who's the well-meaning liar?) Is it Greeks of the diaspora bound to an idealised picture of the Old Country that's founded on ignorance - not only does the Parisian exile think the photo is of someone who doesn't exist, he also doesn't recognise its true subject, a famous singer in the country he no longer knows - and can only end in tragedy? In itself, gruelling and unpleasant, forcing us to look on in horror as a bitterly ironic situation escalates en route to its inevitable bad end - but also haunting, with the cheap fuzzy look of 80s film stock and arthouse budgets. And the little-known DP is ... 26-year-old Arnaud Desplechin!
DAUGHTER OF THE NILE (46) (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1987): Transitional, to put it kindly. Hou tries to move from rural family dramas to urban anomie, but doesn't yet know how; visual style isn't there, relationships feel sketchy rather than disenchanted, and the staging of the gangster stuff just feels amateurish. (No wonder he retreated into Taiwanese history for a couple of movies, honing the more heightened, metaphorical style of the mid-90s.) Mostly a drag, and the titular comic-book strand is as undeveloped as the rest of it.
HARLAN COUNTY U.S.A. (59) (Barbara Kopple, 1976): "Whose side are you on?" asks the song, which is pretty clear in this up-the-people account of a coal miners' strike, but the real question is 'What remains of a documentary after 29 years?'. Not so much the official record, it turns out, and a side-trip down the politics of miners' unions feels merely 'educational'; the real attraction are the glimpses of early-70s How We Used to Live (In Rural Kentucky), though it's actually a little surreal watching people fighting for their rights and trying to raise consciousness when you realise you're really looking at their hairstyles and fashions, and the 70s markers in the landscape around them. Ideologues' mileage may vary, but don't underestimate the picket line's regional charm: "May the Good Lord take a liking to you".
THE CAINE MUTINY (70) (Edward Dmytryk, 1954): Works despite itself. Singularly charmless, in the rigid meaty way of guys talking about football scores, and it's surely not deliberate that there isn't a single likeable character - not Queeg, obviously, but not Tom Tully as the self-regarding captain with a chip on his shoulder either, or Fred MacMurray as the pseudo-intellectual (even before he's exposed as a coward), or Jose Ferrer's glib lawyer or even Van Johnson's honest but limited journeyman, and certainly not the dull Ensign (I don't even recall the actor's name) who for some reason acts as our identification figure. Dmytryk's flat direction combines with the characters (not to mention the craven kowtowing to the US Navy, lest anyone call the film unpatriotic) to create a sense of oppressive pettiness - yet it somehow helps the story, rhyming with lives spent in rules and regulations, the closeness of life on a ship and neuroses simmering in small spaces; again and again (esp. in the trial scenes) these people make you so mad you can hardly breathe, and their square-cut style only adds to the fury. Queeg's paranoia is almost heroic - at least it's imaginative - but also a grotesque funhouse-mirror reflection of their uptight fear and loathing, which is why his defeat also feels like a redemption. Second viewing, and I guess I don't like it in the unironic way I used to like it, but there's no doubt it works; guess I should revisit MISTER ROBERTS next...
BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (57) (John Sturges, 1954): Third viewing: I've liked it once (the middle time) and been indifferent twice - and the positive response was also the only big-screen viewing, which makes sense since its major asset is the spatial perversity of a small claustrophobic story set in Cinemascope'd big vistas. Visual abstraction beguiles - there's a great shot with one person walking through a group of others going in the opposite direction (the camera pans left to right, then right to left) that feels like a ballet or musical number - but the story's dead in the water, obvious when it's not being implausible, and the pious anti-racism message feels very dated. Walter Brennan is an isolated pleasure ("Don't get waspish with me, mister"), ditto the scene of squat Ernest Borgnine squaring up to Spencer Tracy in the bar: "I'm half horse, half alligator! Mess with me and I'll kick a lung out of you. What d'ya think about that?". Words to live by.
SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN (73) (Mikio Naruse, 1954): Seen with French subtitles so I may have missed some of the nuances - or misunderstood them, because some people think it's another case of Setsuko Hara smiling bravely through her tears whereas to me it seemed clear her character was meant to be a bit simple-minded, a kind of holy fool (at one point her husband says she's "just a child", adding meaningfully "in all respects"; certainly their sex life leaves a lot to be desired, judging by her look of horror when he calls her into the bedroom). The film is a kind of flipside to TOKYO STORY, not ungrateful children refusing to look after their parents but elderly parents tired of looking after their grown children, wondering when they can be selfish and retire to a country cottage ("to die," says the father bluntly) - but the tone is more acrid than Ozu, actually closer to a Japanese Bergman: characters say what's on their mind, however cruel, children are often unloved, relationships harsh, and there are also jolting moments when the film seems taken out of itself, brought face-to-face with a higher reality (cf. Ozu's transcendence, which comes from quiet acceptance of Life itself): I'm thinking of the lights going out and the old couple sitting in the dark with the sound of the wind howling, and esp. the extraordinary moment when the girl puts on the mask and seems momentarily transformed into an angel. Often said to be second-tier Naruse, so maybe it's just untypical; certainly less of the "sublime" - more indelicate, more plain-spoken - than one associates with Japanese films of this period. "Times are changing", as we're told more than once.
WIFE, BE LIKE A ROSE! (64) (Mikio Naruse, 1935): 30s Naruse - in my very limited experience - seems more restless than his 50s incarnation, the style less settled, more prone to mischievous ventures like the strange-looking dolly-shot following the heroine as she goes to answer the door (only with the camera suddenly jumping from inside the room to outside the house, watching her through the window for no particular reason); the tone is less harsh, more playful, and in fact I hoped the final act would go in precisely the opposite direction, not with the daughter's self-sacrifice - which is not a massive deal, since she does the Right Thing and is anyway young and resilient, cheerfully picking up tips from "American movies" - but tragic defeat for the loving ex-geisha country wife (it's fine that the daughter matures, realising her parents have to live their own lives, but it'd be more complex if she got her happy dream and wilfully shut her eyes to the price someone else was paying). Most distinctive - as in SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN, my only other Naruse (so far) - is the way transcendence co-exists with the mundane and quotidian, not discreetly in the background but impinging on the characters - something they deal with directly, whether the poetess mother who finds Beauty in the everyday (a family scene she glimpses on the street) or the cheerfully philistine boyfriend who only cares whether chrysanthemums and cherry blossoms are edible; but which one is right, and which one is happier? Incidental note: Hope to see this again someday in a better print, with better subtitles - hopefully translating the songs and recitations which also (I suspect) explain the title.
NOVEMBER 1, 2005
SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE (81) (second viewing: 77) (William Greaves, 1968): Reminds me of when they yell "Watch out Haskell, it's real!" in MEDIUM COOL, except Greaves is already about 10 layers ahead - knowing how movie 'reality' gives way to behind-the-scenes reality which in turn could be stage-managed which in turn can be admitted, which admission in turn could be part of the set-up, etc. Also a comment on Performance and everyday 'acting' (hence the seemingly irrelevant final scene), also very funny in the IRMA VEP style of movies about movies, also thrillingly articulate; watching smart people onscreen never gets old, but surely those aren't real crew members, are they? (Or are they?) Only problem is it should be longer - it basically maps out the concept, crew taking over the movie as a reflection of the whole late-60s Power to the People, without even beginning to execute it. Maybe that was the plan for "Take Two". [All true on second viewing (7 years later), except the scenes of the actors in the film-within-a-film seemed a bit tedious this time; like "Pale Fire", it's a work where the footnotes - in this case the commentary and deconstruction by the crew members (and yes, these brilliant and charismatic people did apparently work junior-level jobs in the film industry) - are more fun than the actual text.]
AMERICAN MADNESS (66) (Frank Capra, 1932): Horrifying thought: do I habitually ignore or forgive stilted 30s acting due to watching almost all these films on video? Certainly, on the big screen, the inexpert emoting of Kay Johnson (neglected wife) and Gavin Gordon (caddish bank clerk) leapt out inescapably, marring the overlapping dialogue and Capra's virtuoso handling of the giant bank set - though Walter Huston was predictably superb as the very decent manager, so I think it's just those actors. Capra's early-30s verve remains an eye-opener (though this isn't as complex or ambitious as THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN) and the corny-but-stirring climax - small depositors coming to the aid of the beleaguered bank - confirms his right-winger's unbridled faith in capitalism; Business is offered as the cure for the Depression, which may or may not be accurate but it's still a joy watching people talk intelligently about fiscal policy - should a bank protect itself during bad times, or expend its capital trying to stimulate the economy? - without assuming the audience are morons (how many Hollywood films today have people talking about the pros and cons of a weak dollar?). God's-eye shots of the run on the bank are amazing, but isn't it odd how the 'little people' are such an irrational destructive force - part of Capra's ambivalence re: his own populist rhetoric? Discuss, preferably in relation to MEET JOHN DOE.
OCTOBER 1, 2005
ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (53) (Louis Malle, 1958): Guess I'm out of sync with Malle's very early work (I thought THE LOVERS was tedious too, back in the day), and this seemed to go in the stylish-but-pointless file, its three strands never connecting in any meaningful way. Presumably it's meant as a film noir in the style of the Nouvelle Vague, i.e. loose and discursive (with Miles Davis doodling moodily on the soundtrack), but it's not a good fit, SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER notwithstanding; I switched off early, not helped by my Jeanne Moreau blind-spot - the febrile young girl playing 'Vero' is so much more striking and expressive - though it's mildly notable for a certain dry humour, not least in its central plot twist (as implied in the title). Pointed references to Vietnam, arms dealing, wartime etc don't seem to lead anywhere - ditto emphasis on younger vs. older generation - but maybe they had state-of-the-nation resonance 47 years ago.
SEPTEMBER 1, 2005
ONE HOUR WITH YOU (76) (Ernst Lubitsch & George Cukor, 1932): Delightful, civilised, laugh-out-loud funny - all this and more. Directorial credit sows some confusion, because Cukor could've directed bits like the WOMEN-style catty gossips at the party and Lubitsch doesn't feature many concrete examples of the Touch, more a free-floating naughtiness (exception: the sly opening, sidling up to the central couple via cops in a park), but it's clearly of a piece with his other Chevalier/MacDonald comedies of the early 30s. Maurice Chevalier, playing a fuddled husband rather than a smooth seducer, is very funny sharing his troubles with the audience ("My wife thinks I'm darling. My wife's best friend thinks I'm cute. It's a terrible situation"), and the whole cast plays with a nod and a wink: I didn't even realise the joke till Roland Young pointed it out - with a slight pause and subtly raised eyebrow before the last two words - when Chevalier (the secret lover) introduces himself with "Dr. Bertier. Physician." and he (the husband) replies, "Professor Olivier. Ancient History.". Would certainly be 80+ if not for the fact that - like the earlier MONTE CARLO - it fizzles out in the final stretch. That said, look at the way the awkward triangle is resolved, and happy ending contrived, then try to tell me comedies have grown more sophisticated in the past 70 years.
THE FURY (66) (Brian De Palma, 1978): Patchily magnificent. De Palma doesn't just use style in e.g. the foreground/background fantasy ruptures or slow-motion flight to freedom (Pauline Kael: "It's as if [each person in the scene] were in a different time frame"), doesn't just use sex and violence knowingly, humorously - we know a terrorist assault is somehow excessive (a joke, yet not a joke) in the opening sequence; we know the camera's ogling the two girls' behinds (conceded, yet not conceded) as it follows them a little later - but also builds a set of visual motifs around superiority (God's-eye shots, looking down at one point on a labyrinth-like image) and falling, both literal and metaphorical, made explicit in the climax as the "superior" being hurtles to the ground. Also of course sexual repression, fear of being touched and a big Furious orgasm at the very end. Not as finely-wrought as CARRIE or DRESSED TO KILL, though.
ALADDIN (75) (John Musker & Ron Clements, 1992): Well, don't I feel silly. Second viewing, first in 12 years, seen with the express purpose of knocking it off my Top Ten list - except that it still works very well. Light of touch, fleet of foot, really just a half-dozen excellent set-pieces - the escape from the cave, various song numbers, final confrontation - strung together, with bonus points for Abu the monkey's Donald Duck voice. That bowdlerised line in the opening song - "Where it's flat and immense, and the heat is intense" or whatever, changed from the 'offensive' original - really grates, however.
MADIGAN (63) (Don Siegel, 1968): Madigan isn't much like Bullitt (released the same year) - there's a bit where his partner calls his wife to say he's running late and you think it's about to be contrasted with Madigan's own sorry home life, but in fact he's married too (semi-happily) - and the film doesn't go in for tough-guy Steve McQueenisms or romantic loners. In fact it's about grey areas and the need for flexibility, real-world cops making real-world compromises (Madigan isn't on the take but doesn't mind taking a "police discount" when one is offered) - it's pragmatic over ideological and surprisingly close, despite being written by a noted Leftie, to Siegel's (allegedly) right-wing DIRTY HARRY, another film that stands for the cop in the street over rules and regulations. Definitely interesting - but the domestic scenes are uninspired and endless, and the gritty action sits oddly with glum introspective Henry Fonda learning not to be so by-the-book. Should've Been A Cult Actor: Michael Dunn, a dwarf with the face (and stylings) of a suave motherfucker.
THE RIVER (60) (Jean Renoir, 1951): Second viewing, down from 82 (!). Thanks to a certain curmudgeon for prompting me to watch this again, though here's a funny thing: I watched about half an hour and was like 'My god this is awful, what was I thinking, etc', then turned it off and went back to it later - and suddenly found it a lot more charming, if still quite stilted (I also re-watched the opening half-hour and it was better, though still probably the worst part of the movie). Moral of the story being, it's a very fragile film: the staging is awkward, non-actors are variable, the woman playing the Indian nurse hammy and disastrous, the youngest girl often seems to be speaking her lines phonetically without understanding them - but the philosophy behind it is touching (destruction as a necessary part of creation, like the end of childhood or the flaxen-haired jute getting processed in the factory, Life flowing on past triumphs and disasters like the river itself) and Renoir does wonderful things like the lovingly-composed shots of sleeping family members before the shot of the dead boy, subtly adding a touch of lyrical resignation - 'To die, to sleep; no more' - to the tragedy (I also like how the new baby, implicitly taking the place of the dead one, turns out to be not a boy but another girl; and then they laugh). Its greatest achievement is surely the ugly-duckling heroine, crawling into her closet when depressed with the air of having done it a thousand times before, coming out with surreal non sequiturs ("I wish I were a cabin boy so I could run away to sea") or impulsive bursts of frustrated adolescence (on being informed that we all have to grow up, willy-nilly: "I hate willy-nilly!"). That and the photography, of course; tour of the various river steps = awesome.
BEFORE THE REVOLUTION (74) (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1964): Second viewing, still pretty great. "Does the present resound in them as it does in me - insatiably?" asks our hero of the people he sees in the street, and his answer (like Bertolucci's) is obviously 'No'. It's that kind of film, the film of a young director feeling more alive than he'll ever be again, determined to expose and encapsulate 'the present' - to take us down the streets of his city, tell us his political beliefs, talk of Love, go from pop songs to opera. The usual 60s larkishness - montage of heroine trying on different pairs of glasses - mixes with a heavier, more brooding romanticism, a settled world of big households and family meals followed by long siestas, love in secret rooms and the corridors of opera houses while the others are watching the music. There are rough edges, badly-dubbed sound, etc, and both leading actors are inadequate - but there's style ("Style is a moral fact") and ambiguity, and echt-Bertolucci Moments like our hero lamenting that the bourgeoisie can never truly be politicised (because they always live the salad days, "before the revolution"), only to be shaken from his gloom by the sight of a beautiful working-class youth talking of Castro. Strong evocation of the Po flatlands, brilliantly suggestive final shot; wish I knew who those people in the pictures are - the camera panning from one to the other - carefully posed behind the hero and his mentor as they talk, though...
BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE (65) (Budd Boetticher, 1958): Nothing like the clean narrative lines of DECISION AT SUNDOWN (still the only other Boetticher Western I've seen) but lots of little twists and reversals, which is unfortunate both because the script occasionally trips over itself in terms of 'our friends the plausibles' - e.g. why do the thugs go into town and not back to the hideout, as per the original plan, after they snatch back the Mexican? - and, more importantly, because it plays against the economy and lucidity that seem to be Boetticher hallmarks (it might've played better with a more blustery director, like Sam Fuller). Quirky humour is intact - Randolph Scott seems a lot more relaxed here - and there's great bits like the cowboy's graveside valediction to the man he's just killed, hoping he's not too sore about it and reminding him he was no angel in the first place. Mostly quite minor, however.
CAIRO STATION (64) (Youssef Chahine, 1958): Chahine himself plays the lovelorn simpleton, gazing at his beloved like Chaplin in CITY LIGHTS (with not-dissimilar music on the soundtrack) - making it quite a surprise when he later turns into a murderous psycho. Elsewhere the workers are organising, the whores sit around talking trash, the Egyptian beatnik kids are playing their crazy jazz in a train compartment, and Islamic fundamentalists get a quick look in (on dancing: "This is something new. And everything new leads straight to hell!"), long before the days - i.e. today - when they'd have enough power to veto the super-sexy shot of voluptuous heroine dressing after a swim, her wet underthings clinging to her skin. Probably more fun to describe than watch - a lot of it is just melodrama - but Chahine the director veers from quasi-documentary (the opening V.O. setting out the life of the station) to enormous close-ups of yearning eyes, while the frame fills up with coolies and coffee-boys coming and going. Everyone's a hustler, trying to get ahead, which is why it's all so lively - and, to 00s Western eyes, un-Islamic.
MIRAGE (73) (second viewing: 66) (Edward Dmytryk, 1965): Dmytryk gives it a sheen and uses New York locations ably, but it's really a case of writer Peter Stone crafting another elegant puzzle post-CHARADE - admittedly adapted from a book but sporting the same mix of teased-out mystery and playful incidentals (incl. care lavished on the minor characters, like the helpful bookstore clerk who assures our hero the book he's browsing through is "eminently readable"). Hitchcockian feel for suspense situations - the 'missing' floors, the LADY VANISHES memory-tricks, the whole is-he-mad-or-is-he-sane ambience - film-noir asides like Walter Matthau goofing on private-eye conventions, and even a touch of sci-fi in the talk of secret labs, "Twilight Zone" amnesia gimmick and dream-shots like the man plunging from the skyscraper. Eminently watchable. [Second viewing (October 2021) is a mixed experience because, on the one hand - after a brilliantly disorienting first half-hour - it doesn't really work that well as an 'elegant puzzle' (the cleverness flags, despite a jazzy feel and quirky details; the third act is stodgy; Gregory Peck makes a stiff action hero) yet, on the other, there's a lot going on that I missed the first time. The script is obviously trying to Say Something on the dehumanisation wrought by technology and (esp. nuclear) science, hence e.g. a psychiatrist - and self-described genius - is dismissed as a good scientist but "not much of a human being", there are random references to the state of the world, moral relativism (hard to know the good guys from the bad, now that all the Westerns have "gone psycho"), violence being something that "more and more, people seem to crave in their lives"; the last line is almost a homily, and a weird place to end: "We'll help each other. That's really what it's all about anyway". The more exalted layer doesn't really cohere (but at least it's there), the main layer isn't as witty as remembered; a slight downgrade, also a minor revelation.]
NEVER ON SUNDAY (47) (Jules Dassin, 1960): "A Greek is a Greek. He never refuses a dare!" Yeah, whatever. Does communicate a certain joy in sensuality, which is rare enough - shouldn't there still be a place for this kind of saucy fantasy sex, even though the real thing has been de-taboo'd? - but only at the cost of turning Greeks into a swarthier version of John Ford's singing drinking fist-fighting Irishmen (Piraeus is an almost all-male enclave in this version, whores excepted). The anti-intellectual angle is strange, if only because it would've been easy enough for the heroine to end up with the best of both worlds (instead she becomes politicised, which for Dassin may be a worthier goal than culture or "understanding"), and Melina Mercouri's overbearing personality actually makes her perfect as a hooker - a few hours of fun, but not a person anyone could stand for any extended period. Viewers mindful of Dassin's blacklisting can have fun teasing out the Commie subtext - heroine takes the ultimate capitalist profession and subverts it (by not charging a fixed price and going only with men she likes), finally organising and leading her colleagues in collective negotiation - but viewers who are Greek have to deal with the stereotyping first. "What's everyone drinking?"; "Ouzo. It is what a man drinks!". Honky please.
RIFIFI (76) (Jules Dassin, 1955): Empty calories but insanely entertaining, starting with the gang being all archetypal - the master-thief coughs emphysematically, the Italians wink at the girls and talk with their hands - then the heist itself in total silence (and yes it's a gimmick, and it works really well because it's stylised and because the rest of it is so busy - you might as well say it's a gimmick when they burst into song in musicals), finally a messy aftermath with several memorable deaths and thrilling race-against-Time climax. Dassin seems to be a brittle talent with enormous energy, little depth and a harsh streak - the weak get punished, even when they have their reasons (like the Dad who gives in for the sake of his little boy); the film itself is familiar at heart, trashy on the fringes - a dope fiend with a straight razor, a fickle mistress beaten naked with a strap - but kind of irresistible.
ORDET (84) (Carl Dreyer, 1955): Not for everyone; I can imagine gales of laughter from an unsympathetic audience at exchanges like "What happened to your brother? Was it a love affair?"; "No; Soren Kierkegaard", or the deadpan Scandinavian glumness of husband coming in from wife's deathbed to announce "And now she's dead". Matthew Wilder at the IMDb seems to think Dreyer's deliberately trying "to fake a sort of Sunday-School simplicity", but reveals his own bias since there's no indication the film is meant to be taken in Von Trier-like quotation marks; Dreyer sees the humour in e.g. the mad brother skulking around on the fringes, wandering in for a quick jeremiad at the back of frame - but everything depends on the ending feeling natural, as natural as possible (cf. BREAKING THE WAVES), and that means following on organically from the rest of it (no film makes a better case for a slow, deliberate pace; it wouldn't work at all, and would just seem portentous, if it moved at a normal clip then slowed down for the climax); any hint of condescension for the characters would destroy the effect, ergo any perceived condescension - or fakery - must be the viewer's problem, not the movie's. Limpid grace is the keyword, pure as the faith of a child (it reminded me a bit of that sci-fi story - "The Little Terror" by Will Jenkins - about the little girl who can make people disappear just because she thinks she can, proving Bishop Berkeley's dictum that matter exists only because we think of it as existing), with a climax that's outrageous precisely because it's so simple. Key composition may be the deliberately skewed shot that squeezes the patriarch right at the edge of the frame so it can include a barred window in the top-left corner - the theme is that people are caged by their beliefs (later there's also a bit of business involving a bird in a cage), when Religion should be something pure and innocent. Then again, Dave Kehr thinks it's about "the moral and metaphysical shadings of Love" (maybe, but only with the proviso that spiritual love explicitly wins out over the physical: the atheist finds his faith), and those unsympathetic may prefer to leave God out of it altogether. Not for everyone - and heavy going, in any case - but remarkable and finally inspiring; no surprise that the last word spoken is "Life!".
THE PHENIX CITY STORY (73) (Phil Karlson, 1955): Incredibly tough-minded exposé of small-town gangsterism - high/low point: a little girl is murdered and her dead body thrown into someone's front yard in order to 'send a message' - even incorporating a fairly explicit racial message without making heavy weather of it. Obviously part of America's post-WW2 self-improvement drive that also saw cops using 'modern' methods in WHITE HEAT and scientists littering any number of 50s sci-fi flicks - but it's never pat, the heroes never get comfortable and even the ending isn't quite triumphant (even less triumphant if you consider the gangsters can only be defeated by bringing in the Army and imposing martial law, though no-one seems too bothered about that). Hollywoodisms kept to a minimum, making for an eerily effective form of Time-travel; the opening prologue spoils the 'plot', but students of pre-TV people at the dawn of the TV age will find it fascinating.
STROMBOLI (53) (Roberto Rossellini, 1949): Opens with a quote from the New Testament - "I was found by them that sought me not" - and it's a beautiful philosophy, underlying much of Rossellini (that I've seen) - but it's better expressed in FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS where the transcendent (God, Love, Magic, call it what you will) comes in the course of ordinary life, or VOYAGE TO ITALY where it comes incidentally to those with their mind on other things, than in this rather didactic scenario where Ingrid Bergman actively resists the beauty of the Simple (and Godly) Life, then finally succumbs. The ending is especially reductive in that God and religion had hitherto been tied into, and compromised by, the islanders' less exalted concerns (Mass is an opportunity to stare at the foreigner, etc), and it's hard not to see the whole film as an aimed-at-America infomercial for the Bergman-Rossellini dalliance - Bergman the star, the petulant diva, used to "a better life than this", coming to these primitive Italians and finding herself as a Person (and an Actress), though admittedly the turnaround is discreetly done - and Rossellini's vaunted 'modern' style seems artless more than anything; the tuna-fishing scene, acclaimed as "one of the most amazing ever filmed" in the "Time Out Film Guide" and the IMDb, seems to rely on the same few shots (only one, a monster tuna rearing its head out of the water, being especially "amazing") and its rhythm feels less carefully-honed than the similar scene in even an unheralded film like Pierre Perrault's POUR LA SUITE DU MONDE. Still of interest, but I'm just not seeing the 'masterpiece' tag to be honest; I didn't even buy Bergman's transformation from the leaf-in-the-wind of the early displaced-person scenes to the truculent wife she becomes when she comes to Stromboli.
AUGUST 1, 2005
LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (66) (John M. Stahl, 1945): Loopy, super-stylised melodrama in luminously perfect - hence artificial - colour, the better to tell the tale of luminously perfect Gene Tierney, actually a paranoid psycho with Daddy issues. Good fun, though it doesn't really develop much after the heroine is revealed as a cold-eyed villainess, just resolves into a morbid game of can-you-top-this? The courtroom climax, in which the trial mutates into a forum for the heroine's old lover to bitch and yell at her husband, may be the second-wackiest in a 40s movie after SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR.
THE SHOP ON MAIN STREET (75) (Jan Kadar & Elmar Klos, 1965): Fans of the somewhat similar DIVIDED WE FALL really need to see this for its unexpected (though not really) emphasis - made by filmmakers who were actually around during WW2, before the war was cutesi-fied into oblivion. Looks like a tale of the 'little man' who becomes a hero despite himself, but that's not what the film has in mind - and the climax, as its true intentions (but not yet the extent of its cynicism) became apparent, had me literally covering my mouth in distress as you do when watching two cars about to collide. Bonding between the two protagonists is subtly done (they don't so much bond as take the line of least resistance, the way people do) and the village atmosphere too feels superbly natural, right from the opening Slovak version of the passeggiata - though it could be just a function of nostalgia, and the knowledge that most of these people were essentially playing themselves; also terrific scene of extended drinking and carousing, which Eastern Europeans seem to do better than anyone for some reason. Because they're drunks, probably...
SAN FRANCISCO (49) (W.S. Van Dyke, 1936): Earthquake climax is spectacular - with at least one mini-montage (built around a falling statue and a wagon-wheel) cut in the staccato Soviet way, 'Odessa Steps'-style - but too short. Before that, way too much of Jeanette MacDonald's opera singing, Clark Gable in fairly good form, and a tone perched uneasily between nostalgia for old lawless Frisco and implicit Sodom and Gomorrah-isms - destruction raining down on this godless town, etc - reaching a nadir in the anti-climax when Gable gets religion and everyone dances through the wreckage. Not great, though you have to love a movie era when they stopped the show for a literate 5-minute speech on Love and Compromise and Growing Older, delivered by a minor character.
THE HURRICANE (82) (John Ford, 1937): Even the people who like this movie don't really appreciate it! "First-rate escapism," burbles Maltin, but its great achievement is in making the titular disaster-movie climax thematically relevant to the rest of it - setting up a clash between "civilisation" (esp. the rule of law, Raymond Massey superb as the duty-bound Governor) and the Noble Savage, South Sea islanders described as "more bird than man". They're children of the wind, craving freedom - and the great wind at the end comes to reinforce their claim, not as punishment but a sweeping-away of the white man's narrow legalistic worldview (it's equated with God, as in SAN FRANCISCO [see above], but the film is much more pagan/pantheistic than Christian). Starts off kitschy - and kind of sexy, at least for 1937 - in jungle-romance vein, veers unexpectedly into powerful miscarriage-of-justice drama (Ford had been practising the year before in PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND) interspersed with literate discussions on Head vs Heart. The climax needs to be awe-inspiring - the film's whole schema depends on it - and triumphantly delivers (I've always liked that tolling-bell effect, even when PTA did it 60 years later in BOOGIE NIGHTS). This may be the best disaster-movie ever made.
AFTER HOURS (78) (Martin Scorsese, 1985): Second viewing, first in 20 years, and the first time I've noticed the reference to Welles' THE TRIAL - when the bouncer says he'll take Griffin's money, just so he feels he's tried every option - obviously appropriate for this urban Kafkaesque nightmare. Also noticed more social comment on the selfish 80s - our hero's problems really do stem from seeing people as commodities, and he's only saved when he's nice to someone - though much too smartly contrived to be one-dimensional; Scorsese's in control from the thrillingly abrupt opening shot, though complaints of misogyny - or at least fear of women, esp. needy women - aren't entirely off the mark. Complaints of hollow cleverness ditto, and maybe the use of "Is That All There Is?" is a snarky way of pre-empting them - but it also opens new doors, adding a wry philosophical spin to our hero's troubles (all our wasted lives, as per Bronson Pinchot's little speech at the beginning). Incidental nostalgia for downtown New York in its squalid pre-cleanup days, not to mention the bad old days before ATMs and mobile phones.
THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (75) (Woody Allen, 1985): Second viewing, first in 20 years; "You have a magical glow", and it does. Not too inventive in its plotting - fewer twists and turns than expected - but all about impossible dreams (even the maitre d' in the film-within-a-film wants to be a tap dancer) and Life's little disappointments. The ending makes perfect sense, though Mia Farrow isn't the right kind of actress for rapturous abandonment - she's too psychotic, frankly. Favourite bit: the woman whose husband is "a student of the human condition".
BACK TO THE FUTURE (74) (Robert Zemeckis, 1985): Second viewing, first in 20 years, actually a slight disappointment (I fully expected it to go 80+). The first half-hour seemed lame, partly for stupid reasons - the McFly parents look like young actors in feeble middle-age makeup, giving the game away (did we just not care about this stuff 20 years ago, before computers fostered the illusion of hyper-reality?) - partly because almost everything is setting up a later moment in the usual tight-scripted style, and they feel like set-ups (plutonium robbery, "All this used to be farmland", etc); it's like the prototype - or perhaps Patient Zero - of blockbusters, and we've all become more attuned (I won't say more sophisticated) in the years since. Second half is still perfectly fine, though the materialist coda is so 80s - we may still dream of living in a big house with a big car, but it's slightly bad form nowadays to come out and say it. Other things also mark it out as Republican Art, notably the notion that aggression is what makes a successful businessman - though McFly Sr. becomes a success as a sci-fi writer, sweetening the pill with the old follow-your-dreams spiel. The closing credits - actually the way they explode on the crest of a feelgood moment, powered by a blast of Huey Lewis - made me tingle all over with exhilaration.
PARTY GIRL (55) (Nicholas Ray, 1958): Alternate title: "He Limps, She Dances". Some gorgeous use of colour - incl. symbolic swatches of red - but the characters are obviously coded and the goings-on predictable (and unconvincing, esp. when hotshot lawyer Robert Taylor is laying it on for the jury). Ray's films (that I've seen) up to 1956 seem to will themselves on the viewer - and their often indifferent plots - by sheer force of febrile emotion, while after that he seems to wander, trying out new genres, intensity replaced by an often mischievous curiosity, sometimes connecting (THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS), sometimes coming off detached and wilfully eccentric (see e.g. the gay gangster in this one). Whole thing seems half-baked, though Cyd unrolls those legs and Taylor's the tetchiest of middle-aged bastards: "Self-destruction among showgirls seems to be a kind of occupational hazard"...
THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE (80) (John Huston, 1951): Second viewing, still pretty great - though I could've done without the voice-over, and I hope Huston had nothing to do with the ludicrous intro ("Stephen Crane was himself a boy of 22 when he wrote 'The Red Badge of Courage'. Its publication made him a man."). Obviously folksy, but the lines are stylised into a poetic patois and the film's sense of the fragmentary and tentative lends them a poignant incertitude; for a so-called macho director, Huston's always been very interested in men's fear and helplessness. I wouldn't be surprised to hear Malick had scoped out the visuals - esp. that low-angle shot of light streaming through the treetops - in preparation for THE THIN RED LINE.
ON DANGEROUS GROUND (77) (Nicholas Ray, 1951): Loneliness and isolation, check; troubled teen, check; stranger in a close-knit community, check. Lots to talk about for Ray cultists, but mostly a very pedestrian premise transformed by A.I. Bezzerides' dignified script and the director's fevered empathy - manifested in everything from Bernard Herrmann's score to the performances (Ida Lupino literally unblinking as the Redeemer Woman) and the big-city blues of the harrowing first half, incl. early use of driving as a metaphor for the city's close-quarters alienation. Also compare with WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS from the year before: for Preminger the cop's violent temper was a tragic flaw - but for Ray it's a kind of twisted connection with the "punks" he beats up ("Why do you make me do it?" he shouts) and finally with the young killer (a schizophrenic, like himself), hence with Ida. His rage is also his redemption.
FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (70) (Russ Meyer, 1965): Badly lacks the sensuality and sultry atmosphere of the previous year's LORNA - this is just tawdry and lubricious - but it may be Meyer's best-scripted movie, esp. the middle section at the house with everyone scheming to use and manipulate everybody else (best of all: every single character is both good and bad). An outdoor action movie - girls, cars and boondocks - with a high place in the annals of bad-girl iconography, knockabout fun but also quite complex and exciting because when e.g. Tura Santana's ramming the simple-minded hunk with her car at the climax, you're really not sure who to root for (where does feminist table-turning shade into callous murder?). Would it kill them to have included some nudity, though?
WETHERBY (74) (David Hare, 1985): "Turns out I was just a sub-plot, and the real action was going on elsewhere," says a character ruefully - which is partly the point of this puzzle, viz. the reality of people, who they are, how we can decipher them ("Do we become the way we look?" asks the schoolteacher heroine, talking to the class about people's faces; "Or do we look the way we really are?"). The pivotal character is defined by his "blankness" yet also contains (or claims to contain) deep elemental feelings like Rage and Desire - is he lying, or is he blank because he doesn't fit, because there's literally no way to transpose such feelings to the world of people? - the heroine tries and fails to understand Young People Today ("They have no curiosity"), everyone's looking for a way in, trying to balance logic and emotion. Some of it doesn't work - I didn't get the significance of the 50s flashbacks, except perhaps to flesh out the heroine (but the Past as Key to the Present is such a cliché, and most of the film is un-clichéd) - but the best of it anticipates the fragmented reality and mystery-in-the-everyday of Haneke's films, except that Hare cares more for things like Passion and Memory while Haneke's interested in Power and Violence (both are very interested in issues of Control, though: the walls we build against the world, the use of language as control, the logic of political correctness). Extremely harsh lighting recalls a film noir, the scrambled chronology is Resnais-like, but the rhythms of the dialogue make it clear Hare's a writer first and foremost - and you can forgive a great deal for a line as perfectly-phrased as the following: "When you're a boy you think Oh, it's so easy; always wipe the slate and move on. Then, with the years, you find you've become a prisoner of dreams". Yes.
DER SCHRITT VOM WEGE (49) (Gustaf Grundgens, 1939): Shouldn't really be writing about this since I fast-forwarded through a lot of it (Life's too short, etc), but it's so obscure I guess any comment's better than nothing. Actually not much of interest for a long while, with Marianne Hoppe too stodgy and affected as the girlish Effi Briest (decades too old for the part, I assumed, but in fact she was only 28), and the two men in her life - husband and lover - both indifferently played; cinematic style never really comes into it, Grundgens being one of those actors turned occasional director (his life was the basis for MEPHISTO). Final act is intriguing, though, because it's so sad and desultory. A fine speech is given about Duty (and the time was ... 1939!) then a man is senselessly killed, but the film never lapses into melodrama; heroine gets increasingly deflated, not so much rejected as ignored by her daughter, finally falls into a funk and loses her will to live as we knew from the start that she would (opening is a shot of her gravestone), not even making a despairing last stand like Anna Karenina. Could be just a faithful adaptation - I've neither read the book nor seen the Fassbinder version - but it's still a remarkably low-key defeat, morbidly effective and quite compelling. Not a lot to say, otherwise.
THE LOST HONOUR OF KATHARINA BLUM (65) (Volker Schlondorff & Margarethe Von Trotta, 1975): One of those great 70s movies - see also JUGGERNAUT, NADA, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, the work of Rosi and Costa-Gavras - that's about a situation as much as (or more than) any one character, hence implicitly about the way the world works: here are the cops, there the journalists, over there the ordinary people caught in unfortunate circumstances. It's like a fresco, each character a different colour - the cartoonish tabloid reporter (and sexual libertine; the film has a strong moralistic streak) a lurid red, the various cops various shades of blue (doing their job with varying degrees of compassion), Katharina Blum herself a rather boring white with alarming moments of blackness (the film is smart enough to keep her motives - and ultimate guilt - opaque). Slackens its hold slightly, and it might've paid more attention to its various ironies - e.g. that Katharina, in trying to fight back, inadvertently destroys the man she loves - but the ending is ingenious, pushing one thing by arguing its opposite like Antony's speech in "Julius Caesar". Relevance to modern trials-by-tabloid and the War on Terror is a bonus more than anything.
EBB TIDE (48) (James P. Hogan, 1937): Opening act introduces three beachcombers - Ray Milland is the educated Englishman fallen on hard times, Barry Fitzgerald does his crafty drunk, Oscar Homolka does a great deal of Acting with his left eyebrow as a sea-captain in disgrace out of Joseph Conrad, thinking back to his old respectable life. Middle act is set on a ship - the Technicolor gleams - with tensions resolved by a storm at sea, final act has them meeting a Kurtz-like figure (more echoes of Conrad) doing crypto-Fascist things on a remote island. Quite unusual, but also flatly handled and hammily performed. Certainly intriguing that it casts many of its conflicts in terms of class - but it's also true that it ends with the two gentlemen coming to a gentleman's agreement, having first disposed of the over-ambitious riff-raff.
TEXASVILLE (58) (Peter Bogdanovich, 1990): First time as tragedy, second time as farce. Not a description of my second viewing (rating slightly higher) but the film's status as sequel to THE LAST PICTURE SHOW; that film's end-of-an-era elegy gets repeated (and comically exploded) as end-of-everything exhaustion, just as its sexual awakening gets re-cast as sexual chaos and hysteria. Tends to hit the same note again and again, a study in weariness with Jeff Bridges (reliably great) saying stuff like "I wouldn't know how to fall in love with anyone. I'm too old for it", while everything around him goes to hell. Still underrated, grown-up and wistful with good sense of place and some wise-and-witty dialogue courtesy (presumably) of Larry McMurtry, though this seems to be another of his novels ("Some Can Whistle" is even worse) where a male protagonist is systematically beaten down by smarter, sharper women to show he's having a mid-life crisis. Annie Potts is so sexy she makes the Cybill Shepherd character - reprising her LPS role as the siren who still makes our hero go weak at the knees after all these years - seem a little silly.
START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME (62) (Bud Yorkin, 1970): Second viewing, first since my teens, slightly less impressed by this zany comedy with brilliant bits and pieces. Gene Wilder's hilarious as the volatile aristo with explosive temper and exotic sexual peccadillos ("I didn't know we were going to play 'The Monk and the Choirboy'!" wails his long-suffering wife), Donald Sutherland ditto as his identical (!) twin brother with dandyish airs and preposterous accent, but we mostly see them in their other roles, as amusing but forgettable peasant heroes (though I laughed when they realise - much to their horror - they've been mistaken for the notorious "Corsican Brothers", and try to beat a hasty-yet-dignified retreat: "As they saay ... in Corsicaah ... Goodbye!"). Somewhere between Danny Kaye and Mel Brooks, making fun of swashbuckler clichés from another era - notes passed surreptitiously during a Royal ball, secret birthmarks proving someone's noble birth, a spy disguised as a blind man - but the French Revolution farce was more pungent (if cruder) when Brooks did it in HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART ONE. Still enjoyed it, esp. now that I know who Orson Welles is. "And the time was ... 1789!"
THE STORY OF ADELE H. (66) (Francois Truffaut, 1975): Romantic and increasingly unhinged, just like its heroine. Truffaut throws in sudden nightmares where Adele feels she's drowning, switches wildly between English and French and does things like have her write letters while actually declaiming them into the distance, all of which gives the film an air of dream or fantasy, or even black joke - Adjani's button-eyed, solemn-little-girl intensity is indeed "disharmoniously funny" to quote Pauline Kael, and when she ends up walking the streets of Barbados in a tattered floor-length gown surrounded by gangs of urchins, she's as fierce and pathetic as Klaus Kinski surrounded by monkeys in AGUIRRE. Vivid and unusual, but too disjointed so the emotional pull wasn't there (for me); the final shot is a heartbreaker - romantic longing, now a mere memory in the pitiless whirl of Time - but it wasn't enough. Maybe that love scene in a graveyard was too much of a giveaway.
VIVE L'AMOUR (70) (Tsai Ming-Liang, 1994): Second viewing, seen as the first in a Tsai triple-bill - and what's striking is how still-undeveloped the distinctive Tsai style is (THE RIVER, three years later, is a quantum leap in terms of Tsai-ness). This could almost be any Asian-anomie movie, visuals cool and affectless, characters stuck in a rut, namelessly alienated, drifting around on scooters and in empty apartments; the high comedy of WHAT TIME IS IT THERE is only there in patches (Lee Kang-Sheng and the melon), and e.g. the office game where everyone huddles in 'family' trios, invariably leaving one person out in the cold, is a little too on-the-nose for Tsai (though still one of the best scenes). Still an incredible ending, esp. because it works both ways: heroine's tears could be tears of joy, or at least relief - she's found a man, her life is looking up, etc - but it's also the morning after, and her car won't start and maybe nothing's really changed after all. Also: slightly surprising to see the gay angle so tentative (almost apologetic), esp. since Tsai is himself gay; was he in the closet in '94? Also also: this urban legend that 3-IRON cribs from VIVE really needs to be knocked on the head; thematically and even stylistically, they're completely different - all they have in common is that characters don't speak for the first half-hour. I mean come on.
THE LOVED ONE (47) (Tony Richardson, 1965): "There are certain jobs out here which an Englishman simply does not take," declares gloriously orotund Robert Morley, and contempt for "out here" filters through this satire of Southern California mores, devised by various clever Englishmen. Obviously a cult movie (ecstatic User Comments at the IMDb) and it is sharp on some things, e.g. the confluence of religion and business in the US, but mostly an all-star disaster with Richardson's direction either flat or over-aggressive and Haskell Wexler swamping the jokes with his wide-angle images and harsh 60s b&w. Still, Rod Steiger in a blond curly wig as a very camp mortician ("Mr. Joyboy") serving his grotesquely fat mother suckling pig while she lies in bed watching food commercials on TV earns a high place in the annals of nightmarishly comic meet-the-parents scenes, up there with ERASERHEAD and LITTLE MURDERS. 40 Years Is A Long Time Dept.: "I assume your uncle was Caucasian?" "Certainly not! He was English!".
LE FEU FOLLET / THE FIRE WITHIN (64) (Louis Malle, 1963): Second viewing, first in 12 years, down from 83. A great subject - the life force (the Fire Within) that makes us human, and what happens to a man who loses the ability to connect with it; "I can't stretch out my hands. I can't touch things," says our hero glumly, "and if I touch them, I don't feel anything" - but Malle's style seems inadequate and a little limp. Opening scene has hero gazing intently at a woman's face after making love, looking for that Something that'll give meaning to the encounter ("It eluded him again"), and there's striking Bergmanesque visuals there, homing in on the topography of faces, but the rest of it has few memorable images except when Malle does something stylish - e.g. the jump-cuts at the dinner party - and then it just feels self-conscious; above all there's little sense of place, never managing to rhyme the character's alienation with his surroundings in the Antonioni style. Malle's is a different sensibility, more novelistic perhaps, with the author using powers of description instead of (the more cinematic) ellipsis and sensorial suggestion - the ambient scenes where nothing much happens, scored to Erik Satie, are easily the best of it - and more aristocratic, showing polite society without mocking or feeling any need for 'compassion' (his tone seems to say: 'This is how things are'). All a bit stolid, with a mopey hero; ending still packs a punch though, esp. the sudden way he [SPOILER].
THE CIRCUS (69) (Charles Chaplin, 1928): Never sustains the inspired slapstick of its pre-circus first 15 minutes - the maze of mirrors, Charlie pretending to be a mechanical toy, etc - but interesting for the way he views the circus, not as a haven for artists and misfits like the Little Tramp but an institution, and cruel and unjust and hierarchical like any institution (no surprise that he finally leaves them behind). Also interesting for the way Chaplin apparently saw the Tramp - the other clowns try to teach him their act but he flops when trying to do an 'act', being naturally funny in himself, as a human being (except of course the Tramp was an act, so you have to wonder - was it Chaplin's way of dissociating himself from his music-hall beginnings, or just his ego putting him in a kind of denial vis-a-vis his creation?). The gags seem half-hearted, esp. in the second half - both the lion-cage and the tightrope climax seem designed for effect, i.e. putting Charlie in a dangerous situation, yet without the meticulous set-ups of (say) SAFETY LAST - but of course the Tramp is imperishable, and Chaplin the actor is so adroit : the tipping of the hat in various guises (polite, mocking, seductive), the deep pierrot-like sigh and rather effeminate laugh, the sharp-dealing instincts in money matters, the quick sure-footed bits of pantomime as when he tells the girl to eat slower or holds up two, then three, fingers with a coy little giggle (we don't need an inter-title to know he's saying: "Two's company, three's a crowd"), the final shrug and waddle away into the distance.
JULY 1, 2005
THE DEVIL-DOLL (73) (Tod Browning, 1936): Strange that Browning should've followed the cheerfully shambolic MARK OF THE VAMPIRE with something so solid and accomplished. Lionel Barrymore seemed bored in that film but turns in a fine performance here, revelling in the sly comedy of the old-lady disguise (borrowed from THE UNHOLY THREE) but also underplaying the thirst for revenge that turns into something more noble, his own happiness ultimately sacrificed for his daughter's. Effects are also excellent - only in the delightful scene of the doll-people dancing are the joins over-visible - and the concept treated quirkily, as it was in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN when dotty Ernest Thesiger was the one creating mini-humans; Rafaella Ottiano supplies mad-person gleam, somewhere between a Gale Sondergaard sinister housekeeper and the Bride's wild-eyed grandeur, expertly mixed in with the father-daughter drama, horror-movie elements and 50s sci-fi air of bad science. Also operates as camp (for the camp-minded) but there's no camp value needed, no excuses; just a film that works really well.
PETER IBBETSON (69) (Henry Hathaway, 1935): Proves or disproves the auteur theory, I haven't quite decided; a bolder, more original director than Hathaway might've helped the third-act leap into dreamlike fantasy - which over-explains, and prevents the film from being the romantic masterpiece it almost is; needed more abstraction, a plunge into pure visuals. Yet he gets so much right, for a "Lightly Likeable" hack - the theme of the Artist in a cruel world (filled with people who delight in breaking the spirit of a horse, or a child), the gravitas of the early kid scenes, the sense of drift and obscure loss in the middle act; in a way it even helps having Hathaway instead of a more romantically-inclined director like (e.g.) Borzage - the faith in dreams and soulmates is more wondrous, more precarious, as though the film itself can't quite believe it. Ann Harding's pale elegant glitter looks like it might blow away in a cloud of lovely ash at any moment - and there's Gary Cooper, who seems at first miscast (too lumpy) but uses his gentle, apprehensive eyes to great effect (there's a bit where he looks at something with immeasurable tenderness, looks down then looks again with the eyes gone dead now, the emotion faded). Other highlights: the tight, cool figure of the Duke at the dinner table ("And how long have you been in love with my wife, Mr. Ibbetson?"), and the final shot with Death wrapped around a chink of light, a hand reaching out, then a body slumping back into the darkness.
ANNA KARENINA (54) (Clarence Brown, 1935): There's a jaw-dropping shot early on, at an officers' party when the men sit down to dinner and the camera cranes back and back and back, following them down the length of an enormous table laden with food and drink and ornate candelabras - for no reason at all except (it seems) to show off the fabled MGM production values, and because they could. The whole film is certainly lavish, but might've worked better as drama if they hadn't cast Basil Rathbone (in Mr. Murdstone mode) as Karenin - his stifling respectability comes across as double-dyed villainy - though really it's a question of a rich book being pared down to its rather chintzy central dilemma, esp. in the second half. Garbo isn't at her best but does get one of her best-ever entrances, heart-stoppingly glimpsed through the steam as the train arrives at a station.
A ZED AND TWO NOUGHTS (63) (Peter Greenaway, 1985): Obviously not for all tastes, seeing as I once gave it 0 out of 10 as a fairly smart (if hopelessly provincial) 17-year-old, but surprisingly accessible on second viewing. I'd forgotten what a sense of humour Greenaway used to have - best described as 'antic', e.g. in the use of children's song 'The Teddy Bear's Picnic'- and the main theme, to do with the "myth" of evolution - not in a creationist way but just in the sense that we've yet to transcend our animal natures - is wittily composed, or de-composed, with Michael Nyman's score over time-lapse images of literal 'de-evolution'. No real comments possible, however (sorry Waz), because I'm writing two weeks after the event and also saw it on projected video, which distracted hugely (of all the films to show on DVD...); at least I'm now willing to give Greenaway's 80s work another chance.
PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (64) (Peter Weir, 1975): Things unseen, a world beyond our ken - from the shots of ants and insects when a picnicker claims she and her friends are "the only living things" on the Rock, to the studious girl's comment that people seem adrift but may be subject to invisible forces, "performing a function unknown to themselves". Even the first half seems a bit too studied, and the second half just isn't very interesting (even the mystery gets a bit over-explained); obv. a sexual metaphor in any case - like THE VIRGIN SUICIDES - and the music at least - lilting piano and Zamfir on Pan-pipes - is haunting, esp. in the scenes on the Rock. I don't think I'll ever forget that shot of the three young girls seen from behind, in their pinafores and ribbons, walking trance-like away from the camera, vanishing one by one behind a crag of rock.
BLACK NARCISSUS (86) (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947): The fallacy of practical-minded, Church of England-style religion - the kind that aims to subsume God in the community, laying its emphasis on work ("We are very busy people!"), rolling one-year contracts for the nuns and a submersion of wasteful emotion, whether passion or mysticism. In fact, says the film, one has to go to extremes where God is concerned - either incorporate Him in every deed and thought as a kind of casual animism or give oneself entirely to religious mystery, like the wordless "holy man"; instead, the nuns revere God in a distant, uncomfortable way, bristle at any hint of the divine - "What would Christ have done?"; "Isn't that your business, saving souls?" - repressing the real ardour of their vocation just as they repress sexual feeling. All this in addition to being one of the most gorgeous films ever, and a staggering technical achievement, and not without the mischievous Archers sense of humour ("Sausages!"). And then it turns into a horror movie...
GERMANY YEAR ZERO (75) (Roberto Rossellini, 1947): What can you say? Starts off explicitly claiming to be neo-realist (i.e. "objective"), then turns into "Oliver Twist" with a pederast Nazi as Fagin (see also the lesbian Nazi in ROME OPEN CITY) and gangs of urchins picking a pocket or two - before finally spiralling into post-War alienation, expressed through extended shots of wandering around a deserted sci-fi city, more than a decade before HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR or LA NOTTE. Could've been any rating, really - it is what it is, with its major flaws (incl. a comically awful scene at the site of Hitler's bunker) and probably unforgettable central situation, the constant scavenging amid the ruins of Berlin, dead horse in the street and hungry people crowding round like flies, Nazi remnants everywhere, families crammed in a house with a venal reluctant landlord (bit of a cop-out not making hero's sister a whore, though). A very pure shot of nihilism, which is both its limitation and enduring power.
PRIZZI'S HONOR (76) (John Huston, 1985): Some years ago a teenage reader wrote to complain he'd seen this film and how could I possibly like it, it was so boring etc; I of course dismissed him, but after third viewing (17 years after the second) I kind of see his point - it's a really eccentric movie, perched on the edge of total fiasco, but somehow it still works (for me). Lower rating this time, a couple of silly things bothered me - William Hickey is clearly a younger man in old-man makeup; the knife through [spoiler]'s throat is clearly in the wall behind him/her, like onstage when actors stand in profile holding a sword in their armpit and pretend they've been run through - and Huston's approach can be puzzling. He shoots in long static takes with a lot of dissolves and fades, as if sanding away all the rough edges - minimising cuts within the scenes and even between the scenes - and the pace is deliberately creaky; the film feels inert yet the inertia is what makes it special, making for an old man's film about greedy, cruel old men conspiring to ruin people's lives. The detachment from the central romance (e.g. the repeated shots of the plane criss-crossing from East Coast to West and vice versa) makes the whole thing seem like a droll deadpan joke - and of course it is a joke because Love can't compare with Prizzis' Honor (that's the point), though it takes almost the whole film for this to become apparent; Huston lets the central tragedy sneak up on you - showing his hand only in the frequent snippets of grand opera - just as the film's central character (pace David Thomson) is gradually shown to be neither Jack Nicholson nor Kathleen Turner but in fact the woman in the final shot (and the identity of the actress playing her adds another, poignant level of directorial generosity). Even better than "The Sopranos" imo (what I've seen of "The Sopranos"), more subtle, more worldly; that it's being mentioned as a precursor to MR. & MRS. SMITH just goes to show how little remains of a film in the public imagination after 20 years.
THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (74) (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966): A battle against colonialism, but it's near-impossible at this point in time not to see it as a clash of civilisations, Western against Islamist - and not to wonder if Abu Musab al-Zarqawi hasn't seen at least the first half, a handbook of guerrilla tactics aimed at maximum disruption (though maybe not the second half, which points out that a revolution can't succeed unless the people themselves rise up, hearts and minds won by the guerrillas). The camera caresses the Algerians' expressive faces - the elegant features, deep fiery eyes and slim sculpted cheekbones - but the film allows the French colonel in charge of counter-insurgency (and in charge of torture) time to be more than just a cipher, letting him justify his actions via realpolitik and a measure of wistful self-awareness ("Why are the Sartres always on the other side?"); Pontecorvo clearly doesn't agree but the point is having both sides, a lesson lost on many more self-righteous propagandists. Technically a tremendous achievement - esp. when you realise there's no found footage at all - though the emphasis on re-creating the public record is a little limiting; more behind-the-scenes intrigue in the Rosi/Costa-Gavras style might've made it even better.
WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES (67) (Nicholas Ray, 1958): A real curiosity. The staging is awkward, dialogue stilted verging on excruciating, exposition clumsy ("He could be the new warden we Audubon people have been looking for!"), character development slapdash; Ray, seemingly a gun-for-hire on the project - and going through assorted personal stuff - seems to have directed with his mind on other things. But the jazz-piano players and Cajun extras on the fringes feel real, the drunken night of moonshine and song and happy anarchy feels real - that whole scene is quite amazing - and the ornery charismatic figure of Burl Ives (as a swampland Big Daddy) brings the eco-drama alive - a free-thinking Life Force smacking his lips at "the sweet-tasting joys of the world", but also a villain destroying the very land he knows so well. The stubborn-backwoods-cuss is an archetype but this one (unlike, say, the old lady in WILD RIVER) isn't standing in the way of 'progress', he's allied with its forces of destruction - yet is closer to the land than anyone, and also another of Ray's cruel-to-be-kind monster fathers, as in BIGGER THAN LIFE; the Florida landscapes look even more pristine today, with our double nostalgia for 1958 as well as the days when Miami was a trading-post, but the film is a natural (no pun intended, though I guess it's semi-intended) double bill with THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS, complicating the myth of the Noble Savage - in this case by making clear Nature can be red in tooth and claw; an Arcadian montage is followed by a shot of wild geese hissing straight at the camera. Halfway through I'd have said high 40s, yet there's a bizarre authenticity that gets to you.
WITCHFINDER GENERAL (47) (second viewing: 62) (Michael Reeves, 1968): You can say 'Jacobean revenge play' till you're blue in the face, this still has the approximate complexity - dynamic-wise - of a cheap Western (the shots of horses galloping through the verdant English countryside do suggest a transplanted Western). "Audiences don't cheer" at the ending, claims Danny Peary, "because they realize [the hero's] soul has been irretrievably corrupted", but it's surely hard to link Hopkins the Witchfinder with "Cromwell's Holy War" as evidence of all-pervasive evil and corruption, given the soldiers' unambiguously heroic role in the narrative and the appearance of Cromwell himself, who seems down-to-earth and secular and turns up mostly to say how much he likes a good meal (is it intended to prove he's a hypocrite and not a 'real' Puritan, like the Witchfinder? not strong enough, if so). Above all, if Reeves really wanted to draw a connection, it would've been easy to contrive an ending where Soldier Hero gets executed for desertion in a blatantly unjust application of the law (in this case military law), just like Hopkins perverts the law in his own work - indeed, this ending is explicitly set up and seems inevitable, only to be ignored in favour of a modishly downbeat one (incidentally making large chunks of the movie completely irrelevant). That leaves only a tiresomely sadistic revenge story, plus Reeves' occasional eye for pastoral landscape - though his much-vaunted style has dated badly, with zooms galore, a love-scene montage with double exposures and soft music, and a clumsy dissolve from a crashing wave to burning flames. Not a patch on THE DEVILS. [Second viewing, February 2014: Oddly enough, I still agree with most of the above - but that's only to reject the complexity claimed by its more fervent fans. It's not complex, but it has some memorable shots (should've mentioned the spindly figures scuttling up that hill towards the castle), a vivid sense of sadistic pettiness and an atmosphere of disquiet, up to and including the ending. Maybe I had lower expectations, maybe I've just gotten easier in the past 9 years. Not a patch on THE DEVILS, admittedly.]
JUNE 1, 2005
BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING (77) (Otto Preminger, 1965): On one level, a gripping thriller with modern touches - like pop music playing diegetically on a TV set in the background while a dialogue scene unfolds - and everyone allowed to speak motivated (as opposed to expository) dialogue, keeping the truth constantly in question, arguing their case as they would in real life (the school finds no record of Bunny, the brother rebuts by showing the cheque-stub for the fees he paid, adding they could easily have removed the page from their records, the cop counter-argues he could easily have torn an empty cheque and noted a name on the stub, etc; the only flaw is perhaps that buying a doll for a girl wouldn't necessarily prove she exists). A reminder that Preminger was a trained lawyer, interested in competing narratives and elusive Truth - just like his camera privileges various characters at various times (the opening scene makes sense only in retrospect), and just like the film's other, higher level, continuing his interest in Conformity vs Deviance or Perversity (from Waldo Lydecker in LAURA to homosexual skeletons in ADVISE AND CONSENT): the heroine is an unmarried mother as well as an American in London - two kinds of outsider-dom - the school encourages "self-expression", i.e. non-conformity (though ironically parents are expected to toe the line), the landlord is a "pervert" as well as implicitly into black magic. Laurence Olivier's cop is the one straight line, doggedly trying to solve the case with logic and phlegmatic police work - but it spirals into full-on Deviance (the startling god's-eye shot when they start singing "Here we go round the mulberry bush" being perhaps the point where all logic collapses) and can only, in the end, be resolved on that plane. Thrillingly smart, though I guess it's not for everyone; Maltin's capsule - "subsequent investigation among several homosexual characters and assorted oddballs" - is pretty hilarious.
SHE DONE HIM WRONG (52) (Lowell Sherman, 1933): Female Admirer: "You're a fine woman, Lou"; Mae: "Finest woman to ever walk the streets!". Virtuous Cary Grant: "Haven't you ever found a man to make you happy?"; Mae (ironic twinkle): "Sure ... Lots of times!". Most significantly, though: "Men are all the same. It's their game - I just have to be smart enough to play it their way". Mae West films are by definition non-events - their main attraction "the sweltering intimation of an orgy that will be begun as soon as the camera stops," to quote David Thomson - and the lady herself is by definition a mask, suppressing all human emotion (everything but sex and diamonds) to ensure survival in a man's world. Not much here beyond censor-dodging - being "smart enough to play it their way" - and it's too short to pick up much steam; Mae doesn't even appear for 10 minutes (out of 60), though we get some nice period detail, hawkers and street-sweeps going about their business in the Gay Nineties, "a lusty, brawling, florid decade". Also, Ms. West can't sing. Not that it matters.
STRAW DOGS (71) (Sam Peckinpah, 1971): Opening shot echoes the one in THE WILD BUNCH - a group of kids surrounding (though not strictly speaking tormenting) a puppy - and part of the point is again that power games generally - and violence specifically - are ingrained in human nature. The usual interpretation - a macho fantasy about a wimpy intellectual finally Becoming A Man - is there obviously, but the film is a lot more cryptic and perverse, above all in the couple's relationship which is full of almost-comic tension and mischief (she messes with his mathematical equations; he interrupts lovemaking to wind the alarm clock), and weird pedophile undertones making the rape even more disturbing (too much has been made of her 'enjoyment' imo; she only seems to enjoy the first part, which is rough sex with a man she's always fancied). The siege climax seems overstretched, not as resonant or intriguing as the rest of it, though maybe it's because catharsis is (deliberately) undermined by ignoble motives and misunderstanding; the last lines of dialogue find our hero aligned with a murderous child-molester, with his precious house in ruins. Hard to parse on first viewing, but a tight, unyielding vision - not (so much) of machismo, but an all-pervasive misanthropy.
CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (76) (Orson Welles, 1966): Might be a thing of shreds and patches (to paraphrase one of the few Shakespeare plays not included here), but then so's Welles himself, and it's amazing how he makes it look so gorgeous - really using only two tricks: depth in as many shots as possible, to shake off any staginess (hence e.g. the late shot of Mistress Quickly which could've been head-on but comes at an angle, with the wall behind her adding visual interest as it diagonals into the distance), and the combination, as in THE TRIAL, of streamed light and monumental settings - and it's amazing how he gets (at least) three excellent performances when production must've been so sketchy. Keith Baxter convinces both as the "nimble-footed madcap" playboy prince and the icy King, Welles himself as a fat philosophical Falstaff gets a poignant introduction ("We have heard the chimes at midnight ... Jesu, the days that we have seen!") and a great reaction-shot when curtly rejected at the climax - disappointment mixing with a kind of fatherly pride at this regal Harry - and John Gielgud speaks the verse so beautifully. Wish I knew the plays better, actually - the lines come so fast at least one in three is lost for the Shakespeare novice - and Welles may be too much in love with his own virtuosity (what else is new?): the battle in the mud is thrilling, but it's too long for where it appears structurally (not a climax and not really a turning point, the before-and-after not sufficiently changed). Then again it also has Hotspur, Prince Harry's foe in the final duel, crying out in not really anger - more like mild pained surprise - after he drops to his knees, pierced through the heart: "Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth". Then falls out of frame...
YOJIMBO (67) (Akira Kurosawa, 1961): Second viewing, slight disappointment, though I can't blame it for doing what it sets out to do. Brings the samurai down to a human level - from his godlike perch early on as he looks down on the warring gangs, literally down to subterranean level as he scrambles for a hiding-place below the floorboards of a house - so he can be redeemed through suffering (implicitly regaining his humanity, seeing people as people rather than business opportunities); unfortunately this also means losing the sharp free-market satire of the first half, and turns a very precise film into a rather muddy, haphazardly-plotted one. Still smart, and often spectacular; watch that rating skyrocket if I ever manage to see it on the big screen.
THE PAWNBROKER (57) (Sidney Lumet, 1965): More harsh b&w and Method intensity (see below), but Lumet's style tends towards the flashy: near-subliminal shock cuts (rather dated nowadays) representing Holocaust memories, and at one point Rod Steiger's eye-glasses catch the light very strikingly (but why?). Lots of skill for sure, but the rather queasy Message is that the pawnbroker - living among the poor and helpless, yet thinking himself better - needs to embrace his victimhood (because in victimhood lies our common humanity, etc), implicitly embrace his Holocaust memories instead of repressing them, even if the film has to force the pride out of him and beat him to the ground till he chokes on pain and suffering. Hard to take, despite the gay black crime lord - almost as 'daring' as the whore's exposed breasts - Quincy Jones jazz score and COOL WORLD-ish glimpses of Harlem streets in the 60s.
12 ANGRY MEN (88) (Sidney Lumet, 1957): Second viewing, first in over two decades. I was so sure it wouldn't stand up, because, well, you know - schematic, didactic, Message Movie, liberal self-congratulation. Sounds like a nightmare but it works like a dream (sorry) and it's all in the byplay, worked-out like a piece for 12 instruments or a painting in 12 colours. Lumet makes it clear the drama's rigged from the pre-credits shot of the accused boy, looking lost and winsome - no way is this kid going to end up in the electric chair - then concentrates on building (and sustaining) a delicate balance. Characters ebb and flow while the visual groupings change like the colours in a kaleidoscope, now privileging one character, now focusing on the interaction between two or three others (the worst scene, and the most theatrical - the bigot's speech - is almost redeemed by being presented as a kind of dance, with characters withdrawing one by one), meanwhile keeping up a constant backbeat of snappy New York talk and the charged tension of a muggy day with clouds threatening rain. Works surprisingly well as narrative - it's manipulative, but ingeniously set up - and performances are great though you have to accept the 'realism' is a matter of actors' tricks (Method intensity and harsh b&w are integral to its atmosphere; I can't imagine the recent TV remake working as well). Maybe I'm just too close to it - I forget how old I was when I first saw it, but it can't have been more than 15; it's among the films that shaped my perception of a Great Movie - but I'll still defend it. It may not have the studied elegance of a Bresson or Ophuls, but anyone who thinks this stuff is easy to accomplish is insane in my opinion.
PATHS OF GLORY (78) (third viewing: 79) (Stanley Kubrick, 1957): Second viewing, first in 10 years, down from a staggering 96 (ouch!) - though it may just be that I went along with the universal acclaim, as I sometimes did before discovering the brave new world of the internet. Most striking now for its pace, a headlong rush of images like a Warners gangster drama of the 30s, throwing you in the middle of scenes with minimal transition or exposition - nor does it bother shedding tears over the officers' monstrous cynicism, barely pausing to protest or editorialise. What's interesting is that Kubrick's style - esp. those geometric tracking-shots along trench or battlefield - is temperamentally closer to what the film decries (Adolphe Menjou's cold-blooded logic) than what it celebrates (the messy humanity of Man) - a tension the film seems aware of, right from the opening scene where elegant choreographed shots alternate with sudden bursts of jagged cutting, and later in Timothy Carey's eccentric performance disrupting the cold perfection of the firing-squad sequence. In many ways a meta-war-movie, assuming (and skating over) the usual stuff associated with war movies, leaving aside questions of power - taking power as the way of the world, taking for granted that the powerful will always triumph - to ask what lies beyond power, and how much it should count for; highly sophisticated, but maybe it needs the surprise factor to work 100%. And there's no avoiding the fact that the famous humanist coda seemed very fake to me this time. [Third viewing, February 2015: The humanist coda needed another verse, basically: it moves too quickly from the soldiers wolf-whistling to looking awed - a typical touch (a flaw, in this case) in a film that moves at a breakneck pace, the ultimate young-man-in-a-hurry movie. The first scenes are glib (e.g. Macready swayed by the promise of a promotion, then pretending he only has his troops' interests at heart) but it keeps getting better, and watching it with an audience made clear how the second half grips like a vise.]
MAY 1, 2005
3.10 TO YUMA (71) (Delmer Daves, 1957): Come for the tension, stay for the moral ambivalence (everything's uncertain, like the Mexican border), though Halliwell of "Halliwell's Film Guide" is right to speak of an "unconvincing physical situation" nor did I buy that ending, with outlaw finding redemption for the (vicarious) love of a good woman. First half-hour is extremely strong, though - the gang arriving in the saloon after weeks on the road (echoing a similar scene in THE OX-BOW INCIDENT) with the barmaid matter-of-factly pouring whiskies then later reminiscing with Glenn Ford about her singing days in a bar in Dodge. Daves gets a stronger sense of the West as a place - i.e. not an abstraction - than many bigger-name auteurs, just as few Westerns have a more breathtaking opening shot than the stagecoach snaking across the prairie beneath that big sky, and few Westerns have a more rueful line than the one about the grandma who "fought the Indians for 60 years then choked on a piece of lemon pie" - tying in with the dejected family man's speech about a world without justice or kindness (a world where bad things happen, arbitrarily), which in turn ties in with the ending making it - ambitiously - an affirmation of goodness and love in a wicked world. But I still don't buy it. [Second viewing, April 2008: Ending seemed a lot more convincing this time round (esp. after seeing what a mess the remake made of it) but there's still a lot of weak detail in the second half - mostly boring-but-important plot stuff, like why don't they just hole up at the railway station and what's the wife doing there at the end anyway. First half is remarkable, not just vivid and exciting but beautiful to look at, with extraordinary lyrical stretches like the conversation with the barmaid to the strains of that Mexican-cantina score (the music jumps thrillingly when she says her eyes are brown and suddenly flashes him a passionate look). The mark of redemption - a.k.a. the rain - in the final shots is affecting even if you see it coming (I didn't); can't believe the remake simply throws it away with 20 minutes to go.]
MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (59) (Tod Browning, 1935): Notions of 'good' and 'bad' become irrelevant (though I guess it's 'bad', i.e. totally incoherent); why is this archetypal cult movie not in fact a cult movie? Interesting that the FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA directors of 1931 both retreated into cheerful self-parody 4 years later, though this isn't as grand as BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN - just a carefree con-job that zips through genre conventions at a pace of knots, encourages everyone to ham it up (though Lionel Barrymore is still tedious) and finally takes a jaw-dropping left-turn as audacious as it's nonsensical. Meanwhile, Bela Lugosi is an iconic vampire (so iconic he doesn't even speak for most of it) while his equally mute sidekick - a tall pale-faced woman with long straight raven-black hair - is obviously the prototype for the "doom woman" wife-mothers in "The Munsters" and "The Addams Family", though the actress is stiff and unearthly-looking, with the thick-faced freakshow authenticity of an Ed Wood regular. The two of them walk down misty lanes, materialise magically in the back-garden of a Transylvanian castle, and lurk amid lattice-like cobwebs (looking straight ahead, like Gothic zombies) in their tenebrous lair. In a universe where fanboys worship kung-fu movies - and the likes of FEMALE CONVICT 'SCORPION' and Seijun Suzuki - for subverting genre plots with delectable visuals, it ought to be a must-see. I think it is, actually.
FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (63) (Sergio Leone, 1965): Sheer heaven when Ennio Morricone's score plays at full blast, but there's lots of murky cross and double-cross between glorious opening credits and stirring climax, without quite attaining the epic sprawl of the equally murky GOOD, BAD AND THE UGLY (it just feels endless, basically). Recurring motif of watching and being watched - opening shot, binoculars at the window, kids watching the fight in the street - has no apparent payoff. Second viewing, first since I was a teenager; down from 7 out of 10.
THE CHANGELING (70) (Peter Medak, 1980): Flawed but satisfying, much-underrated haunted-house mystery (thanks to Jared for piquing my interest), starting out old-fashioned with thumps in the night, an old music-box and a cobwebby attic with a Dark Secret - but its biggest asset may be that the occupant being haunted isn't the usual hysterical damsel but gruff George C. Scott who obv. isn't going to take any shit from ghosts, pushing it beyond 'boo!' moments (despite Roger Ebert's claim that his self-possession is the film's biggest problem) into detective story and, eventually, Truth-will-set-you-free redemption drama. Medak's style is sober - call it TV-like - but matter-of-factness only makes the séance scene scarier, and e.g. in the pivotal next scene, when Scott hears the child's whispery voice on the tape, the revelation's played in a single slo-o-ow zoom-in from wide-shot to MS, knowing that a cut would be unnecessary and would also spoil the impact of the upcoming shock (with a trick-shot of the camera racing up the stairs to the attic). Gets a little shaky in the middle third, with the ghost turning up all over the place and Scott doing unreasonable things like confronting the villain in public, as well as somehow working out who did what with a minimum of clues - but it rallies for a memorable climax (killer wheelchair excepted) and doesn't resort to flashy rug-pulling twists like THE OTHERS; this may actually be a little creepier, though THE OTHERS is more brilliantly crafted. Has an emotional through-line, and you can't say that about too many horror movies.
APRIL 1, 2005
SYMPHONIE EINES LEBENS (70) (Hans Bertram, 1942): External factor pushing this over the top: Harry Baur in his last performance (in a German film, no less) before being tortured to death by the Gestapo - but his grave demeanour would be touching whatever the context, esp. as he sits in silent anguish listening to the "symphony of a life" (his own). It must be said the plot is ludicrous, Baur too old for the central romance to work, and his downfall - doing a spastic little dance at his wedding reception - is pretty smirk-inducing ; but the film is conceived like a Silent (the femme fatale causing all the trouble has, I think, three lines of dialogue), using wall-to-wall music - a children's choir, a Gypsy band, the symphony itself - to sublimate and hone emotion, with vivid images like the prisoner sitting in his cell with hundreds of crosses on the wall behind him representing days served. The effect is Ophuls-ish - the camera glides constantly - and it even reminded me slightly of the Straub/Huillet Bach film, the way music creates a distancing 'safe place' against which the plot (or ideas) can rhyme or chafe; BLUE ANGEL-ish story a reminder that Baur was known as the 'French Emil Jannings', but his bone-weary mien is the opposite of hamminess.
THE LAST BOLSHEVIK (72) (Chris Marker, 1992): "He was wrong, but he was sincere": Marker on the life of a True Believer - Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin - and the wrongness and sincerity co-exist just as reality and images (esp. cinematic images) can co-exist, the 20th century's inglorious history juxtaposed with the alternative versions emerging from the "Kingdom of Shadows" (i.e. cinema): the film is self-referential, incidentally tackling the question of how to shape this particular film but more broadly what the role of film can be (or should be), the real Stalin blending into his celluloid self like in Makavejev's W.R., Vertov's "life as it is" giving way before the exigencies of propaganda. Medvedkin is of course the Bolshevik ideal betrayed by Reality, and the tension comes from Marker's friendship with / admiration for the man set against the knowledge - as implied e.g. by contrasting him with Jewish writer Babel, murdered in the 30s - that he was clueless, and his unbounded energy and optimism only made him more clueless. Never quite makes the SANS SOLEIL leap to sui generis vision - it could be any European-TV documentary, albeit certainly one made by a fearsomely intelligent Man of the Left with old-school ideas on Commitment and Culture. "People won't pay for Art; they want entertainment," reads a quote from a newspaper letter, and Marker allows himself a rare bitchy sideswipe: "Morons of the world, unite..."
VAGABOND (65) (Agnes Varda, 1985): Fascinating concept - or what I thought was the concept - with a touch of AU HASARD BALTHAZAR: vagabond girl acting as a mirror, unknown in herself, pieced together from recollections of those who met her - and who, inevitably, give themselves away in recollecting. That's not what happens, though: the heroine does in fact exist as a character, much of it is seen from her POV and the film becomes a skilful, well-crafted week-in-the-life, with documentary feel and Sandrine Bonnaire's complex lead performance (angry, playful, desolate...). One recalls the shock-cut to the woman who electrocutes herself, the old eccentric introducing himself in a funny way - and the rather slick young man who applauds with a too-ingratiating "Bien joué" - the half-dotty old woman with whom Sandrine shares her happiest moment, the ex-hippy living 'close to the soil' who tries to help but ends up berating our heroine for her nihilism (by choosing to be useless, she only confirms the System in its prejudices), etc - but without the conceptual rigour it all seems a little pointless. Or maybe I just missed the point.
WINTER LIGHT (75) (Ingmar Bergman, 1962): Second viewing, first in 12 years, up from 71. Impossible to watch the opening sequence - a priest at Mass - and imagine that Bergman believes in God (at least the Christian version), yet equally clear that he's fascinated by the need to believe: the camera dwells on the rituals, repeated invocations during Holy Communion, but dissolves from the priest to shots of Nature and alternates stark wide-shots (the ring of kneeling faithful around the priest suggesting a Pieta, or even Jesus among the disciples) with close-ups of people being human, coughing and adjusting their collars. That tension anchors the film, which is kind of sketchy dramatically (Max von Sydow's reason for despair is comical in the wrong way) but rich in emotional behaviour, and contains at least one of Bergman's greatest scenes - Ingrid Thulin's letter, spoken to camera, casts a spell like the monologue in PERSONA (I found myself holding my breath till it was over). Good on "the silence of God", even better on the pain of a relationship killed by absence of Love - the only real salvation when the Flesh becomes repugnant.
WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (58) (Mel Stuart, 1971): From Danny Peary (who actually likes the movie) in "Guide for the Film Fanatic": "First-time viewers ... have much difficulty warming to this film: the tone is dreary, Wonka is scary, the music is forgettable, the Oompa-Loompas are dreadful concoctions". Yes, yes, yes and yes, though it's certainly brave of Gene Wilder to play him so cold and unyielding, and his non sequiturs have a Groucho Marx quality (esp. when deflecting awkward questions). Certainly unusual in its combination of stern tone and bizarre detail - the psychedelic tunnel! - but at some point you have to wonder how much credit should be given to something that so signally fails to please in the way intended. Maybe second viewing - as per Mr. Peary - will reveal a whole different movie.
LOVE AFFAIR (67) (Leo McCarey, 1939): A clear case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. McCarey can't disguise some rather ordinary banter and a standard weepie plot, but treats said plot with a light touch and totally transforms the material into a spiritual fable, not in the overtly religious sense of (e.g.) GOING MY WAY but a more ethereal sense where Love is a kind of miracle and the divine / transcendent / call-it-what-you-will is everywhere. The affair itself is a casual thing, with no Declarations of Undying Love but subtle indications that the lovers are soulmates - they like the same cocktails, finish each other's sentences, etc - then the grandmother's "private world" is a turning point, heralding a change of emphasis away from the lovers to various potent indicators suggesting something Greater than themselves: Music, Art (which contrives the happy ending), the lengthy scene when they pray in the chapel (lit for maximum Inspirational-ness), angelic children's voices, the Empire State Building as "Heaven", even the various people who turn up enjoining the lovers to be happy - the cheerful landlady, the little boy on the ship, the man lugging the Christmas tree. The idea is apparently to turn the weepie plot into an epiphany, a sanguine affirmation of faith: God is in His Heaven, there is good in the world, lovers will be reunited, etc. Might've seemed pretentious but the trick, above all, is lightness: Dunne still carries a touch of screwball comedy ("You have an honest face," she's told, and immediately pulls out a mirror from her handbag to take a quick look), Boyer is so suave he floats, and the whole thing lasts only 89 minutes; haven't seen the remake - AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER - but I doubt it could work as well with the more substantial Deborah Kerr, Cary Grant and an extra half-an-hour.
ROPE (49) (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948): More than just a stunt, because the emphasis on formalism - 10-minute takes, choreographed camera often going off at a tangent to the action - represents the killers' cool detachment, and the way they commit murder as a kind of experiment (just like Hitch himself). Some suspenseful bits, like the camera staying on the chest with the dead man inside as it's slowly cleared of dishes, candles etc by a maid who obviously plans to open it once she's done (meanwhile the killers, unsuspecting, chatter offscreen); but the Nietzschean Superman theme was more intriguingly explored in LIFEBOAT - it's very blatant here - and the dialogue was wittier and the twists better in the other stagy Hitchcock (that I've seen), DIAL M FOR MURDER. Maybe it is just a stunt after all... [February 2017: Second viewing, no change in rating. My basic problem - apart from the clunky/endless dialogue - is that form clashes with content in a non-productive way, viz. Hitchcock's virtuosity is precisely aligned with the two killers', the film being the kind of ambitious experiment they'd surely appreciate, but meanwhile he's making a non-ironic statement against Nietzschean supermen and for the equality of all (even as his movie is affirming its superiority - or at least exceptionalism - vis-a-vis other movies). That said, I watched with a mostly early-20s audience who seemed quite appreciative - only taking out their phones in the slower second act - so maybe this kind of theatricality is making a comeback, or maybe it's the way Hitch's camera navigates (and sometimes subverts) the theatricality; I don't mind form clashing with content in that respect.]
THE HILL (63) (Sidney Lumet, 1965): Second viewing, up from 4 out of 10. Still can't quite embrace it, because (a) it degenerates into shouting at the end and (b) it really belongs to a couple of rather stolid genres, the miscarriage-of-justice drama and the quien es mas macho confrontation (I prefer military dramas where the Army's just dysfunctional, like ATTACK! and THE VIRGIN SOLDIERS) - but there's no denying the visual dynamism. Lumet (and DP Oswald Morris) goes for wi-i-i-ide angle lenses and blistering white-hot sunlight - the setting is North Africa - and the camera prowls constantly. The scenes up and down the Hill itself - soldiers getting bogged down, reeling, stumbling, fainting - are among the most vivid depictions of physical exhaustion I know.
IL POSTO (87) (Ermanno Olmi, 1961): "Feels like multiple films spliced together" said Michael Sicinski on a movie chat-group we both frequent, but that's to underestimate the way two films co-exist in this near-perfect drama, like a more diffident version of Magical Realism. The 'realism' part is so impeccable one may not even realise when the documentary style shades into Kafkaesque comedy - I thought at first the company's aptitude test was just a sign of how times have changed, till the questions during the interview ("Do you suffer from frequent itching?"; "Do you mind eating away from home?") gave the game away. Olmi has such a beautiful eye for the moment - the tight wary arrangement of people in a waiting-room, or the dry clatter of shoes as they walk in a cluster from one place to another; a boy sitting up in bed, ignoring Mom's calls to turn off the light, with a notebook in which (it turns out) he's making a list of girls' names for no reason at all; leaving for work at the first glimmer of dawn, then arriving at the train station when it's light but the sky's still pale and chilly-looking - and his rhythm is so unhurried and generous, that the corporate oppression becomes a sadder thing than in Kafka (or, say, BRAZIL) where it's political, a stamping-out of individual freedom; here it's a stamping-out of something else - simplicity, beauty in the everyday, the boy's world that even he himself can't appreciate (paralysed with shyness, far too passive for a sense of identity, he's a willing lamb to the slaughter). The surreal Big Brotherisms - e.g. the announcement at the dance that the company has given permission for married couples to kiss on the lips - are funny but we also sense they go against Nature, the unremarkable looseness - not Godardian 'freedom' or 'rebellion' - of boy and girl wandering round the city for a couple of hours. No epiphanies are offered, no rage either; just a rare smile at the Christmas dance, then quiet submersion. The kid can't really act, but his face is unforgettable.
THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET (42) (Sidney Franklin, 1934): Charles Laughton, gearing up for next year's Captain Bligh - a pompous domestic tyrant with mutton-chop whiskers, his weapon of choice the self-pitying guilt trip - takes this movie by the scruff of the neck each time he appears. "Every gesture is done for effect, and once you accept that convention this is prime psychological melodrama," claims David Shipman in "The Good Film and Video Guide" - but you also have to put up with Norma Shearer and her thespian strategy of gazing fondly into the distance, sometimes in forbearance, sometimes to illustrate Love, sometimes to show Brave Suffering ("Oh look, the flowers died"; [gazes into the distance] "Nothing can live in this room!"), as well as her high-flown dialogue with friend and fellow poet Fredric March ("Did your fancy paint my background with a very gloomy brush?") and a director whose only personal touch is the occasional shot of the family dog. Acclaimed in its day, but nowadays it's the kind of oldie that puts people off oldies.
MARCH 1, 2005
SUNRISE (89) (F.W. Murnau, 1927): Starts off dreamlike, one thing dissolving into another, builds to a high pitch of melodrama, unexpectedly relaxes into social realism (the vein mined by THE CROWD a year later) and even comedy, turns romantic, then suddenly tragic again. Murnau's narratives (that I've seen) always tend to lurch around wildly but in this case it feels rich and dense, like a 19th-century novel - Dostoyeskian mood-swings, almost - held together by astounding images: full-moon seduction, the boat among the rushes (the dark purpose behind the boat trip recalling "An American Tragedy"), the scurrying life of the city, the night-time boat ride back with a bonfire blazing on the shore, reflected in the water behind the lovers; the final shot is a killer, but what takes it over the edge is a purely visual conceit - Janet Gaynor's hair, flowing loose for the first time - which is as it should be. A masterpiece.
CALIGULA REINCARNATED AS HITLER! (34) (Cesare Canevari, 1977): Kind of tries to be a real movie, rather surprisingly for a soft-porn Nazi sexploitation pic set in a women's concentration camp: the Commandant is more frustrated than truly evil, wishing he were fighting at the front instead of being a "pimp" for returning soldiers looking for a little R&R ("Amuse yourselves, but make them suffer!" he instructs them as they fall on the prisoners), and the first few minutes, as Nazi atrocities are recalled over verdant images of idyllic countryside, are almost poignant. There's an orgy, fleeting coprophilia, assorted whippings and humiliations; one inmate is fed to the Dobermans (bad-taste bonus: she's chosen because she was menstruating, and Dobermans like that), another lowered into a cage full of rats, yet another ends up as the main course on the Nazis' dinner-table (part of a doctor's Modest Proposal for the Jewish race) - yet the film is deeply boring, endlessly slow and padded-out to conceal the fact it's got nothing much to offer beyond low-budget sleaze and a handful of repellent ideas; you'd expect a film set in a camp to be more, well, camp. No good reason to watch it, except to tell your friends you saw a film called CALIGULA REINCARNATED AS HITLER!
MICKEY ONE (66) (Arthur Penn, 1965): "I only know that I'm guilty"; "What are you guilty of?"; "Of not being innocent". Nameless paranoia, existential uncertainty, Stan Getz improvising on the soundtrack, a surreal dream scene with people on trampolines, a Harpo Marx-like mime-slash-Artist who pops up at regular intervals and beckons to our hero; but it also has that endearing mid-60s mix of old and new - hobos by the railroad tracks, tenements with rowdy Polish families, a clean-cut heroine and conventional romance. The plot anticipates POINT BLANK but the dialogue name-checks Al Jolson. In itself, obscurely plotted, undeniably pretentious but loose and daring, with jokes and bits of street life (a funfair with an illustrated man, two shoeshine boys in a grocery store), even if invention flags eventually. Strangest-yet-most-typical sequence: the mime introduces his artwork, a giant clanking machine entitled "Yes" that explodes (yet can never be destroyed) and encapsulates the film's motto: "For Yes, courage is freedom!"
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (82) (Nicholas Ray, 1955): Second viewing (though the first was pan & scan). Still wildly exciting, not so much for the action - I'd forgotten how much of an action movie it is - as the colours, the febrile feel, the compressed time-frame (I'd forgotten how most of it takes place over a day and night) and the depth in Ray's compositions, whether it's the three teens in separate cages at the station - Jim in the foreground, the others behind - or the triangular funnel-like image when Jim returns later on, two lines of cops with himself at the fulcrum. Also of course because everyone in the film (who's under 21) lusts for love and lives by emotion, their raw cravings like exposed nerves, though Ray doesn't pander - having Dad tell Jim (correctly) that he'll laugh at himself in 10 years' time, or setting the climax in the Planetarium where the stars look down on the teens' puny problems. Jim's 'rebellion' is nothing of the sort, at least by the standards of post-60s punk rebellion - he wants stability and clearly-defined gender roles, the opposite of anarchy - but times have come full circle and the film's suddenly more relevant than it's been in decades, despair replacing rage and many of today's 'rebels' finding refuge in conservatism and family values. Funny things, pendulums.
DAMES (66) (Ray Enright, 1935): Songs disappoint in this Warners musical ("I Only Have Eyes For You" is the only keeper), comedy is thin but brightly-played, but the main attraction are the Busby Berkeley dance numbers where he consciously sets out to top 42nd STREET, WONDER BAR, etc. Result is one wacked-out visual idea after another (no surprise Joel Coen once named this among his favourite films), some too cute for their own good - Joan Blondell dances with clothes as they hang on a line - but culminating in a riot of outrageous visuals and camera moves: camera turns upside-down to track - how? - through the legs of a line of showgirls (all of them bent-over so their heads appear right-side-up), looks down on myriad girls in outlandish patterns (at one point they turn into a giant photo of Ruby Keeler), cranes away as they're posed on the ground, and the posed group turns invisibly into a painted frieze, and Dick Powell pokes his head through the canvas. Major props to Hilarious Hugh Herbert as the prudish tycoon railing against modern morals, whom 1935 audiences would obv. associate with Prohibition - making it doubly amusing that he dotes on "Dr. Silver's Golden Elixir", guzzling happily and singing its praises, preferring not to notice the label that points out it's 50% alcohol...
CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (48) (Edward Dein, 1959): One of those B-movies that aren't good exactly - it gets worse as it goes along - but certainly odd. The premise is odd, a vampire movie disguised as a Western, and the characters are odd: there don't seem to be any villains, even the vampire unhappy rather than evil ("Pity me, don't judge me!" he pleads with our hero), desperate for love - and in any case played by an actor with the demeanour of a grumpy bank clerk, so it's hard to feel much shock and awe. Everyone else is surprisingly decent, the greedy cattle baron meant to be the bad guy turning out to be just a rancher, not especially violent (just greedy); the preacher hero may in fact be the worst, ordering people about, finally killing the vampire with a piece of "a thorn found at the site of the Crucifixion". Dialogue is literate, the whole thing very sensible (it's co-written by Mildred Dein - Ed's wife, presumably - and one imagines her as a schoolmarm type with her hair in a bun), despite the spooky theremin each time we see the monster; a few visual ideas - conversation in the shadow of a church window, etc - but mostly notable for thoughtful, unsensational tone. The kind of film where everyone tries hard to prevent a shoot-out, urging the rancher to ignore a young drunk's trash-talk - "walk away", "can't you see he's baiting you?", etc - but finally can't avoid bloodshed when the drunk launches the Ultimate Insult: "You no-good son of a saloon gal!".
PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (69) (Samuel Fuller, 1953): Got off to a bad start, I admit, because I misunderstood the famous opening sequence - but it does look like the pickpocket and victim are in cahoots, the way she gazes at him with a knowing sort of look as he's riffling through her purse (thought they were spies doing a secret handover, whereas it is in fact just a robbery). After that, an unusually pungent underworld ambience, and more undisguised violence than we're used to in a 50s movie - Fuller's camera pulling back to watch the villain beating up Jean Peters in wide-shot is almost as terrifying as her next-day bruises, because it treats the violence as a fact to be observed in its entirety, not transmuted into Art impressionistically. Style generally seems to grow more serious as the film progresses - we start with the camera often craning in at top speed (a zoom before zooms were invented) but this becomes less frequent: it's as though the realism of the milieu - and Thelma Ritter's earnest, carefully-observed performance - tones down Fuller the tabloid sensationalist into Fuller the responsible reporter. Third act flags a bit, but it's still very striking (if not entirely satisfying); possibly the only film where hero and heroine meet for the first time - and fall in love - after he knocks her unconscious with a punch to the jaw.
LEMORA: A CHILD'S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL (71) (Richard Blackburn, 1973): One to watch on the big screen, very dark with smudges and pools of light (one shot has the frame bisected by a chink of light, trapping the heroine's eye as she watches from behind a door like a fly in amber); Cheryl Smith has an Alice-in-Wonderland presence - best touch: the enormous close-ups of her freckled cheeks and lively eyes - and the mix of vampire movie and 1930s Gothic (with Southern Baptist overtones) makes it potent enough even without graphic sex and violence: it was rated PG at the time, despite lesbian vampires, demon kiddies and an atmosphere of erotic foreboding. Low budget mostly disguised, though for every astonishing moment - like the slow-motion something-or-other (ritual dance? fight? orgy?) observed from a distance at the climax - there's usually a lame one, like heroine's Daddy as a hairy monster in Wolf Man makeup, slurring "Prinshess..." as he dies. High in the pantheon of dark 70s fairytales, and Blackburn - who dedicates the DVD to the now-deceased Smith and also plays the repressed Reverend with designs on her underage body - is so obviously in love with his lead actress.
FEBRUARY 1, 2005
DRESSED TO KILL (81) (Brian de Palma, 1980): Second viewing, still insanely enjoyable. Just as we don't actually see the shocking sight of Angie Dickinson fondling herself - though we do see her face, intercut with a woman fondling herself - so violence becomes depersonalised in this sensual dreamlike PSYCHO, its point being explicitly the way movies work, synthesising and manipulating, turning pain into pleasure, working our synapses even when there's no payoff (the final 10 minutes are an exercise in style or contempt, according to taste). De Palma fills it with spies, watchers, voyeurs, fills the whole frame with screens at one point - a split-screen shot, each screen with a screen within the screen - and meanwhile movie references are tumbling out and Pino Donaggio's impossibly lush score cross-breeds Bernard Herrmann with Miklos Rozsa; more surprisingly, characters are allowed to impress (the weakness of BLOW OUT a year later was the way its design seemed to smother its characters), spunky heroine irresistible, hard-boiled cop dialogue surprisingly funny. The art-gallery scene may well be the jewel in the crown of brilliant De Palma set-pieces.
THE DEVILS (74) (third viewing: 77) (Ken Russell, 1971): Second viewing, still lurid but extremely effective: Russell's over-the-top stylistics held in place by strong CRUCIBLE-like narrative and immense Oliver Reed performance as flawed-but-honest priest - vain in thinking he can reach an understanding with God but sincere in recognising everyday human needs, refusing to delude himself (besides, he says, sometimes "the body can transcend its purpose"; sometimes, in between the sweat and soiled sheets, there's "a little bit of love"). All around him is Catholic guilt, frenzied nuns tearing off their clothes, medieval tortures, palace intrigues, a maggot-ridden skull and a cross-dressing King Louis putting on musical numbers while the Cardinal schemes for power - though the King turns out to be not quite the cretin he appears, seeing through the religious charade but doing nothing to stop it: he's a blithe, callous Artist with no moral sense, or perhaps inured to the fact that morality is never a match for sexual (or repressed-sexual) passions and people's appetite for spectacle, however sick and sensational. Just like Russell himself?
JANUARY 1, 2005