OLDIES!

Older films seen in 2020, continued from the 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 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-defunct old reviews page.

All films, both from this year and the 17 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 MATTEI AFFAIR (70) (Francesco Rosi, 1972): "How can the fate of millions of people around the world depend on four or five American billionaires?" Not much has changed, obviously. The subject is outdated (Enrico Mattei, the now-forgotten head of Italy's state-owned oil corporation, once described as "the most powerful Italian since Julius Caesar"), the larger Cold War landscape is also outdated - yet the film becomes increasingly urgent, piling up geopolitics and conspiracy theories, anticipating the go-for-broke energy of JFK with a similar display of cinematic flourishes (Rosi himself appears, making a film about Mattei and enlisting a journalist, who later vanishes, to investigate; a journalist - Mauro De Mauro - was indeed enlisted, and did indeed vanish). Gian Maria Volonte is all shark smile and smooth aggression, not really looking for the human side of Mattei - there's a handful of solitary moments, with suggestions of weariness - very much an iconic figure and man of the people ("I just wanted to see if the workers are smiling," he says on a factory floor); Rosi goes from gratuitously grand backdrops (the Duomo, Lenin's tomb, the Sahara) to an almost documentary tangent on oil-drilling, and meanwhile the images find their own pungent 70s-ness, packed-deep compositions of groups of men (it's all men) talking in crowded restaurants and smoke-filled rooms, Mattei's charisma spilling over. Also of course political, a left-wing film about state intervention as a bulwark against unfair capitalism; hopefully the debates of the 2020s will also someday be enshrined so compellingly.

ANGST (57) (Gerald Kargl, 1983): Operates partly (and, I think, deliberately) as porn, only with violence instead of sex - wall-to-wall music over repetitive real-time action, our hero dragging corpses, moving from one room to another, etc. The score also echoes HALLOWEEN, raising the idea of a slasher movie in reverse (i.e. from the slasher's pov), but it's actually more of an academic exercise, showing the killer's acts unflinchingly but layering them with his own voice-over 'explaining' his psychopathy - V.O. detaches from the action; it wouldn't be the same if they'd intercut, say, with childhood flashbacks - the exercise being to see if the acts themselves can still be shocking despite being presented so clinically (porn, after all, is arousing despite being mechanical). Quite effective, but it lacks the grimy sincerity of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER; the impressive but showy cinematography is another distraction - incl. impossibly high crane shots, if they are indeed crane shots; Zbigniew Rybczynski (Oscar winner for the gimmicky TANGO) should be treated as co-director.

DUSTY AND SWEETS McGEE (68) (Floyd Mutrux, 1971): Fragments, and music. We're talking "mainly about a young boy's cock in America," says Kit, a gay hustler - though we're actually talking more about dope, and assorted dope fiends. A chipper ex-con describes the "heavy trip" he endured while in prison, a teen couple shoot up adorably though the boy is impatient with their lifestyle: "It's not just shooting dope, people do things!" he gripes to his indolent mate. Two guys in white T-shirts and matching moustaches walk into a bathroom; it looks like the set-up for comedy, but instead they shoot up - but one guy accidentally drops the drugs down the sink, so it's comedy after all. Mutrux cuts from a freeze-frame of a kiss to a needle going in - and meanwhile music keeps playing, a radio DJ ('Weird Beard') introducing hits of the 50s and 60s, making the film a bizarre halfway point between TRASH and AMERICAN GRAFFITI. Feel I might be underrating - it's superbly loose-limbed, with bits of that beautiful hazy 70s look - but it's clearly done for effect (the people are real, the incidents scripted), and the whole inauthenticity grates slightly. Props to the guy ranting about Nixon-era "preventive detention", a precautionary measure allowing the state to detain you for nothing, just on the risk that you might do something, an outrage (he says) against our Western values; speaking from the age of Guantanamo and hate speech... buddy, you ain't seen nothing yet.

GREED (73) (Erich von Stroheim, 1924): Connective tissue seems to be missing (still a bit puzzled about why Marcus gives up the girl in the first place; what's that shot of waves supposed to signify, freedom?) but still very vivid, even at 132 minutes. "I told them the truth" goes the opening caption, quoting the author of the original novel, but truth - equated with the sordid and brutally honest - is forever coming up against Von Stroheim's penchant for maximalism (his motto seems to be like his anti-hero's: "Don't make small of me!") and songbird symbolism, a taste for the baroque and even cartoonish. A meeting through pain (in the dentist's chair), a courtship through sexual assault, a marriage shot through with hysterical fear of sex - then money used to ward off the threat (the $5,000 must remain intact, she insists, like her conjugal body), Zasu Pitts literally in bed with her money. 10 hours would've been too much, yet the wedding night and Death Valley climax are indeed unforgettable. Fun coincidence: watching it immediately after THE PALEFACE, which also has a 'Painless Potter'; I didn't even know that was a reference.

THE PALEFACE (53) (Norman Z. McLeod, 1948): Second viewing, last seen in childhood. Solid laughs when Bob Hope is doing his thing, but the plot is tedious and the much-vaunted teaming with Jane Russell only patchily successful (Hope can't really work with anyone, except confrontationally; there's no warmth to him). Danny Kaye borrowed the "He leans to the left, so shoot to the right" shtick for THE COURT JESTER, there are hints of Daffy Duck in Hope trying to think through the question of where the arrow came from ("William Tell? No, that's silly...") and loads of early Woody Allen in the gasping neurotic quality. "Brave men run in my family," he says, putting a little spin on 'run' even while accepting the compliment. Not bad, with hindsight; maybe I wasn't in the mood.

MISTER 880 (64) (Edmund Goulding, 1950): Script by Robert Riskin, whose imagination seems stuck in the tenements of 30s New York, with everyone packed together and urchins running wild in the street. Mix with the post-war fashion for lauding branches of government for their 'scientific' methods - "The efficiency of the United States Secret Service"! - and Edmund Gwenn following his Kris Kringle with another elderly eccentric, though his performance is busier and the character slightly grittier (he does get another courtroom climax, designed to illustrate that the Law is both just and merciful). A fine yarn for much of its length, though the early section where Burt Lancaster thinks he's playing Dorothy McGuire but is actually being played by her doesn't last long - and she's only doing it out of feminine wiles anyway, trying to keep him around - and Lancaster is a slightly alarming romantic lead anyway (too intense, not to mention that toothy shark smile); he's much more at home at the climax, using the intensity for moral polemic.

NOVEMBER 1, 2020

THREE COMRADES (57) (Frank Borzage, 1938): An MGM-ization of THE LAST FLIGHT (having rewatched that film so recently didn't help) - except of course that much has changed in seven years, blithely apolitical Lost Generation cynicism now weaponised into a warning against incipient fascism and an explicit affirmation of socialism, the 'comrades' sharing property (the car) and indeed clothes (one supplies the coat, the other the pants so the third one can go on a date). Very much of its time, our heroes caught in an in-between state - "neither dead nor alive", "between day and night" - like the uneasy lull before the storm of the late 30s (also like the feeling at the moment, speaking from the maelstrom of competing forces in 2020), but rather drab as a movie, glossy MGM values to the fore, all three comrades played by dull actors and Margaret Sullavan (who's obviously not dull) stuck in a maudlin role, shining bravely through terminal illness. (Comparing her to Helen Chandler in FLIGHT also didn't help.) Borzage supplies the occasional flourish, the split-screen phone calls are adorable, some of the dialogue has the carefree Fitzgerald touch ("I'll give you Erich in a nutshell"; "He'd look cute in a nutshell..."); still disappointing, after all these years of hearing about it.

CHINA GIRL (66) (Abel Ferrara, 1987): WEST SIDE STORY without the songs - but still, in its way, a musical, both because the soundtrack is packed and because Ferrara thinks in images and set-pieces, opening the film with three wordless sequences (a dance, a chase, a brawl) and never really settling down to prosaic realism. Nicholas St. John is largely defeated by the project, and the sappy teenage lovers ("How do you say 'I love you' in Italian?"), but Ferrara builds a stylised fable of an extravagantly segregated New York, a sensual cousin to THE WARRIORS, with neon lights reflected in puddles and hard-nosed patriarchs on both sides. Just the artistry in the final shot, whether his or DP Bojan Bazelli's - panning across the ROMEO AND JULIET carnage then corkscrewing up into a crane shot, and people crowding in so their shadows erase (shield? veil? rub out the memory of?) the young lovers - would be enough to mark it out as a beautiful outlier in his filmography.

THE HUSTLER (74) (Robert Rossen, 1961): Second viewing, first in >25 years, down from a much higher rating (9 out of 10, in those days). The first 40 minutes are great - I'd forgotten just how great, tbh - then the romance between two damaged people is also great, if a bit affected (the guy seethes; the girl drinks), but it starts losing steam once it turns George C. Scott from shrewd cynic to outright villain (whose methods - knocking his client's self-esteem - also seem a bit bizarre, but whatever). Biggest issue is perhaps the heroine, whose motives are complicated - she acts out of self-loathing, having succumbed to Scott, but also acts as the hustler's conscience; her eventual fate is both a sacrifice and an act of revenge - way too complicated to distil with any clarity (I assume it worked better in the book); the film becomes muddy, starts to speechify, then the inevitable re-match feels a bit truncated. Still some of the finest existentialist-macho action of all time, probably.

SYLVIA AND THE GHOST (71) (Claude Autant-Lara, 1946): "It's because I see so many things that hurt me, that I keep my head in the clouds." The year of release would be enough to justify this very head-in-clouds movie - even if it were just escapism from the horrors of war, which it's not. You and I have an incurable illness, jokes teenage Sylvie's dad to his business associate, "we're no longer children"; Sylvie still is, just about, pining for the ghost even before the film begins - a "nice" ghost, like in GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, a ghost that loved and died for love. A young girl's illusions (not even illusions, just romantic ideas) are gently deflated, the tone light and farcical - Autant-Lara would tackle Feydeau two films later - with boys dressing up in bedsheets, getting in each other's way, plus a vain theatre actor expostulating at the whole goofy business; the ghost himself remains, mute and melancholy, standing for all the lovely, head-in-clouds things in life (the fact that he's played by a comic - Jacques Tati - is the point, even if he never does anything comical), encapsulated by a haunting flute theme that might've been composed by Morricone. All very airy, but that's the trick; rewatching PORTRAIT OF JENNIE two days later was a useful reminder of how whimsy can curdle when done pretentiously.

OCTOBER 1, 2020

TUGBOAT M 17 (62) (Werner Hochbaum & Heinrich George, 1933): A reverse tracking shot here, a low-angle there, location shooting in city-symphony style, a burst of full-on Expressionism (a baroque montage with double exposures) at the climax - but most worth seeing for the portrait of adultery, quite unlike the Sunday-school version in contemporary Hollywood. The wife is sickly, knows (or senses) from the start but feels she can do nothing; the husband, played by co-director George, is loving but weak, giving in with regret but no real guilt - and the ending is surprisingly open (and downbeat), the family unit still intact but wounded, probably fatally, as the sails come down on the titular tugboat. Plotting is scattered, with a touch too much Teutonic fat-man pathos in the style of THE BLUE ANGEL, but the nightlife scenes - as so often in these early-30s movies - make it worthwhile, masked balls and sailors' nights and a dark woman singing a torch song. "She can't dance, she can't darn socks. She wouldn't do as a wife for me," says a grumpy, bowler-hatted customer, watching an admittedly maladroit dancer in a nightclub - but his friend, a baby-faced chub in a beret, is more forgiving: "Perhaps she has a good heart". Indeed.

23 PACES TO BAKER STREET (59) (Henry Hathaway, 1956): Very strong Tuesday-night-at-the-end-of-a-long-day entertainment, though the twists land just the wrong side of dopey. The assassin's plan is even more half-baked than pushing Joel McCrea off the tower in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT - actually, a professional killer being unable to finish off a blind man who trusts him implicitly and doesn't even know his identity, with no-one else around, falls well within the 'How do you fuck that up?' parameters from A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE - and the final twist is presented in a rather slapdash way, burying the lede that the perfume was (presumably) a mistake which our hero only smelled because blindness has sharpened his other faculties (even then, it doesn't really make sense; would a woman talk to a man for so long without sensing something amiss?). Hathaway finds little in the way of striking compositions or Hitchcockian perversity - no exploration e.g. of the hero's weird pride that makes him disguise his condition and place himself in harm's way - the premise being akin to REAR WINDOW, though disability (usually in a female protagonist) also recalls WAIT UNTIL DARK, SORRY WRONG NUMBER, etc, nor does the pivotal overheard conversation contain much in the way of clever clues. Not very clever at all, actually, but this kind of well-upholstered, mildly scary Hollywood mystery is hard to resist; trappings are lavish, London ambience - starting with a long, slow pan across the Thames - surprisingly strong.

THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER (65) (Larry Cohen, 1977)

SEPTEMBER 1, 2020

AN AVERAGE LITTLE MAN (79) (Mario Monicelli, 1977): The halfway switch is the big surprise here, as well as the point where commedia all'italiana switches to the unforgiving modern era, prompted - nay, forced - by the random violence plaguing Italy during the 'Years of Lead' - and even the comical stuff about Freemasons (in the lighter first half) would've resonated with Italians in the time of Opus Dei, yet in fact the political layer is just icing on the cake. Monicelli gives fair warning in the opening scene, with a troublesome fish getting its head bloodily bashed in, our middle-aged hero being otherwise a peaceable sort, a product of post-war Italy, a civil servant humouring the boss's whims ("How's his mood this morning?"), a bit of a buffoon who believes in being simpatico to everyone, prone to domestic tantrums which his wife stolidly ignores, his devotion to his amiable, none-too-brilliant son (an accountant!) so misplaced - yet sincere - it becomes rather touching. The workplace satire is already surprisingly pungent, even before the halfway switch (there are earthy details, like dandruff and body odour) - yet the film keeps finding tenderness too, like the bit where our hero sees a bit of his son in the other boy, and Alberto Sordi brings immense dignity to the foolish man forced to confront the unthinkable. A magnificently bleak human comedy.

CUTTER'S WAY (74) (Ivan Passer, 1981): Second viewing, first in >25 years, much lower rating. Notable mainly for starting with a cartoonish construct - John Heard as scabrous, piratical Cutter, a cripple with an eyepatch and the guilt of Vietnam on his shoulders - and ending with a sharp, pungent mix of rich dialogue, offbeat/etheral zither score and a slightly self-conscious, still gripping atmosphere of sour malaise (double-bill with WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN for sardonic post-60s vibe). Career-best work from both Heard and Jeff Bridges, though of course the bar is higher in the latter case (he's effortlessly great as a jock who's always gone through life a little too easily). Maybe too far-fetched that these nobodies have a direct line to the man with the sunglasses - he should be remote and inaccessible - but that's just a quibble.

MODERN ROMANCE (85) (Albert Brooks, 1981)

BLAST OF SILENCE (66) (Allen Baron, 1961): Beatnik noir, in a way, with a swinging jazz soundtrack and painfully existentialist, one-man-alone philosophy (at one point we go to a jazz club, where a cool cat sings a song about being "dressed in black all the time") - yet also an incredibly accomplished no-budget indie, made with a fervour that extends to its hero (played by the writer-director; the DP is also the producer). He's not coolly alienated, like the hitman in MURDER BY CONTRACT, he always hates the targets before he kills them - hates them like he hated "the old man" and the nuns at the orphanage, all the memories troubling his subconscious like Freudian maenads - and hates the world in general, resentful of suburban bourgeois life (he could get a house like that if he wanted, he claims; he's in the top 5% income earners), resentful even that the man he's hired to kill has a moustache "to hide the fact that he has lips like a woman". Wall-to-wall, second-person voice-over acts like a jabbing finger, the film's only problem being perhaps that it's too accomplished, too predetermined; it could use a bit of the troubling no-budget randomness in e.g. CARNIVAL OF SOULS. Highlights include Larry Tucker as corpulent, chuckling 'Big Ralph' - with his pet rats and arm-wrestling prowess - and remarkable dawn shot on a totally deserted New York street (done with an extremely long lens, perhaps?) with our hero walking from the far horizon all the way to camera; a whole year before David Lean, too.

THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART III (67) (Penelope Spheeris, 1998): Haven't seen either of the first two DECLINEs (don't blame me, the Random Movie Generator brought me here) so I can only surmise that (punk) music was a lot more prominent in those, part of the point - as confirmed by Flea from RHCP and another old-timer, an emaciated ex-punk with flame-red hair - being that the scene has changed to the point where the music is almost irrelevant; these rejected youngsters just want love, or oblivion, and rave about their favourite drugs (beer, mostly) more than their favourite punk bands. "Where do you think you'll be in five years' time?" asks the somewhat horrified, 50-something Spheeris again and again - and the answers are depressing, indeed the whole film is depressing, a litany of childhood abuse and squalid living, though the emphasis (this being punk) isn't on suffering so much as alienation, the mundane, unglamorously real pre-Internet kind: "I don't mix well with people," says a 15-year-old; "I just like to be alone and read". Rather one-note but hard to shake, indeed I'm probably underrating it; the final caption, exploding any sentimental notions of community - buried deep in the final credits, as if to ensure only the very committed will even find it - is a gut-punch for sure.

FROM SATURDAY TO SUNDAY (63) (Gustav Machaty, 1931): Never mind pre-Code innuendo, here's a film where two young ladies go out looking for older men - "older than thirty," which is old indeed - and are actually given money by a middle-aged factory owner to spend the night in a cheap hotel; not much innuendo going on there. Our heroine isn't having it, of course, leading to a meeting with a kind-hearted typesetter in the less-exciting second half, then a last-minute lurch into melodrama that really hurts the movie - but the first half is terrific, another in the early-30s penchant (see also e.g. Rene Clair) for a consciously musical cinema blending montage, visual transitions and dialogue, using inanimate objects for punctuation (typical bit: camera pans down from the dinner table, tracks along the carpet, adds a few seconds of a pianist pounding on the piano, back up to the table - and now they're having dessert), also including some absolutely stunning close-ups of the girls in repose, looking elegantly pale and slightly pudgy in that 30s way. Not quite the neglected classic promised by the opening scenes, but still.

AUGUST 1, 2020

THE MIRACLE WOMAN (65) (Frank Capra, 1931): "Softened by a mawkish love story," wrote Pauline Kael, but 'mawkish' isn't really the word when the boy is (a) blind and (b) a ventriloquist, using the dummy - a supremely creepy device - to express the feelings he's otherwise too withdrawn/traumatised to speak. Capra doesn't mind going big here, stylish gestures - back-lit Barbara Stanwyck preaching in translucent white gown, or the startling God-shot used to presage our hero's thoughts of suicide - matching the script's more outlandish devices (also including a contortionist and a cage full of lions, in addition to the dummy), though the actual religious angle gets a bit de-emphasised. Stanwyck's reasons for becoming a fake evangelist, whether revenge against hypocrites or the hustler-capitalist's perfectly cynical credo - it's best not to have any convictions, then "you can assume the ones that happen to pay" - aren't explored, indeed she remains a true believer (ergo not fake, or a hypocrite, at all). Also note that God is the Father, the lecherous impresario is "daddy", the ventriloquist's dummy is a "little boy"; lots of hopeless people looking for a family - or indeed a miracle - in Depression movies.

THE LAST FLIGHT (77) (William Dieterle, 1931)

STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (70) (Charles Reisner, 1928)

VIDA EN SOMBRAS (51) (Llobet Gracia, 1949): "A toast to real cinema!" declares our hero, a passionate filmmaker, and Gracia's own commitment is unquestioned (*) - he even has the protagonist spouting a version of the auteur theory, half a decade before the fact - but visual poetry is only intermittently present (we do get glimmers, like a statuette shattering to indicate a woman dying) while staging and editing are below-par, the film coming off patchy and perfunctory. "My passion for cinema forced me to leave my wife alone," he laments, though in fact he's mostly a war cameraman - the Spanish civil war, a red-hot topic rather indifferently presented - kind of stretching the definition of 'cinema', which remains an abstraction anyway (there's very little sense of creatives actually at work). First 15 minutes are the best, our hero literally born in a movie theatre showing Lumiere Bros. movies (the birth of cinema) amongst the carnival acts and fortune tellers - "Pure magic!" exclaims the theatre owner, which is also what he says when someone asks how this newfangled invention works - and indeed the notion of his life shadowed by movies (the titular 'shadows') is a good one - Talkies and colour introduced en passant; his conscience finally relieved by REBECCA, another film about a guilty husband - it's just that the people are so thin and the staging so shoddy. Movie love < moviemaking, alas.

(*) Didn't realise this is the only film he ever made. I feel a bit bad now.

THE BIG GUNDOWN (62) (Sergio Sollima, 1966): A sense of something schematic, esp. as the central reversal takes shape - the powerful, near-superhuman lawman revealed as a stooge of Capital, the vile killer turning out to be not just innocent but also a revolutionary - a line being literally crossed when Lee Van Cleef gets to the Mexican border, a monk and repentant gunman ('Brother Smith & Wesson') turning up to spell out the message. Not much grandeur, even Morricone's score lacking its usual impact (Sergio Leone's shadow is long indeed), also it must be said the reversal isn't wholly convincing - the pivotal scene, the hunted man sparing LVC's life when he has him at his mercy, doesn't square with the feral, manipulative creature we've seen thus far, even if it fits the worthy Zapatista of the final act - but Tomas Milian is a dervish anyway, Sollima does have an eye for sardonic Wild West detail (the Mormon with his child bride, the glimpse of an abandoned town after the gold rush), and the final burst of post-big-gundown exuberance ends it on a high. Serious and politically solid, even without being very good.

BLACK MAGIC (58) (Ho Meng-Hua, 1975): "Excessive sex could have a similar effect to being under a spell" claims the opening caption, trying to align this with the sex romps Shaw Brothers was making in the mid-70s - but in fact it's more of a fairytale, with a warlock in the forest (the passage to his lair guarded by a toothless crone and a cobra) making love potions for desperate customers, assuming they're able to supply the ingredients he needs; locks of the victim's hair are fair enough, breast-milk is a bit of a challenge but not impossible - but how does one obtain "her footsteps in mud"?! Lots of zooms (a lot of zooms), a powerful white magician to counter the black one - their battles sketched in hilariously bad special effects - and possibly the least fierce 'fierce dog' in movies, a goofy Alsatian which stands around with its tongue lolling and at one point rolls on the ground with our hero to approximate a fight to the death. Also a film of very pleasing (mostly pastel) colours and harmonious designs - even down to the costumes and wallpaper - so it's all good.

DECODER (65) (Muscha, 1984): A phantasmagoria of colours - mostly blues emblazoned with psychedelic pinks, violets and oranges - though also I admit this is my jam, or at least my childhood: the tech (cassette tapes), the music (Soft Cell!), the New Wave fashions, the early-MTV look, the aura of post-punk scuzziness; as with LIQUID SKY, the whole vibe speaks to me. Plot is thin verging on silly, though the riots are real (plus ca change), ditto the resentment of corporate capitalism ("They control everything!") and hating McDonald's before it became part of the landscape. Special appearances by William Burroughs and Genesis P-Orridge, nuff said. 'Muscha' never made another film and took his own life at 52, also nuff said.

TITICUT FOLLIES (80) (Frederick Wiseman, 1967): Probably the flashiest I've ever seen Wiseman - not just in structuring the whole thing through the titular Follies, making for some borderline-tastelessness, but also e.g. in sometimes having the inmates perform for the camera, or e.g. cross-cutting between the man being force-fed and his corpse being dressed at some later time - and probably also the angriest, an impression reinforced by the chilly fuck-you in the final credits. He presumably proceeds from a deep-down (if ambivalent) belief that institutions work, or he couldn't have spent so much time studying their workings, but here he's confronted with an institution that patently doesn't work - though, even so, it's not that simple. The examining board in the film's best sequence aren't wrong (let alone evil) in dismissing Vladimir's complaints as paranoid thinking - as the lone female member of the board says, everything follows logically from his basic premise, it's just that his basic premise isn't true - the trouble is they never entertain the possibility that his basic premise (viz. that he's being harmed by his stay in the institution) might be true; the staff aren't necessarily negligent (let alone evil), they just don't listen enough - see e.g. the doctor in the opening scene, asking a lot of irrelevant questions even as the young paedophile tries to describe his condition; the problem is complacency, and a lack of empathy in general. Wiseman thinks in terms of music, giving inmates solo numbers - one man tramps around his cell like an impromptu tap-dancer; another raps out conspiracies in dizzying sing-song - to echo the onstage songs in the Follies, mental health a matter (like music) of the quest for harmony, each one's personal rhythm. The film is both of its time (you wouldn't see this today, even in a badly-run hospital; the inmates would all be on drugs), showing the sordid underbelly of a time we know mainly from movies (it's a bit like late-60s roughies and grindhouse fare in that respect) but also speaks to our own time, the constant, free-floating anger and conspiracy theories, the whole spectacle of people sharing the same collective space but lost in individual bubbles. Ethical questions arise, Wiseman would become more careful - and less flashy - in later years; still pretty riveting.

LA COLLECTIONEUSE (67) (Eric Rohmer, 1967): Work vs. leisure is a central motif here, arguably including the 'work' of Adrien's increasingly prolix voice-over describing the ups and downs of the relationship vs. the 'leisure' of the film's pastoral ambience, all natural light and birdsong (even if contriving that ambience took a lot of actual filmmaking work), and Haydee's own natural quality. Her prologue (each of the main characters gets one) is intriguing in that it seems problematic, like she's being objectified - it's just various shots of her body - but Rohmer might reply that objectification is in the eye of the beholder, just as the morality (or not) of her promiscuous sexuality is something imposed by others; for her, both her body and the pleasure it affords are entirely natural, unlike the two men who deal in unnatural paradox (doing nothing, claims the artist, is very difficult and "requires incredible care") and general over-thinking. That said, Rohmer's sympathies are constantly shifting (he's the last director in the world who'd make a film about a hippy chick showing up a couple of eggheads), Haydee's simplicity - like the woman early on who insists that attraction, even in a friendship, is all about appearance - being at odds with the push-and-pull of relationships; all she wants is to have "normal relationships with people," she sighs, but who's to say what's normal? - and, when the film shifts unexpectedly to the city, and streets full of people, who's to say (speaking of work) that all those people aren't negotiating exactly the same type of deadlock and speculation? A rewarding, slippery movie - but it's also true that one character (Daniel) is uninteresting, and none of the three is especially vulnerable (hence likeable); a problem Rohmer tackled more successfully two years later.

JULY 1, 2020

A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG (48) (Charles Chaplin, 1967): Marlon Brando drumming his fingers on the table, Sophia Loren getting nervous - she tries to read a book, holds it upside-down, drops the book, bends down to pick it up and her shoulder-strap slips down - both players working in the desperate assurance that this stilted comedy will somehow come good because the man in charge is (was?) a comedy genius. Chaplin does bedroom farce (actually cabin farce, the film being set on a ship) but the touch isn't light and the sensibility - more importantly - isn't elegant. The earthy, physical touches are intriguingly unusual (gags include belching and vomiting), the whole film seething with suppressed sexuality - "The whole of life is desire," we're told - but Chaplin's sexual energy is a leering, mildly unpleasant thing, Brando chasing Loren to literally tear off her pyjamas, the butler driven nuts by thoughts of consummating his 'marriage' - which might actually have worked if he'd previously been given some personality (it wouldn't take much; think e.g. of the butler in SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS) but in fact he's a cardboard character, another clockwork mouse in Chaplin's one-man circus. The romance is embarrassingly tentative, the stars (no pun intended) at sea; I wondered what Andrew Sarris saw in it, and indeed - apart from the obvious auteurist interest - he does single out the one good scene. If only the rest were as generous as that pre-credits series of 'countesses'.

FATA MORGANA (79) (Werner Herzog, 1971)

BEWARE OF A HOLY WHORE (73) (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971): First half is incredible, seemingly based on the precept that the most authentic part of shooting a movie is the waiting around, second half works conceptually but not too enjoyably (having double-billed with a rewatch of PETRA VON KANT, I'm now wondering if diptych structures somehow attract very prolific filmmakers, whether they're called Hong Sang-soo or RWF). Fassbinder opts for a purposely flat, underpopulated feel in the first half, a film crew lounging in a cheap hotel, lots of empty space around the characters who are often standing in a line (e.g. at the bar), a far cry from his usual foreground/background compositions; everyone seethes with (mostly romantic) frustrations, drinking endless Cuba Libres and listening to endless pop songs (1971 was a good year for Leonard Cohen on movie soundtracks). "The lowest form of life is socialism," says someone, presumably tongue-in-cheek - yet the crew's improvised socialism does indeed bend to the will of a "superior man", the film director patterned after Fassbinder during the making of WHITY, except that he too turns out to be inadequate; "We're dependent on you, because we don't know what's going on," they tell him (a key line) - and we too, the audience, depend on the director to guide us, but in fact the film we're watching (like the film they're shooting) consciously breaks down in the second half, turning into a parade of extremely short, disconnected scenes. It's a brilliant conceptual strategy, but the stuttering rhythm is no match for the deadpan-dreamy farce of the first half - though I guess that's the point, Fassbinder interrogating the entire filmmaking process (including his own role), hence the final caption from Thomas Mann: "I am weary to death of depicting humanity without partaking of humanity". Speaking of Mann, surely that out-of-nowhere scene of a girl on a kind of vaporetto backed by classical music is meant as a dig at DEATH IN VENICE? (Though it's hard to know, since the Visconti only came out a few months earlier.) And speaking of Lou Castel - which we weren't, and he's not a very interesting actor and weighs the film down imo - surely his performance here is a big part of why he appeared in IRMA VEP, 25 years later?

[NB. Also very thrilled to finally witness the "I've got such muskles!" guy, as enumerated on Nick Pinkerton's classic list.]

AND QUIET ROLLS THE DAWN (64) (Mrinal Sen, 1979): More solid than special - but something distinctive comes through, even in a washed-out and apparently truncated (80-minute) print with confusing subtitles. Not quite a study of Calcutta's deprived, more a middle-class family fallen on hard times, their only income being Dad's pension and the office salary earned by the missing girl - though her absence is alarming for moral(istic) reasons too, the neighbours tut-tutting, sexist double standards being a big part of Sen's preoccupations; his camera is mobile, the staging nimble, his panoply of tricks includes zooms and an invisible cut, though the obvious highlight is a stylised sequence, leaving the confines of the apartment, when the family join other families at a hospital where a girl who may be their daughter fights for her life (each of the candidate families speaks straight to camera). The people make an impression, Dad with his broken spirit and resigned expression, the cheeky younger sister, the rather weak older brother who goes to the morgue just to check, then throws up in the street outside ("Stop behaving like a girl!" says his friend); the structure is old-fashioned, building to AN INSPECTOR CALLS-ish melodrama with everyone blaming each other, the film as a whole rather stodgy. Still something there, even if it's just the inevitable vividness of a film set almost entirely in a single location, over the course of a single night.

SERIE NOIRE (74) (Alain Corneau, 1979): "Voleur! Voleur!" ["Thief!"] our hero is accused, and immediately counters: "Violeur! Violeur!" ["Rapist!"] - a verbal touch that's more Georges Perec (who co-wrote the script) than Jim Thompson (who wrote the original novel), though this is really the Patrick Dewaere Show anyway, his jittery small-timer (first seen alone in a muddy field, dancing and play-acting with the voices in his head) taking erratic to a whole new level. He talks to the mirror and submerges himself in the bathtub, honks his car horn to attract someone's attention then curses the man for having seen him - the guy is the fall guy in the murder he's planning, but he's super-conflicted about the plan anyway - even momentarily plants a gun on the wrong corpse then roars at his own incompetence, shifting the whole thing into farce. The girl introduces herself by wordlessly taking all her clothes off (she's grave-faced, 16-year-old Marie Trintignant; she and Dewaere make a pretty dark couple, if you take real life into account), our hero gets kissed on the mouth by a Hell's Angel, the twist in the tail gets slapped around at the very moment of his triumph. An audacious, thrillingly perverse movie.

JUNE 1, 2020

ONLY TWO CAN PLAY (66) (Sidney Gilliat, 1962): Peter Sellers as an urbane - if relentlessly horny - Welsh librarian isn't the most obvious casting, but he brings it off superbly; if anything, the more lowbrow comedy - slapstick with gym equipment, frantic farce when the husband comes home unexpectedly - is less rewarding than the sophisticated satire of provincial mores (the source is a book by Kingsley Amis). Much to like, from Richard Attenborough as the local version of Corky St. Clair to the jowly old gentleman - encountered in a pub - who bears a resemblance to Vincent Gardenia and appears to have an obsession with salt; it's not really a fault that what seems to be the film's most sublime and surprising incidental pleasure - the sympathetic portrait of a slightly stale marriage, with the cheated wife by no means a naive 'little woman' - turns out to be its whole point. Not really a film to mine for visual style, either, though I did like the brief fun-with-mirrors, strategically angled to expose Mai Zetterling in the buff.

EUROPA '51 (57) (Roberto Rossellini, 1952): Both in STROMBOLI and here - tales of silly, privileged women brought down to earth - one can sense (or seem to sense) Rossellini's glee at taking a Hollywood star and dragging her into the muck of unglamorous Euro-cinema; not the nicest edge, tbh. "You're developing a consciousness. A class consciousness," says the smug lefty friend as our heroine starts helping the feckless poor in the slums of post-war Rome - but in fact it goes waaaay beyond that, the sly misdirection moving past Marxist pieties being the film's most gratifying aspect, even if the mystical side is inelegantly staged and seems to come out of nowhere. The journey from post-war realism - the child's plight is also blamed on the war, and having been traumatised by falling bombs - to our heroine dwarfed and deafened in a stylised factory out of METROPOLIS, to an insane asylum so over-the-top it only lacks Fuller's roomful of "nymphos!" from SHOCK CORRIDOR is a bumpy ride, but you do have to admire Rossellini's chutzpah in going all-out, well beyond organised religion to an illimitable, all-encompassing love borne of guilt and self-loathing, a desire to "lose myself in others". Weird ideas tend to crop up in the first few years after wartime.

LE BONHEUR (73) (Agnes Varda, 1965): "Not 'Le Castel', 'Le Chateau'!" says the temptress, tempting the husband away from the coffee shop with the blue signage to the place with the red signage - and red is the colour of turmoil (or dangerous passion) while blue is a calm, placid colour (the colour of conjugal bliss, perhaps), then again they're both pretty colours so why should one have to choose between red and blue? "Happiness works by addition," claims the husband, happy to love both women without short-changing either one - and the film is often assumed to be feminist, secretly mocking his perfect male fantasy of biddable women and sex without consequences, then again it seems far more likely that Varda (married to a bisexual man, making a film just before the Summer of Love) is being sincere, if utopian, wondering just why we have to choose between red and blue, and curtail our enjoyment of life and love. (Note the dance scene, with everyone changing partners as the camera gently pans back and forth.) The film's hidden subversion - expressed in subtly discomfiting, too-abrupt editing, plus e.g. the out-of-nowhere cut to lions in a zoo - isn't so much in judging the man for taking the women for granted, more in suspecting that the arrangement just isn't viable, human nature being what it is. The usual course would be to expose him as a hypocrite (by giving the wife a lover too) but Varda goes in a different, bolder - and perhaps less successful - direction; the last 15 minutes (swerving into melodrama, ending on a new, more sombre yellow life to replace the red and/or blue one) don't entirely make sense and perhaps that's the point, that the narrative itself must unravel in the desperate effort to keep this man happy. On the one hand, a perfectly poised bubble-world (the style is surely a response/tribute to what Demy was doing at the time) where the wife isn't even credited, just enfolded in her husband's credit - on the other hand she's also his real-life wife, and what's between them is real just as the kids are real and the glimpse of breastfeeding is real; one might say he's 'not being honest' but in fact he is transparently honest ("I'm free, happy, and you're not the first. Aime-moi!" replies the Other Woman; can we blame him if that's exactly what a man wants to hear?). Feels like critics of today may be imposing today's neo-Puritan morals (*), meanwhile conspiring in Varda's posthumous overrating in the rush to put a woman in the Nouvelle Vague pantheon - when in fact she's a lot more slippery, a generous person and likeably sloppy thinker with a love of freedom unwedded to gender (or other) ideology. This is easily my favourite film of hers.

(*) See e.g. Andrew Chan, in a piece actually arguing for the film's complexity: "We might ask: If traditional notions of nuclear-family happiness are illusions anyway, then why should the idea of open marriages be so offensive to us?". Who said the idea of open marriage was offensive to us?

THE ONLY SON (54) (Yasujiro Ozu, 1936): "Maybe I've had my roll of the dice, and this is all I get," says the young man fatalistically, anticipating "Life is disappointing" in TOKYO STORY - but Ozu seems a bit out-of-sorts in his first Talkie, as if distracted by the new technology. Rhythm falters, the cutting is awkward, geography is all over the place - though his trademark oddity of crossing the eyeline on some (not all) shot/reverse-shot conversations, standing to the left of each person speaking so they face the same way, remains subtly unnerving, and the penchant for apparently purposeless shots (e.g. of the blackboard in a classroom) adds a certain strange desolation and pays off in the final moments. Strong sense of place, semi-rural Tokyo, laundry hanging on the line, also Ozu's streak of the cosmopolitan (a German movie, a Joan Crawford poster) in the midst of the parochial; but the plot is maudlin - featuring the tiresome figure of the guilt-tripping, self-sacrificing mother - and it gets rather preachy for this director, fighting against the fatalism he later surveyed so elegantly. The fact that it ends on a pitch-dark (as opposed to preachy) note makes up for a lot.

ALLONSANFAN (69) (Paolo & Vittorio Taviani, 1974): More should be said about how moment-to-moment nutty this is - not overtly weird but oddly eccentric, a case of non sequiturs, sudden reversals, unexpected shot choices, out-of-nowhere dance moves and the frequent appearance of Ennio Morricone's 'Rabbia e Tarantella' on the soundtrack, usually accompanying the comrades (invariably approaching en masse) whom our hero seems unable to shake. He's a revolutionary who's lost his mojo ("It's not my despair that you must fear, but my happiness") but can't admit it to anyone - or, when he does admit it, is disbelieved - making for a kind of desperate comedy; then again, he also tells his son - who's turned, for no reason, into some kind of demon child - an irrelevant story about a killer toad (the light in the room turns sickly-green), and seems to change his mind about everything, and for instance a burial leads to a woman being instructed to sing a song, which she does, then she cries, panic-stricken, "There's water in the grave!" (a quick shot confirms that there is), but no-one seems to care and the film goes on regardless. A film of juxtapositions, often inexplicably beautiful (most magical: the scene where the southerner admits that his nickname back home is 'Vanni the Plague' since he murdered his friends - "How did you know?" he asks, wonderstruck; "I know," replies our hero mysteriously - and we cut to the tangle of Redshirts huddled in the prow of a ship, singing 'La Marseillaise' in the twilight), though emotional impact is lacking when it's all so jagged - and I'm also worried that its constant indecision might've seemed like incompetence if it were, say, some obscure African movie; it's really only Marcello Mastroianni's mournful elegance - and the Tavianis' familiar penchant for flights of fancy - keeping it together (though the theme of pointless idealism being still, somehow, stirring comes through). Deeply nutty, anyway.

MAY 1, 2020

L'ENFANCE NUE (68) (Maurice Pialat, 1968): Watched it partly because I'd just seen the very acclaimed, EFA-winning German drama SYSTEM CRASHER which some have compared to this - and the most obvious difference is that, unlike the inferior SYSTEM CRASHER (where the kid acts out because she's desperate for love), Pialat doesn't solicit sympathy for his young hero, quite the opposite. The title ('Naked Childhood') is actually misleading - comparisons to, say, 400 BLOWS are also a bit misleading - because Francois isn't Everykid, more like a 10-year-old serial killer in training; a few images do evoke a romantically melancholy view of childhood, e.g. the kid in the train watching the landscape go by, but he's mostly silent, opaque, unfeeling; he torments (and kills) a cat and seems fascinated by violence, watching rapt as the older boy puts out a match in the palm of his hand. "I think he's ill," says the foster father ("not normal" is the general opinion) - though Pialat, having demolished any sense of identification with this weird kid, then proceeds to claw it back, allowing just enough tenderness (he bonds with great-grandma; he gets his temporary mom a farewell gift) to at least allow for grandma's unlikely assertion that "he has a good heart". The boy is the film's great triumph, a blank-faced sociopath redeemed - if at all - only by still being young; the foster family are a bit less successful - and Pialat is unsentimental about childhood but still rather sentimental about the working-class milieu (from the opening protest to grandpa's WW2 memories) that enfolds the kid with a kind of chaotic love and, if the last scene is any indication, may in the end have saved him from himself. Should perhaps have been longer than 80 minutes, then again it depends so much on withholding - keeping the kid purposely unfathomable - that a selection of brief, jagged bursts is the only possible style.

CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER (55) (Albert Zugsmith, 1962): Midgets, animal masks, secret doors and passages, Fu Manchu exotica and Vincent Price toning down his usual hamminess, possibly reckoning that the screen might explode if he added his usual florid style to the florid narration: "There is a devil in the drunkard, and a ghost in the poet. Devil and drunkard, ghost and poet was I". The visuals impress, even beyond mere decor, but the rhythm is too clunky and Zugsmith's effects too literal for the hoped-for dreamlike feel; even the scene where the sound cuts out and the action suddenly switches to slow-motion is a bit too self-consciously 'dreamlike'. An obvious cult movie - and authentic stab at poverty-row arthouse - nonetheless.

ANTONIO DAS MORTES (60) (Glauber Rocha, 1969)

DAYS OF BEING WILD (66) (Wong Kar-wai, 1990)

TORSO (70) (Sergio Martino, 1973): There's a tiny moment early on when three extras amble across the frame and it's instantly notable that they've been dressed in attractive, complementary colours (a mixture of brick-reds, blues and greens) - a small but significant (attention to) detail, colour also playing a part at the very end when hero and villain are similar-looking men dressed in different colours, so it's not immediately apparent who's survived their showdown till he steps into the light and the colour of his top becomes visible. Visual style is the hallmark of giallo - there's even style in the knowing way Martino supplies T&A within 30 seconds, literally before the opening credits - though this actually seems rather average for much of its length, notable mainly for incidental highlights (a nude dance in a kind of drugged-out commune, followed by a murder in a landscape of boggy mud and anemic trees), till the last half-hour when it shifts from giallo to slasher movie and becomes absolutely riveting, a virtuoso passage of pure suspense filmmaking. The childhood trauma motivating the killer is even more perfunctory than usual, confirming that Martino was wearying of giallo (there's another sly hint in the fact - spoiler! - that the killer sees only form in paintings, unable to see spirituality); shame he never really found some other channel for his prodigious talents.

SPETTERS (71) (Paul Verhoeven, 1980): Young men engage in a dick-measuring contest, like in LEMON POPSICLE. Two couples, shagging in separate rooms, both run into technical difficulties (one boy can't get hard; one girl gets her period) but both - unbeknownst to the other - continue to pretend regardless, so as not to lose face with the other couple. The trappings of macho sex comedy, though it's not so simple even from the start - the girls are hustlers too, and even take part in the gay-bashing that must've seemed extreme even in 1980 - and Verhoeven moves beyond that anyway: there's a halfway rupture into tragedy, like in TURKISH DELIGHT, then the carefree, confident young men are confronted with their own limitations, and the theme of being honest about who you really are. One boy can't do it, one boy does (and takes the only appropriate action), the third - played by the weirdly over-emphatic Maarten Spanjer - does it too, settling into bourgeois contentment in a glimmer of a semi-happy ending. "Life is like a croquette," muses the hard-luck gold digger (who runs a fast-food stand selling croquettes); "If you knew what was in it, you wouldn't eat it". Her religion is money, others' is religion; both, in the end, are inadequate - and the film's sensational details (that gang-rape!) shouldn't obscure Verhoeven's fragile pessimism, or his seriousness of purpose. What kind of macho sex comedy comes with two Abba songs, anyway?

THE SPIKES GANG (64) (Richard Fleischer, 1974): Seen before, way back in childhood; I remembered the basics, but not how deliberately florid Spikes' language is, nor how purposefully it begins as a romp and grows steadily darker. The latter aspect needed a stronger actor than Gary Grimes (the attempts to create a tragic hero through flashbacks fall flat), the former gets the strongest possible actor in peak Lee Marvin, grandly moustachioed and regally gruff in a way that brooks no denial - and, more importantly, creates a distance, even at his most paternal (cf. Marvin's sergeant in THE BIG RED ONE, who seemed indifferent but actually cared very much). Spikes is unflappable, immovable, has made his peace with Death in ways both good and bad - not just with having to die himself (indeed, he expects it at any moment) but also with the death of others, and the foolishness of worrying about it or holding himself responsible. The three boys - who of course idolise him - aren't so much disillusioned (which would be the banal ending) as flummoxed by his fundamental coldness, even as it starts to rub off on them. Not quite as expressive as BAD COMPANY (another one I haven't seen in years), still a wry, bittersweet Western with philosophical underpinnings: "Son, what ain't foolishness in this life is misery. But we gotta hold ourselves together somehow".

LA BOHEME (53) (King Vidor, 1926): Any man would be unworthy of the love bestowed by Lillian Gish in this movie - but John Gilbert is especially unworthy, his hammy arrogance clashing badly with the subtlety and serenity of her performance. She looks more like a child than ever, a watchful urchin (he refers to her as "little one"), but the small, pointed shifts in her expression and body language are remarkable, Vidor bringing out a naturalistic side sometimes ignored in Griffith's melodramas; there's a great lovers' quarrel, Gish accepting her master's contrition with a kind of orgasmic joy as he kisses her and falls on her breast - but of course she's self-sacrificing, working her fingers to the bone to enable his writing career then gasping "I'm all right... Don't worry about me" as he rants and raves. Increasingly maudlin, and hard to take seriously - not really helped by goofy-looking Gilbert hugging a giant baguette (we're in Paris, mkay?) before looking out the window with a stricken expression and calling out: "Mimi, come back to me!".

SUMMER INTERLUDE (73) (Ingmar Bergman, 1951): Bergman becoming Bergman, still a bit theatrical - little missteps, like the girl waking up and singing unconvincingly to show Exuberance of Youth - but incredibly rich in his vision and dramatic staging. Minor characters are vivid, the embarrassed-looking priest who gravely (and mysteriously) reminds our heroine that they have indeed met before, the burly doorman wounded by her chilliness, her fellow dancer who complains about ballet shoes then sighs that this job wears you down, "your toes, and your immortal soul"; the theatre has a funny smell that no-one can explain (it's the smell of lost youth and tragic memories), there's talk of dreams - the kind that leave you feeling "all soft inside" - strangeness and uncertainty are pierced by beautiful lakeside shots and an unexpected close-up of our heroine in mid-conversation, apropos of nothing: "I'm never going to die!" (echoed later in the cancer-ridden crone who claims she'll outlive them all: "I like living"). Maj-Britt Nilsson is sensual and mercurial, caught between love and the void, wanting to cry at the end and unable to cry - the hero is also quite moody, tending to sulk when ignored, though Birger Malmsten is a bit miscast, too old, too much of a lump - the film is patchy but reflects a young man's desire to encompass everything, down to the role of Art in creating a kind of safe space; young Bergman anticipates the old Bergman of FANNY AND ALEXANDER, striking a balance rather than wallow in pain like the early-70s Bergman. "Is there no meaning anywhere?"

MR. SKEFFINGTON (62) (Vincent Sherman, 1944): Fully two-thirds of this is so delightful that the impulse is to try and make excuses when it starts to go wrong in the final act - and admittedly it's fun that it turns into such ripe melodrama, in Hollywood 'woman's picture' vein (James Agee's comment that the target audience, "I fear, will be made up mainly of unloved and not easily lovable women" is hilariously mean), but in the end it's just too much. Bette Davis losing her looks overnight, thrust into grotesque BABY JANE makeup 18 years before the fact and hallucinating her absent husband glaring at her like Banquo at the feast, is amusing enough - but the film's insistence that she learn a lesson (the lesson being that "a woman is only beautiful when she is loved") is exhausting, bringing in an actual psychotherapist (a mid-40s fad) to dismiss her witheringly as "a Silly Woman, capital S, capital W" and making everything over-explicit, not to mention that Davis is far too shrewd a performer to be only vain and silly. Her socialite lifestyle in the early scenes isn't just shallow but calculated, a way of putting on a facade for the creditors - she's actually living a lie throughout, going from being in denial about her poverty to being in denial about her age - her essential coldness is as magisterial as Regina's in THE LITTLE FOXES, and she's gloriously blithe about her many admirers (asked what became of the old ones when a whole new batch appears, she's nonchalant: "Some married, some committed suicide, and some grew fat"); the relationship with Mr. Skeffington is gripping because both are actually strong, conflicted characters, she putting him down yet constantly afraid that he's laughing at her - he's the kind of man who uses words like "connubial" and "repudiate" - he treating her as a trophy yet terribly aware that she married him out of necessity. Very witty and superbly acted (*), also fascinating as an early Hollywood attempt at the Jewish Question, the bigotry coded ("I don't like him or his type") three years before the more blatant anti-Semitism of GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT, Skeffington and his extremely Jewish-looking daughter acting as a kind of collective conscience (he even spends time in a concentration camp) so it's actually fair enough that the film makes him such a saintly character. Still a case of a Top Ten contender that I ended up almost hating, unfortunately.

(*) Crazy that the 1944 Best Supporting Actor field included both Claude Rains in this and Clifton Webb in LAURA - yet they gave it to Barry Fitzgerald!

THIEVES' HIGHWAY (66) (Jules Dassin, 1949): "Gyp me, and I'll cut your heart out!" Not really noir, insofar as noir tends to deal in high-flown matters like seduction and betrayal, whereas this unfolds in the cut-and-thrust of bottom-tier American capitalism ("free enterprise", like the man said). Trucks speed down narrow country roads, trying to be the first to get to market, buyers rap out their best offers, lives hinge on the difference between a dollar and 75 cents; the whole film takes place over a frantic couple of days, our hero's semi-permanently tired, like the entire working class. Valentina Cortese (and of course the photography) is the noir-est element, a world-weary hooker trading banter with our hero - "You look like chipped glass"; "Do I?... Took me a while to get that way" - but the more intriguing aspect are the two small-time capitalists who cheerfully tail the man in the wheezing truck, waiting for his truck to break down so he'll be forced (at a price, of course) to transfer his cargo to their own vehicle, and the way the film treats them as not entirely unsympathetic; they're just trying to make a buck, unlike the middle-class princess who throws our hero over like a broken toy. More than any other Dassin joint, a film made by a Commie.

Notes on second/third viewings:

APRIL 1, 2020

THE HOUSE ON 92nd STREET (50) (Henry Hathaway, 1945): So important "it could not be made public until the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima", an opening disclaimer adding to the air of self-importance (even if it's probably true; the McGuffin is the Bomb, after all). Historically interesting as an early flowering of the post-war awe of 'science' that eventually grew into our own systemic obsession with tech, the FBI showing off its spectrographs and "X-ray mirrors"; most of the film is an infomercial for the Agency, hard to take nowadays, esp. since so much of their work has to do with secret surveillance (mostly of Nazis, but still). Hathaway struggles to keep it humming, avuncular Lloyd Nolan is the calm, acceptable face of Hoover-era ruthlessness - he's forever saying mild-mannered stuff like "Send a copy to Cryptanalysis" and "Right now, you're what we call a 'sleeper agent'" - while the late-in-the-game touch of cross-dressing is... unusual. Worth a look, if only for the location shooting.

YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (65) (Fritz Lang, 1937): A case of Idiot Plot contrivances (seriously guys, explain the situation to the man with the gun instead of just repeating "You're a free man!" over and over) aimed at breaking down resistance from the social-comment movie in the rather blah opening 30 minutes, letting in the more poetic movie Lang wants to make - already glimpsed in that first half-hour, in florid touches like the couple reflected in a pond (and pointedly destroyed by a sudden ripple) or the pair of angry eyes behind the cracked-open car window - so that by the end it's barely rational at all, just a melancholy dream hurtling towards disaster (and a mystical ending). Hard to just accept the erratic plotting, but it does do something very interesting - reversing the burden of guilt, so suddenly it's the heroine feeling obligated to the jailbird hero - and Henry Fonda is extraordinary, looking young and vulnerable early on but also exhibiting that grim, locked-down quality that made him such a good villain. Also notable: a nice cynical bit when the couple rob a gas station and the employees spot a money-making opportunity, plus a Hollywood priest with a downright Buddhist point of view, pace the title: "Perhaps that's why they invented death. Just to give us another chance at remembering who we are, before we're born again".

A FUGITIVE FROM THE PAST (60) (Tomu Uchida, 1965): A pleasure to watch, with its evocatively grainy b&w (blown-up from 16mm, apparently) and Uchida's high-angle group shots, also a splendid section when the geisha is first introduced and seems almost pathologically sunny (think Shirley MacLaine in SOME CAME RUNNING); the scene where she orgasmically rubs our hero's fingernail (!) - her only souvenir - all over her body is quite something. Alas, she becomes far more bland when she moves to the city, and meanwhile the police-procedural aspect is spoiled by the actual detective work being extremely dopey, from too-obvious clues (the newspaper clipping) to inexplicable behaviour clearly aimed at furthering the narrative, e.g. the cops getting hung up on whether they believe Tarumi's story when in fact it changes nothing with respect to the other murders (actually taking him back to Hokkaido "to trace his movements" is also pretty silly, except as a way of cueing the ending). Almost a Bollywood feel, a three-hour epic with a 10-year span, a secret identity, a melodramatic spike, and a period setting - immediately post-war, with Yanks and power cuts - that must've meant more at the time, ditto the suggestion of Japanese war guilt (covered up in post-war prosperity) as the true dark secret. Handsome but hollow, tbh.

THE WRONG MAN (71) (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956): Second viewing, slightly lower rating. Hitchcock's artiest film (second only to VERTIGO, which came immediately after) is a true story played as fantasy, Henry Fonda's recessive performance the behaviour of a man in a dream. He doesn't even give the cops his rock-solid alibi, indeed they don't even ask, then again plausible policework isn't really the point here; the nightmare is mystical, preceded by a portent - Manny flanked by two random cops as he leaves the club - and resolved by an out-and-out miracle. Hitchcock shows his usual technical mastery, the trick shot through the slot of the prison cell, the disorienting change of camera angle as our hero's led away at the hearing, but also gets things right that you wouldn't necessarily expect; the kids (always an Achilles' heel in a 50s movie) are convincingly natural, and it's gratifying to note that the heroic lawyer who takes Manny's case - a cliché in this kind of film - isn't really a very good lawyer. The only big problem is the wife played by Vera Miles, a ninny who turns into a crazy person, and maybe the idea was to make her weak from the start but it's unconvincing (partly because her early weakness registers as 50s gender role more than anything); the change feels phony, the point would've been made just as well - better, in fact - if the experience merely caused a subtle but irreparable rift in their marriage. Guess that's the trouble with a true story - and her ordeal, in March 2020, strikes a nerve anyway: "She knows she's in a nightmare. But it doesn't help her to know..."

ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE (56) (James William Guercio, 1973): A real hippy-era artefact, proceeding on a kind of stoned logic. Pre-credits sequence is terrific, so terrific in fact that you wonder if it may have been devised by Guercio's more illustrious collaborators (Conrad Hall the DP, Jerry Greenberg among the editors): fragmentary shots with the camera close to the action, honing in on detail, suggesting what looks like a suicide then introducing our hero, doling out info with superb economy (and without showing his face) - he's short, he's obsessive about working out, he's a great lover, he has Native American roots (shades of Robert Blake playing Little Beaver, back in the 40s), finally a freeze-frame on his holstered gun: he's a good cop. His encounters on the highway are also amusing (he's by-the-book yet low-key, almost timid), indeed the first 20 minutes are great - but the film falls apart, does nothing with the info in the pre-credits scene (does his short stature give him a Napoleon complex? not really), hero becomes a bit comical and irrelevant, structure gets anarchic yet also undermined by old-school devices like a tearful Big Speech as a dancer tells her maudlin story; Guercio throws in a concert, a hippy commune, a trendy touch of Antonioni in the self-conscious fizzling-out of the murder mystery. Always unusual (cult-movie aspect is uncontested) but does feel like the work of a dilettante; also the arrogant macho cop is a bit inconsistent - now an alpha, now a figure of pathos - also Elisha Cook Jr is terrible here.

THE COW (75) (Dariush Mehrjui, 1969): Formidably strange, from the opening scene - a parade of shots devoted to random villagers, without any obvious geography - to the way it traps people in conspicuously enclosed spaces, standing in a hole in the ground, looking down from a skylight, peering out from behind tiny windows that look like portholes. The visuals speak of restriction, and the plot does include various Othered outsiders alongside the central perversion, from the village simpleton to the much-feared, vaguely understood Bolouris (the villagers' shock at Hassan turning into a cow is nothing compared to their dismay when he accuses them of being in league with the dreaded intruders), Hassan's weird/illicit love for his livestock implicitly contrasted with the 'normal' love affair that results in a wedding - yet it's not as simple as our 21st-century ideas of small societies oppressing those who are different, both because the community is endearingly shown (much of it plays like Pagnol) and because the film is so consistently odd, seeming to encompass all points of view including a few unexplained ones. Also magnificently acted, see e.g. Jamshid Mashayekhi in the small role of Abbas (no surprise to find he's "an iconic figure of Iranian cinema", per IMDb) and his soulful reaction - a half-embarrassed 'Come on now' shrug - when the head man (Ali Nassirian, decades before IRON ISLAND) succumbs to dehumanising violence. On this showing, 29-year-old Mehrjui should've been huge.

DESTINY (63) (Fritz Lang, 1921): A weary, avuncular, surprisingly generous Death, closer to Bill and Ted than THE SEVENTH SEAL - and a great film for a while, with the tone of dark fairytale, but the structure makes it sag and seem repetitive (even as it makes it more intriguing). Lovers come up against capricious tyrants and inevitably fail, the era being more sympathetic to noble defeatism than stirring 'Love is stronger than death' sentiments - but the three stories, brimming with exotica and production design, never match the desolate magic of the extended introduction, the polite stranger building his pasture of souls behind the high wall, Lil Dagover ascending a staircase to the top of an obelisk-shaped gash in the wall (a great shot). Finally a bit undernourished, mostly a showcase for Lang's skill with grandiose sets and special effects; need to see THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE as a comparison point, though.

MARCH 1, 2020

THE PEARLS OF THE CROWN (49) (Sacha Guitry, 1937): Guitry's overall project - an arch jeu d'esprit, with the titular pearls sparking wry observations on the exercise of power - sounds like a lark, but the actual film is a mixed bag, full of rather stiff pageantry and sloppy technique (the eyelines in the framing sequence are so obviously wrong - Guitry and his interlocutor looking in exactly the same direction - I wonder if I'm missing something). The jokes are the jokes of a middle-aged uncle who's always been told he's a bit of a card, albeit with zany asides like the whole Abyssinian interlude and a scene played in rhyme, like an operetta. Sharp on the casual cruelty of powerful people, the Pope congratulating the brave man who's collected the pearls from all corners of the world then quietly eliminating him, rather flabby on the great march of History, even with the pearls spanning time in the manner of the earrings of Madame De. Sample witticism: "To rule France well, she must know English well".

SPRING ON ZARECHNAYA STREET (67) (Marlen Khutsiev & Feliks Mironer, 1956): "For you, they are a class. But they are also a working class." The political imperative is for dutiful - but slightly snobbish - schoolteacher Tatyana to have her eyes opened to the proletarian genius behind the unpolished exterior of steel worker Sasha - but the political imperative gets sidetracked by the charming yet complicated presence of Nina Ivanova, her ethereal beauty yet also the little shadow of a smile she permits herself after putting the man in his place during the lesson (she runs a tight ship), as well as a certain youthful exuberance - these crazy kids have a New Year's party in mid-November - and a lyrical feeling for the changing seasons in this drab industrial town. A relaxed film, reflecting the death of Stalin and anticipating the New Wave rhythms of Khutsiev's I AM TWENTY a decade later; a few missteps in the (overly rushed) final act - but also perfect moments like the proud, lonely girl (she is just a girl, after all) putting on Rachmaninov in her rented room, and the working-class swain stopped in his tracks as he watches her swoon, the alien sound of the music making it plain that he's not good enough. Bonus points for solving the problem of the obligatory visit to the steel plant (teacher to worker, awakened: "So it's you who do all this work?") getting in the way of the romance by treating it as an actual romantic epiphany, molten steel gushing and the music swelling as if at a kiss.

SING, YOU SINNERS (59) (Wesley Ruggles, 1938): An odd inversion: singing and dancing as the chore instead of the dream (or perhaps the redemption, per the title?). The central trio don't especially want to sing, they just do it for the money - their mom has to guilt-trip them into it, esp. oldest brother Fred MacMurray who frets that it isn't "manly" - giving the film a certain diffident quality, the opposite of show-must-go-on showbiz brassiness. Not really a musical, in any case, rather haphazardly plotted and climaxing in an extended brawl that's played for slapstick but not very amusing in context (the brothers' opponents are ruthless gangsters who've already beaten up the winsome kid brother); the middle brother's fecklessness isn't too amusing either, even with Bing Crosby trying to make it look like languid charm - there's a slight sour note amid the sweetness, the frustration of people doing toxic things and having to put up with them because they're family; "We all know each other too well," sighs Mom - but his honeyed voice is undeniable.

SAINT JACK (82) (Peter Bogdanovich, 1979): A mood piece, but very close to perfect. Jack is a film-noir hero, a weary observer and un-saintly jester who'll take people as they are and stand in the doorway, saying nothing - understanding all, but saying nothing - after the boyish soldier, haunted by the ghosts of Vietnam, beats up the unfortunate hooker. He has no condescension, unlike the rowdy British expats who treat the East like a public-school playground, asking after "a chum of mine in the Honkers and Shankers" (= Hong Kong) - yet are granted their own lovely moment, belting out 'Jerusalem' at the tops of their voices at the funeral of one of their own. He's fearless in a sad way, as though he's lost any good reason to be afraid - nothing really touches him; he fears nothing, he cares for nothing - yet he hasn't turned against people, surveying the species with good-humoured tolerance, amused and touched by the decent accountant type who becomes his friend. The two girls' awkward strip-show to 'Goldfinger' (they drop things, and get in each other's way), and the men's faces softening with desire - or pity, which is often muddled up with desire - as they watch. Bogdanovich's skill in creating a very coherent, geographically lucid screen space for Jack's entrapment of the senator, Robby Muller's soft nocturnal images, crickets buzzing in the trees; the director is relaxed in general, maybe a little irreverent, as regally amused as Jack himself (he even plays a supporting role, with Muller in a cameo); five years earlier he was king of the world, now he's making films for Roger Corman. Very much in my wheelhouse, anticipating the foreign-correspondent expat movies of the 80s (SALVADOR, YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, etc); Louis Armstrong on the soundtrack, old Singapore before the skyscrapers. Irresistible.

SOFT FICTION (70) (Chick Strand, 1979): Soft textures, not just wet sand and kitten-fur and the oozing liquid yolk on a fried egg but the way those scenes are shot, handheld camera so close and intimate that the image is constantly changing, ethereal. It's a very sensual style - and never entirely disappears, even as the stories being told (are they fiction? dunno) grow increasingly horrific, as if to say the softness of desire is a fact (and a snare?), just as unignorable as the documentary 'truth' of the women relating what happened. "Control" is mentioned more than once, an elusive goal - a hardness, a hard unequivocal word - my one quibble being perhaps that the stories don't really escalate as intended; the first ones are actually more vivid, bringing in Nazis at the end feels like a cliche. Still the very rare experimental film (mea culpa!) that actually ended before I expected it to, as opposed to outstaying its welcome.

Two early-80s hits, both third viewings (both downgraded from previous viewing >20 years ago):

THE VIKINGS (69) (Richard Fleischer, 1958): Second viewing, first in >20 years. Very beautiful, not just 'handsome' in the sense of production values, or even just pictorially beautiful - Viking ships in the fog are beautiful, of course, but e.g. the soft lighting when Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh are talking on deck is also beautiful; Jack Cardiff is on fine form - but slightly lacking in connective tissue; "You again!" cries Kirk Douglas when Curtis the slave's hawk kills his own, but in fact that's their first scene together (Curtis' arrival with a ship later on, to help the princess escape, also feels rather random; what kind of slave is so resourceful?). Fleischer privileges intensity and spectacle over narrative per se, which of course is absolutely right - see e.g. the glowering close-ups when the Viking chief begs Curtis to let him die sword-in-hand - and makes no effort to tame Douglas' virile, irresistible energy, even though he's supposed to be the villain. One of the wildest, most thrilling Hollywood historicals; only the lengthy taking-the-castle action sequence (which of course was the big set-piece at the time) seems a bit conventional.

BED AND SOFA (76) (Abram Room, 1927): A bad marriage, though not a terrible one: the husband is bumptious and full of beans, an athletic type prone to working out every morning, boundlessly energetic, emotionally oblivious; the wife is a sensual creature, too good for scrubbing floors. Enter the other man - he's innately exciting, equated with trains and planes - though the result is at least 34 years ahead of its time (or 35, depending on whether you count JULES AND JIM as 1961 or '62), more if we're talking America and its Puritan values. Room's style is strikingly modern - the intruder simply appears, like a dream, his presence explained only later - Lyudmila Semyonova a striking presence (maybe not much of an actress; she never had much of a career after Silents); also fascinating as a reflection of the progressive Soviet state, the husband acting literally as a bridge between Stalin and the people - he looks up at the former, whose photo adorns the calendar on his bedroom wall, and down at the latter from his vantage point on the roof of the under-construction Bolshoi - though apparently it's intended more as a critique of bourgeois libertinism and abortion-on-demand. Speaking of which, possible best shot: our final glimpse of the abortion clinic, a stark uncanny space hemmed in by high chairs and door-frames, extras sitting theatrically immobile, then an elegant woman getting up, taking a languid puff on her cigarette, then fixing her hair and sashaying in to see the doctor.

FEBRUARY 1, 2020

LES DISPARUS DE ST. AGIL (71) (Christian-Jaque, 1938): Second viewing, liked it even more this time. War on the doorstep, xenophobia already evident, Erich von Stroheim as a sinister teacher - a German in a French boarding school - with hat slung low and scarf around his neck as if to hide scars (he even wears two pairs of glasses!). The last half-hour hurts it somewhat, turning into an ordinary kids' adventure, but the touch is light (I like that e.g. the ostensible villains just kind of get away at the end, not having to face justice as they might in an Anglo-Saxon movie) - and even the kids'-adventure aspects are charming in the early scenes, our three heroes sneaking out of bed for a nocturnal meeting of their Secret Society complete with secret nyah-nyah greeting to 'Martin the skeleton'. America beckons, as in THE CRIME OF MONSIEUR LANGE, the kids dreaming of going West, meanwhile munching on chewing gum; "Eating rubber, it's ridiculous!" scoffs the lugubrious school janitor, who also suspects something supernatural in the titular disappearances. Best bit: a kid disappears round the corner, a swell of music rumbles ominously, and the camera belatedly follows to find... nothing.

NASHVILLE (80) (Robert Altman, 1975): Second viewing, first since childhood; all I really remembered was Henry Gibson's hilariously saccharine 'For the Sake of the Children' song. Forgot how many songs there are in general, actually, you can't accuse Altman (though some Nashvillians did, at the time) of short-changing the music - but in fact it's more than that, everyone in Nashville has a song in them, even Gibson's otherwise dull-seeming son. The music speaks of love and American ideals - "My Idaho home", etc - even as love gets compromised and America itself bickers and festers on the eve of its Bicentennial, post-Watergate and post-Vietnam, the film being valuable today as a record of another troubled time (faced, in the end, with more irrational optimism than in 2020, even allowing for the irony in the final 'It Don't Worry Me'). The fragmented approach favours comedy, and Altman's fabled generosity: it's lovely when Lily Tomlin mentions in passing that her young (deaf) son "has the most incredible personality" and 15 minutes later the film makes time for the boy, pausing the plot so he can illustrate exactly that - but there's also room for cruelty and ill-feeling, those at the bottom of the ladder (the dissed chauffeur, the bad singer) forced to take their lumps, non-whites either forced to assimilate (Tommy Brown, "the whitest nigger in town") or shunted to the margins like the Asian girl having to sing (inaudibly) at a Speedway event with cars zooming by. A deep and miraculous musical comedy - though technical question on the weirdly choppy final shot; feels like they're zooming out one setting at a time or something.

JANUARY 1, 2020