Older films seen in 2013, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 editions. Most of these are really quick comments - typically scribbled down in 10-15 minutes without benefit of notes - and any resulting wit or insight should be viewed as an accidental by-product. Slightly more thoughtful capsules may be found on the now-pretty-much-defunct old reviews page.
All films, both from this year and the 10 previous ones, can be accessed alphabetically. Most can be viewed ranked by rating as well, though I'm still not sure what that's all about.
[Addendum, February 2009: I've now stopped doing reviews of new movies, but I'll continue to update this page; however, this is purely for my own benefit - since I can't always remember when I watched an oldie, so it's handy being able to find them here - and I won't be going any deeper or writing any more than I used to (probably the opposite). I am not reinventing this as a classic-movie site, nor do I set myself up as an expert on oldies. Or anything, really...]
THE FACE OF FU MANCHU (56) (Don Sharp, 1965): A 30s villain revived for the 60s, hence a car chase (with vintage cars), a Scotland Yard copper doling out karate chops, and an all-powerful weapon of mass destruction that feels very Cold War. That's the only bit that makes you sit up and take notice, thousands of people killed instantly in a quaint English village - "Right in the middle of breakfast..." notes our hero, perusing the crime scene - but the rest has diverting detail like human eyes suddenly appearing in a statue's eye sockets, plus a definite air of pastiche with po-faced detective Nigel Green going after the evil Chinaman with the power of hypnosis ("cruel, callous, brilliant...") and having drinks in the library moments after discussing the possible end of the world. Then there's Christopher Lee, at his most cadaverous as inscrutable Fu: "Now, the wheel of Fate has turned full circle!".
DRIFTWOOD (51) (Allan Dwan, 1947): Not just a Wise Child but a Bible-quoting child - but she's still played by Natalie Wood so it's all very winsome, at least till the film stops having her learn the wonders of bathtubs, chocolate ice-cream sodas and the meaning of "How do you do?", shocking townspeople with her honest truth-telling, and instead tries to cram assorted sub-plots, a hidden letter, a miracle serum, an outbreak of spotted fever and a courtroom trial for Natalie's dog (!) in its last half-hour, inevitably short-changing everything (the way the trial gets truncated is especially annoying). Time-Capsule Dept.: apparently doctors routinely removed children's tonsils as a precaution back in the day, so they wouldn't be susceptible to colds. I was not aware of that.
DECEMBER 1, 2013
BLUME IN LOVE (59) (Paul Mazursky, 1973): "You're good in bed, and you feed my neuroses. But no, I am not in love with you." Or how about: "I'm not miserable"; "Are you happy?"; "I'm just not miserable. What more can anybody ask for?". Mazursky's characters are rueful, and this has the tone of a sad-sack Jewish comedy - the man in love with the impossible, in this case the ex-wife who divorced him in the most deliberately weightless break-up ever (it's part of the joke that the ensuing obsessive jealousy is inversely proportional to the angst in the actual split-up). Bit shapeless and saggy, though often memorable - best scene: pale, haggard George Segal sitting beside his ex and her new, manchild-singer boyfriend as they improvise a song on the guitar, a lovelorn ghost at their banquet - at least till the final [spoiler] which I actually didn't mind in itself (though STRAW DOGS haters may be offended), except for the aftermath/ending which saps psychological ambivalence and just seemed insufficiently... well, rueful.
NOVEMBER 1, 2013
THE PENALTY (75) (Wallace Worsley, 1920): Has to be among the most impressive stunts in movie history, able-bodied Lon Chaney entirely convincing as a man without legs (even better than Alonzo the Armless in THE UNKNOWN). Turns out they were needlessly amputated below the knee by a negligent surgeon when Lon was a child - and he wakes up to find them gone, KINGS ROW-style, kicking off proceedings at a fine pitch of melodrama (the score on the Kino DVD is a bit overstated - it's one of those controversial modern scores - but it does a great, moody job burnishing the pathos), after which it keeps veering off in unexpected directions and nuttily magnificent details. Lon is a sensitive monster, disowned by rich parents for being a cripple like the Penguin in BATMAN RETURNS, getting girls to work the pedals while he plays beautiful music after a hard day planning world domination. The cops look determined but prove impotent (the film's worldview is generally cynical when it comes to authority figures), there's a loopy plan involving "foreign malcontents" wearing hats, plus of course Chaney's long-gestating quest for revenge against the surgeons, which turns out to be even loopier (leg transplant, anyone?). Notable intertitles: "Laughter burns a cripple like acid", "What an admirable pair of legs!" - and of course, "You are the best critic in the world". I like that one.
OCTOBER 1, 2013
STRESS-ES TRES-TRES (56) (Carlos Saura, 1968): A self-consciously low-budget project - three main actors, natural-light locations in the arid landscapes of Almeria, characters sparring in lieu of plot - that comes off as an exercise but still testifies to the fascination of watching any kind of dysfunctional relationship (even when nothing about its depiction is really top-class). Arrogant humourless jealous husband, flippant pretty-boy friend, volatile frustrated wife caught in the middle; wife's symbolic horse ride is cut short by equally symbolic motorbike, Catholic auntie mortifying her flesh by kneeling on rocks echoes the underlying themes of guilt and punishment, a witnessed road accident acts as a catalyst, Saura saves some style for the very end - a startling, burned-out dream sequence - but mostly plays it straight. Geraldine Chaplin's pierrot mincing not quite right for a Monica Vitti role, but it adds to the oddness.
SEPTEMBER 1, 2013
BORDER INCIDENT (72) (Anthony Mann, 1949): John Alton, and furthermore John Alton. Stunning shots keep coming to the rescue (despite the occasional dodgy day-for-night) whenever the plot threatens to become generic - and the studio may have intended one of those torn-from-the-headlines, social-issue movies that were all the rage in the late 40s but Mann skews the documentary style into something like a noir Western, the noir coming in seamy brutality and shades of grey both visual and dramatic (the chief villain is almost sympathetic, and in fact has a genial good humour that recalls giggly 30s comic Hugh Herbert), the Western including rugged action and quicksand (yay, quicksand!) at the climax. The ethnic aspect is equally fluid - the only fixed line being the border, with good and bad on both sides - and the furore over illegal immigrants feels quite modern (albeit phrased in terms of preventing the new arrivals from being exploited). A superb little movie.
JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (59) (second viewing: 64) (Chantal Akerman, 1975): Pretty much exactly the film that's always been described to me, and pretty much exactly the response I always imagined I'd have - an amalgam of 'This is great, but surely the point's been made now' and 'But I guess it'd feel hypnotic on the big screen'. Baudelaire and Beethoven are lost in the larger symphony of lights being switched off, plates picked up, glasses drained and beds made, writing a letter defeats Ms. Dielman - though whether because it means being creative or confronting her empty life is unclear - and there's a definite frisson when the machine starts to malfunction on Day 3 (she drops a brush, forgets to button a button on her thick morning robe), yet even that point seems a bit rudimentary. Maybe if Jeanne's life were actually pleasant and well-rounded - but still repetitive - it might edge towards a larger idea (that all routine is deadening, viewed from a distance), and soften the sense of a Statement being made. [Second viewing, June 2016, mostly on the big screen (I got tired, and had to finish it at home): This is definitely a big-screen movie, even in the simplest sense of being able to see exactly what Jeanne is doing in the middle of those wide frames - but also, e.g., this time I really noticed the flashing lights in the street outside every night, and how the barrage is constant to the point of being stylised (does Jeanne live next door to a disco?). Also noticed a quiet sense of humour, especially on Day 3 and Jeanne's various struggles with objects: her po-faced, methodical attempt to discover exactly what's wrong with a (highly symbolic) cup of coffee - the ingredients all taste fine separately, but put them together and the taste is unpalatable - could've been a Buster Keaton or Laurel & Hardy routine.]
MAN IN THE ATTIC (64) (Hugo Fregonese, 1953): Sympathy for the devil: Jack Palance, with his sallow intensity, as Jack the Ripper - not a criminal (he says) but one of the many "people doing what they must do" ("I am myself," he says simply), a product of a bad childhood and a mother's betrayal. He turns all the portraits to face the wall in his room at the lodging-house (their eyes follow you around, he explains) but he's also a medical man, and a sensitive soul who likes to walk by the river: "The river is like liquid night, flowing peacefully into Infinity..." A fog-shrouded London, some excellent byplay with the landlady and her household - a clever touch: the dog doesn't growl at Jack but actually loves him, sensing he's basically a good person, then turns against him when the madness takes over - and a slight slackness in the plot, which even pauses for a couple of song numbers. Haven't seen THE LODGER (or the 40s remake) but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that e.g. the bit where the suspicious landlady pointedly offers the morning paper to her lodger to see which hand he's going to take it with, having just found out that Jack the Ripper is left-handed - and he, equally pointedly, takes it with both hands - came straight from Hitchcock.
THE YOUNG LIONS (59) (Edward Dmytryk, 1958): People should talk more about Brando's performance here - not just a question of playing a 'sympathetic Nazi' but unusually grave and diffident, with an elegantly guarded quality that recalls James Mason (who himself played a sympathetic Nazi, in THE DESERT FOX); when he argues for the Nazis in his first, pre-war scene - opining that they stand for something hopeful in Germany - against a properly indignant American girl, it's the American girl who comes off looking shrill. He also fits in nicely with the ensemble (looks like he went through a plays-well-with-others phase, which came crashing down in MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY), though it's a little sad to see Dean Martin as a spineless libertine in the year of SOME CAME RUNNING and Montgomery Clift just seems weird - he's at least 15 years too old for his role - looking dazed and blinking like a startled Stan Laurel, his casting explained by the plot's points in common with FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (another case of sadism in the Army, for one thing). Slackens in the final hour as things turn conventional - the coward becomes a soldier, the bad officers get exposed and court-martialled, the Nazis realise the error of their ways - but still a meaty, often intelligent Hollywood A-movie; Dmytryk is obviously no stylist, but he's offered too many nice surprises (this, CORNERED, MIRAGE) to be totally dismissable.
THE WARPED ONES (57) (Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960): Worth seeing for the early scenes, a burst of alarming testosterone as our heroes - young, dumb, full of cum, and fresh out of juvie - drive down the streets of Tokyo at top speed, listen to jazz ("I need some Black music!"), pick up a girl and head down to the beach, meanwhile conversing in joyous inarticulate whoops and shouting imprecations at passers-by. Loses its way later on, and the point that the respectable couple - a journalist and an artist, no less; artists get a bum deal in general, at least Japanese artists who fawn condescendingly over our hero in a gallery full of pseuds - are actually more 'warped' than the so-called delinquents is too deliberate to be very interesting. Kurahara's style is flashy and self-conscious, not least in close-ups of the Sun marking this out as a 'Sun Tribe' movie.
A REPORT ON THE PARTY AND THE GUESTS (53) (Jan Nemec, 1966): One might say it starts Kafkaesque then shifts into late Bunuel, i.e. channelling the fear of being taken away for no discernible reason and charged with no discernible crime (obviously relevant in 60s Czechoslovakia, which is presumably a model for the place where "nobody likes anybody"), then seguing into exaggerated politeness masking a growing unease. Nemec adds to the vibe with a self-consciously dry style, esp. in shooting group conversations using mostly one-shots (separating each person, and indeed each line of dialogue) - but this kind of detached, allusive allegory needs to be funny (and preferably a bit zany, as e.g. in late Bunuel) or it just seems pretentious, and this one falls on the wrong side of the line imo. Brave, cerebral, hard to love.
AUGUST 1, 2013
B-MOVIE MARATHON: I organised a B-movie marathon (yes I know HOUSE isn't really a B-movie) which meant seeing most of these twice, once for research, once during the event itself. Also (re-)watched DEATHDREAM and FREEWAY, both of which held up pretty well on being exposed to potential hecklers.
THE EDGE OF THE WORLD (74) (Michael Powell, 1937): Obvious comparison with MAN OF ARAN, and I guess that was more poetic - e.g. it had that shot of the kid fishing off a high cliff, blissfully unconcerned, whereas here the cliffs are every bit as lethal as they look, nor is Powell coy about the whole 'vanishing way of life' aspect: "The slow shadow of Death is falling on the outer isles of Scotland," says the opening caption - yet this is by far the better movie, with a more convincing psychology (as in BLACK NARCISSUS, Powell knows that living at too-close quarters can make people a bit crazy) and the proof of a true filmmaker in the landscapes, the close-ups of faces, the technique (girl's face superimposed on the waves, man's face over memories of his life as he departs) and above all the dramatic detail, e.g. grim-faced Granny wheeled out into the sunlight when the family go to church, sitting in the empty landscape listening implacably to the sound of the hymns. Easy to imagine as a Silent movie, down to the second-half melodrama, but that's partly to say what an eye Powell has; even the uncredited yachtswoman accompanying her friend (Powell himself) in the prologue is a striking presence.
SANDS OF IWO JIMA (65) (Allan Dwan, 1949): A surprise, insofar as the tough-as-nails, by-the-book Sergeant is treated like a 'troubled' anti-hero, loaded down with vulnerability. We see very little of the training he inflicts on his men, quite a lot of his nocturnal binges, his encounter with a hooker (more explicit than FROM HERE TO ETERNITY four years later) who feels sorry for him, and he for her - and we also see a lot of his clashes with the civilised, non-militaristic, implicitly not too patriotic young soldier who however isn't 'put in his place' by the movie (his disapproval of the Sergeant is a powerful force in the film; the latter is something of a tragic figure, and the ending explicitly suggests he can never be happy). Usual war stuff, talk of "those little lemon-coloured characters", etc - but Dwan also seems to treat machismo differently from e.g. Walsh or Ford; he makes less of a production of it (the fighting Irish brothers are a very Fordian detail, but here it's very much a detail), and his men are startlingly upfront about their insecurities: "Honey, do you think I'm a brave man?".
1993 REVISITED: Doing maintenance work on my 1993 Top Ten - actually part of a "Cyprus Mail" feature where I go back in Time at ten-yearly intervals - so I re-watched a few contenders, all second or third viewings. [NB. Comments compromised by the fact that I'm writing this nearly a month after watching the movies]:
1973 REVISITED: Doing maintenance work on my 1973 Top Ten - actually part of a "Cyprus Mail" feature where I go back in Time at ten-yearly intervals - so I re-watched a few contenders, all second or third viewings. [NB. Comments compromised by the fact that I'm writing this nearly a month after watching the movies]:
THE NORTHERNERS (66) (Alex van Warmerdam, 1992): Stark, striking setting - a single block of a never-built housing estate in the middle of nowhere - seething with (mostly sexual) disappointments to match its own unfulfilled potential. Dad is a lecher, Mom's a martyr, the local cop is infertile, and an African fugitive (plus the deadpan style and small community) anticipates LE HAVRE though this is much less cuddly than the Kaurismaki. Everyone watches - the most sympathetic character is a postman who reads people's letters - characters repeatedly drawing the curtains in a vain attempt to restore the divide between public and private (the cop even tries to lay claim to the nearby forest), adding to an air of paranoia and claustrophobia, possibly reflecting the psychology of teenage hero feeling the pangs of first love and dreaming of far-off Africa (both his heroes - the girl and Patrice Lumumba - end up coming to grief). Deliberately stagy and a bit fantastical, obviously minor but smartly-done; a film of small-town frustrations, and home-grown surrealism.
PERFUMED NIGHTMARE (63) (Kidlat Tahimik, 1977): Faux-naif almost to a fault, its artless Filipino-villager vibe ("Dear Mr. Voice of America...") actually the work of a highly sophisticated sensibility, not just nailing the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of colonial masters (in this case America, pumping in beauty pageants, Moon landings and "Marlboro Country") to the colonised, but for instance playing with the 'bridge' motif - an obvious symbol of reconciliation that the film ends up rejecting (because, says our hero, he'd rather build his own bridge, not have one built by well-meaning Westerners). The look and ethnographic detail - tropical forest around remote Filipino village, little boys being circumcised in a playful (but painful) ritual - has a kind of DIY exotica, making the first half unique (think of Werner Herzog making a fanciful autobiographical documentary about 'Werner Herzog' and you might be close), but the film really should've gone to America in the second half (no idea why it didn't, presumably budget reasons); Paris is still 'the West', of course, but the theme is diluted, and our hero's politicisation through a big supermarket threatening to wipe out small shopkeepers ("Liberté, egalité, fraternité, supermarché...") seems curiously irrelevant, albeit surprisingly relevant to our own 21st-century concerns. Time-Travel Dept.: hero admires his new gadget, a pocket camera that also doubles as a transistor radio!
JULY 1, 2013
THE STRANGE AFFAIR (54) (David Greene, 1968) : 'Strange' is putting it mildly, though it's obviously not this film's fault that its thoroughly respectable moralism - mistrustful of any individual initiative that might rock the boat, pointedly unsympathetic to obsession in general - seems so bizarre 45 years later; can't say more without spoiling the ending (though it's more or less signalled from the very beginning), but it does make you sense what an impact DIRTY HARRY- and maverick cops in general - must've had in certain quarters three years later. Firmer directorial hand might've pointed up the tragedy (or at least poetic irony), but instead it feels like cautionary tale; plot is contrived (eccentric old couple turn out to be pornographers? I think not) - but you do get glimpses not just of Susan George in the barely-legal buff but also late-60s Britain on the cusp, cops marshalled into formation by a sergeant-major type while, outside, hippies are walking the streets: "Is that a fella?".
THE SEVENTH VICTIM (64) (Mark Robson, 1943): A morbid little anecdote which you realise - with a jolt, admittedly - must be about Death because it doesn't seem to be about anything else. Opening epigram actually gives the game away, then the rest is a modest red herring energised by the appearance of Jean Brooks as the title character, a kind of female Harry Lime within the film's dynamic. She's identified with darkness - she lives behind the dark door at the end of the corridor; at one point she evades a pursuer by melting into a patch of darkness, then a brief, remarkable shot (one of Musuraca's best imo) shows her silhouetted in a doorway with her back to camera, seeming to hover like a dark wraith - yet the darkness isn't Evil but Death, and the slow-but-necessary acceptance of Death. Undeniably haunting - but mostly because the actual plot is so desultory, featuring about as much Devil-worship as even B-movie America could stand in the early 40s (not much), so one leaves with a sense of subterranean currents gnawing at a central nothingness. The ending, on paper, is devastating, but it seems to come from a different movie.
MURIEL, OR THE TIME OF RETURN (81) (Alain Resnais, 1963): A film at war with itself, showing a banal social surface but also subverting it via editing - people walking in a group abruptly hijacked by a string of individual shots, together yet alone - especially the Resnais trick of apparent non sequiturs (the ending of WILD GRASS comes from here). The present keeps being assaulted, both by the past and by other people's presents, we keep breaking up into random snippets (sudden cut to Alphonse, Muriel's old flame, cleaning a shirt and declaring: "Some people are good at removing stains, and I'm one of them!"); as he did in MON ONCLE D'AMERIQUE, Resnais tries to encompass the whole world - not just Life as it's lived from moment to moment but all the unseen elements that tug at it, good and bad memories, the sense of Time passing (someone even sings a song about it), above all the subconscious awareness of other people's lives going on simultaneously (the war in Algeria also plays a big role, equally unseen and subversive). A film at war with itself in a different way too - because Resnais can't quite bring himself to go full-experimental, and the actual (rather dull) story drags it down between the bursts of formal brilliance. Still among the ballsiest films I've seen, and the most ambitious; had it been a hit, the entire past half-century of movies might've been different.
YOYO (67) (Pierre Etaix, 1965): Etaix as a comedian per se may be just below the first rank (his persona seems a little tentative, beyond a certain free-floating melancholy), but he stands alone as a comedy director who values the medium; his eye is excellent, not just pictorially (a procession of circus cars reflected in a lake; a high-angle shot of black-suited flunkies trudging into the distance under the eye of a watchful statue) but also in the sort of jokes he likes - trompe l'oeil visual jokes (a painting comes alive, turning out to be a reflection in a mirror) and stylistic flourishes like the hotel corridor that morphs into a Big Top (the kind of joke Angelopoulos might do, if Angelopoulos did jokes). A picaresque film, by design - it's a tribute to "les gags", after all - maybe too much so though the final attack on TV is all the better for being so glancing; also an elegant film, in its rhythm and e.g. in the conjuror's trick of props turning up as required (Yoyo in the driver's seat, placing the packet of cigs on a handy fence to be picked up by his wife as the truck rolls forward). Chaplin and Fellini explicitly cited, but Tati may be a more obvious influence: a languid onscreen presence, a sentimental nod to the Silent clowns, and a suggestion of one-man-show perfectionism.
JUNE 1, 2013
GO, GO, SECOND TIME VIRGIN (60) (Koji Wakamatsu, 1969): Too transparently 'shocking' to be very shocking, and both its incongruous ingredients - gleeful ultra-violence and emo unhappiness, the latter with a side of morbid death-wish - are a bit too adolescent, though of course the incongruity remains striking. Moody young couple on a rooftop looking out over the city, victimised by "perverted" System, enact a kind of joyless, self-consciously pointless revenge while thinking thoughts of suicide, Burroughs and Norman Mailer, make themselves the heroes of their own private movie ("August 8th. Morning," announces the girl to camera) as "Summertime" and "Motherless Child" drift on the soundtrack. More nihilistic than most late-60s European equivalents - but also less smug, because the disaffected teens are mired in doubt and uncertainty, and viewed with a tinge of bleak humour. He, singing glumly: "Slit my wrists from impotence and drugs..." She, sympathetic: "Is that your song?"
JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (62) (Don Chaffey, 1963): Zeus and Hera as a kinky married couple getting off on each other's caprices ("You think it weak of me, my lord?"; "Not weak. Almost ... human"); Medea played by come-hither-voiced Nancy Kovack, improbable native of Flint, Michigan, Jason played by Todd Armstrong, owner of the most neatly trimmed beard in movies (it must've taken almost as long to trim that beard as it did for Harryhausen to create the monsters). The rare case when I watch the original after the current reboots/reworkings (CLASH OF THE TITANS Redux et al.), and it really brings home the limitations of today's ADD editing rhythms: the shot of Jason vs. Hydra sears itself into the memory (esp. I guess childhood memory) just by being held long. That said, only the last two stop-motion interludes are any good - the last one played, unexpectedly, for jaunty slapstick instead of release-the-Kraken bombast, presumably to send the kiddies home happy - and the Crashing Rocks are just a glorified landslide with countless screaming Argonauts; temptation to hum "Birdhouse in Your Soul" throughout probably irresistible.
PORTRAIT OF HELL (62) (Shiro Toyoda, 1969): Some amazing visuals - mainly roaring flames and dreamlike tableaux of Death, plus a weird effect in the prologue where the whole film seems to be viewed through a canopy of clouds - but plotting is shaky, starting with the notion that our artist hero's paintings have the power to summon ghosts (this is quickly forgotten), then that trying to paint Hell is turning him into a monster (cue the most clip-worthy scene, esp. for those with a fear of snakes), then that, even though he may be victimised - he's ethnic Korean, a significant detail a year after DEATH BY HANGING - his own pride and stubbornness are largely to blame. The one common thread is his relationship with the tyrannical lord and patron, a battle for control coloured by admiration and mutual resentment, the obligation of Art to be honest ("You are drawn to dark and ugly things," says the lord sadly, wishing our hero would conform and use his talents to paint a nice mural) and its duty - or just arrogant craving - to speak truth to power. About 30% stunning, 70% slightly disjointed; showing the portrait at the end was probably a mistake, then again not showing it would've seemed like a cop-out so what can you do.
HOUSE OF BAMBOO (56) (Samuel Fuller, 1955): Opens in the shadow of Mt. Fuji - an obvious preamble to exploding stereotypes of "the politest people in the world" - though in truth Fuller doesn't seem as exercised by post-war Japan as he (later) seemed by post-war Germany in VERBOTEN!, maybe because he himself fought in Europe. Our hero's romance with a "kimono girl" never adds up to much, oddly forgotten by the plot (looks like it's going to be pivotal when a gang member sees her talking to the cops, but in fact it leads to nothing), though it's interesting that the main opposition comes from other Japanese (Americans were more likely to be racist in SAYONARA two years later); Fuller seems a bit subdued in general, though he gets a rich villain in soft-spoken Robert Ryan - who kills a man, then cradles and talks to him - and some visual play with bamboo partitions (hero plunges through one when he first encounters the gang, then gets silhouetted in another so the cops can shoot him), standing for a world of subtle divisions. Handsome and hard-boiled, but something is missing.
OTHER MEN'S WOMEN (71) (William A. Wellman, 1931): Such a shame that it turns melodramatic in the latter stages (a man on the train tracks is bad enough, but a blind man on the train tracks?) because the first 40 minutes are remarkable, 80+ or very close to it. Possibly the loosest, slangiest film ever written by a woman named Maude - though a woman's touch may also explain the clear-eyed take on the unfaithful wife, and the extraordinary moment when, at her instinctive instigation, a kiss on the lips suddenly transforms playful flirting into something real. Joan Blondell and James Cagney work second-banana magic like Astaire and Rogers pre-GAY DIVORCEE, Cagney contriving a moment for the ages as he floats across a dance-floor on pure bantam energy, sweeping a girl off her feet and into his arms along the way - but in fact it's all great, not just the eye-catching moments but e.g. the half-formed urban landscape around the train tracks and e.g. the casual practised way the railwaymen duck down to avoid an overpass while chatting amiably on the roof of a train, and even e.g. the way they say "I'll see you some more" for 'I'll see you later'. Not sure about the gags making fun of a man with one leg, but I guess it's all part of the film's youthful spirit.
DON'T DELIVER US FROM EVIL (63) (Joel Seria, 1971): Strong family resemblance to HEAVENLY CREATURES, but Jackson led with the bloody aftermath then piled up tension whereas Seria works with upended morality, making the indulgent smile die on your lips by being as chilly and matter-of-fact as possible, whether lingering on the death throes of a poisoned canary or seguing into arson with startling casualness. The la-la-la score recalls ROSEMARY'S BABY and that might be the strongest influence, that mix of Satanism (or wannabe Satanism) and formal restraint; Evil is relatively banal, the tone much more arthouse than exploitation, and the edge of female hysteria that animated CREATURES largely tamped-down. Tries for unnerving, and mostly gets there.
CHARULATA (79) (Satyajit Ray, 1964): A humbling experience, because I'd always thought this was about a lonely wife who's tempted by a bit on the side - whereas Ray has something far more noble and delicate in mind, sublimating the sexual tension in a choice between the bustle of politics ("a living thing," raves the husband) and the beauty of literature, the intelligence of maturity and the gusty spirit of youth (the high-minded husband with his talk of Gladstone, finding his first grey hair; the impulsive Other Man with his dreams of being a writer, coming in with the storm), above all between the ideals of Truth and Integrity (and marital fidelity) and the awkward fact that sometimes, for good or at least understandable reasons, people falter (there's no need for the scene with the thieving brother and his wife - but Ray includes it anyway, to show that betrayal doesn't necessarily connote an evil nature). The point isn't even infidelity but the thought of infidelity - you can literally see it forming, in that great extended close-up - this being an interior drama told in glances, music, metaphors, small visual adjustments and some gentle but emphatic zooms (the zoom lens, like our heroine's binoculars, is made to express the distance between surface and feeling). Probably indescribable in words, esp. since most of its preoccupations (like the deep joy of writing) are unfashionable now; just a lyrical work that never puts a foot wrong - and I say that as someone who doesn't even like the last 30 seconds.
THE KENNEL MURDER CASE (60) (Michael Curtiz, 1933): "'Unsolved Murders'? That's a swell book to take to Chicago!". I suppose it is - and of course William Powell (as detective Philo Vance) finds a clue in that book, putting together the pieces of a locked-room mystery with practised efficiency, his brilliance edging close to the comical when he presents a large, elaborate model of the house to show the police how the murder was committed (does he have a team of carpenters on permanent standby?). Curtiz's efficiency is equally practised, admiration of the film's fleet mise-en-scene tempered only by the thought that it's all a bit mechanical, and that it seems a shame to cast Powell without giving him witty things to say. Speaking of which, it appears that the noun "suspect" was pronounced like the verb in 1933, with the emphasis on the second syllable, as in Vance asking the cops to gather all the susPECTS in one room so he can solve the mystery. Who knew, etc.
MAY 1, 2013
GOIN' DOWN THE ROAD (67) (Donald Shebib, 1970): Like that other Canadian classic of the early 70s, MON ONCLE ANTOINE, a low-key character drama with more edge than might first appear (the ending is something of a jaw-dropper). Two main actors are indelible, Paul Bradley, a little man with the pathos-laden mug of a Silent clown, alternating between jaunty and worried (but mostly worried), and Doug McGrath as the more go-getting partner, constantly frustrated by a life of menial jobs as he searches for "something that matters". They come to the city from Nova Scotia, MIDNIGHT COWBOY-style, McGrath naively hoping that things will be different ("Whatever possessed you to come looking for a job here?" asks a puzzled manager at an advertising firm, perusing his unskilled resumé), finding a rare moment of triumph when he manages to snag a date with the standoffish French chick at the bottle factory (though she finally brushes him off without so much as a kiss goodnight) - and Bradley too gets a beautiful moment, drunk at his own wedding, when he gets up to make a speech and his bride tries to pull him back, assuming he's about to embarrass her, but in fact he only wants to assure the assembly, with touching earnestness, that it's true he knocked her up but they were bound to get married anyway ("That's just the way we feel for each other"). NFB documentary meets OF MICE AND MEN with unglamorous Toronto setting, patently honest ("The most uncorrupt movie in town" - Pauline Kael) yet also quite slick in its way: Shebib alternates big scenes with gentle montages set to music, the result being perhaps a bit vanilla, too straightforwardly blue-collar. Someone like Olmi would've found a touch of wonder or absurdism - but even the most transcendent touch here (the recurrence of Satie) is nakedly aimed at poignant point-scoring.
SHIVERS (57) (Wojciech Marczewski, 1981): Couldn't resist when the Random Movie Generator pointed to this one just two days after I happened to watch SHAMELESS by Marczewski's son Filip (hadn't heard of either one of them a week ago), but I'm not sure I really get this movie. Fear and paranoia ("Be prepared!") at a camp for Young Pioneers in the Stalinist 50s - the period setting being presumably why the film was allowed to be so scathing about the Party - but most of it is rather tame coming-of-age with a twist (confused teenage hero transformed into good apparatchik) while some of it veers towards surreal (our hero eats snow, then sees a woman hanging from the rafters) with creepy single-chord music more suited to the other, Cronenbergian SHIVERS. Too choppy to be very good, and even the camp itself lacks a firm tone, not overtly sinister even as the boys sit beneath banners reading "Marxists Tell the Truth" and are assigned to write tell-all essays about their parents. Better than SHAMELESS, anyway.
STARDUST MEMORIES (59) (Woody Allen, 1980): Double-bill with the near-contemporaneous ALL THAT JAZZ as Artists in the Throes of Mid-life Crisis - and both men imagine their own deaths but Bob Fosse was scathing on himself and his own excesses while Woody comes off whiny and egotistical; given his wheedling, ingratiating persona, it's almost impossible to have him beset by fans, groupies, annoying relatives etc without making it look like he's trolling for sympathy (esp. since most of his tormentors look grotesque, in the Fellini manner). Charlotte Rampling montage - addressing the camera in a series of rapid-fire jump-cuts - is a typical misstep, because Charlotte Rampling is the last actress you should cast for such a mercurial scene (her face is notoriously mask-like, her forte a chilly aloofness) but Woody clearly wants to give his onscreen self a classy girlfriend, as if casting off neurotic Diane Keaton; the whole film feels off, like he felt compelled to step into a suit a size too big for him. Often visually beautiful, and some bits are classic - though e.g. the aliens are over-extended, and when he tries the same old one-liners ("Art and masturbation, two areas in which I'm an absolute expert") one is tempted to quote the Martian's admonition: "You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes!".
TWO CENTS WORTH OF HOPE (74) (Renato Castellani, 1952): So heedlessly exuberant it actually evokes wartime misery better than the more downbeat neo-realist likes of SHOESHINE; you can really sense what this country must've been through, to approach the thought of starting anew with such vitality. Boundless optimism of Youth is bruised (though not entirely crushed) by constant setbacks; seldom has a young romance faced so many obstacles, including the troublesome nature of the bride-to-be (Maria Fiore, an impulsive spitfire who doesn't look a day over 16, and indeed wasn't), the host of colourful characters ranging from toothless momma and grim, implacable papa to rural types like the man who reads villagers' letters out loud, for a fee (and does it "with feeling"), or satirical details like our heroes instinctively yelling when faced with a telephone. Bouncy but not just fluffy, the underlying point being the rigid, patriarchal order that must be defeated (Communism makes a very significant cameo) for a new Italy to emerge; like MIRACLE IN MILAN - another film with a hero named Toto - it doesn't shrink from miserable reality (and a cynical view of humanity) yet refuses to surrender its sense of wonder, and there's something touching in that.
THE GROUP (66) (Sidney Lumet, 1966): Second viewing, slightly lower rating. Lumet does his usual tremendous job, whipping the plot along with fast cuts and college songs on the soundtrack, but can't quite disguise the basic soapiness of the material. Half-buried themes are there, from fear of sex (two of the seven are essentially frigid) to the girls' gradual alienation from the bien-pensant socialism of their college years (it kicks off in the 1930s) - but it's finally significant that the actresses giving the most memorable performances (Joan Hackett and Elizabeth Hartman, for me) are the ones who suffer most nobly.
THE SLEEPING CAR MURDERS (75) (Costa-Gavras, 1965): "Hurry up, there's something new," says one cop to another - and there always is in this breathless whodunit, hurtling at the pace of a 30s Warners movie but with flashy bits of 60s style (low angles, reflections in mirrors) and modish 'daring' detail like a brief glimpse - no pun intended - of a flasher being booked at the police station. Unfortunately viewed dubbed into English and pan-and-scanned, the latter especially damaging since the camera is always moving - and the plot too is full of tangents and throwaways, random detail adding to the overall whirl, like Yves Montand (a cop with a cold) constantly being called "Chief Inspector" and having to correct people. Another cop admits he's always wanted to be a dancer, Michel Piccoli sweats madly as a pervert overcome by the female flesh in the cramped sleeping-car, a virginal young man could conceivably be a killer (didn't he seem curiously unfazed at the sight of the dead body?), and the penchant for eye-catching energy - the calling card of a young director grabbing his chance with both hands - extends to the startling homosexual element in the denouement. Hugely entertaining.
DEATH WEEKEND (58) (William Fruet, 1976): Home invasion with a twist, viz. the suggestion that our heroine secretly fancies the main invader (certainly more than she does the ostensible hero, a shallow materialist sleazeball who's brought her to his big tacky house for a dirty weekend under false pretences); the rape scene that almost turns into a clinch - "Why did you stop [resisting]?" asks the rapist, amazed - makes STRAW DOGS look like THE ACCUSED. Her actual revenge is a bit perfunctory (esp. since villain behaves like a man with a death wish), but early car race and five-minute orgy of destruction make up for a lot.
FAIR GAME (59) (Mario Andreacchio, 1986): 'Game' is the operative word, an escalating series of tit-for-tat games (as opposed to the Victim's Revenge template it superficially resembles) that's surprisingly tame for an exploitation movie - mostly a matter of sick pranks and property damage - but all the more plausible for it, the thugs amoral but not actively homicidal. 'Fair' is also the operative word, both in the film playing fair and perhaps a tinge of 'All's fair in love and war', the hidden suggestion being that the chief thug has the hots for our heroine - not in a brutish way; he's handsome and well-spoken, and seems to be flirting quite successfully before it all goes wrong - even as he terrorises her; the violence isn't explicitly sexual but there's always a sexual undertow, not to mention cameo roles for Freudian snakes and horses. Increasingly gripping, with a strong sense of the Outback as a vast, deceptively empty stage for the games-playing (heroine runs a wildlife preserve), also the cutest baby kangaroo in 80s cinema.
THE WARRIOR (42) (Sisworo Gautama Putra, 1981): "... and a cast of thousands," promise the opening credits, which is patently inaccurate - then again they also demote the screenwriter, having him share a frame with the sound recordist, so structure and dialogue (let alone accuracy) were never a big priority here. Also suffers from a hilariously fey, preening action hero (think a young John McEnroe with his head thrown back, as if about to demonstrate techniques of mind-control) and lacklustre action scenes, though I guess the WTF quotient will be enough for some people: a man turned into a pig (!), a warrior so tough he actually breathes fire, eyes gouged out (and new eyes transplanted), and a shaman with enormous fake teeth who successfully re-animates a headless corpse, the corpse then calmly leading the way to the spot where its head is buried so the two can be reunited. You couldn't make it up.
Z (76) (Costa-Gavras, 1969): Second viewing, though the first time was so long ago I barely remembered any of it. The most effervescent of political-conspiracy thrillers, much closer to the Revolutionary spirit of the late 60s than the bone-deep cynicism of e.g. ILLUSTRIOUS CORSPES a few years later. The one thing it lacks is menace, its villains being comical small-timers who clobber people on the head or try to run them down in embarrassingly obvious murder attempts, then again that's probably closer to real-life extremists; Gavras gives the impression of being less an ideologue himself than intrigued and energized by the cut and thrust of competing ideologies, which is very much a good thing.
THEATRE OF BLOOD (48) (Douglas Hickox, 1973): Spectacularly nasty, grindingly repetitive - but some of the sadism is memorable (poodles à la "Titus Andronicus", Vincent Price performing impromptu head surgery with lipstick, saw and scalpel), and besides it comes with the imprimatur of Shakespeare himself (a sick fuck, on this evidence) so it can't be reprehensible. Worth a look for the premise, Price at his fruitiest, and the general air of tweedy British understatement; the killings are actually a lot less fun than the parade of 'Oh I say!' reactions they elicit.
INSIANG (72) (Lino Brocka, 1976): Seems there's no translation in Tagalog for "fighting spirit" (the phrase is spoken in English), which is appropriate because there's a lot of tearful victimisation in this tale of slum life - too much so for my taste, but I still grooved on the lavish use of colour (it's my first Brocka) then slowly began to realise that everyone around Insiang (our put-upon teenage heroine) had been given an excellent reason for behaving as they did, and an actress named Mona Lisa was creating one of the great movie monster-moms, and Insiang herself was morphing into a more complex figure, turning from passive to passive-aggressive and pointedly walking alone (shunning the help of the nice boy who seems fated to 'save' her) at the climax. Very few close-ups and a cello on the soundtrack add a kind of ennobling distance, the slum presses down - a place where everyone knows everyone else's business - and I could've done without the symbolic faucet drip-drip-dripping into a water drum (someday the drum will overflow...) but there's no doubt the final shift into out-and-out melodrama is fully earned.
APRIL 1, 2013
LE GRAND JEU (78) (Jacques Feyder, 1934): Is this the most romantic film ever made about the Foreign Legion? I won't know for sure till I finally see MOROCCO - but it's still an unusually acrid romanticism, the romance of oblivion and the tug of painful memories. Feyder's camera tilts to observe a deck of cards laid out for fortune-telling (the titular 'big game'), goes suggestively low-angle for a woman sprawled on a bed (the film is erotic and incredibly explicit by 30s standards, much more than most American Pre-Codes), then drifts across a bar of tight, tense faces - after our hero and another disgraced aristo, both on the verge of joining the Legion, bond over absinthe and talk of their cosmopolitan travels ("I know them all: Moscow, London, Athens..." "But Paris is the most beautiful!") - drifts in a shaky dolly-shot whose shakiness is poignant in itself, over to a piano where a group of stolid Germans are singing "Lili Marleen". A comrade dies and his personal effects - old letters, remnants of a former life - are immediately burned without a trace being kept (he's "earned the right to wipe the slate clean"), there's a blonde/brunette doubling 25 years before VERTIGO - and of course there's also Francoise Rosay as the hard-boiled dame (and understanding wife) in charge of the local bar/brothel, told not to cry over her faithless slob of a husband and replying: "Does anyone know why we cry?". I can think of no other time in film history - ah, the fatalistic poetry of 30s Europe - when this ending would've been considered a good ending to this story, but in fact it's just about perfect.
NUMERO DEUX (59) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1975): Godard on gender, never his most progressive field - Don't think of the violence of the river (Man) trying to break past the shore (Woman), he urges, think also of the violence of the shore trying to hold back the river; "I feel like I'm being eaten up by all the 'I love you's I say to you," whines the husband - though in fact he's sympathetic to the wife, whose sterile life has left her (literally) constipated. "The body is a factory too," notes JLG, marital relations being a form of industrial relations - and Cinema too is a factory which is why he turns to the greater freedom (and intimacy) of video, the whole film being screened on TV monitors in truncated, often split-screen images (also mostly in long takes, the filmmaker consciously abandoning the tools of montage; "montage" is "reglage" [adjustment, regulation] says one of the inevitable intertitles). Some will find the English translation of the title all too apt, but in fact the tone is mutable and quite interesting; "What do we do when it's the State, the social system, that rapes us?" - but such fiery rhetoric is dampened by the fact that the impeccably left-wing family (Mom serenades the kids with anarchist songs; Grandpa recalls the old days, carrying pamphlets to Argentina) are so obviously messed-up. Both political and pornographic, admits JLG early on - and the latter aspect, which may have seemed a gimmick in '75, is actually what saves it.
THE ELUSIVE SUMMER OF '68 (58) (Goran Paskaljevic, 1984): Obvious comparison with Kusturica, esp. the contemporaneous DOLLY BELL, but also a Jiri Menzel vibe in the hedonistic grandpa who's committed to pleasures of the flesh - and an obvious political analogy in the equation of sex = freedom (both elusive), horny teenage hero oppressed by his dad who's not just a pot-bellied, splenetic tyrant (think Burt Young with big Balkan moustache) but also a lickspittle apparatchik who joined the Party in order to get ahead; kid's libido keeps coming up against the strictures of Party and patriarchy, then he finally makes it with a Czech girl who rides off into the distance just as the Prague Spring (another fleeting glimpse of freedom) is being crushed by Soviet tanks. Pleasant enough, though it does repeat its effects - hero lusts after women, gets caught, Dad explodes, rinse, repeat - and unusually light-hearted for Paskaljevic which is probably just as well.
HI, MOM! (69) (Brian DePalma, 1970)
WOMEN OF THE NIGHT (65) (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1948)
THE VERDICT (66) (Don Siegel, 1946): Starts and finishes superbly, albeit in different registers - the opening scene, full of shadows and the spectre of Death (Sydney Greenstreet reluctantly witnessing the execution of a man he sent to the gallows), being pure noir while the ingenious twist ending is in the style of locked-room mysteries from the Golden Age of detective fiction. In between it sags slightly, Greenstreet's role being oddly peripheral - albeit for reasons made clear later - and Peter Lorre never really getting enough scope for his trademark languid decadence (a couple of nicely morbid lines notwithstanding); auteurists must decide whether Siegel's style is fully-formed, but the role played by mental instability - a crime committed for apparently rational reasons turning out to be irrational - does seem fairly typical.
MAN OF MARBLE (57) (Andrzej Wajda, 1977): "Brilliantly directed," reckons Leonard Maltin (and he's not alone), but I'm not convinced. Occasional shoddiness - when hero addresses a cheering crowd, it's all too obvious that he's talking to nothingness overlaid with audio of a cheering crowd - isn't really a problem, and might anyway be justified on thematic grounds (the role of seat-of-your-pants guerrilla filmmaking in revealing Truth being part of the point), but Wajda's parodies of official propaganda are very broad, and his work with actors problematic: Krystyna Janda (in her debut), apparently directed to act as 'young' as possible - "How old are you?" she asks pointedly in an early scene; the whole idea of generational shift, young Poles starting to question the lies of the 50s and 60s, is central to the movie - gives a grotesque performance, frantically fidgeting and throwing her body around till it almost looks like she has Tourettes. Main plot about the Party manipulating its working-class Stakhanovite heroes is mildly interesting (and obviously brave, before the fall of the Iron Curtain), CITIZEN KANE-ish structure very, um, CITIZEN KANE-ish. Mostly disappointing, given its high reputation.
DEATHDREAM (77) (Bob Clark, 1972): Six years before DAWN OF THE DEAD made zombies teem with frustrated yearning, six years before COMING HOME laid the focus on returning Vietnam vets, here's a film that trumps them both. Avoided seeing it for years, just because it sounded too painful - and so it is, but it's also played in a dreamlike hothouse register from the very beginning, hysterical Mom warping the family dynamic even before she wills her son back from beyond the grave; Clark's style is fevered and emphatic (see e.g. the low wide-angles and weird ritualistic staging as the family march down to their first encounter with the zombie), while the score alternates tinkly piano with obscure roars and hisses. The psychosis of 'Nam comes to a cosy Mayberry of garrulous mailmen and doctors named 'Doc' - but in fact there's horror on both sides, the dead-eyed soldier weeping at the locals' ignorance of what he saw Over There, seeming to soften momentarily at mention of "old times" and the hopeful ex-girlfriend who shyly suggests they might pick up where they left off, and claiming the blood-debt "owed" to him even as he longs for the grave. Gripping, upsetting, creepy, teeming with intricate emotions - and yes, very painful.
BLIND CHANCE (65) (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1981): The camera identifies directly with our hero in a few early shots (people extend their hands to camera to shake hands with him, etc) - and Kieslowski too identifies with his protagonist, this dogged philosophical epic being a statement of beliefs from a reluctant transcendentalist. Faith in something is a feature of the first two scenarios - having found religion in Option 2, our man doesn't pray to God for anything specific, simply beseeching Him to "just be" - and leads to frustration in both, yet the cheeky near-nihilism of the final shot questions the merits of the uncommitted life as well. The jugglers near the end, who've been practising their art single-mindedly for years and become incredibly good at it, come close to being the film's secret heroes (Chance doesn't always rule our lives; character plays a part too, like the man whose life might've been totally different had he not broken down under torture) - yet it's also true that "every generation craves light", a belief in something bigger, even in a Poland that's about to disintegrate, Kieslowski finally siding with neither camp but unable to dismiss the role of the Big Idea even in a world ruled by randomness. Thoughtful, political and slightly TV-like, not really doing much with its gimmick in terms of plotting; I kept expecting e.g. the scene in the rehab clinic to reappear with our hero in different guises - or maybe I still haven't realised just how dumbed-down the likes of SLIDING DOORS are.
MODERATO CANTABILE (72) (Peter Brook, 1960): The actual conversations between the thwarted lovers are a little tedious, but the mood is irresistible: wintry rural landscapes with denuded trees, placid expanses of water, empty streets observed with cool dispassion (it owes something both to Antonioni and the modernism of the previous year's HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR, also scripted by Marguerite Duras), two stars at their early peak - Jeanne Moreau before JULES AND JIM, when she could still be wan and a little mousy, Belmondo before he became all swagger and killer smile, when he could still be sensitive and a little timid - above all a stately but evocative rhythm taking its cue directly from the title, "moderate and melodic". The scene where heroine drifts into reverie at her own dinner party, intercut with beautiful travelling shots, is hypnotic, and the resolution of the parallel-plot structure - the couple's nascent love affair contrasted with another love affair that ended in a crime passionnel - is unexpected, if a little facile.
SONG AT MIDNIGHT (55) (Weibang Ma-xu, 1937): Patience required: available prints seem to be in bad shape, early scenes drag, storytelling is choppy throughout (the acid attack, on which the whole plot pivots - it's a variation on PHANTOM OF THE OPERA - gets almost no build-up). Worth seeing for individual shots (a tall, stern-faced damsel and her old, hunched-over servant walking implacably towards the reverse-tracking camera) and the fine pitch of hysteria in the later scenes - featuring both maniacal laughter and an angry mob holding torches - also perhaps for the Western classical-music cues (Bach, Mussorgsky) suggesting a different, less insular China that was probably lost with Chiang Kai-shek; instead we got propaganda, already in place here when our hero (somehow) concludes at the end that the moral of the story is how important it is "to fight for the freedom of the people". Guess Andrew Lloyd Webber missed that one.
TRICK OR TREATS (38) (Gary Graver, 1982): Four months late for Halloween, and not exactly a classic to begin with - but the Random Movie Generator pointed here, so what can I do? Suburban husband gets dragged away by the men in white coats as his wife looks on smugly, "several years later" a frazzled babysitter runs around opening the door to trick-or-treaters, dealing with the practical jokes played by her bratty charge and fielding threatening phone calls from the aforementioned nutty husband, now escaped and out for revenge (he doesn't seem to realise that his wife isn't home - then again, to quote a po-faced doctor: "You have to humour these people, Nurse Reeves. They're crazy."). Risibly un-scary, with a laugh-out-loud climax, but the light-hearted tone has a certain cheese factor; also notable for an out-of-nowhere meta-scene where our heroine's hot girlfriends (who also happen to be film editors!) discuss horror movies - "I love making movies more than I love eating" - and the dim photography, also by Graver (prolific erotica specialist and Orson Welles' DP throughout the 70s and 80s), reinforcing the sense of VHS netherworld.
MARCH 1, 2013
SCARLET STREET (78) (Fritz Lang, 1945): Closer to THE BLUE ANGEL than film noir - which is also chronologically adjacent to LA CHIENNE which, alas, I haven't seen (yeah I know, so many gaps...). Hard to imagine how Renoir handled this material, probably not including the portentous, doom-laden epilogue (which works well, even if it barely skirts self-parody) but surely including the needy, desperate humanity before that, Edward G. Robinson the hen-pecked, emasculated, faceless little man - we open on the back of his head - who's uncomfortable with sex (he sneaks out of his own office party when the fellas start talking dirty) but pours out his subconscious desires (snakes!) in outlandish paintings, Joan Bennett as the immature little tramp who talks like a bobby-soxer - "Jeepers!" - and likes getting beaten up, pursing her lips in disgust as the "old ugly" sap tries to kiss her. It's a tale of two masochists looking for a sadist (that's why they can never be together) - and the plot goes to some strange places but the stench of desperation hovers acridly throughout, and Lang savours the bold strokes and ironies ("Paint me!" crows Joan, proffering her toenails) as well as the grotesque domestic set-up of harridan wife and the "Happy Household Hour" on the radio. Programming idea: a 'Creepy Paintings of 1945' double-bill, pairing this with THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY.
MADE FOR EACH OTHER (60) (Robert B. Bean, 1971): Second viewing, no change in rating. If you want neurotic-New-Yorker sketch comedy in 1971, BANANAS is zanier, if you want a scene where boy/girlfriend meets his/her prospective in-laws, LITTLE MURDERS is funnier - though the one here is notable for its sheer naked rage, which is typical of the movie (Joseph Bologna, in particular, is a torrent of aggression). Bologna rants apopleptically, real-life wife (and co-writer) Renee Taylor is the self-deluding kook who loves him anyway - and the subtext is perhaps that she secretly welcomes his brutal honesty, having grown up with an absent father and smothering mother (Mom cites Christopher Columbus, who "didn't leave home till his late 30s", to try and stop her from flying the nest), but it still leaves a slightly sour taste that she makes the first move to reconcile after he trashes her dreams. Notable: Paul Sorvino as our hero's choleric dad, heading off to beat someone up for having "passed a remark about where my brother buys his meat".
TRASH (75) (Paul Morrissey, 1970): Needs to be seen alongside FLESH, the blithely sensual hustler of that film having now lost his mojo (and libido) to heroin - a more victimising, superficially less interesting dynamic yet the film makes up in complexity what it lacks in easy warmth, moving via queasy, hilarious, car-wreck theatrical set-pieces which remain quite extreme (esp. the encounter with the clearly underage teen who gets pawed, then plied with drugs) from initial faux-naturalism to pure performance: Holly Woodlawn's tirade when (s)he catches Joe with her sister - "Is this how you repay me?", etc - is pure diva, and the final scene with the social worker ("decent, respectable hippies") plays more like a burlesque sketch than a true depiction of how the underbelly lived circa 1970; as in FLESH, the possibility of Art - becoming characters/caricatures of themselves, aligned with Old Hollywood artefacts like the glamour mags in the earlier film - is these rather sad people's implied redemption. Unabashed needle shots but no pandering to the romance of heroin (hello TRAINSPOTTING), more a slapstick mockery which is probably the best way to handle junkies (sorry, junkies); to quote the very sensible go-go dancer with the big bosom who tries in vain to stir Joe's dulled desires: "Sex is like drugs - and it's cheaper!".
CONTACT (72) (Alan Clarke, 1985): Opening scene - British troops in Northern Ireland shoot dead the driver of a car with no apparent provocation - makes it look like it's going to be cheaply political, but Clarke is after something more, a near-abstract piece that pushes at the borders of dystopian sci-fi; it wouldn't be a shock if we discovered that the soldiers were alone in this verdant world, or that it was all taking place entirely in their heads (though of course we don't, this being - incredibly - a made-for-TV movie). Birds chirp, violence flares abruptly, and a certain melancholy slowly takes over - in the glimpse of an old stone farmhouse, in the alien, green-hued night-vision look, in the held-long shot of a soldier simply standing, saying nothing, with his hand under his chin. Britain's dead-end Irish policy in a nutshell, but not just that; add some visual bells and whistles - not that it needs bells and whistles - and we're in mid-00s Gus Van Sant territory.
A CAUSE, A CAUSE D'UNE FEMME (63) (Michel Deville, 1963): Just as well this is co-written by a woman, because it's conspicuously heartless on gender relations - or rather, the relations between our heartless hero and the three women who alternately help him, dote on him, vy for his attention and, in the case of the central betrayal, perjure themselves for love of him; not to mention that there's also a fourth woman, a blank-faced young girl whose bizarre relationship - literally treated like a doll by a man who nonetheless (admittedly) worships her - is shown as a kind of ideal. Cunningly scripted as a man-on-the-run movie, making the hero (more) sympathetic despite himself, and Deville is clearly up to something with the many faces of Woman - there's a bit where he cuts directly from one girl turning her head to another turning at exactly the same angle - but something (rhythm, tone, plotting?) didn't entirely click with me, and this kind of artifice needs to be perfect or it falls apart. On the plus side, I now hope to watch (someday) every single film with the delicious Mylene Demongeot.
TERMINAL ISLAND (55) (Stephanie Rothman, 1973): "Gotta have a maniac!" say the TV people listing the dramatis personae (and providing exposition) in the opening scene, but a bit more mania might actually be welcome in this rather tame exploitation movie. The first act is strong, with a penal colony - murderers left to fend for themselves on a desert island - resolving naturally (and plausibly) into a savage community where the strong oppress the weak and (the few) women are kept captive for the gratification of men (note the presence of a female director), but then our heroines escape to a nicer community where sexual harassment is frowned-upon - one of them takes a comical revenge on a macho pig - and it's just goodies vs. baddies, the plucky dames instructing their new friends in home-made explosives ("Wild mustard has a high sulphur content") on the way to a rousing climax. Heroes include an amiable redneck, a reminder, along with the country song over the opening credits - "Well, it's too damn bad nobody loved her..." - that the hicks in the drive-in audience were as important as the blaxploitation crowd (wooed by the black protagonists) in '73. Deathless dialogue, as an outhouse gets blown to smithereens with a henchman inside: "That dude just took his last crap!".
THE ITALIAN (46) (Reginald Barker, 1915): Largely uninteresting tale of an Italian immigrant to the US - except, I guess, in being so close to the events it describes, and for its own historical value (there's a special charge in films made before a certain threshold, when you know for a fact that everyone onscreen must now be dead) - turns into a pathos-laden little fable with unlikely prison-and-revenge shenanigans. Extended prologue in "old Italy" is stilted, George Beban's 'ethnic' performance a matter of taste (though the film does at least play with how other people dismissing him as a quaint fool - as we might do - can have narrative consequences), and you do make allowances for a film so old, then again INTOLERANCE needed no allowances.
1960 REVISITED: Doing maintenance work on my 1960 Top Ten, so I re-watched a few contenders (all second viewings except MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which was one of the few VHS tapes I owned as a boy):
PARAKH (71) (Bimal Roy, 1960): Not really Bollywood (despite a handful of fine songs), not arty like Ghatak and Guru Dutt, not delicate and vaguely patrician like Satyajit Ray either. A rural comedy that might've come from Pagnol - though it's more like the anti-Pagnol in that, as in THE BAKER'S WIFE, the main personages are determined by their status in the village (viz. the priest, the doctor, the schoolteacher and - in this case - the feudal landlord) yet the point is their greed and hypocrisy, and the (wishful-thinking) undertow is the obsolescence of the whole Indian caste-and-class system in the age of nascent democracy ("The nation is free now"). Visual style is unfussy, turned up a notch for the song numbers, and the film is undoubtedly didactic but also warm and wise, borrowing a well-worn comic premise (used by Sirk in HAS ANYBODY SEEN MY GAL, inter alia), delighting in political intrigues without spelling everything out like (say) LINCOLN, and wresting some honest tears at the end as the humble man is inevitably vindicated. My first Roy, and not even the obvious starting-point (TWO ACRES OF LAND, DEVDAS and MADHUMATI are all better-known); what with this and PYAASA, it's beginning to look like Indian cinema of the 50s and early 60s might be a treasure trove.
THE GREAT SILENCE (63) (Sergio Corbucci, 1968): Second film this month (after PLACES IN THE HEART) that I feel I'm underrating because it ends so powerfully, but in fact this famous spaghetti Western isn't very well organised. Momentum flags, much of it is generic, and if the ending's unexpected it's partly because it doesn't gel with what came before - except perhaps in emphasising Death, one of three meanings ascribed to the title (the others referring to our mute gunslinger hero and the great snowy vistas dwarfing the characters). Mostly a morbid little number which, if it didn't have the ending, the snowscapes and the Ennio Morricone score, might be largely forgotten - but it does, so there you go.
THE NAUGHTY FLIRT (55) (Edward Cline, 1931): "Young people of that type are becoming a problem," says a kindly judge, faced with those naughty flappers; "And yet, you know, there's no real harm in them. They are merely irresponsible". The most problematic young person is Alice White - small, blonde, birdlike, breathy, big eyes, small mouth - but it only takes half the 55-minute running-time before she's (literally) knocked into shape, after which we get lame office comedy (Alice works as a secretary even though her dad owns the joint, that being presumably a woman's only place in an office even when she's rich and expensively educated) followed by lame bedroom farce. Still enjoyable, despite primitive technique (the dolly-shot was clearly the New Big Thing in 1931 Hollywood, see also the opening shot of THE EASIEST WAY), with a kind of carefree joy that may be indescribable today; we've never really found a word to replace 'gay', since it changed its meaning.
DRUGSTORE ROMANCE (66) (Paul Vecchiali, 1979): Might be the nuttiest tale of amour fou ever made, the object of obsession being middle-aged, not especially attractive and downright unpleasant, not just unresponsive but cynical and devious. Not sure what the opening dedication to Jean Gremillon signifies, having only seen one film by JG (maybe the jagged, lurching tone?), but there's no mistaking Gabriel Fauré (the other subject of that dedication), his ethereal music plastered over our hero's irrational romanticism ("Fauré is direct," he opines, "he works by intuition") - and meanwhile the supporting characters are especially vivid, from the old flame who recalls that she loved our hero (and still does) but things were never "comfortable enough" between them, to the wry old hooker who tries to convince him that Love doesn't exist, to the trio of neighbourhood reprobates and philosophers, whether to chide him for focusing so intensely on one person or else the opposite, to show that everyone contains hidden worlds and anyone deserves to have a movie made about them. The style is abrupt, unsettled, thoughts of romantic fixation cutting into the action in razor-sharp inserts; a film I could love, at least if it didn't seem so perversely intent on not being loveable.
WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? (65) (George Cukor, 1932): "Let me give you a tip about Hollywood: always keep your sense of humour," says alkie svengali Lowell Sherman to waitress-turned-diva Constance Bennett - and the satirical bits (notably a vulgar studio head demanding pitches of 50-words-or-less six decades before THE PLAYER and a Louella Parsons-like gossip queen asking the happy couple if theirs is a passionate, "unnghhhh" kind of love) survive better than the final-act pathos in this precursor to A STAR IS BORN, but it's still an impressive job from young Cukor, doing some fancy business with montage at the climax and managing to inject some real feeling in the obligatory relationship with the nice-guy (i.e. non-Hollywood) beefcake hero. Surprisingly acrid, though the possible best moment is a poignant one: Bennett, having just been 'discovered', surrounded by the studio mogul and his heads of department, all of them chattering at once - then, as the men move away, standing by herself, looking dazed, in a near-empty screening room: "I'm ... I'm in pictures".
SHOLAY (53) (Ramesh Sippy, 1975): So attenuated it starts to feel like Sippy made a bet that he could spin this material out to three and a half hours. Lame comedy, indifferently-shot action and a climax rife with bold strokes (a girl forced to dance till her feet bleed, or her beloved gets it; a final mano-a-mano slightly compromised by the fact that the good guy has no arms, irresistibly recalling the Black Knight in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL) that end up looking cheesy - yet the fact that everything takes three times as long as it should does impose a relaxing rhythm (esp. perhaps in the cinema), and there's something bracing about the indiscriminate pillaging of Western models, presumably unfamiliar to most Indian audiences of the 70s. No surprise that an 'Eastern Western' copies MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST - but who'd have expected it to borrow (nay, steal) the entire comedy Fuhrer from "Springtime for Hitler"?
SALON MEXICO (69) (Emilio Fernandez, 1949): MILDRED PIERCE-ish in the mix of film noir and women's picture (and a mother's sacrifice for an ungrateful daughter, albeit older/younger sisters in this case) - but in fact (even) more fevered, with songs, gangs of thieves and Christmas sparklers, a score that gets equally, excessively excited by a cop's act of kindness and a tour of the exhibits in the Museo Nacional (!), a recurring shot of the staircase leading to heroine's apartment made to signify a whole world of degradation, and of course the Salon Mexico, a smoky dance hall where dancers twist and shimmy to a pounding drumbeat. Sex cut with moralistic primness, insofar as the heroine is devout and both of the 'good' men - an older gentleman and a crippled flyer - are physically inadequate; a heady mix, and Gabriel Figueroa's photography (noir-est shot: heroine steals from her sleeping lover, the dark bedroom illumined at five-second intervals by a flashing neon sign outside) is up there with Alton and Musuraca.
1984 REVISITED: Doing maintenance work on my 1984 Top Ten, so I re-watched some contenders (all second or third viewings):
FEBRUARY 1, 2013
L'AMOUR A MORT (72) (Alain Resnais, 1984): Final act turns into a stark spiritual three-hander - high romanticism vs. religious dogma, with suicide as the bone of contention - which is fine in itself but somehow more conventional than what comes before, an early outing for the Resnais stock company with a very Resnais-ish structure (echoing the also Jean-Gruault-penned MON ONCLE D'AMERIQUE): little snippets of life, some - a hornets' nest, a fire in the distance - seemingly irrelevant, except that they point up the mystery ("If I died now," says the newly-resurrected husband, "you'd know nothing of me"). Short scenes alternate with a recurring motif of snowflakes falling in a night sky - an apt metaphor for human existence because every snowflake is unique (so are people, claims Fanny Ardant) yet they drift randomly, subject to chance ("Heads or tails?"), and melt before too long - making for a film that seems constantly suspended, lacking any firm present; it's mentioned that hero and heroine look to past and future respectively (he's an archaeologist; she cultivates new strains of plants), and everyone here seems fixated either on the future (the afterlife, resurrection) or the past (hero's growing obsession with his near-death experience), unable to subsist in the here-and-now. Dreamlike, overwhelming and a little annoying, all at once.
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (61) (Erle C. Kenton, 1932): Would've liked this to be more nightmarish, less of a yarn (it's somewhere between FREAKS and a jungle adventure, but the proportions are slightly off), and the chanting beast-people - "Are we not men?" - veer close to kitsch, but Charles Laughton is fastidious and surprisingly restrained as Moreau ("My regards," he says, raising his glass like a transplanted English gent; "Here's mud in your eye, Doc!" comes the response) and of course you have the "Panther Woman" (Girl, actually), a sex kitten for the ages. Our hero's look of horror when she reveals her true nature is disgust at the thought of bestiality, but one also thinks of the era's fear of miscegenation (easy to imagine an alternate version where Moreau is a rogue plantation owner breeding mulattos), just as the events unfolding in Europe come to mind when Moreau wields his whip and makes the mob chant in unison like a Fascist dictator (even if the changed title - from H.G. Wells - lays more emphasis on his 'playing God'). Plotting is slack, as so often in early Hollywood - oops, we seem to have left the lab door open, allowing our uninvited guest to stumble on our mad-scientist experiments - but that's part of the charm.
THIS BOY'S LIFE (58) (Michael Caton-Jones, 1993): Third viewing, first in 20 years, significantly lower rating. The charitable view is that I was much closer to the young hero's age when I put this on my annual Top 10 back in the day, the less charitable view is that I had crappy taste in movies. Totally synthetic - yet it does work, insofar as you feel the sense of claustrophobia and desperate need to escape an abusive family (MVP: Carter Burwell), so maybe I just wasn't bothered by the contrivance, cartoonish touches and overstuffed late-50s soundtrack; also, of course, Leonardo DiCaprio was a revelation at the time, whereas now his doe-eyed suffering seems a touch proto-TITANIC.
1968 REVISITED: Doing maintenance work on my 1968 Top Ten, so I re-watched a few contenders (all second viewings):
JANUARY 1, 2013