Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Bank Dick (1940) - #78

I just returned a couple hours ago from a statewide conference focused on the treatment of childhood trauma. (It's my professional gig, and an event that I helped organize, as a matter of fact.) I know that trauma is a very serious topic and if anyone is interested, I'm fully prepared to go much further in depth on that issue. But for now, let it suffice to say that one important takeaway I got from the past two days I spent learning from renowned experts in this field is that in order to avoid compassion fatigue, one helpful remedy is to enjoy at least one hearty belly-laugh each day as a way to avoid the accumulation of excess stress. That's my tie-in to the latest film to review here, W.C. Fields' masterpiece of absurdist comedy, The Bank Dick.
This is a now out-of-print DVD from Criterion's early days, back when they enjoyed the privilege of being able to license Hollywood hits with mainstream commercial potential. Sometime within the past few years, Criterion lost the rights to distribute this film when Universal Pictures realized the lucrative potential of the property. Now if you want to watch it, you'll have to rent or invest in a larger box set of full-length W.C. Fields features. There's certainly nothing wrong with taking a longer, more complete look at Field's comedies, but I enjoy having access to one simple straightforwardly-packaged film with succinct liner notes and a clear expression of appreciation for this particular production, routinely heralded as an exemplary slice of Fields in his prime - probably the least compromised and most consistently satisfying of his full-length films.
In-depth analysis and reflective commentary on the sociological significance of this film feels a bit misplaced here, but I'd like to risk it just a bit if you don't mind. It would be easy enough for me to sum it all up by saying something like "Hilarious flick! See it for yourself and enjoy the old-fashioned craziness that Fields scripted and captured on film." That simple one-liner does offer an adequate Twitter-sized summary of the movie, but there's more to specifically point out for deeper appreciation.
Let's start with this clip, from early in the movie. It sets up the meager stick-figure of a plot put forward in the film and also presents an adequate sample of the plot. If the antics contained herein fail to amuse you, then I think it's safe to say that the rest of the movie won't do much to reverse opinion:
However, if that sequence triggered a laugh or two from you, then let me encourage you by all means to dig deeper and experience the full feast of amusement that The Bank Dick has to offer.
Fields fruitfully worked a few rich veins throughout his career and the most famous of them pop up here: annoying kids, scolding relatives, prudish small-town meddlers, irascible drunkenness and a penchant for self-serving hype and exaggeration.
Fields plays Egbert Souse (pronounced Soo-say), a lovable lush type, constantly harangued by his family, as you saw above, who inadvertently stumbles his way into the perception of heroics and, as a result, a cushy job as a bank security guard.

His role there leads to some mild shenanigans involving a risky financial transaction and the subsequent effort to distract the tenacious auditor J. Pinkerton Snoopington.
Once that bullet is dodged, bank robbers strike at an opportune moment, intiating one of the most spontaneously funny car chase scenes that I've ever seen. Seriously, I've seen it a few times now and I think I laugh harder at the sequence, and the film in general, every time I roll it out on my screen!
A few classic things to like that stand out to me here: the presence of "replacement Stooge" Shemp Howard as the bartender of the Black Pussy Cat saloon is a highlight. Shemp, of course, was one of the Howard brothers who replaced Curly in the Three Stooges after Curly's career was interrupted by a stroke in 1946. The Bank Dick dates from 1940, when Shemp was still in the midst of a successful solo career (though his memory mostly lives on now as a result of his work with his older brother Moe and associate Larry Fine.) It's fun to see him in action even though his scenes are relatively brief.
And I can hardly find words to express how much I enjoyed the dialog in the film. I could go ahead and do a new version of what I did with my "review" of The Fatal Glass of Beer, but I don't want to pull the same trick twice. However, here's a link to the quotes page which provides a limited sample of some of The Bank Dick's best lines... "and then disappears, through the waving fields of alfalfa!" LOL!!!
The upshot of this film is that Fields produced his last masterpiece and in the process left us a sharp and timeless satirical jab that in my opinion stands quite strong through the test of time. He effortlessly punctures American culture's smug sense of self-satisfaction and pious pomposity, stringing together one classically nutty scene after another. It packs a lot of laughs into 72 swift minutes - a therapeutic dosage virtually guaranteed to relieve stress and postmodern anxiety that doesn't require a prescription, though you may have to make an underground connection to get your fix.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Proud Valley (1940) - #373

So what is it about Paul Robeson movies being released under different titles than they were originally intended to be named? The last film of his I featured here, Jericho, was distributed in the USA as Dark Sands. And now we have The Proud Valley, and the only decent posters I could find on-line were from non-British editions, like <--- this one, where The Proud Valley became (lamely, imo) "The Tunnel." But I do like the poster, all intense and dramatic as it is...

As diligent readers of this blog know, Paul Robeson was a major cultural figure of his times, probably the pre-eminent African-American film star of his day, which sadly wasn't saying much in terms of box-office clout, critical respect or (most importantly) ability to command strong lead actor roles. Early on in his career, even before sound had been introduced into the movies, he'd had to go overseas from his native USA to escape the perils and restrictions placed upon him by segregation. This is the sixth film of his that I've covered here, all of them coming from the impressive Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist box set that Criterion released a couple of years ago. All but the first film were shot overseas, even though he did do one Hollywood film (Showboat) in 1936. Though he enjoyed the relative openness and freedom he found within the British studio system, his cinematic career continued to be plagued by the limited range of stereotypical roles written for Negro characters. He did his best to bring dignity and strength to each performance, but sheer force of will could only go so far when the script pushed him into subservient or simple-minded postures.
So here we have what Robeson went on to describe as his favorite performance, a role where he was able to portray a black working man "as he is," without being overly burdened by what some white screenwriters thought that their prospective audiences expected a black man to behave on screen. The plot of The Proud Valley is somewhat conventional (a group of hard-pressed coal miners risk their lives to earn a living and one of them makes a noble sacrifice that allows his fellow miners to survive when danger strikes) but the pivotal moment is set up in a roundabout way.
Robeson plays David Goliath, an American drifter who jumps ship in Cardiff, Wales and wanders his way deeper into the British coal country, specifically the village of Blaendy. He arrives there via train where he learns from another rail-rider that another black man had preceded him and found work in the mines. Looking to make money by singing for handouts in the street, his famously rich baritone catches the attention of a local choir leader who enlists him to sing with their group in preparation for an upcoming vocal competition. Apparently the Welsh were very serious about their singing in those days, and it seems to be a familiar trait of their culture, going by the way that vocal music is handled in the film. Numerous scenes of crowds harmonizing and even gritty-faced miners bursting into song are portrayed naturalistically - there's enough singing in the film for it almost to be considered a musical but viewers are left with the impression that this is just what Welsh people do.

So once Robeson settles in with his newfound benefactors, we get to enjoy what I consider an entertaining and somewhat eye-opening view of an easily-overlooked segment of British society. I've seen a few English films so far here but none that deal with Wales - so I was fascinated to see the sights and hear the slang of a foreign subculture whose language I happened to understand.

The narrative is pretty straightforward. Robeson takes up lodge in the house of his benefactors, parents of five children, only two of whom have speaking parts. Emlyn, a young man, is just coming into his own and wants to get married, but his plans are set back when a mine accident leads to its closing and the loss of his job. His younger sister Dilys nicely performs the part of the cute, sassy little sister and provides a generous share of the laughs to be found in the film. What strikes me is how easily Robeson's character David is accepted into the village society (though not without some pointed resistance from a few of the locals.) I can easily see why Robeson preferred this role to the others - it was realistic in showing some of the prejudice that a dark skinned man had to deal with in that time but didn't press him into absurdities as a result. More than any other film of his I've seen yet (except perhaps Borderline), he was regarded on screen as simply a man, one capable of making mature, independent choices, with practically no undercurrent of sexual innuendo or "native savagery." 
Two other significant themes stood out to me - one, the plight of the workers, and the other, the role that the coal industry played (and the film industry, for that matter) in mobilizing the populace for war. The earlier portions of the film offered an effective portrayal of the grim conditions that coal miners had to work through. I haven't watched a lot of "mining disaster" films but when I do, it really stuns me to consider what these people have to go through to grind out their living. Robeson, by this point in his life an avowed socialist, might have pushed the film toward a more didactic argument on behalf of laborer's rights - there is a pivotal confrontation with "the bosses" at one point - but the filmmakers let the class consciousness speak for itself rather than bombard the audience with a preachier message. Still, it's hard to not feel moved by the tough conditions that generations of Welsh miners had to endure. 

Later in the film, the imminence of war with Germany comes clearly into focus as a series of headlines spell out in sequence the negotiated compromises and reneged promises that led to war, culiminating in Germany's invasion of Poland just months before the film was released. That sequence conveyed the compelling immediacy of a newsreel from the time and I couldn't help but contemplate how fresh and riveting those events had to be for contemporary audiences. 

The Welsh miners, many of whom were probably not considered worthwhile recruits for the UK military, nevertheless saw digging up coal as their form of national service. A clear subtext of supporting the war effort against fascism came through to me, with one of the lead characters going so far as to exclaim loudly and unambiguously, "To hell with Hitler!" 

As with the other celluloid works of Paul Robeson, we're not witnessing the epitome of classic cinema. But hey, after reviewing major works by John Ford, Jean Renoir and Alfred Hitchcock over the past week or so, I'm happy to set the bar a bit lower anyway! Robeson the performer offers us a chance to reflect and admire the achievements of a cultural pioneer and a great-hearted soul who basically bowed out of films just a few years later, turning his attention and powerful gifts in other directions. There's one more film of his we'll be looking at, from 1942, Native Land

I wasn't able to find any video clips from the film itself, but as I did in my review of Jericho, I can at least provide some music from the film! Here's Robeson's very moving performance of Deep River, a gospel standard that he sings solo on this track, and with choral backing in the film version:

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Rebecca (1940) - #135

"She knew everyone that mattered. Everyone loved her."

My series now reaches the pivotal year 1940 and the world has changed. Another great war has broken out in Europe and many of the leading artists and intellectuals from the continent and England have decided for various reasons to make their way to the United States, where isolationist tendencies and geographic remoteness offer relief from the dangers, oppressions and limited resources of their home countries. Among these expatriates is one Alfred Hitchcock, whose move to the USA might have been inevitable anyway even without the threat of war. His stock had been rising in the British film industry, with films like The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes demonstrating his technical skill and storytelling flair. Already known for his commanding personality, Hitch's first assignment in the states was suitably audacious - he had contracted with Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick to direct the producer's follow-up to Gone With The Wind, the biggest, most lucrative and sensational epic of recent years, or maybe ever up that point in cinematic history. Pretty tall order! I think the consensus is that the Selznick/Hitchcock team did pretty well for themselves here: Rebecca won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1940 and a star-making launch for the two leads, Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, not to mention great commercial and critical success. But let's learn a little more about the film and the elements that came together to make it so popular in its time, and so highly regarded even today.

Rebecca is based on a popular novel by Daphne Du Maurier, a woman whose work I have never read or even seriously considered picking up (just being honest, no disrespect intended!) Her books were extremely popular throughout the 20th century and go a long way to accounting for the top-level production values and rigorous talent search applied to the project. Sharing some common traits with Jane Eyre, Du Maurier's books primarily appealed to women but not exclusively so. She pushed back against being categorized as a "romance novelist," and can fairly be likened to the Bronte sisters in her literary achievements, from what I've read. Somewhat like contemporary adaptations of The Da Vinci Code and just-about-to-be-released Angels and Demons, widespread cultural familiarity with the story created a lot of pre-release interest, a huge audience and a terrible potential for backlash if the film failed to meet a range of high expectations.

The DVD package that accompanies this feature film provides as good of a one-stop opportunity for inn-depth study of a film's creation as could be hoped for. The second disc of this now out-of-print (and highly coveted) set is richly loaded with behind the scenes materials including screen tests of many Hollywood stars who tried out for the female lead role, correspondence between producer Selznick and director Hitchcock, and other artifacts that give vivid insight for how motion pictures were created in those days. An excellent commentary track also draws our attention to numerous artistic touches employed by Hitchcock as well as insight on how some crucial scenes from the book had to be adapted to fit into the Hollywood production code (i.e. censorship), homogenizing the novel's provocative psychological and erotic implications into acceptably moralistic scenarios. Despite those limitations, Hitchcock and crew found numerous ways for Du Maurier's gothic sensationalism to come through and connect with their audience, to suitably engaging and creepy effect.

Though the sets, techniques, performances and cinematography are all impressively proficient, they are not beyond critique. Any production involving egos as outsized as Hitchcock's and Selznick's requires concessions that will fail to satisfy at some point when the final product rolls out. Later in life, Hitchcock distanced himself from the film a bit due to its lack of humor and the way his hand was forced by Selznick to rigidly adhere to the source material much more closely than Hitchcock ever had to before or after in his long, illustrious career. This film, for all its accomplishments and gaudy sophistication, was something of an apprenticeship for Hitchcock in how to work within the confines of the Hollywood system. Fortunately for him (and us) this venture turned out so successfully that he was able to gain an unusual degree of independence and control over his films as the years rolled by.

So enough for now about "the making of..." Rebecca's staying power and enduring fascination rests, I think, in its nearly archetypal portrayal of the experience that many women have in marriage - of course, casting the process in larger-than-life proportions in order to drive its points home all the more vividly (something that happens a lot in the movies, you know.) As with the book, the female lead in this film is never given a name - her character in the screen credits is listed as "I." Her voice narrates the opening scene, a slow approach through a shady winding drive to the ruins of a large English country estate - "Manderley." Comparisons could be made to the opening of Citizen Kane, made a few years later, though Kane's opening sequence is much more ambitious. Having established that she could never go back to Manderley again, we jump backwards in time as we proceed to learn just what happened to reduce the once-magnificent house to ruins. Surging waves pound against the base of rugged cliffs, the camera pans up and reveals the dark silhouette of a man who appears poised to jump off the precipice into the ocean below. A woman's voice cries out and breaks him away from the spell. This chance meeting of two strangers in a breathtakingly dangerous and romantic locale, of course, introduces us to the main characters, destined for love, or at least an enhanced degree of shared emotional complication.

Here we see them becoming more familiar with each other, after their first "civilized" encounter in a hotel in Monte Carlo. He is Maxim de Winter, born into aristocracy, heir to Manderley and a widower of one year. "She" is a paid companion to a wealthy and snobbish American woman on holiday in Europe. This scene establishes "her" insecurity about herself and her vulnerability to seduction. Look carefully for all the cues that de Winter (played by Laurence Olivier) delivers establishing the character played by Joan Fontaine as a needy, dependent woman-child:

The end of that scene is, of course, ominous foreshadowing of a terrible secret that will eventually be revealed, and I'll do my best to respect the no-spoilers rule here. From this point, the couple experience a "whirlwind romance" that leads, perhaps implausibly but also captivatingly, to him taking her for his new wife, the second Mrs. de Winter.

They return then to Manderley, which from the outside has the look of "every girl's dream home" but turns out to be rather overwhelming and intimidating for a woman born to common aspirations and unprepared to be the lady of such a great house. Further complications set in when Maxim turns out to be more distant and tormented a soul than she would hope for in a new husband, and especially as she learns more about the attributes of the first Mrs. de Winter, named Rebecca of course.

Rebecca serves as the epitome of "previous other women" that a wife's husband has been involved with - brilliant, witty, beautiful, impeccably mannered, utterly at ease in all circumstances and in control of herself and those around her. Joan Fontaine does a very impressive job conveying a sense of nervous inadequacy and uncertainty about how she will ever be able to live up to the lofty standard set by her predecessor. Her anxiety is not so much based on competitiveness with the ghost of Rebecca, but rather in her concern that Maxim will soon (if not already) find her boring, shallow, incapable... unloveable.

And then there are the tensions with Mrs. Danvers, the domineering servant whose devotion to Rebecca and chilly contempt for the new Mrs. de Winter ramps up the weirdness and morbidity to levels we normally associate with a Hitchcock film. The two women create some powerfully disturbing scenes with all sorts of that are best viewed in context to be fully appreciated. So I won't paste any of their clips in here, but to give you a better sense of the film's cultural impact a few years after it was released, here's a trailer that you might enjoy (I love this style of pitching movies to an audience much better than how its done today - more earnest, I guess.):

I watched this film with my wife last evening - it was literally a dark and stormy night! The perfect conditions for watching a movie like this one, with several very well-timed lightning flashes and thunder rumbles. It also helps that she's quite a bit "jumpier" than I am when watching thrillers - it adds so much to the fun! But more than the thrills of unpredictable entrances and plot twists, Rebecca has a lot to say about the pressures that come to bear on marriages, especially those in which the terms of the agreement are strained and stressed by disappointment, betrayal, mistrust and vindictiveness - in other words, all couplings that manage to last longer than the indefinably brief period we call the "honeymoon." Over the course of the film, we see the new Mrs. de Winter toughen up to meet her challenges. She becomes more assertive, survives relational, legal and criminal disasters, even dresses better! The prospects for her marriage relationship to Maxim remain highly ambiguous at movie's end. For having endured the hardships placed before her, "she" remains married to a self-absorbed, emotionally stunted, prone-to-anger aristocrat who has a hard time returning the love that she longs to show him. The ending remains unresolved in the film; in the novel, the narrator speaks from some place of foreign exile - though there are elements of a Cinderella story to be found in Rebecca, there's no guarantee of a "happily ever after..."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Rules of the Game (1939) - #216

... and the game is called "Dancing on a Volcano."

That's how director Jean Renoir described the process of cinematically representing the society of which he was a part, a French populace that clearly sensed the imminent danger it faced and yet appeared too powerless, unprepared and fatally distracted to do anything about. The Rules of the Game marks a pivotal moment in cinematic and cultural history and now, 70 years after its initial release, stands as one of the supreme touchstones and reference points in the entire domain of film as art and social commentary.

Indeed, I've felt the challenge of blogging about this film building even before it came up in my queue. This is a superior movie and one I've immensely enjoyed watching, closely and carefully over the past several days. But for ease of commentary, give me some (relatively) obscure and underappreciated work any day. There's been no shortage of top quality writing and analysis of this film over the past four or five decades at least, after the fury of WWII had died down and the film was rediscovered by a younger generation than the one that had vilified, virtually censored and almost destroyed it upon its initial release. From it's ignominious debut to its eventual enthronement as a consensus Top Ten in international film polls (and a frequent first, second or third placeholder in the arthouse crowd), The Rules of the Game can attribute a fair amount of its lasting impact to the extraordinary story of the film itself, as an artifact and a brutally honest mirror of a society in denial as it teetered on the very brink of convulsive, violent, self-inflicted trauma.

So let's take a moment to look at the context from which Rules of the Game emerged. Jean Renoir had spent the preceding decade establishing his reputation as a filmmaker of the first rank. With his critically-acclaimed Grand Illusion and smashing commercial success of La Bete Humaine, Renoir had outgrown his "son of the famous painter" reputation and had now established sufficient clout to open his own studio, Nouvelle Editions Francaise. The Rules of the Game was his first and only production for the new company (which was basically put out of business by WWII and Renoir's move to Hollywood), and it was clearly the most ambitious, eagerly anticipated French film of the year. However, its 1939 debut was nothing short of a calamity - audiences howled and raged at the screen, and one viewer went so far as to try to set the theater on fire with a burning newspaper! Renoir was present to witness the fury and by the end of opening week had authorized serious cuts to the film (from 94 to 81 minutes, focusing on the scenes that generated the most visceral reactions.) Even these concessions were not enough to salvage the film's commercial prospects - it closed much more quickly than anyone had anticipated and was eventually censored by the Nazis after they conquered France the following year. The film negative was destroyed during the war and for the next 15 years, only a few flawed versions of the short cut of the film existed, which served to establish its base of support, particularly among younger French cineastes who would go on to lead the New Wave of the late 1950s and '60s.

So Rules of the Game is part of that venerable cultural canon of artworks that generated sincere apoplectic indignation upon first release. I have long been fascinated by these stories, the kind that I've heard associated with music (Stravinsky, Dylan, the Sex Pistols), painting (Picasso, Dada and the Surrealists) and film (Bunuel, Spike Lee and now Renoir.) What is it about these works that gets so deep under people's skins that they lose composure and react so viscerally, supposedly in the name of virtue, good taste and defense of "the sacred?"

Returning then to The Rules of the Game, there's a fair amount that one could focus on. The plot is driven by incidents of marital indiscretion with assorted love triangles popping up like mushrooms in a cow pasture after the rain. But Renoir and countless other continental directors had been dealing with that theme for years - just read through my previous blog posts here! There are acts of violence - murder, a suicide attempt, even the actual on-camera killings of real animals (birds, rabbits, even a cat!) That would certainly bring out contemporary animal rights activists if a popular director showed innocent creatures getting shot in order to "make a point." But no one was talking about animal rights in those days, not with the Third Reich arming itself to the teeth and populist fascism making inroads throughout European society - people were too concerned with protecting their own hides.

No, what really bothered the fashionable audience on the Champs-Elysses (where the film had its premier) was that they themselves, and their peers, were squarely and unambiguously the object of the satire, or one could even say ridicule, that Renoir and his cast and crew created. Dissolution of marriage, the death of heroes, even a bleakly nihilistic resignation to fate and the miseries of life - no problem with any of that... but, impugn our sense of honor?!? Monsieur, you shall hear from my seconds forthwith! Pistols at dawn it shall be!

Renoir's insight and (presumably) earnest desire to awaken his fellow citizens to what he saw happening in and around them was clearly commendable, admirably visionary but for all commercial purposes, terribly naive and misguided if his intention was to make another popular, divertingly pleasant film, as he himself said was his hope in the introduction that he filmed in 1967. We can only be glad that he got it so wrong, so to speak, because if he had been more attuned to the reception his film was likely to generate, he probably would have played it a whole lot safer and we'd be deprived of a stupendous, amazing masterpiece. This is a film that practically demands several viewings to fully appreciate and begin to fathom - the construction of the scenes, the progression of action, the fullness of the characters and the incredibly intricate cross-connections of relationships that continually shift and transform through scene after scene is more than one pass through can assimilate. And the nice thing about it is that watching it is not some grueling cerebral exercise - there's wonderful humor, biting wit, nuanced performance, innovative cinematography, refreshingly natural atmospherics and a host of influence-wielding scenes echoed in film conventions ever since to admire once one has become thoroughly familiar with the plot.

Having enthused to this degree, I guess it's only fitting that I take a few minutes to summarize the story itself for those who haven't seen it yet or want a refresher. My hope is that it only whets your appetite to get personally acquainted with The Rules of the Game, because it really needs to be seen by anyone who wants to be reasonably informed on the great movies of the 20th century. Even if it doesn't move you or live up to the lofty expectations reviews like this create - you still ought to know it for yourself.

So here goes: the film opens with a plane landing out of the darkness after its hero-celebrity pilot Andre Jurieux breaks a record for trans-Atlantic flight. He's greeted by a throng on the tarmac but bluntly expresses his disappointment on a live radio broadcast when his lover Christine fails to be among those in the crowd. His lover, of course, is a woman married to someone other than himself, and we quickly see her in her boudoir, attended by her maid, listening to that same broadcast. Her husband, the Marquis de la Chesnaye, knows of Christine's dalliance and, inspired by her tact in refraining from meeting Jurieux so publicly, decides that he will break off his own affair with Genevieve, a Parisian sophisticate with whom he's become rather bored as of late anyway. Into this entanglement stumbles Octave, played by Renoir, a single, somewhat clownish character who's known Christine since her aristocratic childhood in Austria and has finagled his way into somewhat intimate friendships with most of the other key figures in this social set, even though he himself is poor and rather common. (The actress who played Christine was herself a genuine Austrian princess whose real-life husband created his own share of tensions on the set.)

As events proceed, the upper class complexities find their mirror image among the servants who adopt the attitudes and imitate the behaviors of their masters, broadening Renoir's critique away from the stereotypical "foibles of the rich" and toward something more generically and broadly "wrong" with French (and European) society as a whole. Give Renoir credit for being an equal opportunity offender!

After establishing the main characters in their ordinary Parisian setting, the action shifts to La Chesnaye's country estate where all the elements are assembled for a light-hearted, farcical comedy of manners. One could easily envision the scenes of characters romping through hallways, opening and closing doors in quick succession, mistaken identities and laughs a-plenty as the confusion mounts and narrative levers are pulled. And indeed, a lot of this happens, though with a sharp, critical, cynical edge that cuts a bit deeper than audiences of this time were prepared to endure. And the ending...! I won't say exactly what happens, but in keeping with the tradition of "poetic realism," (c.f. Pepe le Moko, Port of Shadows, La Bete Humaine) it's not exactly happy - or is it? What separates the conclusion of Rules of the Game from the ends of these three popular (and Criterion-worthy!) predecessors is its tidy resolution and nearly flippant equanimity in the face of terrible injustice. A prominent character is killed, both intentionally and accidentally (ponder that one a bit), and other than a few tears shed by an emotionally overwrought maid at the end of a long night, no one seems all that particularly disturbed. It turns out that it was a death that was in the best interests of the survivors... a death made necessary, according to... The Rules of the Game.

This trailer does a better job of presenting the film than any particular scene I could have pulled off of YouTube. I don't think there's a single scene that could be extracted to give sufficient impression of its construction as a whole, so here's just a taste.
And here's my obligatory shout-out to Gaston Modot!

This post also brings the 1930s to a conclusion as far as this series is concerned. It's my 40th review so far in 2009 and I am very eager to move into a new decade and era of film-making history! Thanks to everyone who's been dropping in here - I hope you enjoy the series and I'd love to read your comments, or emails if you prefer.

Next: Rebecca

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) - #320

My politics are short and sweet... like the old woman's dance.

Thus we are introduced to this cinematic portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, before he had earned any of the famous nicknames bestowed on him by mythmakers of his time and subsequent generations.

The figure of Lincoln stands out among all the great historic characters from American history - the virtues he's come to embody and the unquestionably pivotal role he played in the story of our nation, and by extension Western civilization elevate him to the status of a man of incalculable importance on the world stage. As a schoolboy, the basics of Lincoln's legend were impressed upon me and I've grown up ever since regarding him, almost unconsciously, as America's "greatest president" and, more consciously, as a person of great moral depth and intellectual complexity. One thing I've not really done though is plunge into an in-depth study of the man himself - I've never read a lengthy biography on Lincoln or closely explored his writings. My knowledge of Lincoln has been largely second-hand, based on a lifetime's worth of cultural references and a couple visits to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. But viewing Young Mr. Lincoln in the context of other great works from its era has helped me to get a better sense of the impact he had on earlier generations, and his significance to an American public that was grappling at the time of its release with the vexing dilemma of what do about the storm brewing over in Europe, and more remotely, over in Japan and the eastern fringes of Asia.

It's easy in hindsight to watch major films of the late 1930s as indicative pre-cursors to the World War that was about to break out. I don't think the connections are unwarranted though. Alexander Nevsky was quite consciously propagandistic and its intended function of stirring up a patriotic frenzy among its Russian viewers is undeniable. La Bete Humaine is not so much a call-to-arms for its French audience, but the final scene of a train rampaging down the tracks with a suicidal engineer at the controls seems appropriate to me. Likewise, the consistent theme of a ruminating Lincoln, nudged from his melancholy reveries, taking the necessary steps to pursue justice since that's what duty requires, fits pretty neatly with the self-concept of American society when, in late 1941, the inevitability of entering another great war became crystal clear. Scene after scene depicts Lincoln standing tall, hands in pockets, brow furrowed just a bit, as he sorts through the facts, ponders the possibilities, then drawls out just the right words needed to establish the truth and set the wisest course.

Case in point: the very first scene, where Abe Lincoln is called up to make his case as to why he should be elected to the state legislature. His delivery is halting, his political principles are summed up in a few short phrases and he espouses humble indifference as to whether or not he succeeds in winning their votes, trusting his fellow citizens to make the right choice regardless of how it affects his personal fortunes. After delivering what must be the shortest-ever political campaign speech, he steps down to do a little bartering with a pioneer family just passing through and ends up with a legal commentary out of the bargain. Studying the book down by the river, propped up against a stately old tree, reflecting on the law's concept of "rights," he has an epiphany: " 'The rights of life, reputation and liberty. The rights to acquire and hold property. Wrongs are violations of those rights.' By jing, that's all there is to it. Right and wrong." The ideal American credo right there! And a perfect jumping-off point for the episodic, anecdotal narrative that follows.

Director John Ford, a giant among American auteurs, presumes a fair amount of shared knowledge among the viewers of this film, making oblique, punctuated references to certain episodes without supplying much in the way of backstory. Lincoln's youthful affections for Ann Rutledge, his later marriage to Mary Todd and intense political rivalry with Stephen Douglas, for example, all play into key scenes, but wouldn't make their intended impact for today's viewers if they lacked previous information on these milestones of Lincoln's career. And I do wonder how much of this material is familiar to people younger than 40 today - at least, those who haven't made intentional effort to study up on Lincoln. My hunch is that the stories of young "Honest Abe" splitting rails and teaching himself to read by firelight in his rustic log cabin don't get featured as much in school classrooms as they once did, and that the more detailed accounts of his life and career have been crowded out of the curriculum in any case by nearly 70 years of history that have passed since the completion of Young Mr. Lincoln. Still, I think those gaps are easy enough to fill in, and the true charm of this film rests more in the character of the man portrayed on screen and has less to do with the "aha!" moments we experience when seeing the dots connected between what happens on screen and what we learned in 4th grade.

Another potential obstacle for today's viewers is to not be put off or misled by the quaint aspects of the production. It would be a mistake to view this film as corny, simplistic or old-fashioned, but I can see how some would get that impression. The sprightly, melodramatic soundtrack music, the rustic humor, the sentimental touches and the general wholesomeness of the storyline (by today's standards) could come across as hokey to viewers accustomed to films with a lot more edge to them. Even the presence of the great all-American actor Henry Fonda in the lead role, as a tall, taciturn, legendary patriot may put off those who like their films a little more on the subversive, challenging side. To such viewers, I say "look closer."

Just because the film features a 4th of July parade down Main Street USA doesn't imply that it's bogged down by syrupy straight-from-Disney prefabrication. That sequence, which leads into a series of scenes set in a mid-19th century county fair, offers a wonderful example of Ford's ability to craft intricate, tightly composed and highly active crowd scenes that reveal a lot of amusing details on repeat viewings.

Speaking of repeat viewings, it just so happens that I wrote a fairly descriptive blog entry on this film last July, well before I started my current project of watching all the Criterion feature films in chronological order of release. So you can check that out for some further thought I have on this movie. I think I have a better grasp of what Ford was doing now that I'm watching it alongside the films of his contemporaries like Renoir, Hitchcock and Eisenstein (whose 1945 essay on Ford, revealing that Young Mr. Lincoln is the film he wished he had made, is included in the DVD package.) But I think it stands very well on its own. For reasons probably having a lot more to do with distribution rights than artistic merit, this is the only John Ford film included (so far) in the Criterion Collection. His other major works have been released by American studios, and I look forward some day to making greater acquaintance with films like Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley. But it may be a few years... I've got more than 400 Criterion movies I have to watch before I can delve into another cinematic treasure trove!

Finally, I can't help but toss in an observation or two on the political implications of a film like Young Mr. Lincoln when viewed in the context of our own times. Like Lincoln, our current president hails from Illinois (though born elsewhere) and is seen by some as a great man of the people and by others as an opportunist bent on tyranny. Both of them faced forces of cultural and political resistance based in the US South, though it remains to be seen of course just how far today's conservatives go in repudiating Obama's efforts. And while it's much too early to credit Barack Obama with anything close to resembling Lincoln's demonstrable impact on American and world history, I feel comfortable asserting that the pieces are in place for the parallels to continue developing. I doubt that we'll be facing the prospect of civil war in this country within the next few years (and probably much longer) but there's little doubt in my mind that our president, and our nation, will have to face significant moments of reckoning in the near future - I can only hope that we'll have the insight, wisdom and resilience to respond as admirably as did the noble-hearted Great Emancipator.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

La BĂȘte Humaine (1938) - #324

Trains, tough guys, tragic doomed romance.

The pot's boiling pretty hot 'n heavy here, at least about as hot as it could boil in a mainstream film released in 1938. 

We're working with familiar figures here - the face of Jean Gabin, the cinematic mastery of Jean Renoir. This time, Gabin and Renoir team up to adapt a major work of the French author Emile Zola, updating the story of La Bete Humaine from its mid-19th century original setting to become a contemporary drama of its own times, featuring working class figures that audiences were apparently eager to relate to and regarded as novelties as far as screen portrayals were concerned. There aren't any aristocrats or exotic foreign cityscapes to be seen here. This was and is a movie "of the people."

The title translates as The Human Beast, but after watching the film a couple times, I'm not at all clear that it intends to refer to a particular character in the film. I think it works better to characterize the lead roles in the film, or even perhaps humanity in general. The point being, people are complicated, emotion driven creatures capable of both great tenderness and senseless cruelty at any given moment. Renoir, by way of Zola, puts forth a theory or two as to why this is so (hereditary alcoholism, child abuse, early sexual molestation, perhaps more) but knows well enough to not make the "explanations" too obvious or simple. As we've seen in his earlier films in this series, Renoir cultivates an enduring warm affection for his human subjects, while simultaneously avoiding sappy sentimentality or the easy crowd-pleasing urge to divide us up into readily identified good guys and bad guys. I could only wish that more directors followed his cue, but I suppose it's just as well to have films like this exist as a rare and distinct subset of cinematic treasures.

Let's talk first about the beginning of this film - what a spectacular and visually engaging sequence! After a brief literary quote of the great and highly esteemed Zola, the first moving image we see is a bright burning fire in the steam engine's oven, accompanied by a high-pitched shrieking train whistle. Then we get to see two great actors, Gabin and Carette, besmirched in grit and grime, actually operating a real locomotive in live action filmed on a real French railway. These guys studied how to do this and they filmed the scene right on the moving train! Renoir also attached a camera near the front of the locomotive to capture some pretty amazing and fascinating footage, kind of a best-approximation of "virtual reality" as 1930s technology could deliver. I'm not a huge train buff but I totally enjoyed watching these point-of-view shots of trains entering and exiting tunnels, viaducts and the station yards of the port city Le Havre (setting of Gabin's earlier film, Port of Shadows.) It's a real treat to study these moving documents of pre-war France.

Here's the trailer for this "veritable chef-d-ouevre":

The story revolves around yet another ill-fated love triangle - such fertile potentials grow out of such situations! Renoir's introduction has some fun with the formula - he claims that the triangle consists of a man who loves both a woman married to his boss and the locomotive on which he works as an engineer. Fair enough - I won't argue with Renoir! - but more conventionally, we see the engineer Lantier (Gabin), the train station manager Roubaud, and his delectable femme fatale of a wife, Severine (Simone Simon, whose name I include here simply because I love typing it.)  Severine is, of course, beautiful, but not born to privilege and thus subject to all sorts of cruel treatment. We learn fairly early on that she was mistreated by her wealthy godfather and it's truly sad to see the kind of mistreatment she's forced to endure at the hands of her greedy, jealous and basically horrible but respectable bourgeois husband. When he learns of the abuse she's suffered, he offers no consolation to her but instead uses her misfortune as the pretext for exacting his revenge for the dishonor that this scandal brings to his own name and reputation.

The lust for vengeance leads to murder on a train, and it so happens that Lantier happens to be a bystander who didn't see the vile deed itself but knows enough to condemn both Roubaud and Severine... if he's so inclined. But he quickly sizes up Severine's interest in getting to know him better, and that's when the heat goes up several notches. As if Lantier's rough-n-tumble occupation as a train driver wasn't indicative enough, we learn in an early scene that he's capable of brutal, random violence, attributable (supposedly) to being the descendant of generations of drunks and debauchees and thus unable to control himself when the savage urge strikes. He comes close to killing his childhood sweetheart, but the fatal spell is broken by the roar of a passing train.

Once the murder attracts the attention of authorities, of course an investigation is launched to nail the culprit, and its here that Lantier seals Severine's affection by reinforcing her alibi and deflecting the law away from her and her husband. A lower-class stooge (played by Renoir himself) takes the rap instead, clearing the way for Lantier and Severine to pursue their own intrigues. Continuing with the train metaphors, their romance picks up steam and goes on to hurtle recklessly down the tracks, destined of course for oblivion, but not before partaking of some smoldering leather-clad kisses on a dark rainy night...

All in all, this is yet another magnificent performance by Jean Gabin, whose portrayal of the disturbed engineer is marked by subtlety and strength. By this point in his career, he had come to practically dominate French cinema as the premier leading man of his time, and brought an appropriately over-sized ego along with him, leaving his second wife in 1939 in order to carry on with Marlene Dietrich, before leaving Europe for the USA following the fall of France the following year. We're not quite to this point in Gabin's story, but he sure does turn in a memorable performance here. I'm not sure he ever got more down & dirty than he did here, but he cleaned up well, showing that always impressive ability to be both the man's man and the ladies' man all in the course of the same motion picture. 

I don't think it's spoiling the ending all that much to say that, all in all, it's a bummer! But hey, it's 1938, France and the rest of Europe is on the road to ruin and any story reeking of a happier ending just wouldn't ring true now, would it? The lovers' embraces, small talk and futile plans for a future that will never be ring all the more poignantly in retrospect - I have to figure that audiences of their times saw in this film (which was a huge commercial success) a portent of the calamity and crisis that was about to befall their society - without consciously realizing it at the time, of course.

Here's another clip that focuses more directly on the historic train route itself - a nice little time capsule of days gone by.

The DVD has some very nice features, including a film introduction by Renoir himself (recorded in the 1960s), a recreation of a pivotal scene from the film's later portion in which Renoir demonstrates his directing technique on French TV with Simone Simon herself, and my favorite, a wonderful dialog on the film as only a quartet of balding French intellectual cineastes can carry off - it's this kind of stuff, as well as the top notch attention to detail in the film transfers, audio and so on, that really does set Criterion apart from any other DVD company I know about. It takes an extra degree of commitment to work through these supplements but they really do enhance one's appreciation for what these films accomplished and represented upon first release, and what they say to us now.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Alexander Nevsky (1938) - #87

Meanwhile, back in the USSR...

Here's a robust slice of Soviet propaganda, pre-WWII, and with good reason. At the time that Alexander Nevsky was in production, relations between Nazi Germany and Communist Soviet Union were, to put it mildly, strained. Hitler and Stalin were at opposite ends of the political spectrum but both recognized the tyrannical potentials of the other and presumably understood that war was inevitable within the next few years. Going to war is never just a matter of military preparedness of course. In modern societies there's a large population that needs to be convinced that the atrocities, hardships and sacrifices to come are not simply necessary, but vital to the nation's self-interest. In order to make that conviction stick, the individual inhabitants of nations need to be persuaded that they are better off identifying with the collective than they would be breaking off into isolation or opposition to the powers of the state. With the advent of film technology and it's recognizable effect on human thoughts and feelings, any would-be world conqueror intending to stay in the game and win had no choice but to harness the potential of movies to sway public opinion.

Hitler, Goebbels and crew were busy in Germany doing just that, of course, but since Criterion leans left, politically speaking, I don't expect them to be releasing the work of Leni Reifenstahl, for example. That's fine with me - I don't really need to include Triumph of the Will or Olympia in my DVD collection anyway. But the inclusion of Alexander Nevsky in the Criterion Collection presumably has a lot more to do with the career and accomplishments of its director - Sergei Eisenstein - than with the political applications of the film he presented, first to Stalin, then to his fellow Soviet citizens and then the rest of the world, in 1938, a year or so before the seemingly inevitable outbreak of war in Europe.

Now I could do some quick research on Eisenstein to fill you in on what makes him so great, but I'll admit it here: I'm all but completely ignorant of his work, so instead, I'll be content to just link his name to a helpful article about him. I know he directed Battleship Potemkin, with the famous scene of the baby carriage rolling freely and dangerously down the steps in the middle of some armed oppression of poor people. He's known as the innovator who either introduced or mastered the use of the montage. His silent films are generally considered his greatest masterpieces, with his sound films suffering a bit from government interference under Stalin and other production problems that severely limited his output from the 1930s forward. That's really about as much as I have to say about Eisenstein's career. I have much to learn.

And I will. This DVD is part of a three-disc set called Eisenstein: The Sound Years which features this film and the two parts of Ivan the Terrible, which wouldn't be produced until WWII had run its course. That pretty much sums up all of what Eisenstein was able to finish before his death in 1948. I promise to study up some more on this venerable pioneer of cinema before the time comes for me to review his next film.

So who is this Alexander Nevsky? He was a historic Russian leader from the early 13th century who earned his fame by fending off an attack by the Swedes from the west and working out an agreement with Mongol raiders from the east that helped Russia maintain its territorial integrity at a vulnerable time in its history. The action of the film primarily focuses on his leadership throughout an invasion by (you guessed it) German warriors who pretty much have their way as they rampage across Russian soil, until they push their ambitions too far and go after the resilient city of Novgorod. Though outnumbered, using inferior weapons and lacking military discipline, the film reinforces the message that zealous peasants, armed with rudimentary elements like spears, axes and crude swords, can defend their motherland from an otherwise superior force - a message that Stalin had a highly vested interest in disseminating.

Thus he enlisted, through the state-controlled film studio Mosfilm, two of the preeminent talents in Russian culture at the time: the two Sergeis, filmmaker Eisenstein and composer Prokofiev (best known to me anyway as the composer of "Peter and the Wolf.") Both men had fallen into some disrepute in the USSR (their fidelity to communism being called into question, among other problems) but this film got them back in good graces with the powerbrokers in Moscow. As best I can tell, Prokofiev's film score is still quite highly admired - and it is pretty good, especially the way that it syncs up with the film edits - but admirers of Eisenstein consider it too compromised and stilted to rank among his best work. Since I'm so underexposed in that regard, I'll say that I enjoyed the film on its own terms, gladly exchanging realistic characterizations and narrativce complexity for what turns out to be a forceful, iconic and fascinating cinematic folktale.

This video clip packs the basic storyline into less than nine minutes, with some helpful intertitles that provide historical background on the events depicted in the film. It eliminates a tacked on romantic subplot featuring two warriors competing for the affections of one woman, and also lacks Alexander's exhortations to his peasant subjects (and of course, the Soviet citizens who would inherit the task, a few years later, of defending their homeland from yet another German invasion.) But it does offer a nice sample of Eisenstein and Prokofiev's collaboration, including some battle scenes that for my money rank pretty high up there in epic production values, especially considering the limited budget and lo-tech equipment they had to work with. I know that other, older films featured some big staged combat scenes, but the "Battle on the Ice" clearly set the standard for future wars-on-film.

In fact, I could not help but note what seems like obvious influence to me on two of the biggest, most lucrative epic films of our times: Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. The Star Wars echoes came from both the "rivals for the same girl" subplot mentioned above (Luke and Han Solo) and even more from the costuming and characterizations of the German villains. Look at the clip carefully and you'll see the precursors for Darth Vader, the Emperor, the Imperial Guard and the Stormtroopers. I'm convinced of it! I don't know how common this observation has been but to me it's a pretty obvious connection.

The LOTR link can be found in the battle scenes of two massive armies lining up, staring each other down, then gathering momentum before clashing mightily into each other. Of course, hundreds of similarly staged battles were filmed between Alexander Nevsky and The Return of the King, but I even saw strong similarities between Nevsky's war helmet and the armor donned by Aragorn when it came time for him to fulfill his royal destiny. Perhaps it's more fitting to say that LOTR just follows in the noble tradition that Eisenstein helped immensely to establish.

The virile actor who portrays Nevsky, one Nikolai Cherkasov, would have fit easily into the Fellowship of the Ring. He was a born rock star (when he doesn't have his helmet on, he kind of reminds me of Dale Earnhardt Jr. for some reason), a very appealing leader whose presence, voice and body language exude command.

So I'll concede that this film is probably not Eisenstein's representative work and may not even provide a fair introduction to his true genius, but I liked it for what it was - a bold, emotive and visually arresting rabble-rouser that can truly be seen as having a significant impact on the course of human history in its preparation of a society to turn back the scourge of Nazi fascism. Regardless of the crimes and brutalities committed by the regime that exploited Eisenstein, Alexander Nevsky's legacy is one worthy of respect and appreciation.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Lady Vanishes (1938) - #3

Here's another one of those crown jewels of the Criterion Collection, as evidenced by its low spine number and general prominence of place in that estimable library of DVDs. The Lady Vanishes has been released in two editions, both of which I own, the most recent of which serves as a rather definitive edition 2-disc set. It was also released as part of the now OOP "Wrong Men and Notorious Women" box set which I think is rightly regarded as the most collectible and desirable product that Criterion has put out (and which I'm pleased to own) TLV isn't the only movie that Criterion has chosen to upgrade from its initial version, but (as was the case with M, reviewed here back at the beginning of February) the fact that they came back with a remaster and an all-new set of bonus features demonstrates the reverent esteem of the CC and their heartfelt desire to get it right.

What make The Lady Vanishes such a special film? For one, it represents Alfred Hitchcock's high water mark as an English filmmaker, just a year or two before he came to Hollywood and created the string of successes that would go on to cement his reputation as (arguably) the greatest director of all-time. Made on a small set and a tight budget, adapted from a story that had originally been scripted with a different director and a more simplistic narrative structure in mind, Hitchcock here demonstrates his incredible mastery of the idiom, weaving visual magic and a charming blend of humor, mystery and suspense that truly does stand the test of time, even among viewers who aren't always so easily won over by films from decades long since expired.

He makes it look very easy as he weaves together what can best be described as a concoction, a film that transcends genre, entertains from start to finish while doing so on terms that concede little if anything to the more cerebral and iconoclastic auteurs of later years when it comes to artistic  creativity, originality or technical proficiency. About the only knock on Hitchcock's work here that I could think of would come from those who consider him too popular or lightweight to command their attention. But while I'm all eager to move through these older films to explore the riches of true alienation-chic aart-haus feelmz, I'm not at all willing to sacrifice the pleasures of a well-crafted Hitchcock gem.

My enjoyment of The Lady Vanishes is first established on the delight I feel watching the performance of Margaret Lockwood. She's about as cute and plucky and winsome a leading lady as I've seen in this series so far (well, I can't say I've gone so far as to compare her side by side with Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Kay Francis, Claudette Colbert or Miriam Hopkins, but for now, I'll just say that Margaret is utterly delightful to behold - not merely pretty, but full of energy and just so breezy and relaxed in front of the camera.) Lockwood plays Iris Henderson, a presumably rich young woman who's leaving behind her friends in the fictional East European country of Bandrika (somewhere in the Balkans, one supposes), returning to London to get married. She's supposedly had enough freedom and adventure in her life and must now accept her fate of married stolidity for the rest of her natural life. Little does she suspect that her train ride home would provide thrills and tensions the likes of which she's never experienced!

The lead up to this suspenseful train ride is a funny but leisurely-lengthy set piece in the train station's hotel the night before departure. Deep snow has delayed a rambunctious group of travelers and this setting serves Hitchcock's purpose to introduce us to the principles before the plotline begins to unfold in earnest. We meet Iris and her friends, an adulterous couple feistily negotiating the terms of their return to England, a couple of overgrown British bachelor schoolboys obsessed with cricket and presuming that any other sensible person would share their passion. We also meet two other pivotal characters portrayed by significant actors, one (Dame May Whitty) an older woman nearing the late stages of her career, the other (Michael Redgrave) a young man just setting out on the path to major stardom. Whitty plays Mrs. Froy, an genteel, kind-hearted English governess (who turns out to be the title character, as we learn in the scene below) and Redgrave plays Gilbert, a folklorist, amateur musician and all around good chappie who winds up befriending, assisting and ultimately winning Iris' affection as she goes through a variety of moods and predicaments over the course of an hour and half or so.

The story provides one of the last bursts of lighthearted cheer that we'll be seeing from the films in our series for awhile. A number of pre-war political themes play themselves out here as Hitchcock uses his characters to outline some of the debates taking place at the time (1937-38) when the wary British populace was wondering what to do about the gathering menace of fascism and belligerence in central and southern Europe. This is very much a movie about England and the various factions within that particular segment of the British empire - an adulterous barrister is set in the worst light, proving too weak and feeble in his convictions to stand up for the woman he's with or the values he claims to uphold. Gilbert is a non-partisan free spirit who just rallies to the demands of his circumstances, while the two cricket fans Charters and Caldicott quickly set their self-absorption to the side when its time to show the proverbial stiff-upper lip and fight back against the villains who would prevent them from returning to their native soil. Really though, it's the women, Iris, Mrs. Froy and "Mrs." Todhunter (the gorgeous Linden Travers) who show the fullest strength of character here, and ultimately win the day, with a little help from their male friends.

I have a hunch that the film is already familiar to a fair number of people so I won't elaborate a whole lot more on it here. This clip comes from right around the middle of the movie, showing us the circumstance from which the story gets its name, as well as the disorientation Iris feels when her memories and impressions of what just happened are flatly, coldly denied by the eyewitnesses she turns to for support and confirmation.

The real genius of the latter part of this scene, of course, is how effectively Hitchcock is able to tap into that disorienting fear, that nightmare scenario really, of knowing something is true that the rest of the world pointedly denies and contradicts. Of course, Hitchcock's whole career was spent exploring human phobias, confusions and sense of unease in this world. 

What I am coming to appreciate, as I see his craftsmanship develop through this small sampling (five in all) of his films that have made it into the CC, is just how seamlessly proficient he was when it came to making films. Some may disagree, but there really are no dud scenes in this film, and having watched it three times now in rapid succession and a couple other times over the past few years, my admiration for his work here continues to grow. 

The closest comparison I can come up with, even without really knowing his films as well as many others who may end up reading this review, is that as the Beatles were to pop music, so Hitchcock is to cinema - massively popular English "eccentrics" who found a way to generate massive appeal to the American (and global) mainstream in a way that his contemporaries and imitators could only approximate. I'm going to wrap up my comments here, for now, since I have some other things to do tonight. But as prominent film critics of decades past have noted, this is a film that doesn't require much commentary - only admiration... and repeat viewings, to fully savor the quality of work that Hitch put into this production.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Port of Shadows (1938) - #245

Let's talk about "acquired tastes." I'm referring to things (whether they be foods, beverages, cultural artifacts, ideas, whatever) that don't initally appeal to us all that much, or at least fit into that "eh, take it or leave it" category upon first exposure, that eventually become highly appreciated for what they are as we acquire a little more experience and seasoning in life. Among the acquired tastes that I've picked up over the course of my time in this world, I'll list eggs, olives, gin, disco... and film noir.

I remember way back when, in the mid-70s, hearing about the greatness of Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (or maybe it was The Big Sleep) on some oldies TV movie broadcast, only to watch the film expecting something incredibly awesome and have the whole thing sail right past me, leaving me feeling incredulous as to what anybody saw as so great about the movie, or others like it. I just thought it was kind of stiff and boring, silly young thing that I was. I don't know what I was expecting - it's just that nothing all that remarkable jumped off the screen at me, so I figured that the movie really sucked and the people telling me how great it was didn't know what they were talking about.

Years later, as I learned more about how people function in this world, and even more importantly, about the importance of atmosphere, mood and attitude to our interpretation of our experience of life, film noir and its cinematic predecessors have taken on much more value and meaning to me. The film under our glass today, Port of Shadows, serves as a prime example of archetypal film noir before the genre had even been identified. Among film buffs, it's typically cited as a premier specimen of the "poetic realism" genre. I will leave it to others to give the primer on poetic realism, since I'm still learning myself, but in any case, I'm pleased to introduce Port of Shadows to you!

The setting is the French port city of Le Havre, and the lead actor is none other than our good friend Jean Gabin, who's been popping up on this blog quite a bit lately due to his starring roles in The Lower Depths, Pepe le Moko and Grand Illusion. We're far from being done with M. Gabin, but I think this should be regarded as one of his all time greatest roles. The more I watch, seeing how his career developed throughout the 1930s, the more ardently I admire him and appreciate the significance of his role as an icon of French cinema and culture. He nailed his performance in the previous three films mentioned above, and is quite in command here. He offers a compelling ideal that I can easily imagine a lot of French men identifying with as "the guy they'd like to be" - an important function for most lead male actors of their respective era. Though the details vary from role to role, Gabin's characters share a common earthy, no-nonsense attitude - tough when they have to be, but with a sensitive exploring heart underneath it all. I find him both appealing and impressively skilled as a screen performer.

The story involves a "Vietnam vet" (from the mid-30s!) named Jean, who's gone AWOL from his military assignment upon return to France from the colonial outpost then known as Indochina, due to some unspecified blunder or crime he's committed.  Now he wanders the backroads of the French countryside, sorting out his options before military justice reins him in and decides his ultimate fate on its own terms. We first see Jean as he's walking down the middle of a dark deserted highway in the middle of the night. He's nearly run over by a passing trucker but hitches a ride to the nearest town. A ways down the road, a dog darts out in front of the truck and Jean impulsively grabs the steering wheel to avoid the collision. This leads to a short conflict between driver and soldier, and they part ways before one or the other loses temper. Jean disembarks, acting on a tip to look for a shack near the harbor that allows wanderers like himself to lodge there, no questions asked. The dog tags along and we are underway. This scene picks up right after Jean's arrival. Sad to say, there are no English subtitles available for the clip, but in this film, atmospherics account for about 80% of the overall message and impact. Check out the deadbeat, riffraff milieu, and keep your eyes peeled for Nelly, a beautiful runaway in a see-thru raincoat! She's played by Michele Morgan, a classic French leading lady (just beginning her cinematic career here, only 17 years old) and owner of as mesmerizing and crystal clear set of blue peepers as any woman could ever wish for!

Shortly after that scene concludes, the action picks up the pace a bit as three wimpish gangsters show up, looking for Maurice, Nelly's recently disappeared boyfriend, with whom they have some unfinished business. A short gunfight erupts, Jean and Nelly ride it out and in the process, discover that they've taken a liking to each other. Nelly's looking for someone to get her out of the miserable doldrums she's stuck in, living in Le Havre. Jean is a lost soul, not necessarily looking for distraction, but open to something good should it happen to fall in his path. They part, but make plans to meet again.

Their paths do cross, quite coincidentally, the next day when Jean sees a jewelry box he wants to give Nelly as a souvenir. It just so happens that the box is being sold by Zabel, Nelly's guardian, played by the great character actor Michel Simon (he played the title character in Boudu Saved From Drowning.) Zabel is a born hustler who sees an opportunity to exploit Jean's interest in his lovely young ward. He enlists Jean's assistance in wiping out the leader of the young hoodlums who torment him, but Jean will have none of it, knowing what he does about the cost of killing a man based on his experiences in colonial Indochina. Jean quickly apprises Nelly's predicament - oppressed by a loathsome, manipulative guardian, harrassed by a sadistic but sniveling wannabe gangster - realizations that only deepen his sense of attachment to her, even as he realizes that his time to make a clean getaway before he's tracked down is running out.

The romance between Jean and Nelly ramps up considerably as the film progresses. This short clip, immediately preceding the culmination of their happiness, a night at the portside inn "Au Rendez-Vous de la Marine," gives a little sample of 1938-style hotness.

Mild by today's standards, I suppose, but in the context of the film, it still packs a punch! The yearning that Gabin and Morgan feel for each other, and the inevitable doom their relationship faces, carries a poignancy that still speaks meaningfully to me and I suspect many other viewers who want to give the story a run.

But back to the "acquired tastes" idea. This film depends on one's willingness to immerse into the style, the setting, the visual frame of reference - and also to accept a sheer bummer of an ending. I think it's important to keep in mind that films of this era were, for the most part, often banal and distracting endeavors, full of song, dance, comedy and necessarily happy, quickly resolved endings. Not the case here! As we saw with Pepe le Moko, the more adventurous filmmakers were just beginning to experiment with purposefully morose, non-moralistic but intentionally appalling endings. Unlike say, Pandora's Box or M, there is no clear "lesson" to draw from the lead characters untimely demise. The lasting impact of Port of Shadows is that, for many of us at least, life is fundamentally harsh and unfair, and that happiness is an elusive, short-lived condition. I have to imagine that producers took projects in that direction because they realized there was a market out there ready to embrace the truth of that message based on their life experience! That's the essence of poetic realism, I guess - the realism consisting of a principled rejection of the Hollywood "dream factory" ideal that tried to sing 'n dance civilization's way out of the Great Depression.

There's nothing especially new or unique here as far as the story is concerned - though Port of Shadows clearly has to be accorded a place of honor in terms of its influence on so many other films made in subsequent decades. Gabin's character epitomizes the "man from nowhere" archetype who wanders into a town, wins the love of a woman, deals justice to the bad guys, then resolutely deals with the consequences of his actions in a fatalistic, romantic and generally admirable way when the chips are cashed in. I liked the blend of dark, oily fog, the mysteriously abandoned streets, the melancholy bustle of the shipyards and the pervasive sense of futility-but-fighting-against-it-nevertheless that runs through the course of the production. Kind of like the smoke from a strong cigar or the bite of a straight shot of whiskey - one knows it's not good to over-indulge in such things, but there's something bracing about a long deep stare into the abyss. It's not the kind of concoction that one wishes to serve to friends or family on just any occasion, and there are many who may not find it all that appealing in any circumstances. But once one comes to appreciate the arc of such stories and the fine illuminative quality they bestow on our ordinary and (hopefully) less tragic circumstances, an occasional visit to the Port of Shadows can be quite an enjoyable detour from our productive, efficient and well-managed routines.

Eclipse Review: The Masseurs and a Woman